According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus went back home to Nazareth to preach his first sermon. Let me tell you, I think that was his first mistake. People know too much about you in your hometown.
Several years ago I was asked to be the Sunday morning guest preacher for the District Conference of the Western Plains District of the Church of the Brethren. The conference was being held at the McPherson Church of the Brethren in Kansas. This was a big deal for me. My first memory of church was sitting in the balcony of that sanctuary.
I was especially nervous preaching in the place that formed my early Christian education. I worked extra hard on my sermon and when it was over I felt like I had nailed it. But as I stood in their narthex afterward, all the older adults from the McPherson Church of the Brethren lined up to greet me. It seemed they each wanted to tell me a story they remembered from my childhood.
Before I tell you about their memories I just want to say a couple things in my own defense. You see, my family arrived in McPherson Kansas in 1963 when I was just two years old. My parents were missionaries in Nigeria until my father became deathly ill. They loaded him on a plane and sent him back to the States to die. He recovered but his recovery was very slow. And so our family of five moved into the basement of my grandparents’ home in this little town in Kansas. I was two years old and up to that point my whole life had been lived in the bush of Nigeria.
That is my defense. So this is how those conversations went in McPherson on that Sunday morning when I, in my fifties, greeted these people who remembered me but I couldn’t remember them. The stranger would say, “You probably don’t remember me but I remember a story about you when you were just a little girl.” I would stop them in mid-story and say, “Does it involve me being naked?” Surprised they would say, “Why, yes it does. Have you heard this story before?” “Many times,” I would respond. “I’ve heard many stories. They are all the same. Only the location is different.”
I was two years old and without warning my family pulled me out of an environment in which clothing wasn’t considered a requirement and plopped me down in a place where clothing was definitely a requirement. There are a whole sea of naked stories about me from that time period….not since. Over the years I have been regaled with stories from my parents, my relatives and strangers who stop me at Annual Conference. There is the story of the time I was brought back home completely nude from the park by a police office at 6 in the morning. My parents didn’t even know I was gone. It seems I ripped off my clothing just about every time someone turned his or her back on me. It is dangerous to go back to your hometown. People remember things about you that you would rather they not remember.
Jesus should never have decided to preach his first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth. Trust me, when you are preaching to the people who knew you when they aren’t thinking about the message…they are remembering when.
The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus starts by reading from the scroll of Isaiah about the Jubilee. We had a short sermon series here on the Jubilee in May. If you were here you remember that Jesus read this portion of the scripture:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because God has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
God 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.
Then he stopped. He didn’t go on to read the part of Isaiah right after that about how the enemies of Israel would become the servants of Israel. His hometown crew loved that part. “Why leave out the best part?” they wondered. He stopped with the part of about the Jubilee. Then he sat down to preach and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Basically he said, “I am here and so now the Jubilee has begun.”
His homies began to whisper among themselves, “When did he become so well-spoken? This is our Jesus, right? Isn’t he the son of the carpenter Joseph? I remember some stories about him.”
And that is when it all turned bad. All of a sudden…seemingly unprovoked…
Jesus goes after them. He says, “Surely you will say, ‘Do here the kinds of miracles we hear you are doing in Capernaum.’ But it doesn’t matter what I do here. Prophets are never welcome in their own hometowns. Just look at Elijah, for example. There were so many widows in Israel back in the time of Elijah when they had that terrible famine and people were dying left and right. But Elijah didn’t go home. God sent Elijah to an unnamed, Gentile widow…not to the widows of Israel. And there were lots of lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha but he was sent to heal Naaman the Syrian. It appears God sends his prophets to the widows, the lepers, the outsiders, the Gentiles. My job is not to soothe your needs.” Really? This is Jesus’ inaugural sermon and he chooses to deliver it to his Sunday School teacher; the clerk at the corner store where he used to go buy milk for his mother; the neighbor who taught him to ride a bike; the friends that remember him from the soccer field; and the confidantes of his mother who remember how confounding he was for her. Then he decides to tell them he doesn’t owe them anything. Oh Jesus! What a pot stirrer.
He preaches his first sermon to his hometown and he references the Gentile widow of Zarephath and the Syrian leper named Naaman. If you were here last week you know that I have an interest in looking at the unnamed people of the Bible…who are more often than not the marginalized and victimized ones in every story.
In order to understand what happens after Jesus’ outburst we need to take a closer look at the story of the widow of Zarephath. She appears in 1 Kings just a few short verses after we meet Elijah, the great prophet, for the very first time. Elijah lived during the period of the Kings. If you read through 1 & 2 Kings you will see that these two books are mostly about prophets. The kings, for the most part, play a secondary role. The kings were not the shapers of Israel’s history, the prophets were.
Elijah is one of the greatest prophets of all. When he shows up in the pages of our Bible there is a great famine in the land. God obviously has plans for Elijah and so the first task is to keep Elijah alive during this time of scarcity. God sends him into hiding near a wadi, a ravine of water, so Elijah has water to drink. Then every morning and every evening ravens bring Elijah meat and bread. Meat twice a day during a famine would have been decadent. Elijah stays there until the wadi he is hiding near dries up. Then God says to Elijah, “Go to Zarephath in Sidon….Gentile country. There is a widow there and I have commanded her to feed you.”
When Elijah arrives at the city gate in Zarephath he sees a widow collecting sticks to build fire to bake her bread. He says to her, “Can you get me some water?” Life in the desert was harsh and so the people who dwelt in these difficult environments lived by the code of hospitality. If a stranger asked you for food and/or water you gave it to them. In return they came in peace. When Elijah asked this woman for water she dutifully went off to fetch it, without question.
But while she headed off to get Elijah water he called after her, “Oh, and can you also bring me a morsel of bread and from your own hand?” And that is when her plight comes tumbling out. “I have no bread baked. I was gathering these few sticks so I could bake the last handful of flour I have with the little bit of oil I have left in my jug at home. My son and I were going to eat this one last meal before we die.” In other words, she is saying, “I know the rules of hospitality but my son and I are starving to death.”
If this is the widow that God commanded to feed Elijah, she certainly missed the announcement. Elijah says, “Do not be afraid.” Now where have we heard that before? It is what angels say in scripture. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” “Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” “Do not be afraid, shepherds, for I bring you good news of great joy.”
The words of angels come out of Elijah’s mouth. “Do not be afraid,” he says to an unnamed, non-Israelite widow who has run out of food and is living in the land of the wicked Queen Jezebel during a terrible famine. There are so many reasons she should be rightfully frightened. It turns out that when God said, “I have commanded a widow in Zarephath to feed you” God could have been more clear by saying, “Elijah, I deputize you as my messenger to tell the unnamed widow to feed you with her very last morsel of food.”
Imagine what this poor woman must have thought. She is living in hell. Her husband is dead. She is watching her son slowly starve to death while a drought is full on. The wadis have all run dry. She is about to cook her very last meal and this stranger shows up and asks her to take her last meal and give it to him. Does he not know there is not enough to go around? There is not enough for her and her son, let alone him. Death is knocking at her door and this man has the audacity to say to her, “Don’t be afraid. Go on now and bake me that bread and after you have brought it to me you can bake some for yourself. Yahweh will keep flour in the jar and oil in the jug until it rains again.” Really? Would you do that?
Caught between the code of hospitality and the reality of the grim ripper this unnamed widow chooses hospitality. She does as Elijah asked. And guess what there was flour in the jar and oil in the jug when she got home from giving Elijah what she thought was her last meal.
That is the story Jesus chooses to reference in his very first sermon to a room full of people who have known him since he was a lad. Jesus chooses to remind them of two stories of their great prophets being sent to minister to people who weren’t from Israel. One of them is an unnamed Gentile widow of no standing, worth or significance to his hometown crew. Jesus didn’t go to Nazareth and say, “Look! Hometown boy makes good!” No. He tells them that he is now a prophet and God does not send prophets home. He sends them to the lepers and widows of their enemies and he will do no miracles in Nazareth. He is not here for the self-interests of his hometown.
Then I want to know why he went there at all? Why give your first sermon to them and then tell them you came for others? He told them that today this scripture was fulfilled in their hearing and the good things are not for them.
This isn’t a sermon about Jews or Nazareth….this is about hometowns…it is a story about us.
Jesus went home to the people on the inside of the circle and he preaches to them about their desire to create borders…to hoard….to exclude. By referencing stories from their scripture he tells them that their need to clutch their understandings, their things, their God close to their chests is bad theology. Prophets aren’t people who predict the future. Prophets tell the truth about what is happening right now.
Jesus said to the hometown crowd that he came to bring good news to the poor. What they heard was: God favors Syria. God saved a Gentile widow and not their widows. Jesus heals in Capernaum and not in Nazareth. “Heresy,” they cry. “You know what we do with heretics?” They shove him out of the synagogue and to the brow of the cliff in Nazareth. They plan to kill the prophet making Jesus point for them that prophets are not welcome in their own hometowns.
Jesus goes home to preach his first sermon because, it turns out, he did have message for them….it was a different message than he had for the outsider. Jesus has a message for all of us. It’s just not the same message. Jesus says to the hometown posse….which is us, “You live in the world overabundance and I have been sent to preach good news to the people you ignore. But I also have a message for you, my friends. Don’t hoard. Don’t fear your neighbor. Stop creating borders and circling the wagons. Don’t send the hungry away empty. There is enough resources to go around and God’s love is definitely not a limited good.
The hometown crowd that first heard that message tried to kill him. The message is still relevant to this hometown crowd. Hopefully, we will hear the message and respond differently. Amen.