A Sermon from All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor, New York
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 5, 2009 (Proper 9, Year B)
The headline should have been “Local Boy Does Good.” He should have come home to a hero’s welcome; a parade down Main Street. All the townsfolk of Nazareth should have been overflowing with pride – “He’s one of our own; he’s one of us.” Jesus, the carpenter’s son, was taking the world by storm. He was healing the sick and giving sight to the blind; performing miracles at an astounding rate. They should have killed the fatted calf and had themselves a great feast upon his return back to his native soil.
But something gets lost in the translation. The people of Nazareth take “offense at him.” Rather than embrace Jesus, they threaten to throw him off a cliff. Hardly the welcome his disciples might have envisioned. But I doubt Jesus himself was all that surprised by the reception. He cites the old proverb “Prophets are not without honor except in their own hometown and among their own kin.”
And it comes with the prophetic territory. The great prophets of Israel didn’t exactly lead a cushy life. When your job description involves calling your own people back to faith in God and away from the prevailing culture, you’re going to find yourself reviled and rejected and ignored. And among other things, Jesus was a prophet. Calling people to a new way of relating to God when they didn’t see anything wrong with the old way; preaching repentance to a people who didn’t see the need to repent. It all adds up to a pretty tough existence; one that would eventually get him strung up on a cross.
When we think of the great prophets of the Old Testament like Isaiah and Ezekiel and Jeremiah, we tend to think of unkempt men marching up to the king and demanding justice for the oppressed. And this is often what they did. Which makes it hard for us to relate to speaking with a prophetic voice. We might be prophets if we had some great cause and a platform on which to vocalize it.
But there are small ways in which we can follow in the prophetic tradition. In the 1940’s a man named Stetson Kennedy initiated the “Frown Power” campaign – I recently read about this in the book “Freakonomics.” Kennedy would later infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan and write an expose titled “The Klan Unmasked.” But in the ‘40’s he encouraged people to simply frown when they heard bigoted speech. It was a way to combat casual racism at a time when it was rampant. It wasn’t meant to get at the root causes of bigotry but it was a first step in having whites let other whites know that they didn’t approve. And it was a prophetic stance taken by thousands of ordinary people. Not always an easy one, mind you; it’s hard to go against the established culture. You might be laughed at or resented or ignored – precisely the things Jesus dealt with throughout his earthly pilgrimage.
But it makes you wonder about the small ways in which you can follow in the steps of the prophets. How do you react when people around you take the Lord’s name in vain? What do you do when you hear an off-color joke? Do you say something? Frown? Laugh along with everyone else? Or simply ignore it and hope it goes away? It’s difficult to take a stand, even a small one. Yet take a stand you must if you are to fully embrace being a disciple of Christ.
It’s hard to say exactly why Jesus’ childhood friends and neighbors didn’t want anything to do with him. It was certainly more difficult for people who grew up with Jesus to comprehend and accept his divine power. ‘We played with him as a kid. How come he didn’t heal me when I fell out of that tree and cut my head open?’ They knew him as a newborn, as a young boy; he might have been smart but divine? Come on.
But I also think there must have been a touch of the consultant phenomenon at work here. In a business environment companies pay thousands of dollars for people from outside the company to tell them how to do things. If the vice-president of marketing says something, no one will listen. But if the vaulted consultant flies in from Chicago or LA and says the same thing, it’s transformational. People don’t listen to the ideas of those they know. It’s the same way at home, of course. If you tell your spouse the couch in the living room would be better against the other wall, she’ll roll her eyes. If her good friend says the same thing, it’s brilliant.
Some of it’s jealousy, of course. We want to be excited for people we know who “make it.” And sometimes we are genuinely able to celebrate a friend’s success. But at other times we do so with mixed emotions. If you’re an aspiring writer and a friend of yours gets a book published, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of jealousy. If you and a friend are job hunting and your friend nails down a job, the feelings are mixed. It’s a natural human emotion, one that may lead to feelings of guilt. But they’re real. And so some of Jesus’ childhood friends were probably jealous of his newfound “success.” If familiarity breeds contempt, to quote another proverb, they were both quite familiar with Jesus and contemptuous of him. There’s also an underlying “too big for his britches” thing going on. ‘Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Who does he think he is preaching and teaching the Law as if he’s better than us?’
As we mark our nation’s independence this weekend, it’s helpful to note that in large part the American Revolution was about taking a stand. We focus on the Boston Tea Party and the various battles under the leadership of George Washington. But if you read the Declaration of Independence, which I did this past week, there’s a lot of talk about God-given inalienable rights. There’s that line about “all men being created equal.” It’s a document of justice first and foremost. The original signers were taking a prophetic stand for what they believed in. And they certainly suffered for taking this prophetic stance – their property was taken away, some were jailed, they were persecuted. And while you could argue that as a country we’re still living into the vaulted words of this declaration, the same could be said about our baptismal covenant – we spend our entire lives living into that as well. Attempting to be faithful to our promises to seek and serve Christ in all persons and to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.
It’s a work in progress. Just as speaking with a prophetic voice on issues large and small is often a work in progress. But it’s work well worth taking up. Even if we also must pick up the cross of Christ in the process.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2009