January 18, 2004   Shirley Macemon
  What's Love Got to Do With It?
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 4:21-30


Luke 4:18-19 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

Imagine the scene. The top celebrity of the day--and she's from Milpitas. Grown up in this very church. We knew she had potential: We all pitched in to help see that she got the right education. We took turns to get her to lessons and auditions. We knew she was good, but never quite had a clue that she would be off to such a quick start. And now, it looks like her career will take off like gang-busters. Of course, that is great for her, for her family, for her friends. But think about our payback--what that will do for us? We've been faithful as helpers and fans. Her attention will put us on the map! We'll be able to get good seats every time a show comes to town. Her attention here might bring others to this church. It will even get good seats and back stage passes when we're in other places.

Continue with me in this scene: a concert just for us--a few numbers, some intimate conversation--some talk of how it was and how it will be. We hope for some thanks for all we've done to help get her where she is--well, maybe she just forgot... we know how that can be.

So, we get to talking about how it is--we hear about the club dates, and the big plans, the expectations that she will play all the best houses. And we're hanging on every word. Just seeing ourselves in the light reflected from her. We're really excited about how her success will change our success.

Finally our conversation turns to how it will be. We expect to hear about the comps she will send so we can attend concerts. But instead, she reminisces about the founding of the Genesis congregation across town--how at a low point in our own congregational life, funding was poured into a new church start--not our own--and how effective that has been. OK. We remember that--painful as those memories are. But what about us? And just recently, she recalls, the new congregation in Mountain View--good stuff going on there--must have cost a bundle and look at all the activity going on in that congregation --high tech music, really great children's program and youth group. Boy, you should take a lead from some of the stuff that's going on there, she says. OK, it is beginning to feel a little like salt is rubbing in an open wound...

And as quickly as the concert began, she is swept away by her handlers, and gone to her next gig. No comps, no TV spots shot from our location, no thanks for the faithful help we've been for all these years.

OK guys. Lets get her. Maybe we can stop the limo at the airport. Or, maybe not.

How different are we--really--than the synagogue congregation at Nazareth. A faithful little group, listening to a hometown celeb. We hear our favorite and most cherished scripture: it proclaims the stuff we're right there for: Social Justice, and getting the Romans out of Israel--this year. We're with him. Just waiting for more. And then, instead of filling in the hometown crowd on how he will lead them to victory--either military, OR spiritual, so that the "acceptable year of the Lord" can come to pass--Jesus starts rambling about the works of God OUTSIDE Israel altogether. No wonder they want to kill him!

And then it dawns on us. The "acceptable year of the Lord" isn't whenever WE think it should be. WE don't get to choose. And guess what. We're probably not the poor, the blind, the captives or the oppressed, either. So, why in God's name have we been hanging around the--church ....urm... synagogue--all these years?? It sure isn't because we'll be first in line whenever God chooses to see fit to bring in that "acceptable year."

In this short vignette--covered in last week and this week's Gospel reading--Jesus is at his prophetic best. Pithy, truthful, pointed, and making folks angry by interpreting the scripture traditions of the believing community--in this instance the passage from Isaiah--as a challenge for his contemporaries. In his prophetic role, he followed in the path set down by other exalted prophets: Amos was run out of town. Jeremiah was scorned and tried twice for blasphemy and sedition. Our Hebrew scripture examples--just like the proverb that Jesus quoted--remind us that prophets aren't particularly well liked in their own communities.

Prophets aren't well liked because they force folks to look at the secrets of their own hearts. Nothing that Jesus told the synagogue crowd in Nazareth was news. The scriptures were well known. But, perhaps they had allowed themselves to "forget" how far and wide God's love and grace extends, or that God proclaims Godself the God of all--not just of a privileged few. Or, as the writer of Hebrews says, "our judge is the God of all." Whether we like it or not, God is not the cheerleader of the Club-of-the-Saved we as Churched-folks have sometimes made God out to be.

Folks love the parable of the prodigal son, or at least love it until they realize that it is the OTHER sibling who is found and rejoiced in. OR the parable of the lost sheep, until we figure out we are probably one of the 99... It's hard not to be resentful when, after all our faithful service, the party is given in someone else's honor. And Jesus-the-prophet knows that about us.

Do we really want a gracious God? Certainly we do--for ourselves. But how can we believe a gracious God if we don't believe that the same grace is given to those sinners outside our church doors, outside our faith, outside our boundaries of acceptability?

How can we believe in a truly gracious God if we have tamed God, and domesticated God, and packaged God according to OUR will--say as a Christian--a United Methodist, acceptable to the Northern California-Nevada Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church? Jesus is run out of town for his prophetic notion that God is bigger than that. The synagogue folks try to kill him for pointing that theirs is not a privileged place. If God is bigger than that--and brothers and sisters, God IS!-- step back--God is who God is, and we don't get to define God's limits of acceptability. What's Love got to do with it? God's love has everything to do with it. For all of humanity--God is the God of all, God's love spread far beyond the Church or even our faith., That really is good news.

What's the basic story:

Jesus teaching and his home town folks really proud. Then, he goes one step farther... (Or is it too far? ) and uses the Elijah Elisha examples--and suddenly, after using these well known passages from 1 and 2 Kings, the crowd turns on him, and wants to kill him.

What causes the crowd to change their mind so fast?

Does it really have anything to do with the proverb--a prophet is never honored in his hometown... did the folks in Nazareth really think they had a special "in" with God because they helped to raise up Jesus? (Do we?)

What do the examples/might the examples say about Jesus, Jesus identity, Jesus mission?

Jesus claims the scripture has come to maturity today in their hearing--that

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me... . to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (the "acceptable year of the Lord")

; and the crowd is congenial, pleased with what they have heard. And it is almost as if Jesus goads them, as he puts words in their mouth: "do here the things you did in Capernaum" Not only does he set them up, he pushes them down. They have been proud and he throws it in their faces:

"no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown." AND not only that, but look how God dispenses God's grace: to those outside the inner circle. To the widow at Zarephath in Sidon (not any of the widows within Israel!) and cleansing Naaman the Syrian, even though there were many lepers in Israel.

God will do what God will do.

Jesus is the hometown guy. In reading this passage he self-identifies himself as a prophet, and it appears that for a brief moment his friends and family in Nazareth are ok with that. But what are the implications?

1. Jesus as a prophet. A prophet in the biblical tradition is one who interprets the identifying and life-giving tradition of the believing community (in this instance the passage from Isaiah) as a challenge for his or her contemporaries. Our Hebrew scripture examples--just like the proverb that Jesus quoted--remind us that prophets aren't particularly well liked in their own communities. The "yes-men" of the community aren't prophets--they are yes-men. Hebrew scripture prophets were frequently in trouble: Amos was run out of town. Isaiah was teased and chided. Jeremiah was scorned and tried twice for blasphemy and sedition. Elijah ended up the house-guest of the Widow of Sidon because he was on the run. Prophets interpret the identifying and life-giving traditions for the believing communities--hitting so close to the heart of the matter that the audience hears the secrets of their own hearts, whether they want to or not. If a prophet's reading isn't challenging, it isn't prophetic.

One note we take from this in our own scripture work is that when we study "the manner by which the prophets, including Jesus, interpreted their traditions in their day we can arrive at a rule for the way we should interpret Scripture in our day; and the first such rule would be "Whenever our reading of a biblical passage makes us self-righteous, we can be confident we have misread it."

Let's test this in the Luke passage. Jesus read Isaiah: "The spirit of the Lord is upon me because... ", and the crowd was pleased and happy he was a hometown boy starting out in his ministry. Of course, we're pretty jazzed about Jesus starting his ministry with a passage that so clearly calls us to a ministry of Social Justice. So, Jesus, in true prophetic form, continues.

2. Jesus "sermon" as prophetic

Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and as was the tradition, sat down to begin to teach. He began with the affirmation "Today, these words are fulfilled" And the crowd went wild. They spoke well of him. But, of course, Jesus didn't leave it there. He started to preach.

"you might say... Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophets hometown" And God came to the Widow in Sidon, and Naaman in Syria"

And the once accepting crowd was filled with rage.

The rest, as they say, is history (or scripture... ) But we are left with the events, not the motivation. Kind of a big "HUH?" Jesus is called to a mission of Social Justice, God's love and grace are not limited to those within Israel (or the Church). Sounds good to me. Were clear on that message. I preach that on a regular basis--Heck, we LIVE that on a regular basis.

But, Jesus started the sermon claiming a prophetic role. If we're cool with his prophetic message, we've missed something. Big time.

According to James A. Sanders, in "The Freedom of God's grace", one of the fairly arrogant things we do when reading the Gospels is to assume that we in the Church today have progressed closer to "Truth" than had first century Judaism. Saunders says, and I have to agree, that "the human mind is no more able to discern its own corruption of [our own] consciousness today than it was in the first century." A simpler way of saying the same thing: Everything Jesus said to the people of his own time applies to us. So, Is there some way WE can get emotionally closer to the members of the Nazareth community and to the understanding of what went on? Why does this message make them want to kill him, and make us pat our selves on the back with self-righteous zeal? What have we missed??

To really understand how the crowd turned so suddenly, we need to be able to stand closer to the folks in the synagogue.

Listen again to the passage from Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the [acceptable] year of the Lord's favor."

Now, you and I may hear this as a call to social justice: good news to the poor, release to the captives. But, what if we were a sect in 1st century Judaism who called ourselves "the Poor", and believed that, when the Messiah came, WE got preferential treatment? One of the discoveries from the Dead Sea Scrolls is that this particular passage was Very important to groups such as these--that when the Messiah came, they would have preferential treatment. Now, it doesn't make a big difference for this reading, in my opinion, whether we-- that is, you and I--think that 1st century Jews thought the "end of time" was close, or whether the Messiah signaled the "end of time/beginning of a heavenly kingdom ", or the beginning of a new era on earth.

Jesus had just told the group that:

  1. He was anointed to proclaim the coming of this time: The acceptable year of the Lord.
  2. He was the one for whom they waited. "The scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" They assumed:
  3. This was the time.

Very exciting. Time to tell the Romans where to go. Time for the pious Jews to get their generous due and preferential treatment. All those who had minded their "P"s and "Q"s, who had been in church each week, done the right charity work, followed the rules, would be at the head of the line--whether on that "great getting up morning", or simply when the Jerusalem Temple was the Rule in Israel.

But wait: Then Jesus presses on:

No prophet is acceptable in his own home town.

This produces the quandary we miss. Proclaiming a time "acceptable to God" in a place where a prophets words are never "acceptable," that is, are always misunderstood.

You see, Jesus told the group at Nazareth that in one way or another, the prophet's proclamation of the will of God was always understood as something else. (boy, talk about your catch 22's!) And, without pausing for an instant, Jesus brought up instances of God's grace and love delivered outside the bounds of Israel and the cultic religion.

Jesus said effectively that in "the acceptable year of the lord", in the final analysis God would not embrace Israel, (or the church!), as the sole possessor of truth.
God's ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our thoughts (Isa. 55:8)
. And if we're not going to be at least in a preferential place in line, are we angry too?? As Fred Craddock observes, "All of us know what it is to be at war with ourselves, sometimes making causalities of those who are guilty of nothing but speaking the truth in love" (Luke, IBC, p. 63). Jesus-the-prophet's sermon should reveal to us the secrets of our heart, our corruption of consciousness. As the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews put it, "Our judge is the God of all. Not just United Methodists. Not just Protestants, not just Christians or even Jews. Our God is the God of all. The mission and message of Jesus according to Luke is about undermining categories wherever they have been applied (usually to people seen as threats). This is not about a naive denial of danger where it exists, but it is about living out the freedom that love brings so that people never lose their value, are never written off. That really is good news also in today's world.

Are the folks at Nazareth are really very different than any of us? We really want the Gospel to say what we want it to say. If we really understood what we were doing, could any of us really pray "Your will be done?" It is an amazing and undeniably dangerous prayer. And we pray anyway.

And Jan Lochmann, the great Czech theologian, said in his inaugural speech at Union Seminary in the late 60's said, "In Jesus Christ, God did not become a Christian but a man: ecce homo." * We can all remember the slight shock we received as children to learn that God was not an Episcopalian, or a Presbyterian, or a Baptist, or a professor emeritus of Yale Divinity School. But I wonder if we have yet been shocked into the realization that God is not a Christian.

"For God so loved the World."