"And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, 'Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing'." (Luke 4: 20-21 NRSV)
In chapter twenty of "We Make the Road by Walking," Brian McLaren takes us into the early days of Jesus' public ministry in Galilee. Of particular interest is his visit to his hometown synagogue of Nazareth. McLaren offers a challenge in this story, and I'll present that challenge to you as well.
At a particular point in the Jewish Sabbath ritual, men are allowed to read from a particular scripture and offer comment on it, much like Christians today are used to hearing a pastor or priest give a sermon or homily. Imagine sitting in the synagogue in Nazareth that day. Jesus himself would be a familiar site, after all he had grown up in your town. He'd probably read and offered comment in the synagogue before as well. Let's say you've enjoyed what Jesus has had to say, so you settle in and look forward to it.
Jesus asks for, and receives the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He begins to read and then gets to the part which we today know as the first verses of Isaiah 61: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free."
We love verses like that today, don't we? Certainly the people in the synagogue that day probably did as well. As McLaren mentions, these kinds of verses give us hope that someday somebody will come along and really set things right. This would have been especially meaningful back then as the people were living under Roman rule and oppression. They were looking for that Messiah who could come and toss out the Romans and set things right, someday, they believed, he would come.
McLaren suggests that message could very well have been what the men in the synagogue were expecting to hear from Jesus that day. Someday, perhaps someday soon, the Messiah will come and set things right. Are we as Christians in the same boat? I think many of us are. How many times have each of us sat in church over the years and listened to somebody read verses like these, maybe out of Revelation, and talk about how wonderful it will be when Jesus returns in glory and sets everything right? I bet most of us have, multiple times. These messages give us hope, hope for a better tomorrow.
But then Jesus goes in a totally different direction. He says: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." Wait now, what did he say? He's not promising a better tomorrow, he's suggesting something better....today. He's not suggesting that there will be some glorious afterlife with streets paved with gold, he's suggesting something that's happening....now.
There was some excitement in this. Perhaps this man was a new prophet, could he, just maybe, be the promised Messiah? And hey look, that's Joseph's son! He's one of our own! This man proclaiming this bold new message is one of us, from Nazareth, how awesome IS THAT?
But then thinks get ugly. Jesus resorts to two stories from the Old Testament prophets Elijah and Elisha, about how they went outside their own people to do some of their deeds, and how displeased some were back then. You and the other folks are starting to get confused, and as his point starts to dawn on you, you start to get mad. This guy isn't preaching some new thing just for you, but he's talking about others, outsiders! This good news is meant for us, not for all of those sinners, rule breakers, and the OTHERS. This guy is a heretic!
At that point, you and your buddies, in a fit of righteous, or shall we say self-righteous, anger, drive Jesus from the synagogue and corner him on a nearby cliff, where you're ready to give him the old heave-ho.
That's pretty scary stuff. However, Jesus holds out long enough and is eventually able to pass through the crowd without harm and continue his ministry, a ministry that would be marked by the calling of dirty fishermen and tax collectors, a ministry that would heal those with the most untouchable diseases, a ministry that would exalt adultresses and prostitutes over the "righteous" religious folks of the day, a ministry that would turn the world on its head even centuries later.
McLaren challenges us first to think about this kind of a situation today. Imagine if some very charismatic guy, or girl, popped up on the all the cable news networks and started to say: "The time is NOW! This is the time for bringing about the kingdom of God. This is the time for ending violence and oppression. This is the time to treat the poor with dignity and make sure everyone has a place at the table. This is the time to expand the blessings of modern medical care to everyone no matter their ability to pay for it. This is the time for peace, justice, and reconciliation."
Moreover, this message is for EVERYBODY! This light, this new life of service and sacrifice, of peace and understanding isn't just for Christians or people we think follow all the rules. The life, the light of all people is for everyone regardless of creed. This life is for everyone regardless of gender. No more are there to be things that people are excluded from because of gender. This life is for everyone, no matter their skin color. Now is the time for prejudice to cease, especially prejudice in the name of religion. This life is for everyone, straight, gay, lesbian, or transgender. No longer are we to discriminate against people because of who they love. All are God's children, made in his image, and engraved upon the palm of his hand.
Well, how would you feel about taking part in that message? Not just the parts you agree with, mind you, all of it. Love all, serve all. Would you be one that would join in and be a disciple of this person, or would you be one of those who would be more interested in tossing this individual off of the proverbial cliff? We've seen the attitudes toward Pope Francis with some of these very things. It's not always pleasant, and there are things listed above that I'm sure he won't even touch, such as gender issues.
McLaren quite startlingly argues that many Christians today would seem to be in the camp that's ready to throw Christ off of a cliff, and it can be over any of those issues listed above. In our culture poor people are looked upon as inferior. Many of us still lean on ancient bits of the Bible in order to continue to justify legal discrimination against LGBTQ individuals. Many of our most important positions in our workplaces, governments, and faiths remain closed to women.
As I've commented on several times before, the inclusiveness of Christ has been totally lost in many of our churches. It's one of the main reasons why, years ago, I left church. Fortunately through people like Pastor Gary and organizations like the United Methodist Church, I've finally found a place that not only accepts and loves me, but welcomes and loves everybody with the open arms of Christ. A place where you don't even have to be a Christian to partake in the Supper of the Lord.
I firmly believe that the table of Christ, the banquet of love is set and open for all. It is unfortunate that as the poor, the outcast, the women, the gay people, and even people of other faiths and no faith sometimes come to that table, the Christians, the "righteous," turn their noses in the air as Christ welcomes all to his table of peace, justice, and love.
Words like McLaren's have challenged me, and comforted me, Not only are all of these welcome at the table of Christ, but so am I, despite my shortcomings and failures, which are many. You are welcome at this table too, at anytime, free of judgement under the grace of Christ given for all. If people judge you, come to me. I will not. I will be happy to chat with anyone regarding faith and the love of Christ.
The time is now. Will you join me, will you join Christ and proclaim peace, love and justice for all? The more of us that do that, the more of us that gather around the table and break bread together, the better our lives and our world can become.