Who are we called to serve? (A sermon from Luke 4:21-30)

The Gospel story today picks up right where last week’s left off. Jesus entered the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth and read from the prophet Isaiah: “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.” After he concluded the reading, with all eyes in the synagogue fixed on him, he said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” As I said last week Jesus is telling them that this is what he is primarily about. This is his calling. This is his mission. This is his agenda.

Now, all of this is fine and good, as long as Jesus focuses on the right kind of people. That’s why we read in v. 22 that the people of Nazareth “spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came out of his mouth.” They thought Jesus was talking about their kind of people. But after Jesus tells them who he is really talking about their praise turns to rage.

Jesus begins by noting as a common bit of conventional wisdom that a prophet is not welcomed in his hometown. It’s curious that Luke would have Jesus say this at the beginning, when it most appropriately fits at the end. At any rate, it proves true. Jesus draws upon two stories from their Hebrew Bible. Luke wants us to know that Jesus was a faithful Jew all through his brief life. When Luke introduces this part of the story back in v.16 he tells us that it was Jesus’ common custom to be in the synagogue on the Sabbath. Even when the Jewish leaders raged against him and pushed him out to the edges of Judaism, Jesus, religiously, racially, and socially, was never anything other than a Jew. He never had any intention of departing from Judaism, his intention was to reform Judaism.

In drawing from the sacred texts that he shared in common with his fellow Jews, Jesus makes reference to two stories. He first calls attention to the story in 1 Kings 17. A famine has overtaken the land. There were many widows in Israel who were in need, no doubt, desperate need, but God sends Elijah, not to a Hebrew widow, but to a Gentile widow and her son, who had no food. Elijah provides them with food enough to survive and he heals her son. And in telling this story, Jesus stresses the point that this was a Gentile. He says, “there were many widows in Israel,” in great need, but Elijah “was sent to none of them.” Jesus follows that story with another story found in 2 Kings 5, where Naaman, a Gentile ruler, is healed of his leprosy by Elisha the prophet. Again, in making his point Jesus emphasizes that there were many Jewish lepers who were not healed. Elisha was not sent to any of them. Rather, he was sent to a Genitle. Luke says that after he told these two stories, drawn from their own scriptures, “all in the synagogue were filled with rage.”

You see, as long as Jesus focused on the poor, the blind, the captive, and the oppressed in Israel, among their own people, they praised the words he spoke. But when Jesus made it clear that God’s grace was not limited to their kind of people, that God’s love is inclusive of all people, and not exclusive to them, they were infuriated. It should be conceded that it is understandable why Jesus’ hometown crowd would be upset. They had reason to dislike Gentiles. Their country had a long history of being overrun by Gentile powers. And at this very time they were basically enslaved to Rome. They were given some measure of freedom, but the Romans could do to them whatever they wanted. Rome taxed them heavily and confiscated their land. This is why Jewish tax collectors who collaborated and colluded with Rome were so despised by their countrymen. They were deemed traitors.

Now, here’s the thing. Jesus used their own sacred traditions and texts to make his point. One commentator on this passage makes a very perceptive observation. He says, “For Luke, the tension that erupts here and will erupt again and again is not between Jesus and Judaism,” but rather “it is between Judaism and its own scriptures.” When I first started teaching and writing about an inclusive God who heals and redeems people who are not Christians, guess who was most upset with me? Christians. And in particular Baptist Christians. And why were they so upset? Because I drew from and utilized our very scriptures, the Christian scriptures, to make my case for an inclusive God. I don’t know if they were mad enough to hurl me over a cliff, but they would have loved to have driven me out of town, just the way they drove our church out of the local Association.

Why are religious exclusivists in general, and Christian exclusivists in particular so easily upset and angered? I think some of it has to do with our religious ego, which, by the way, we all struggle with to one degree or another. The ego wants to be right and feel superior to others. So when someone come along and says that God’s love knows no bounds or limits, that God welcomes and affirms “the other” who comes with a humble heart, no matter who the other is – the gay person, the Muslim, the Mexican, the Pittsburg Steeler fan – whoever – and they don’t have to believe the way we do or practice their faith the way we do to be on God’s side, when someone teaches that and tries to live that, the religious ego erupts.

I think we should all know by now, especially in light of what we have witnessed and lived through the last few years, that religious exclusivism can easily become a cover for exceptionalism, elitism, nationalism, racism, and sexism. Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that all religious or Christian exclusivists are racist and sexists and elitist. I have family members and friends who are Christian exclusivists and they are not racists or sexists. They are caring and compassionate people. But the fact remains, that Christian exclusivism can easily become and has become for some Christians a cover for prejudice and hate. And we see that in some of the hateful rhetoric from Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell, Jr., Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, and Robert Jeffress to name a few.

I heard someone say recently: We don’t need to be searching for common ground. We need to realize that we are already standing on common ground. Have you ever watched the closing celebration of the Olympics? They march out, country by country, wearing their official uniforms and carrying their national flags. But then almost inevitably at some point there is someone or a group of someones who break from the march, and usually it ignites a spontaneous eruption of enthusiasm. The neat, clearly defined groups of athletes disappear. Suddenly there is a kaleidoscope of color as athletes dance and shout and whirl about, hugging, laughing, and celebrating life together, all on common ground.

The common ground sisters and brothers is that we are all God’s children. We all have God’s Spirit. We are all stamped with God’s likeness, whether we know it or not. We are all welcome. We don’t to have pass any tests or earn any rewards or believe a particular set of doctrines. We just need to come with open, humble, and generous hearts.

I titled this sermon, “Who are we called to serve?” I could have just as easily titled it, “Who are we called to love?” Because you see, sisters and brothers, to love someone is to serve someone. We can’t say we love someone unless we are willing to work for their good. You may recall the story where Jesus caught his disciples arguing about who would be the greatest in God’s kingdom. He rebuked them. “This is not who you are,” he said. “You are not called to be lords, you are called to be servants of all. Not servants of select people who believe like us and think like us. No. Servants of all. Jesus said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life in service for the liberation of many.” If we ever accepted a call to discipleship this is what we signed up for – to love all people and be servants of all people.

Let me offer you some advice on how to go forward. Don’t try to jump in and love the world. The world is too big. The world is an object. You can easily lose your way trying to love the world. Rather, find someone in your world who is different than you – someone at work, or at school, or in an organization you are part of, or someone in your neighborhood – find someone who is different than you – maybe different religion, or different personality, or different race, or different interest, or different point of view, or different political party, and try your best with God’s help to serve that person, to do good for that person, because that’s what it means to love with the love of Christ.

In his book, Letters to My Children, Daniel Taylor tells about an experience he had in the sixth grade. Periodically the students were taught to dance and the teacher would line up the boys at the door of the classroom to choose their partners.  Thankfully, says Taylor, this was old school and this sort of thing is not done anymore. Imagine being one of the girls waiting to be chosen, and being passed by.

One girl named Mary was always chosen last. A childhood illness left her physically challenged and she wasn’t very pretty or smart. The assistant teacher happened to attend Taylor’s church and she pulled him aside one day and said, “Dan, next time we have dancing, I want you to choose Mary, it’s what Jesus would do?” That was heavy stuff. He couldn’t believe she was asking him to do that. The next time they had dancing he struggled with what to do—he hoped he would be last in line so he would have to choose Mary. Instead it turned out that he was the first in line.

As he looked at the faces of the girls before him, the pretty ones smiling—he noticed that Mary was the only one half-turned toward him—she had experienced this rejection many times, she knew she would not be picked. What would he do?  He says, “I remember feeling very far away. I heard my voice say, ‘I choose Mary.”  Taylor says that “never has reluctant virtue been so rewarded,” and as he wrote this he said, “Today I can still see her beeming face, fixated with surprise and pleasure and delight at being chosen. Taylor says, “I had to look away because I knew I didn’t deserve it.”

Do you think you could dance with someone who is different? Do you think you could serve and love that person? God does. God has no favorites. I know quite a few Christians who think we Christians are God’s favorites, but we are not.

Tony Campolo tells a wonderful story about getting off a plane in Honolulu at 3:30 in the morning wanting some breakfast. He found a little place that was open and as he sat at the counter sipping his coffee and eating his donut eight or nine women of the night walked in. The talk was loud and crude and Campolo felt completely out of place. But just as he was about to make his getaway he overheard a woman, whose name was Agnes, say, “Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m going to be thirty nine.”  Her friend responded in a nasty and sarcastic tone, “So what do you want from me? A birthday party?” The woman replied, “Why do you have to be so mean? I was just telling you. I have never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”

When Campolo heard that he made a decision. After the women left, Campolo inquired about them from the owner and cook named Harry.  Harry, a big guy and kind of ruff looking, said that the women came in every night about the same time. Campolo asked Harry what he thought about throwing Agnes a birthday party. Harry thought it was a great idea.

Campolo got the decorations while Harry made the cake, and the next evening when the women entered the dinner Agnes was given a surprise birthday party.  Agnes cried and was told to cut the cake. Agnes hesitated, looked down at the cake and said to Harry, “Would it be okay if I keep the cake a while? I mean is it all right if we don’t eat it right away?”

Harry said, “Sure! If you want to keep the cake, keep the cake. Take it home if you want to.” And with that Agnes picked up the cake like it was the Holy Grail and walked right out the door. Everyone else sort of stood there in stunned silence.  Finally Campolo said, “What do you say we pray?” And he started to pray, praying for Agnes that she would know God’s love. When he finished Harry learned over the counter and said, “Hey, you never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?” Campolo said, “The kind that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.” Harry responded, “No you don’t. There’s no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. I’d join a church like that.”

What if a few of us decided to be a church like that? What if a dozen of us decided to be a church like? What if several dozen of us decided to be a church like? We might usher in the kingdom of God.

Oh God, give us the will to take Jesus and his agenda seriously, to be committed to share his love for all by being ready to serve all. May we be a community that comes to reflect Jesus’ inclusiveness and his passion for those who have been beaten down in life? Help us to lean into that and live into that in Christ’s name. Amen.


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