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Following Jesus

For you are my hope, O Lord God, *
my confidence since I was young.

I have been sustained by you ever since I was born;
from my mother’s womb you have been my strength; *
my praise shall be always of you. (Psalm 71)

A well-known Southern Baptist theologian quips that the whole of his Sunday school training could be summed up in one sentence (delivered with a broad Texas drawl): “Jesus is nice, and he wants us to be nice, too.”Many of us have grown up learning about Jesus, hearing what it means to follow him.This learning mainly included stories where Jesus went about doing good– healing those who were sick, welcoming children, and inviting all to dinner. Many of us attended a church where there was a large picture of the beautiful light brown haired man who envelops you with love through his large blue eyes.

We are familiar with Jesus turning over tables, throwing out those who were making profits selling goods in the temple. Some of us may have been startled at the way Jesus talked to his mother at the wedding in Cana. If I had said to my mother, “Woman what does that have to do with you or me!” I may have experienced some discomfort later. But the picture we can form from our earliest days is that Jesus is “meek and mild”, that Jesus is “nice” and all we must do to follow him is to be “nice” as well.

But today we hear a story where Jesus is not “nice.” It is a short passage where Jesus moves from adored hometown boy to one where they want to throw him over a cliff.

The passage does not tell us why Jesus rebuked his hometown folk. But he seems to scold them for their assumption that he will do for them what he has done in Capernaum. Then he tells two stories that portray God’s long history of paying close attention to the needs of the outsider, the foreigner, the stranger. The story tells of the prophet Elijah who in a time of drought and famine was sent to care for the widow at Zarephath in Sidon. He was not sent to the widows of Israel. Of all the countless persons with skin disease in Israel, Elisha was instructed to heal Naaman the Syrian. God has always been in the business of working the margins, of crossing borders, of doing new and surprising things in remote and unlikely places. Far from home. Far from the familiar and the comfortable. Far from the centers of power and piety.

The crowd who has been waiting to welcome Jesus home goes from unanimous amazement to unanimous rage. Jesus has the crowd right where he wants them, but then he overturns their expectations. “No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” I am not here simply to take care of friends and family, those who look like me and talk like me and have experienced life like me. I am here for all. And all is going to expand to the point where you will have to kill me to try to stop this unceasing love. I am not staying home for long. I am just passing through. But even though this message is not what you expected, it is good news because it is good news for all.

This is hard good news. To follow this Jesus we must be willing to put aside some of what we have learned from our childhood, even some of what we believe is certain, and what may be a part of our blood stream–how we see and respond to those who are our “other”– those who look different from us, practice different from us, think different from us–those we can even believe to be outside of  God’s mercy and grace.

Each of us have a picture of that person or persons. We have learned from our infancy who to trust, who is worthy, who is safe. As we progress through life, some of these teachings can be reshaped or placed in larger boundaries, but they remain. Too often they lie undetected by us until they flare up in times of fear or stress or confusion.

But Jesus sees them. Jesus calls us to bring them out—these undetected preconceptions, these deeply embedded assumptions, so we can hold them up to the light, turn them and look at them from different perspectives, and then bathe them in love.

Jesus continually reminds us that each of us are created by God for love. And the more we build walls, the more we draw boundaries, the more we set rules that seek to protect us, to keep us separate, to exclude, to diminish, to cast out others, the more Jesus steps around these barriers and embraces those on the other side. Each of us are created good and loved beyond measure. Jesus calls us to stand with him alongside those excluded by walls, those denied humanity by boundaries, those oppressed by structures to share with ALL the good news that God never excludes, God always loves.

And as followers of Jesus we must face the foundation of our fears. We must be honest in assessing who we are excluding, who we are oppressing and why. In my life, I have come to the shattering realization that many people I assumed were suspect or even dangerous, were simply different from me—with different life experiences, different opportunities, different paths taken—some within and some beyond their control. I have been taught since I was a child that there are whole groups of people who live in neighborhoods that should be avoided because they are “bad.” But in my work as a teacher, I discovered that many of those “bad” neighborhoods were actually filled with loving and caring people who were poor. The “bad” parts of those neighborhoods were the conditions in which people were forced to live.

And none of us remain unbroken. All of us have failed to live up to God’s dream for us. All of us have made poor choices. All of us have disappointments and regrets. This is not meant to draw out a painful confession, but just to allow us all to reflect that we too are people. But as Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative says, “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” So perhaps when we begin to see the world in an “us” or “them” paradigm, this remembrance will lead us to deconstruct the mental walls we build.

From my vantage point, I have biases and prejudices about who is my neighbor, who is my brother and sister. And I don’t mean intellectually who is my neighbor, who is my brother and sister. I can answer that clearly. But rather at the heart level—in whom do I see myself?  Who when they suffer, do I suffer as well because we are one? Who when they find comfort, security, and hope do I experience fulfillment because we are one?

What does this mean for us? What if the Jesus we are following who never makes us uncomfortable and in whose stories we are always the victim or the heroine– is not Jesus. What if we have domesticated Jesus into our image? Maybe this story of Jesus not playing the “nice” card calls us to examine the last time Jesus confounded our beliefs, meddled in our actions, or interferred with our desires. Maybe this story forces us to recognize Jesus, not as the familiar hometown son who will fulfill our every expectation, but God’s son who often confronts and challenges our preconceptions and assumptions .

We the people gathered here today are the modern day equivalent of Jesus’ people in the synagogue that day. We are the ones who may have certain expectations about Jesus. We’re the ones who may want him to be predictable, to be “nice, ” to be comfortable, to always play on our team. In doing so we can be in danger of missing him in the faces of those we don’t know, those we might not like, those we might even fear. Where is Jesus calling us? It is often into new and uncomfortable territory—even into places where we are afraid to go.

But this is where Jesus is—here with us on Sunday mornings, at home and at work during the week—and–on the margins, reaching out to those seen as unfit, unworthy, dangerous. His hometown people won’t see his wonders in the synagogue in Nazareth. To do that they will be required to get up and go—to follow him away from home—to walk with him away from comfort, away from the ways things always are. But this Jesus, this story of Jesus confronting the people in Nazareth, teaches us that God is always opening up new ways for us to walk in love.

Ultimately, the Good News that Jesus came to bring, that Jesus fulfilled, is Good News for all—those in Nazareth, in Sidon and Syria, Great Barrington and Great Britain, Mexico and Myanmar, Ecuador and Ethiopia, and to the ends of the earth. Sometimes the good news can be hard, particularly if it seems to include even those we find hard to love. But Jesus came because God so loved the world and all that is in it.

Being “nice” is not enough. We need to follow the most excellent way—which is love—the love that binds us all together, beyond our familiar, beyond our home, beyond our security, into the territory where we will strive all of our days to see that we are all bound together as one. It is here where we follow Jesus. It is here where we will see Jesus’ wonders.

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