Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | January 31, 2010

2010.01.31 “The Day They Threw Out the Preacher”

Central United Methodist Church

“The Day They Threw Out the Preacher”

Pastor David L. Haley

Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10; Luke 4: 14 – 30

January 31st, 2010

       “Jesus returned to Galilee powerful in the Spirit. News that he was back spread through the countryside.  He taught in their meeting places to everyone’s acclaim and pleasure.

       He came to Nazareth where he had been reared. As he always did on the Sabbath, he went to the meeting place. When he stood up to read, he was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Unrolling the scroll, he found the place where it was written,

       God’s Spirit is on me; he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor,

       Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind,

       To set the burdened and battered free, to announce, “This is God’s year to act!”

       He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the place was on him, intent. Then he started in, “You’ve just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place.”

       All who were there, watching and listening, were surprised at how well he spoke. But they also said, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son, the one we’ve known since he was a youngster?”

       He answered, “I suppose you’re going to quote the proverb, “Doctor, go heal yourself. Do here in your hometown what we heard you did in Capernaum.’  Well, let me tell you something: No prophet is ever welcomed in his hometown.  Isn’t it a fact that there were many widows in Israel at the time of Elijah during that three and a half years of drought when famine devastated the land, but the only widow to whom Elijah was sent was in Sarepta in Sidon?  And there were many lepers in Israel at the time of the prophet Elisha but the only one cleansed was Naaman the Syrian.”

       That set everyone in the meeting place seething with anger. They threw him out, banishing him from the village, then took him to a mountain cliff at the edge of the village to throw him to his doom, but he gave them the slip and was on his way.” – Luke 4: 14 – 30, The Message.

Every Sunday morning, there’s this little conversation I have with God. You see, by that time, I’ve worked for days on a Biblical text, and a message that has arisen out of it.  I struggle for three days – Thursday, Friday, and Saturday – to put it into communicable form, into a “sermon.”  As I do so, I never really know where it’s going to lead. Sometimes the message might be humorous, sometimes serious; sometimes it might be agreeable, innocuous; other times it may be harsh, certain to meet resistance; sometimes it’s a message to comfort the afflicted and other times it’s a message to afflict the comfortable. Finally, I get “done” (you never really get done) and then comes the hardest part of all: time to go deliver it.

So quite often, before I walk out the door, the conversation with God goes like this: 

“OK, God, I don’t know why you picked me to do this, I’d really wish you’d chosen somebody else. I could have been perfectly happy being a fireman all my life, crawling into burning buildings and overturned cars (it’s so much easier). But you called me to do this, so here goes; it’s your word, your message, you’ve got to make it work.”

As you heard from this morning’s Old Testament reading from the prophet Jeremiah, this is not a new conversation, not original with me, but one which God has heard before, and is very, very practiced at responding to. It’s similar to the same one Jeremiah had, and before him Moses, and a long, long line of prophets and preachers since. “God, I appreciate the honor, but please, choose somebody else?”  And besides, I have all these excellent excuses: I can’t speak well, I’m only a boy, I am a shy person . . .” What’s that old line about you know it’s the call of God when it takes you someplace you don’t want to go? 

You see, it would be one thing if the message were always sweet and agreeable, like the power of positive thinking or the gospel of prosperity. But that’s the problem; it’s not. As Jeremiah (who by the way was known as the “weeping” prophet) was to discover, sometimes the message is to “build up and to plant,” but sometimes it is also “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow.”

If you look at psychological studies of clergy, very few – if any of us – go into ministry because we love criticism or conflict.  On the contrary, we love accord and acclaim. And yet, sometimes criticism and conflict are often what we get, the unsurprising, indeed inevitable consequence of the message we must deliver.  Both our readings today, the stories of Jeremiah and Jesus, remind us that, in reality, there is no call without conflict, and no summons without struggle.

I wonder if, at some point, perhaps in his wilderness experience, when the message first seized Jesus, if it didn’t make him feel sick.  I wonder if at some point he didn’t say to God, as he was to say later in the Garden of Gethsemane, “If it’s alright with you, God, I’d just as soon forego this.” Even that day, as Jesus made his way forward in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, I wonder if his hands weren’t cold and clammy, and his stomach upset, his body weary after a sleepless night, knowing what he had to say to them.

Because, as much as the message burned inside of him, there, in front of him, sat his people, the people he had grown up with, his family and his friends sitting there in the synagogue where he was everyone’s child. 

A few years ago in an article in the Christian Century, Frederick Niedner, who teaches theology at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana, reminded us of the risk of “Taking the Good News Home,” if we don’t already know it:

“P. T. Reppert would likely be out there in the congregation. P. T. once got an ugly black eye from a baseball bat I’d flung in anger across a playground. That pretty well knocks out the Sermon on the Mount as a possible text.”

“I spent whole summers with a group of guys, chopping cockleburs and button weeds in the cornfields and talking the way teenage boys talk when they’re off by themselves. Some of those “boys” would be in the congregation, so imagine the consequences should the day’s lessons include Ephesians 5, which says, “Let there be no filthiness, nor silly talk, nor levity, which are not fitting. Fornication and all impurity must not even be named among you.”

“Thankfully, our town has other churches, so Johnny Green’s dad would not be at ours.  He was Sergeant Green of the Nebraska State Highway Patrol. I had a conversation with him one evening soon after my 16th birthday. He pulled me over after clocking my speed at 110 m.p.h. He asked if my dad knew I had the car, commented on the foolishness of what I’d done, and began to write a ticket.”

“When Sergeant Green handed me the ticket, I saw that it was a warning. Unbelievable! My parents would never find out. That night I knew with absolute certainty that there was a God, a kind and gracious God who watched out for me in multiple ways. But I could hardly go back to that town and preach about how I’d come to such strong convictions.”

“I could never imagine going home to say, “Friends, I stand before you today as the fulfillment of God’s ancient promises. Here’s the program.” (“Taking the Good News Home,” Frederick Niedner, The Christian Century, January 3-10, 2001, p. 13).

      Luke says, however, that Jesus did exactly that. How eloquently, how passionately he read those words of the prophet Isaiah:

             “God’s Spirit is on me;

             he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor,

             Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners

                   and recovery of sight to the blind,

             To set the burdened and battered free,

             To announce, “This is God’s year to act!”

        They all settled back for the sermon, you know, like we settle back:  take a quick look at our watch to see how long we got, give a few fleeting thoughts about how long before the game starts, about that roast in the oven, not expecting any surprises.

       And then the surprise, even shock began, as Jesus started in, “You’ve just heard Scripture make history.  It came true just now in this place.”  

      He could have stopped there, on that dramatic note, and that would have spared him a lot of trouble.  But he didn’t.  In fact, as Bishop William Willimon says, “he then threw the book at them, hitting them right between the eyes with Isaiah, and following up with a jab from First Kings:

      “I suppose you’re going to quote the proverb, “Doctor, go heal yourself. Do here in your hometown what we heard you did in Capernaum.’ Well, let me tell you something: No prophet is ever welcomed in his hometown. Isn’t it a fact that there were many widows in Israel at the time of Elijah during that three and a half years of drought when famine devastated the land, but the only widow to whom Elijah was sent was in Sarepta in Sidon?  And there were many lepers in Israel at the time of the prophet Elisha but the only one cleansed was Naaman the Syrian.”

      Literally, all hell broke loose.  He might as well have quoted The Koran at the V.F.W. “That set everyone in the place seething with anger.”  If they’d had a Staff-Parish Committee, they’d have met. Being more murderous than methodical, they threw him out, out of the synagogue, out of the village, pushing him to the edge of a cliff to throw him to his doom, but, at the last moment, he gave them the slip and got away.  (Quite a tradition we’ve got here; founder of the Christian religion, Jesus, thrown out of the synagogue after his first sermon; the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, thrown out of the Church of England; some precedents!)

      What happened? What did he do, what did he say that in a moment’s notice transformed them from clucking approval to unrestrained fury?

      First of all, like us, they wanted a message about how God was blessing them and blasting their enemies, not vice versa!  So when Jesus held up non-Jews, the widow of Sidon and Naaman the Syrian, which was exactly what he did.

      One of the themes that Luke wants to convey in his Gospel is the universal impact of Jesus’ ministry. In Jesus, God is saving the lost, and that means the lost everywhere, wherever they may be found.  This is always threatening to those who want to make God’s salvation a local and restricted matter, just here and not there, for us and not for them.  But God keeps widening the circle, putting more and more leaves in the banquet table.  The folks from Nazareth wanted to invert God’s plan, such that the gospel didn’t move from them to the ends of the earth, but rather from the ends of the earth to them. “Enough with this ministry to humanity, Jesus.”  “Forget the Gentiles, you’re a local boy, bring it on home.”  God bless US!

Secondly, maybe they could have tolerated even this message, if Jesus had put it a little more open-endedly. Maybe they wanted to interpret it figuratively, not literally. Preaching the message of the Good News to the Poor in Spirit, but not the actual filthy, hard-living poor. Metaphorically “announcing pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind,” as long as it didn’t mean actually visiting prisons and hospitals.  Figuratively “setting the burdened and battered free” as long as it didn’t have anything to do with child abuse or social justice or economics or politics or justice or anything like that.

You get the picture? We want to spiritualize it, God wants us to take it literally.  We want to narrow the scope of God’s love, God wants to expand it.  We want the message to be exclusive, for us, God wants it to be inclusive, for everybody, even our enemies.

      And that’s why we – both preachers and listeners – hate it.  It’s so much easier to generalize, and never get to specifics. So much easier to apply it to others, without ever applying it to ourselves. So much easier to preach, “Why can’t we all get along?” without pointing out why we don’t get along.

Bishop Willimon, in a sermon on this text, tells about a preacher who didn’t have this problem, whom he encountered at a seminar for preachers he was leading with Stanley Hauerwas, the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University. 

In a plaintive voice, the pastor at the conference said,

“The bishop moved me to a little town in South Carolina.  I preached one Sunday on the challenge of racial justice.  In two months my people were so angry that the bishop moved me.  At the next church, I was determined for things to go better.  Didn’t preach about race.  But we had an incident in town, and I felt forced to speak. The board met that week and voted unanimously for us to be moved.  My wife was insulted at the supermarket.  My children were beaten up on the school ground.”

Said Willimon, “My pastoral heart went out to this dear, suffering brother.”  But Hauerwas, who was leading the seminar, said,

“And your point is what?  We work for the living God, not a false, dead god! Did somebody tell you it would be easy?” (William H. Willimon, “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century, January 27, 2004, Vol. 121, No. 2, p. 20)  

When God called Jeremiah, when God called Jesus, when God calls us, God does not say it will be easy.  What God says, is, “I will be with you.”

      So the questions for us – reluctant preachers and resistant hearers alike – that arise out of this text, are these:

“What is God saying to me?”

“What especially is God saying to me that I don’t want to hear, which makes me reluctant, resistant, even angry?” (Because we grow more by struggling with the things we disagree with than the things we agree with . . .)

And the most important question of all:

“What am I going to do about it?”

The 19th century Danish philosopher, theologian, and preacher Soren Kierkegaard once noted that many great minds of his century had given themselves to making people’s lives easier – inventing labor-saving machines and devices. He said that he would dedicate himself to making peoples lives more difficult. How? He would become a preacher.  So did Jesus, and the world has never been the same since.

Any takers?


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