Texts: Jeremiah 1:4-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30
As we discussed the text from 1 Corinthians about the body of Christ, the conversation somehow turned to talking about the border wall. One lady there made some remarks about keeping out undesirable people, which others from the group politely countered. After a few minutes of gentle but awkward back-and-forth punctuated with ABSURD amounts of nervous laughter from both sides, I attempted to get us back on subject by drawing a connection between immigrants and the “lesser members of the body” which Paul suggests ought to be clothed with greater respect. It was about that point that she finally dropped the subject by saying—half-joking, of course— “Aw, you’re all a bunch of liberals.” That is as close as I’ve ever come to being run out of my hometown.
When talking about divisiveness, political debate is kind of low-hanging fruit; but human tribalism certainly isn’t limited to politics. Tribalism is at the root of racism, sexism, ageism, nationalism, and just about every other “ism” you can think of. As humans, we are naturally wired to try to figure out who is a safe and who is a threat; who is friend and who is foe. We naturally separate ourselves into insiders and outsiders.
When Jesus walks into the synagogue in Nazareth, he enters as an insider. Just like when I go back to my parents’ congregation—the place where I was baptized, confirmed and ordained—the people there have a history with him. They know who he is and where he came from. They believe that he shares their understanding of the world and of scripture. When he reads from the scroll of Isaiah, they start getting excited; and why wouldn’t they? Everybody loves good news. The people of Nazareth saw themselves as poor and oppressed, captive to the Roman occupiers. Jesus’ choice of text and his opening statement that the scripture has been fulfilled in their hearing set their expectations for what comes next. They speak well of him and are amazed at his gracious words before he has even given them words to consider. Their excitement comes not from what he says, but from what they think he is going to say; in other words, the get excited because they are ready for him to reinforce their own prejudices, to affirm the unity and the superiority of the group to which he and they both belong.
The people of Nazareth expect Jesus to treat them well because, unlike the people of Capernaum down the road, these are his people! They are insiders with him, members of his same group. Jesus responds by reminding them that God doesn’t recognize insiders and outsiders; that God’s love and grace transcend the boundaries of nations, ethnicities, or human loyalties. After a (very) few moments of initial confusion, the Nazoreans decide that Jesus is no insider after all. He is an outsider, an enemy. Group unity is restored as together they drive him out of town to hurl the enemy off a cliff.
This scene might sound extreme, but it is not. In fact, it is extraordinarily pedestrian. It is a scene that plays out in our lives daily, if on a smaller scale. Think about it: our very sense of ourselves as a group—whatever that group may be—grows out of our shared desire to see our opponents, on some level, defeated and humiliated. Again, politics becomes an easy example, but I’m also thinking about hate crimes, and prejudice, about the way so many church people are threatened by the rise of secularism, about the tension between Mainline Protestants and Evangelicals, even the riots that erupt around sports games. I’m even thinking about the way Gig Harborites sometimes look down our noses at Tacoma and the Key Peninsula.
Regardless of which group or groups we claim as our own, our sense of unity is in our standing over and against the outsiders who stand apart from us—and the ways that those outsiders are “wrong” can sometimes enrage us so much that we want to see them get their comeuppance. We watch with gleeful schadenfreude when the spokespersons and icons of the other side fall victim to their own hypocrisy and we delight in their exquisite humiliation; all while we defend and rationalize and ignore the hypocrisy and the shortcomings of our own icons simply because they are on our side.
Jesus comes to us as he did to the town of Nazareth: as the ultimate insider. We all love Jesus, we all claim him as our own: he is one of us and so we welcome his message and his salvation. Unfortunately for us, what we need to be saved from is the very idea that there are outsiders and insiders to begin with; that we are justified in dividing ourselves into groups at all. No insider can save us from this; only someone on the other side of the line we’ve drawn between us and them can show us that the line is imaginary.
And so Jesus—the ultimate insider—chooses to become an outsider to us in order to save us. He chooses to bear our hatred, to be the target of our rage, so that we might finally see that what passes for unity among us—what we blithely call “love”—is arrogant, boastful and rude; that it bears very little weight before it crumbles into distrust and believes in nothing beyond our own self-importance. It is a dim reflection, a cheap imitation of the love that God offers us: love that is willing to be destroyed in order to save that which it loves. Jesus’ love for his people causes him to willingly bear our misplaced anger in the hopes that we will begin to see that it is us—not he—that have defined him to be on the outside. If we have defined God to be on the outside, where does that put us? Where do we put ourselves?
The last detail of the story is perhaps the most mysterious. After the people of Nazareth have made Jesus their scapegoat and banded together to drive him to the brow of the hill and throw him off, he simply passes through their midst and goes on his way. The scene on this hill points us to another scene on another hill; to another angry mob who have judged Jesus to be an outsider, a threat that must be eliminated. They, too, drive him to the top of a hill, and there they crucify him. But at Golgotha, just as at Nazareth, we know that he will calmly pass through their midst and goes on his way—granted, at Golgotha it takes him a little longer, but the result is the same. He goes on his way to Emmaus and beyond; he goes on his way to the upper room with his disciples, and continues to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor to Judea and Samaria and to all the ends of the earth.
By going to the cross, Jesus shows us how feeble and vapid our concept of community—of love—truly is. Our love for our God is so fickle that it turned to hate in the span of a single sermon; our love for one another is no better. But in going to the cross, Jesus shows us a love that has a vibrancy and a potency that our dim reflection of love does not. More than just showing us, he gifts it to us. He loves us with such vehemence that he is willing to let us kill him if it will slake our thirst for blood and allows us to finally set aside our need for vengeance. He loves us with a love that refuses to let us go, even as we nail him to a tree—but it is also a love that refuses to leave us languishing in addiction to this false love we have cooked up for ourselves out of fear, violence and Sudafed.
The good news in a story about an angry mob driving Jesus out of town is that even as we continue dividing ourselves from one another and from God, Jesus continues on his way, bringing us together even across time and space into one forgiven, called and sent people of God through the waters of baptism, through the meal around this table, and even through the petty disputes and beautiful solidarity of this community. He will never reaching out in love to unite us across what divides us, no matter how many times we crucify him for it.