NRSV LUKE 4:14-30
14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ ” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
Around here this is a great time to be a history freak. It’s our 175th anniversary, at least as a chartered congregation. Most of you entered the church through the main doors with the numbers “1828” above you, but that was the year this place first became a meeting place for worship. It was chartered in November, 1844, so that is what we will be spending this year celebrating. It’s given me a good excuse to do what I love to do – hearing again the story of this church. I have always appreciated and valued a church’s story. People may think it is history – sometimes ancient history. But it isn’t. As William Faulkner once noted, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
I say that because in my years of not only pastoring but studying churches I have come to learn that a church lives out its story over and over again. No matter how many years have gone by since its founding when a church starts unpacking its story, of rediscovering why that church was founded, what motivated the ancestors to set that place up as a church, there is a special DNA, a special story that continues to inform and guide that church. And, as Faulkner noted, the past keeps popping up, for good and for ill.
Actually, it can be several stories, but one of the more prevalent ones around here can be seen if you look outside the church office at the wall of the photos of previous ministers of this church. I have come to appreciate that part of this church’s story is an uncanny knack for calling ministers with whom you all – or most of you – will eventually disagree. For instance, at the upper left hand corner is the first picture, the longest tenured pastor of this church, the Rev. Michael Osborne. From Pennsylvania. A Yankee. And from what I have learned, an abolitionist, one of those who worked against slavery. Coming here, in the heart of tobacco country, in a slave state. What was that pastor nominating committee thinking when they extended that call?
But apparently it was a good match. It only ended when Virginia seceded from the Union and the Rev. Osborne found himself in a foreign country. He had to leave after 14 years, a total unmatched by any minister since. But there were deep feelings of affection between Rev. Osborne and this church; so much so that when it was learned that his wife was ill a year later the members of this congregation sent his family a gift to let them know that they were thinking about them.
Then we jump almost 100 years later when the call went out to the Rev. James Kennedy. In the days right after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision ordering the integration of public schools, the talk around town came up about how to respond. The Rev. Kennedy had some rather choice words about the importance of integrating the schools to keep the community together. Several of his quotes are on the walls of the Moton Museum, and if you have never been there to see them I highly recommend you go and look around.
But those words did not sit well with some folks so Rev. Kennedy had to move on. John Arehart’s Dad came onto the scene but tragically left all too soon with his death to cancer. To a grieving congregation the call went out to the Rev. James Hoge Smith, who apparently did well in comforting this church with the loss of their previous pastor. But he was also, like Rev. Kennedy, one who did not mince words about his objection to the closing of the public schools and the forming of a private academy – activities of which members of this church were at the forefront.
As the years have gone by and our community has sought to deal with its history in a constructive way this church has continued its tradition of calling ministers who might push a few buttons. My predecessor, the Rev. Dr. Joe McCutchen, expressed some views from this pulpit that were not always in sync with members of the church. And then you all had to go off and have the audacity to call another Yankee, the first one in a century and a half. Neither has he exactly endeared himself either with his viewpoints, though not expressed as eloquently as Dr. McCutchen’s.
If nothing else this history lesson reminds us that if preachers aren’t getting themselves into trouble they probably are not doing their job. Too many reverends hang onto ego needs of public adulation, letting go of the prophetic task so people will like them, when maybe the Spirit of God was leading everyone in another direction.
So the story of Jesus almost getting thrown off a cliff by his hometown congregation should not really come as a surprise. But the flow of the story tells us that we can think we know the word of God a little too well, until it hits us somewhere close and deep, and then we try to get rid of it. But it is still a word that needs to be spoken, and to lead us on the way – even if we go kicking and screaming. And the realization of that may be one of the best things this church has done down through the years.
This story starts off with Jesus developing a widespread reputation for teaching and healing. Word has gone out that he is someone special. He comes home with all kinds of high standing, but he really should have known better. I know I cringe at the thought of going back to preach at churches where I grew up. I’ve done it, but not in a long time, and it is an intimidating thought. People know you too well back there. They remember when you were a kid, running around doing silly stuff, getting into trouble, doing all the crazy things adolescents do. They remember when you were trying out your wings, adjusting to life without Mom and Dad for the first time. People know you too well back home.
That’s what it must have been like for Jesus, and it comes out when he reads from Isaiah. “Isn’t this Joseph’s Son?,” they ask, in a way that can be warmly familiar and coldly condescending in the same breath. We know who you are, Jesus; we know your folks. We know that whole birth thing sounded a little suspicious, so don’t go having any airs with us.
It couldn’t have been because of what he read. It was straight out of the prophet Isaiah, straight out of their tradition. Of course, Jesus does play a little fast and loose with the text. Mostly from the 61st chapter but a line thrown in from the 58th. Come on, Jesus, just preach the word. But really – this is special. This is the only place in the Bible where Jesus is reading. The Word reading the word.
He reads the part about how the Spirit of the Lord is upon him, commissioning him to preach good news to the poor, proclaim the release of the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Of special note is what he did not read from that text: “…the day of vengeance of our God.” It’s there in that part of Isaiah, but Jesus does not read it because Jesus does not see it as part of his mission. He does not come to proclaim a vengeful God, one out to get their enemies, one who will toss out the outsiders. Jesus comes for the poor and blind and the marginalized, the people Luke would have known well because they were his kind of people – Greek Christians, those who were outsiders, those who were not part of the covenantal promises. Luke proclaims a Jesus who comes for all, but especially for those proper insiders would have cast out.
These are the kind of people we especially think about today, on this Souper Bowl. Not the football players, not those making millions bashing each other out in Atlanta tonight. But those who struggle to make it every night and every day, those who go without food. We bring our cans of soup to remember that Jesus calls on us in these words and in many other places to pay attention to those whom proper people might want to ignore. We see them, we acknowledge their pain, their loneliness, their isolation, and in the simple act of bringing cans of soup we seek to walk with Jesus in the way of ministering to the humblest of his – and our – brothers and sisters.
But it is what happens next that really gets Jesus into trouble. Perhaps sensing that they know him a little too well, and what kind of trouble any of us gets into when we get a little too cozy with God’s story, Jesus reminds them of some things. They are stories – stories of the giants of their tradition, yes, but also of the times when God sent those giants elsewhere. The time Elijah went and stayed with a woman who was a Gentile, an outsider. The time his prodigy, Elisha, healed a leper – not one of the many lepers in Israel, but a Gentile, and not only a Gentile but a military leader, one who successfully raided Israel.
This reminder of God sending grace to outsiders is just too much for them. Their rage is the rage of people who shout out “Israel First,” those who want security at the expense of others, the people who want God only to come to people like them. They are those who do not even want to acknowledge the existence of the other, let alone embrace them in the covenantal story. They are ready to toss Jesus off the cliff where the town was founded, but he just walks on through them, and goes on his way.
It sounds so mysterious, that in the face of this murderous, angry mob Jesus just walks on through. It’s not his time for death yet. That will come on another hill, in another place with another angry mob yelling, “Crucify him,” because he had the audacity to live out God’s calling by being faithful unto death.
But in the meantime Jesus must be on his way – the title given to early Christians: the people of The Way. It is a way marked by love and acceptance and respect for those who are different, but it is not a way accepted by all. For those who think they know the story a little too well, for those who think God’s grace is limited, for those who think there can never be enough of God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit for all, this is a way that will always be hard to understand. When we domesticate Jesus a little too much, when we tame him, when we put him into our own cultural or social or religious boxes, he always moves on through and goes on his way.
Maybe that’s why the people of this church through the years have not selected people who would just give the same old story. Maybe that is why it is important for all of us, including ministers, to remember that Jesus’ way is not the easy way, not the comfortable way, not the popular way. It is the way of service, it is the way of justice, it is the way of love – but not a sweet kind of love. It is a love that gives of ourselves and demands that we open ourselves up to the new call God has for others, the call God makes through us.
Jesus goes on his way. Do we follow? Amen.