Monday, January 28, 2008

Hometown Hero - Luke 4:21-30

Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did in Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them to a widow at Zaraphath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Some years ago, I discovered I had been afflicted with a certain condition. At first, it didn’t seem to make much difference to me. But I soon noticed that people began to treat me differently because of it. I mainly saw it in the eyes of people when I would return home on academic breaks, and something within me longed to be “normal” again. My name is A.J. Thomas, and I suffer from golden-boy syndrome.

What’s interesting about this condition is that it seems to be geographically specific. I only seem to suffer from it when I am in my hometown of Niagara Falls, and its symptoms are even more acute whenever I walk through the doors of St. James United Methodist Church. Last Christmas, I realized my local celebrity status when I was asked to preach in my home church on the Sunday following Christmas, which just happened to be New Year’s Day. It was announced in the December and January newsletters, and every bulletin for a month and a half before January 1st that I would be in the pulpit, a pulpit from which my own father had delivered some of his finest sermons. The day arrived, and the crowds came, a larger crowd than usual.

Bear in mind that this was not the first time I preached in my home church. Throughout college and seminary, I was invited back on several occasions. However, on this particular Sunday, it was the first time I was there with those three little letters in front of my name.

I looked across the congregation and took it all in. There was my first-grade teacher, a pillar member of the congregation, in her usual place on the center aisle, four rows back, on my left. There were my neighbors, people I had gone to school with, and whose grass I had cut, whose groceries I had rung up, and whose newspapers I had faithfully delivered. As the sanctuary swelled with the familiar rhythms of liturgy and song, prayer and praise, I secretly congratulated myself for working “extra” hard on the sermon.

I delivered what I thought was a convincing piece of interpretive genius, gave the benediction and assumed my position at the back door, ready to receive the accolades as people walked by. From their comments, I soon realized that very few people had actually paid attention to the sermon itself. One woman told me how nice I looked in my robe, “just like a real preacher.” Someone else said they could see my father’s influence in my preaching style. Another man reminded me that he could always count on his newspaper to arrive early every morning, except on Saturdays, when I was prone to sleep in a bit. They didn’t hear a thing I said.

Then we look on this sermon that Jesus preached in his home synagogue in Nazareth. Jesus drew a crowd. I can see the headlines in the Nazareth Gazette: “Local Rabbi Makes Good, Will Preach in Hometown.” I imagine the synagogue was standing room only. They ran out of bulletins. They were parking donkeys up and down the road, there were so many people there.
Here was one of their own who had made good. Here was one of their own, Joe and Mary’s boy, who used to work in the carpentry shop. An elderly man nudged his wife, “I remember when he used to read the Torah over there under that window.” Here was one of their own, reading a piece of their own Scripture they all knew from memory. Israel’s native son, speaking from his heart to theirs, out of their own beloved prophets, speaking from their collective past.

Jesus put down the sacred text, panned the crowd, and said with all authority, “The day of the Lord is here.” An excited stir went through the chosen people of Nazareth. “All of our waiting for deliverance is over at last.” A chorus of ‘Amens’ rang through those hallowed halls. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This was it. The Lord is coming to redeem his own people, and according to Jesus, that day is here now! The crippled lifted up on their crutches, old men wept for joy, the oppressed lifted their faces with hopeful expectation. An excited murmur rippled its way through the congregation, and all spoke well of Jesus’ words.

This is the part where Jesus should have stopped. He’s got them eating out of the palm of his hand. Any good preacher knows there are three things you should do: stand up to be seen, speak up to be heard, and shut up to be appreciated. This is where Jesus is supposed to raise his hands, say, “The Lord bless you and keep you,” walk deliberately down the center aisle and shake hands as people walk out and marvel.

But Jesus keeps going. After a brief pause he says, “Now, the last time the Lord came, I seem to remember something about there being lots of poor, hungry widows in Israel. But God chose to help a foreign widow. You all remember that story.” You could hear the silence.

“And speaking of old familiar stories, how about the one where there were lots of lepers in Israel, and God did nothing for them, but instead healed an officer in the enemy’s army.”

Yes, the story was familiar, a little too familiar for many there that evening. Jesus had stopped preaching and taken to meddling. In the judgmental silence, a new, exciting, life-giving sermon was recognized as an old familiar story, and one we wished to God we could forget.
This is not the type of sermon you preach in your hometown, at least, not if you wish to be remembered favorably. Take the three main points of Jesus’ sermon, and this is what you walk away with: 1.) The Messiah is here. 2.) I am the Messiah. 3.) I’m not here for you.

I wonder what comments this sermon would have elicited in a seminary preaching class. I wonder if Jesus would been told, as I was on one of my assigned sermons, that “this message is a bit harsh, and difficult for your hearers to listen to.”

But whether we like it or not, sometimes prophetic voices are difficult to listen to. There are really two aspects of classic prophecy, but we tend to focus on only one of them. We usually think of prophecy as fore-telling, as the ability to articulate events in the future. But prophecy is also fore-telling, the ability to truthfully articulate the present. Sometimes those truthful words cut closer to home than we like.

Imagine, for a moment, Heather Oswalt (8:45 service)/Emma Harkins (11:00 service). Heather (Emma), raise your hand so everyone can see you. Do you see her beautiful smile? Imagine her going through Sunday School, growing up here, going through confirmation, participating in youth functions, and then heading off to college for a few years, then off to seminary, and finally, probably years after I am nothing more than a picture on the wall, being invited to preach from this pulpit. Imagine it, one of our own, preaching from our Scriptures, in our church, to our people! Now, imagine her standing where I am right now, and truthfully telling us to beware of our assumed position of religious privilege; God has a history of showing up to those not on the A-list.

While we may not like being reminded of this news, I doubt any of us will put up a serious counter-argument. The theme of God going to persons of lower prestige, of less desirability, of outcasts, and misfits, and outsiders, is woven throughout Scripture. In fact, it IS God’s story. This should come as great news to all of us. Once we were outsiders, but through God in Christ we have been made insiders. Once we were no people, but now we are God’s people, declaring his glorious works among all nations.

We find ourselves in a similar place to the people in Jesus’ hometown. In our culture, the church has taken the place of the synagogue in Jesus’ day. We find ourselves as religious insiders, as persons of religious privilege, among those who are blessed by God. But we also find that with great privilege comes great responsibility. Jesus was not criticizing the people in his hometown simply because they were privileged. He was critical because they assumed membership in the religious elite and its privileges secured them a place of divine favor.

Great privilege carries with it great responsibility. Jesus was doing nothing more than asking the people in his hometown, and us, to remember our story and then live into it. He wants us to know that we are blessed in order to be a blessing. He wants us to recognize that we are not the final destination of God’s grace. He wants us to know that merely belonging to the right religion is not enough; we also need to practice it.

Many Christians across North America have come to see church membership as securing some sort of privileged status for them, much as the people in Jesus’ home synagogue did. And the church has been happy to perpetuate this misnomer. But let us not forget that the Church is God’s gift to the world, that the world might be drawn to God through the Church’s witness and mission. We are called to follow the witness of Christ, who came not to serve his own interests, but was obedient to the will of his heavenly Father, obedient to death on the cross. We are an extension of that obedient love, and we are called to give ourselves for others just as Christ gave himself for us. The church is one of the only organization that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.

Adam Hamilton, pastor at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, tells prospective members of his church that, unlike the American Express card, church membership does not come with any privileges, only expectations. It is a sign of commitment. It is a declaration that one wishes to be a part of the things God is doing in and through the faith community. Membership allows people to say, “This is my church. I am committed to its people, its mission, and its vision. I want to serve God and grow in my faith in this place.” Church of the Resurrection, founded in 1990, currently averages 8000 per weekend in worship, and adds 150 new members per month.

Friends, we already know the story. There is no conflict here between old and new, between established and pioneering. This is about living out what we already hold to be true. You have the choice this morning, as did the people in Jesus’ hometown, to accept the message or to throw the messenger off a cliff, which shouldn’t be too hard to find around here. I think you know which option I’m voting for.

There is a story of a Franciscan monk who volunteered to be a guide and “gopher” for Mother Teresa when she visited his native Australia. He was hoping to spend some time with her, but of course, she was busy talking with the poor, the crippled, and other “less-desirable” people. On the ride back to the airport, in exasperation, the monk asked, if he bought a plane ticket to New Guinea, could he sit next to Mother Teresa, talk with her, and learn from her? She looked at him and said, “Do you have enough money for a plane ticket to New Guinea?” “Yes,” the monk answered. She thought for a minute, and said, “Then give that money to the poor. You’ll learn more from that than anything I can tell you.” Mother Teresa understood Jesus’ ministry and her own ministry in light of it. I pray for such clarity in our lives.

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