It was all too easy. I should have seen it coming. I need to learn to wait a little longer, to not assume everything is going well. After all it has happened before. We launch something new and it goes so well. I think everyone is on board, everyone is with the program, everyone sees the benefit and is supporting the new thing, the new think. Only to be surprised when I discover that isn’t true. When the opposition rises up, when the negativity comes out from the shadows where it has hidden, and I’m caught by surprise.
It’s my fault. I’m content to let sleeping dogs lie. I learned that at home. The crazy dogs are their most accepting and approachable when they’re sleeping. Good dogs, I whisper, careful not to wake them up and set them to barking at threats real and imagined - mostly imagined. No one is complaining, no one is coming and demanding change or a different opinion, no one is speaking of their fears and their doubts, so all must be well. Right?
Wrong. A couple of months into the new Sunday morning schedule and I’m feeling good, like we made this change and everyone is on board, then it happens. Feelings are hurt, charges of neglect and favoritism, folks unsettled by the change can’t keep it in any longer and it comes to a boil. It was a mess. And I didn’t see it coming. In the fourth week of a new teaching series on Christianity and Islam, trying to get us all to understand these neighbors who have come to live among us, to appreciate their faith, to be aware of the many similarities and not just the differences. And I think we’re getting it, we’re on board, learning to live in a new world, live as neighbors, the kind Jesus called us to be when he told us to love even those unlike us, to love them like he loved them, like he loved us. And I think we’ve got it, we’re on board, we’re ready to follow Jesus into a new world. Then I’m handed a printed email forward telling us to be suspicious of our Muslim neighbors, that they are a plague on our culture and that our President is secretly advancing their agenda and squeezing us out, be ware. And then I got an email from someone not even attending the class, with a link to a 139 page document warning all us good Americans that there is a conspiracy to take over our nation and run it according to the most fundamentalist laws of Islamic faith, and our President is behind it. Sigh. Never mind that the “proof” was compiled by a “think tank” that everyone from the BBC to Slate Magazine considers a less than reputable source.
Us verses Them. It is one of the fundamental fears of any human community. Who are the enemies, who should we fear? What makes it difficult is that there are those out there who want to hurt us, simply because we are who we are. We do have enemies. We need to take care, to pay attention, to stay strong. There are responsibilities of a nation to protect its people. No one can deny that. But we can also go crazy if we choose to live in fear. If we choose to see anyone who is different as a threat. La Donna reminds me that the crazy dogs had a hard life, we suspect they were abused and neglected for years before they came to live with us. No wonder they bark at shadows, no wonder they growl at ghosts. But what’s our excuse?
Luke 4:21-30 21 Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, "Is not this Joseph's son?" 23 He said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'" 24 And he said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian." 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
Everything was going so well. Jesus makes his proclamation, preaches his nine word sermon and the applause rains down. I know, that isn’t the way you remember the story. Wasn’t he rejected, didn’t they say he was just a hometown boy getting too big for his britches? Well, not exactly. Not at first. Look again. “All spoke well of him.” They thought, wow! A hometown boy made good. He’s one of us! He’s ours. Aren’t we special? Aren’t we cool? That little phrase at the end of verse 22 wasn’t disparaging, it was pride. He’s like us.
If Jesus has stopped there, it would have been a glorious homecoming. They would have slapped him on the back and invited him to dinner and talked about the good old days when he was a boy and things were so much better back in the Nazareth that used to be once upon a time. Jesus would have been a minor celebrity and they’s all wave to him in the Walgreen’s parking lot, and want to sit by him in the bleachers of the high school basketball games. He could have done well back there in the little town.
But he didn’t stop talking. He had a bigger vision than one small town in the hill country of Galilee. So he says, I know you want me to settle down here, because here is where all the people that matter are. I know you don’t understand why anyone would want to leave Nazareth and go on to other towns and other countries. But you don’t need me here. You won’t hear me here.
Wait, he said that? “No prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown.” Different translations have us remember those words in different ways. But what does it mean? Why did he say it? Because he knew what was underneath their approval. And he knew they didn’t want to hear what he came to say. He came to say they were important - that much they heard. God is going to get the kingdom going right here, in Nazareth. That’ll show the folks down the road, in the next county, in the next country. God’s kicking things off right here! Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. Yee haw. He came to say that they were important. But that they weren’t the only important ones in the world. He came to say that God thinks even the stranger, even the foreigner, even the enemy is important. Important enough to save. Important enough to love.
This has been God’s plan from the beginning, Jesus says. You remember Elijah? You remember that story of the widow? God thought she was important, saved her, blessed her, loved her. She wasn’t one of us. You remember Elisha? You remember that guy, that foreign general guy, with the skin problem? That guy was an enemy, a conqueror of people like you. God healed him. God blessed him. God loved him. Get this, he was Syrian.
Syrian? Wait a minute here Jesus. A refugee from Syria? He might be wanting to hurt us. He might be hating us. He might tell us he’s running for his life, but maybe it is just a plot. To catch us with our guard down. Maybe he isn’t really sick. Maybe they aren’t really refugees. Maybe they haven’t lived their whole lives in fear of their lives, surrounded by war and killing and living in an unjust system that doesn’t value them as human beings but rather sees them as pawns in a terrible game of power. Maybe we should protect ourselves first, think of ourselves first.
How dare you Jesus tell us to love even those who are different from us. Heck, we struggle to love the others in our pew, don’t go asking us to love across the boundaries that are there to keep us safe. No wonder they got angry. No wonder they turned into a mob. You can’t blame them really. Jesus was inconveniencing them something awful. Asking them to make accommodations, to change ingrained habits, to think differently about who and what a neighbor really is. That’s crazy talk. So, they barked and barked and barked, drove him out of town, wanted to toss him off a cliff. But he just left. He had places to go, a Word to proclaim, a world to save. He went on His way.
Perhaps the saddest verse in the whole bible. Evidence that God doesn’t force us to change, to grow, to love like He loves. Doesn’t demand that we become something more, something riskier, something with the potential to change the world for the better. To be more like it was supposed to be in the beginning. When God created the heavens and the earth and said it was good! It was good. We don’t have to be a part of the making good. But Jesus isn’t hanging around. He says follow me. And goes on His way.