“Stepping Out” Colchester Federated Church, February 3, 2019, (Luke 4:21-30) Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Since it’s Communion Sunday and we always have a Prayer of Confession, I need to confess something.  I sometimes drive a little fast.  My mother primarily taught me to drive and a friend once compared her driving to being on a rocket ship.  So she’s 100% to blame.  When I was in high school (soon after getting my driver’s license), I got pulled over in my hometown for speeding.  When the police officer came to the driver’s side window and asked the dreaded question, “Do you know why I pulled you over?”  I was honest, “I might have been driving a little fast.”  He didn’t look amused as he said, “The speed limit here is 25 and you were going 55.  And young lady, this is a school zone.”  I apologized.  But he asked for my license and registration and went back to his car.

He came back quickly, asking “Are you Bruce Lorincz’s daughter, the Assistant Principal at the Middle School?”  I managed to mumble a yes and he left to finish processing the information.  My dad oversaw all disciplinary matters at the Middle School.  If this officer had kids and they ever got into trouble at school, my dad would have been the one to decide their punishment—after school detention, in school suspension, out of school suspension, expulsion.  But now my fate was in this officer’s hands.

He came back to the car and piled on the guilt, “I sure would hate to have to tell your father that you drove too fast, lost control of your car, and killed yourself.  Do you understand what I’m saying?  Now I’ve decided to give you a warning, but you had better show this to your father.  And if I find out you didn’t, you are going to be in big trouble.”  I did show my parents that written warning for speeding.  My dad was horrified that I was going 30 miles over the speed limit in a school zone.  How embarrassing for our family in our town where he served as a School Principal.  My mom, on the other hand, told me that I should never speed on that stretch of the road.  “It’s a speed trap, and the cops are there all the time.  Come on, Lauren, I taught you better than that.”

Now I thought of this personal experience from the days of my youth when considering how folks reacted to Jesus in his hometown of Nazareth.  Not because Jesus and I are so similar.  But because when one lives in a smaller town and one’s reputation or family’s reputation precedes that person, it can be difficult to be your own person.  People seem to naturally judge you and either give you the benefit of the doubt (or not) based on what they think they know about you and your family.

To set up our story this morning, Jesus is in Nazareth (where he’s been raised) and goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath as was his custom.  Jesus stands up to read and unrolls a scroll from the Prophet Isaiah that relates: “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.”  Jesus rolls up the scroll and sits down.  Folks fix their eyes on him as he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  And everyone is amazed, asking, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”[1]  The crowds seem to be gushing—look at our little Jesus, all grown up and so eloquent.  We’re so happy that you’re back home.  Can you work some miracles here in Nazareth like you did in Capernaum, Jesus?

But the story spirals out of control when Jesus says, “No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”[2]  Jesus speaks of the prophets Elijah and Elisha healing Gentiles after being rejected by their own people.  The crowd wants Jesus to work miracles, and he refuses.  So they attempt to throw him off a cliff in angry disbelief.  Though the story ends with Jesus just passing through the angry mob and going back to Capernaum to heal and teach and continue on with his ministry.

What a weird story—Jesus refuses to help people in his hometown at the beginning of his ministry and points out that when prophets get rejected; they often reach out to Gentiles.  Now Luke is foreshadowing Jesus’ later rejections and the opening of the Jesus Movement to Gentiles.  Luke is an inclusive Gospel and all about Jesus being the Savior of the whole world.  Women have a more prominent role in Luke than the other Synoptic Gospels.  And as New Testament scholar Mark Allan Powell reminds us, there’s an emphasis in Luke on “Jesus’ ministry to those who are oppressed, excluded, or otherwise at a disadvantage in society.”[3]  But it’s curious that these people in Nazareth clearly want Jesus’ help, and he doesn’t respond to their requests.

So what do we do with this story?  For Jesus’ words are piercing, that no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.  Because this can be true here and now.  When we are in a community and start knowing people well, when people let us into their lives and we learn more about who they really are and not just the person they project to the outside world—how they think and feel, what they’ve been through—do we sometimes get resentful if they say or do things that we don’t like?  Let’s say that someone offers up advice, and we think to ourselves, why are you giving me advice?  Your life is a mess!  You’re telling me how to parent my children, your children are out of control!  You’re telling me how to improve my marriage, like yours is so good.  And on and on and on.

This is the idea that familiarity can sometimes breed contempt; it’s a harsh side of humanity.  And this story may be from 2,000 years ago but in some ways, people are still people no matter when people live or where people live.  Now as a Prosecuting Attorney my sister hates lawyer jokes in general, but there are a few that she appreciates.  One story reflects the idea that familiarity breeds contempt.  It begins with a trial in a small town in Mississippi and a grandmother taking the witness stand.  The Prosecutor begins his line of questioning, “Mrs. Jones, do you know me?”  She responds, “Yes, I know you, Mr. Williams, I’ve known you since you were a boy.  And frankly, you’ve been a big disappointment to me.  You lie, you cheat on your wife, and you manipulate people and talk about them behind their backs.  Yes, I know you.”

The Prosecutor is stunned.  And not knowing what else to do, he points at the Defense Attorney, saying, “Do you know Mr. Bradley?”  She again responds, “Yes, I know, Mr. Bradley, I’ve known him since he was a boy.  He’s lazy, bigoted, and he has a drinking problem.  His law practice is the worst in the entire state, not to mention he cheats on his wife too.  Yes, I know him.”  The Defense Attorney just sits there in stunned silence.  Meanwhile the Judge asks both lawyers to approach the bench and says quietly, “If either one of you asks her if she knows me, I will throw you in prison.”

So what do we glean from all of this?  It may be hard to give someone the benefit of the doubt when we know them, flaws and all.  When we’ve seen them grow up or make a bad decision or two.  When we know family hardships or secrets (or believe that we know the whole truth.)  Or when we believe that we know a side of that person that they may not reveal to everyone else.  So maybe Jesus knew deep in his heart and soul that he could never preach, teach, or heal in his hometown because the folks in Nazareth could never separate him from being Mary and Joseph’s son, the hometown kid.  They couldn’t see him as the Messiah, the Son of God, the Savior of the world when they had known him his whole life.  In fact, it would have been harder for them to see him for the man he was becoming because they had seen the boy he had been.  On a practical level, this is why ministers are often counselled to never serve as the Pastor of our home churches.  There’s just too much history and serving one’s home church inevitably leads to complications in our role as Pastor.

So maybe even if the people of Nazareth wanted Jesus to minister to them, he just couldn’t go there.  Because he knew it was just too messy and complicated in his role of Messiah.  In reflecting on this passage, UCC Minister Kate Huey notes that Jesus is clearly not basking in the admiration of the crowd.  Something seems to be bothering him enough to react in the way that he does.  Huey asks, “Does he know more about their expectations than we can read from the text? Does he feel that they’ve missed the point? Does he have a sense that they won’t like where he’s going with this line of thought, about jubilee (“the year of the Lord’s favor) and the liberation of the oppressed? Or does he suspect that that kind of talk is fine as long as it applies to them, but not to those who somehow stand outside the favor of God?”[4]

We just don’t know some of the answers to these good questions.  Again, this story is a rather peculiar one.  But this story from Luke’s Gospel does show that sometimes we need to branch out of the familiar, go into new places, accept new opportunities, and that there may even be times in our lives when we need to do a reset and start over.  Not always because we want to start over.  But because life’s changed circumstances call for a reset.

The truth is that Jesus was going to have to light some fires and eat with some sinners and heal some people that others deemed unworthy and overturn some tables and challenge the powerful and proclaim that God’s time is now.  That God had sent Jesus to preach good news to the poor and to liberate the oppressed.  And not everyone wanted to hear this message of liberation.  Jesus needed to let go of the old thing before he could pick up the new.  Jesus’ mission drives him to the edge and then out into the world.  And it ends up that when we are somehow driven into unfamiliar places, we’re in good company.  So let’s step out.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Luke 4:16-22, NRSV.
[2] Luke 4:24.
[3] Mark Allan Powell, Fortress Introduction to the Gospels, 93.
[4] Kate Huey, UCC Weekly Seeds, February 3 2013.