Tough Love

Sermon Given Jan. 30, 2022

Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.

The readings this morning are kind of strange when put together. We’ve got the calling of a prophet, Paul’s famous poetic commentary on love, which if you’re anything like me brings me back to countless weddings I’ve attended, and then we get Jesus almost being thrown off a cliff. It’s kind of jarring, this transition. Two feel goods and then a real gut wrencher. I wonder if what we feel going from the poetic to the cliffside is not unlike what the people of Nazareth felt when Jesus preached in their synagogue. 

We heard Jesus’ preaching last week. He spoke about lifting up the poor and the oppressed and declared now was the day, this was the time. The Holy Spirit was making these things possible. All were amazed and raving about Jesus. Then Jesus moves to quickly say, “This isn’t really about you.” I can only imagine the devastation of those words. 

This is small town Israel, not all that unlike many small towns we know today. It was actually more of a village. I would say it is not like Murray, which is an economic center for the region, it’s more like Almo. Who lives there? Mostly people whose families have lived there for a long time. The people of Nazareth worked in other places nearby, the city of Sepphoris or the town of Cana,  just like people in Almo typically travel to towns nearby for work. Very little happened in Nazareth proper. In the Gospel of John, Nathaniel asks, “What good can come out of Nazareth?” when told about Jesus, and we might say similar things today. What good comes out of Almo? Or New Concord? Or Kirsey? They’re mostly just a string of houses with a church or two. Nazareth had some houses, a well and a synagogue. Don’t blink on your way through or you might miss it. 

So can you imagine the delight of potentially having a hometown hero? What if Jesus set up his whole show there? The economic possibilities were endless. They could build up a tourism trade, bringing all this wealth and prosperity to Nazareth. He was Joseph’s boy. He was one of their own. Surely he wanted to stay there. Surely he could save the town from being a place nobody really cared about and make it really something. He could set up Jesus’ House of Healing, curing diseases for the low, low price of a denarii per head. There could be all sorts of Jesus chatskis exclusively sold there. They could stop traveling to the nearby towns to do business and start building up their own town into someplace people actually sought out. Jesus can see the wheels turning in their heads and the excitement. They’ve practically put up the new town sign, “Nazareth: Home of Jesus.” They liked him not for who he was but how he could benefit them.

But building up Nazareth as a tourist destination isn’t exactly why Jesus came. He just declared the year of the Lord’s favor, the time when the poor and oppressed are uplifted, and their heads are already in a money grab. He knows they’ll say to him, “Do here what you did in Capernaum” and he’s not going down that road with them. So Jesus cuts his ties. This, of course, is infuriating. I’m sure some of the folks thought he had become too big for his britches, that he needed to be cut down to size. How dare he think he was more than a kid from Nazareth? Who did he think he was anyway? The Son of God or something? Come on. That was Joseph’s kid, nothing more.

As soon as he made it clear that he wasn’t there for Nazareth’s economic benefit, he quickly became of little use to the community. Communities are wonderful when they band together for the common good, but they become ugly when they come together to cut someone down to size. The line between admiration and disgust can sometimes be suffocatingly thin. 

But Jesus reminds them that God was never an economic tool to be used for their benefit. God is always going after the least and the lost. He reminds them of what some theologians call the “scandal of particularity”. Usually we talk about the scandal when we speak of Jesus, of God being born in human form in a particular place in a particular moment of history. Jesus reminds us that this scandal has been happening for a while. Elijah went not to the entire nation of Israel, but to a particular widow in Zarephath, someone who was not an Israelite. Elisha healed not the thousands of Israelites with skin diseases, but a particular soldier from Syria named Namaan. God scandalously skirts around our expectations and goes seemingly rogue in healing, in caring for the least, the lost, and the oppressed. Another way Jesus puts it later in the Gospel is that a shepherd will leave the 99 and go to find the one lost sheep. God seemingly shows up for certain people more than others. 

We have to wonder: Why? Why is it that God would seek out this one particular person or family and leave the others without a miracle? Why can we name Namaan as receiving healing but we know there were others who were part of God’s chosen people who never received the healing they sought out? What is all this about? 

We have to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers. We have different theologies of how God works in the world largely because God is mysterious and bigger than our limited understanding. But in seeking out the poor, the oppressed, the downtrodden, I think sometimes God chooses to act in amazing ways for one knowing that others have more people around to help them survive. God looks to the community to do God’s works. The 99 have each other. The one is alone. 

The people of Israel truly had all they needed to help each other out. They had God and God’s Word. They had each other. What more could they ask for? Similarly, Nazareth had all they needed. They were a tight knit community. Everyone knew each other and each other’s needs. They had God. Jesus gave them a fresh burst of the Holy Spirit. There was absolutely nothing they lacked. They had the power to do anything Jesus could do for them. They weren’t going to become a tourist destination without him, but they had the ability to take care of the poor and oppressed among them. They didn’t need him to stick around. They had each other. The problem was, they wanted prestige. They wanted fame. They wanted to be able to show him off and flaunt him. 

But the power to do the miraculous was already inside of them. It’s inside our communities too.  Is a miracle any less of a miracle if one is provided for through communal resources? When one needs upliftment, when one needs a way out of no way, does it matter whether that comes through the people banding together to make it happen versus God sending a particular person to do wonders? God does both. The 99 don’t have less of God than the one, it’s just the miracles they are able to do are often downplayed or ignored.

How are modern medical interventions not miracles? Or drug treatment programs? Or the medicines in our cabinets? Or communal aid networks? We’ve learned that things like talk therapy can literally re-route the neurons in our brains. Sitting and talking with someone in particular ways has the power to change the physical structure of our brains and yet we have such limited views of what is a miracle. But all these methods, all these ways, have one root, one core, one center. It’s all an expression of love. Miracles are an outpouring of God’s love, both the ones that seem to defy nature and the ones that work within the realms of nature and science.

That’s why Paul stops and spends an entire chapter of 1 Corinthians on love. He’s spent so much of the letter talking with a wildly diverse group of people all trying to figure out how to follow God together. He’s in the midst of a conversation on spiritual gifts, which we looked at a bit last week, and he pauses everything to take a moment to talk about love. Because love is that important. Love looks at the world, sees all the flaws, all the injustices, and works within us to build a better way. Love isn’t irritable about this, it’s not envious or boastful. It doesn’t try to puff us up, pit us against each other, or keep a record of complaints. Love unifies. It never fails. It continually seeks the more perfect way, setting the vision of God’s dreams for the world in front of us, dreams of justice, equity, and peace. We can only see it dimly, as a reflection in the mirror, but one day, we’re promised that we’ll see God face to face, that God’s dreams will become reality. Now we only know a part of God’s dreams, only see glimpses of the coming reality, but there will be a time when God is fully known and fully revealed in glory. We will find everything, all the dreams and hopes and visions of God through dwelling in love. 

The love that Jesus shares with his hometown in our Gospel today is not easy love. It’s not the warm fuzzies of a blossoming relationship or the joy of a wedding feast. It’s the love of someone who has spent thirty years in a community, and is ready to move on. It’s the love of a person who has to cut ties in order to be more fully himself. It’s the love of someone who says no, who sets boundaries, who recognizes when other people’s ideas and plans aren’t healthy for him or in line with his goals. It’s a love that trusts that the community can care for themselves, and bids them well in their exploration of who they are, having given them all the tools they need. It’s a love that refuses to be a community’s crutch, choosing instead to be the world’s messiah. 

It’s tough love. It’s hard love. It’s the kind of love that keeps parents up at night, that stresses out community leaders, that’s hard to focus on for too long because it demands so much from us. It believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. It is a foundational part of our humanity.  It can be painful, but it doesn’t willingly inflict pain on us, rather it breaks open our hearts to the pain around us, seeking healing. This is the love Jesus shares with us today. It is what some Christians call God’s discipline, the love that Jesus sometimes calls servitude. It opens our hearts so we are never the same. It brings miracles into being and gives us everything we need. This love is enveloped in the Holy Spirit. It’s brought to us again and again, week after week, because we need it so much. This is the love that lays down its life for its friends. May we all live into this love and learn from it, not seeking our own advantage, but seeking the welfare of all. Amen.