“The Problem with Prophets”

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “The Problem with Prophets” Luke 4:21-30

By our very nature, human beings mentally sort experience into categories.  It is how we make sense of a complex world.  We have in-groups.  Those are groups that we are a part of.  For example, I’m a woman, I’m a follower of Jesus, and I’m an enthusiast of corgis.  If you share any of these characteristics, you’re my people.  Human beings also naturally form the notion of out-groups.  These are the folks with whom we do not share a sense of affiliation.  We relegate folks to an out-group for any number of reasons: race, ethnicity, religious belief, gender, or their love of cats.

Psychologists tell us that we naturally tend to negatively evaluate folks in the out-group.  In a well-known series of mid-twentieth century studies, social scientists Muzafar and Carolyn Sherif considered in-group and out-group dynamics in twelve-year-old boys.  They brought the boys to summer camp, divided them into two teams, and pitted them against one another in competitive games.  The Sherifs found that the boys consistently gave better ratings to their own teammates and to their own team, regardless of their performance or real achievement.  The boys also reassigned their feelings of friendship and care over the course of the experiment.  Boys who began the summer as friends, but were placed on opposing teams, weren’t always friends by summer’s end.  In fact, 90% of the boys by the end of the camp identified their best friend from within their in-group.

We have all experienced the dynamics of in-groups and out-groups.  Remember your experience of cliques in high school?  Think of the time that you were passed up for a promotion in favor of an office-insider.  How about when you realized that your male colleagues were paid more?  For friends of color, what about the time that the sales person followed you through that high-end boutique, expecting you to shoplift?  Our in-group / out-group dynamics are entrenched, sometimes unconscious, and hard to overcome.

Jesus got into trouble over in-group / out-group dynamics on that morning he preached in Nazareth.  His neighbors praised him with gracious words when they heard that he was their long-awaited Messiah.  Who could have imagined it?  Joseph’s son—a hometown hero, one of them—was going to bring them all God’s blessing.  They were ready for that good stuff.  They nodded to one another and exchanged knowing looks in the pews.  “C’mon Jesus!  We hear of the good things you’ve been doing over there in Capernaum.  How about a few miracles for your in-group homies?”

There were no miracles in Nazareth that morning.  Rather, Jesus told his neighbors that he was just as concerned about the out-group as he was the in-group.  To make his point, he told those two prophetic stories.  Elijah resurrected the son of the widow of Zarephath, and she was a foreigner and Baal-worshipper.  Elisha healed the leprosy of the Syrian General Naaman, and he was an enemy of the Hebrew people.  In fact, the only reason he knew of Elisha was through a Hebrew war captive who worked as a slave in his household.  According to scripture, God’s love and goodness weren’t only for the in-group.  God’s love and welcome were broader than the people of Nazareth liked to imagine.

We struggle to understand the immensity of God’s love.  We are so scandalized by God’s limitless grace that our minds boggle.  We can’t take it in.  The neighbors in Nazareth didn’t like the reminder that God had a long history of reaching beyond the in-group.  They really didn’t like Jesus standing there and telling them that he was going to practice a breadth of holy love that would make a lie of all those in-group and out-group assumptions.  The initial disappointment and confusion of Jesus’ hometown friends shifted to anger, rage, and rejection.  They cast Jesus out of the in-group and ran him out of town.

In-group / out-group conflicts continue to plague our world and trouble the church.  That’s why denominations split over who can preach in the pulpit, who may hold office, who will be welcomed into membership, or how we can spend our mission giving.  Whenever we follow Jesus in practicing a broader, holier love or extending a more generous welcome, we can count on conflict.  That’s the problem with prophets.  They aren’t content to allow us to mete out God’s love in tablespoons.  They push us beyond the comfortable familiarity of the in-group.  They confront us with our bias, and we don’t like it any more than the people in Nazareth did.  Lukan scholar R. Alan Culpepper points out that Jesus’s rejection at Nazareth was a foretaste of what was to come.  That near-death experience on the cliff in Nazareth anticipated the lonely hilltop where Jesus would be nailed to a cross when he ran afoul of those ultimate in-groups of Temple and empire in Jerusalem.

Our personal experiences of criticism and rejection may be a sign that we are butting up against in-group / out-group dynamics.  Pastoral theologian Henri Nouwen and Presbyterian minister and children’s broadcaster Fred Rogers were friends who corresponded for years.  At one point, Fred was particularly discouraged.  You may remember that Rogers broke color barriers, welcomed children with disabilities, told little girls they could be astronauts, and assured all children that they were loveable just as they were.  Rogers sent his friend Henri a copy of an especially nasty attack in the press.  Nouwen sympathized.  In his experience, “little persecutions” within the in-group of the church hurt the most.  Nouwen assured his friend Mr. Rogers that he was probably on the right track.  Nouwen wrote back to Fred that, attacks “come and will keep coming precisely when you do something significant for the Kingdom. . . It was Jesus’s experience and the experience of all great visionaries of the church, and it continues to be the experience of many who are committed to Jesus.”  Reaching out with God’s surprising love, welcoming outsiders in, breaking down barriers is always risky business.

The social scientists tell us that overcoming divisions of in- and out-groups isn’t easy.  It confounds our most essential assumptions and forces us to question our perceptions.  We naturally resist that.  But dividing walls can come down.  It helps if in- and out-groups can work together toward a shared goal.  Groups also need a level playing field—or at least the buy-in from both sides that all people have equal standing and rights.  Overcoming divisions is easier when we have visionary leaders, like George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr.  We are better able to transcend our in-group if we can envision outsiders as part of a larger, shared group—like the Kingdom of God. 

But the most essential way of ending long-standing divisions is through relationship and friendship.  That means extending ourselves to connect in meaningful ways, even if it feels uncomfortable.  Jesus was so good at this.  Think about Jesus with his compassion for lepers, forgiveness for sinners, welcome for tax-collectors, and healing care for foreigners, like Syro-Phoenicians, Canaanites, Romans, and Samaritans.  Jesus intentionally broke down all those insider / outsider barriers with listening, advocacy, and love.  Could we dare to do the same?

I am sure that Jesus continues to work in ways that confound our in-group sensibilities, in ways that might disappoint, puzzle, anger, and maybe even enrage us.  He just does that—ask the folks in Nazareth who knew him so well.  I invite you to join me in imagining some of the places where Jesus is at work this morning.

Today Jesus is on the southern border.  He’s leaving water in the desert for weary, thirsty travelers.  He is suffering in the back of a super-heated tractor trailer, driven by human traffickers.  He is listening to harrowing stories of drug cartel violence.  He is trying to reunite families.

Jesus is on death row.  He is innocent and falsely convicted.  He is hearing last minute confessions.  He is listening to the same old lies and excuses.  He is praying with people whose gods have been violence or addiction or hate.  He is hoping, always hoping, to welcome them into his Kingdom.  He longs for last minute stays of execution.

Jesus is in the ICU.  He whispers the twenty-third psalm to the anti-vaxer on the ventilator and reminds her that she is his beloved.  He refreshes the spirit of the nurse who has been working double-shifts on and off for almost two years.  He eases the fear of the aids and housekeeping crew who take bodies to the morgue, clean up the mess, and work silently at great personal risk for relatively low wages.  He comforts the spouse who goes home with a broken heart.

If any of those examples of where Jesus may be right now touched, startled, troubled, or offended you, then perhaps I got something right this morning.  Jesus is always pushing the borders and widening the circle.  He dreams of the day when there will be no in-group, no out-group, just one precious Kingdom of love.  May we, this week, have the courage to accept the improbable breadth of God’s love and welcome the outsider in.


Resources:

David Baggett. “Letter from Henri to Fred” in Moral Apologetics, August 5, 2019.  Accessed online at https://www.moralapologetics.com/wordpress/2019/8/5/letter-from-henri-to-fred

Gay L. Byron. “Exegetical Perspective on Luke 4:21-30” in Feasting on the Word, Year C. vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

R. Alan Culpepper.  “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible.  Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.

Howard K. Gregory. “Pastoral Perspective on Luke 4:21-30” in Feasting on the Word, Year C. vol. 1.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Lisa J. Cohen. “The Psychology of Prejudice and Racism” in Psychology Today, January 24, 2011.  Accessed online at psychologytoday.com.


Luke 4:21-30 (HCSB)

21 Jesus began by saying to them, “Today as you listen, this Scripture has been fulfilled.” 22 They were all speaking well of Him and were amazed by the gracious words that came from His mouth, yet they said, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” 23 Then He said to them, “No doubt you will quote this proverb to Me: ‘Doctor, heal yourself. So all we’ve heard that took place in Capernaum, do here in Your hometown also.’” 24 He also said, “I assure you: No prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 But I say to you, there were certainly many widows in Israel in Elijah’s days, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months while a great famine came over all the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them—but to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 And in the prophet Elisha’s time, there were many in Israel who had serious skin diseases, yet not one of them was healed—only Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, everyone in the synagogue was enraged. 29 They got up, drove Him out of town, and brought Him to the edge of the hill that their town was built on, intending to hurl Him over the cliff. 30 But He passed right through the crowd and went on His way.


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The Choice for Joy

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “The Choice for Joy” Philippians 4:4-7

This Sunday has long been known as Gaudete Sunday.  That name derives from ancient Latin words that began our worship on the third Sunday of Advent, long before the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.  I’m talking about Paul’s exhortation to the church in Philippi.  Gaudete in Domino semper, rejoice in the Lord always.

In the days when Advent was closely observed as a season of repentance, fasting was eased on this Sunday as Christians anticipated the joyful celebration of the birth of Jesus and his triumphant return in glory.  These days, the only reminders of that celebratory observance are the name Gaudete or Joy Sunday and the pink candle on our Advent wreath.  The pink is a softening of the season’s penitential purple.

“Rejoice in the Lord always!  Again, I will say rejoice.”  The theme of this Sunday may feel like a jarring, dissonant message for some this morning.  As we acknowledged in our midweek service of the Longest Night, the joy of Christmas may feel at odds with our personal feelings of sorrow, pain, and hardship.

Burt won’t be merry this Christmas.  His wife Lois died last summer.  This year on Christmas Day, there won’t be a salty, savory ham baking in the oven.  Nor will there be a platter of deviled eggs or a sticky, sweet pecan pie.  This year, the kids and grandkids won’t be coming home for the holiday dinner.  Burt has a big, painful hole in his life.  All Burt can feel is the emptiness and sorrow in his heart.

Kristin is struggling this Christmas.  The kids will be spending the day with their father and his new wife—and they’re expecting a baby.  While her kids are unwrapping presents from Santa, Kristin will have a second cup of coffee and watch one of those Hallmark Christmas movies.  Kristin wonders how her “happily ever after” ended with adultery and divorce.  She feels lonely, betrayed, and defeated.

Joanie and Curt don’t have much to celebrate this year.  Their small business was a casualty of COVID-19.  They have found other work, but it may take years to pay off their mountain of debt.  This year instead of shopping, they’re making special gifts for the kids and upcycling some used toys and clothes.  All the same, Santa won’t have much under the tree.  Joanie and Curt feel stressed, disappointed, and powerless.

“Rejoice in the Lord always!  Again, I will say rejoice.”  That’s what the Apostle Paul said to his friends in Philippi.  Bible scholars tell us that the circumstances of the Philippian church were hardly joyful.  Their Greco-Roman neighbors viewed them with suspicion.  In fact, Paul and Silas had been driven out of their community by prosperous merchants who said they were bad for business.  The young church needed Paul’s leadership, but his return to Philippi had been long delayed.  When news came that Paul was in the imperial prison, the Philippians sent Epaphroditis to Rome to provide support.  Then, came the news that Epaphroditus was sick—near death.  We can imagine the worry and concern of the Philippians as they waited and feared the worst.  It must have felt to some felt like a jarring and dissonant message when Epaphroditus finally returned, bearing Paul’s epistle with the exhortation to rejoice always.

We don’t like it when folks make light of our suffering.  It feels like a gut punch when we are lost in grief and someone assures us that our loved one passed because God needed another angel.  We feel like failures when a more skilled or experienced friend offers to help—after our plans have come to ruin.  Early in my tenure here, I was approached by an older woman who had been a member of the church as a child.  When her father divorced her mother—a scandalous turn of events in that day and age, Rev. Gurley, our pastor at the time, told the bereft wife and children that all would be better when they met a “nice guy.”  Poor Reverend Gurley was well-intended, but his words felt like gall in the ears of those he had sought to comfort.  Almost seventy years later, the anger and hurt of the daughter was still palpable as she told me her story.

It’s important to note that the Apostle Paul wasn’t speaking platitudes or empty promises to his friends in Philippi.  He wasn’t making light of their struggle and fear.  On the contrary, Paul believed that joy was a core characteristic of the Christian life in all circumstances, and he modeled that for others.  The Book of Acts tells us that when Paul and Silas were imprisoned in Philippi, they sang songs of faith and prayed—much to the amazement of their jailor.  When Paul described to the Corinthians the difficulties of his service for Jesus, Paul said he was “grieving yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10).  Even as Paul wrote to the Philippians, his end was near.  Condemned to death for the sake of the gospel, Paul had appealed his case to the emperor himself—and everyone knew that would not go well.  Despite every adverse circumstance, Paul lived in joy and hoped that others would, too.

The secret to Paul’s joy was its source.  Paul rejoiced in the Lord.  This wasn’t the fleeting, superficial feeling of happiness that comes when everything goes our way.  Rather, Paul’s joy was found in the knowledge that he belonged to God, who loved him enough to enter the world’s darkness and die for his salvation.  Paul trusted in God’s love in every circumstance.  He boldly wrote to the church in Rome that God’s love was always victorious, saying, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Paul’s joy in the Lord sustained him through rejection, persecution, beatings, stoning, shipwreck, imprisonment, and even the shadow death because he knew that he belonged to God both in this world and the world that is to come.  Now that was something to rejoice in.

Henri Nouwen, one of the finest pastoral theologians of the twentieth century, taught that joy is a choice.  Sounding a lot like the Apostle Paul, Nouwen wrote in his 1994 book Here and Now that “Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing—sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death—can take that love away.”  Nouwen saw joy as a spiritual discipline, the daily choice to remember our belovedness and to live in the light of God’s unquenchable love for us.  This joy is ours always, regardless of what is going on in our lives.

Nouwen himself used daily quiet times of prayer to reflect upon his life and attend to his mood.  In that stillness, in the choice to remember the love of God revealed in Jesus, Nouwen’s world would change.  Worry, stress, irritability, and sorrow would give way to joy.  In Nouwen’s words, the daily choice for joy transformed him from a “victim,” overwrought by the pain and challenge of life, to “victor,” resting in the eternal goodness of God.  Joy can be ours for the choosing.

The choice for joy that Paul and Henri Nouwen described might seem like a dry theological assertion or an unlikely turn of events if we didn’t see it in action.  We have all encountered folks who knew tremendous adversity and grief yet continued to shine light for the world around them.  I think about Anna Ferree, who lost her two sons in tragic accidents.  After their deaths, a friend asked Anna for help with watching her children.  Before she knew it, Anna had a daycare in her home.  There Anna provided love and support for many of Saranac Lake’s children.  Anna still mourned the loss of her sons, yet she chose to make a helping and healing difference in the lives of local families.  There were story times and naps, snacks and tea parties, play time and even prayer time.  Anna saw her experience as a vocation, a gift from God who called her from sorrow to joy. 

We all know people like Anna.  The mother who raised three incredibly successful kids alone.  The dad who never misses a Little League game, despite his battle with cancer.  The older brother who skips college and works hard to provide the resources for others to get an education.  They do the impossible with grace.  We all know folks who have shown us an inner strength and remarkable faith that chooses joy, despite the odds.

Beyond the difficulties and problems that every life holds, there is cause for joy on this Gaudete Sunday, a joy that is both holy and improbable.  When we stand fast in God’s love and make the choice for joy, we can be bowed down by grief, like the recently widowed Burt, and yet we can rejoice.  We can struggle with broken, dysfunctional families, like Kristin alone on Christmas Day, and yet we can rejoice.  We can know hardship and failure, like Joanie and Curt who lost their business, and still we can rejoice.  Joy is ours because we are beloved.  Amid adversity, we belong to God who has overcome the grief and sorrow, pain and problems of this world.

May we rejoice in the Lord always.  Again, I will say rejoice.


Resources:

Holly Hearon. “Commentary on Philippians 4:4-7” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 16, 2008.  Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Carla Works. “Commentary on Philippians 4:4-7” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 21, 2021.  Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Michael Joseph Brown. “Commentary on Philippians 4:4-7” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 13, 2009.  Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Henri Nouwen. Here and Now. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2006.


4 “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. — Philippians 4:4-7


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