Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
This passage from Luke was the one I chose to be read when I was ordained to the ministry many years ago. I asked a seminary friend to preach and it was one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard. Of course, I was primed to love it. I was serving a little church in Wisconsin, living in a lovely old parsonage with Warren. We had a dog but he and our monthly car payments were pretty much our only responsibilities. What was not to love about those first heady days in ministry? It wasn’t an easy church to serve. It was very small and some weeks, there was not enough money in the church account to pay my salary. Wisconsin dairy farmers are a tough lot. They spend way too much time doing really hard work with only cows to keep them company. And the educated elite in that little town was, by and large, conservative and – what’s the opposite of generous? But I learned more about ministry and human nature in those three years than I have learned in the twenty-eight years since. And though I hope I have become a little wiser, a little more patient, a little more thoughtful about ministry and human nature, still, those first years were the foundation upon which the rest of my ministry has been built.
Let’s look for a moment at the text that describes the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry - his preaching debut, the prologue that tells, in one little paragraph, the plot, the conflict, and the conclusion of the remarkable story of his life. Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit and ready to hit the ground running, had come back to Nazareth, his hometown. It was the Sabbath so he went to synagogue where he read from the holy Scriptures, Isaiah 61, to be exact. Everything was good – better than good. This was Mary and Joseph’s son, wasn’t it? Look how he’s grown. Listen to the Word of God from his lips. I just knew he’d be a rabbi some day. His hometown friends and neighbors were attentive. They loved hearing this young man, in much the same way we love to hear one of our congregation’s young people do a really good job reading Scripture or performing in the Christmas pageant. But then he began to preach.
“You’ll want to see me do the things you’ve heard I did in Capernaum, no doubt. And you’ll say to me that I should apply these lessons to myself if I’m going to apply them to you. You know me. You will find it difficult to hear from me the words I am about to say. No prophet is accepted at home…
But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, the time when heaven was closed to us, when we were in exile. Do you remember? There was a famine in the land and people were starving. But God sent Elijah to the widow at Zarephath in Sidon, not to one of our widows but to an enemy widow. There were lepers, too, all over Israel, suffering from God’s silence, Jews who were covered with leprosy but God sent Elisha not to cure a Jewish leper, one of our own. God sent Elisha to cure Naaman, an enemy, a general in the army that defeated us. You see, the year of the Lord’s favor does not necessarily apply to you...”
The people of Nazareth were furious. He started out well, promising that good stuff about how God’s blessing would be poured out on them. They would share in the unexpected bounty of having a prophet arise from their midst. But then things went south, and Jesus told them that God’s blessing would not come upon them but upon others. No historical or ethnic boundaries would contain or limit what God was about to do in him. The poor would hear good news, and the rich would hear woes. Those with faith would be blessed, while others would receive judgment.
Wait, wait, that’s not what we wanted to hear from our boy! And with that, the first, heady days were over.
I’ve been thinking about those first, heady days, when everything seems possible and fun. The honeymoon is how we often describe that period. I remember when I first came here how often people mentioned the honeymoon period. I’m not sure when it ended exactly, but it did end. I think about the earliest days of the Civil Rights Movement, when Martin Luther King, Jr., at the ripe old age of 26, was pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat on a bus. It was 1955. Just a little over a year later, pumped up and confident from the success in Montgomery, Rev. King organized and became the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference whose goal it was to organize and coordinate nonviolent direct confrontation of all segregation laws across the south. Those must have been heady days when it seemed as if nonviolent action rally would work to overturn the obscenity of racism. There were the first heady days of the Obama administration, the first heady days of the Jim Kim administration, the first heady days of any administration.
Years ago I was a friend of a woman who had serial extramarital affairs, some with men I knew and admired. I asked her once why she did that. At first she said, well it’s only sex after all. But then she talked about the excitement and fun of early romance, of sneaking around, getting away with something. She finally admitted that was what she was addicted to – the adrenaline, the illicitness, the secrecy and attraction, the snap, crackle and pop of those first, heady days.
Do you remember those first heady days of the first Gulf war? George H.W. Bush was president. The initial conflict to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait began with an aerial bombardment on January 17, followed by a ground assault on the 23rd of February. It was declared a decisive victory for the coalition forces, who liberated Kuwait and advanced into Iraqi territory. The coalition ceased their advance, and declared a cease-fire 100 hours after the ground campaign started. That was in 1991. A few things have happened in that region since those first, heady days.
Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit when he began teaching and speaking in the synagogues in Galilee. He was ready. He wasn’t a boy any more – no longer a student. Rome occupied Jerusalem. Many of the Jews had made their peace with that fact, in spite of the oppression and violence that swirled around the region. Jewish leaders, most of them, clung to the rules of their faith, rules that had worked when David was alive and God was still happy with them. Israel ached for a Messiah and Jesus was ready.
But when he began, not by summoning an army to fight Rome or equipping his people with weapons, but rather by talking about God’s love, even for the Jews’ enemies, well, those first, heady days were short-lived. Even in Nazareth, where, one might assume, Jesus’ would have been given a little latitude seeing as how he had been reared there, his listeners became enraged by his message. In modern parlance, one might say Jesus was essentially telling them adrenaline will only take us so far against Rome. It may be satisfying, for a little while. After all, who doesn’t want to stick it to the bad guys? But that isn’t God’s way. Remember? God loved the enemy widow. God loved the enemy soldier. God loves the bad guys. God loves the racists, the homophobes, the union organizers and negotiators, the Afghan people and the terrorists, the bonus givers and receivers, the managers, the faculty members, the administrators, the members of the synagogue in Nazareth and everyone who sits in the pews at the Church of Christ at Dartmouth College. Which is really good news, because once those first heady days are over, it will be God’s love that keeps us going – nothing more, nothing less, nothing other than the love of God will keep us moving in the right direction.
I think that’s what Jesus was saying in that first sermon in Nazareth. It made his listeners really, really angry. What does it make us, I wonder? Amen.