February 3, 2019

“You Can’t Go Home Again”

1 Kings 17:1-6; Luke 4:21-30


They say, “You can’t go home again, whoever “They” are. In Steinbeck’s great classic work, The Grapes of Wrath, when it is time to abandon the family farm, Ma Joad tells her son Tom, “Don’t look back. You can never look back, son.”  But I have looked back at my old homesteads many times. Although I lived the first few years of my childhood in a small suburb of Sacramento known as Fair Oaks, I really grew up, or had my formative years as a child in Rancho Cordova, Ca. I remember our pink house at 10551 Catawba Way and still remember the names of most of my neighbors. I remember having some pretty good friends on my street, being within walking distance to the elementary school, playing pickup baseball games with friends at the nearby park, walking to all my little league baseball games with a couple of teammates, walking all over the neighborhood at Halloween and getting heaps of candy, riding my black cherry picker bicycle with banana seat and smaller front wheel down to the Thrifty store to get candy, and walking almost every day in summer to the Cordova pool. We lived near Cordova Presbyterian church and went to church almost every Sunday. For years after we moved, I felt like Rancho Cordova was my home.


About 7 years ago, I was in Sacramento and decided to take a trip back to my old stomping grounds in Rancho Cordova. As I drove into my old neighborhood, I noticed things had changed quite a bit. The neighborhood I grew up walking around looked a bit run down. The shopping mall I used to ride my bike to had become a shanty town of small stores in a beat up strip-mall. The school and park I used to go to were all still there, but not in the best of shape, and much smaller than I remember. I recently googled the rec pool I swam at every day as a child in the summer and found it closed in 2014. And when I got to our old home, I was in for a shock-the pink home was now dark brown. The tree I grew up climbing on had been cut down years ago. The front lawn, where we played many games of tackle football now had some weird cement turn around going right through the middle of the grass. Our church home had changed as well. Rancho Cordova Presbyterian church, the place where I stood in front of a congregation and accepted Christ into my heart wasn’t even there anymore. The church had closed and was replaced by Living Stones Baptist church. The Rancho Cordova I had grown up in, or at least the one I had memories of, was no longer there.


After being away for so long, going back home was hard. They say “you can never go home again,” because the place you grew up in isn’t there anymore. Perhaps “They” and Ma Joad are right.


Last week I preached upon the first section of this passage in Luke- where Jesus went back home to where he too had grown up-Nazareth. Now Nazareth was by no means big in the first century- It was an insignificant agricultural village not far from a major trade route to Egypt, with a population in Jesus’ time of around 2,000 people. Everyone really knew everyone in Nazareth, and initially, when Jesus came back to his hometown, folks were impressed with their hometown boy. Many had heard about him teaching and preaching around the area, and that he was beginning to develop a bit of a following.


He went into the synagogue he had gone to as a child and preached his first, quite brief sermon as we heard last Sunday. Initially, he was well received, until folks began reflecting upon his one sentence sermon on Isaiah 6:1-1-2.


“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.- Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”(Luke 4:18-20) Those in attendance began to whisper to one another. “It sounds as if he said he’s the one that Prophet Isaiah was talking about all those years ago!” “Did Jesus just say he’s the Messiah, the one we’ve been waiting for?” Then someone said,-“Wait a minute- reality check! Isn’t this Joseph’s son- you remember the one who always questioned the sermons in church and stuck around his dad’s carpenter shop? That Jesus claims to be Messiah?” So much for a warm welcome home.


Jesus sensed the mood swing and responded-“Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself; what we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here also in your own country.” In other words- “You want me to prove what I have just proclaimed. Show us! Wow us with your healing powers! Wow us with one of your teachings!”  The plot thickened as Jesus was challenged to show that he could deliver the goods. The crowd in the synagogue wanted a demonstration of his sermon to preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, to recover sight for the blind, set at liberty those who are oppressed and proclaim the year of jubilee. But Jesus knew, based on past history, that other prophets who went back home were rarely, if ever well received. Prophets of God could never go home again either, no matter how short their sermons were or how many signs of God they offered.


A prophet was seldom accepted in their hometown, and with good reason. The purpose of the prophet was to name imbalances in the life of the community and to call the community to bring their life more closely into conformity with God’s purposes. When the community drifted into idolatry, injustice, exploitation, false alliances, and violence, the prophet called the community to repent, to change, to challenge the social norms of the day- hardly a popular, embraceable message. Just as is true with modern society, the social order of the first century did not like being told that what they were up to was wrong and needed correcting.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus used two examples of God turning from the Israelites, and instead turning to gentiles to show God’s care and compassion for those “outside the faith”. The first one was the story of God caring for the gentile widow and child of Zarephath through Elijah in 1 Kings 17:1-16, which you heard read this morning. The second story was of God healing the leper Namaan through Elisha in 2 Kings 5:1-19 as he bathed in the Jordan river. Namaan was not only a gentile but was a general in the Syrian army, which was then as now an enemy of Israel.

Why did Jesus bring up these two stories? Jesus stated that while there were many widows and lepers in Israel at the times of these incidents, God did not send the prophets to the Israelites but to the two gentiles. Jesus implied not so subtly that the people of Israel had been unfaithful in the days of Elijah and Elisha, prompting God to turn away from the people until they repented, and this crowd in the temple was doing the same by rejecting him and his message. Those who thought they were on the in with God, according to Jesus, were on the outside looking in.


As the story ended, the crowd did what crowds often do. They fully understood what Jesus was implying. So, they embraced a mob mentality, and sought to put Jesus to death by throwing him off “the brow of the hill.” Here is the actual site where this event likely happened, above Nazareth. They were done with this hometown hero. In their anger, they were on the verge of creating more difficulties for themselves, because only the Romans had the power of capital punishment. However, just as God delivered Israel at the Red Sea, God opened a way. Jesus “passed through the midst of them” and went safely on his way.


So, there is something important for us to ponder today from Jesus’ homecoming, especially in light of last week’s sermon, where we find that Jesus’ job description as laid out in Isaiah 61:1-2 is our job description corporately as a church and individually as Christians today. The true messages of the Bible- to actually do those things in Jesus’ first sermon in Luke, or to follow Jesus’ teachings in his sermon on the mount in Matthew 5-7 will not be met with open arms and popularity. Rev. Billy Graham said, “It is unnatural for Christianity to be popular.” Preaching good news to the poor and release to the captives doesn’t go well, for it challenges the status quo. Bishop Oscar Romero once said, “When I feed the poor, I am called a hero. When I challenge the systems that make people poor, I am called a communist.” Bishop Romero was assassinated in 1980 by El Salvadoran troops, whom he had called upon to follow the basic principles of the teachings of Christ and stop oppressing the people.


Churches sometimes take unpopular stands, even against their own government. For example, in defiance of the government, and in the face of far-right anti-immigrant groups, according to the Huffington Post, a Netherlands church held round the clock worship services for nearly 100 days in protest of the country’s asylum policies, and specifically to protect one family, the Tamrazyans, an Armenian family of five asylum-seekers that has lived on the grounds of Bethel chapel for the past three months. If you think THIS service is long, imagine one lasting for almost 2,400 hours, straight!


The Tamrazyan family, composed of 2 parents and three children, have lived in the country for about nine years, while waiting for their asylum application and appeals to be processed through Dutch courts. In 2018, the Netherlands’ highest administrative court ruled that the family had to return to Armenia, which the Dutch government considers to be a safe country, according to The Associated Press. The church says the Tamrazyans feared going back to Armenia because the father of the family, Sasun’s life had been threatened for his political activism.


This past Wednesday, after the government changed its stance on the family, the Protestant Church of The Hague concluded a worship service that had been going on nonstop at a Hague chapel since Oct. 26. The church had used an old Dutch law that bars police from entering houses of worship during religious services to prevent the deportation of the family.


It appears at least for the moment, the church may not face any reprisal from the government of the Netherlands. Thanks to this congregation taking an unpopular stand for God’s compassion, this family, and other asylum seekers in the Netherlands have a reprieve, and the Dutch government was changed.


The purpose of the church is to name imbalances in the life of our community and to call the community to bring their life more closely into conformity with God’s purposes- just as that church in the Netherlands did. What unpopular stands might God be calling us to? Perhaps we can become more active in the sanctuary movement as the rhetoric and troop numbers increase at our southern border? Or is there some other cause that needs to be brought more closely into conformity with God’s purposes? When the church challenges injustice, racism, poverty; when we question motivations of greed and immorality, we may not be winning a popularity contest, but we will be following in the footsteps of Jesus, who was rejected, and suffered death upon a cross. And yet, that is our calling. Bishop Romero, who was killed for challenging the ways of this world wrote, Each one of you has to be God’s microphone. Each one of you has to be a messenger, a prophet. The church will always exist as long as there is someone who has been baptized…Where is your baptism? You are baptized in your professions, in the fields of workers, in the market. Wherever there is someone who has been baptized, that is where the church is. There is a prophet there. Let us not hide the talent that God gave us on the day of our baptism and let us truly live the beauty and responsibility of being a prophetic people.”


We have been challenged today, to be a prophetic people. To bring forth a message of helping our society turn back to God. That message to help the poor, the captives, and the oppressed will not be warmly embraced. May God give us courage, even in the face of rejection, to become Christ-like. To follow in the footsteps of our Messiah. For our Christian goal is to live for an audience of one, for God and God alone. Alleluia! Amen.


Closing Prayer- Oh God, help us to speak truth to power and to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. We recognize that doing so is not always easy nor safe. However, we do so knowing that it is what you have called us to do. Strengthen us and embolden us as we follow in your ways and spread your truth. Amen.

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