Jeremiah 1:4-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30
Do you ever hear about an event in history or read a story in Scripture and place yourself there, wondering how you might have reacted?
I remember vividly sitting in Anderson Auditorium at Montreat a few years ago, listening to John Lewis describe the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, the tear gas, the beating that left him with a fractured skull. I remember he said that the first time he was arrested he felt free. I listened as he talked about Rock Hill, South Carolina, where at the age of 21 he was assaulted for trying to enter a whites-only waiting room. I know Rock Hill. For years I went frequently to Rock Hill to attend committee meetings of my presbytery. As John Lewis spoke, I pictured the people, the places, the violence, the fear, the courage and I wondered: What would I have done? Where would I have been? For what would I have stood?
When I read about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s resistance against Hitler or Perpetua and Felicity executed for their faith or Paul imprisoned for his or Stephen stoned while witnessing with his last breath, I wonder: What would I have done? Could I have been so stalwart and courageous and bold? On which side would I have stood?
This scene in Luke pains me every time I read it. The story starts out so hopeful and lovely. Jesus returns home and those who’ve known him since he was a boy are amazed and impressed. They speak well of him. A joyous reunion seems inevitable following the service, maybe a potluck dinner in the fellowship hall or a picnic on the lawn. But then things turn ugly and murderous. Jesus rolls up the scroll, declares Scripture fulfilled and even then the crowd beams with pride at this hometown kid who has done so well. He is so well spoken, they say. Soon, at the door, they will say they enjoyed his sermon. Jesus does not accept their praise, however. Here at the start of his ministry, he foreshadows its ending by saying prophets are not accepted in their hometown. Then he goes to meddling; he tells stories, their Scripture’s stories, of God going to outsiders rather than the chosen people of Israel. Elijah went to the widow of Zarephath and Elisha to Naaman the Syrian, not to the good people of Israel, not to the people like those seated in the pews that day in Nazareth. Jesus enrages those who just moments before were singing his praises. They want to kill him, the story says. They push him to the precipice of a hill, but Jesus escapes and goes on his way.
I want a different sort of homecoming for Jesus. I want there to be an openness to this word of God, to the Word of God, no matter the indictment it carries, the change it requires, the reversal of expectation it brings. But that’s not what happens. Those who know Jesus best hate him the most. Jesus’ first sermon leads to chaos, his first foray into ministry a seeming disaster. As I read this account, I wonder: Where would I have been in that scene? Would I have gone along with the violent crowd or had the courage to stand up and speak a different word? What difference might it have made if someone in the back had sought to stop the mob?
I am not sure why the congregation that day couldn’t contain their anger. I do know that deescalating such sentiment requires uncommon courage. I do know our current climate is a tinder box for mob rule. Anger is our default mode, whatever our background, political propensity or age. I overhear weaponized rhetoric in coffee shops. I see vitriolic reactions on the news. I cannot escape rage-filled rants on social media. I wonder if those of us who follow the One nearly killed by his neighbors and ultimately abandoned by his closest friends aren’t called to be courageous and stand for faith, hope and love.
Would I have linked arms with John Lewis on the Edmund Pettis Bridge? Joined the Confessing Church of Germany? Picked up a stone to throw at Stephen or stood up for Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth? These are questions that cannot be answered. What is unquestionable is our call to be courageous in our current context. We are to abide in faith, hope and love. We are to be faithful to the call of God right here and right now. We, like Jeremiah, say: “I am only” or “I am just.” I am only one person. We are just a small congregation. I am just an elder. I am only a youth. But God’s voice resounds from heaven: “Do not say you are only or you are just. You must go where I send you and speak the words I give you. I have put my words in your mouth. I have appointed you.” There is no “only” or “just” when it comes to the power of God.
Wherever we find ourselves, whatever story we are living, we are to ask: What word has God given us? Where are we to go? What are we to uproot or destroy, build or plant? Jesus went to Nazareth and spoke the word of God, regardless of how it was received, no matter the consequences. Lewis marched in Selma. Bonhoeffer plotted to kill Hitler. Perpetua and Felicity chose death over apostasy. Stephen refused to remain silent. Paul went to prison. Mary let it be with her according to God’s will, no matter the risk or disgrace. Surely, God has given us a word, a call, a mission, a reason to risk something for the sake of the gospel? Perhaps, nothing so dramatic as dodging a murderous crowd or as painful as languishing in prison, but surely, something that entails faith, hope and, the greatest of the three, love.
A recent article in New York Magazine tells the story of Father Gregory Greiten a celibate Catholic priest who comes to a place in his life where he feels he must be honest about his identity. He wrote an article for National Catholic Reporting revealing that, while he had no intention of violating his vow of celibacy, he was gay. But before the article was published, he wanted to tell his conservative parish first. The article continues:
“That Sunday morning, when he stood up to deliver his homily, he felt his mouth dry up. The church was packed, and as he started to tell his story, the silence was close to unbearable. He soldiered on. No response. Eventually, a woman stood up in the pews and he braced himself. ‘God bless you, Father! God bless you!’ she yelled. And then, all at once, the congregation rose and applauded. At the end of the homily, another standing ovation.”
I read the story and wondered: Where would I have been that day? What would I have done? On which side would I have stood? One woman stood up for the greatest of the three things that abide – love – prompting the rest of the congregation to do likewise. She was just one woman, only a lay person in the pew, but I can’t help but wonder if it was God who gave her words to speak that day. I am sure God still calls, appoints and sends people to uproot and destroy evil, build and plant love, to be courageous in fulfilling Scripture in their time and place.
- When have you experienced a call from God? What was it? How did you respond?
- How do we discern when to build, what to destroy, when to speak and what to say?
- Why do you think the members of the synagogue were so angry at Jesus’ words?
- Have you ever been in a worship service and gotten angry at what was said from the pulpit? Why? What did you do as a result? Have you ever had people get angry with you for something you said from the pulpit?
- When have you been compelled to be courageous for the sake of the gospel?
- What role do (or should) communities of faith play in confirming (or not) an individual’s sense of God’s call?
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