Imagine a young man, just coming back home to his hometown. He’s become popular in the country, traveling around preaching and healing. All the people that remember him in diapers and as an awkward teenager are eager to see him again. They have heard rumors that he is a powerful preacher and a powerful healer. He’s made the headlines, you might say. They think, “Here is someone to put Nazareth on the map.” “Here’s someone who will do us some good.” God knows they need it—a small town struggling economically, the bottom of the barrel in a vast empire, and on the fringes even of their own Jewish culture. So the citizens of Nazareth are looking forward to hearing this young man speak.
And, as we heard last week, he gets up to speak. I wonder how Jesus felt. Did he feel something like Jeremiah did centuries before—nervous to speak to all the people who had known him all his life—to the men and women who still thought of him as that little kid that ran around town. “I’m just a kid to them. They are never going to listen.” “I’m just the carpenter’s son.”
But he makes a good start when he stands up and does the reading;
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He 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 the Lord's favor."
That probably sounded pretty good to the people of Nazareth. Hey, we’re under the rule of Rome, lots of us don’t have much money—wow, what can he do for us? You know, he reads really well. They were still skeptical. After all, they didn’t remember him being anything special, but this isn’t bad.
Then Jesus completely blows it. He tells them—“I know you are going to hate me for this, but I’m not here to be your personal miracle worker. I’m not here to be your hometown celebrity. Those words I just read, about the poor and the blind and the outcast? I really meant it.”
That was bad. But it gets worse. Jesus reminds them of two stories from the Hebrew Scriptures. In one, a Canaanite gets help. In the other, a Syrian gets help. These are the enemies of the town—the outsiders, the people who would not be welcome in their places of worship and would never be invited to dinner.
So how does Jesus get the people who remember him playing games in the streets angry enough to try to throw him off a cliff? This is Nazareth. This is a nice small town where people know each other and help each other and take care of each other. We know what small towns are like. So how does he do it? He tells them that he’s there to shake up the present order, he’s there to challenge their thinking.
Now, Jesus could have been so much more diplomatic. Wouldn’t it have been better to just preach a nice short sermon that everyone appreciated and felt good about and maybe do a few miracles before leaving town? But he didn’t. Because he was not there to make people happy. He was a prophet. He was there to challenge the status quo.
How often do we hear or think the same things these people from Nazareth did? Well, we are good Christians. Or, we are good Americans. Those people, well… we don’t like them. They are … They are… And we draw lines between us and them. And our culture draws lines between us and them. Between us good moral, Christian people and those, well, we all know what they do. Between us Americans and those Iraqis. Between us hard working citizens and those beggars on the street corner. Between us citizens and those illegals. We know we are better than them, we are worth more than them, and, though we might not say it aloud, doesn’t God think better of us then them? After all, we act better, we work harder, we are more civilized, etc.
This is the way we divide ourselves from other people. We think we are a part of a special group and we make walls around ourselves to keep other people out. Sometimes we put up real walls, like the Berlin Wall or the wall on the border today. Sometimes we put up walls by making rules, like the segregation laws of the south that said that a black person could not drink out the same water fountain as a white person or the laws in some of our own communities 50 years ago that said that a person of color could not buy property in certain neighborhoods. Sometimes we just learn to treat other people like they are invisible, like homeless people on the street corners that no one really looks at. Sometimes we tell people they cannot be a part of our church, like some churches do to gay people.
And then there are people who challenge this. They remind us that all human beings are made in the image of God and deserve to be treated as God’s children. And they are often rejected.
In the 1970s, in South Africa, apartheid laws kept black people from living near or going to school with white people. The black communities lived in poor slums and worked for the white people living in modern cities. Many of the churches said almost nothing and some of them even defended this practice. But there were prophets too. Steve Biko was a leader in the black community who challenged this and insisted that blacks were human beings. “Remember,” he said to his community, “that you are human beings.” He was rejected, banned by the government, and was killed in jail.
100 years ago, in towns across our own state, Chinese workers were chased out of town and their homes burned. Why? Because they were different than us, they were considered a threat to us, we were more civilized than them, they were not citizens. A few people stood against that too. They were prophets, even if no one listened.
In El Salvador, the government of the 70s pursued policies that marginalized the poor and began imprisoning and killing people who opposed their policies. The archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, a quiet, shy man, took a stand and preached against what the government was doing. One morning, during the Eucharist, at the table as he raised the cup, he was shot. He once said; “…he who is committed to the poor must share the same fate as the poor…to disappear, to be tortured…and to be found dead by the side of the road.”
And that is what Jesus was willing to do. By taking the side of the outcasts, he was willing to be an outcast too. He was willing to be treated like the Canaanite and Syrian were treated by the people in his hometown. He nearly died for what he said. A prophet is willing to die for his stand—he is willing to stand by the outcasts that are hated by the society around them.
I thought about this one day when I got off work late and walked out with my co-workers to my car down the block. As we walked, I noticed a man sitting on the sidewalk. He looked like he was homeless, maybe even a little drunk. He gave a big smile and said “hello” as we walked past. You know, none of us turned and said hello back. I just kept walking. He wasn’t asking for money, not for anything, just a hello. When I got home, I sat down for time in prayer and looked at the icon of Christ sitting on my desk, only suddenly, in the place of the Christ I saw the face of that homeless man that I had failed to notice, failed to recognize as a human being.
The people of Nazareth were unable to see that the people they didn’t like were also children of God, made in God’s image and recipients of his love. Sometimes we find ourselves, sometimes I find myself, acting like the people of Nazareth. We like to think of ourselves as good people—better than the people living on the streets, the people we don’t like, the people that speak a different language or look different or believe differently. I wonder, if Jesus came to our little church here in Montesano, who would he say that we were forgetting? Who would he point out that we should include?
“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” Amen.