The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
Thomas Wolfe years ago wrote a novel: You Can’t Go Home Again. You may have read it, or experienced its inescapable truth. If you go home again, you’d better not stay. Too bad Jesus didn’t get the message before he ventured home to Nazareth one day.
It starts well. People get wind Jesus is coming – their boy, back home. His fame has reached them. They’re talking it up: “He didn’t forget us. He’ll be here soon.” And they remembered his childhood – things that happened along with some convenient embellishments: “He lived in my neighborhood, my best friend. I taught him how to ride his bike. He and I were in the youth group down at First Synagogue, Nazareth. They basked in their pride of ownership: “I was his Sabbath school teacher. Just look at him now.”
Standing room only at the synagogue that day – people spill out the front door, down the steps into the yard. The crowd parts to let him through, hushed into silent wonder, “What will he say? What is going to do for us?”
Jesus receives the scroll from the rabbi, unrolls to Isaiah – to read of a future day when the Spirit of God comes with favor for the oppressed, the imprisoned, the blind – and to set the captive free. People nudged each other and whispered, “Good choice. He reads well. His voice is strong and clear.” Deep down, though, they think he’s talking about them. Their most precious hopes and dreams are about to come true. They’re convinced Jesus comes home to put his kith and kin at the epicenter of God’s promises fulfilled and favor, finally. They’ll benefit from the Messiah. “Is this not Joseph’s boy?” That means, “Hot dog! We’re first in line. Doc, cure us first.”
Jesus senses they’ve missed the point. He illustrates what God is doing by telling stories from the past, stories they’ve forgotten, or simply don’t want to hear. Elijah, who could have – no, should have used his miraculous powers to help desperate widows of Israel during a severe famine, steps past his own, and miraculously feeds a foreign widow. How dare Elijah show favor to an outsider, when God’s own are starving? And to make sure they get it, Jesus drops another story: “Remember, Elisha walked right by local lepers and cured a Syrian one.” Enraged now, they explode. He may be their boy, but he won’t be their Messiah. They haven’t been waiting for this sort of rubbish. God’s promises are theirs to enjoy – How can he hand them out elsewhere. So they seize him, haul him out of town to a cliff for a bungee jump – without the cord. But for some unknown reason, he escapes – just walks away. They watch him disappear into the sunset.
Why would his people turn on him so quickly? I am not sure. Maybe they are like us. Do you notice how you feel comfortable and congenial with someone who agrees with you? If someone says what displeases or threatens us, how quickly our defenses go up and we can become angry or even enraged. Look at politics today. Our responses are automatic. They happen without our thinking, unless we stop and notice what is going on. I confess: I’ll put a book down if the writer makes a positive reference to someone I don’t agree with. I won’t buy a book, even if I like the title – reject it because of the publisher. I don’t read their stuff – rather closed of me. And if some televangelist like Mr. Robertson agrees with my position on an issue, without thinking I’d switch sides. If he and agree, I must be wrong. Maybe Jesus’ folks became enraged because they felt deeply threatened. The world they wanted was not coming. They understood Jesus very clearly, clearly enough to try and kill him on the spot.
Jesus announces the scripture is fulfilled – but not just for them. God’s promised blessings go to, “why to…to those people, outsiders. “No, they’re for us. God promised. We’ve waited. We’re God’s children, not them.” The folks that day were so certain, they couldn’t receive Jesus’ proclamation of a God who includes everyone – sinners, outsiders, strangers, the oppressed, captives of fear, those who’ve lost their way, our enemies, those we hate, the least deserving, the unrighteous, and those who can prove how righteous they are. And to boot, Jesus asks them, “Have you missed what God’s been doing – wanting – that everyone, regardless partake of God’s loving kindness? It’s been God’s intent from the beginning.” God chose Jesus’ people, his hometown and us, not to hold and hoard God’s blessings and favor, but to give them away. Have you known the joy of giving – sharing with whoever is in need? What a gift to give something good, regardless. People find their lives changed by passing along the favor they know from God to others.
The scripture is fulfilled in our hearing, this very day, as we recalibrate our lives to serve God in this world, not ourselves. We are doing this at St. Paul’s, and we can do even more. Through us the world sees how this scripture is being fulfilled. We are the witnesses to God’s truth as we feed the hungry, help those forgotten and marginalized, support people whose neighborhoods are crumbling, stand beside the fear-filled, teach our children, baptize and welcome new people, and above all, strive for the dignity of every human being. We fulfill God’s desire all along as we faithfully gather here to worship God, pray, practice serving others and not waiting to be waited on – and by inviting all people to be restored to God and united with each other in Christ. We rejoice wherever and whenever we spot the good in this world, regardless of who’s on the receiving end. God gives us a new story – well, maybe God keeps telling the same story – until we all finally get it. And that story turned Jesus’ people wrong-sided out. They were waiting for God to come change this world from above. All along God comes to change us from within, so we can be the bearers of God’s love, favor and goodness to all. And as we do, the world just might change – a bit; or as Jesus found, people might start looking for the nearest cliff.