Text: Luke 2:21-30
Have you ever attended a church “homecoming” Sunday? It’s something of an odd concept within our contemporary culture. I’ve never really understood the term, even though I attended quite a few growing up a Baptist in western North Carolina. They were usually in the fall, early September, and featured “dinner on the grounds,” special music and a guest preacher – usually someone who had served as pastor of the church in years past. In some cases, years and years past. Months before, the church leaders would start talking about and planning for homecoming Sunday. I can remember spending the weekends leading up to homecoming with my father and others in the church cleaning up the church building and making sure the grounds were well manicured. We spent extra time in the graveyard that sprawled across what seemed like acres out in front of my home church. There was a special homecoming tradition at the Sandy Plains Baptist Church in Newhouse community. On the Saturday before homecoming Sunday, people would bring flowers to put on family gravesites. I remember it being a beautiful sight – the different color flowers, chosen with great love and respect, transforming the austerity of a burial ground into a bright living memorial. But as I said, I was never really sure what was meant by the name “homecoming.” Someone once said the term implied welcoming back both those who have moved away, as well as those whom the church ran off. At best, homecoming seemed to be the time for the church to affirm its past; to remember those who had shaped the church; to reconnect with the people who not only knew you as a child but often times shaped you as a person of faith; to welcome home those who had moved away; and, last but not least of all, to eat good food.
The Sandy Plains Baptist Church homecomings I attended as a child were pleasant enough but nothing spectacular or really even memorable – other than the extra work to get ready for them – ever happened that I can remember. There was a graciousness that surrounded homecoming Sundays. People were glad to see one another – glad to have those who had moved away “home” again, pleased that you’ve made good and proud of your accomplishments.
And that’s pretty much the way it starts out in today’s scripture reading. Jesus has come home – he’s preaching to a crowd of people who’ve known him since he was just a child – and they are pleased, and proud, and gracious. “Why, isn’t that Joseph’s boy?” “Just a poor carpenter, he was, when he left us. And look at him now.” “Where did he learn to read? And with such authority? He was born with it, I’m telling you – born to it.” By all accounts it’s a beautiful, sweet scene. So what goes wrong? How does this seemingly peaceful homecoming turn suddenly so rowdy?
David Lose, professor of Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary writes, “I hate to say this, but I kind of think it’s Jesus’ fault. Because right in the middle of all their pride and praise, he just goes off. ‘No doubt you’ll quote me the old proverb, ‘Physician, heal thyself.’ And you’ll probably want me to do here what you’ve heard I’ve been doing in Capernaum, that land so full of Gentiles. Well, guess what hometown people, no prophet is accepted in his hometown. And when the prophets of old came to do miracles and wonders, more often than not it was for Israel’s enemies. So back off.”
It’s fair to ask, “What’s gotten into Jesus?” Is he offended that his hometown people are surprised he’s done so well? Does he hear a challenge in their words: “Who does he think he is, anyway, he’s just Joseph’s son!” Is he skeptical of their praise, suspicious that they just want to exploit him as a healer? Or was he just having a really bad day. We can’t say for sure, but one gets the feeling that deep down, as well as these folks know Jesus, he knows them even better.
You will remember from last week’s text, Jesus has just finished reading Isaiah’s prophecy of a year of God’s favor when the blind find sight, the captives release, the oppressed are freed, and all the poor of this world are consoled. And as I said last week, Jesus has just preached his inaugural address outlining his priorities for his ministry. Today, as we continue the story, it is just as important to note what he didn’t say or read from Isaiah as what he did. You see, Isaiah goes on, telling of that day when God will trample down all Israel’s enemies, crush them underfoot and restore Israel to its rightful place. But Jesus doesn’t read that part. He’s not thinking locally but rather globally, and this isn’t a nationalistic sermon, but one in which he declares that God loves all the world and has a special concern for the poor. “God favor Syria, not Israel? I don’t think so,” the people said. “God heal in Capernaum, but not Nazareth? Not happening,” the people shouted. “That’s heresy. And you know what we do with heretics.”
Lose writes, “…it really is Jesus’ fault – he goes and does the one thing you’re never supposed to do, even to strangers, let alone to friends and neighbors: He tells the truth, the truth about their prejudice, their fear and shame, their willingness, even eagerness, to get ahead at any cost, even at the expense of another. And so they want him gone in the most permanent of ways. And let’s face it; that’s pretty much the way it usually is. Because this text, and Luke’s whole gospel for that matter, isn’t about Jews or Romans, it isn’t about Nazarenes or the people of Jerusalem. It’s about every race and nationality, about all the crowds of every time and place who, when they meet one who tells the truth about themselves, will go to almost any length to silence the messenger. For from the prophets of Israel to our own prophet, Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s not just the keepers of the dream that get rejected, beaten, and shot, but the tellers of the truth as well.” ALL are God’s chosen. God’s promises are not an exclusive covenant where some are in and others out.
At the heart of this rowdy homecoming is the issue of whether or not we will read the good news as good news for all, or just for some. The people of Jesus’ hometown had read the Scriptures as promises of God’s exclusive covenant with them. But Jesus came to his hometown and delivered a different message. His announcement was not a national deliverance but of God’s promise of liberation to all – regardless of nationality, gender, race, economic status or sexual identity or any other category that is meant to oppress and marginalize. And when his message of radical inclusiveness became clear to those gathered in the synagogue in Nazareth, their commitment to their own community boundaries took precedence over their joy that God had sent a prophet among them.
I asked the lectionary group this week, “Where is this story happening today – in our world and in our church?” Where is our commitment to our own community boundaries taking precedence over God’s radical inclusiveness? As was the safest thing to do, we started with the world context. First on the list: immigration reform – “we think this is our country” someone said, “and outsiders are not really welcome.” Not really. Not when it threatens our majority status or our place of choosen-ness. Next on the list: cutting back on unemployment benefits. It seems that our leaders prefer to led from a place of scarcity rather than abundance – penalizing those who have the least in order to keep their commitment to their “good ole” network – their own community. The Boy Scouts also made the list. Seems many groups in our culture are constantly debating who’s in and who’s out.
Eventually, a silence fell over the room. We all knew the second part of my question. “Where is this story happening in our church?” Where is our commitment to our own community boundaries taking precedence over God’s radical inclusiveness? We sat with the uneasiness of the question for what felt like minutes, not moments. Then a brave voice said, “What about last year when we invited some of our back door friends to eat dinner with us on Wednesday nights but decided that their presence disrupted our ‘family’ fellowship?” Another courageous voice wondered about the locks on our garden doors to keep homeless people out of our beautiful garden. The tone was not judgment. Rather each comment was made with compassion and with understanding of the complexity of each situation. But also, they were made with an awareness that sometimes we, too, fail to understand God’s radical inclusiveness. We, too, are susceptible to reading the scriptures as promises of God’s exclusive covenant with us. In that moment of conversation, there was an awareness that as open and inclusive as we strive to be here at Pullen, there is always room to grow and stretch and live more fully into God’s radical inclusiveness. In that moment, I uttered to myself the words: God forgive and have mercy upon us.
Today is Peace Sunday. Maybe you are wondering if there is a connection to the story of this rowdy homecoming and peace. If there is, this is what I think it might be: We move, and our world moves, closer to peace when we live and move and breathe acting as though we truly believe that God’s covenant is for all the world. When we can put our trust in God’s radical inclusiveness, it is then that I believe peace grows and deepens in our hearts and in the very soul of our world.