The Choice of the Good News

Preached by vestry co-warden, Scottie Warden

O god hear the supplications of your people, and grant us your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Even Jesus bombed his first sermon, so praise him for setting the bar incredibly low in this one regard! I want to thank Suzanne and Andrew for inviting me to give my first sermon this morning. Despite having trod quite a churchy path, this has been pretty daunting! Indeed, when I sat down to write I found, to my horror, that I had never heard a sermon in my life, not once, couldn’t fathom what one was. Thankfully, my friend Jenna, a shining star of a Lutheran pastor, invited me to her sermon writing group this week, and as we discussed the passage from Luke’s gospel, I received the blessing of hearing a colleague of hers observe that “even Jesus’s first sermon didn’t go over too well.”

Thus, bar cranked a few notches even lower, here we go! Reading most of the Gospels—and this morning’s passage from Luke is no exception—it’s usually pretty clear who the good guy is. Jesus has it right, mostly, and people who oppose him have it wrong. Over and over again, Jesus points out to people who think they’re in the right what they fail to see, what they misjudge, and where they have misplaced priorities.

As a young person hearing the gospel, therefore, I tried, by all means necessary, not to be the one messing up. I taught myself to think about how Jesus might see another person, or a situation, and to ask myself if my priorities were aligned with Jesus, or if I was one of those people. You know, the bad guys. Those ding dongs who take themselves seriously and are selfish, or proud, or inhospitable, or covetous, or cruel.

The benefits of these efforts are obvious, I think. It is good and helpful to stop and think, to try to see another person’s point of view, to be generous, to avoid putting yourself first, to look out for those with less, to be gentle, to work for justice and to love mercy.

The downsides, I am still reckoning with. Perhaps you can relate? Wanting to not be one of those people can make you the very judgmental, exclusionary person you’re not supposed to be, simply by designating others as “those people” and losing sight of your common humanity. Not to mention that thinking you’re only a “good” person if you never, ever mess up isn’t…stupendous. Putting others before yourself is good; more of us should do it! It’s literally the thing Jesus wants us to do! But we also deserve to have our needs met, and we certainly shouldn’t be harmed for the sake of another’s desires.

At any rate, today’s story had to be rough for the congregation in Nazareth. Jesus is the hometown kid! They’re proud of him and amazed…at first. They probably hoped to hear good and reassuring things about their community and rejoice in his words.

Instead, Jesus reminds them of times when God’s favor fell on outsiders, on strangers, on foreigners. He tells them…they might be those people??? What a blow. From saying, with pride, “is not this Joseph’s son?” Jesus’s listeners are now so shocked to hear this bad news they rush to throw Joseph’s very son off a cliff. To kill him.

It’s a horrific rush from fellowship to violence.

We’ve heard this story, and many like it, before. This happens to God’s people again and again: the good news of Jesus that God’s love is for all peoples, even sinners and outcasts, undermines what we think is right and recasts our behavior and so we have to change. How scary to find the unfamiliar in someone you thought you knew so well. How destabilizing to find that what you think is right…isn’t. Do you know it too: the floor-dropping-out-from-under-you feeling of realizing that you might have been on the wrong path?

I don’t know about you, but I see echoes of the violent rush to cast Jesus out of Nazareth today: violent backlash against public health measures, ongoing systemic violence of incarceration and impoverishment, destructive violence against ourselves and our futures by the ruin of our natural world. It’s dizzying: attacks in schools, on airline personnel, grocery clerks, health care professionals, school curricula, members of minority groups. It’s particularly stark, to me, in the way that so many seem to hear the defense of the rights of others as a threat to themselves. I wonder what on earth they are thinking; don’t they know they are wrong?

How will we respond when the good news doesn’t feel good? When it isn’t what we thought we knew, and when it’s frightening? Especially when it tells us we might be those people? It can be unthinkable to admit we were wrong and awkwardly stumble towards growth.

The thing that’s occurred to me, as I think about what we’ve all witnessed over the last few years in light of Luke’s account, and as I think about my own experiences, is that we will be changed by the good news whether we accept it or not. I like to think that, as our best selves, we hear the truth and shed our misjudgments and mistakes and become new. It’s hard, but we are brave and we want to see the kingdom of God in this place that falls so short of it.

But, as our least-best selves, I think, we hear critical news, threatening our metaphorical hometowns where we thought we were good, and so in fury and desperation we drive Jesus towards the cliff. We plant our feet fight back and build walls and repel the danger. In refusing to change, by locking down to protect the home team as it is, and clinging to the determination not to alter what we’ve known in any way, we’ve altered. We’ve become angry, violent, and hard because we wanted constancy and comfort: how crushing. And in that case, Jesus “passes through the midst” of us.

It’s frightening when the good news doesn’t feel like good news. When it feels like it’s not for you, and maybe even like Jesus is abandoning you.

But beloved friends, it is good news that God’s favor will fall on us all. That good news is not limited to us only when we never mess up. The good news is not limited to these walls or this nation or even to people who do all the “right” things. And those people, as in today’s Gospel, are God’s people. God’s people don’t get along, God’s people feel abandoned, and God’s people mess up. We see it throughout scripture. What a comfort for those of us who once thought our goodness depended on never making a mistake.

In Paul’s letter we read this morning—that absolute banger of a classic we all know so well!—he writes to the congregation in Corinth, “Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” 

My friends, love rejoices in the truth and does not insist on its own way.

I know it is a lot to ask. It is unfair to ask people to get out of their comfort zones when they’ve already been pushed so far the last few years. The sinking horror of feeling we’ve been here before saps the joy and bravery from our souls. I sympathize with the congregation in Nazareth. It is frightening and destabilizing and embarrassing to feel like you’re in the wrong.

In today’s scripture, though, I see one choice. It’s not whether or not we will have to change. Transformation will happen one way or another. Jesus will show us something strange, something unfamiliar, and we will choose: to insist on our own way and become angry and hard, or to rejoice in the truth and become generous and welcoming of the good news to God’s people. May we know which we’re choosing, and choose with love and abundance.