Friday, February 01, 2019

All Riled Up At Jesus

Built in 1912, Old Conway Methodist Church,
my home church during my childhood

The church in which I grew up was probably the single most important place in my life. It certainly seemed many times a lot safer than home. And I encountered there on the whole much less personal conflict than I did at school. What’s more, at church I encountered a number of adults who affirmed me. When I was in junior high school I was playing the piano for a men’s Sunday school class that was broadcast on radio every week. When I began to evince some talent for public speaking, my church was the first place that extended opportunities for me to test my mettle. By the time I was in high school, I had preached a sermon or two, and by the time I went to college, I had taught a fair number of adult Sunday school classes.
"The Little Church," where I played piano
for The Hut Bible Class

Like many a promising young ministerial student, I found that the deeper I went into the Bible, led there initially by a wonderful high school teacher and mentor, the more I discovered how much there was beyond my childhood faith. My teacher, and later a college professor, opened up for me a world of dazzling insights about the core nature of the Christian faith. Gradually my message began shifting in line with what I was discovering. I look back on it all now and see how what seemed like earth-shattering changes for me were in fact only minor movements of a needle registering normal growth. 

But what might have been “normal growth for me” didn’t set too well when I returned to my home church. Every now and again I’d hear some comment that was not the glowing support I’d become accustomed to. More like, “Boy you sure do have some new-fangled ideas, doncha?” Seared in my memory is the time I accepted an invitation to preach in an African-American church in a little community about 12 miles from my South Carolina hometown. This was in the early 1960’s at the height of the civil rights struggle. My parents were quite supportive and understanding. I was shocked, however, to get threatening phone calls. And one Sunday, when I was asked to preach in my home church, a man whom I had known for years pointedly got up and stalked out, incensed that somebody would be preaching to him, somebody who was not a thoroughgoing segregationist. I was not particularly shocked by his leaving, but I can’t say that it didn’t sting me.

First United Methodist Church, Conway, SC, today,
much as it appeared when I preached
there as a college student
That’s some of the experience I bring to the story about Jesus’ return to the synagogue in his hometown. If you have ever gone home to your roots and encountered a gap between who you know yourself to be and the way folks treat you (as if you were still the kid they once knew), then you too have a taste of what homecoming can sometimes be. Home, tribe, native community, family, relatives, networks we’ve known over time have a tremendously strong pull on us. If you buck them and differentiate yourself from others who have strong expectations, not to mention control needs, you’ll see how fast they’ll react to keep you in their orbit. Threats, anger, emotional blackmail, perhaps even cutting ties with whoever dares cross them are among the things sometimes encountered by those who dare to live differently from what the hometown crowd expects.

Since that is true for a great many people, the near-lynching of Jesus that takes place on a Sabbath in Nazareth is not entirely about him personally. And yet it is personal, as indeed any such reaction is, or gets to be, as it becomes enflamed. What was it that got this crowd of old friends and neighbors so riled up that they mobbed Jesus and were ready to kill him? By most standards, that is a pretty unusual reaction, even when people feel threatened or insulted. Look at the text. Remember that the context is a synagogue full of worshipers. You might recall (if you heard last week’s gospel) that his opening volley was a reading from the Prophet Isaiah. Isaiah’s words were a self-description: “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.” That is not in fact the whole passage, and we are not told how far Jesus read into what we call Chapter 61. But what the quotation doesn’t quite pick up is that the prophet identifies himself with the fate of Zion, which was indeed the heart of Judaism of the time. Zion is a synonym for Jerusalem, and is sometimes almost interchangeable for the Temple itself, which was second only to the Sabbath as Judah’s most sacred institution. It is a hopeful passage, promising vindication and a bright productive future for Israel. By the time of Jesus “Israel” was de facto the tribe of Judah for the most part, other tribes having been more or less absorbed into the large and dominant tribe of Judah whose favorite son was David. So to take that passage and to interpret it as having to do with anything other than what we might call national pride was somewhat like taking “The Star-Spangled Banner” and interpreting it in a way that would patently dishonor the country whose national anthem it is.

Before he moves into high gear, Jesus says that the scripture has been fulfilled in their hearing. Well, that was good news! All spoke well of him, amazed at the gracious words that fell from his lips. My, my: what a blessing that one of own—indeed our dear Joseph’s son—is preaching so magnificently! He must have spoken at some length in a sermon that we unfortunately can’t find on You Tube, because when he begins to unpack the Isaiah text in terms of his own ministry he begins to show that he had no special in-house relationship with those in his audience, no agenda to perform miracles for their benefit. His mission was broader than that. Given Jesus’ whole history, it is possible that he said without mincing words that his mission was to show concern and share table fellowship with some unpalatable characters, some people like the ancient widow of Gentile Zarephath to whom Elijah had gone and stayed, and others like the Syrian enemy Commander Naaman whom Elisha had healed of leprosy. He might have mentioned a few whom he perhaps had already encountered and ministered to—tax collectors or prostitutes or the occasional Samaritan—people who a few pages later in Luke’s gospel we’ll read about. Whatever he said flew in the face of the accepted tribal wisdom, the national pride read into or derived from the words of Isaiah.

Ancient Fresco of the Sermon and Rejection at Nazareth

Was his congregation ever angry! But why make a big deal of this in 2019? Certainly not because I think there is much likelihood that in this house today there would be sympathizers with such violence. But without too much imagination we can certainly see that the same things that rattled the cages of the synagogue congregants in Nazareth are the same things that stir up hatred and violence across the world today. In the last decade, and especially in the last few years, we have seen the shocking rise of hate crimes. Hate crimes are called that because they are executed by a member or members of a group threatened by the very existence of people who are different from themselves. We’ve seen it coming for a good thirty years now with an increase in separatist movements all over the world. Now we see whole nations and economies—the United Kingdom with its Brexit dilemma comes to mind—brought to paralysis over nostrums like “taking back control” and “returning power to our—fill-in-the-blank—group, race, nation, power elite. Need I say that shutting down the world’s most powerful government even part-way over an issue that any way you cut it is about keeping undesirable people out (whether a real or manufactured threat) stems from the same kind of fear ignited by rage that we see on display in Nazareth?

What do you think got Jesus crucified? Was it the will of God? That became the popular understanding of Jesus’ death—as if an angry God had to be talked into forgiving and loving a clueless species called homo sapiens. But that is not the gospel narrative, as you can see with a careful reading. No, it was precisely Jesus’ inclusion of undesirables; the open table fellowship with all and sundry; the good news to the poor; the audacity to forgive sins; the unrestrained delivery of free health care; the generous feeding of thousands; the willingness to call out the hypocrisy of religious bigwigs; the flagrant breaking of religious observances and laws, such as healing (i.e., working) on the Sabbath and plucking grain for hungry bellies. All of that enraged the powerful hegemony of religious leaders and political empire squeezing the life out of the poor and driving the vulnerable into poverty and crime. It was not a fickle population that turned on him, but rather a group of powerful people insulted by his teaching and enraged by its implications. This incident in Nazareth truly presages what is to come for Jesus. It is one of several accounts in the gospels where people were ready to have his head. This time, however, filled with Spirit, he turns and walks through the crowd who part like the waters of the Red Sea their lynching plan foiled.
Eating with Outcasts and "Sinners"

Jesus’ sermon today is the same as it was that Sabbath, and as relevant. It would be a huge move forward if everyone hearing this gospel in a host of churches today were to resolve to shift in whatever degree was necessary to align ourselves with Jesus’ message of inclusiveness and justice. But that is not enough. It is not enough because the Church today must come to grips with our corporate complicity to stifle the message of Jesus precisely by tamping down his call to radical welcome and his insistence on justice for the outcast and the vulnerable. We cannot get off with a purely personal piety that focuses on individual holiness and still claim to be followers of Jesus. Nor can we imagine that somehow loyalty to the Church equates with loyalty to God. Congregations have to choose between killing the messenger all over again, and following him in the way that shares his fate as well as his glory.

What will you do? The world is waiting for your answer.

A sermon preached on Luke 4:21-30, The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2019

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