Nazareth Re-make - RIC Sunday
A sermon on Luke 4:21-30
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Carlos de Toro @carlosdetoro on Unsplash.]
Some of you know that I am a big fan of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and indeed of the whole Tolkien universe. My Dad read the books to my sisters and I when we were little girls and I have wanted to be an elf who hangs out with hobbits ever since.
I recently discovered a Facebook group for fans of Middle Earth, and have been enjoying the posts, except for one dynamic:
Amazon is working on a prequel series based on the background mythology that Tolkien developed, and news has leaked out that the cast of the series is more diverse than that of the Peter Jackson movies, both in terms of race and sexuality.
I, like most fans, am just super excited to see more of the Middle Earth story, but there is a small and vocal cohort that is steaming mad.
One such commenter declared, “if they turn it into victim culture, woke propaganda... I’m going to be pissed. Even a dial back on male masculinity, I will notice.”
Now, there are plenty of things wrong with this comment, starting with the assertion about “male masculinity” by which he (it was a he, who commented) seems to imply that the Tolkien characters are manly-men types that eschew femininity.
But one of the things that many fans have always loved about the series is that the male characters are more than warriors, they are deep-thinking characters who talk about their longings and fears and feel free to express their love for each other, both verbally and with affection.
So, clearly this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
But the real reason I am pulling back the curtain on my Tolkien geekdom in this sermon is because of one particular aspect of the “anti-woke” reaction within this fan group.
It’s the unspoken assumption that these fans have the right to arbitrate what is and is not appropriate within the Tolkien universe.
They are not its creators, nor are they in anyway involved with the production companies that have been entrusted to create adaptations. They are simply followers – people who have enjoyed the fantasy world of Middle Earth themselves.
And yet, they feel entitled to put that world on notice of their anger at anything that makes them uncomfortable, or pushes on their assumptions, as though their enjoyment of the series gave them ownership rights over any further developments.
I would like to imagine that this is only a failing of unenlightened-types from whom I can easily differentiate myself, but if I’m honest I know I have done the same thing… even with Tolkien.
When the Peter Jackson movies came out, I got on my soap box for a time about how they ruined the moral nuances of the character of Saruman, the white wizard.
The reality is, we are all susceptible to cast ourselves as gate-keepers, imbued by the strength of our own beliefs with the right and ability to arbitrate what others are allowed to do with the things that hold meaning for us.
Of course, religion is the ultimate vehicle of meaning-making in human society, and so we are especially vulnerable to the delusion that our faith systems belong to us… that we are to ones who get to say what is and is not allowed… that we get to take ownership and control over what the work of God in the world is supposed to look like.
This delusion is what Jesus confronts in his hometown synagogue, when the people want to take ownership of him and his rising success, when they want to claim him as their local boy made good, who will, of course, do nothing to disrupt their expectations or the practice of their faith.
But Jesus won’t play into that narrative. He refuses to be owned, and he claims the right to reinterpret the meaning of God’s mission.
Moreover, he pushes the point by reminding the people that the God they claim to serve has never been domesticated.
Even when the Israelites were still a tribal society, and the God of the Universe had chosen to be revealed at their particular God within a context of multiple people-groups all claiming distinct gods, even then God wouldn’t stay local.
God wouldn’t be owned.
God’s prophets have a well-established pattern of crossing boundaries and going to the people who are supposed to be on the wrong side.
THIS is what gets the people of Nazareth spitting mad. This claim by Jesus that neither he nor God belong to them.
Last week, when we heard the first half of this story, everything was fine. Jesus proclaimed the fulfillment of Isaiah’s Jubilee prophecy in their hearing and the all the people were impressed, delighting in such authority and gracious words from “Joseph’s boy.”
Even a somewhat startling message was all good when it reflected prestige and importance back on them.
But Jesus won’t let their self-satisfaction lie.
He won’t let them domesticate his kingdom work by assuming that there is nothing for them to do except to lean back and bask in the reflected glory.
He brings the fight to them and makes them confront the challenge in his message.
To borrow a paraphrase from Debie Tomas, he essentially says, “You can’t hunker down and stay where you are, expecting God to hang out with you. God is on the move. God is doing a new thing. God is speaking in places you don’t recognize as sacred, privileging voices you’re not interested in hearing, and saying things that will make your ears burn. Can you handle it? God is not yours. You are his.”
For those of us not sitting in that Nazareth temple some 2,000-odd years ago, it can be tempting to sagely shake our heads at their complacency, and then be horrified by their violent reaction to Jesus’s call-out…
Surely, we would respond differently if Jesus challenged us to release our assumptions of privileged identity.
If Jesus came to us with a message about good news for the poor, release to the captives, and freedom to the oppressed, we would want to join in that work for the good of our neighbors.
We wouldn’t try to throw him off a cliff just because he said that we couldn’t jump the cue for the promised blessings on the strength of being insiders.
But, if we really want to hear the message of this gospel story, I think we need to take an extra minute to wonder if those assumptions are true.
After all, if we were “casting” this scene for a modern adaptation, it would be church people who would play the role of the Nazareth villagers.
In our context, we are the ones most likely to claim Jesus as belonging to us.
And we are the ones most likely to get mightily offended if he were to snap back and remind us that, “Actually, we belong to him, not the other way around.”
What is more, the people who would get cast as “the poor”, “the captives,” and “the oppressed” in our context would likely include a good portion of the folks whom the American church has shunned… because that’s the whole point of Jubilee.
In the 1st Century, people assumed that the poor, and captive, and oppressed were subjects of God’s judgment, suffering because of their sin.
The Jubilee command was a way to disrupt that theology and to assert that God’s design was to restore the outsiders.
So, by declaring the prophecy fulfilled in his ministry, Jesus is declaring that the people who have been judged and excluded by the existing religious meaning system are actually the focus of God’s healing work in the world.
And that means that a modern casting would have people in poverty, and those who are or who have been incarcerated, for sure,
but it would also have gay and bisexual people;
it would include our trans and non-binary siblings;
those who are neurodiverse, and schizophrenic, and addicted;
those whose cultures or languages make them outsiders so that welcoming them means we have to be willing to do things in new ways that are less comfortable for us.
It means that Jesus’s message to us is:
“You are my hometown, but I’m on the move, and if you want to be part of what I am doing, you all have to be willing to move too. My mission is not about making you comfortable. It’s about meeting the needs of the people it’s all too easy for you to ignore. So that’s where I’m going. Will you join me?”
And that means the question for us is how we are going to react to this 21st Century adaptation of the Nazareth synagogue story.
Will we play the story true to type, getting angry at the suggestion that the church is not at the center of Christ’s mission, and that we can’t gate-keep who is in and who is out?
Or, will we celebrate Christ’s mission, by recognizing the dignity and belovedness of the people Christ is calling us welcome into Jubilee?
The original Nazareth synagogue got it wrong… but the good news is that we are part of the re-make. We have the chance to hear the challenge and respond a different way. Thanks be to God.