This sermon was given at First Congregational Church in Kalamazoo on January 27, 2019. You can listen here.
Text: Luke 4:16-30
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.
He leadeth me beside still waters. He restoreth my soul.
Aren’t there sometimes words or songs that are so familiar, so comfortable, that you can sink down in them, like a warm blanket? Have you had that experience? Maybe at a concert, when the orchestra starts playing a song you know inside and out, and you can feel your whole body rest into it—ready to enjoy every little familiar detail. Certain poetry can evoke the same response. I think many of us have been sinking into some of Mary Oliver’s poetry recently, honoring her death by cherishing beloved words in which we find comfort. And the 23rd Psalm is definitely one. For a lot of people, those are words that can create a space comfortable and familiar enough for grief to be expressed. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou are with me…”
But sometimes these very familiar passages and poems and songs are also ones that cause problems. Things that make us feel comfortable are things we don’t want to see change. Every pastor knows that reading anything other than the King James Version of Psalm 23 will get some grumbles. People complain when the familiar words are changed, slightly, even if the change in words makes the passage clearer for people who have never heard it before.
We cling tightly to those familiar, comforting words. We don’t want a new tune to that familiar old hymn—the old tune is part of what is so wonderful about it. We don’t want to sing Amazing Grace with drums in the background, because it doesn’t feel familiar any more. We like the familiar, comfortable things.
I don’t think we can fully appreciate what is going on in this morning’s reading from Luke unless we realize that the scripture that Jesus read was this kind of familiar, comforting passage.
These words from the latter part of the book of Isaiah were words spoken to the exiles who were finally returning to Jerusalem from Babylon. The poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed—these were Jesus’s ancestors. When Jesus read these words, his hometown heard them as words about “our community”. Words that describe “us”. They heard “Our Story”. It was easy to hear the words both as a reminder of God’s goodness to their nation and ancestors, and as a promise. God is coming for us. When we feel poor, or captive, oppressed or blind, we can trust that God is coming—God is sending help ahead. God will not abandon us. God meets us in our weakness.
You can imagine the faces of the people in that synagogue in Nazareth as Jesus read this passage to them. Here was a hometown boy, returned from making something of a name for himself, and he reads these wonderful, comforting, familiar words. There would be eyes closed as people soaked in the familiar language. There would be soft smiles on lips, as they let the passage wash over them. There might be people catching each other’s eyes, or reaching out to squeeze hands—“I know this is your favorite, honey,” or “weren’t we just talking about this the other day?”
You can imagine it, right? You’ve been in that situation before, when everyone in the room grins and sighs, and maybe some people murmur along, because they all know where this is going—it is familiar and good and wonderful.
Except this time it isn’t. By the end of Jesus’s sermon, this crowd that started out amazed at the gracious words coming from his mouth has turned on him, chased him out of town, and attempted to drive him off a cliff.
Why? What could Jesus possibly have said to upset them so much?
Here’s what he said. He said, “I’m called to fulfill these promises from God, but not here. You will expect me to do this here. You hear this promise, and hear it as a promise given to you, but God is calling me to other people.”
Jesus is challenging their traditions, the way they read their Bible—he is challenging them to reorganize their social system to place value on members of society that they have been ignoring. It’s actually not far from the kind of changes the civil rights movement in Montgomery was instigating under Dr. King’s leadership. He and his fellow leaders challenged the white Christian community to read their Bibles differently—to hear God’s promises as promises spoken to the African-American population of their city—to reorganize their social system to place value on people they had been ignoring. And when he was imprisoned for civil disobedience, the white pastors in Birmingham distanced themselves from him and condemned his politics as being too radical. The police knocking children down with fire hoses and threatening protestors with their dogs were Good Christian men.
We’ve seen this kind of backlash against prophetic religious leaders again and again in history. When Francis of Assissi gave up his fortune to live among the poor, the church and town leaders were outraged. When church leaders fought for the end of apartheid in South Africa, they were beaten and put in jail. When clergy began performing marriages for gay and lesbian couples their denominations stripped them of ordination and they lost their livelihoods.
This backlash to ideas that challenge the status quo is also one of the dynamics at play in the convoluted story about the Catholic School students that has been unfolding all week on social media. These young men traveled to Washington, DC to participate in the March for Life, having been taught that participating in that protest was an act of faith. They assumed they were on God’s side. That they were at the center of what God is doing in our nation.
And when they were confronted by people very different from themselves, they conducted themselves with predictably immature self-righteousness. When that behavior was amplified by the reactivity of social media, defensive rage began to emerge. And very quickly, the national conversation has spiraled into something much bigger than these particular high school students.
How do we, who have relative wealth and power in our nation respond to criticism from marginalized communities? How do we respond when we feel our behavior or words are being mischaracterized? How do we listen to people telling us that our intention to be fair to everyone matters less than the actual impact of our words and actions or inaction? And that the impact of our behavior is inextricably bound up in the history of our nation—a history of colonization, genocide, enslavement, and racism?
The story of Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth is an example of how threatened we can become when the status quo is challenged—when our assumption that we are at the center of God’s work is challenged. When someone suggests that perhaps we are not the protagonists in God’s divine drama. It is so tempting to get defensive when our assumptions are challenged! We know this from our own families–how difficult it is to listen well to a spouse, or parent, or child who just challenged your whole perception of yourself. And yet, the only way to actually encounter God in each other is to let those defenses down and really listen.
What do we do with this story of Jesus’ rejection? If we want to avoid the same pitfall of rejecting Jesus and his ministry of good news when it turns out that we may not be the people most in need of that good news, what are our other options? When we sense that the status quo might be threatened, and we feel our defensiveness rising, how else could we respond?
This is a question I have grappled with a lot, as my experience of the world has shifted and grown. I remember realizing that, in a global sense, I could never be considered poor—not even close. In spite of my student loans, and tight budget, I have so much more financial security and opportunity than most people on the planet. So, what was I to do with the vast number of scripture passages that speak of good news to the poor—justice for the poor—help for the poor? I’m on the wrong side of that equation. Justice for the poor of this world might involve loss, or sacrifice on my part. It might mean access to a smaller variety of produce. It might mean more expensive electronics or clothes, because current prices are based on unjust wages to the workers who produce these products I consume.
It’s frightening. So, can I—can we—pray for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done, if it might mean that we have less so that others can have enough? Can we hear these words of comfort from scripture and affirm that they are good news, even when they are directed at people different from ourselves—even when they might challenge us to move out of comfort and complacency? Even when setting the oppressed free might mean more competition for my job? Even when letting the oppressed go free might mean my cost of living rises dramatically because people will be paid fairly?
This is the crux of it, I think. The crux—the crossroads—the cross. Can we hear God’s promises directed toward others, and believe it is good news, even for us? In the past, I have found my way forward by looking at Jesus as my model. When Jesus reads this passage, he does not hear it as a promise to himself. He hears it as his calling. He locates himself as one called by God to participate in liberation—in bearing good news.
But, I’m not sure that’s my way forward today. White Christians in this nation have too often positioned ourselves as the saviors—the mini-Jesuses—the ambassadors of the kingdom bringing liberation and good news to others, and we have failed. We have used the Bible to mask our own self-interest. We have twisted the gospel into something that pads our comfort zones, and excuses our exploitation and abuse of others.
We cannot participate with Jesus in this work of justice until we recognize the ways we need Jesus to release us—to release us from our defensiveness—to release us from our inclination to give the benefit of the doubt to young men who look like our sons, while ignoring and dehumanizing others—to release us from our captivity to consumption, or the idea that by owning more we will feel more alive—to release us from the fear that if we oppress or harm others, that shame is what will define us—that we cannot also be beloved, and made in God’s image. We are in captivity, and we often do not even see it.
But I do believe that this good news for the poor and the oppressed is also good news for me. It scares me, because I don’t know what it will cost me. I resist it, because I like my car, and my house, and my Netflix and Amazon prime free deliveries. And I still believe that justice for all will actually be better for me than securing my comfort zone by maintaining the status quo. And so I pray, with the church across time, “Come, Lord Jesus. Set us free.” Give us ears to hear and eyes to see. Give us courage to know the truth about ourselves, and courage to follow you into your kingdom of justice and peace. Amen?