“Too Close to Home,” Luke 4:21-30

January 2016 at NWUMC
Note: This is part of a sermon series entitled “Skin in the Game” we’ve been doing at Northwest UMC since Epiphany to talk about the meaning of Incarnation.

Jesus said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21) What Scripture? If you feel like you have come into the middle of a movie, you have. Pastor Tom Slack dealt with the first half of this text last Sunday. More about that shortly, but first I want us to think about how we react when things don’t go the way we want? Or we don’t get something we really are counting on, perhaps a Christmas gift that isn’t quite what you were expecting?

A little boy asked his grandparents for an iPad. Boy was he surprised when he opened his gift on Christmas morning and found a bandage for an injured eye. It was an “eye pad” all right, but not the kind that comes from Apple. When my son was driving his kids to school on the first Monday after the long holiday break he dropped first grader Audrey off at her school first and could immediately see in the rear view mirror that her 2-year old brother Brady was not happy when he realized he was next. It was like that moment when the family dog realizes you aren’t just going for a ride but are heading for the vet. Brady stuck out his lip, turned his head and wouldn’t look at his dad or talk to him all the way to pre-school. He was expecting Christmas vacation to be the new normal and made it quite clear he was not ready to have to go back to school.

I’m sure Brady was fine a few minutes after he bid a tearful goodbye to his guilt-ridden father, but some unwanted surprises are harder to take and last longer. A teen grounded for doing something that seemed like a good idea until it wasn’t, an elderly parent forced to have his or her driving privileges taken away or to move from an old familiar home. Broken marriage vows, political heroes who turn out to have feet of clay. Whatever the disappointment, it’s hard not to be upset, even angry, to blame everyone but ourselves, sometimes even God, and the bigger the disappointment, the harder it is to accept things we can’t change or have no control over.

In the Gospel lesson from Luke we have a complicated story where high expectations turn into disappointment. Pastor Tom did a great job last week of covering the first half of this story, but let me do very quick review for those who weren’t here. In part I of this story Jesus has returned to his hometown of Nazareth after his baptism, temptation in the wilderness, and some teaching and healing in other towns in the area. As was his custom, Luke tells us, he went to the synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath to teach. He was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and read the passage that describes Jesus’ understanding of who he was and what his ministry was about. The passage talks about proclaiming good news to the poor, release of the captives, restoring sight to the blind, and proclaiming the acceptable year of the Lord because the Messiah is anointed by the Holy Spirit to do those things.

That part about the Holy Spirit is critical to understanding what it means for Jesus and for us to put our skin in the game to build God’s Kingdom. Luke links every important event in Jesus’ early life to the Holy Spirit. Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit descends on him at his baptism, the Spirit drives him into the wilderness to be tested and prepared for his ministry, and it is the spirit that empowers him to proclaim after reading those words about the Messiah, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

It’s that last line that gets the hometown crowd excited. Nothing Jesus read up till that point was new to them. Isaiah’s words had been around 500 years or so and similar pleas for social justice for the poor and misfortunate run through many of the prophets. God had sent prophets for centuries to proclaim that message, but people didn’t listen. So God decided he has to do a new thing, he has to go all in and put skin in the game. “And the word became flesh and dwelt among us” is how the Gospel of John describes the incarnation. My favorite translation of that verse is the one that says, “God pitched his tent among us.” Not in luxury and ease but on the front lines of suffering, that’s where God decides he can’t just tell us anymore how to live together; he will come and show us in the form of Jesus.

Paul Harvey used to tell about a man who was angry at God and the church was home alone on Christmas Eve while the rest of his family went to church. Late that evening he looked out and saw a flock of birds struggling in his yard with snow that was falling so hard and was so wet and heavy that it coated their wings like a jet needing to be de-iced. They were flopping around trying to fly but couldn’t. The man went out and opened his garage doors hoping they would go in there out of the storm. When they didn’t he tried to herd them to safety, but that only made them more frightened and confused. He was thinking, “If I could just become a bird for a little while, one of them, they would trust me and I could save them.” Just then he heard the church bells ringing. It was midnight, the beginning of Christmas Day, and he suddenly understood why God chose to come to earth in human form.

Putting skin in the game means to be invested in something. If you’ve ever shopped at Aldi’s you know about their clever way of handling the problem of getting their grocery carts back where they belong. They don’t pay employees to round up carts left in their parking lot. They have their customers put a quarter in a gizmo on the cart that unchains it from the other carts, and when you return it you get your 25 cents back. Two bits is not a big investment, but it’s enough skin in the game that I’ve never seen anyone fail to return their cart. We all are more likely to show up for an event if it costs us something, even a token amount. I’m a big Ohio State fan, but on frigid January nights when the wind is blowing off the Olentangy River near the Schottenstein Center I might wimp out and choose to stay home in the comfort of my living room and watch the basketball game in HD on the flat screen. But since I have paid in advance for my tickets, I’m much more likely to show up. Because I have some skin in the game—even if it’s cold skin.

As Jesus’ conversation with the folks in Nazareth continues, we see just how much he’s risking by putting his skin in the game. His hometown folks are at first excited. “This is Joe’s kid. We remember him. He’s one of us, and if he’s the Messiah, wow, just think what he can do for us! We’ve heard all the amazing things he’s done in other places, it’s gotta be even more awesome here in his hometown. Jesus, do here what you did in Capernaum. You know us, Lord; you’re one of us. We changed your diapers, wiped your runny nose, put up with your childhood moods. You know how much we need your healing and miracles. You could get the lead out of our water; maybe turn some of it into a good Merlot? And while you’re at it, could you give us the power ball numbers for next week?

But their high expectations soon turn to disbelief and disappointment. Jesus responds by reminding them that prophets are not usually accepted in their own hometown. Jesus has a bigger agenda than making his neighbors happy. He has an urgency to share a much more important message with the whole world. His mission is to go global with the Gospel, and he knows he doesn’t have much time.

That explains his strange references to Sidon and Syria. He says Elijah and Elisha didn’t heal their hometown folks; they went to Sidon and Syria, to Gentiles, strangers, foreigners. Why would they do that? Because those great prophets understood that the God of Creation is also God of the whole Universe. Yahweh’s power to heal and save cannot be hoarded by any one nation or people. Isaiah said, “It is not enough for the Messiah to save Israel, I will make you a Light to the nations.” Jesus and the prophets understood that to be God’s chosen people is not to receive preferential treatment, but they and we are chosen to be God’s servants to the whole wide world—to people of all faiths or no faith at all.

None of that is new. It is all straight out of Hebrew Scriptures. But when Jesus reminds his Nazarene neighbors of the universal scope of God’s love, they think he has stopped preaching and gone to meddling, just like we all do when our taken-for-granted expectations are challenged!

When I teach preaching classes to seminary students one of the key principles I try to impart to them is the need to build a relationship of trust with their congregations. The preacher’s job is not just to get God’s word said, but to get it heard, and that’s more likely to happen in an atmosphere of mutual trust. Based on the response of Jesus’ congregation in Nazareth, he flunked that part of preaching 101. I’ve often wondered why Jesus would stir up so much trouble so early in his ministry. It’s like he’s waving a red flag in front of a bull. But I’ve decided it’s because urgent situations where so much is at stake don’t allow time for the luxury of community building. Life and death matters require immediate and complete truth.

The Scriptures tell us that we “shall know the truth and it will set us free,” but what John’s Gospel doesn’t say is that first the truth may make us mad. When an addict is confronted with his or her self-destructive behavior, the truth still hurts. When I really see myself in the mirror, really see, or when I hear honest criticism of mistakes I’ve made, or am told my bad health is because of my poor lifestyle choices, I probably will not welcome that truth with open arms.

That’s why the folks at Nazareth react so violently. Luke tells us, “When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.” Jesus looks like he’s about to have the shortest ministry in history. Most pastors enjoy a little honeymoon with a new congregation, but not here.

That’s because Jesus’ words hit too close to home. The Nazarenes are expecting special treatment from their hometown hero, and instead they resent his including a bunch of foreigners in God’s mercy. They don’t want to share Jesus with the Syrians and Gentiles. They want to keep Jesus and God all for themselves. Of course they know better. They know their Bible. They know the truth – they just don’t really know it and embody it. Don’t we all have a tendency to read the Scriptures selectively? We choose to focus on Scriptures we like instead of the uncomfortable truth we need to hear.

To have skin in the game means we show up and speak the truth even when it’s risky. Jesus finds out early on in his home town that what he’s up to is dangerous to the max, but he is the young and fearless prophet who speaks the truth, not to make people mad, but to invite them to see the truth about themselves and the world God has created.

The question for us is do we have enough skin in God’s game to follow the example of Jesus? Do we care enough to risk rejection for the truth? To speak up for the downtrodden, to take the side of the underdog – to object to sexist or racist attitudes and comments? God does – no matter what it costs. God is all in – are we? That’s what it means when Jesus says, “take up your cross and follow me.” God doesn’t promise us a rose garden, but the way of the cross that leads to the Garden of Gethsemane.

But here’s the best news—whatever Gethsemane you find yourself in, whatever disappointment or pain you are dealing with right now—you don’t have to face it alone. God’s powerful spirit that anointed Jesus is also with us in every up and down phase of life – every one! No matter how terrible or hopeless things seem, God is right there with you – not to make everything the way we wish it was, but to go through it with us.

Jesus’ situation looks pretty desperate. The people of Nazareth are so mad they want to kill him. But this brief story foreshadows much bigger things to come. They take Jesus out to the edge of a cliff and are ready throw him to his death, but Luke ends the story with one simple sentence: “Jesus just passes among them and goes on to Galilee.” If that sounds familiar, it’s because after Jesus’ resurrection, Matthew says the angels told the disciples at the empty tomb,”He is going ahead of you to Galilee, there you will see him.”

The risen Christ is always going ahead of us to a Galilee far away – where no prophet has gone before. And he calls us to go with him. Notice, we are not asked to go alone – but with the same power of the Holy Spirit that enables Jesus to conquer his fear of death. We are all called to trust the God who loves us enough to suffer with us and for us, to show us the way and the truth and the life – because our God so loves the world that He puts his own skin in the game.

Some times are harder than others to put our skin in the game – to play the game of life full out. Often those times are when we are personally disappointed with our life situation or with ourselves. I was reminded this week of an experience that always speaks to me about that issue. This past Thursday was the 30th anniversary of the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Some of you are too young to remember that tragedy, but most of you have seen the pictures. For me the most memorable thing about that day was the final words spoken by Commander Dick Scobee just before the explosion took those seven lives. They were just a couple of minutes into the mission when the crew was given the go ahead to go to full power, and Commander Scobee’s last words were, “Roger, go with full throttle up.”

That’s how I want to live my life, whatever the circumstances, full throttle up! That’s what Jesus came to show us, that no matter what happens to us or around us, we have the power of the Holy Spirit to live life fully and abundantly. So wherever God calls us to go this week, my prayer is that we can respond with confidence and faith, and go with full throttle up!

At Home in the Universe, II Corinthians 5:6-6:2

Do you remember what it was like to be at summer camp or some other foreign place and be so miserably homesick that you thought, and perhaps wished, that you would die? The gospel song that says, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” describes that horrible feeling for me. And homesickness is not merely a childhood disease. Adolescence, mid-life crises, old age are all life interruptions that are ways of describing recurring outbreaks of homesickness—of feeling broken, alienated and alone in a strange world where we often wonder what we’re doing here?
We try to cure our homesickness with a host of home remedies—large doses of education, exercise—be it running marathons or climbing corporate ladders, accumulating friends and/or lovers who fill our time and the lack of peace we feel. Power, money, prestige, new cars, new clothes, new houses, new jobs, new spouses, booze, beauty treatments, Grecian Formula. We try it all don’t we? And for the most part it is all a huge waste of time and money. Because when we let our defenses down and find ourselves alone with nothing to do—remember those were the times the homesickness got you at camp too? When we’re not too busy to think and feel, then the old feeling sneaks up on us and we start feeling like that motherless child again.
The sad part is that we all feel that lack of peace frequently. But we rarely let anyone know. The world is full of homesick, motherless and fatherless children, and Paul tells us in Corinthians that our job as ambassadors or instruments of peace is to comfort the homesick and assure them they can always come home again—to God, the only reliable true source of peace. The homesick need to hear that word of reconciliation now—to know that peace is not off in the distant future. It didn’t help to have some well-intentioned camp counselor tell me that my parents would pick me up at the end of summer camp on Saturday when it was only Tuesday. I wanted someone to comfort me and hold me right then. I wasn’t sure I would even live till Saturday! That’s why Paul says we are already new creatures in Christ. The day of deliverance has already come in the Prince of Peace from Nazareth.
That’s the good news we need we are to give one another. But as you well know, one homesick kid cannot cure another one. The disease will spread like an epidemic once the tears start to flow. So, if we are to be reconcilers, we need first to be reconciled to God. We need to be at peace ourselves if we have any hope of being peacemakers. We need to be made whole, cured of our own homesickness before we can help others who are lost and afraid.
We need to hear and know that there is only one cure for deep, ontological homesickness, and that cure is faith–faith that is deeper and distinguished from mere belief. Belief is holding certain ideas about something, or about life. Faith, on the other hand, is a more total and deeper response of inner peace and trust. For example, it is one thing to believe a parachute will open properly, to understand the physics of why and how parachutes work. But it is quite another thing to have enough faith or trust in a parachute to strap one on your back and jump out of a plane at 5000 feet.
Faith, according to theologian Wilfred Cantwell Smith, is “a quality of human living. At its best it has taken the form of serenity and courage and loyalty and service: a quiet confidence and joy which enable one to feel at home in the universe, and to find meaning in the world and in one’s own life, a meaning that is profound and ultimate, and is stable no matter what may happen.”
To be at peace means to “feel at home in the universe,” to know as the “Desiderata” says, that “You are a child of the universe, no less than the rocks the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive God to be….and keep peace with your soul.” To be at peace at home in the universe is to be at peace with oneself and God.
I have cherished a very powerful and concrete image of what it means to be at home in the universe since shortly after the space shuttle Challenger explosion in early 1986. Part of being at peace is an ability to find meaning and truth in unexpected and even tragic circumstances. For me, the final words from Commander Dick Scobee before the explosion have become a mantra for me of peaceful living. About sixty seconds after blast off Mission Control informed the Challenger crew that they were going back to full power, and Commander Scobee’s confident reply was, “Roger, Go With Full Throttle Up.”
When we are at peace we dare to live life with full throttle up, knowing as those astronauts did that there are serious risks in living. We know also that there are far more serious risks in refusing to face life’s challenges honestly and courageously. Chuck Yeager, a test pilot famous for his description of those early space pioneers who had “All the Right Stuff,” said after the Challenger explosion that “every astronaut and test pilot knows that such a tragedy can happen anytime you go up. But you can’t dwell on the danger or you would not be able to do your job.” Then he added, “There’s not much you can do about it anyway.”
Life is like that. We are all travelers on spaceship Earth, and like the Challenger 7, we are all sitting on enough firepower to blow us all to kingdom come several times over. That’s enough in itself to make us a little queasy, a little homesick, isn’t it? Even if we didn’t have to cope with the routine hassles of living—the doubts, the fears, the guilt, and the disappointments. But we all do have to cope with those things every day. And we all need a faith that will help us feel more at home and at peace in the midst of our hectic and often chaotic lives.
When I was 6 or 7 years old I discovered one sneaky cure for homesickness. I remember coming home with my family from a visit to my grandparents’ farm or my aunt and uncle’s house late in the evening. I would often fall asleep in the back seat of the car after a hard day of playing with my cousins, but I would wake up when the car pulled into our driveway. Sometimes I would pretend I was still asleep because I knew that if I did, one of my parents would carry me into the house and tuck me into my bed. It felt so good to be held in those strong, l loving arms. I felt so secure, the direct opposite of homesick. Don’t’ we all long for that kind of security and closeness at every age?
Then we grow up. We lose that peace in our necessary attempts to establish our independence. We move away, physically and intellectually from the simple belief structures that once made sense of life for us. We become, for better or worse, independent, responsible adults. And with that independence often comes the feeling of homesickness.
How do we get in that situation? It’s like a conversation I overheard between my in-laws several years ago. They were talking about how my mother-in-law used to sit right next to Dad in the car before they were married. This was in the days before bucket seats, of course. My mother-in-law was asking why that changed after they got married. My father-in-law finally just smiled and said, “Well, I’m not the one who moved.”
So it is with our human and heavenly parents. We are the ones who think we want distance and freedom. And that’s OK. We are the ones who get embarrassed when our parents want to hug and kiss us in public, and we’re much too grown up for that kid stuff. And that’s OK too. It’s all part of growing up. And we’re the ones who think God’s rules for living are too confining, too old-fashioned, and certainly our parents are. We are very sure we can do much better on our own. And that’s OK too. So we go out on our own and we blow it, not once, but several times, and that’s also OK. We learn from those experiences. But what isn’t OK is when we are too proud or guilty to admit that we were wrong or that we really do need help.
It’s hard to admit we’re wrong. People just love to say, “I told you so,” don’t they? So we don’t even try to be reconciled with family or friends or even with God because we’re afraid we’ll be rejected or ridiculed. Paul is trying to tell the Corinthians and us that just isn’t so in this passage from II Corinthians 5. “God does not hold our misdeeds against us.” We are forgiven and loved by the essence of Being itself. “The day of deliverance has already dawned.” Peace is here, now, for those who humbly accept it.
Jesus told a story once about a very homesick young man. You know the story from Luke’s Gospel (15:11-32), but you haven’t heard the letter I found recently from that young man to his father. Strangely enough, it was postmarked in Chicago. Listen:

Dear Dad,
I’m sorry it’s been so long. You’ve probably been worried sick about me, haven’t you? Well, I’ve been meaning to write, but I didn’t have any good news, and I didn’t want to worry you. I was in Florida for a year after I left home. I lost the money you gave me on some bad investments. I got mixed up in some drug dealing and spent some time in jail. Please don’t tell Mom. I’ve been bumming around the country doing odd jobs and stuff since I got out of the joint. I was living in a half-way house here in Chicago for several months till I got into a fight with one of the supervisors last week. They kicked me out.
Things are bad here, no jobs, no money. I’ve been living on the streets, eating at soup kitchens or anywhere I can find a meal. It’s a lousy way to live. But I guess I don’t deserve any better. I know now that you were right about staying in school. I’d sure do things different if I had it to do over.
I’m real sorry I hurt you and Mom. I’m embarrassed to ask this. I’ll understand if you don’t ever want to see me again. But I’m sick and cold and would appreciate it if I could come home, for just a little while. Just till I can find a job. I’ll pay you back for my room and board as soon as I can, I promise.
Your son, John

By overnight special delivery, John got a plane ticket and a letter from his father that simply said:

Dear John,
You can always come home, anytime.
I love you,

(This sermon is included in my book, “Building Peace from the Inside Out: Stories for Peacemakers and Peace Seekers,” chapter 12)