February 3, 2019
In today’s Gospel lesson, we get Jesus’ first sermon as recorded by the writer of Luke. It went so well that, by the end of today’s gospel reading, members of his hometown drove him out of Nazareth and tried to throw him off a cliff. Glad my first sermon went here went a bit differently than that. Today’s gospel reading is a tough one. It is another one in which it is hard to find the “good news” to preach, as we hear of people literally wanting to kill the messenger of that news.
Jesus gets up to read. He reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah - “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.” And he proceeds to tell the members of his hometown congregation that “today, the scripture has been fulfilled in their hearing.” So far so good. I imagine a synagogue full of people, hanging onto every word from their hometown hero that they’ve heard so much about. He has done the right things up to this point: he’s performed healings and miracles. Today, he said all the right things, quoted a beloved passage from scripture. Up to this point, they had heard what they wanted and expected to hear. These words sounded good. “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” They’re amazed that Joseph’s son - Joseph’s son of all people - would say such powerful and gracious words. This Jesus, the one that they had known since he was just “this big,” had grown into such a wise young man, with such knowledge of their sacred texts. Pride emanated from them, as they saw who this young man had become.
Then as he continues, soon that pride turns into anger and fury - enough so that they sought to get rid of him - permanently - by throwing him off a cliff. Jesus seems to know that, while for the moment, the crowd is amazed, it won’t last. He knows that Jesus’ mission and Jesus’ vision for the world will lead to his rejection - starting here in his hometown. It is the vision for the world that his mother, Mary, sang about as she waited for his birth. It is a vision of a world where the rich and powerful are brought down and the poor and the lowly are lifted high. It is a vision where those held captive and where those who are oppressed find freedom.
The people seem to like the vision, but as he continues his sermon, as he tells them what that vision means, they quickly find issue with his words. The words that earlier were full of grace and wisdom, are now words that spur hatred and fear. His words are harsh, are assertive. He tells them that they will reject him. He turns to other stories from the Scriptures about other prophets and their missions. He points to the times that Elijah and Elisha brought the power of God, the healing of God, the glory of God, not to the Israelites, but to Gentiles - to a widow in Sidon and to Naaman, a Syrian. Jesus’ mission, at least as told by the Gospel of Luke, is a mission to the outsiders. Because of that focus on the outsiders, Luke’s gospel has a special focus on Jesus’ ministry to gentiles - to non-Jews.
Jesus is perceptive. He’s perceptive enough to know that a proclamation of a vision that includes the Gentiles, would be heard by some as a threat to their own place in that vision of the kingdom of God. It is easy to get caught up in the idea that God’s love and God’s kingdom is limited. There’s only so much love and there’s only so much room in the Kingdom of God. Including others in that vision means less love and less of a place for me. It makes it scary to think that people who aren’t like me are included in the Kingdom. So for the townspeople, a message of inclusion of the Gentiles is taken as a threat to their place as God’s chosen people. They wanted to hear a message that God’s love, made known in Jesus, was specifically for them.
This isn’t unique to the people of Nazareth. I want to be careful here - it is easy to portray the people of Nazareth as wild, irrational, etc. And it is easy to accidentally fall into anti-semitism, making claims like “the Jews rejected Jesus, so Jesus rejected them in favor of the Gentiles.” To be absolutely clear, that’s not what’s going on here. As we know from the rest of the Gospel, Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God is a vision that includes both Jews and Gentiles. Jesus’ words this morning are not a rejection of Judaism or the Jewish people or of his hometown. Jesus was born, lived, and died a Jew. He challenged the authorities and the powers that be and he reinterpreted theology, but he never rejected his faith and lived firmly within it. A rejection of Judaism is a rejection of Christ.
Humanity, in general whether in the first century or in the 21st century, is so trained, conditioned to see the world in terms of scarcity - the idea that there isn’t enough to go around - that it is easy to transfer that to God. We’ve just started February and Black history month. This is a month in which we lift up the voices and the history of folks who have been and continue to be marginalized. Yet, every year, I hear critique that says “well, why don’t we have white history month?” I hear similar critiques of Pride month in June. “Why don’t we have heterosexual pride parades?” The lifting up and the inclusion of other voices (voices that have traditionally been silenced) are heard and taken as a threat to the voices that have always been included. And I think that’s what is going on today. The inclusion of outsiders is taken as a threat to those already on the inside. While the kingdom of God is expansive enough, big enough to encompass all - Jesus’ words this morning are heard as a threat.
What is good news for all, is heard as bad news for others. It is easy to accept Jesus’ words as long as it fits into my idea of who is in and who is out. When that is challenged, people feel threatened and people get angry and people try to kill the messenger. While Jesus escapes death today, this vision for the world will lead to the cross. Yet, on that cross, Jesus reveals that love that is inclusive of all people - of all races and nationalities, of all genders, of all sexualities, of all cultures, of all kinds of ability, etc. To quote the Rev. Michael Curry, the current presiding bishop of the Episcopal church, “our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.”
So where do we go from here? The good news this morning is that neither God’s love nor the Kingdom of God are limited. The Good News is that love wins. God’s love wins for you, for me, for stubborn townspeople, for Gentiles, and for Jews alike. We are called to see the Kingdom of God, not through a lens of scarcity, of keeping it only for myself, but rather, we’re called to see the Kingdom of God in terms of abundance. There is more than of God’s love to go around. God’s love extends to me, to you, to my neighbor, to my enemy, even to those I most want to see outside the kingdom of God. While that isn’t easy news, it is indeed good news. Jesus, the one being sent “to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,” brings all back into their rightful place in community. I am not whole unless my neighbor is whole. We are not whole unless our community is whole. When the captives are released and the oppressed go free, the community is made whole - and we all experience the Kingdom of God breaking into the world.
Thanks be to God for that.