To begin this morning’s sermon, I offer a parable told by theologian Justo Gonzalez. Imagine….
a young man who becomes a famous athlete and signs a contract for millions of dollars. He then returns to his hometown, and all come to receive him and hear what he has to say. The town band goes out to greet him. The local papers praise him. The town gathers at the stadium for a welcome ceremony.
Everybody is excited. Some say: “It is difficult to believe that this is Joe, who grew up next door.” When Joe finally comes to the speaker’s stand, all are eager to hear what he has to say. They know that he has talked of the need for better schools and clinics, and that he has supported such institutions elsewhere.
Now Joe stands up and says: “Do not think that because I grew up in Smallville you will receive any special favors from me. Actually, I have decided to support the school in Eastville, and the clinic in Northville.”
There will be a chilled silence. Soon shock will turn to anger, and anger to hostility. “Who does he think he is? We don’t need him! Run him out of town.”
Gonzalez finishes the parable saying, “This is exactly what happens to Jesus in Nazareth.” (Gonzalez, Luke, p. 66)
Here in Luke’s gospel, we are in the early days of Jesus’ public ministry when his name is just starting to spread around the small and remote places of the Galilean countryside. He teaches, he heals and he brings that sort of hope to the hinterlands unaccustomed to receiving “good news” of any sort.
Like all kids, he comes back for a spell to see the family and the familiar old haunts. As we learned last week, a trip home is not complete with the Sabbath worship at the local synagogue. Since he’s the growing religious teacher, he is given the pride of offering the commentary on Isaiah for the day.
What the crowd hears, they miss out on. Bedazzled by the spectacle of a headline come true (“local boy makes good”), they take him only at him, y’know Joe and Mary’s boy from down the block. When they get over the euphoria, they start taking Jesus at his word, and suddenly casual belief turns into militant disbelief. Now they want to throw Jesus out of town and off a cliff.
At the heart of the crowd’s consternation might be the realization Jesus is doing great things here, yet he certainly seems reticent to do the same for the hometown crew. Why does he tell the crowd that the prophets of old are being fulfilled in their hearing right now, yet he has not hopped up to start offering the same good word and signs of healing enjoyed by neighboring communities?
It’s hard to go back home, yet it is even harder to realize that you cannot go back home again that easily. The Nazareth crowd wants the same treatment, and indeed they expect it of the hometown hero. Instead, they get this teaching about the good word and then some commentary on other ancient sacred stories involving great prophets coming to help out everybody except the home team.
The stories Jesus adds to his commentary are drawn from times when great challenge arises. Instead of exclusive service to the fold and the fold alone, Elijah and Elisha, great prophets without a doubt, act in ways casting suspicion on their loyalty. Widows and lepers are saved, yet they are not numbered among the faithful of ancient Israel. By referencing these stories, Jesus adds some edges to his message back to the complaining crowd. He looks at them and says, “But, the truth is….”
I have to stop at this moment and note that I knew someone who was quite fond of prefacing her remarks with “The truth is…”. I can assure you this phrase was not followed by words subtle or peaceable. While I pause a bit to make this comparison between my friend and Jesus as teacher, it is apt! Jesus is offering a word countering the crowd’s expectations with some old stories that “tell a story” on the people themselves.
In the midst of these stories woven into the sacred texts, we find the prophets siding not only with the marginalized and the voiceless. The crowd realizes that Jesus is taking up the side of Elijah and Elisha, stepping away from the boundaries long established, and they offer their ministry to those well outside these boundaries. A widow and a leper get help, yet it is not “about us.” It’s about “them”.
The terms “Us” and “them” are ones we think in whether we wish to admit it or not. The “them” is a label applied to persons who we have deemed different, to be kept at a distance, and a little thought of “them” being deviant in some fashion is likely there in the mix as well. Today, we talk of the various forms these attitudes and exclusive ways of living them out take on: racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, heterosexism, and the list goes sadly on. In all our human diversity, we tend toward making all the shades of variance more monochrome, befitting our particular values about what “normal” or “normative” looks like.
In the end, we can live out our attitudes towards “them” and create a world for ourselves that seems all decent and in order, yet we have lost something essential to understanding the ways of God in the world. Ironically, religious people can be just as guilty of stripping away the fullness of God’s diversity in the world in favor of a fairly narrow way of living. We become the congregation reacting to Jesus rather than the body of believers living out the way of Jesus, who built upon the witness of prophets crying out for and reaching out to those lost in the shuffle and shadows.
The truth is…God expects more, not less, of Christ’s flock!
A year or so ago, the venerable Protestant journal The Christian Century asked theologians and clergy to name their top five theology texts published in the past quarter century. As these lists were received, some titles tended to repeat across the listings. One of the most cited books is “Exclusion and Embrace” by Croatian-born theologian Miroslav Volf.
Why did this book resonate so with pastors and scholars? In this book, Volf deals with the deeply engrained problems of exclusion in our world, and he does not exempt the church from its own complicity. He tells a number of sad stories along the way where society and the nations and the people claiming to be religious creating situations where not everybody is enfranchised, welcome or given their full human rights. We tend toward creating people who are different into the category of “Other”. Such persons, or “others”, tend to be kept from moving ahead or enjoying the same freedoms and dignity. “Others” are often shoved onto uneven playing fields, where unjust economic and social concerns pretty much insure “Others” can make it up the steep incline where those in control or dominance enjoy the full benefits of the imbalanced system.
Volf wrote as the child of Croatian parents, caught up in the Communist era when Yugoslavia was a “one size must fit all” type state. The family experienced discrimination and ethnic/religious rifts, and Volf recalls the difficulty of living in a time where only exclusion seemed to matter. How could “embracing the other” happen?
Volf’s book explores the theological and global challenges of erring on the side of embrace. He challenges his readers to consider what it takes to have
the will to give ourselves to others and ‘welcome’ them, to readjust our identities to make space for them…[such work] is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity” (Exclusion and Embrace, 29)
In other words, the work of those who follow the gospel is about dismantling the barriers, identifying and atoning for the hurt and alienation such practices have brought about or embedded much too nefariously in society and even among the pews. Such work is a matter personal and interpersonal alike, made possible by individuals and communities changing the status quo prevailing unquestioned perhaps for decades if not centuries. This is not easy work, nor is it readily accomplished yet it begins when we decide to end our ways and take up those of the gospel.
As we heard earlier, Justo Gonzalez finishes his retelling of Luke 4 saying, “This is exactly what happens to Jesus in Nazareth.” Reading Luke’s gospel, I add my own word of commentary: What happens to Jesus ought to happen to anybody who claims to follow him.
The story of Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth is part and parcel of telling and living out the gospel story. For starters, the “good news” is not a mass appeal type of “word”. The gospel asks very hard questions of us, tossing aside our sense of societal structures as mattering not a bit in God’s eyes. Indeed, the more you have reached the zenith of whatever your economic, social and even religious values claim is the lofty heights, the seeming “simple” story of Jesus lays such talk flat.
The good life Jesus offers gives his followers a cross and says let your life be shaped by it. Accept no substitutes. And while you are at it, accept everyone.