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a sermon based on Luke 4:14-21
by Rev. Thomas Hall

In one memorable painting by Norman Rockwell entitled, "Homecoming," a neighborhood welcomes a young man back home. But we immediately know that this is no ordinary homecoming. The scene that greets our eyes tells us much about the young man. He stands in military dress almost at attention in front of what looks like low rent housing. Narrow porches are bunched together one after the other; packed dirt forms the frontage of where grass should have grown. A makeshift clothesline dangles in front of the family apartment with wooden pins tacking freshly washed clothes. Electric wires crisscross haphazardly in front of the building. The young soldier has returned home. It is an impoverished, dilapidated place.

Yet, that is not what greets the young man. For a menagerie of neighborhood folks have gathered to welcome him. A huge aproned woman stretches her arms out, her face beaming; a man and several children stand in the doorway behind her waiting their turn at the young soldier. Neighborhood kids watch the young man from their second story window and another kid hunches midway up an elm tree to get a view. A dog is running from the porch toward the young returnee. Even the landlord atop the stoop stops his repairs to watch the soldier. Off to the left and scrunched up against the corner is a woman about the young man’s age. She wears bobby socks and jumper, her hair well-groomed. She stands there in the shadows tall and shy, peering around the corner at him. The neighborhood has come to welcome one of their own home.

You can feel the pride coming from that Rockwell picture-one of their own has broken out of the cycle of poverty. One of theirs is going to have a bright future. This young man is a rising star; he’s going to amount to something. So they welcome him home with great pride.

If you can envision that homecoming scene then you’ll appreciate another homecoming scene that could have come right out of a Norman Rockwell collection. In Luke’s story, another family has welcomed a member home after being gone for some time. You know what that’s like-the oldest returns home after her first semester in college. A member returns after nine weeks of sleep deprivation and "yes, SIRs." After getting married. After relocating to Florida to retire. When family members return home after being gone, it’s time to celebrate, to be full of pride.

At least Luke’s story begins that way. No high drama, just a warm family scene. On Sabbath the whole family goes to the hometown synagogue to worship. "The family that worships together stays together," is the title of this picture.

A homeboy has been away for awhile, doing nobody-is-quite-sure-what. No matter, he’s back safe and sound, sitting in the family pew just like old times. Doesn’t take long before members of the congregation notice his return and whispers pass along the pews. As an act of deference, the young man is asked to read the Scripture lesson for the day. His family is honored that he has been noticed and asked to read. So the lanky young man goes to the front to read from the prophets. And what a great passage-Isaiah 61 is. Full of hope and promise, a passage most of the congregation would know by heart.

On this day the words come through with new beauty; he reads them well. When he has finished, he gives the scroll back to the attendant and comments that the words they have just heard are coming true right now as he speaks.

Who wouldn’t be charmed by his self-confidence? That’s what a semester at college will do for you, it gives you confidence. Public speaking 101. Clearly, the hometown folks are charmed. Such clarity of diction! Such self-possession! A few of the townspeople who had lost touch with the family now suddenly make the connection. "Oh that’s Joe’s boy, isn’t it? Sure enough, it’s the kid from down the block, the young soldier just back from boot camp. Jesus is grown up now and making such a fine impression back home. This young man is going to go places the elders think. How proud his mother must be. One of them catches her eye and she looks away, blushing with pride at the recognition accorded her eldest son.

If only he would have just sat down with the family after he read the passage, the story would still have that Norman Rockwell glow to it. He had said some nice, appropriate words about Isaiah’s prophecy. Why didn’t he quit when he was ahead? The service would’ve soon been over and then they could’ve gone to Ruby Tuesdays to eat, rehearsing and passing on the gossip from worship. But no. Jesus doesn’t know when to quit, has to start explaining things. He compares Capernaum to the hometown crowd; says the outsiders have more faith than the insiders. And then come the examples. He starts talking about famines and droughts in Israel and how poor Jewish women needed help. Yet when God did indeed come, he came to the wrong folks-the Capernaum-types! And then to put the nail in his coffin, this young man moved to example number two: how God came to Naaman, another Capernaum-type-an outsider, a Gentile, a no count, an irreligious, theologically obtuse, non-Covenantal, Torah-hating dude- rather than their own seriously ill folks.

As Jesus develops these unwelcome thoughts, the spell that this homeboy cast minutes earlier, is broken. The temperature in the synagogue drops to well below freezing. What kind of talk is this? Who does this homeboy think he is to tell us that the nonbelievers, the people who are sitting at home watching TV instead of coming to church are of more concern to God than those of us who show up regularly (and at considerable inconvenience, we might add) to honor God’s name? Is that what he thinks those words in Isaiah are all about? No sooner had the temperature plummeted to below freezing than it shoots up past the boiling point. One translation says, "When they heard that, the whole congregation blew a gasket."

Luke’s story is a cliffhanger-literally. The irate listeners hustled Jesus out of the synagogue, and all of them jostled their way to the top of one of those high hills surrounding Nazareth. "On the count of three let him go and home boy can bounce down the cliff." Such is what happens to homeboys who challenge the good ole boys.

Epilogue. Somehow in the confusion and jostling of angry people, Jesus managed to escape. But clearly, by story’s end, "our town"-Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, Mayberry USA, Mitford-has been turned into a place of hatred and lynching mobs.

What turned Luke’s Rockwell painting into a KKK poster? How could such a wonderful, warm beginning lead to such a destructive, deadly ending? Why the hatred? Why the murder attempt on this young man’s life? All of this controversy seems to swirl around the poem from Isaiah. Maybe we need to look at it again . . .

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

for he has appointed me to preach

Good News to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim

That captives will be released,

That the blind will see,

That the downtrodden will be freed

from their oppressors,

and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.

Same hometown. Same folks. Same text. Same synagogue. But apparently, a very different understanding of what Isaiah’s words mean. Some commentators try to explain the radical shift from hospitality to hostility by saying that it has to do with wealthy versus the poor. That’s what got folks all upset. Jesus was going to the impoverished. As one writer says,

. . . while the poor do get a lot of attention in the Bible, the non-poor get a lot of attention in the church and usually end up running things. One reason for this is that the non-poor have become the official interpreters of the Scriptures and have managed to take most of the sting out of passages dealing with the poor.

Is that what this story is about? Is that what got these folks going ballistic? Could be. But surely not everyone in that Nazareth synagogue was wealthy and not everyone that God helped in Jesus’ examples were poor. Would that be true of your community of faith? So many rich folks in the pews that any talk about God passing them over to help poor folks would cause them to railroad the preacher out of town? Luke is passionate about those who are poor and live on the edge-people isolated and overlooked. When Luke comes into our pulpit, his message is so poor-honoring that the rest of us will feel like fifth-round draft choices. But poverty is an intruder in and outside of the Church.

My hunch is that we’re dealing with a particular approach to Scripture. Could it be that the home crowd had come to approach this Scripture the way most of us insiders approach the Bible? They were so used to reading or listening to the passage from within the bosom of God’s favor, that eventually they just assumed that the Scripture was all about them? When Isaiah talks about preaching the Good News to the poor, the inside interpretation is ". . . the poor among Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." And I wonder if the unofficial, popular interpretation of "the captives, the blind, and the downtrodden" were understood to be members of the synagogue, those who attended morning prayers, gave alms, were circumcised and loved the Torah?

Have we taken the sting out of Scripture? Gotten so used to hearing Scripture a certain way, being so predictable about how we understand Scripture from within our own economic, "saved" insider status, that the Scriptures no longer sting us? No longer confront us? Maybe we need to leave hometown thinking for awhile. Maybe we should step outside the boundaries of sameness thinking, of approaches to Scripture that only confirms who we already are and how we already live. Such thinking can keep all of the rough edges worn off God’s Word and "tame" it for polite Bible studies that never move us as it challenged and confronted Jesus’ hometown crowd. Let me suggest four questions we might bring to our study of Scripture that might enable us to listen to God’s Word with different ears:


What do we think we know about what this passage means?

How does the passage I’m reading, or we’re discussing, confirm what we’ve always been told or heard?

How does this passage challenge what we’ve always been told or heard?

How will I have to think, act, give, die, live, relate, believe, view life differently if I take this passage seriously?

Leaving home can be a valuable experience. Provides us some distance, some perspective on life. But, as thousands of returning college students attest, once we’ve been away from home for a time, we can never really return in the same way. Home just isn’t the same. Because we’ve changed.

Our daughter recently left home on a "gap" year adventure. I encouraged her to take a year off between high school graduation and college to enjoy a year of transition. She reluctantly took my advice and moved 2,500 miles away from us and got her own apartment, her own checkbook, friends, church, and job. Four months later here comes "little precious girl," dad’s princess. But things weren’t the same. She wasn’t little, she wasn’t "mine," and she cared little for the princess title, though she still seemed okay with the privileges of royalty. She had grown much while away from us. She owned her own faith, her own accomplishments, and gained new confidence. She will never truly come home - she has learned to fly on her own. And fly she will, though visits back to the nest will be great moments of joy.

Away from the hometown crowd, Jesus learned to listen to Isaiahís words quite differently-Isaiahís words meant, "no boundaries" to Godís saving love. Whoever is poor, captive, blind, downtrodden becomes the object of Godís saving help and love-whether their address is the Nazareth synagogue or a Capernaum pub. Whether they know the Torah, or not. Just doesnít matter. And so Jesus discovered that Capernaum-types could receive deliverance, healing, and liberation from his hands and words, and often, even easier than the hometown crowd could. So in Lukeís gospel Jesus never turns back. Never comes home again. He keeps walking down one path and over the next hill, healing, casting out demons, confronting hometown views of ministry, until one day on a distant hill, he runs into another hometown crowd; this time the lynching mob is organized. And this time Homeboy wonít exactly get away. Amen.