A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Present Company Excepted
Yr C ~ Epiphany 4 ~ Luke 4:21-30
This sermon may be uncomfortable. It might be uncomfortable for you to hear, and parts of it are definitely uncomfortable for me to preach.
Are you nervous? You shouldn’t be.
I’m not going to go ballistic and yell and scream or anything.
But I might poke a little, and it might poke some more than others.
And some who need to feel a poke may think I’m talking about someone else.
The truth is, we all need to be poked by this message. All of us.
We begin where we left off last week. A quick recap: It’s the very start of Jesus’ public ministry. He goes to worship at his hometown synagogue and is asked to read scripture. He selects a very provocative text about freeing captives, forgiving debts, erasing land ownership issues, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour. This is a direct reference to a concept called Jubilee which is basically a giant reset button that utterly upends the entire world order as far as economics and power goes – and then he sits down.
But the sitting down is actually the teaching time. And he delivers a one sentence sermon (don’t get your hopes up!) that concluded last week’s reading and begins this week’s:
Luke 4:21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Last week we explored these challenging words from Jesus, and we pressed pause on the story to make sure we spent time understanding just how radical the Jubilee values he was championing were. I also tried to emphasize that having Jubilee values being fulfilled in your hearing meant the concept becomes active for you when you hear or perceive or understand it. And once you hear it you can’t un-hear it so you either need to say yes and act on it, or say no and ignore it.
Upending an economic order and a power structure that treats all of us here pretty favourably is a very hard thing to do. But it sounds really good, doesn’t it?
Jesus’ synagogue crowd agreed.
Luke 4:22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the words of grace that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
They’re great words. Faithful words. Inspiring words.
And the people in that synagogue that day, (and probably the people in this church last week, and now), received those words and judged them to be very good! They were impressed by Jesus – even though they knew he was just Joe and Mary’s kid – and they were impressed by these high-minded ideals and values.
And then, seemingly inexplicably, Jesus turns on a dime and starts poking them in the eye.
Luke 4:24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”
Maybe he saw something as he looked at them. Sometimes a preacher can look out and know that their listeners did not take in the point they just made on the level they’d hoped to communicate on. (Present company excepted.)
Maybe Jesus knew that his proclamation should’ve produced more than just a few “atta-boy’s” and that his congregation should’ve been less impressed and more convicted.
Maybe Jesus realized that they were more pleased by their local boy making good than they were motivated to actually embody those Jubilee values and that world upending worldview.
Maybe he looked at them smiling and nodding and discerned that if they really understood they’d have a very different expression on their faces.
So Jesus went after them – and they didn’t like it!
Jesus trots out a couple of stories about prophets.
He tells the story of Zarepheth and Elijah from 1 Kings 17 and the story of Naaman and Elisha from 2 Kings 5.
What you may not know is what these two stories have in common, and why they made the congregation so angry.
In both cases a famous prophet of Israel bypassed the people in their own land and reached out and helped…..foreigners! Outsiders!
There were starving widows in Israel but Elijah fed an outsider.
There were lepers in Israel but Elisha healed the outsider (who was also a powerful enemy soldier!).
Why did they do that?
One possibility is to convey the message that God’s love cannot be contained to one people, it’s for everyone.
Another possibility is because the Israelites were judged to be unfaithful so God had to send the prophet beyond Israel to find faithful people.
Either way, no matter how you slice it, the people in that synagogue got the message.
And they didn’t like it.
Luke 4:28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.
So in a heartbeat they went from being a crowd of admirers to being an angry mob who physically swarmed him and ran him out of town, up a cliff, and were ready to throw him off. If they had the materials on hand they would’ve tarred and feathered him!
Apparently Jesus made them so incensed that they were about to kill him!
And then the story ends in the most bizarre, ever so casual way – Luke 4:30 But Jesus passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
What would I have to say to you to make you so incensed that you wanted to run me out of town and kill me?
Hopefully it’s not what I’m saying today.
But sometimes congregations do get spitting mad at preachers. (Present company excepted.)
I guess it depends on how we see our role.
Ministers tend to think of three roles that make up our job – priest, pastor, and prophet.
The priest role is the worship part, the pastor role is the comfort part, and the prophet role is the teaching part – ok, the emphatic teaching part – ok, the haranguing and ticking people off until they get upset enough to make a change in their lives part! Jesus is being the tough love prophet here, and I’m riding his coattails!
Not surprisingly, people don’t like prophets very much.
We don’t like people hanging around shining bright lights into the dark corners that we prefer to keep hidden – and we don’t like to be told we’re off track or wrong.
We prefer gentle Jesus holding a little one to furious Jesus brandishing a whip.
Finding the right balance as a preacher can be hard, and for many churches the right balance in their minds is ‘thou shalt not’! (Present company excepted.)
If a typical congregation heard “This Sunday your minister is going to tell the raw, unvarnished truth!” would that minister be employed on Monday?
There’s a fantastic quote (that interestingly was originally about newspapers) from a guy named Finley Peter Dunne that got adopted by and applied to churches a while back.
Here’s the quote: “A [preacher’s] role is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Comfort the afflicted (pastor), and afflict the comfortable (prophet).
Looking at that congregation, having delivered his world-changing agenda, Jesus realized he wasn’t dealing with unfaithfulness, he was looking at privilege.
He was looking at entitlement.
And when he called them on it, they revolted.
I know what you’re thinking – this is backwater, poor little Nazareth we’re talking about. These are not rich people. These are not the 1%. These folks are probably economically struggling. And yet I’m calling them entitled and privileged. Here’s why.
You see, they could sense that Jesus was the real deal.
They knew he was a Spirit-filled prophet and that those Jubilee values were worthy.
But they also, deep in their bones, understood themselves to be God’s chosen people.
So when Jesus suggested turning the system inside out they could apply it to their oppressors and agree with him.
But when Jesus suggested that God’s love and values were not just for them but for everyone – even outsiders and foreigners – then they started to feel poked.
And when Jesus’ teaching indicated that they too would have to change, that they too would have to be subject to his world flipping plan, that they too would have to forgive the people indebted to them, that they too would have to let go of their vice-grip hold on their love of property and economics, that they too would have to participate in this world reordering – they went berserk.
They’re sitting there thinking, “Now that our guy is the guy we’ll get what we’re due! Jubilee time means we finally get our blessings! After all, we’re the chosen people!”
And then Jesus pokes them hard with two examples of times when the chosen people were passed over in favour of outsiders.
When you think being chosen means you’re the only one who’s supposed to get blessed and your enemies all should get punished, but then you’re told that they’ll get blessed too, and that you might even be the one to bless them, well, let’s just say it didn’t go over well.
I think we, as Christians, think that we’re God’s chosen people too – and because we do all this good churchy stuff we ought to experience blessing upon blessing.
We’re entitled to it!
Some Christians actually sound like this: “I’m here Jesus, I said my prayers, I did my good deeds, lay the blessings on me!” (Present company excepted.)
Here’s the thing.
We like Jesus’ fancy, faithful words and while we’re here we’re all “Yes, Jesus, you da man! I get it! I’m all in!”
And then we walk out of here and we have jobs, and bills, and stresses, and challenges, and too often all that fancy, faithful, high-minded, spiritually awesome stuff takes a back seat to just getting by.
Now I’d love to say ‘present company excepted’ but I’m just not sure I can.
And I include myself in there too.
Why did Elijah and Elisha bypass the insiders and go to outsiders?
Probably because the insiders thought they were doing enough already, and thought they were already in God’s good books (as if God would ever have such a ridiculous and unspiritual thing!).
Jesus isn’t just offering a feel-good message of knowing how to be self-actualized and living the good life.
He’s bringing a life-changing message of upending the world order and ushering in an utterly different Way.
It’s not about living the good life – it’s about living the God life!
It’s impossible to look out the doors of this church and not see that the world Jesus would rail against is exactly the world we’ve all bought into.
And if we hear his message clearly, a message about realizing that in spiritual ways we are the poor, that we are indeed captive to the ways of the world, that we are spiritually blind, that we are oppressed by our own choices and foolishness and desires, and that that all fundamentally has to change – then we’ll either get on Jesus’ jubilee train or we’ll start looking for tar and feathers and a cliff.
I suppose there is a middle ground.
We United Church folks would probably love that!
The middle ground hears the words, and agrees with them, and strives to do some good in response, and makes the changes in their lives that are comfortable.
Perhaps you’ll recall what prophets (preachers?) are called to do to the comfortable.
To comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.
Friends, I’ll say it straight.
We are too comfortable.
We are too content with our lot in life.
We are too quiet when we have an opportunity to stand up.
We are too tongue-tied when we have the opportunity to share.
We are too selfish with our resources.
We are too accepting of injustice, and racism, and sexism.
We are too privileged to realize that we’re privileged.
We are too busy patting ourselves on our backs for being nice Christian folks and doing some good, and we are blind to how we are the oppressors.
This is the part where you want me to double back and say, ‘present company excepted’.
I can’t do that.
I hope your response won’t be to run me off a cliff.
I hope your response will be a deep breath, an admission that there’s a heavy dose of truth in all this, and a commitment to a long, thoughtful, gentle discernment in prayer.
I don’t want you going away mad, and I definitely don’t want you going away shrugging your shoulders.
I want you to go away convicted – that this message won’t drive me off a cliff but it will drive you to your knees.
Present company expected!
And he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. [Luke 4:30]