It is a curious thing that so many of the people whom Jesus meets want very quickly to kill him.
He has only just begun his ministry, after the baptism in the River Jordan; after the forty days of desert fasting and devilish temptation; delirium. Within sixteen verses, he has returned from the wilderness full of the power of the Spirit of God. He has taught in the synagogues, being glorified – glorified – by all. He has proclaimed the good news of the day of the Lord, and all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth, and halfway through the sixteen verses they said, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” And by the end of the paragraph, Jesus, by his own words and teaching, has led them to attempt a lynching (Luke 4:21-30)
This is something of an aside, but last weekend, some of us participated, one way or another, in the program from Trinity, Wall Street: Listen for a Change. We heard Presiding Bishop Curry preach. We listened to Michelle Norris from NPR and the race card project. We sang songs of freedom and of praise and of sorrow. We heard from Nicholas Kristoff and Kelly Brown Douglas and an impressive gathering of saints. They were not always easy to listen to. We were challenged to listen, for a change, to something we might not have chosen to hear. We were challenged to listen for a change; and we will be determining ways of listening further as the weeks go by.
I was struck enough by Kelly Brown Douglas’ challenge to download her latest book, Stand your ground; black bodies and the justice of God. She has many wise words, but this, I think, gives some clue as to what was going on with Jesus on that hilltop.
Jesus’ identification with the lynched/crucified class is not accidental. It is intentional. It did not begin with his death on the cross. In fact, that Jesus was crucified signals his prior bond with the “crucified class” of his day.
All spoke well of him, and they claimed his as their own: “Is this not [our] Joseph’s son?” And he taught in their synagogues being glorified – glorified – by all.
The thing is that Jesus has just come from the desert and from the devil. When he was in the wilderness, he was tempted sorely: “physician, heal thyself.” Assauge thy hunger. Turn these stones into bread. And he was tempted with promises of power and glory, and he answered, “You shall worship the Lord your God.”
As Jesus read from the scroll in the synagogue, presenting the proclamation of God’s mercy and loving kindness, he heard their adulation, their adoration. It would be so easy to turn stones into bread, to accept an exalted status as the local boy elevated to stardom; a celebrity preacher. To be glorified. But he had heard those whispers before, in the wilderness; and he knew his answer.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.
As Elijah was sent to the widow and her sickly son, and Elisha commissioned to heal the foreigner, the leper, so Jesus knew his call to the lost and the lonely, the despised and the dispossessed. He heard the call of the crucified class. He could not reach them from the pedestal upon which his people wanted to set him in stone. Indeed, the more deeply we need him, the more depth he has plumbed to reach us.
What does this mean, for a parish like Epiphany, for people like us?
We heard a sobering story at our recent Annual Meeting. We have tightened our belts, and still we feel the chill wind at our backs, the demands of money, of dollars and cents, of a balance sheet teetering, unbalanced.
And then I read this: William Stringfellow quoted in an article by Chris Hedges about the seduction of the church by the temptation to make bread out of stones (he doesn’t put it that way, but it’s what he is talking about: the first temptation).
The premise of most urban church work, it seems, is that in order for the Church to minister among the poor, the church has to be rich, that is, to have specially trained personnel, huge funds and many facilities, rummage to distribute, and a whole battery of social services. Just the opposite is the case. The Church must be free to be poor in order to minister among the poor. The Church must trust the Gospel enough to come among the poor with nothing to offer the poor except the Gospel, except the power to apprehend and the courage to reveal the Word of God as it is already mediated in the life of the poor. When the Church has the freedom itself to be poor among the poor, it will know how to use what riches it has. When the Church has that freedom, it will be a missionary people again in all the world.
This is not a call to romantic naivety or monastic poverty, but it is a call to remember our roots, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who threw off the temptation to make bread out of stones, to stand on a pedestal and preach to the adoring crowds; who slipped away to heal the widow, the leper, to bless the child, and embrace the untouchable. Who did it all not for his own sake, but for ours.
When the Church has the freedom itself to be poor among the poor, it will know how to use what riches it has. When the Church has that freedom, it will be a missionary people again in all the world.
The more freedom we find to identify ourselves with the crucified class, the more closely we find ourselves following in the footsteps of Jesus. And God is with us.
In the story that we hear of Jeremiah’s call, the prophet argues with God,
“Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.”
But God has already given the answer:
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you. … Be not afraid, for I am with you to deliver you.” (Jeremiah 1:4-10)
We may not plead weakness, or ignorance; we may not stand on our dignity, nor protect nor presume upon our fine reputation and family history; certainly, we may not plead poverty to avoid the call of God to proclaim God’s good news to the poor, to the captive, to the oppressed; that God loves us all, no exceptions.
In his same book, out of Harlem, Stringfellow writes,
If the mere Gospel is not a whole salvation for the most afflicted men, it is no comfort to other men in less affliction.
In other words, how dare we whisper that the Gospel is not enough? We are called not to make bread out of stones, but to feast on every good word that comes forth from the mouth of God, and to share our bounty. That is our work. That is our mission. That is our call. And God says to us,
“Before I formed you in the Shore Center I knew you, and before you were built I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to Euclid and to the nations. … To all to whom I send you you shall go, and whatever I command you you shall speak. Be not afraid then, for I am yet with you, to deliver you.”
Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground; Black Bodies and the Justice of God (2015)
William Stringfellow, My People Is The Enemy (1964)