Text: Luke 4:16-30
Speaker: Mark Rupp
Let me begin by saying what an honor it is to have been called to serve Columbus Mennonite. The opportunity to serve a church in a pastoral role is something that, for a long time, I was not sure would ever be a possibility for me. And so I thank you for being a congregation that is willing to live into your commitment to welcome all people. I thank you for being a congregation that refuses to allow requests for patience to drown out cries of injustice. I thank you for knowing that we cannot be silent when we know that God is near. I am truly humbled by the opportunity to serve a congregation that has felt like home long before I even applied for this position. May God’s Spirit continue to be felt strongly here among us as we enter into this journey together.
This past week, when someone found out which scripture I had picked for today’s sermon, she told me she could not even imagine what I was going to say about it. This passage actually happens to be one of my favorite stories to preach about because, in the end, I know that if I make a lot of people really angry, then I’m in good company. What would Jesus do? Right?
So what is going on in this story? To me this passage feels a bit like a roller coaster all wrapped up in 15 verses. It has an exciting homecoming, it has good news and Jubilee, it has doubt and confusion which turn quickly to anger and violence, and if your stomach wasn’t already turning, it throws in just a little bit of Houdini there at the end. But I think that if we get caught up in the ride, we are likely to miss an important point that Jesus is trying to make here.
In this part of Luke’s gospel, we enter in right after Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. The picture we get is that Jesus has been traveling around the Galilee area teaching in the synagogues and word about him is starting to spread. And then he finally makes it to his hometown. He goes to the synagogue “as was his custom”, gets handed the Isaiah scroll, finds exactly the part he wants and reads:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he sits down. All eyes are on him. All eyes waiting for their hometown boy to dazzle them with the same things they’ve heard he did at other synagogues in other towns. You could probably hear a pin drop as Jesus finally speaks and says, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus might as well have dropped his microphone and walked off stage.
But Jesus is never one to quit while he’s ahead. He has proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor to these people, but they aren’t quite grasping the enormity of what he is saying. So he tells, or rather, retells them stories from their own history to drive home his point. These were stories they probably knew or maybe stories that they might have forgotten they knew. One, the story of severe famine and of God supplying food for a poor widow. The other, a story of God providing healing for a high-ranking official.
And the author of Luke tells us, “When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.”
What we might miss because of our 21st century lens is that these were not just any stories. These were stories from Israel’s own history where, in times of crisis, God showed up in what might have been considered unexpected places. In these stories, Jesus seems to be poking a finger right in the eye of the notion that God is only for us, that God belongs to us. Who are the inheritors of God’s blessing in these stories? A hungry widow and her son from Sidon, a place just beyond the border of the community but hit just as hard by the same famine. The other, one more man afflicted with a debilitating disease who just happened to be the commander of an army from Syria, an army set against Israel.
The outsider and the enemy, the poor and the sick, the hungry and the desperate. In these stories, these are the people of God because it is with them that the movement and the work of God has resided. Jesus is saying that the good news, the freedom, the healing, and the year of the Lord’s favor that Isaiah speaks about rests with these people, rests with all people.
“And all in the synagogue were filled with rage.”
It is tempting at this point to begin to characterize the Jews as being a miserly bunch that were unwilling to share God’s blessing. It is tempting to think that Jesus came to show the Jews the error of, what we might assume, are their Gentile-hating ways. We might think that the Jews were filled with rage because they could not imagine their God blessing those kinds of people. It is tempting to read Christian notions of superiority into this account.
But these temptations grossly mischaracterize the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the first century. It is hard to deny that parts of this story and the New Testament in general, have a decidedly anti-Jewish outlook, yet we must remember that Jesus enters this story not as an outside critic trying to establish something completely new and better over and against Judaism. Jesus enters his first-century Jewish context from within the Jewish prophetic tradition that calls people to a deeper faithfulness to God. A prophet is never accepted in his hometown because prophets are those who are sent to bring the people back, to expose the ways they have turned from God, to shake people from their complacency and numbness. Prophets help us to realize that we have allowed the lines we drew in the sand to get deeper and deeper until they turned into the trenches and walls that divide us both from each other and from God.
At the same time, reading Christian superiority into this passage allows us to conveniently ignore the ways that the Christian Church is prone to these same notions of group bias. How often does our history show us the ways we have acted like we have cornered the market on God? How often have times of crisis brought out the worst in our collective religious responses? How often has the Church been splintered because some refuse to recognize the Spirit of God working in and through the lives of those people, whoever those people happen to be in each historic context?
Sometimes our lights turn inward and we let our “city on a hill” become a gated community.
But Jesus calls us back by proclaiming Isaiah’s vision of the year of the Lord’s favor, which is to be good news for all people. This vision comes out of the Jewish tradition of the Jubilee year where debts are forgiven, slaves are freed, ancestral lands returned, and the land, itself, is allowed to rest. There are a lot of debates about whether this tradition, which seems so impractical by our standards, was ever actually practiced, but I agree with one of my former professors, Richard Lowry, when he writes, “The jubilee laws, like sabbath-year law in Leviticus, are important, not for the practical impact of their actual observance, but for the theological and moral principles that they establish.” The year of the Lord’s favor that Isaiah and Jesus proclaim establishes an ideal of justice that we must be reminded of and called back to over and over.
In this encounter at the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus was trying to remind people what justice looks like: good news to the poor, sight to the blind, release to the captives, and freedom to the oppressed. But he was also trying to get the people to see the bond of humanity that connects all people, to see that the good news of God’s grace refuses to be contained within any humanly devised boundaries. In a way, Jesus is telling us that our hope means nothing until it means something for everyone.
And all in the Church were filled with…rage? Surprise? Sadness? Joy?
This story begs us to ask the hard question, “How do we understand our connection to all people, everywhere, in light of the hope we profess?” One of my favorite pieces of poetry gets at the heart of how I understand this question. Many of you are probably familiar with this meditation by John Donne:
No man is an island, entire of itself
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main
if a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were
any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls
it tolls for thee.
The death of every woman and man diminishes me, because I am involved in humankind. What has been important for me and my faith formation, however, has been also understanding this principle of human connection in reverse. Yes, the death of every person diminishes me, but at the same time the life of every person enriches me. The justice of God that Jesus calls us to reminds us of both these realities. The liberation of the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed are wrapped up in our own liberation from the need to maintain systems that lock people into a never-ending struggle against one another to survive.
This idealized notion of God’s justice that the prophets continue to call us back to reminds us that oftentimes what we consider to be peace has been paid for by injustice. One only has to look at the realities of Ferguson, Missouri to see the difference between those calling for peace and those crying out for justice. Or perhaps one could look at the state of the Church to see the ways that those who benefit the most from the peace of the status quo are often the least likely to be concerned about the injustices that people of gender and sexual minorities face.
Perhaps it is significant that Jesus says, “Blessed are the peace-makers” and not the “Blessed are those who are at peace.”
When we lose sight of the enormity of God’s vision of justice, we allow our hope to become too small. Recognizing that no man or woman is an island, that there is no longer us and them means that the hope we find in Jesus can no longer mean something for just us or just our community. And so we have to ask ourselves, is our hope big enough?
I would like to close with a reflection on something that happened during one of the interviews for this position. Because the position entails spending a lot of my energy working with youth and young people, someone asked me, “If you could tell young people just one thing, what would it be?”
It was lightheartedly decided that because the question was so big, that the person who asked it had to be willing to give her own answer as well. I frantically thought about it for what seemed like forever, but I eventually decided on an answer: Question everything. I explained that my hopes for Christian Education were to be about creating spaces where people could bring their honest questions and examine deeply the messiness of life. My hope for young people is that they would learn a kind of critical consciousness that allows them to be intentional about both the things they believe and the ways they live.
I felt good about my answer, but then it fell to the interviewer to give her response. Without missing a beat she said that her one thing she would tell the youth was: God loves you. In that instant, it felt like I had the wind knocked out of my answer. Maybe it was the fact that she seemed to be able to respond without needing to think, or maybe it was the fact that all of a sudden my answer seemed so utterly devoid of good news. Why had I wasted my hypothetical “one thing” on something that, on its own, seemed like it had the potential to pull people away from faith rather than drawing them closer to God?
This scene has stuck with me because the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that these two answers are both so vital for a life of faith. Yes, hear me when I say, “God loves you.” Over and over again let us be a community that says this not just to our young people but to each other and to everyone. God loves you.
But let us never forget that there are a lot of people who say “God loves you” and mean any number of different things. For many years of my own life I heard “God loves you” but understood it to mean “God loves you as long as you keep that secret part of who you are hidden.” Too often the unexamined “God loves you” becomes a tool of the powerful to maintain a peace that was purchased at the price of justice for all people. To this I say that we indeed must be ready and willing to question everything.
We must live in the tension between “God loves you” and “Question everything.” At times we need the simplicity of knowing God’s love, but at other times, we need the hard questions to rouse us when that simplicity turns to complicity.
When Jesus shows up in Nazareth or anywhere else we might find him talking about good news and liberation and healing, it sounds a lot like “God loves you.” And it is. But Jesus also shows up to remind us that too often our visions of justice, our hopes, and our “God loves you” are too small.
And so, my wish for you, my friends, is:
- That you would never forget that no person is an island unto themselves.
- That you would claim a hope that is as big as the God from whom it springs.
- That you would never stop asking questioning when your peace gets too comfortable.
- And, perhaps most of all, that you would always know that you are loved