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Risking Rejection

Rev. Daniel A Smith
Sun, Feb 03

Reading -- Luke 4:21-30

A few years back, I happened to catch the comedian Tina Fey on PBS giving an acceptance speech after receiving a distinguished national award at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in DC. Dressed in a fancy gown, and with cameras alternating between her and her doting parents who were seated in the balcony, she quipped: “I want to thank my family. They say that funny people often come from a difficult childhood, or a troubled family, so to my family, I say, 'They're giving me the Mark Twain Prize for American Humour— what did you animals do to me!?' Yeah.” She went on to say, “I know my Mother and Father are so proud of me tonight, so this is probably a good time to tell them, I'm putting you both in a home. We'll talk about it later.”

I was reminded of this while reading our passage about Jesus and his visit to —and rejection by— his hometown synagogue at Nazareth. The rejection is ironic because this passage starts out as something of an acceptance speech for Jesus as well. After all, still wet behind the ears from his baptism in Chapter 3, it’s here in Nazareth where he accepts the call to be the Messiah, the Anointed one whom Isaiah had foretold. Two verses earlier, Jesus read out the job description from his synagogue’s scroll. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor!” When Jesus says, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing!” his audience beams with pride, if also a little excitement about what those gracious words might mean for them! “Isn’t that Joseph’s boy?” they say. “Look at him go!” But, instead of showering them with thanks for their part in bringing him to this moment, Jesus instead turns and chooses to provoke them. He starts acting funny. Not Tina Fey funny, mind you, but he starts acting strange for Jesus and decidedly out of character! He pushes back hard against their claims of familiarity and whatever assumptions they are making. So often when we read this passage, we jump to the conclusion that the hometown crowd in Nazareth is too parochial. Why else would they be so upset by what Jesus is telling them? The focus isn’t on the fact that Jesus gets rejected, nor how he responds to that rejection. We’ll come back to that in a minute. The focus most often turns to those small-minded Nazarenes who think they know what’s what just because they knew Jesus when. Bear with me here!

In a commentary about our text, my late mentor and friend Rev. Peter Gomes once illustrated this approach beautifully by sharing a story about being on a panel with Rick Warren, megachurch pastor and author, who in 2002 wrote the wildly bestselling A Purpose Driven Life. They were each asked a variety of questions but the interviewers “kept harping on the question of whether anyone can be saved who is not a born-again Christian.” Predictably, Warren went straight for scripture -- “Jesus said ‘I am the way, the truth and the life; no man cometh unto the Father but by me ’” and with that, Gomes said Warren “threw the smoldering potato” over to him. Gomes paused, then responded. He said that for his part he “could not imagine that..God... the creator of all has no plan of salvation for the billions of others in this world, and perhaps even beyond our galaxy, except for a New Testament one. Surely God has not forgotten those of his creation who are not Christians. Romans tell us that God certainly has not forgotten the Jews.” “So,” Gomes said, lobbing the potato back to his friend Rick, “I can only conclude that my God is bigger than yours!”

Gomes thought Jesus was trying to make a similar point to his hometown. After all, Jesus recalls God’s beneficence to the Gentiles, to the widow in Sidon, and leper in Syria. He uses these examples in order to enlarge the presumably parochial, nationalistic worldview of the Israelites in Nazareth, or so this line of thinking goes. The God of the prophets and of Jesus is bigger than that! For Gomes and for many commentators, this explains the fury of the congregation. But, let’s step back, and wonder how fair this reading is to the Nazarenes. As New Testament scholar Amy Jill Levine has noted, “the rejection of Jesus is not prompted by xenophobia; it is prompted by Jesus’ refusal to provide his hometown with messianic blessings.” Do you see the difference? If we blame this hostile rejection on their xenophobia, we risk playing into an anti-Jewish canard long held by the church that Jews need Jesus to save them and show them the ways of God’s universal, unconditional love! The fact is, as Levine points out, Jews, in general and historically speaking, had good relations with Gentiles. Why else would there be a court of the Gentiles in the Jerusalem Temple? Why would Gentiles be patrons of the synagogues? Besides, they read the same scriptures that Jesus did! Maybe Jesus’ God was bigger than that of the Nazarenes’ but focusing the story there and making a bad example of the hometown may obscure a more profound and challenging point!

Which brings me back to Jesus’ funny way of acting here, emphasis on the acting! For what if Jesus shares some of the responsibility for his own rejection? Remember, he has just accepted a new part and a new playbook! And remember, he provokes them! His tone is undeniably harsh and condescending, “Doubtless you will say ‘Do here in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum!’” Doubtless? Ouch. But the truth is there were many widows in Israel! Yes, the Nazarenes know that. Doubtless there were some widows in the crowd! So what’s really going on here? If you ask me, I think Luke has Jesus literally acting the part in such a way so as to ensure that he is rejected. After all, Jesus knows before he opens his mouth that rejection is part of the program for any prophet. He says it himself: “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” It’s almost as if he’s saying, let’s make this easy and get this over with shall we. “Here’s the play! I’ll be a jerk for a minute, you all get angry, and then I can go on my way, and leave you with a lot to think about in terms of what it will mean to follow me and the ways of the prophets out there in the real world!

You see, if there is one thing prophets need to know about, and have practice in, it’s rejection! And if there’s one thing we love to avoid talking about, it’s rejection— especially our own! This is why it has taken me so long to get to here, to what I believe the story is really about. Ultimately, I think, Luke and Jesus are preparing us here for what comes next. This is the gospel in miniature here. For what does this story foreshadow if the not Calvary itself? Let alone the repeated rejection Jesus would encounter for proclaiming the gospel on his way there. This is merely a first taste, a first sting of what would be a lifetime of experience for Jesus and for his would be followers. If only we could get off so easy as to have our liberal theological biases confirmed! If only the message were as simple as ‘Our God is bigger than yours!’ No, the passage drives us to consider the rejection we will encounter when we start not merely talking about Isaiah’s words in the abstract but living the truth of them in our actions. In this case, it may mean making those who thought they would be first in line to receive a blessing wait, even if it’s our kin, even it’s our close friends from way back!

Having said all of that, the good news in this passage is like a buried treasure, not to mention one of the ‘greatest bits of understatement’ in all the gospel! It’s tucked into the last line. Right after they lead him up to the brow of the cliff, ready to hurl him off, Luke says, “But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”

Consider the last time you experienced rejection. Did you pass through the midst of it and go on your way? Or did you, like me, wallow in the land of ‘What if’s and ‘How dare they’s ?

For one thing, whenever we ourselves feel rejected—by our parents, our spouses, our bosses, by a college or potential job, or when sticking our necks out for justice— we can know that Jesus has been there and has felt that sting too! What’s more, there’s a model here of truth-telling courage and status-quo disrupting conviction that reminds us that rejection and defeat are two different things in God’s eyes.

And here is why Rick Warren’s “A Purpose Driven Life” sold over 50 million copies! For Jesus had this, and when he and we are driven by a clear sense of purpose, let alone God’s purpose, we too may find a remarkable resilience when we encounter detractors, failures and rejection!

To bring all this home, we see these dynamics playing out in powerful ways on our national scene these days, do we not? A new generation of women leaders, persons of color, political and even Presidential candidates, giving blistering speeches as they accept the call to lead on radically inclusive platforms! The blowback and rejection from many corners has been swift, severe and unmerciful! May Jesus be their model and may they too be emboldened to pass through the midst of it and go on their way, if not his!

And what about us? For here’s the real kicker of this story. Where are we feeling the call to follow Jesus and risk this kind of rejection? Where are we willing to go that is outside of our comfort zones, to make a fiery speech that can burn through those like-minded bubbles in which we live, and open us to new horizons of transformation? Where are we willing to provoke rejection as we accept God’s call to resist the status quo and to disrupt the establishment, even here inside the sometimes entrenched culture of this already- and not-yet-Beloved Community of First Church! What are we willing to sacrifice? A little hometown pride should be the least of our troubles.

I want us to really think about this! Think about it as you come forward to Christ’s table! What new parts and playbooks is God inviting us to accept? What would a spiritual practice of keeping the faith and persevering through rejection look like? What deep fears of disappointing others or even of abandonment would such a practice allow us to conquer? And what is the transformation that awaits? And one more question, if only to tee up what may be a related theme for us explore in the coming season of Lent, about a month away. To what or whom should be saying ‘no’ in order to more robustly say ‘yes’ to God? Stay tuned!

For now, and speaking of kickers, allow me to do what I did the last time I preached on Super Bowl Sunday and close by sharing a few lines from that great country hit by Bobby Bare. It goes like this:

Drop Kick Me Jesus through the Goalposts of Life.
End over end …through those righteous uprights….
Free from the earthly temptations below
I’ve got the will, Lord if you’ve got the toe.

1976 Grammy nominee. I kid you not!

Let’s pray. God, we need that toe! We need that drop-kick-like experience today, so that we too can follow and continue to fulfill those prophetic words of Isaiah! Grant us the courage and the will to face the rejection whenever there’s a chance to do the right thing! And grant us the strength and grace, God, that we too might pass through the midst of the crowd, again and again, and go on his way - the way of Jesus, the way of justice, and righteousness and love!


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