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 The Unwelcome Jesus

Sermon - 2/03/13
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Luke 4:22-30

The text for this morning picks up where we left off last week, as I suggested last week, that reading of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 61) that Jesus does when he comes to his hometown in Nazareth where he announces "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim good news to the poor" -- I called that his inaugural address, that this is the Christ Inaugural in Luke's Gospel.

I was at a conference early in the week with a bunch of other clergy (we get together once a year for theological reflection) and comparing notes with one of my colleagues, and he said in his sermon last Sunday was entitled "Jesus' Inaugural Address". And mine was the "Christ Inaugural". So, great minds think alike :)

At any rate, we're continuing then from that text, after Jesus has read the text, and he sits down, and all eyes are upon him. And that was the normal way in which you taught in ancient society -- the Rabbi's would stand for reading the word of God, and then you would sit down, and everyone else stands as you teach (out of respect for the teacher).

So, we pick up then from the second half of the text in Luke 4, verse 22 and following:

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?’ 23He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ 24And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town.25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They 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. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

[Congregation stands to listen to the teaching :)] -- Are you going to stay there for the next 20 minutes?!

So, we like to depict Jesus as being this lovable, warm, friendly guy that everybody wants to know, right? And yet, here we have this story of him being rejected. It reminds us that it was not always the case that he was such a friendly guy that everybody liked. I heard a regional minister tell the story of his first church out of seminary where he was fired, you know, preaching the gospel as he was taught to preach. Probably would not have been a good idea to entitle your first sermon, on Easter, "The Resurrection Myth" :) At any rate, he goes back to his professor, lamenting what had happened to him, and his professor said: "If you're not fired at least once in your career, you're not following the gospel".

Well, that professor was Fred Craddick, and many of you know Fred, the most renowned Disciple preacher, Time magazine called him one of the 10 best preachers in America. And he was very comforted by Fred's words, until he thought "Wait a second, Fred Craddick hasn't been fired from anything!".

Well, no one has fired me -- yet -- but the initial response here of the home congregation is quite good, and then they listen to him teach and they turn against him. It gets ugly. They nearly end the promising career of this young preacher -- you might say it was a cliff-hanger :)

So what went wrong? Keep in mind what Luke is doing here. I talked a little bit about this last week, in the way that he tells the story, as he is introducing the public ministry of Jesus with his first public address, and that serves as a summary of the gospel message proclaimed by Jesus. So, too, now he gives us a summary of the rejection of that message, and of Jesus. This is what is known as foreshadowing, that message is going to get him killed. It's not just he power-brokers in Jerusalem that are upset when they hear the message, it's some of those even in his hometown. And we wonder why sometimes people don't respond to the message we have.

What's interesting is that the lectionary pairs this text with Jeremiah (that was read earlier), and Jeremiah you may recall is one of the most persecuted prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. There's one story that the King has him thrown into a pit without food or water because he doesn't like the message that Jeremiah brings. Fortunately, someone takes pity on him and rescues him.

As a whole, prophets in scripture tend not to be very popular people. They remind me of that character in the movie "A Few Good Men", played by Jack Nicholson. A brief clip:
 

Click Here for Video Clip



I love that -- get that image in your mind, there's the prophet (at least as some would see him). You know, 'you can't handle the truth'. Of course the irony of that particular analogy is that it's actually Tom Cruise that's the prophetic figure (he's the defense attorney there), in defending the 2 young (not entirely innocent) Marines that followed Nicholson's orders. The truth is revealed. So that's more what the prophet does, but the image of the prophet is something else. By the end of this movie, you want to throw Nicholson's character off a cliff! That's the way, you see, that people respond to Jesus.

So, what is clear from this story is that Jesus isn't in trouble because of his identity as a prophet or as the Messiah, it is the content of his message that gets him into trouble. So what's wrong with his message? I mean, all he does is tell a couple Bible stories. Who could get upset at that?

I've made a couple of trips now to see St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, took our group in 2011 on that pilgrimage. The biggest church in Christendom, just an incredible place to visit. Very inspiring. In the entrance, right when you come in you see Michelangelo's Pieta. That's in the foyer! There's more artwork in that cathedral, or at least enough artwork to finance the federal deficit :) I'm thinking, if I had the chance to preach in a place like that, in front of that altar, what message, what story of the Bible would I use?

Would I use this from Luke 19, after the triumphant entry, where we read: "Then Jesus entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there and he said 'It is written that my house shall be a house of prayer but you have made it a den of robbers' Today, scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. This is not the message I think I'd want to give :)

Jesus reminds his listeners of a couple of stories in their own Bible, stories about God's abundant grace. So what could be wrong about that? Well, the point of the 2 stories is that God bypassed those who thought they had a certain privilege as God's people, in order to benefit someone else who's not part of them. Who's not one of the crowd, not part of this exclusive group.

I remember the great inspiration I had as a youth from the movie "The Exodus". It tells the story of the reestablishment of the nation Israel. I hope some other folks remember that.

And the wonderful theme song "This land is mine, God gave this land to me. . . . ". Right?! Wonderful, powerful movie. But what about the Palestinians? Who's telling their story in that movie? What about their homeland? What about their dreams? What land did God give to them? You know, it's tough.

We sing with great gusto Woodie Guthrie's classic "This Land is Your Land. . . ". You know that song. Do you suppose Guthrie asked Native American people how they felt about that? This whole notion of Manifest Destiny, from shore to shore, became manifest destruction for their nations.

So what this story does is expose the lie to such myths, that God bestows special privilege upon any one race or nation, that would elevate them above any other, or give them any special access to God, or any privilege that God does not give to anyone else. Of course, that's part of the point of Guthrie's song, that everybody is part of this land.

What gets Jesus in trouble in Nazareth, as I think it would anywhere, is this way of bypassing the local folk with that message. It would be like Jesus coming to Eugene and announcing that God has chosen a team from Oregon to win the national championship -- the Beavers! It'd be sacrilege! If that doesn't get him thrown off Skinner's Butte, I don't know what would!

So, truth be known, there's no difference between the people of Nazareth and us. So don't look down on these people for rejecting Jesus' message. We'd probably do the same. Everyone wants to believe they are special, that we are an exceptional nation. And we are. And so is France. And Japan, and China, and Brazil, and Israel, and Syria. Even with all of those troubles and problems going on right now, every people has a story and a culture and a history and tradition that makes them special.

Republican and Democratic leaders have joined together to announce their intent to provide immigration reform, and a path to citizenship for the nearly 11 million undocumented people in this country. And I think it's a very good thing. But what really disturbs me, bothers me about all of this, is that it's not being done out of any sense of compassion or of justice for those people (in many cases who have been working in this country for over 20 years, paying taxes, putting food on our tables, changing our sheets in our hotels, in low-wage jobs), it's all about political motive in the race by each party to get the Hispanic vote.  That's the motivation behind it.

President Bush made proposals similar to this six or seven years ago. And I had the opportunity to participate in a panel with some elected officials (Mayor Piercy was there, Counselor Ortiz, a couple others), as we listened to testimony in a packed room at Cesar Chavez school, in the cafeteria there. Different people giving their personal testimony about what the Dream Act would mean to them. I'll never forget that one story, of the young woman (senior in high school) sharing her experience of growing up here in Eugene, going through classes with the same group of kids from kindergarten through high school, and having her friends share their excitement about "I'm going to this college", etc. And when she went to talk to her guidance counselor about the college she wanted to go to, only to discover she was not eligible for any scholarship. And worse, she would have to pay out-of-state tuition because she was not a legal resident of this state. She's lived here since the age of 2. And she told that story with tears coming down her cheek, of her dreams that have been dashed.

And I've always wondered what happened to that young girl? She must be 24 or 25 now. Did through some miracle she find a way to get into a school? Or did she self-deport to go back to a country that she doesn't remember? Is she working some low-wage job because it's the only thing that she can do, working under the table? Or worse, engage in sex trafficking, drugs, just to get by?

You see, we don't often recognize the privileges that we have as citizens. And what that means for those who are not. And no one wants to give up those privileges. So instead, we usually talk about how we can use our privileges to benefit others. But Jesus, you see, rejects the whole system of privilege. Remember in Paul, in the letter to the Philippians in the 2nd chapter, that Christ counted equality with God as something he could not hold onto, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. Giving up all privilege. And it gets him killed.

The challenge for us is what are we going to do, then, with the privilege we have? Do we follow that example of Jesus? St. Francis did. Mother Teresa did. That's a hard path to choose. Or, can we instead, inspired by the sacrifice of Christ, seek to include all in the privileges we have, that no one else need to make that kind of sacrifice again.

So who are the widows of Zarephath and the lepers of Syria, in our world today -- without privilege in our society? Those who cannot find shelter. Undocumented immigrants. Ex-cons who cannot find a job. High school dropouts. Pregnant teenagers. Recovering addicts. I mean, do we, should we, welcome all into our privileged group? And are their responsibilities that go with the benefits of privilege which we are willing to share as well?

One of the blessings I've had through the Egan Warming Center, and to some extent in our Sunday Breakfast, has been to see the ways in which many of those who are without shelter take on not only tasks but take on even responsibilities, to make that shelter system run. To be effective. And it's truly a wonderful thing to see.

I got in trouble with our Neighborhood Association a couple weeks ago. It was after those six freezing nights, when the Egan Warming Center was operating, we had 90 folk or better in our basement. But what you need to know is it's not just the 90 that sleep here, it's the probably 150 to 200 who come here and then our bused out to the other locations from here. At any rate, because we were a little unsure about the whether, they waited until 1 p.m. to make the call. At 1 p.m. in the afternoon, it looked like it was going to warm up tonight, we're not going to be open. Well, I happened to be here early in the evening, as some folks came down the alley and I could see they were probably coming looking for a place to stay. And so I told them, no, sorry, that the shelter is not open tonight. I spent the next two hours doing nothing but redirecting traffic in our alley. Handing out blankets in several cases, sleeping bags, whatever we had in the Helping Hand room.

Well, I took pity on two folks that I've known for some time. One is a homeless gentleman who's a hoarder -- it's not easy to be a hoarder when you're homeless. But he has shopping carts and all this stuff. Another young woman that we've known around here for some time, sweet gal, but just a little whacky, can't keep her life together. They had no place else to go, it's late, it's cold, and so we did it -- right underneath the steps, we gave them shelter. Got blankets for them, made sure they were tucked down safe for the night.

My mistake was, I called the security folks that patrol our neighborhood. I told them I just wanted to let them know that I gave permission to two people sleeping out here, and if you don't mind, let them sleep. They're good folk, our security folks, they do their job with compassion, it's a tough job to do.

Well, word got out that we were setting up a 'homeless camp', and the President of the Association, a good friend (Jeff Musgrove) gave me a call and asked if we could get together to meet. So I met with him and the head of the security company, explained to them what had happened, this was a one-time exception, this is not our intent, etc. What I learned from all of that, is that it's not easy to follow Jesus and to please the neighborhood association at the same time :)

And I'm not suggesting that we should just open our doors and take in all comers day and night, even our own members are concerned for the safety here. And yes, we need to provide a safe place and that all feel secure here. And I know we're probably doing more than any other church in terms of assisting the unsheltered in our community. And just when I think we can't possibly do a single thing more, Richard Murray (from the first service this morning), makes the suggestion that we turn our boiler room into a shower facility for the homeless. You know, here's a place where you can get cleaned up, etc.

I was at our church dinner last night, our Luau, and Betsy Brandenfels said to me: "I had the strangest dream last night. I dreamt that we turned our boiler room into a shower facility!" I said "What have you two been doing, have you been conspiring here?!". John Thompson and I have been talking about turning the boiler room into a coffee house for the college students nearby :) So, Lord help us, right? I don't know, I don't know where we're going with this -- last time someone had a cockamamie idea like that, we ended up with a free breakfast, serving over 250 people every Sunday morning.

I don't know what God may be calling us to do next. I just know Jesus came into a town like Eugene, telling stories from the Bible of God's grace towards the foreigners, and the strangers. And it made him very unwelcome.

So what about here? What about us? Are we going to welcome the unwelcome Jesus?

You know what? I think we already are.

 


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