The Fear In Our Hometown
We have entered this gospel text in the middle of the story. It feels like walking in late for a movie--the reel has been running awhile and we must try to find our place, make sense of the scene. Jesus is speaking, "Today," he says, "this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." You may have seen this movie before so you know what scripture Jesus is talking about. or perhaps this is all new to you.
Jesus had just read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah "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." Then Jesus rolled up the scroll and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. All of this happened before we came in. If this were a movie, the camera would be panning around the room--focusing on faces, eyes wide, bodies bending forward. or perhaps the camera would focus on Jesus first from the right, then the left and finally straight on.
This is where we came in--as Jesus began to speak: Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." And all spoke well of him and were amazed at his gracious words. The voices in the room grow louder. People are talking in groups ... the camera moves in, allowing us to overhear. "Isn't this Joseph's son?" someone asks. The scene moves quickly. I don't know if any director could manage this scene. It goes too fast. We have no time to take it in.
Jesus speaks again. Already the mood has changed. Jesus sees their uneasiness and suspicion. "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.'" They hadn't mentioned Capernaum--Jesus seems to be reading their minds. "No prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown," he says. What does Jesus see in their eyes? Hear in their questions? He goes on to remind them of stories they must have heard since childhood.
Two of Israel's prophets, Elijah and Elisha, had healed and blessed outsiders--a widow from Sidon and a leper from Syria. (Even though there were surely widows and lepers in Israel at the time.) It's hard to follow what he's saying--especially if you don't know the stories. I do remember that second story from my childhood. In Egermeier's Bible Story Book there was a picture of the little Hebrew servant girl who brought her master Naaman to Elisha the prophet.
Naaman was a powerful Syrian soldier. He wanted to wash in a Syrian river to be made clean, But Elisha was stubborn and insisted that he come to the Jordan. I can still see the picture of the little girl standing beside the prophet and the soldier. The mighty soldier was dripping wet, and perhaps embarrassed, but the leprosy was gone. I thought it was a great story.
But there is no time to stay with those memories for long. The story in the synagogue has already moved on. We have gone only six verses since Jesus sat down. Only six verses since they spoke so well of him. Suddenly, "all in the synagogue were filled with rage." How could things get so bad in six verses? The camera moves over the faces which had spoken well of him, faces now red with rage.
They 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.
The story has gone too fast from affirmation to rage. What did Jesus say that was so bad? Had they forgotten? This is Joseph's son--They'd known him all his life. It's one thing to disagree, but this rage is out of proportion. They were leading Joseph's son to his death.
Jesus passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
What had happened in Jesus hometown? We go back to where we came in. "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." Was that it? Had that word sunk in? Was Joseph's son claiming to be the one anointed by the Spirit of God? Or was it the stories he told--the widow in Sidon, the leper in Syria--did he think they wouldn't get the point? Had God moved out of Nazareth--is that what Jesus was saying? It is not so odd to imagine that the people in Nazareth would take offense at him or be a bit miffed. But they were filled with rage. They wanted to kill him.
"Today this word has been fulfilled in your hearing." The camera fades out, then back. The scene has changed and so has the time. It is not a synagogue, but St. George's Church, Philadelphia in 1787. Two black ministers, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, are pulled from their knees as they pray in a church gallery reserved for whites. They were told there was a place for Blacks in the balcony but they refused to go. Instead, they passed through the midst of them and led their people out into the light of day. "They were no more plagued with us in that church," said Richard Allen. What do these people want? some members wondered. We ordained these men to attend to the needs of the Black people--how many other churches would have done that? But the two Black preachers believed the fullness of God's blessing had come upon them and their people--and they would acknowledge those blessings by praying on the main floor. If not in this church, then somewhere else. And the African Methodist Episcopal Church was born.
God seems intent on going to the widow in Sidon, healing the leper in Syria...God will reach out to bless even the outsiders within our hometowns. I remember my own hometown Gowie, Iowa and Zion Lutheran Church, my home church.
It's a silly story, really. Nothing so memorable as the preacher in Philadelphia. I guess it was memorable for a child. Every year our Sunday Scholl presented a Christmas pageant. And every year I was in the chorus. The angel chorus or the speech chorus or some other chorus. But Mary was played by a girl who hardly ever came to Sunday School. My mother tried to explain that it was the teacher's way of getting her involved or something. But it made no sense to me--I was the one who was always there.
A widow in Sidon. A leper in Syria. Two African American ministers in Philadelphia. The wrong girl chosen to be Mary in an Iowa town. And the people in Nazareth--people like me who are there week in, week out--are supposed to keep singing their hearts out in the chorus. The people in Jesus' hometown heard what Jesus was saying. God has blessed and healed outsiders before and God is doing it again. And they were filled with rage.
"Today," said Jesus, "this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." This word changes things. This word proclaims good news to the poor and release to the captives. African people were brought to this country against their will on slave ships named Jesus, Mary, Liberty, John the Baptist. When these slaves heard the Bible stories from their white masters they must have wondered about Isaiah's prophecy for they surely didn't hear much good news or experience much freedom. But one day that word came to Richard Allen and Absalom Jones with anointing power. "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing"--your hearing brothers. And they stood up and led their people across the Jordan river instead of up to the balcony. This word fulfilled changes things.
Those of us who are lifelong Christians would surely say that God's blessings are meant for everyone. I was taught that in Zion's Sunday School years ago. The white Christians in church that Sunday in Philadelphia no doubt said God's blessings were for everyone. The people in Jesus' hometown probably did, too. But when this happens on God's terms and not ours, we get a little miffed. Even outraged
It's hard to be from Nazareth these days. Hard to hear the stories about the widow in Sidon and the leper in Syria, and all those other outsiders God is calling and blessing. I guess some of us feel a bit like I did years ago when the wrong girl got to play Mary and I was an anonymous angel singing off-stage. Sometimes we joke about it and sometimes we don't. In the Lutheran Church we're not even sure what Jokes you can tell any more. We assume the Scandinavian jokes about Ole and Lena will probably have to go. Maybe the Swedish smorgasbords, too. I don't know how it is in your church if you are part of one, but there are lots of people in Nazareth who feel like they've been left behind, passed over. Everything that matters is happening in Capernaum. And everybody who matters lives somewhere else.
How will it be in Nazareth in this new year, 1995? In the Lutheran Church in the United States this year marks the 25th anniversary of the ordination of women. There are about 1700 ordained women in our denomination out of some 16,000 clergy. But it is not uncommon to hear that women are taking over the church. Perhaps it seems there are too many women on church boards or too many women preachers on the Protestant Hour! Sometimes I hear my brother say, I'll never be elected to anything again. I'm white and I'm a man and the seats are reserved for somebody else."
There is a lot of resentment in our hometowns, in our congregations, in the larger church. A lot of fear and rage in Nazareth. But Jesus won't take back what he said about the reading from Isaiah. "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." Some will argue that Isaiah's scripture was fulfilled in Jesus, but it has nothing to do with the two Black preachers in Philadelphia or with women being ordained. Then what does it mean when we pray for the Spirit's power? It happens again and again at every baptism in our church. The little words in italics say, "the minister lays both hands on the head of each of the baptized and prays for the Holy Spirit." And the words are not new...the words come from the Book of Isaiah. "Pour out your Holy Spirit upon the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence." Yes, these words are not the same words Jesus read from the scroll, but it is the same Spirit.
"Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." This word fulfilled changes things. In Nazareth and Capernaum, in Philadelphia and in my hometown, yours, too. The story could have been different in Jesus' hometown. The people could have believed God's word was being fulfilled that very day in their hearing. They could have believed this word was meant for them. But Jesus knew they were thinking about Capernaum just like I was thinking about that undeserving girl who played Mary and the white folks in Philadelphia couldn't understand why those Black preachers had to pray in their space.
The story in Nazareth didn't have to end with rage. It could have ended with blessing. "Today this word is fulfilled in your hearing." It's the same in your hometown and mine. The promises of God are big enough for you and me and the people of Capernaum.
Let us pray together in this new year
Come, Holy Spirit, help us find new endings to the stories of fear. Come, Holy Spirit, quiet the rage in our hearts. Come, Holy Spirit, help us believe that God's blessings are also for us. Amen.
Barbara K. Lundblad