It’s Not So Easy Being Church

It’s Not So Easy Being Church

 And Jesus 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.

Luke 4:20-30

 After dealing with snow issues, one way or another for all too long now, it is good to deal with something different, (though it may not be a lot easier). I think we could use a little segue to get into to today’s scripture lessons. So, here’s a story for you…

There was once a young American who got a job as a tour guide for church groups from the U.S. touring the Holy Land. He would stand at the front of the bus with the microphone and point out the sights as the bus rolled through this town and that. He studied hard and did a good job, but at first he felt like he just had to know the answer to every possible question. And he got all kinds.

One time they were touring near Nazareth with a bus full of people. He pointed out the window and said, “This may well be the hill from which the people of Nazareth in Luke chapter 4 tried to cast Jesus off.”

At this, an old Catholic priest who had seemed to be sleeping at the back of the bus, raised his hand and asked, “What is it called?” The young man searched his memory wildly for a moment and then blurted out, “It’s called the Mount of Jumpification.” (Actually- there is a name for it, Mount Precipice…)

Surely, all of us have our own internal Mount of Jumpification— when we have the choice to hear and internalize Jesus’ message in our lives, or not. Our passage today gives us a view from the top of Mt. Precipice for us to take a look.

Before Jesus’ healings, teachings and miracles, before Mary and Martha, the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son and Zacchaeus, before the rich man who was told to sell everything and give it to the poor and the poor widow who put in everything she had, before all of that, Jesus made his mark on those who knew him best. Jesus challenged them with the gift of love.

The gospel writer Luke tells this story differently than other gospel accounts, and for good reason. In both Matthew and Mark, Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth is met with frowns and displeasure, and he departs, in thse accounts, as a ‘prophet without honor.’ That’s pretty tame compared to what happens in Luke’s version where we hear: “Those who heard Jesus got up, drove him out of town and led him to the brow of the hill, so that they might hurl him off the cliff…”

Luke’s purpose in sharing his good news is different than Matthew and Mark’s. His audience is different, too. Luke’s purpose is to commend Jesus Christ to thoughtful, well-read Gentiles, those who were outside Jesus’ initial target group, thus extending God’s love wider than previously thought, and with ample justification. Luke offers confirmation of Jesus’ prophetic role and makes the simple point that the mark of a true prophet is to tell the truth, and be rejected. The truth is that God’s love knows no boundaries; how we accept and practice that is left up to us.

The two examples Jesus provides of challenging others with love are actually pretty interesting and more dramatic than they appear at first glance; Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, and Elisha and Naaman the Syrian (1 Kings 17:8-24, 2 Kings 5: 1-19). In both of these cases, a prophet came to the aid of a foreigner, an unclean gentile.

The widow of Zarepath lived on the Phoenician coast, meaning that she surely wasn’t a Jew. The prophet Elijah traveled there to prove the power of the Lord over against Canaanite gods and when he was starving asked this woman for bread and water, and in return, in a roundabout way, the prophet then revived this widow’s son, who had suddenly died. For a prophet to venture out beyond home turf was not exactly unheard of, but it was against convention.

For a prophet to turn to someone of limited means as this widow was both humbling and powerful, for both parties involved.

Elijah learned that he could depend on the kindness of another, even a foreigner, and the widow learned of the power and love of the Lord.

The case of Naaman, on the other hand, was vastly different. He was a powerful man, the commander of Syria’s army, but suffered from leprosy. Naaman was by no means poor, he was surely a man of means, but as a leper was an outcast, and his nationality was a second strike against him. Yet the prophet Elisha was ready to heal him, by having him wash in the Jordan River seven times, which at first appeared to be beneath Naaman’s personal dignity. When Naaman was finally healed by the power of God, he did all he could to return thanks to the Lord.

Both these cases were well known to Jesus’ audience, sending a message the folks in Nazareth were not ready to hear, especially from their homegrown son.

In today’s parlance, these miracle stories would be pared down to short, pithy, politically loaded slogans; Widow’s Lives Matter, Leper’s Lives Matter, Syrian Lives Matter. And when we hear them that way, they just might begin to evoke in us the same kind of response that took place in Nazareth long ago.

Jesus was obviously unafraid of making a connection that would rile folks. He said what needed saying. Luke’s message to his audience is that if Jesus’ hometown wasn’t able to accept this message; then, can we?

Jesus was then able to pass through the hostile crowds untouched, ready to preach another day; maybe even to saunter over our way with that same message of unbounded love.

This story is given to us this time of year for a reason. Maybe it goes something like this: after Jesus’ humble birth, after his Baptism, after our focusing on this one person, Emmanuel, God with us, that same God in the flesh named Jesus has us turn outward to share the same love God gave to the world in him.

It’s not easy being the church. It’s easier in theory than it is in practice because the church is not a place unaffected by the values of the world, the rivalries, jealousies, feuds, disagreements, dissention, and sides drawn in contentious matters from A to Z.

The Apostle Paul spent most of his public ministry dealing with one problem or another in the fledgling congregations he founded in the Mediterranean basin. The letters to the Galatians, Corinthians and Romans were all were addressed to troubles in the church, and without them we would not have some of the best theology in the Christian faith. So maybe it’s built into our nature that being church is not an easy proposition.

The centerpiece of Paul’s message to the Corinthians echoes Jesus’ message in Luke. It is the power of the gift of love. We would do well to be more regularly challenged by God’s gift of love.

I spent the week before last in Florida, with my annual Homiletical Feast group, sharing stories, comparing notes- getting some sun (sorry!)  One of our group, the Rev. Debbie McKinley- who was with us here for a Stewardship event a number of years ago, told a story that I have to share with you. Early last Fall she was with a study group in Israel, called Parent’s Circle, a grassroots organization for Palestinians and Israelis who have lost loved ones to the ongoing conflict there. The co-leaders of the event were two fathers, a Palestinian and an Israeli, who had both lost daughters in the conflict.

They had a very open and honest discussion about the conflict and about life before and after the Separation Wall. “No wall, no matter how high, can stop two kinds of people, one a determined suicide bomber and one a determined peacemaker,” said one of the fathers.

They each went through their own moments of wondering how life could possibly carry on given the death of their children due to such senseless, mindless fighting. They could have chosen revenge to ease their pain, but each independently instead realized that the only way forward was to talk to each other.

And in each other they found the way to carry on because, in their words, “our blood is the same color, our tears are just as bitter.” They found a way to carry on that chose peace instead of revenge, conversation instead of fear, life instead of death because “it is not our destiny to kill each other in this Holy Land.” At stake for both fathers was peace. Simple as that. This is the gospel. This is love.

When Debbie’s group gathered together after this meeting on their trip, their primary question became, “where did you see God today?”

It’s not so easy being church. The tug of centering our attention on ourselves is strong, on who we are and how we are doing. But God in Christ asks us to look outward, to others – and into the world, where God is always acting, in ways different from what we might expect.

God is present here, for sure. And God’s love and truth is also just as present on the Mt. Precipice of your lives, as well, when you make the decision to follow Jesus in your lives; at that specific moment when your conscience is poked – and you decide to act in love. When that takes place, you will know that Jesus is with you: because God is love. Amen