Sermon: Tough Call

February 3, 2019
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Luke 4:21-30

If you felt a little confused by this morning’s Gospel reading, you’ve got good reason to be. We started in the middle of the story, and that’s always an awkward place to start.

To begin with the beginning then: this is the first story Luke told about Jesus’ ministry after his baptism and temptation. He returned to Galilee, preached in the synagogues, and was “praised by everyone.”

Including, at least at first, his former neighbors in Nazareth, his home town. He came to worship, he read about God’s deliverance of the poor, the captives, the disabled, and the oppressed, from the book of Isaiah. He then delivered a sermon as short and to the point as any ever preached:

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

On Super Bowl Sunday, I’m sure we’re all hoping for a sermon that short.

Just as if it had been Super Bowl Sunday, the people approved. “All spoke well of him, and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” There may have been a little dismissiveness in the question, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”, or they might have been sighing with approval at the way this home-town boy had done so well. Luke didn’t really give us much indication what they meant.

But then Jesus changed the tone. He started throwing out the thing people say in order to dismiss things they’ve heard. “Physician, cure thyself,” is the rendition I remember from the King James translation. Jesus said that, not the people of Nazareth: he said they were thinking it. Oh, and while he was at it: he told them to ask why he wasn’t doing the things he did in Capernaum, and he quoted the old saw about a prophet finding no respect in his home town.

Then he went completely off the rails. He went back to stories of the prophets, and chose two that showed God’s healing and grace being shared with foreigners, not with the people of Israel. The message was clear.

As Nancy Rockwell writes, “He underlines the text and narrows its meaning. He announces the vision is fulfilled, today, in their sight. And he announces these good things are not for them.”

That’s what got them angry enough to try to kill him.

If I were Jesus, I’d have been tempted to let the sermon end where they approved of it, before he challenged the dismissive words they’d left unspoken. I like to hear, “Good sermon, Pastor,” on a Sunday morning.

Let’s see: “Good sermon, Pastor,” as one option, and “Let’s throw him off the pali,” as another.

Tough call.

Jesus made the tough call, over and over again. That’s one of the messages of this text, for the preacher and for every disciple. We’re summoned to comfort the afflicted, but we’re also summoned to recognize who is afflicted and who is not. During Bible study on the first section of this passage, one in the group observed that there isn’t a lot of love in this passage if you don’t consider yourself to be among the oppressed.

I keep reminding myself that although pretty near the middle of income for Americans, I’m in the top 5% in the world. I’m not oppressed. I don’t need to be set free.

Perhaps I should be helping to set people free.

Tough call.

Jesus chose to emphasize God’s compassion for the foreigners, those who might have been despised but were also feared by the residents of Nazareth. We live in a nation whose leadership has acted to increase fear of the other. The rhetoric about those seeking entry to the nation has ranged from broad-brush descriptions of criminality to outright racial prejudice. The policies have followed: reduced acceptance of refugees, full-on criminal proceedings for misdemeanors, separation of families with no plan for reunion, and thousands held in unacceptable conditions.

It was written in the Geneva Bible notes of the sixteenth century: “Familiarity causes Christ to be condemned and therefore he goes to strangers.” If we were to look for Christ today, we would find him, no doubt, among those seeking asylum at the US southern border, desperately seeking reunion with his children.

Interfaith Communities in Action met recently to consider its priorities for the next two or three years. One of the proposed goals was to end racism, and I overheard someone say, “We’ll have to go to the mainland to do that.”

In one sense, of course, that’s true, because racism won’t end until it’s ended everywhere. I heard there an assumption, however, that racism has ended here in Hawai’i, and the sad truth is that it hasn’t. Out-and-out statements of prejudice are more rare here than other places, but in 1984, when the future Governor of Virginia should have known better than to daub his face with shoe polish, schools in Hawai’i had only resumed Hawaiian language instruction six years before.

Unemployment rates differ markedly by ethnicity, according to a 2018 report from the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. Those with Caucasian, Filipino, Vietnamese, or Chinese ancestry hovered closed to the state rate of 6.1%. Those of Japanese or Okinawan heritage did two points better or more, while Native Hawaiians, African Americans, Samoans, Chamorro, and Tongans were at least three points higher. Struggling the hardest: those from the Marshall Islands, with an unemployment rate of 16.9%.

If we’re looking for the people Jesus said he came for, they’re right here.

The writer and priest Henry Nouwen wrote, “Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him are the same thing… The mystery is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.”

I’m not sure how we’re going to do that, you and I. We can keep writing to our elected representatives about the way we treat our neighbors. We can advocate for better supports for Micronesians living here. We can strengthen our own support for the congregations who worship here.

I’m pretty sure it won’t be easy. But ministry is work. I wish it were easy, and obvious, and inexpensive. It’s not. It takes time, and effort, and understanding, and forgiveness, and money, and work. Sometimes it’s even risky.

But it’s faithful. As the anchorite Julian of Norwich wrote in the 14th century, “If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love.”

If we follow Jesus we risk being escorted to the edge of the pali. And of being kept in that same precious love.

You know, I hope it’s not that tough of a call.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

Tough Call

The variation from the prepared text above could be the result of inspiration. Let’s pray for that.

The photo was credited to Underwood and Underwood in the book On Nazareth Hill by Albert Edward Bailey, Pilgrim Press, 1915.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on February 3, 2019

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