Jesus read from the book of the prophet Isaiah, and began to say: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
This very day, what word has God given you to fulfill?
That’s the question I ended with last week. This week’s gospel begins by repeating the same verse with which last week’s gospel ended: Jesus has just read from the book of the prophet Isaiah, recounting God’s promise to set free the captives, bring good news to the poor, and sight to the blind. This is good news indeed, and this week we hear that Jesus’ audience responds with approval. All spoke well of him and were amazed at his gracious words. He’s in his element, and the people of his hometown synagogue are pleased and proud to have him home and to hear that this son of Joseph turned out to be something special. And then it gets complicated, and then it gets downright mean. All in a single day. Perhaps in a single conversation. Today the scripture has been fulfilled in their hearing, and today those who hear it are first happy and amazed, then enraged and murderous.
Someone I know titled her sermon for this morning: “How Jesus’ friends try to throw him off a cliff.”
How indeed? Who knows what might have prompted Jesus’ change in tone when he second-guesses his hearers and says doubtless you will say to me “Doctor, cure yourself!”? What is clear is that Jesus realizes that he needs to “manage expectations,” to use a good sales and marketing term.
Jesus manages expectations by reminding them of a couple of well-known stories from scripture. First, the story of Elijah and the widow at Zarepath. This is a lovely healing story, but the widow at Zarepath was a foreigner, an outsider. The same is true with the story of Naaman the leper. There were many widows in Israel during that terrible drought years ago, but Elijah chose someone outside Israel. There were plenty of lepers in Israel when Elisha was around, but he healed a leper outside Israel. In the original stories, the focus is not the foreignness of the widow or the leper. But Jesus appropriates the scriptures to make his point that his mission is to reach out to those on the edges, those beyond cultural and religious norms. God has sent me to bring good news to the poor and set the captives free, and I’m not just talking about you, says Jesus. You don’t get a special benefit because we went to the same high school.
Ever since Cain and Abel, something in our humanity wants us to be special. Not just loved, but loved more than someone else. In the case of the people of Nazareth, God’s radical inclusivity takes them by surprise. Remember the story about the day laborers in the vineyard? The master invites them to work different numbers of hours during the day and then pays them all the same. The ones who worked more hours are outraged. This scene in the synagogue is not so. The people think the Good News is just for them, and when they realize the boundlessness of God’s redemption and hope, their own cultural and religious boundaries take over, and they drive Jesus out of town.
The people of Nazareth fall victim to a grave misunderstanding; they think that if the Good News isn’t just for them, that they are excluded entirely. It is only by understanding that God’s radically inclusive invitation is for everyone that we ourselves can fully accept that invitation. The fact that Jesus came for all, and that his healing life-affirming ministry was for foreigners and gentiles as well as the people of Israel, does not mean that he is not there for the people of Israel. But when his own people respond in anger and insecurity, they close themselves off, just as we close ourselves off from the experience of God’s grace when we are driven by anger or insecurity.
This is our annual meeting Sunday—in many parishes, Annual Meeting Sunday is also called “Parish Mission Sunday.” For us, this Annual meeting mostly means that the sermon is a tiny bit shorter than usual and that we all have a delicious brunch and some great presentations to look forward to. Today’s gospel is a perfect springboard for reflection on the mission of this or any parish: With his all-embracing love, Jesus is always, always calling us to extend ourselves beyond our comfort zone.
I’ve talked before about being influenced in my formation as a priest by aspects of the English parochial system, where the parish is not a building or even a particular group of people, but a geographic area. The parish church is there for the whole neighborhood. The church is present for all who come through its doors, regardless of what they’re doing there or where they came from. The church is present for all who live in the neighborhood even if they never come through the church doors. In the same way, our church here on Harrison Hill is here for all who pass by and all who pass through, not just Episcopalians, not just people who have a certain preconceived notion of church that matches ours.
The idea that the church first and foremost “takes care of its own” is as old as the synagogue at Nazareth and probably older. The fact that Jesus disagreed almost got him thrown off a cliff. But Archbishop William Temple was being faithful to the gospel when he famously said: “The church is the only society on earth that exists for the benefit of non-members.” In other words, the mission of the church is to those outside the church. How is God calling us to extend ourselves beyond our comfort zone, and join Jesus outside the church?
This very day, what mission has God given us to fulfill?