Two years ago I had the opportunity to preach at my college during my Reunion Weekend. I had actually been invited to do it a few years before, but it was not my reunion year, so I did not know anyone in the congregation. This time it was a major reunion so I was going to know several people who would be present. And …. you know how when you get with your old friends, you fall back on behaviors that you did back then…. well, college reunions are not an exception to this phenomena. The reunion was fun. I got to see old friends and it was like old times. And…. then Sunday morning arrived. I worried, how many classmates would be there? Would they accept me in this role as minister which is my life? I had not even thought of going for my ordination back then…..I was not the pastor type…. and I’d never actually met a woman pastor, so I had no role models to base what one should be like. So, on Sunday morning I went to the beautiful Knowles Chapel, met with the chapel staff and robed and took on the mantel of my calling and profession leaving the role of a reunion party-goer and becoming the professional clergy person I am. It was me. And what I realized was it wasn’t hard for me to be myself, what might be hard is for the people who had not seen me since I was graduated from college to accept me as the minister in the pulpit. They had the hard work. They were the ones that needed to change their views, and accept me.
I thought about this as I read this morning’s Scripture passage where Jesus returns to his home congregation. He had just begun his ministry and it is said that word about him was spreading throughout the land. He had been teaching and preaching throughout Galilee and returns home to Nazareth and on the Sabbath, goes to the synagogue his family attended when he grew up. Listen now to our Gospel lesson for today found in Luke 4: 21-30.
21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 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?” 23 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.’” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 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; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers[a] in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 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. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
Jesus goes home and on the Sabbath went to the synagogue like he always had. The leaders were most likely ecstatic that their home-town hero was paying them a visit and he was invited to read from the scroll of the day. He read from the Prophet 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 of the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus then rolled up the scroll and sat down and all eyes are on him. They were probably so hopeful. Their Jesus is here to save them and them alone. He was their boy… they all knew him from when he was knee high and taught him his lessons. And now he was there for them. They probably even prepared a fatted calf as a part of the pot luck lunch they were having for him as a celebration after the worship service.
And Jesus must have felt it…. he must have felt their pride and the sense of ownership they felt over him. And now he was back home and they expected him to do all his miracles and good things for them. And, he… knew God called him for another purpose. He was not their pet, or under their control, but was called by God to do God’s work. He even talked about God going to outsiders rather than the chosen people of Israel, and for sure not the people who were hearing him that morning. And it infuriated them. Why isn’t there hometown boy working for them? Why isn’t he doing nice and acceptable things instead of talking about God caring for people they saw as not God’s own? They wanted a certain type of person and Jesus was not fitting nicely into that role. Jesus was assertive! Jesus was not governed by the desires of the crowd, but by the purposes of God. The people were filled with rage. And the passage says they want to kill him. They chase after him and are about to throw him off a cliff but he narrowly escapes.
Samuel Dewitt Proctor, who was the pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, often reminded his flock that they probably would not have liked the historical Jesus. In Proctor’s view, Jesus said the wrong things, hung out with the wrong folk, and made what some considered poor decisions that often countered traditional beliefs. He was a rebel and a rouser. He did not please people but ended up getting himself killed. I love the visual images of Jesus holding little lambs, of Jesus with little children all around him, and Jesus praying, healing, and performing other miracles. People have painted these for centuries so we have many to which we can meditate. But just as truthful to the historical Jesus is the man who angrily upturned tables of money changers at a temple, a Jesus who disobeyed Jewish Laws and customs, and the Jesus who even angered his home town by coming across as to big for them. But his mission was not from humanity but was from God. His mission was not to be liked…. And in that, his prophetic role of his ministry, Jesus was much like all the prophets that came before him and have come after him.
The Editorial Board of the Charlotte Observer wrote an article for MLKJr. Day which said the same thing about The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They wrote that we should remember the MLK who wasn’t liked:
The editorial said, ‘Martin Luther King Jr. was not a well-liked man. He was one of the most polarizing figures in the United States during his final few years of life. He was not the cuddly creature we re-invent every King Day to lie to ourselves and our kids about how he only wanted us to get along….. King wanted peace, but not at the expense of equality. He wanted little black girls and boys to play with little white girls and boys, but not if it meant pretending racism did not exist. He respected authority, but challenged those wearing badges and carrying batons, and those who worked in oval offices. He wanted moral clarity, not cheap comfort. If he were alive today, he would still be hated by those wedded to the status quo. The Editorial board went as far as to say that we should shelve the ‘I Have a Dream Speech and instead remember when King refused to denounce the protesters by saying, “a riot is the language of the unheard and America has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been heard….. King was definitely more concerned with justice and humanity than tranquility.”
MLK was a prophet. And in being one, he had a message that was much larger than being popular. MLK could only be liked in his death.
And I think that this helps us to see what was going on here in this little story about Jesus returning to his home town. He was called by God and given Spiritual Gifts to allow his ministry to take place. God had given him the task to take the message of love out into the world. We are to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. This is not what his hometown wanted to hear. They wanted the nice home-town Jesus that would heal them, feed them, and tell them of God’s love… for them. And instead, this assertive Jesus told them that he wouldn’t be doing that…. He would not be governed by the rules of the crowds. He had his own terms. He had his own call. And it was OK with him if they don’t accept him.
I think the message here for us is that we cannot put Jesus’ message in a comfortable box. We might like only the message that he loved children, that he wanted to bring all people to God and to know God’s love, but to accept only those teachings is to not get Jesus at all. Jesus was also a radical leader. Christ calls us to justice. Jesus questioned the establishment. And as a disciple, when Christ calls us to love everyone, that is not an easy love, but also a call to love the unlovable. It charges us to demand justice for populations who are powerless, to be the voice of the voiceless, and to think of others as we think of ourselves.
As we take communion this morning, we do so, answering the call to be Christ’s body to the world. To be like Jesus….. the easy and the hard…. the lovable, and the part of discipleship that calls us to voice and act in ways that are God’s…. even at the expense of what others may think. Amen.