Texts: Jeremiah 1:4-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30
Recall from last week that Jesus has just read from the scroll of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Good news, right? Today we hear him given even more good news: Today—this very day, right here, right now—this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Great news! People are buzzing! The wait is over—God’s words are being fulfilled. End the story here, and we all leave feeling happy.
But of course the story doesn’t end here. Jesus has a good thing going, a great start for his official fan club, and he blows it. Everything is fine until he brings up the Gentiles. We have a word for the problem Jesus uncovered. It’s a relatively new word, and certainly wouldn’t have been around when Luke wrote his gospel, but I think it applies nonetheless. The tension we see in this story is classic racism.
Jews believed they were better than Gentiles. They had a covenant with God, a special relationship. Those Gentiles—who may well be perfectly fine people otherwise—did disgusting things like eat pork. They were dirty: they didn’t wash their hands before they ate, and—for God’s sake—the men weren’t even circumcised. When Jesus reminds them of the Sidonian widow and the Syrian leper who received God’s special attention, he is attacking the privilege at the center of their identity as God’s people: the privilege of being special in God’s eyes. Talk like that’s enough to get a feller lynched.
Though the players have changed, the game remains largely the same. Instead of Jew and Gentile, the distinction is now between White and Black. It’s a distinction that’s drawn mostly along lines of skin color, but not exclusively. For centuries now—and from the absolute, very beginnings of the country in which we live and the government that organizes it—we have been saturated with the message that to be White is to be better than it is to be Black.
In recent decades, we’ve passed a few laws and made some social changes to officially stop race from being an issue in daily life, but we have fooled ourselves into thinking that this means race no longer is an issue. In 2008, amid the presidential election that put a Black man in the White House, writers and political figures began describing our society as “post-racial.” Sadly, the events of the last two years have finally begun to disabuse us of this harmful fantasy.
I bring this up for the same reason that Luke does. Luke is using this story to make a specific point about who will be a part of God’s reign—you know, the “year of the Lord’s favor” when the oppressed will go free. You see how the Jews react to Jesus’ suggestion that perhaps Gentiles also have a place in God’s good plan; I have seen that same reaction from White folk.
It is hard for White people to talk about racism because we so fervently believe that because we as individuals are not racist, racism is not our problem. Yet, when people of color call White attention to the larger, systemic issues of racism—issues like the disproportionate incarceration of Black men in our prison system or the staggering wealth gap between White and Black people—the White response is often to deny or justify such experiences (“Black people should try harder or commit less crime”), trivialize them (“We’re all a little racist”) or ask for evidence (“Give me specific examples”). The message implicit in all these reactions is the same: “Your experience is not trustworthy, and I do not accept it.”
There’s a name for this phenomenon: White Fragility. White people are so used to being comfortable and not having to talk about race that when hard truths are spoken to us, like the Nazareans in today’s story we too often refuse to listen with humility and instead rush to throw the truth-tellers off the cliff, so to speak.
It is tempting to think that this is not our problem: when have we ever done this? I’ll tell you when. In a nice, mostly-White, Jesus-following ELCA congregation very much like ours, a nice young Lutheran man named Dylann decided that he was justified in shooting up a Black church in Charleston. That was not this congregation, but it could have been. We are different people, but we live within the same broken system, and we live in mostly within the same bubble of White privilege. Unfortunately, racism is mostly perpetuated not by bigots, but by nice, polite, well-meaning people who remain ignorant of how we benefit from and are complicit in that system that devalues Black bodies in favor of White ones. This is most definitely our problem, and it is not going to go away until we address it. If we are not earnestly seeking out and listening to the hard truths that we need to hear, then we are not listening to Christ.
The gospel story reveals how problems like racism divide and distract us from the good news Christ brings. Our worship here reveals to us how we are even now being formed and shaped by Christ himself to be the solution to this very problem. We gather by first confessing our sins and admitting that we have done wrong, an essential step towards reconciliation and forgiveness. Even as we admit our brokenness and failure and our need for Christ, by the grace of God Christ himself comes to us in the sacraments and forms us into the Body of Christ.
It is by the grace of God that we, too, are invited not only to listen to the hard truths God speaks to us, but also to share those hard truths with all who need to hear them. This is dangerous, uncomfortable, demanding work. It stands to reason that if we are doing it right, it will break us like it broke Christ. This is disturbing, but it is good; for just as Christ is broken and given to us at the table to give us life, so we—the Body of Christ—are broken and given for the life of the world.
I want to leave you with this final meditation. The story today ends with the strange image of Jesus somehow calmly walking through the raging crowd that has just driven him out of town and to this cliff with the intent of killing him. The last word of this story is the verb “to go on his way.” Luke frequently uses this word as he narrates Jesus’ journey through Galilee and Judea toward Jerusalem and the cross, describing how Jesus sets his face to “go on his way” to Jerusalem. So, even as he escapes the crowd on the hill outside Nazareth, he is “going on his way” to another hill outside Jerusalem where a cross waits with his name on it. In following Christ, we, too, are going “on our way,” often through the midst of angry crowds displeased at the hard truths the gospel reveals to us, possibly to crosses of our own.
However, this word shows up again after the crucifixion on the road to Emmaus, where two disciples are walking despondently away from the place where their friend has just been killed. A stranger shows up, and “goes on their way” with them. (Luke 24:15) The stranger, of course, is Jesus, alive and well. It would seem that for all the hardship and resistance he encountered, nothing—not angry crowds or even crosses—hindered him from “going on his way” through Jerusalem to Emmaus and beyond.
The events of late have made it brutally clear that we cannot as Americans or ELCA Lutheran Christians avoid this conversation about race and racism any longer. It will be difficult, it will be long, it will be frustrating. It will make us question who we are and what we believe. However, through all of it, through all the blood, sweat and tears to follow, we can be sure of two things: first, we have plenty of bread and wine for the journey, and second, Christ is indeed with us as we “go on our way.”