Jesus’ experience in his hometown synagogue reminds us: sometimes preachers offend people. In my former congregation, I quoted a passage from a hilarious book I was reading, supposedly written by a childhood pal of Christ named Biff. The author described a man who was so stern and judgmental, so cranky and out of touch, it was as if he was “born dead.” I was trying to say that we can be alive without really being alive. Truthfully, I also wanted to be funny. Understandably, my lighthearted approach didn’t land well on a couple who had recently lost a baby.
In that case, I didn’t mean to make anyone upset. My words were simply insensitive. In twenty years of offering sermons, I have certainly said difficult things that I meant to say. And yet, I haven’t really ever done what Jesus did in his Nazareth sermon. He purposefully upset the hometown crowd. He provoked and prodded them. He enflamed their fears and insecurities, their grief and frustration, until it became a powerful wave of rage.
Initially, the hometown crowd welcomed Jesus and his message. Today, God is fulfilling God’s promises of liberation. The poor have good news. The oppressed are free. The year of jubilee is here—the restoration of people to their ancestral land. These folks were the poor, the hungry, the sick, the landless peasants. They belonged to a minority ethnic and religious group suffering in the grasp of a mighty empire. So Jesus’ statement that he came to fulfill the vision of the prophet Isaiah met a favorable reception. “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”
And then, the crowd wondered aloud: “Is not this Joseph’s son?” In this little question, Jesus sensed an undercurrent of unspoken assumptions, which perhaps he had also heard among the town gossips. The crowd was making sure he remembered that he was one of them. And although the Spirit had filled him, and the voice from the heavens had named him as God’s own representative, in their eyes, Jesus was still defined and limited by his human parentage. He could not escape the rigid norms and expectations imposed by his culture. His ancestral village had the right and responsibility to control and contain his ministry. And, he owed them special favors which they were eager to collect.
With this context in mind, we can understand why Jesus refused to do deeds of power in Nazareth. Why, despite the approving words of his kin, he felt rejected. Why Jesus reminded them of times when God compelled Israel’s greatest prophets to prioritize serving foreigners and outsiders over tending the needs of their own community. Why he felt compelled to offend them, to provoke them, to inflame them to the point of rage. I don’t think Jesus made these moves out of contempt for his hometown. Not at all. I think Jesus gave this sermon out of bold and tender love for them. He knew what the consequences might be for himself. And he knew what the consequences would surely be for them if he stayed quiet, made nice and smoothed things over. He knew they needed to hear the word of God. He knew anger was the only thing that would rock their complacency. He aimed to enlarge their world, to change their thinking, to crack open their souls.
In her book, God in Pain, Barbara Brown Taylor argues that disillusionment is a critical part of faith. She writes:
Disillusionment is, literally, the loss of an illusion—about ourselves, about the world, about God—and while it is almost always a painful thing, it is never a bad thing, to lose the lies we have mistaken for the truth. Disillusioned, we find that God does not conform to our expectations. We glimpse our own relative size in the universe and see that no human being can say who God should be or how God should act. We review our requirements of God and recognize them as our own fictions, things we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel safe or good or comfortable. . . . Over and over my disappointments draw me deeper into the mystery of God’s being and doing. Every time God declines to meet my expectations, another of my idols is exposed. Another curtain is drawn back so that I can see what I have propped up in God’s place. No, that is not God. Who, then, is God? It is the question of a lifetime, and the answers are never big enough or finished.
I wonder . . . when and how and through whom has the word of God come into your life to stir you up, to get under your skin, to shatter your illusions? For me, these Nazareth moments have been less like angry confrontation and more like an uncomfortable unveiling, the peeling back of layers of privilege that insulate me, the sense of “duh,” how could I not have understood that before? I can think of many such sermons over the years. I think of my year of working at McDonald’s as a teen, when I realized, with dismay, that some people spend their lives wearing a grease-saturated uniform, paying their rent and raising their children on minimum wage. I think of the prophetic words of my friend, Elizabeth, that startled and upset me in the course of a long-ago argument: “Jane, you could never really understand what it’s like to be poor, even if you had no money, because poverty is something more than being broke, because you have so many assets you can’t give away even if you want to, like your education.” I think of the sinking, disorienting feeling that filled me, when I first encountered the long list of everyday privileges that come with being white in our society. I think of how, in Guatemala, I rode in the back of pickup trucks hanging on for dear life as we jounced over giant potholes. And how I stood uneasily in the shower with my mouth clamped shut, trying not to ingest any water. And how it dawned on me that I am supported by an infrastructure I don’t even notice or appreciate—good roads, clean drinking water, sewer lines and treatment plants. I think of the uproar that arose as our congregation considered becoming a sanctuary church some years ago. Were the strategies I used to navigate that moment wise and necessary or conflict-avoidant and lacking in courage? I think of marching on the interstate after police murdered a Black man, proud to be following Black leadership yet puzzled about the strategy and scared for the consequences.
Transformation requires agitation; Jesus knew that. And is that what happened? Is that why Jesus, run to the very edge of a cliff, was allowed to escape? Because enough people in crowd experienced an awakening?When the strong feelings had passed, had they accepted and integrated the truth of what Jesus was saying? That God’s grace is so deep and so wide it manages to offend us all. That God’s healing, love and liberation has no limits. That the divine gifts are for all of us, because we can only be whole together. That no one can own or contain or withhold the Spirit of God. Or perhaps illumination only come to this crowd days or years later. Or not at all. We will never know.
What we can know is that what Jesus did that day in the synagogue illustrates the way the divine presence operates in our lives. God’s word doesn’t always comfort us. If we find ourselves disturbed, annoyed, unsettled or even enraged, then we ought to be alert. God might be speaking to us. Following Jesus means feeling discomfort and continuing to grow through that discomfort. It means listening to and learning from people whose life experiences, cultures, and levels of privilege are radically different than our own. It means questioning the assumptions we hold, stretching our imagination and ultimately letting the divine Spirit expand our world. It means losing our illusions. It means living in the flow of God’s amazing, and offensive, grace. Amen.