Listen to our service and sermon below:
The last few summers, my family has visited various national parks out west, and one of the things I always do before those visits is to read stories of death or misadventure that have happened in those parks. My family does not seem to appreciate my sharing the stories of people falling off cliffs or jumping into hot springs or being attacked by wild animals. But I can’t seem to help myself. I like everyone to know about the risks so we can all avoid disaster together. I don’t want to end up in one of those stories.
Since falling is one of the leading causes of death in national parks, I’m always especially keyed-up when we get to elevated lookout points. The ones that scare me the most are the one like Keys View in Joshua Tree, where we went last summer. At an elevation of over 5,000 feet, it was an absolutely gorgeous lookout. But it was also so scary to me, because there was no barrier up there. There was nothing to keep people from just going right over the edge of any of the cliffs. I saw individuals, couples, even whole families perched on edges all over the lookout, smiling for pictures. They must not have read all the disaster stories that I’ve read. Don’t they know that one wrong step and they could be pitching over the side of the mountain to their death? Everywhere I looked was just wide-open invitation to catastrophe.
Fences aren’t always about keeping some people out and some people in. At the most basic level, a fence is about safety.
Of course, that’s why certain kinds of rhetoric about fences, walls, barriers, borders, can push certain kinds of buttons. A certain kind of rhetoric is designed to make us feel threatened and anxious. Because eallwant to feel safe. We allwant to feel protected. We all want to live without fear or threat. And most of the time, the most threatening thing in our lives is not a cliff with the possibility of a dramatic plunge. Most of the time, the most threatening thing in our lives is other people. And drawing lines – even if they aren’t actual fences or walls – can help us know who’s safe and who’s not, who’s with us and who’s against us. We want to know: who are the good guys, and who are the bad guys? And whether we admit it or not, we all draw our lines. We do it because there’s something at stake.
As we heard last week, when Jesus went to his hometown of Nazareth, and read from Isaiah in the synagogue, he told the people: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” According to Luke, it was his first public act of ministry. This was his first word on what his life meant: liberation for the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed. Today.
The crowd’s first response to this good news is amazement at the gracious words coming out of the mouth of their hometown boy. The text he read from Isaiah was one of their most beloved texts, with its promises of how the world would be set right for all those who had been done wrong. They saw this passage as directly applying to them, theywere the poor, theywere the captive,theywere the oppressed. Living under the Roman occupation, they heard this passage from Isaiah as words of promise, comfort, freedom, safety. And to such promises, Jesus adds the electrifying word: Today. The promises have been fulfilled, today,in his being and in their hearing.
That was a great first sermon he preached. It would’ve been just perfect if he had stopped right there. But Jesus never leaves well enough alone. He goes on to tell a couple of stories. Stories from their own tradition, their own Scriptures; stories they already knew. The first is the story of Elijah in the time of famine. There were many widows during the famine, the story goes, but Elijah was only sent to one of them, a Gentile. Then he tells the story of the prophet Elisha, saying that there were many lepers in Israel during Elisha’s time, but none of them was healed except a Gentile. In other words, right after Jesus proclaims that todayis the day God’s promises have been fulfilled, Jesus tells the hometown crowd these old stories about how God passes over the insiders, to minister to the outsiders. The people in the synagogue that day did not care for this. If anyone should be benefiting from the blessing God is going to pour into the world through Jesus, shouldn’t it start with the people who knew him best? Don’t these people have some kind of claim on him, and, therefore, some kind of extra-special claim on God’s care? But instead, Jesus reminds them of stories of how God’s grace always moves beyond appropriate boundaries, pushing over the borderline. Stories that challenge not only their understanding of who is in and who is out, but that challenge their understanding of who God actually is. This God will not be fenced. Which calls into question how God’s own people will be protected and provided for.
So the people in the synagogue are filled with rage. And they get up, they push Jesus out of town, and they take him to the top of the mountain on which the city was built, in order to hurl him off the cliff. It’s … a little bit much. I mean, I understand that there’s a lot of heated emotion around the issues of who’s in and who’s out, who’s deserving and who’s blameworthy – but to throw someone off a cliff because of it?
And yet – don’t we know something of the rage and fear that bubble up when we believe an injustice is happening, especially if that injustice is going to cost us something? The people in Nazareth had every reason to believe that Jesus was one of them, that he even kind of belongedto them – he was raised there, these were his friends, his neighbors, his aunts and uncles and cousins. And here he is telling them stories of broken boundaries, of a grace that doesn’t stay where it belongs. Stories of insiders being passed over and outsiders being blessed. It almost sounds like it doesn’t even matter who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. It almost sounds like it doesn’t even matter who is deserving and who is blameworthy.
It’s easy for us to smugly shake our heads at people who can’t deal with such an expansive grace. But that’s only because we think we somehow “get” it. We get Jesus. We get his message. We understand about expansive grace. We think we understand better than others do, right? We know the truth. We think we understand Jesus’ message better than all kinds of people who think differently from us about all kinds of things. Their view is just too narrow. Not like us. We get him. We’re his people. He’s our guy.
And because we tend to think that way, we also tend not to see that this, too, is a fence. Our understanding of ourselves as big-hearted, open-minded people, people who understand what Jesus was really about, people who get the core of his message – this, too, is a fence that protects our identity, it separates us from people who are just not quite as enlightened as we are. Our fence helps us define who is good and deserving, and who is bad and blameworthy and ignorant.
Jesus reminds us that God is freer than our understandings – terrifyingly free. Freer even than our biggest, most magnanimous understandings. And the gospel of grace is more radically inclusive than we could ever be – terrifyingly inclusive. More inclusive than we want to be. And the moment any of us thinks we are in and others are out is the moment we have shut ourselvesout, boxed ourselves in, kept ourselves from receiving all that Jesus comes to bring, kept ourselves from following wherever he means to lead – because he always goes beyond what we feel is right or safe or comfortable or sometimes even good. Grace is scandalous because it is unfair. That’s what it is – it goes to people who didn’t do anything to deserve it.
The people in the synagogue in Nazareth couldn’t handle the truth of that, so they took Jesus to the top of a mountain to throw him off. But he somehow slipped through the crowd, and then he kept going. On another day, his radical message of grace would just go too far, and he would be captured and he would be killed. But even then, he would show us that even death is a line he will cross and obliterate.
We all want to feel safe, which is why it helps to know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. We like our labels, despite what we say, because we think a red hat tells us who someone really is, and whether or not they’re safe, and we think a rainbow sticker tells us who someone is, and whether or not they’re safe. We like our boxes, our fences, our lines, our labels. We want to believe we’re the good guys. We like knowing that we’re the ones who are right, we’re the ones on the right side of the fence, the safe side.
But maybe we could soften, just a little. Maybe we could let Jesus blur even our most justifiable lines, at least a little bit. Maybe we could look for signs of God’s presence even in all those people we think are wrong, or bad, or backwards, or blameworthy, or on the wrong side of absolutely everything. Maybe we could look for signs of God’s grace in people who make us uncomfortable. Maybe we could look for manifestations of God’s goodness even in people who make us furious. Maybe we could be a little less afraid, and a little less angry, and a little more open and hopeful and attentive.
And then maybe we could follow Jesus on the way, all the way, over all the borderlines, and into the fullness of a grace larger than all our limits, bigger than all our dreams, and wide enough for all.