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14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16 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, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 “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, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 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. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 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?” 23 He 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.’ ” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But 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; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 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. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
Well-know preacher and pastor, Will Willimon, received a panicky phone call one Sunday evening from a parishioner. The man said that his daughter Anne had just decided to drop out of pharmacy school. She had just come home for the weekend and, in fact, she had been to church just that morning. Everyone was shocked by her decision and so they were wondering if he, the pastor, would give her a call and “talk some sense into her.”
So he did. He called up Anne and reminded her about how hard she had worked to get to where she was and that she couldn’t just throw it all away.
“What inspired this decision anyways?” he asked. “Well, it was your sermon,” she said.
She talked about how she realized she was only in school to meet her own selfish needs and his sermon on God calling all of us to do something important in this life shook something loose in her. She remembered how much joy she had in teaching migrant workers how to read one summer through a church program. She felt close to God then, and now she is leaving school because she wants to spend her life helping migrant workers..
“Now look, Anne,” Willimon said, “It was just a sermon…”
It was just a sermon…
Will Willimon’s story raises a good question, I think – what do you expect from the sermons in this place?
Do you expect them to entertain you for a little while, make you laugh a time or two, perhaps give you an interesting fact about Scripture every now and then?
Do you expect them to actually do something in your life? To change the whole trajectory of your life? To challenge you in such away that it calls everything else into question?
Or maybe the better question is do your preachers actually expect the sermon to do something in your life?
Jesus was preaching in his home congregation in today’s gospel reading. The home-town boy has returned. And he has made a name for himself elsewhere, so you can imagine that there were a lot of people interested in coming to see him that morning. I’m sure the synagogue was packed full with everyone wanting a seat.
When it came time, Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah – a reading that they had no doubt heard before! “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, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And after Jesus sat back down, all eyes were upon him. If you’ve ever been the center of attention, whether you wanted to be or not, you know the feeling. Everyone watching your every move. And it seems that they were more interested in him than in the part of Scripture that he read.
Is this really Joseph’s boy? My, how he has grown! And what a public speaker, he didn’t seem nervous up there at all. And did you see his sandals with straps that go over the top and around the back. He’s so cool.
They had turned all of their focus onto the messenger instead of the message.
Perhaps no one focused too much on what Jesus was saying because… it was just a sermon. Not meant to actually do anything in their present life. It simply was a nice reminder to them of God’s far off promises that someday there will be economic equality for the poor. Someday there will be freedom to those held captive by where society has placed them. Someday there will be proper healthcare for the blind.
Jesus could feel that all eyes were upon him and not on the message, so he tries to deflect their gaze back to the Scripture – Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. As if to say, “Not someday – today! Today this Scripture is fulfilled. The time is now. Quit looking at me and look at the work of God that is in front of us. And if the time is now, if the kingdom of God is here, then it will demand something of us – not others. So let’s get to work.”
But they still couldn’t hear the message over the messenger.
Nice sermon, Jesus. Such gracious words. Thank you. By the way, I know your parents and just think the world of them. Would you like to come over for wine and hummus sometime?
They weren’t interested in what he had to say. It was just a sermon. They were more interested in possessing this famous preacher as one of their own and riding his cloak tails.
So then Jesus, unconcerned with his popularity or whether people liked him or not, ramps it up a bit. Just because he is from Nazareth does not mean that Nazareth gets first dibs on him and his ministry. They don’t get to possess him.
And so once again, he uses their very own Scriptures to teach them. He calls upon the stories of Elijah and Elisha, prophets who were sent by God to outsiders. To people who weren’t part of “the chosen ones.” He used their own sacred stories against them to proclaim that the gifts of God do not simply belong to them. But rather that the gifts of God go where God chooses – even to those seemingly worthless outsiders who are not like us.
If you have ever helped raise children, then you know how it is just the worst when they use your own words against you.
Mom, you said that it is not polite to use swear words and you just use a swear word, so could you please say your sorry.
Dad, you said that it is not okay to interrupt but you just interrupted, so could you please wait your turn.
To have your own words, your own stories used against you, can just be the worst. But also so very necessary. Divine, even.
I once heard the story about a congregation that was putting together what were called guiding principles. These were the principles that they as a congregation felt God was calling them to live by. One of the principles that they came up with is Everyone is welcome and invited. Everyone is welcome and invited. The congregation voted unanimously 70 – 0 to make this their guiding principle. They printed this guiding principle up in large letters and they hung it on the wall for all people to see.
A couple of months later, the church received a phone call. The local homeless shelter was going to be doing some remodeling, which meant for the time being there was no place people who were homeless to go for shelter. They were wondering if Bethel would become the temporary homeless shelter in town.
The council was divided. Some people thought it was a good idea. Others thought it would bring smells and wear and tear on the church that no one would want. Others thought it would be dangerous to house people who were homeless. Debate dragged on and on, until one of the council members looked up saw the guiding principle that was printed in large letters and framed on the wall. He said, “You know, it says right here that ‘Everyone is welcome and invited.’ It doesn’t say ‘except poor people.’” Their own words used against them. The room got quiet. A sense of embarrassment, I guess, that it was even up for debate.
Moments later, the council voted to house the homeless shelter.
It can hurt or even embarrass to have your own words used against you, but that is what Jesus does.
To remind them that the Spirit of the Lord is pointed towards the margins. The people on the outside looking in. To quote a friend, Mark Stenberg, Jesus reminds them that “Israel’s chosenness is good news for all people…There is not a fixed quantity, a limited stockpile of the steadfast love of (God). The choosing of one does not imply a rejection of the other. In fact, it is just the opposite…Israel’s chosen-ness is not for itself, but for others.” And not for tomorrow, but for today.
This hurt too much to hear, apparently, for Jesus’ hometown congregation. Immediately after the sermon, they dragged Jesus to the outside of town so that they might throw him off a cliff. But being sneaky like he is, somehow, someway, Jesus slipped through the hands of this lynch mob, and got away.
I’m convinced that Jesus cares less about whether you believe in him and more about if you believe in what he believes in. Jesus never says worship me, but he does say follow me. His congregation wanted to worship him – not actually follow him.
All of this leads me to wonder – if at the end of this sermon, you don’t want to drag me down to Bridge Square and hurl me over the Cannon River waterfall, then have I really preached what Jesus would’ve wanted us to hear?
You’ve heard of road rage, let’s consider pew rage for a moment. What would Jesus want spoken in this place that would cause all of us to rage against him?
I’m not even certain that I know what would do it. And that fact alone tells me that perhaps I’m not hearing Jesus clearly enough. Or I’m not seeing the places or ministries to which God is calling us.
I guess in the end, what I am left with is that God’s love and God’s grace is wider than we think. And if we aren’t uncomfortable with it, than it isn’t wide enough in our minds. May we constantly be reminded that the Word of God is comforting but it is not comfortable. And therefore this place, St. John’s is to be comforting, but not comfortable.
Church is not meant to be a place where we are comfortable. But rather this should be a place that will ask us to be uncomfortable at times. We will be asked to discuss hard topics. We will encounter the very real suffering of others, face-to-face. We will be asked to reconcile our grudges for the sake of our oneness in Christ. We will be asked to help someone or some community that you’ve never met in your life. Or as the Apostle Paul has said, we will be asked to live as one body of Christ. Trusting that every single person in this place has a gift to offer us. A perspective, an insight, a wisdom that we need in order to live as Christ ask us to live – as one people. If we really seek to follow Jesus, we will be asked to do hard things. Things that will threaten our current way of life.
But we can do hard things.
So, may God make us uncomfortable this year for the sake of good news for the poor, for release and freedom to those who are held captive by this life, and so that those of us who are blind might finally really sees things as they are.
And may these words not be just a sermon. But by the grace of God, may they be something that transforms our lives together. Amen.
 William H. Willimon, What’s Right With the Church, pg. 112-3
 Slight adaptation from a story in Dave Daubert’s book, Renewing Your Congregation, 2007
 Mark Stenberg, 51% Christian, pg. 104-105.