Of Good News Being Announced, Holy Anger Being Expressed, Hard Truth Being Told, Boundary Lines Being Erased, and the Deep Love Coursing Through It All
Dear OMG blog readers,
Below is both the text and the audio of the sermon I preached at my home congregation last Sunday: you can hear the sermon (with the gospel reading first) via the audio link here.
In it, I fussed a bit with how dangerous it is to speak unwelcome truth, how anger can be holy and righteous, how walls are neither holy nor righteous, how love may mean being angry and leaving someone behind, and how although we might want to think twice about inviting Jesus to our dinner parties, he invites us to his, every Sunday, even though he’s probably angry with us, in spite of and because of his deep love for us, for all of us.
One-stop shopping for a mess of matters of faith, really.
The texts for the day included Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, I Corinthians 13:1-13, and Luke 4:21-30, found below.
(A huge thank you to Doug Maguire, the Computer Man of Duluth, not only for managing the video streaming of the services at Gloria Dei Lutheran, but for spending his precious time excerpting the text and sermon above! Grateful!)
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘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 favour.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then [Jesus] began to say to [all in the synagogue in Nazareth,] “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23He 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.’ ” 24And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25But 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; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They 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. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
Grace to you and peace from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
So the last Sunday that I stood in this pulpit, it was because Pr. Carlson had a wedding commitment that, happily for him, fell on Trinity Sunday, because no pastor wants to preach on Trinity Sunday, because nobody really gets the Trinity anyway.
This Sunday he’s gone again, and I stand in this pulpit again, and this time the texts largely have to do with people being called by God to preach dicey words, and for their faithful troubles right after that having to hide in rocks or almost ending up themselves being chucked off of them and in related news my van is already running and ready to go.
I’m detecting a trend, here, sisters and brothers of Gloria Dei.
Unless a person has some large vats and water at the ready for a quick H2O-to-super-good-wine number, I’m not so sure that it’s the best idea ever, depending on the vibe you’re looking for, to invite Jesus to your dinner party.
Pictures of Jesus laughing broadly, hymns about him ever so meek and mild, these probably true and notwithstanding in their own right and way, but let’s be clear: the guy could also be a real kill-joy.
We tend to want to romanticize him, spiritualize him, domesticate him, but in point of fact, Jesus was often untamed, unpredictable, and, occasionally uncouth.
Take our text from today. You’ll notice that I read the verses before those ‘officially’ included in the readings for this morning; I did, because without knowing the lay-up, it’s impossible to understand what got everybody all riled up.
So Jesus shows up in his hometown, Nazareth.
This is, by the way, the same Nazareth about which we hear in the gospel of John, when Philip announced to Nathanael that they had discovered the Messiah who had been long expected, and Nathanael said, fairly untactfully, gotta say, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
It’s not that Nazareth was necessarily a bad town, one that might call up Mos Eisely-like images, the “”wretched hive of scum and villainy” where Obi Wan, Luke, Han Solo and Chewbacca met up for the first time.
Nazareth was just…tiny. Humble. Were it to be around today, you might just see right on its outskirts proud signs the likes of which you see in communities where famous politicians, sports people, or actors grew up: “Nazareth: Proud Home of Jesus the Christ!”
So here’s Jesus, just having been baptized, just having been badgered by Satan in the desert, and just having inaugurated his public ministry in Galilee, and now he makes a stop in his hometown Nazareth.
And because rabbis are going to rabbi, he went to the synagogue, as, we hear was his custom, and he reads these words from Isaiah, words that at the same time anchor Jesus both to the communally shared past and the communally shared present moment:
‘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.’
And we get a sense, not from anything explicit in the text, but rather because of the hinted mood created by Luke’s retelling, that Jesus read this Scripture, silence all around as people listened to his voice, and he sat down, the silence still echoing in the room, people leaning in to hear what teaching would come next, and then came this: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
In short, implies Jesus, I’m the guy. I’m the One who is ushering all that this text promises. The one you knew as a child who slipped from his parents for a few days in Jerusalem at Passover, the one you knew who pounded nails for your steps and your fences, that one now is God’s anointed one.
So imagine the thrill of those gathered: amazed not only because they could say, “I knew him when,” but also because they began to collectively wonder whether the One for whom generations had waited was right, right there.
So, because elders gonna elder, Luke tells us, “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?’”
You can almost hear the proud clucking. “He did so well! A remarkable young man! Why, I recall when he was just knee-high to a locust.”
Now, it’s not quite clear why the “Is not this Joseph’s son” question is asked.
Lots of theories here: maybe it falls under the clucking-rubric, a proud repetition of what everyone knew, as in “Is not this Joseph’s son;” maybe it was because some people felt that Jesus was getting a little too proud himself, and they wanted to bring him down a few notches, as in, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” or maybe Luke mentions it ironically: technically he wasn’t, actually, Joseph’s son, which is precisely the point of what Jesus was trying to say.
Still, you get this important sense: Jesus came back to his home town and home worshipping community, he preached, and people were proud and glad.
So what does Jesus do?
Say, “Aw shucks, thanks?” Say, “I couldn’t have done it with out Mom and Dad” and so forth?
Instead, he picks a fight.
He up and picks a fight, yes he does, right there for God and all to see.
Out of nowhere and straight away, he hauls off and sneers: “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.”
Look at the text! It’s right there and sheesh.
Where did that come from? On what wrong side of how many beds did he get up on?
Here these people were doing nothing other than go to synagogue, be pleased to have the hometown boy make good in their presence, praise him…and what do they get in return? Slams, smears, and huffy insults.
Except he wasn’t being merely cross, terse, and bad-tempered.
Rather, it seems like it wasn’t just the locals who knew Jesus well.
Instead, it seems as if Jesus knew the locals well right on back.
And it seems as if he could sense that they were expecting a little extra something from him, a holy bonus, if you will.
Because he came from them, because he was one of them, they should probably get some special attention from the hometown boy, right?
Wrong, said Jesus.
Dipping into more scripture—scripture with which they were all familiar, which they all knew—Jesus reminds them of two times when a prophet decidedly did not give preferential treatment to the locals, but instead, decidedly offered it to the outcasts, to the foreigners, to the “they’re not from around here’s” instead.
The ones who consistently get special treatment from God are, as Fr. Robert Farrar Capon said, the last, least, lost, little, and dead.
So….upshot; neither Isaiah nor Jesus went down so great that day.
What we’d like to have happen next, I think, is that people go, “OHHhhhhhh. We get it. Sorry! Tell us more!” And then Jesus sticks around, has conversation that further illuminates their minds and their hearts, and a few loaves and fishes turn into bushelfuls to show it’s all good and all wine under the bridge.
Instead, the people become enraged.
That is a powerful word: Luke says that “they were filled with rage,” and decide that the best course of action is to hurl him from the cliffs to off him.
This, by the way, is the same him whom they were lauding a moment before, when they thought he was who they thought he was, instead of who he is, namely a truth-teller who ticks people off when the truth cuts close.
Recognizing that not only is he not welcome anymore in his hometown (pretty much proving his words right about prophets as he spoke them), he also realized that no good was going to come from either preaching the truth or seeking reconciliation.
Instead, he leaves them to speak elsewhere truth, to change hearts and minds, of those who instead might have the ears to hear and the hearts to change.
He…up and left. Not once, not once do you 1 Cor 13-esque patience or kindness, but instead you see even Jesus naming some truths, riling people up, evaluating the situation, and throwing up his hands and leaving.
Some people can’t cope with truth. They flare, they attack, and there is nothing doing to change their minds, at least in the moment. The best and only thing to do is to leave.
Several additional things to note:
The words that the people from Nazareth initially liked were these: the poor would be encouraged, the captives would be released, the blind would see, the oppressed would be free.
Theoretically, we’re down with that, they said.
Sometime when there is pie in the sky pie and by, we are so in.
But it was the implication of these words that they didn’t like: that actually means that you have to change your economies, your systems, your assumptions, your ways of being, your hearts…now. “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled.”
Truthfully, this good news might not feel so good for those who have it good now.
But for those who do not, this news is good, today.
For everyone, though, it is ultimately good news, that fairness, equity, and justice are restored for all.
Directly related here is another thing these folks didn’t like to hear so very much: God apparently has no time for boundaries, for barriers, for human-constructed walls of any sort that seek to portion off God’s welcome and well-being.
Nobody is privvied in God’s reign, except the last, lost, least, little, broken, and dead, no matter their nationality, skin color, desperation, gender or gender identification, sexuality, and wealth bracket.
If you build a wall, if you say that these people are in and these people are out, turns out that God is actually with those on the other side of your arbitrary, heinous boundary, Jesus said.
These folks didn’t like that, so very much.
It made them mad, which is precisely what seems to wash over this entire text: anger.
It’s a five-letter word that in Christians circles could just as well be a four-letter word but here it is all front-and-center-y: Jesus and the people of Nazareth are flared-nose angry.
Jesus is angry because the people do not understand his words, don’t want to, and actively refuse to.
The people are angry because, in fact, they actually do understand his words, annnnnd don’t want to, and actively refuse to.
We Christians? We don’t really know what to do with anger.
Nobody likes it, of course, anger: being angry or being the recipient of it.
We’d much rather be all about 1 Corinthians 13, right? Love, patience, kindness, and the like.
Goes far better with water and wine.
But the hard truth, though, is that sometimes anger is not just necessary; it is the only thing called for in a situation.
It’s righteous. It’s holy. It’s aligned with God.
Truth is, I can’t decide whether the committee that opted to lump this text from Luke with this text from 1 Cor. was malevolent or inspired.
We love love, and love talking about love more than talking about anger, and we sure as heck like being loving more than being angry, but here’s the thing: Jesus was angry with the people of Nazareth because he loved them and because he loved those who were being excluded by them.
If he hadn’t loved them, he wouldn’t have cared a whit!
But he did!
He loved them so much that he was not just snarky, but ticked, and cared enough to name an unwelcome truth!
Anger can, you see, in fact, be an expression of love.
I’m not talking, of course, about abusive anger, or petulant anger, or petty passive-aggressive-unwilling-to-hear-truth anger.
I’m talking about anger that is aligned to a holy intention, anger that is aligned to righteousness, anger that reacts to a threat to God’s way in the world, which is whenever life is threatened by death, hope by despair, truth by lie, welcome by isolation, freedom by captivity, love by hate.
Kindness, patience, and gentleness at the expense of expressing righteous indignation is kindness, patience, and gentleness extended only to those doing the oppressing.
Too, in abusive relationships—personal, professional, or communal—kindness, patience, and all-too-quick forgiveness enables the harm to continue.
The harm gets a pass, and, as a result, the harmed can’t pass through it.
Yesterday I reposted a blog I wrote a couple of years ago about the Danish playwright, pastor, and martyr Kaj Munk: it’s a deeply personal blog, as Munk was a friend of my father’s uncle, assassinated in the deep of the night by the Gestapo for his words against the Nazi regime and agenda.
Munk’s words caught my attention again as I prepared this sermon, because he reflected on the words from this beloved text of 1 Cor 13.
He said this:
“What is, therefore, our task today? Shall I answer: ‘Faith, hope, and love?’ That sounds beautiful. But I would say–courage. No, even that is not challenging enough to be the whole truth. Our task today is recklessness. For what we Christians lack is not psychology or literature…we lack a holy rage–the recklessness which comes from the knowledge of God and humanity. The ability to rage when justice lies prostrate on the streets, and when the lie rages across the face of the earth…a holy anger about the things that are wrong in the world. To rage against the ravaging of God’s earth, and the destruction of God’s world. To rage when little children must die of hunger, when the tables of the rich are sagging with food. To rage at the senseless killing of so many, and against the madness of militaries. To rage at the lie that calls the threat of death and the strategy of destruction peace. To rage against complacency. To restlessly seek that recklessness that will challenge and seek to change human history until it conforms to the norms of the Kingdom of God. And remember the signs of the Christian Church have been the Lion, the Lamb, the Dove, and the Fish…but never the chameleon.”
A holy rage, I think Munk was saying, in part, comes precisely out of faith, and hope, and love.
Mulling this text then, I mused this:
The recklessness of which Munk spoke is not recklessness that is self-serving, that is hateful or spiteful or violent or mean-spirited.
It is recklessness that speaks the Word, hears the Word, and then acts on the Word, regardless of the cost.
It is recklessness that refuses to be tamped down by fears, by avoidance of conflict, by ducking the facts of injustice and suffering, by questions about timing or process or appropriateness.
It is a holy rage, a righteously indignant fury that we would feel if our own children were hungering, if our own children were taken from us at the border, if our own water were polluted, if our own children were shot for the color of their skin, if our own religious group were profiled, if our own parents were sleeping in boxes, if our own families were denied health insurance, if our own loved ones were rejected, scorned, maligned, threatened, killed.
The holy rage manifests itself in Word and Action that names wrongs, that speaks truth, that protests, that changes, that repudiates, that calls out injustice, that works to change oppressive systems, that stands up to manifest death and fear and embraces manifest faith, hope, love, and life.
What we see, here, in the text from Luke is the conflict between self-serving anger and anger that is generated because we are called to serve another, even at the expense of ourselves.
The other night, I was invited to a couple’s home where most every Friday night a group of them get together: this small clan has been gathering for thirty-some years.
I don’t get out much, and so it was a kick to be invited, but, as I said to the hosts later, the three most elemental things about me are exactly the three elemental things that nobody is supposed to talk about at a dinner party: religion, politics, and family trauma!
Add a knack for righteous indignation, and it’s no wonder I don’t get asked often to dinner parties!
At least I brought the fixings for a Manhattan; no substitute surely for the sort of wine that Jesus could call up, but still.
I’m no Jesus, but for the same reasons he too might not be the sort one wants to invite to pull up the chair: religion, politics, family trauma, and a habit of some really, really righteous indignation.
But at one level, that’s ok.
It’s ok, because Jesus has invited us to his dinner party—even though we tick him off, and on a regular basis.
Nonetheless, he keeps sending out these invitations, and here we are, here we keep coming, yet again about to make our way to his table.
It’s a table where all are welcome; no really, all.
It’s a table where we are fed, not least of all so that we can leave the table to do the work of Jesus.
That work includes the very work that annoyed the folks from Nazareth so: bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, all of which make no mistake still tick people off mightily, especially those with the most to lose when these things come to pass.
See, we call Jesus the Christ because he didn’t stay dead.
We call ourselves Christ-ians because we believe that Jesus didn’t stay dead.
We act on behalf of Christ when we see death insisting on its way and we know that there is another way.
Sometimes, sometimes, sometimes it means that anger is called for: Not retributive anger, not mean-spirited anger, but holy and righteous anger that says I will not be afraid of death, I will announce life, and I will be its ambassador too….though I may or may not keep the van running while I’m doing the Lord’s work.
For in the name of this Lord we are called to love all people, which can mean getting angry with people, which, paradoxically, might exactly be the good news you need to speak and they need to hear, today.
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