a sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year C]
Luke 4:21-29 and 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
I used to watch the TV show American Idol back in its first run when Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul were the judges. And my favorite part of that show was when the contestants were whittled down to the final three and they all went back to their hometowns. It was so interesting and touching to watch what happened as these young adults, some of whom hadn’t been home in months or years, entered the town and visited old haunts. Back when they had left, whenever that was, they had left as virtual unknowns, but they return as people who’ve made a name for themselves out tin the world, people who have gained a following, people who are loved and adored as idols.
Across the board, whenever these American Idol homecomings happened in communities small and large, the reception was of overflowing and admiration. There were parades, reunions with old schoolmates and teachers, and big feasts of hometown favorite foods. Sometimes they were presented with a key to the city or some other main symbol. If you returned like that to your hometown, what would they give you?
A couple of months ago our congregation ended up offering some pastoral care to a family from the Midwest who experienced a family tragedy here in Richmond. The Lutheran pastor of their home church found me through Facebook and Christy Huffman. Curious about where they were from I Googled the church and found they lived in Washington, Missouri, which happens to be the Corncob Pipe capital of the world. To express her thanks to me, the pastor sent me two corncob pipes from their hometown. If you’re an American Idol there, I bet you get your own corncob pipe!
No matter where they were held, those American Idol episodes allowed us to see a side of the contestant that we hadn’t seen before—a more humble side, a more human side. It kind of pulled their star back to earth for a bit.
Jesus is an idol as he visits his hometown of Nazareth. He’s made a name for himself in the communities beyond doing miracles and some teachings. He comes into his old haunts, like the synagogue he likely grew up attending with his father, and receives some admiration. But by the time the episode is over, they don’t want to just pull him back to earth a bit, give him a key to Nazareth gate. They want to throw him over a ledge and get on with their lives.
I don’t know what we’d expect from Jesus’ visit to his home community, but an attempted lynching is probably not on the initial list of possibilities. This is a very strong reaction from the people who would have helped raise him, the people who would have likely seen him working around his father’s trade, who very likely would have had him in their own homes multiple times, ancient village life being what it was. They turn on him so quickly and so ferociously after this one short sermon in the synagogue they start to sound more like Simon Cowell than a crowd of adoring fans. He stands up and reads from the prophet Isaiah a passage about how God has anointed him to bring good news to the poor and to announce release to the captives and let the oppressed go free.
These are words of redemption and hope, freedom and release. These are words that would have been greeted with enthusiastic joy, especially since Jesus declares that this time of freedom and redemption has fully arrived with him. So what happens? Why does this go south for Jesus so quickly, after his first recorded sermon?
We were told in seminary that the task of the preacher is not to say something meaningful. It’s easy to fall into that trap. I know I do! A lot of us come to church and listening to God’s Word with the hopes we’ll find meaning. We like meaningful messages, sermons rich with emotions that make us feel our lives have purpose and significance, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not the point of preaching. The task of the preacher is not to say something meaningful, but to tell the truth. We could expand that, for Jeremiah reminds us this morning that not just the preacher’s task, but anyone’s who stands in the position of proclaiming and sharing God’s Word, whenever that may be. God’s holy word declares truth about who God is and who we are.
And that is what gives Jesus the problem that morning. It is still what gives Jesus problems today as he stands in our midst and declares truth. The truth sometimes hurts. It does not care how moving or meaningful we find it.
And the truth that morning in the Nazareth synagogue is that God’s Word has always been about more than one hometown. His listeners expect that he will do something miraculous and special for him. He is the Nazareth Idol to them, and therefore they are entitled to some extra display of his greatness, some extra blessing that others in other places would not get to see.
And the truth is God blesses all. That’s actually how Jesus words it that day. He literally says, “The truth is.” The truth is that God has never really cared much for human-made boundaries and barriers and human-born allegiances and alliances. Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t operate according to who is flying which national flag or where a county line or a country border is. As it spreads out into the world to envelope people in its love and mercy, it doesn’t take into consideration what language a group of people speak or what country their ancestors came from. Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t check pedigree or educational background, what college you went to, or even if you went to college. The truth is every town, every land, is God’s hometown.
And to prove his point to them, he gives them right off the top of his head two stories from their own history where this was the case—two stories from their own Scriptures where God gave blessing to people outside not just Nazareth, but Israel altogether. The first is the case of Elijah and the widow at Zarephath. All of Israel was struggling with a massive food shortage. If God played favorites, then God probably would have chosen to give a miraculous blessing somewhere in Israel, because there were plenty of hungry people there, but God didn’t. God had Elijah go to a random nameless widow up in a town way over the border in Sidon. She is not even of his faith, but she obediently does what Elijah asks of her, showing hospitality, and as a result her small stash of food never runs out. And then, when her son falls ill and dies, Elijah peforms a miracle and revives him.
The second story Jesus mentions is the one about Naaman the commander of the Syrian army. This story was especially galling because Naaman was not just an outsider, but a menacing one who had actually made fun of Israel, its prophets, and its river Jordan. Plenty of people in Israel had leprosy at the time, Jesus reminds the hometown crowd, and yet God decided to heal meanie Naaman instead.
It’s kind of like when Richmond is supposed to get a record-breaking winter storm and you have a house of children excited for snow, but when everything is said and done all we have is a dusting of snow. And then we look on the news and see that Hampton Roads and the Eastern Shore and even South Carolina got like 6 inches! It’s not fair!
The truth is, Jesus says, God’s blessings are not just for us. In a time when so many talk about the treasures of patriotism, of putting country first, we realize Jesus would be a terrible patriot.
This is always hard for us to hear. It’s easy to look on the folks of Nazareth and make them into the bad guys, but in reality, we all find that truth to be disconcerting. Because of our sin, humans naturally forms groups according to perceived likeness. We pool our wealth and take care of those we consider to be our own before acting altruistically toward those on the outside. We promote our own clan, our own tribe, over and against others.
Back when I worked as a counselor at Lutheridge, the program directors were constantly reminding us counselors not to form clumps among ourselves, which was a habit we all just naturally fell into. The directors wanted us to break apart and mingle with the campers. It was difficult to do that. It was just easier, especially when we were exhausted and out of ideas, to hang out with other counselors and talk about things of interest to us. But the campers needed us to be with them, to get to know them and establish relationships with them. They needed us to set aside our clique-ish behavior and reach out to form a wider community, especially to the ones who were on the fringes. Eventually the camp directors took an old empty aerosol can decorated it, and wrote the words “Anti-Clumping Spray” on it. When they’d walk around camp and see groups of counselors ignoring their campers, without needing to say anything they’d pull out that can of Anti-Clumping Spray, and we’d all scatter to the campers.
In a much more serious way but equally as gentle, Jesus’ life and love is a giant can of Anti-Clumping Spray for humankind. He doesn’t force us to love other people. He doesn’t twist anyone’s arm or guilt us to forgive and open up our hearts. Perhaps most importantly, Jesus never calls his townspeople racists or bigots. He never demeans them or insults them or calls them stupid. He never flaunts his moral superiority or acts like he’s better than everyone else.
And yet his way of offering his life knocks down our walls of selfishness and close-mindedness. Jesus comes to suffer and die to all of our foolish ways of separating ourselves and ranking ourselves as better or worse than others. Jesus comes to show us what really happens every time we force people out and label the “other.” He escapes their angry clutches that day in Nazareth, but eventually he will be caught and hung on a cross because the truth hurts. He himself will undergo the pain the truth should inflict on us all, never sidestepping the reality that love bears all things believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Even death.
For the truth doesn’t just hurt. It also loves. It loves and it heals and it brings together and forms us into the people God has redeemed us to be. The truth of God’s love for you and me is that we are always welcome in God’s embrace.
One day it will dawn on us that that embrace is our true hometown. That kingdom is where we really belong—all of us, all the people God has ever formed in the womb. And the truth is we don’t have to be a superstar to be received there. We won’t have to have gone out into the world and made a name for ourselves to prove we’re worth it. It is just given to us, as we are—given to us because he loves us.
And on that day we’re done with seeing through a mirror, dimly, every church will reflect it, and every land will reflect it, and every face we look into will reflect it—the face of our brother or sister.
May that begin here. Again today. As God lavishes his love on you in his Son’s body and blood to go and spread out in the world in that love, unclumped, come what may.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.