Journey to Wholeness – Lent 3

“Not Quite What You Were Expecting,” Susan Ryder

Luke 4:14-30
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “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.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 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 to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at 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 except to a widow at Zarephath 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. 

At first glance, it’s a bit confusing to understand why and how Jesus’ first sermon in his hometown deteriorated to the point that his friends and neighbors wanted to kill him. Jesus has come home and is preaching to a crowd of people who’ve known him since he was just knee high. They are pleased and gracious at first. “Why look, isn’t that Joseph’s boy? He was just a poor carpenter when he left us and look at him now!” “Where did he learn to read? And with such authority? He was born to do this, I’m telling you, born to it.” By all accounts it’s a lovely scene – at first – so what went wrong? How did this homecoming turn so ugly? Certainly his bold claim that the scripture he just read had been fulfilled in their hearing may have raised a few eyebrows. “Wait – did he just say he’s God?” But overall they were impressed and seemed delighted with Jesus, taking pride in their “hometown boy made good.” I suspect they also probably enjoyed the lines that promised release, redemption, and healing for those who have been cast aside, as I am sure those Nazarene peasants identified themselves as being among those Jesus was talking about. And they probably hoped or even expected that Jesus might share some of his superpowers with them. After all, they’d known him since he was a baby, so why wouldn’t Jesus bless them with some of the miraculous things they heard he’d done in Capernaum – they were complete strangers, and Gentiles to boot! So of course he would share some of his magic with his hometown crew, easing old John’s gout pain and maybe even helping Elizabeth with that pesky evil spirit that appeared at the most inconvenient times.

But things went downhill from there, and it’s kind of Jesus’ fault they did, to be fair. He did not read that room well – or perhaps he read it perfectly? He could have ended his sermon with a few healings and a couple of blessings here and there, and received more praise from his homies before he departed, promising to stop by the next time he was in town (though probably directing his administrative assistant to make sure there was not a next time). That would have been the wise thing to do, the safe thing. But instead, right in the middle of their warm accolades, he kind of goes off on them. “No doubt you’ll quote me the old proverb, ‘Physician, heal thyself.’ And you’ll probably want me to do what you’ve heard I’ve been doing in Capernaum, for the Gentiles. Well, guess what – no prophet is accepted in his hometown. And by the way – when I was quoting about God coming to free the oppressed and bless the poor, I wasn’t talking about you lot. I’m talking about the people you can’t stand, the people you don’t want anywhere near you, the people you consider your enemies” – and polished it all off by reminding them of a couple of stories about Elijah and Elisha, wherein God did NOT bless Israel, but blessed Israel’s enemies instead.

Remember that Jesus had just finished reading Isaiah’s prophecy about a year of favor, of Jubilee, when the blind become sighted, the captives are released, the oppressed find relief, and the poor of this world are consoled. He declares that while God loves everyone, God has a special concern for the poor, and for this prophecy to come true, there’s going to need to be some changes. As Mary sang before Jesus was even born, in order to raise the lowly God has to bring down the powerful; and in order to feed the poor, the rich are going to have to go away hungry. This is what Jesus was talking about when he read that scroll, and the home crowd didn’t get it. So Jesus got angry, driving his point home, and this time they do get it. God favors Syria, not Israel?! God heals in Capernaum, not Nazareth. I don’t think so. That’s heresy. And you know what we do with heretics. His words made them so mad they were ready to throw Jesus off the side of a cliff, whether he was Mary and Joseph’s boy or not. How DARE he speak to them that way – they’d known him since he was in diapers! They saw him when he had snot running out of his nose when he threw temper tantrums for not getting his way, and now he speaks to them with such disrespect? How dare he!

Jesus did the one thing you’re never supposed to do in polite company, even to strangers, let alone to friends and neighbors: He tells them the truth, about their pettiness and prejudice, their fear and willingness, even eagerness, to get ahead at any cost, even at the expense of another. And so they want him gone in the most permanent of ways. But before the riled-up crowd has a chance to push Jesus off the cliff, it says he walks through them and goes on his way.

While Jesus certainly could have handled things differently, I understand why he didn’t. The easy way would have been just to do what they expected while not embarrassing mom and dad and the rest of his family who still lived there. Preach a sermon – not too long, not too short – start with a joke or two to set everyone at ease, impress them with his exegetical skills, and finish with them wanting more. But that was not who Jesus was – and would not have been true to his authentic self or his message – and these people who thought they knew him the best, well, they needed to be set straight sooner than later. They needed to change their ways or become part of the problem.

I can relate to expectations put on you by those who think they know you best, and having to decide at some point whether to give in to them or go your own way. Perhaps some of you can as well. Bob and I lived with my parents for several months after we graduated from seminary while we were seeking our first calls, and during that time I was asked to be the guest speaker for my parent’s large adult Sunday School class in my home church – attended by about a hundred 40-70 year old conservatives, many of whom had known me since I was five. While I can’t remember exactly what I talked about, I do remember choosing something that would be intentionally provocative. Even though some were among my parents’ closest friends, we had little in common politically and less so theologically, and I was bound and determined to speak my truth – not to make them sorry they’d helped support me through seminary, but so that they would know who I truly was and what I believed. I was not going to play their hypocritical evangelical game just to avoid embarrassing my parents. I was going to speak my truth – and while a few applauded, most were appalled and told my parents, “We told you that you never should have let her go to that bastion of liberalism at Princeton! You should have made her go to Fuller,” a nearby conservative seminary. And while no one wanted to push me off a cliff (that I know of), needless to say I have never been invited back.

Was it obnoxious of me to do what I did?  Perhaps, by some standards it was – the standards that decree how we ought to behave with those who have known us the longest, as if we owe them something other than our true selves, just to keep things on an even keel. But it could also be argued that we need to free ourselves, early and often, of the conventional expectations people put on us – many of which come from those who think they know us the best and thus, know what is best for us. I am grateful that I was able to break away from that early on and pursue my own path of love and justice and inclusion. That congregation is now even more conservative than it was 30 years ago, having left the PCUSA after we finally voted to embrace and include our LGBT family members in 2010, clinging tenaciously to their narrowminded and exclusionary practices while embracing a prosperity gospel theology. No thank you.

For most of us, our personal missions evolve, if not outright change, as we accumulate mileage over the course of our lifetime. It’s not always about defying expectations of those who “knew us when” for its own sake (although there may be some satisfaction in that as we work out our rebellion) but we each have our own particular and valid way of seeing the world and our own unique contributions to make – that, by definition, cannot fit what others will want to impose on us for the sake of maintaining their comfort zones. And for some of us, we have no other choice than to speak our truths in order to live them – in spite of what consequences there may be. As I turn things over to you for a few moments, I invite you share about a time you had to defy the expectations of family or friends to pursue a more authentic version of your true self, to speak your truth in order to live it out?