January 24, 2016 – 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany
The gospel reading this morning is the second half of last week’s reading. Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returns home to Nazareth. He’s been teaching in synagogues throughout the Galilee area. As was his custom, he went to worship on the Sabbath. Perhaps because he’s the hometown boy who’s done well, he’s invited to read the scripture and give the sermon. He reads from Isaiah 61:
The Spirit of the Holy God is upon me,
because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
God 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 God’s favor.
And then he sat down (which is the posture of a teacher in Jesus’ day) and everyone’s eyes were fixed on him, waiting for what he would say.
Verse 21 begins here. [Read Luke 4.21-30]
Now what in the world happened between “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth” and “all…were filled with rage…and [they] drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill…so that they might hurl him off the cliff”?
The sentence in verse 22—all were amazed at the “gracious words”—can also be translated all were amazed at the “words of (God’s) grace.”[i] Jesus stops his reading from Isaiah 61 before the phrase that proclaims the day of God’s vengeance.[ii] Maybe that was a surprise to his listeners that he left out that part. Maybe they were simply impressed by his reading and the beauty his voice brought to Isaiah’s text. Maybe they were caught up in the satisfaction of knowing that God had brought good news to them, had granted release to their ancestors who were captives and liberated their forefathers and mothers from oppression. And would do the same for them as well.
Instead of bowing humbly and accepting the accolades and the applause, Jesus says, “Here’s the point of that passage I just read.”
There was a famine in the land and Elijah the prophet was sent by God to a widow in Sidon which was a Phoenician city. A city in the territory of the foreign god Baal.[iii] The widow was about to use her last bit of meal and oil to make dinner for she and her son and then they would die of starvation. But, through the prophet, God provided meal and oil for the widow and her son until the famine was over.
Here’s the kicker. Jesus reminded his hearers that there were many widows in Israel who were also in the desperate throes of the famine. Many widows in Israel who were also suffering; who were also making the last bit of food they had and then they too would die of starvation. But God didn’t send a prophet to provide for them. God sent a prophet to provide for a widow who was not an Israelite, who was a nonbeliever. And it was through this woman that God made known God’s presence and power.[iv]
Oh, and another story, to be clear about the point of Isaiah 61. There were lots of lepers in Israel at the time of the prophet Elisha. But none of them was cured of their leprosy. But there was a man who was cured. His name was Naaman and he was from Syria. You remember hearing about Naaman in 2 Kings 5? He was the commander of the army for the king of Syria. Naaman was the one who led the army that conquered Israel. This is the person God healed.
This time it’s not just an outsider Jesus is talking about but an enemy through whom God’s presence and power was made known.
Now it might have been different if Jesus had told just one story about God showing up for someone within Israel, someone who was a believer, someone with whom they could identify. Instead, Jesus tells stories of God providing for people who seemingly have nothing in common with his listeners. Who would most likely be perceived as antithetical to his listeners.
In his baptism, Jesus received his identity, in the synagogue, Jesus declares his mission and what his ministry will be about. At first everyone smiles and nods, until Jesus spells it out a little more clearly. Then their nice words turn to resistance and their resistance turns to rage and their rage turns to attempted murder. Mission meets resistance.
Last fall, the president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University wrote about a student who approached him after a chapel service and complained that the sermon on 1 Corinthians 13 made him feel victimized. The student “felt offended because a homily on love made him feel bad for not showing love. In his mind, the speaker was wrong for making him, and his peers, feel uncomfortable.” The president in a blog post on this conversation writes, “That feeling of discomfort you have after listening to a sermon is called a conscience.”[v]
A week ago Saturday, one of our facilitators in the Systemic Racism workshop said in order to do anti-racism work, we have to increase our capacity for being uncomfortable.
Another wise teacher has said, “If someone comes along and shoots an arrow into your heart, it’s fruitless to stand there and yell at the person. It would be much better to turn your attention to the fact that there’s an arrow in your heart.”[vi]
Who among us likes being uncomfortable? I know, I don’t. But isn’t it also a part of life? It’s part of being human and meeting up with other humans who see the world differently, whose desires and interests are different than our own, whose experiences and history are different and even opposed to our own.
Those people, Jesus’ neighbors, family and friends, were shot with an arrow in the heart when they heard Jesus say God’s grace and mercy was shown not to people like them but to people who were not like them and who, in fact, were their enemies. And so they lashed out in anger, anger that comes from pain, and tried to kill Jesus.
We do the same thing, don’t we? I saw a cartoon recently of a pastor search committee meeting. One person in the group is summarizing: “Basically, we’re looking for an innovative pastor with a fresh vision who will inspire our church to remain exactly the same.”[vii]
Consciously or unconsciously, we want to hear things that confirm our biases—except, we know they’re not biases, it’s just the truth, because it’s what we believe, and what we believe is true. Except when it’s not, of course. Or when it’s only part of the truth.
I think this is particularly true when it comes to conversations about race prejudice and systemic racism in our country. And it’s especially true when it comes to conversations where we are asked to acknowledge our part in upholding and benefiting from systemic racism.
When I talk about systemic racism I’m using the definition we learned in the workshop last weekend. Systemic racism is race prejudice plus the misuse of power by systems and institutions. So it’s both individual and collective.
The church does not have a good history when it comes to talking about or acting against systemic racism. White churches have benefited from it. Through our history, we have explicitly and implicitly endorsed racism and race prejudice. We have also ignored it and said it wasn’t that bad.
The 2015 American Values Survey by the Public Religion Research Institute asked, among a variety of topics, about racial inequality and discrimination and particularly about recent killings of African American men by police. “Among religious groups, white Christians are more likely than other religious groups to say that recent killings of African American men by police aren’t connected.” 71% of white Catholics, 72% of white evangelical Protestants, and—here we are—73% of white mainline Protestants “believe that killings of African American men by police are isolated incidents…Among black Protestants” 82% believe they are part of a broader pattern.”[viii]
I’m not saying that this is the perspective of this congregation in this moment, although that 73% might very well be true of us. What I am saying is systemic racism is part of our Christian history, past and present, it’s part of our Presbyterian Church history, and because it is, we need to find ways to talk about it. And I am saying that even here at Central this conversation can be difficult and will make us uncomfortable. But because it is part of our history, and it is part of our present, we must find ways to talk about it and find ways to repair the damage of our legacy.
Part of how we repair the damage is by drawing on the strength of another part of our legacy. The theological legacy that God has made us one family, one human community, brothers and sisters, equally loved and cherished by the One who created us.
Another theological legacy we have is the legacy of the prophets. Prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures like Elijah and Elisha and Isaiah who are all included in this story of Jesus in the synagogue. And we gave prophet Jesus of the gospels. The role of the prophets is to make us uncomfortable, to challenge our assumptions, to awake our complacency, to make us “woke” as some people say today.[ix] To be woke is to be aware. (Think of awaken and awoke. Take off the leading a and you get woke. It means you’re waked up to what’s going on around you.) The prophet shoots an arrow in our heart to wake us up, to call us back to our true nature. Our true nature is we are all created in the image of God, we are all beloved children of God and sisters and brothers to one another.
It’s so easy when our heart is wounded by a prophet, to kill the messenger. What’s harder is to notice the wound and to ask God and one another for what is truly needed for healing.
And the truth is, we’re already wounded. Everyone one of us carries some wound because racism dehumanizes every single one of us by socializing us all into racialized rules and roles. Rules and roles that distort the image of God in us, destroy human community and disregard the legacy of our inheritance as God’s daughters and sons. So, truly, even as hard as it is to talk about systemic racism, to own our place in its existence, and even more so, to work to dismantle it, this is what God calls us to be about for the healing of God’s world and the healing of God’s daughters and sons.
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[i] M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 191.
[ii] Isaiah 61.2b
[iii] Choon-Leong Seow, “The First and Second Books of Kings,” New Interpreter’s Bible, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), Vol. III, 128.
[iv] David L. Ostendorf, “Luke 4.21-30 – Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, eds. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year C, Vol. 1, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 308.
[v] http://www.okwu.edu/blog/2015/11/this-is-not-a-day-care-its-a-university/, accessed 22 January 2016.
[vi] Pema Chodron, Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living. https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/2523659-start-where-you-are-a-guide-to-compassionate-living-shambhala-classics, accessed 23 January 2016.
[vii] Dennis Fletcher, 2014, https://twitter.com/SeanMLucas/status/482296088750063617/photo/1, accessed 23 January 2016.
[ix] Deray McKesson talked about this on the The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, episode 73, on 18 January 2016.