Expectations, Resistance & Radicals
Jesus embarks in his ministry and he begins in his hometown. But it didn't go over like everyone expected. Read the week's text here:
This is the text that made me incredibly nervous about preaching in my home congregation for the first time after seminary. I could hear it in the back of my mind and I thought…if I do this the way I’m supposed to, they’re going to run me out with pitchforks. I think I even wore tennis shoes under my robe that day just in case. These are the people who love me, who raised me, who know the stories about the hell I put our Sunday school teachers through and all the times I got “lost” on youth trips. Hell, my pastor even told one of these infamous stories at my ordination!
These are the people who know my grandparents and my parents and the people that my parents will have to sit next to next week when I’m gone. They know my best self and my worst self…but I was still nervous about whether or not they’d reject me now.
I had come to learn just how radical Jesus’ message was, and I had come to embrace my own responsibility in telling that truth, and I knew that message was not always welcome…even if we said it was. I know that because I don’t always welcome and embrace this message, not without a valiant resistance. It’s not that Jesus was about making inflammatory speeches just for the fun of it, but when you fail to meet the expectations of the crowd, especially the crowd that sees you as “one of them”…you’re gonna ruffle some feathers.
Of course, it didn’t start out that way. Jesus enters the synagogue, and the scriptures tell us that he did this regularly, and he’s obviously trusted enough to be handed one of the scrolls to read. The ancient words of the prophet Isaiah ring out: “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, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And as he sat down he says, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Well, they had nothing but good things to say about him at that point. That sounds like good news to me! He’s talking about freedom, forgiveness, a clean slate! The year of jubilee! And we, his oldest pals get to hear it first. That sounds like GREAT news! It’s probably even greater news to us who have known him so long, who come from the same place. Of course a choice piece of that “year of the Lord’s favor” has our name on it. You may already feel a little repulsed by this reaction when its articulated outloud, but it’s often how our assumptions unconsciously work.
If I was suddenly given 100 gourmet Nutella-stuffed cookies…my family and friends might unconsciously assume that I’d pick out the best looking ones to keep for ourselves, and the one that might be a little burnt on the bottom will go on the gift tray for others.
And that’s where it hits the fan. Jesus has to quickly break it to them that this good news does not privilege them over others. Like the prodigal son’s older brother, their faithful tenure isn’t weighted with greater significance than those that wander down different roads. This gospel, this good news of redemption, isn’t JUST for the privileged nor do they get a choice portion, but it is also and especially for those who are made vulnerable by their place outside of center. That’s what Jesus points to in his historical examples. Elisha prioritizes the healing of Naaman – a foreign leader and definitely not a temple-goer. Out of the many hungry widows throughout God’s people Israel, Elijah crosses the border and goes outside the established territory to share a meal with a woman very different than himself. Liberation theologian, Gustavo Gutiérrez of Peru, refers to this as “God’s preferential option for the poor” – the recognition that throughout the scriptures, God leans toward the poor and powerless or society.
Jesus makes the bold claim that God’s freedom is for you, but it isn’t JUST for you or even JUST a little better for you. It is for all as it especially lifts up those at the bottom. In this way the oppressed are set free, and the oppressors are also freed from the dark system that crushes both their souls.
The leaders of the faith set an example of spending a majority of their time and energy outside the walls of the sanctuary and even beyond their defined people. It’s not that the people inside those circles don’t matter, but it’s their call too – to extend and share the message of God’s favor beyond the stained glass windows, beyond the usual crowd, beyond the people who look like them or think like them.
Ministry, then, isn’t only what we do here, around these tables, but it is also what happens in coffee shops, in driveways, in office lunchrooms, in city hall and on the steps of the capitol building - as we work for the healing and wholeness of all people, especially the most vulnerable among us.
But that wide view of God’s grace that lifts up the lowly and equalizes all people…that turns the people’s expectations on its head. That is what offends the crowd to the point that they try to not only run Jesus out of town, but hurl him off a cliff. Last summer there was an article on Huffington Post called “When You’re Accustomed to Privilege, Equality Feels Like Oppression”.”
I think that’s what the folks of Nazareth are struggling with. The Gospel can be a struggle, but it also brings us to the fullness of life. This is the gospel that convicts us. This is the gospel that frees us – oppressor and persecuted alike. This is the Gospel we proclaim and embody.
I heard the following story on an episode of This American Life and it speaks to this radical notion:
It was Christmastime several years ago when this guy’s 4 year old daughter started asking what the holiday meant? So the dad explained that we are celebrating the birth of Jesus, his life, and his teachings…he went out and bought her a kid’s bible and she just loved it. They would read the stories together and the dad would help her understand their meaning. They talked about Jesus’ command to “do unto others as you would have them do to you.” And they worked through the old English until it made a little more sense. And then one day, they were driving past a church that had a big crucifix out front. And the daughter asked, “who’s that?” Well, the dad hadn’t talked much about that part of the story yet. So he explains, “well…that's Jesus, and I forgot to tell you the ending. Yeah. Well, you know, he ran afoul of the Roman government. This message that he had was so radical and unnerving to the prevailing authorities of the time that they had to kill him. They came to the conclusion that he would have to die. That message was too troublesome.”
Time passed, they talked here and there about the stories in her bible, and then…a little less than a month later, the kid was out of school for another holiday. It was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Day and the dad decided to take off work to spend it with his daughter - they could play together and he could take her out to lunch. So they sat down for lunch and there was the arts section of the newspaper in the middle of the table. And there was this big drawing that a 10-year-old kid had drawn of MLK. So the girl asked, “who’s that?” The dad got to explain that he’s the reason she was out of school that day. That this day they were celebrating his birth and his life. So the girl wanted to know more about him. The dad explained, “well…he was a preacher.”
And she looks up at him and goes, “for Jesus?”
And he said” yeah. Yeah, actually he was, but there was another thing that he was really famous for, which is that he had a message.”
And he’s trying to figure out how to tell the story to a four year old who is hearing this for the first time…
She said, “what was his message?”
And the dad says, “he said that you should treat everybody the same no matter what they look like.”
She thought about that for a minute, and she said, “well, that's what Jesus said.”
And he “said, yeah, I guess it is. You know, I never thought of it that way, but yeah. And that is sort of like do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
And she thought for a minute and looked at him and said, “did they kill him, too?”
They carried God’s message of radical love for you and me, for all. It has never been met without resistance, but its truth has never wavered. May we be open to the Holy Spirit beckoning us to be a part of it.