February 3, 2019
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Pastor Javen Swanson
Read today’s scripture lessons: Jeremiah 1:1-10; Luke 4:14-30
A few years ago, a friend of mine told me about a dream she’d had the night before. She said, “I dreamed that fundamentalist Christians and NASA discovered heaven, and it was actually up there. Saint Peter really was standing at some pearly gates, and everyone had wings and haloes. And all the progressive Christians were walking around, looking dazed, muttering to themselves, ‘This can’t be right. It’s so cheesy!’”
I sometimes wonder, what if all the things I thought were right turn out to be wrong?
I’ve told you before how I traveled last summer on a mission trip to Kenya with my husband Oby and members of the church where he serves as pastor. His church partners with a primary school about eight hours northwest of Nairobi, in a very rural part of the country on the edge of the desert. While we were there, for our own safety, Oby and I went back into the closet. Homosexuality is forbidden in Kenya, and the place we were visiting is only about 20 miles from Uganda, where homosexuality is punishable by death. So we left our wedding rings behind. With some help from our trip leaders, we thought carefully about how we would carry ourselves while we were there, how we would answer people’s questions about families, and so on. We asked everyone else in the group to be mindful of how we were trying to manage these concerns, and to honor our need to be discreet, because it felt to us like there was a lot at stake.
A strange thing happened while I was there. I started wondering: what if I’ve been wrong all along? Christianity is waning in the United States. There are plenty of churches like Gloria Dei where vibrant ministry is taking place, but overall our numbers are getting smaller and smaller. The place where the church is surging right now is in Africa. By all accounts, that is a place where God is doing a new thing, where the Holy Spirit is breathing new life into the church. But theirs is not a theology that welcomes and affirms LGBTQ people—far from it. And it got me wondering, what if Ihave got it all wrong? What if hell is real and it’s actually down there, and there really is an eternal fire and demons with horns and pitchforks, and that’s where I’m headed? What if everything I thought was right turns out to be wrong?
That question, I think, is at the heart of today’s Gospel lesson.
This passage from Luke tells us about the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry. In the first three chapters of Luke’s Gospel, we’ve read about Jesus’ birth, his baptism, and his temptation in the wilderness. And now in chapter four, Jesus returns to his home in Galilee and begins his ministry of preaching and teaching and healing. What we heard in today’s extended Gospel reading is Jesus’ very first sermon. Luke tells us that Jesus took the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and read those beautiful words: “The Spirit of Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” “Today,” Jesus says, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
That passage from Isaiah that Jesus quotes about proclaiming good news to the poor and liberation to the oppressed—it’s from Isaiah 61. The prophet Isaiah was writing at a time about 500 years earlier when the Israelites had suffered an unimaginable devastation. The holy land that God had given them had been conquered by the Babylonian Empire. Jerusalem had been leveled, and their temple destroyed—the very place where they believed God lived, demolished. And the Israelites themselves had been displaced from their land, carried off in exile to the land of Babylon, and now they answered to a foreign ruler. It was the very worst of times for the Israelites. And that’s when the prophet Isaiah comes on the scene: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he says, “because God has anointed me to bring good news! To all of us who are suffering under oppression, who feel cast off and rejected and wonder, ‘Where is our God?’, hear these words: God has sent me to proclaim liberation, healing, and restoration.” That was the message Isaiah brought to the exiles living in Babylon.
And now, in today’s reading, hundreds of years later, Jesus picks up that scroll of the prophet Isaiah and reads those words aloud once more. He reinterprets that passage for his own audience—people who are living in a different time and place but who know all too well the experience of exile, oppression, rejection, and hopelessness. He reads that passage from Isaiah—“The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news!”—and then he tells the people, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, Jesus tells the people, “Today, this good news is yours.” It’s no wonder that “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”
Jesus should have quit while he was ahead, but instead he goes on preaching. He says, “No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” And then he reminds them of a couple of stories about two early Old Testament prophets, Elijah and Elisha. In the first one, there’s a terrible famine. But the prophet Elijah isn’t sent to help any of the many hungry widows in Israel, as would have been expected. He is sent instead to a Gentile woman—an outsider—living in Zarephath, a foreign city. In the second story, the prophet Elisha passes over many lepers in Israel who longed to be healed, and instead heals a man called Naaman, a general in the army of Aram, which was one of Israel’s long-standing enemies. In both these stories, God’s prophet favors outsiders over the people of Israel, who should have expected to receive God’s mercy. The people understood exactly what Jesus was trying to tell them: They shouldn’t expect any special favors just because they’re God’s chosen people. They don’t have an inside track on God’s mercy. The people are outraged and try to throw Jesus off a cliff.
The people were outraged because they thought they had God all figured out, yet now they were being told everything they had believed about God was all wrong. They thought God was on their side, but it turns out that wasn’t quite right. It turns out that, in God’s eyes, there are no insiders and outsiders. The widow of Zarephath is as worthy as anyone else, and why wouldn’t God desire healing for Naaman the foreign army general? God doesn’t favor some over others. God doesn’t much care about the ways we humans find to divide ourselves up, whether it’s around race or class or gender or sexual orientation or anything else. God doesn’t care what side of the border we’re from or how exceptional we think we are. And God is especially quick to condemn our own sense of superiority when we measure ourselves against others and deem ourselves more worthy. What’s that line? “Whenever you draw a line in the sand, Jesus is on the other side.” God simply isn’t interested in how we’ve chosen to place others outside the realm of God’s grace.
What if we have gotten it all wrong? What if God is about take what we are so certain is true and turn it on its head?
Going back in the closet wasn’t exactly ideal in Kenya, when the whole point of the trip was to spend two weeks immersed in a new community building relationships. On the other hand, maybe it allowed us, Kenyans and Americans together, to see one another the way God sees us—as equally loved by God, regardless of geography or sexuality or anything else—before complicating that simple truth by introducing human distinctions that we use to divide ourselves from one another. Some of the Kenyan schoolteachers we connected with on our trip have since found us on social media and there’s no question that they know now just who we are. On our next trip to Kenya, I hope we can just be ourselves, and they can just be themselves, and we won’t have to concern ourselves with who’s right and who’s wrong, and who’s in and who’s out, but can just revel in the amazing goodness of God’s love that unites us all across continents.
Really, isn’t that what our whole world needs today? That our usual ways of seeing, and everything we are so certain is true, would be turned on its head, so we might be prepared to see God’s grace breaking in among us in unexpected and surprising ways. That God would equip us with eyes to see one another the way God sees us—not as insiders and outsiders but each one of us hearers of good news and recipients of God’s grace.
Justo González, Luke, in the Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible series (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).