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Luke 4: 21-30
January 30, 2022
4th Sunday after Epiphany
How many of you have ever belonged to a club, any kind of club? There are all kinds of clubs in the world, most of them for good purposes, to bring together people of similar interests and hobbies, like a golf club, tennis club, book club or garden club. Other clubs have a philanthropic purpose, like Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions. But some clubs—some clubs take it to the extreme.
Have you ever heard of “The Core Club?” I read this description of the Core Club: “If you have insane amounts of money, and only want to interact with others who do, this is your club. The only membership requirement is that your annual earnings rank in the top 1 percent in the United States.”1
Or how about this club in London? You have to be nominated by a member, seconded by another, and then wait three years for entrance. Then there’s the Giga Society, which has only 7 members, because the entrance requirement is that on an intelligence test, you must outscore 99.9999999 percent of the world’s population!2
Those elite organizations testify to the human tendency to draw boundaries, to say, “These people are like me, so I am going to associate with them, and only them.” Or, “These people think the same way I do, and so we are going to stick together and not have anything to do with the people on the other side.”
We see that tendency in our lectionary passage from the gospel of Luke. From verse 22, “ALL spoke well of him and were amazed at his gracious words,” the passage took a turn, and by verse 28, “ALL in the synagogue were filled with rage.”
What do we make of this puzzling passage? How did things turn so drastically from affirmation to attempted murder?
Jesus was in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, among people who knew his parents, who had known him since he was a small child. He had just read from the prophet Isaiah, a promise of the coming Messiah, and when he sat down, he said, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This was good news! Everyone in the synagogue spoke well of him and his words of grace!
But then Jesus went on with more challenging words. Before coming to Nazareth, Jesus had been in Capernaum, an area with a large gentile population, and earlier in the chapter, we learned that he had done signs there! But Jesus said that he would not do similar signs among his own people. This no doubt began to raise their ire.
Then, he did something that enraged them. Elijah and Elisha were two of the most venerated prophets in Israel. Of all the accounts of their work he could have chosen, Jesus lifted up times these notable men went beyond Israel to enact God’s saving power. Jesus pulled no punches: “There were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah,” yet Elijah went to a widow in Sidon, a Gentile city in an area where Baal was worshipped.
“There were many lepers in Israel at the time of Elisha,” Jesus said, yet it was Naaman, a commander of the enemy army, who received God’s healing mercies.
“When they heard THIS,” verse 28 tells us, “ALL in the synagogue were filled with rage.” These stories of outsiders being favored over Israelites provoked the people; but even more so, Jesus was insinuating that the Messiah would come not just for Israelites, but for outsiders who they thought were undeserving! They were so incensed that they drove him out of town and to the cliff, to hurl him over the edge!
What is it about human nature? We want to think that we are favored people, that we are somehow better, more deserving, than those folks who are not like us. You may have seen the bumper sticker that says, “God loves you, but I’m God’s favorite.”
Human beings have a tendency to turn inward, to circle up with our backs facing out, so that our gaze is cast upon the others inside our group. The sociological term for this is “tribalism.” In the earliest days of humanity, it was natural for tribes to form in order for people to survive. But through the advancing years, instead of disappearing, tribalism still rears its ugly head, especially at times of major upheaval and change.
The people of God are called to a better way. Jesus always directs our attention away from ourselves. When our eyes are turned inward, it is easy to become like a social club, instead of the body of Christ. We are called to incarnate Christ, to be Christ to the world, as we do what Jesus did: shine the light of God’s liberating love.
Having an Outward Incarnational Focus is one of the seven marks of being a Vital Church.
In this season of Epiphany, as we think about shining the light of Christ, we are looking at these seven characteristics, to see how we can continue growing in vitality, as we shine the light for all to see. The seven marks of vital churches are
1. Spirit-Inspired Worship
2. Empowered Servant Leadership
3. Lifelong Discipleship Formation
4. Intentional Authentic Evangelism
5. Outward Incarnational Focus
6. Caring Relationships
7. Ecclesial Health
Today we are considering the fifth point: Outward Incarnational Focus. The PCUSA Office of Vital Congregations says that Outward Incarnational Focus involves going “beyond relationships with those who are like us.” It is in contrast to Inward Institutional Survival, “closed communities of assimilation and exclusion.”3
The people in the synagogue were concerned with Inward Institutional Survival. When we relate Outward Incarnational Focus to this passage, if we are going to understand this passage rightly, we have to drill down to the core, which is the drastic turn this passage takes.
In his commentary, Fred Craddock noted that Luke’s point here--and throughout the gospel--is that “Israel should have understood and embraced Jesus’ message. Israel knew of God’s grace toward all people as early as the covenant with Abraham,” he said. And yet, they were “offended by God’s grace to those of whom [they] did not approve.”4
And what about us? We, too, know scripture. We, too, have as part of our faith tradition God’s grace toward all people. But oh, how easy it is to deceive ourselves. How easy it is to convince ourselves that Jesus did not mean THOSE people. How easy it is to be a “closed community of assimilation and exclusion.” We justify our judgments, feel honorable in our exclusions, we burn with self-righteous indignation against those whom we condemn.
If we want to hear God’s word for us in this passage, we need to ask, Who is it who makes us as angry as the people in the synagogue were that day?
Like the people in the synagogue, it’s not Jesus’ words about caring for the poor that get us. It is the idea of God extending grace to people outside the boundaries we have set.
The division in this nation is no secret. There is polarization between right and left, conservative and liberal. In his book, The Welcoming Congregation, Henry Brinton noted that while most Americans claim to appreciate diversity, our actions show otherwise. In fact, he wrote, “it is much more common for people to cluster together....with those just like themselves---especially those who share their political affiliation. Our country has become increasingly polarized,” he said, “and today large numbers of Americans fail to have significant contact” or communication with people who believe differently than they do.
Brinton shared how this trend has played out in his church; he is the Pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church, not far from us, one of the sister churches in our Presbytery. He said that over the years, his church has lost members on both sides, right and left, who joined what he called “more specialized, politically focused congregations.” Brinton said, “Our story echoes a broader, troubling change in mainline Protestant denominations across the country. I fear that this is a change that could lead to the disappearance of churches that strive for balance in religious practice and beliefs,” he wrote.5
My friends, this is not the way of the church of Jesus Christ. When we have as our center anything other than Christ, we have lost our way. When the church circles around a social issue or a political ideology, we have made an idol of it, just as if were worshiping a golden calf. When we gather only with those just like us, we are repeating the behavior of those in the synagogue with Jesus, who could not imagine God’s love and favor for anyone outside of their tribe!
Here’s the really hard part: when we enclose ourselves within these groups, we can convince ourselves that we, and only we, have it right! We base our beliefs and behaviors on selective scripture, and there is no one to challenge us! We hear no other voices, because we have chosen to reside in an echo chamber of our own making.
We need to remember Christ’s teaching in this passage that he came for all people. We must immerse ourselves in God’s word, so that the voice of God is stronger than the voices on TV or social media. God so loves the world, that God sent Jesus to be the Savior---not just of a small, select group, but to be the Savior of all.
The Body of Christ should never be like an elite club, but should always have an Outward Incarnational Focus. Christ, and Christ alone, is our center. Rather than turning inward to our own causes, we need to turn outward to the cause of Christ. We need to be about his work of bringing good news, working for justice, and welcoming all.
As Barbara Brown Taylor beautifully said, “God’s face can turn up anywhere, especially on the far side of the lines we draw ... The call of God is insistent and whenever we limit who we will be to other people or who we will let them be to us, God gets to work, rubbing out the lines we have drawn around ourselves and calling us into the limitless country of his love.”6
If we are going to practice Outward Incarnational Focus, we must ask ourselves:
How can we erase lines and remove boundaries?
How can we hear one another, instead of shutting out dissenting voices?
How can we see one another, instead of unfriending people with whom we disagree?
How can we welcome all people to our church, so that they can experience God’s love?
How can we build up the Body of Christ, so that with him as our center, we are freed to turn outward in love and grace?
How can we incarnate God’s love to all people?
Robert Frost had a neighbor who wanted to put up fences. In response, he wrote the poem, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, he wrote.
Before I built a wall, I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall
That wants it down.
The word of God is clear. There is “something that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.” That something is the love of God in Christ Jesus. We all are members of the family of God, through our Savior, Jesus Christ. So let us live with Outward Incarnational Focus, shining the light of God’s love for the world. Amen and amen.
1. “The Most Elite Club in the World,” Homiletics, September/October 2012.
3. Vital Congregations Manual, The Office of Vital Congregations, Theology, Formation and Evangelism Department, Presbyterian Mission Agency, PCUSA.
4. Fred Craddock, Luke: Interpretation Commentary Series (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 63.
5. Henry Brinton, The Welcoming Congregation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), xi-xvi.
6. Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 66-67.
Rev. Dawn M. Mayes
Manassas Presbyterian Church