Shortly after I was ordained, I was invited back to my college (I went to Denison University) to perform the wedding of a friend of mine. By this time we had all been out of school for about five years and Melissa and I were freshly out of seminary. I was flattered by the invitation, although the bride and groom were not exactly churchy folks and I think I was the only priest they knew. It was going to be my first wedding on the road and I must admit I was nervous.
It turned out to be a great weekend. I got to reconnect with a lot of old friends and I provided some interesting photographs for the alumni magazine when they got a close up of me in my collar, with a cigar in my mouth, bending over the keg, refilling my beer.
The couple was married in Denison’s Swasey Chapel. I was thrilled to perform a service in that beautiful building which had been so important to me during my four years in college. I will never forget that wedding. I remember having a last minute prayer with the groom right before the service started. When the music began we both walked out front and took our positions. About 150 of our mutual friends and acquaintances were seated in the sanctuary and they all giggle and laugh.
I didn’t get it at first, I wondered what was going on – it was like one of those stress dreams clergy have where they get up to preach and discover they have forgotten their pants. After a few seconds I realized I wasn’t paranoid, they were indeed laughing at me. However, I was fully dressed. In fact, I had on my newly starched alb, a beautiful white stole and my freshly polished silver cross. And that is exactly what seemed so funny to them. Although I had openly talked about the priesthood while I was at Denison, I think that possibility was hard for my friends to imagine. I had left college with one very distinct persona and I had returned years later with another – I was no longer Randy the fraternity guy, I was now Randy the priest – and I guess that was just too much for them to handle.
In our lesson for last week, Jesus reads as his sermon text a quote from Isaiah. He says: “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.” Greg spoke powerfully about these words last Sunday.
In gospel for today, we see what happened to Jesus as a result of this sermon. Luke tells us that the hometown crowd was pretty impressed at first. Nazareth was a tiny little town with a population of around 200 and I imagine they were pleased to see the success of this local boy. Here was the son of Joseph who spoke so powerfully and knew the scriptures so well. Luke tells us, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth”.
If Jesus had ended his homecoming talk right then, everyone might have filed out to of the synagogue, shaken hands with Jesus, told him how much he had grown, inquired as to where he was living currently and said “nice sermon.” But Jesus was not content to leave that way. He wanted to make sure his friends, family and neighbors really understood what he was all about.
If Jesus had been prudent, if he had been a politician courting the favor of the people, he would have known when to keep his mouth shut. Like the Democratic candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire he would have paid attention to what the public wanted to hear and then delivered what he thought would gain him the most admiration.
But Jesus was not a politician – he was, among other things, a prophet. Like Jeremiah, he had come to declare God’s word to the world and he knew that God’s truth was far from being sweet and easy. In response to their desire for him to perform miracles for them as he did in Galilee and Capernum, Jesus first tells the crowd in Nazareth that prophets are always rejected at home and he can do no such miracles. He then goes on to offend them by referencing two of Israel’s most famous prophets – Elijah and Elisha. He reminds them of when Elijah, during a great famine, brought God’s help and relief to a foreign widow rather than to God’s people. He then reminds them of Elisha, Elijah’s successor, who showed God’s divine favor to Israel’s enemy by healing Naaman, a general in the Syrian Army, rather than healing others who were part of the chosen people. By reminding his listeners of God’s miraclous care for these non-Jews, for these people outside of Israel, Jesus deeply offends his listeners by insinuating that sometimes foreigners are more faithful than the people of God. He offends them by insinuating that God’s love is not reserved for the elect.
Well, that got their attention. How could God reach out and bless pagans before taking care of the faithful? It went against everything they believed. The smiles slowly faded. Their pride in this local boy turned to rage. This favorite son whom moments before they had praised was driven out of town where they tried to kill him by throwing him off of a cliff.
A few years before, Jesus had left Nazareth as the son of Mary and Joseph. Now he had returned as the sharp tongued Son of God and that was more than the people of Nazareth could handle.
I think if truth be told, many of us would like to domesticate Jesus. We want him to be the comfortable easy going savior who never demands much from us. We want to be touched by his message, comforted by his miracles and then left alone so that we can go on and lead our lives just the way we always have. I don’t think most of us are any different from the home town crowd in Nazareth. Jesus is just fine as long as he doesn’t rock our boats, as long as he doesn’t disturb our comfort zones. Jesus is fine just as long as he says and does the things we agree with. But if you’ve read the gospels, then you know that Jesus always pushes people out of their comfort zones. His whole ministry was one big rocking of the boat.
Think about it. Think about Jesus’ life. When most people thought it was scandalous to do anything on the Sabbath, Jesus went to work healing the lame, teaching the people and proclaiming the Kingdom of God. When most folks wouldn’t even look in the same direction as a prostitute or a tax collector – Jesus did the unimaginable – he invited them to dinner. When the most devout of his day avoided the lepers and the possessed, the deaf and the blind – Jesus went out of his way to touch them, to love them, to heal them. When the disciples wanted to send away a hungry crowd who were getting restless – Jesus fed them. When the righteous wanted to stone the adulterous woman because of her sins – Jesus forgave her. When his own people wanted him to claim his kingship by claiming earthly power – Jesus claimed his kingship by giving up all his power – to die on the cross.
From his first sermon in Nazareth all the way through until his death, Jesus was different from the rest of the religious establishment of his day? What made him stand out? What was it that made him different? Jesus never backed away from taking the risk to love. Jesus never backed away from taking the risk to love the unwanted, the lost, the sinful, and the unlovable. And he never let others off the hook when they wanted to back away. He couldn’t be domesticated then and he cannot be domesticated today. He could be killed but he couldn’t be tamed.
We can’t let issues within the larger church distract us from our calling to be like Christ. We should not avoid those issues, but we cannot allow them to become the whole story. If we are going to continue to follow Christ today, tomorrow and into the future; if we are going to give these newly baptized children a church to inherit that matters, then we too must continue to take the exact same kind of loving risks. As a church our past is full of them. It may seem obvious now, but it was a huge risk years ago for this place to open its doors five days a week to care for forty some students in our Children’s Center. It may seem routine today but it was a big risk when the church decided it would first open its doors to house the homeless in our parish hall. It may seem like fun today but it was risky ten years ago to send people and money from this church for the first time to Honduras to care for people who live thousands of miles away. And it was a risk three years ago to ask people to give of their time to drive into one of the city’s worst housing projects to mentor to the neediest boys and girls at the Whitcomb Court Elementary School.
Among his own people Jesus wasn’t content to be the harmless hometown boy who made it good. He was going to take his own risks to love and he wanted others to do the same. And so he pushed the people of Nazareth to think beyond themselves. And he is pushing us too. If Jesus were standing here this morning he might ask us – what risks are we willing to take today in the name of love? – – – What are we going to tell him? – – – Amen.