A Sermon Yet to be Finished
Text: Luke 4:14-30
After a long, harsh, not-so-silent retreat in the wilderness with the devil constantly carping in his ear, Jesus returns to Galilee. About his return, Luke says, “He [Jesus] began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.”
Now that is a phrase that warms every preacher’s heart – “praised by everyone.” The crowd adores Jesus, after all, he is a local lad made good, a fine, strapping young man who can make the boring Bible come to life, a religious leader who everyone sees as one day holding forth for even larger crowds in the Jerusalem Temple.
I wonder how Jesus managed all the praise. After all, praise can be something like vocal steroids, inflating the head until it gets bigger than a party balloon. Praise feels like a thick slab of concrete under your feet, but as Jesus learns quickly, praise is often fickle, never constant, and has more the consistency of confetti.
Luke says, “When he [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom.” I wonder what it felt like for Jesus to be back home, to return a worship space he knew by heart, surrounded by familiar, glad faces.
A few years back, I was invited to preach on an anniversary Sunday in the church where I was ordained as a pastor. As I walked into the sanctuary of the Bethany Presbyterian Church, I looked out over the congregation. I saw some new, unfamiliar faces, but most the faces were a bit older but familiar and were sitting exactly where they sat forty years ago. I cannot speak for how Jesus felt back home in his familiar worship setting, but on that special Sunday in Wilmington, N.C., I felt like I had never left.
On that Nazareth morning, Jesus walks to the pulpit to deliver the daily Scripture reading, one from the prophet Isaiah. It reads: “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.”
No doubt for many in attendance this reading was as familiar as when the Psalmist says, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want” or when the Cove congregation prays each Sunday, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” After Jesus finishes reading Isaiah’s powerful passage about the one who will bring good news to the poor, release captives, return sight to the blind, free the oppressed, and declare God’s favor, he says, “By the way, today Isaiah’s ancient words have taken flesh, the fulfiller of that prophesy is the one who just read it to you.”
I imagine the crowd was stunned and somewhat tolerant with Jesus at first. After all, he was young and a hometown boy who was obviously a bit cocky. It was not long, though, I suspect, before the once praising crowd tried to put Jesus in his place, at least the place they thought he should occupy. Some of the comments surely went something like this:
Now we all know that this boy has lots of gifts, but all this attention has gone to his head.
Well, I never. Who does he think he is? He’s Joe’s boy, isn’t he?!
Jesus listens the chatter of the crowd and watches their body language. He knows what his parents have taught him about minding his mouth and honoring his elders, but he also knows that what has come out of his mouth in the synagogue is for the good of all who will listen and that he is called to honor more than just Mary and Joseph.
Despite the growing stirring and uneasiness in the crowd, Jesus continues the sermon. He says: “No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s own hometown.” These words do not help his cause. They do not endear him to an already unsettled crowd. “Jesus may be a fine homegrown boy,” some think, “maybe even a good carpenter, a faithful son, a familiar face, but he is no prophet of God.”
The sermon only gets worse when Jesus tells two Sunday School stories about the Jewish prophets, Elijah and his successor, Elisha. Both stories tell of times when God’s grace tears down fixed fences separating the beloved from the damned, Jew from Gentile.
The first story features the unwashed and unwelcomed, a starving Gentile widow from the town of Zarephath. The second story features a diseased Gentile military commander of the Syrian army, Naaman. In both stories, God works to bring healing and hope to hated Gentiles. In neither story does God reinforce the ethnic fences that Israel has constructed to keep themselves separate from Gentiles. Instead, in each story God invites them to tear down those fences.
Sadly, the crowd did not respond kindly to the two sermon illustrations by Jesus and most crowds in synagogues and churches have not responded kindly since. I grew up in a church that for centuries felt that it was their job to fence off the grace of God for only God’s worthy people. When I was a boy, the communion table had an invisible FOR ADULTS ONLY sign hanging from it, under the feeble theological premise that the table of God’s grace is reserved only for those old enough to understand what is happening in this sacrament, as if children of God at any age ever fully do.
Along with an invisible fence keeping children away, the communion table was also fenced off from women who felt called to stand and celebrate the sacrament at the table, for women had no place in worship leadership. Another invisible, but no less insidious fence of my childhood was fiercely held in place to keep people of color sitting at their own tables and people with other than straight sexual orientations absolutely silent.
In his first sermon in Galilee, Jesus tells stories about God’s grace that defies anyone to try to fence it off, defies any church to hang an “Us Only” sign on the Feast of Welcome. Instead, his sermon invites us to rip up fences and use the wood to build more leaves for the table, to extend the table beyond sight with more than enough room at it for everyone to find a seat. The invisible words that hang on this table made out of old rotten fences are: “When you have more than you need, build a bigger table –not a higher fence.”
I love that image for our work as the church, an image that Jesus elicits in his first sermon in Galilee. I love that image until I start thinking about who might sit next to me at this massive table, who might ask me to pass me the potatoes and to share the bread. What if it is that relative who turns me seven shades of crazy or that neighbor who I wish would go on a cruise for the next forty years? What if it is that person who hates gays, insists that Jesus spoke English, and thinks that the 2ndAmendment is actually the 11th Commandment from God?
If you and I keep tearing down fences and adding leaves to the ever-expanding table of God, who knows who might sit down beside us next. One person who always will be at this table is the host of the Welcome Feast, the risen Jesus, who never lets us hunger and who insists that every time we leave the table we go out to feed those who do.
Every time we get up from the table, stuffed and ready for a nap, the host of the table says, “This is no time for naps. It is time to wake up. Get up. Get out. It is time to stop patronizing the poor, but sitting them down to eat with us, bringing them good news when they are well near certain that good news is only for those with full bellies. It is time to stop explaining to those who are captive why they must stay bound for their own good. It is time to work for justice not as long as we have the energy but until the innocent are set free. It is time to stop putting Band-aids on the wounds of those who are broken. Bob Brearly, an old Seminary friend, asks, “What would change in our lives and in our churches if we stood in the pews on Sunday morning and declared to God and to one another, ‘God gives us no other day than today to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and new beginnings to all who have failed’?” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 1, p. 288).
That is the sermon Jesus started to preach in Galilee centuries ago. It did not get a rousing ovation. In fact, it got a hateful and hurtful response. And yet, given the chance, Jesus would preach the same sermon again. He does not have that chance, but we do. We have the chance not only to preach his sermon but to finish it with our words and our lives. Our God and the host of the Welcome Feast is waiting for us to do just that.
So, go preach, sisters and brothers, go preach!