January 31, 2016

Through our Midst

            When I was an undergraduate at Pepperdine University, my humanities class had a guest speaker one day to teach us about Islam. He began the class with a quiz. We each got a piece of paper with a series of quotes on it, and we had to identify the source of each quote. There were three choices for each quote: Did it come from the Old Testament, the New Testament, or the Quran? I’d never read the Quran—and I still haven’t—but I did my best on the quiz. Unfortunately, I don’t remember any of the quotes exactly, but I do remember some key words like “Jesus,” “Mary,” “justice,” and “forgiveness.” What I remember most fully, though, is the guest speaker’s revelation at the end of the quiz: Every single one of the quotes had actually come from the Quran.

            Of course each of these quotes was plucked out to emphasize the stories and the values that can be found in the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. That choice to put a spotlight on our commonalities made a lot of students uncomfortable. But I consider that moment, as a freshman at a Church of Christ college, to be a major intervention in my life. I believe that it turned my heart toward compassionate understanding and peacemaking rather than toward intolerance and antagonism. I wondered, could my very own God, the God of my personal Lord and Savior, be present and active among other peoples? My heart and mind suddenly opened to the possibility that “my” God was not my personal possession.

            In today’s gospel, Jesus opens a very resistant people to a similar possibility: that the God of Israel, who they were coming to recognize in Jesus Christ—their very own hometown boy—had sometimes visited, and fed, and healed strangers in none other than Lebanon and Syria. To the people gathered in the synagogue that day to study their scriptures, this proclamation from Jesus didn’t sound like good news.

            The people at the synagogue in Nazareth were just speaking so well of Jesus and standing amazed at his words. Perhaps they were taking pride in their local boy; perhaps they were expecting the special favors of Jesus’ public ministry. But Jesus deflates their dawning pride and disappoints their expectations by saying, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah . . . and there was a severe famine over the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon [in modern-day Lebanon].” Jesus goes on, “There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” These words fill the people in the synagogue with rage.

            How could this be? God had visited a widow in Zarephath in Sidon? And a Syrian army captain? Through the prophets Elijah and Elisha, these people had known God’s presence and experienced God’s saving acts of feeding and healing. In the meantime, the people who believed that they were God’s very own had missed out on some of what these prophets had to offer.

            Early in his public ministry, Jesus has to clarify for the faithful people of Nazareth that he is not here to reinforce their pride or to be their special possession. He is not here to earn their praise or amazement. He is there to fulfill the prophecy which we heard last Sunday: to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.

            The response of people who have grown up with Jesus, who are comfortable around his friends and family, who are amazed at his words and eager for his blessings, is to be offended and enraged at this reminder that God is not their own possession. When Jesus reminds the people of God’s prophetic visitation to Lebanon and Syria, the gospel tells us that “all in the synagogue were filled with rage.” They get up, drive Jesus out of town, and try to send him over the edge of a cliff. And yet Jesus—almost like Holy Spirit blowing where it will, or like the resurrected body of Christ entering and leaving locked rooms—somehow passes through their midst and goes on his way.

            How do we react to the possibility that God has visited and assisted other people through prophets? To the possibility that “our” God could be known and even worshipped and loved by people we don’t expect? In today’s gospel, a possibility like this offends people so deeply, fills them with such rage, that in their defensiveness and anger they nearly destroy the fullest expression of God with them—of God with us.

            To acknowledge God’s presence and action outside of our accustomed borders might seem, on the surface, to deny something about Christ. But perhaps when we deny God’s activity outside of seemingly sacred boundaries, we also reject Christ’s own proclamation of God’s presence, provision, and healing for all people. When we’re so offended and enraged, the God known to us in Christ himself might slip through our fingers and pass through our midst.

Perhaps the God known to us in Christ is not a God we can possess or corner the market on, just because we know him better than someone else does. The God known to us in Christ may be at home here, but he is really going places. The people in today’s gospel try to run him and his message right out of town. A better choice might have been to try to keep up with him on his way. Amen.