How to Build a New World

How to Build a New World
Luke 4:16-30
Rev. Liz Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
January 30th, 2022

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Jesus is preaching his first sermon ever, drawing from the prophet Isaiah, to announce what his ministry will be all about – good news for poor folx, incarcerated people being released, sight for the blind, those living under oppression getting free. At first, Jesus’ hometown family and friends are loving this message: “22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”

But then Jesus keeps running his mouth, and that’s when the mood of the listening crowd changes. Jesus calls them out on what they are thinking – “…you will say, ‘Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” And to this self-focused interpretation of his sermon, which saw Jesus as a magician ready to bring his best and brightest work first to the very people who raised him, Jesus reminds the people of the stories of their past. He recalls prophets like Elijah and Elisha who centered first, not the people of Israel, but the foreigners in need living among the Israelites – a foreign widow Elijah fed in a time of famine and an enemy general Elisha healed of leprosy. “When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”

It would be too easy for me, or any of us, to make 2-dimensional characters out of this hometown crowd and say, “How selfish! I never would have been one of those who tried to throw Jesus off a cliff for announcing that the center of God’s work is in the margins of society!” But let’s pause here and remember the common humanity we share with these folx. Showing Up for Racial Justice organizer Anne Dunlap reminded me in the podcast “The Word is Resistance” that the gospel of Luke was written “after the Roman Empire had totally destroyed Jerusalem and had either slaughtered or carried off the Jews living in the land, not just into exile, but enslavement… the writing of [this story in Luke] took place in the aftermath of conquest…” (Anne Dunlap, The Word is Resistance podcast, “1.27.19 Imagine, ALL the People”.) So before we create a safe distance between ourselves and these hometown folx who rejected Jesus, let’s consider what it is like to be a people who have lived through collective trauma and are barely making it on the fumes of energy we have left. I wonder if we can imagine, as we approach the start of year 3 of pandemic living, what it is like to live through the pain of what we know being violently interrupted by forces beyond our control. I wonder if we can imagine the ways that compassion fatigue makes us guiltily tune out the suffering we hear about in our communities because this pandemic has been no picnic for us either. I wonder if we can imagine the exhaustion that ongoing community trauma produces in our souls, bodies, and spirits, making it feel impossible for even the most well-intentioned among us to respond to those crying out for our help. Anne Dunlap wonders if this tired group of people hearing Luke’s words in this context were asking themselves, “What do we do now? How do we ever rebuild from this?”

It is to these weary folx, maybe people a little like us, that Jesus preaches this first sermon. He knows us well. He knows the exhaustion and running-on-fumes level of energy that’s weighing on us day to day. He knows the human tendency in times of survival to want to pull our circles tighter, for the listeners to hear his message and then immediately start thinking about how to hoard that power for themselves in their time of need, to act from a scarcity-mindset that tells us, “There’s not enough energy, resources, time, or space to heal what we’ve been through, so I better just get what I can for me and mine.” 

But I think Jesus knows something else too. He knows that if this individualistic, scarcity-fueled attitude becomes the foundation of whatever we rebuild together after times of trauma, we’ll end up building the same structures of hierarchy and hoarding that led to our collective trauma in the first place. For that is the very logic of the Roman empire that throttled Jerusalem with violence and destruction as it took more and more from the people at the bottom to fatten the coffers of the elite few at the top. This sermon from Jesus and his commentary on the prophets of old was not a message of “The good news is for other people and not for you.” It was a message of “If you center those most left out and marginalized in your midst as God called the ancient prophets to do, you will build the kind of world where the trauma that has laid you flat on your back won’t happen in the first place, the kind of world where, in the words of the Poor People’s Campaign, everyone can rise together from the bottom up.” 

Beloved, the burnout, exhaustion, and compassion fatigue we are experiencing in this never-ending pandemic is not disconnected from Jesus’ call to all of us to center those who have historically been left out in whatever we build next. Those who are overwhelmed by childcare needs right now are languishing because this country values corporations more than its children and their parents. Those who have had important elective surgeries postponed, or those who have been separated from family for big life moments during COVID, are suffering because of an American obsession with individualism that sees no connection between getting personally vaccinated and protecting all our neighbors. Those working in healthcare are past the point of burnout because capitalism has demanded the centering of money-making machines more than actual human lives. The very systems that have failed us in this time and led to our collective trauma are not broken. They are functioning as designed in this country built on the stolen land of Indigenous folx and the stolen labor of our African-descended siblings, a country that from the beginning was built to favor a few at the top at the expense of the many. 

So when we look toward rebuilding in the days to come, let’s join Jesus in announcing a world that centers the needs of those who are most oppressed. Let’s join Jesus in expanding our imaginations when it comes to what is possible. That’s the invitation. Jesus says, “Imagine with me a new world where even those most left out are getting what they need to thrive. Imagine with me a new world where we organize for justice not in spite of being tired but because we are tired, and we want to unite together to get at the root causes of the pain that is impacting all of us.” May we follow Jesus. Walking through the angry crowds to make these imaginings come true in our everyday actions, through healing and feeding and releasing people wherever we find them. Amen.

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