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January 28, 2007 (The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany)
The Rev. Diane Martinson-Koyama
Jeremiah 1:4–10; 1 Corinthians 13:1–13; Luke 4:21–30
(Webmaster’s note: Pastor Martinson-Koyama is one of the chaplains at ‘Iolani School in Honolulu.)
Good morning. It’s good to be with you again. Today we have an interesting gospel, so I’d like to stay close to the text.
The question for today is—What happens when the Good News is not what we expect? Today’s gospel is a continuation from last week. Last week Jesus was making his first homecoming appearance in the temple at Nazareth. Jesus began by reading from the book of Isaiah, and things had gotten off to a very good start. The text tells us that people were amazed “at the gracious words that came from his mouth”—good news to the poor, release to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed. They were so proud of him. If they’d had cars back then they’d probably have had a bumper sticker—Jesus, our hometown boy. When one of our own does well, when our hometown or school is recognized, when our sports team is winning, it’s amazing how we all seem to live vicariously through that achievement.
But, as quickly as the congregation had been enchanted with Jesus, their mood changed. Do you remember the Mary Poppins movie? There is a scene in the beginning and again at the end where a weather vane suddenly spins to the opposite direction indicating that a major shift is about to occur. Almost as dramatically, the pride and exclamations of amazement directed towards Jesus suddenly give way to anger and, we are told, a rage that was driven to kill—a rage. Suddenly we find the crowd—Jesus’ hometown folks—driving him out of town to the precipice of a hill where they want to hurl him off a cliff! This is some dramatic shift. It is a hint of what is to come. We’ll see such drama again when Jesus rides into Jerusalem to cries of “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” only to hear cries of “Crucify him! Crucify him!” by the week’s end. This is an ominous truth about humanity—as easily as we rally around successes, so also can our emotions be whipped up into anger with alarming hysteria.
I did my theological training at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, a seminary known for its commitment to social justice. While studying there, my bishop at the time would repeatedly counsel us seminarians to get off of our soapboxes when preaching and to preach the Good News, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Ranting and raving, haranguing a congregation about social justice issues was of no use, he said, if the Gospel, the Good News, wasn’t preached and heard.
Well, today Jesus preached the Good News in the synagogue. But the people did not hear it as Good News. This wasn’t the Good News they were expecting. The result of this Good News was rage—rage that caused them to actually want to kill their hometown boy.
What were they expecting? And, what was it they heard? The words that Jesus read from Isaiah—that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the advent of a Jubilee year when all debts would be forgiven—were words that had given the Israelite people hope for a very long time. They had known oppression; they had known bondage; they had known what it was like to be exiled far from home. They recounted these stories over and over again so as to never forget, and it was these very words that gave them consolation and hope as a people. Last week our lectionary gave us a reading from the book of Nehemiah when the Israelites returned home from exile. Their eagerness to reclaim their religious traditions resulted in an exceedingly zealous purging of their culture of any foreign influences—including spouses—that had become part of them during the exile. The rules and regulations for proper religious devotion became more and more strict. God had been faithful and delivered them, set them free. Now, they would do their part to be exceptionally faithful in their devotion, as they understood it.
If you think along these lines, the examples Jesus gives in today’s reading as a continuation of last week’s gospel reading, are an absolute shock to his listeners and give rise to cries of heresy. Jesus forewarned them—no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown—that they were not going to have an easy time with what he was saying and referred to two stories about the great prophets Elijah and Elisha. These were stories from the Hebrew scriptures which the people sitting in the synagogue would certainly have known, although you have to wonder if they had selectively forgotten them as well as their calling through Abraham and Sarah to be a blessing to all the nations—just as we are sometimes prone to do today.
The first story of which Jesus reminded them was the story of the widow at Zarephath in Sidon (1 Kings 17:8–24). The fact that she was “a widow from Zarephath in Sidon” might not mean much to us today, but this would have been very significant to the people to whom Jesus was speaking. As a widow, this woman was already in an unfortunate situation in her society. In a male dominant culture, widows were on the fringe often lumped together with the orphaned and destitute. In addition, she was from Zarephath in Sidon, which made her a Gentile, an outsider. Gentiles were considered ritually unclean and associations with them were strictly limited.
The widow lived during a time when the Israelite people under King Ahab had turned to worshipping the false image of Baal. God responded with a famine, a famine under which everybody suffered, Jew and Gentile alike, but it was to this Gentile widow that God sent Elijah for food. And, it is this Gentile widow who heeded God’s command through Elijah and who fed him even though she and her son were near death. For her faithfulness, they were blessed with a never ending jar of meal and a jug of oil, and her son who was struck by a severe illness was healed by God through Elijah.
The second story was of Naaman (2 Kings 5:1–14). Naaman was not an Israelite, either, but a Syrian. Unlike the widow, though, he was a powerful man who served as commander of the army for the king. Sadly, he suffered from leprosy or Hansen’s Disease as it’s called today. Through a servant he heard that there was a prophet in Samaria who could bring healing. He set off to find that prophet who turned out to be Elisha. When he arrived at the entrance of the prophet’s house, Elisha instructed him through a messenger to go to the River Jordan and to wash seven times after which his flesh would be restored and he would be healed. Naaman was insulted. Powerful and arrogant man that he was, he was incensed that Elisha himself had not come out to see him. And, by the way, surely, there were better rivers than the murky Jordan for someone as important as he. Even so, his servants, given his desperate situation, were able to convince him to give it a try and sure enough he was healed. Now, fully contrite and humbled, he, a Syrian—an outsider—returned to Elisha, a changed man, offering his undying devotion to the God of Israel.
In both these stories told by Jesus, it was foreigners, outsiders, who recognized and submitted to the power of God. Those in the temple listening to Jesus were not prepared to hear God’s word of promise extended so broadly—so broadly as to include those who were clearly outside their community and their understanding of themselves as God’s chosen people—especially when they had been so careful to define the criteria for who was in and who was out. In this one episode, Luke has condensed the essence of all that is to follow in the gospel story. God’s compassion knows no boundaries; God’s call for justice is radical. It goes far beyond anything the synagogue community had comprehended or the church today has grasped.
So we have to ask ourselves—Who are the outsiders today to whom God is speaking? Through whom is God trying to teach us something about the expansiveness of God’s grace? Who is missing from our table for whom God would like us to set a place?
I don’t know if President Abraham Lincoln actually said this or not, but in this time of global conflict and active military involvement outside our county, I am struck by words attributed to Pres. Lincoln, also a Republican, at a time when the Civil War was winding down and it was obvious that the North would win. He is said to have been asked how he would treat the southerners after the war was over. His reply?—“Like they had never been away.”
“But Mr. President,” the questioner protested, “aren’t we supposed to destroy our enemies?”
Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying, “Don’t we destroy our enemies when we make them our friends?”
Whether he actually said that or not, that is the radical truth of the gospel, the radical justice Jesus is talking about that we still struggle to understand today. It is the wisdom that those in the synagogue listening to Jesus failed to understand. To them, they were the righteous. They had purged their community of any and all outside influences. Righteous indignation filled the synagogue. Blasphemy! How dare he say such things? He must be silenced by death for what he had uttered against God—at least as they saw it. And suddenly this crowd, whipped into a frenzy, is trying to throw their hometown boy over a cliff. This time, Jesus escaped. It was not yet his time. But the time was coming. Jesus would die for proclaiming a kingdom which is open to all.
The great irony in all this is that the very words that incensed the righteous as blasphemy were in fact God’s Good News, God’s grace extended to all. God was setting them free, releasing them from the tyranny of the “ins” and the “outs,” those who belonged and those who didn’t. God was asking for faithfulness in one’s relationship with God and a life of justice towards all God’s people which grew out of that. In pushing the boundaries, God was challenging the community beyond the danger to which the path of exclusivity would lead them.
We in the church today encounter the same difficulties Jesus’ hometown folks did when what Jesus says challenges the way we think or understand the world to be. Sadly, the church more than once has found itself mistakenly on the wrong side of the Gospel—the side of hurting rather than healing, of blasphemy rather than Good News—people who profess to be Christian who are blind to God’s freeing grace. In history, to list a few, think of slavery in this country, Nazi Germany, apartheid in South Africa, and closer to home, the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. In society, there are many other ways that we have put up walls rather than welcome mats. A co-worker of mine shared her distress with me concerning “the Church.” At a painful time in her family life, she felt ostracized and abandoned by her church. It is a hurt that she carries to this day, and it continues to be a stumbling block to a meaningful association with a church community. To her and to many who do not sit in our pews, the church is hypocritical and hardly representative of Good News.
The fact is, however, that the church is not a place without controversy. In fact, it is precisely where we should expect to be challenged as well as nurtured. Jesus was challenging the folks in the temple that day, and their response was to feel threatened, to fear that what Jesus was saying might change their community and the way they understood their faith. And they were right. But, they were wrong to feel threatened. To be truly authentic communities of God’s people, we must be willing to be challenged, to anticipate and even to expect that the mirror through which we see dimly, in the words of St. Paul, will reveal a still more excellent way that speaks of God’s grace and God’s redemption in this world.
The challenge for us is to have ears to hear and eyes to see, minds that are open and hearts where the Holy Spirit can dwell. That is our challenge. By the same token, however, we must challenge those who are not in our pews to realize that there is no perfection this side of eternity, that the church is a human institution and we are human beings with a theology that speaks of our daily need for God’s forgiveness and grace. As a body of God’s people, the church is a unique institution. We join the church to follow and grow in the way of Jesus, not because we share the same political beliefs, the same social-economic status, or even the same interests. In this way, the church is very different from most political and social institutions in society that function to gather like- minded people together. In fact, we in the church follow a gospel that goes out of its way to include those who are different, those who are on the margins of society, the outsiders as well as the insiders. With that reality, how can we not expect there to be controversy and challenge along the way? My own experience within congregational life is that it is these very challenges that can provide the opportunity to grow stronger in community and for our understanding of our walk with Jesus to be deepened.
What was it that people in Jesus’ hometown were expecting to hear? What was it that they heard? And, what was it that they didn’t hear? What they expected to hear was a validation of their long suffering and faithfulness in the service of God. What they thought they heard was an attack on God’s Word and a threat to their own place as God’s chosen people. In their overprotective zeal to safeguard God’s Word, they had stifled it in a box where the winds of the Spirit could not move and where they could not hear God’s own Son setting them free. They felt threatened and reacted in fear and rage rather than hearing Jesus’ words as challenge that would help them grow. What they missed is that God’s world is far bigger than our limited imaginations. That God’s banquet table is set for far more than any church supper. And that they, like all the others, were welcome.
Was the Good News what they expected? No, but by growing in God’s Word and in community we come to realize that it was even better than they expected.
Copyright © 2007 Diane Martinson-Koyama
Comments welcome at email@example.com