Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Going Too Far

Rev. Kathy Donley

1/31/16

 

Scripture Lesson:  Luke 4: 14-30

 

I know several pastors who are especially grateful to the first congregations they served.  They are grateful because when they arrived, full of themselves and all the important ideas they had learned in seminary, those congregations let them spout off a bit, let them get a little full of themselves in the pulpit and gradually the pastors became better preachers.  They could still spout off when necessary, but they learned to say things in less in-your-face ways.  I am one of those pastors who is very grateful to my first congregation for what they endured from me and what they taught me.

 

And then I know others who are not so grateful.  These are the folks who aren’t pastors any more.  Their congregations were the kind that wanted to throw them off a cliff, and those fledging preachers were lucky to escape with their lives.

 

Jesus didn’t become a pastor or a rabbi in the contemporary sense.  But if he had, I wonder how he might have reflected on this first sermon ten or fifteen years down the line?  He seems to be confrontational, antagonistic even, in this hometown sermon.   Was that necessary?  If Jesus could do it over again, would he change his words?  Or not?

 

You heard the first part of this story last week.  You heard the part where Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah and then said “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” 

 

Right through that point, things were going well for the new-to-preaching Jesus.  It is hard for us to decipher what really happened so that the crowd went from adoring him to being offended by him. 

 

The Isaiah text was familiar.  It was a vision of hope nurtured by Israel for a long time.  But I wonder if, like some other ancient texts, it had lost some power.  I wonder if it had been so spiritualized that the people didn’t take it seriously any more. Perhaps it is like when people talk about peace on earth at Christmas or when we read the Sermon on the Mount.  Isaiah’s words are radical, but only if you think that captives are actually going to be released and debts forgiven and the poor will actually receive good news.   So maybe it happens that Jesus reads this text and the people hear it like lovely poetry and they say, “Oh, doesn’t he have a wonderful voice?”  “He did such a good job. He didn’t even seem nervous.”  “I remember when he was just a toddler. Look at him, all grown up now.”

 

That’s just speculation on my part.  We have no idea what really happened on this point.  Except that all of sudden, Jesus is not reading Scripture, but he is telling them how he thinks it is.  I love that T_____ was our worship leader this morning.  What if, after he read the scripture today, he had started to preach?  What if, he had tried to tell us, some things that we should know from the Bible?    Some of you remember when he was born.  Some of you have been his Sunday School teachers.   How would we have felt if he had the audacity to try to set us straight on something?

 

That is exactly what Jesus does.  He is not content just to read Isaiah’s lovely words.  He takes them seriously and he wants his home church to know it. 

 

The gist of Jesus’ message is this:  “Don't presume that God only loves and cares for you. Don't presume that because I am your hometown boy and I've got a reputation as a wonder-worker, that I will wok wonders for you. Don't presume that you deserve more healing, more food in time of famine, more of God's protection than anyone else because of your religion or national identity. You know, if you choose to remember the stories from history, that God cared for foreigners and enemy combatants, people not like you or your ancestors, people who didn't even worship YHWH.” 

 

Whew – that sounds like an earnest, passionate,  and naďve preacher, if I ever heard one. 

 

The scholars say that Jesus takes Isaiah’s message to mean that God will bless all the poor, liberate all the captives, release all those who are oppressed.  But it seems to me that Jesus goes farther than that.  He goes out of his way to talk about the widows in Israel to whom God did not send a prophet during the famine, when Elijah left the country to care for the Gentile widow at Zarephath.  He goes out of his way to mention all of the lepers who were not healed when Elisha healed Naaman the Syrian, the enemy commander. It would have been hard enough to hear that God cares for our enemies, but Jesus goes too far.  He says that God heals them, cares for them, instead of us.

 

I wonder if Jesus over-states his case, just a little bit?  Surely God cared about the people of Nazareth, right?  Because God does love human beings, even self-righteous ones. And these were church people. They should have got some credit for even being there to hear the sermon. 

 

So someday I want to ask Jesus about this.  I want to ask if he thinks he went too far in making his point.  I think his point was that “all means all”.  He came with a mission to share God’s love with everyone.  Maybe the surest way to communicate that everyone is now included, is to point out who was formerly excluded.  And that’s what he does. 

 

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”  These are beautiful important words.  To whom do they apply?  Well, at first, they only applied literally to men, to white men. But eventually, people pushed back.  Women pushed back.  People of color pushed back.  The words of the declaration were true and became even more true as those who had been excluded became included.

 

A more contemporary example is the slogan Black Lives Matter.  Some have resisted this idea, preferring the slogan “All lives matter.”  It is indeed true, that all lives matter.  All lives matter to God.  All lives should matter to those made in God’s image.  But “Black Lives Matter” makes it more true, by making it more particular.  At this time in America, when the lives of people with brown skin or black skin seem to count for less, then the slogan “Black Lives Matter” is a specific reminder that black lives are truly among the “All Lives” that matter.

 

So I wonder if Jesus was trying to make these words of Isaiah more particular, more specific. I wonder if he was trying to help people hear them as something more than poetry.  Except that he went too far.   A friend from one of my other churches would say that he left off preaching and went to meddling.

 

Jim Wallis of Sojourners has argued persuasively that racism is America’s original sin.[1]  I think he is right, but America is not alone.  I wonder if this is not one of the most fundamental flaws about being human.  We identify us and them at all kinds of levels.  We see this over and over again in history.  My kind is better.  My kind should get more.  My kind wins.  Our kind is our race, our nationality, our sexual orientation, our social class, the people who speak our language, our alumni group, our football team. . . the list goes on. 

 

In his first sermon, Jesus challenges that thinking.  He announces deliverance from us-and-them categories; liberation is for ALL and ALL really means ALL. 

 

Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says that we don’t like being told that our enemies are God’s friends.  She says “No matter how hard we try, we cannot seem to get God to respect our boundaries.  God keeps plowing right through them, inviting us to follow or get out of the way. The problem is not that we are loved any less.  The problem is that people we cannot stand are loved just as much as we

are . . . ”[2]

 

“People we cannot stand are loved just as much as we are.”  That is the heart of the gospel, the good news. 

 

Elaine Pagels studies the history of religion.  In her book Beyond Belief, she looks at how Christianity began. She maintains that Christians were doing something new in the world, something no one had ever seen. They were loving their neighbors, not just their kind, not just their own family, clan, or tribe. Not even just their fellow Christians, but others, strangers, outsiders, gentiles, pagans, Romans.  They did remarkable, unprecedented things, she says. They contributed money to a common fund to pick up orphans abandoned to die on the streets of Rome and in the garbage dumps. They took food to prisons and stayed behind when the plagues struck, at a time when other healers ran from plague victims.  They ministered to the sick and dying, who were not their kind,  because they understood on a very deep level this fundamental teaching of Jesus.[3]

 

That is the picture of the early church.  Contrast it with the church we know.  One of the burning questions among some Christians right now is whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God.  I can see how that is an important question, but I also see how it is being used to define my kind and their kind and to avoid the issue of how to love my neighbor who is Muslim.  Just a couple of weeks ago, it was the Rev. Franklin Graham who said that lesbian and gay young people are the enemy who should not be allowed into churches.[4]   Can we see how completely different that is from the message that Jesus preached in Nazareth? 

 

Jesus reminded them of stories they already knew.  Today we remember stories that Jesus taught, that we already know, about the ever widening circle of God’s grace. 

 

“No matter how hard we try, we cannot seem to get God to respect our boundaries. God keeps plowing right through them, inviting us to follow or get out of the way.”[5]

 

Thanks be to God.



[1] Jim Wallis, America’s Original Sin:  Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2016).

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor,  Home By Another Way, (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1999), p. 45

[3] Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief, (New York:  Random House, 2003), p. 9.

[4] http://www.lgbtqnation.com/2016/01/rev-franklin-graham-gay-christians-are-the-enemy/

[5] Barbara Brown Taylor,  Home By Another Way, (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1999), p. 45

 

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