The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Luke 4:21-32

I suppose a hometown can be any size, but whenever I think of “hometowns” I always think small, maybe because my own hometown is just over 300 people. But New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Moscow – those are all somebody’s hometown. Still, the picture just isn’t quite the same, is it? At least, it isn’t for me.

But today, in our gospel reading, the picture is familiar, if for no other reason than we were just here last week. George in his sermon last week reminded us to “stay tuned” for “part two.” And today, we hear the second half of the story of Jesus’ return to his hometown. The lectionary planners, too, wanted us to be sure we were hearing a continuation of the same story, so much so that they actually overlapped the readings. Last week’s gospel ended with the same verse that begins today’s gospel: “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

I know something of what it’s like to go home to a town like Nazareth, to be back in a congregation where you grew up, at least spiritually.

It’s a strange thing, really. Only the children seem to have gotten older. The adults pretty much stay the same. Some of the faces change, you miss some of the folks you knew: some have died, some have moved away; some new folks have come in. But, for the most part, everything is still the way you remembered it—the way you left it.

There’s something very comfortable about going home to such a town and such a congregation. You can feel assured that some things never change. But you know you have, and that means you can also feel uncomfortable. No longer are you home in the same way as when you sat in those very pews (listening to somebody else preach).

When I was in seminary, once I started preaching (which doesn’t begin until your second year), every semester break I was invited back to my home parish to preach. I remember how frightened and anxious I was about that first time before the home folks (a nervous wreck, really) –so much so that the day before I left for home I went to my preaching professor and said, “I just don’t think I can do this.” And he said, (well, he said a lot of things, but all I need to share with you today is this): he said, “Steve, those people love you. And, because of that, as long as your words are faithful to God’s word, it doesn’t matter what you say, they’re going to think it’s the most wonderful sermon they’ve ever heard.” & I think they did, pretty much, because they were gracious people—happy for me and proud of their own.

Now, I don’t pretend to know how Jesus felt going back to Nazareth. But it seems clear that the people there were mighty proud of their hometown boy.
“So nice to have him back, isn’t.”
“Yes, and so good to know he hasn’t forgotten his religious training.”
“I taught him in Sabbath School, you know. He was at synagogue with his parents every week.”
They were proud of Jesus. And they were proud of their hometown.

Religion can be like a hometown: familiar, traditional, unchanging, a constant in a chaotic, fast moving world. We want religion to stay the same, to look as it looked when we were children. We want to sing only those hymns we know, the tunes we’ve heard for years and years. We want to use the same fraction anthem and the same Sanctus and the same postcommunion prayer every week. We want to be able to follow the service without looking. We don’t want to change because we don’t like change–none of us. It makes us uncomfortable. We wrap our religion around us like a homemade quilt, assured that God is in heaven and all is right with the world.

It seemed right in Nazareth when they heard Jesus read. “[They] all spoke well of him and were amazed at the words that came from his mouth.” At least until he sat down and began to preach. Then something happened in Jesus’ hometown, something that moved those who knew him from delight to bitter anger. In just seven verses, the story changes dramatically, from “all spoke well of him” to “all in the synagogue were filled with rage.”

The picture changes from a sea of approving, smiling faces welcoming home the favorite son to an angry, riotous mob ready to throw Jesus off a cliff. –What has happened?

It’s more than disappointment over not seeing a miracle. Oh, that might’ve started it. Jesus told them he knew what they were thinking, and few of us like to be second- guessed. Then he told them that prophets aren’t accepted in their own country. Prophet?! Who did think he was, to put himself in a league with Moses and Isaiah, Elijah and Elisha? Who did he think he was talking to? Someone who didn’t know him? Who didn’t know where he came from? And then to refuse to do for the home crowd what he did at Capernaum? Well, who needs it? Who needs you, Jesus?

They might have simply gone home in a huff –if that had been the end of it. But then, Jesus started taking stories from scripture–stories they had heard all their lives–and twisting them around to make them look bad, –to make his own people look bad.

So, they didn’t get in a huff. They became filled with rage. & they didn’t head for home at all, but instead they ran Jesus out of town, and they tried to kill this stranger they thought they knew. In the blink of an eye, their “hosannas” of praise turned to shouts of “kill him,” though this time they didn’t succeed.

Why? What sensitive nerve had Jesus touched–what dark secret had he uncovered–what terrible, life-threatening thing had he done–to make them mad enough & frightened enough to want to kill in response?

Jesus had stripped away their quilt. That ancient quilt, warm and familiar, that had assured them of God’s favor. “There were many widows in Israel,” Jesus said, but Elijah the prophet was sent to the widow in the land of Sidon. “There were many lepers in Israel,” Jesus continued, but Elisha cleansed only Naaman the Syrian.

They knew the stories; they had taught them to Jesus. They had read them and heard them being read time and time again. And now here was Jesus saying that perhaps they had never really heard them at all, –any more than they had heard the prophet Isaiah: good news for the poor and liberty for the oppressed.

For such prophecy to come true, things would have to change. The boundaries around the chosen people would have to be broken down. The hometown would have to extend hospitality to strangers, to tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners–even Gentiles. And we can add our own group to that list, whatever group we have decided belongs outside the circle of God’s chosen–outside of God’s grace. Who would that be? Homosexuals, non-Christians, religious conservatives, religious liberals?

“Today this word is fulfilled in your hearing,” says Jesus. The people didn’t get it at first, but it was becoming clear. Jesus wouldn’t let them stay the same. He wouldn’t allow God’s inclusive mercy and love and grace to be so small as to be locked up and smothered by a group of exclusive people.

Elijah had gone to Sidon; Elisha had cleansed a Syrian; and Jesus had healed in Capernaum. No one was going to tell them that religion had to go that far–that they had to include those they didn’t like or agree with! There had to be some clear boundaries. There had to be outsiders! They’d all worked too hard at being God’s chosen to start letting people in on grace.

And it’s the same way with us today isn’t it? We can spot the outsiders in our hometown. We know who belongs and who doesn’t. Religion can make us that way; religion can be like that for us: familiar, comfortable, unchanging.

But Jesus won’t let us stay that way. Jesus comes into our streets, into our sanctuary, saying that the prophet’s words have been fulfilled. All sorts of people we would never invite to dinner are being welcomed to God’s table to break bread and drink wine. We can no longer hear the words “given for you” without also hearing the very same words said to someone we had all but condemned to hell.

This is not what we had in mind, Lord! This is not according to the rules we have made on your behalf! –& we can feel that old quilt slipping off our shoulders. Frantically, we grasp at the edges, desperate to know God loves us still in the midst of all these strangers.

He does, you know. It’s just that he loves them too, and he expects us to love them. –And if we will, and if we’ll stay at the table—and in the community–something strange will happen. We’ll feel the quilt begin to grow larger. Still around us, it is also around the one we named outcast, who doesn’t “cast out” anymore: The widow from Sidon, Naaman the Syrian, a child from Capernaum, and the person we thought didn’t belong.

It’s not quite the same hometown, but it’s a lot more like the kingdom of God.

May God’s grace abound. In us, and through us. And in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.