Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 1, 2004
The Gospel: Luke 4:21-32
Sermon: "Racism Has No Place In the Kingdom of God"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
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 hometown 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 hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up 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. He went down to Capernaum, a city in Galilee, and was teaching them on the sabbath. They were astounded at his teaching, because he spoke with authority.
Racism Has No Place In the Kingdom of God
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany - February 1, 2004
When I was very young I saw a news report coming from the state of Alabama. In the center of the picture was a man in a white shirt and tie. He was standing outside a school and there were policemen around him. Outside of the policemen there was a large crowd waving and chanting. Some of the faces looked determined. Some of the faces looked angry. I really didn't understand what was happening. So, I turned to my father and I asked what was happening. My father said, "Son, that is the governor of Alabama. He is standing in front of the doors of the school. He is saying the African-American students can not enter the building." I remember asking my father, "Why does he want to stop them from going to school?" My father replied, "Billy, he does not want to stop them from going to school. He is trying to prevent the schools from being integrated. He is trying to defy the government order to integrate the schools by sending these children back to their own school."
I remember turning back to the television and seeing the camera pan the crowd. There were horrible signs that said many awful things to those young students. The crowd was getting angrier. Governor Wallace had his arms spread wide and told them they could not enter the school. The images of the anger, the hatred, and the racism have been permanently imprinted on my memory.
I wish I could say that racism is over. I wish I could say it was but a passing element of our lives. However, racism has existed for a long time. The Gospel from Luke is a good example of racism. It is also a wonderful example of God's intention for all of humanity. We enter this particular reading a little late in the scene. Jesus is in the temple in Nazareth. He has already been baptized. He has gone through the temptation in the wilderness. He has traveled through Galilee preaching and healing. Stories of his marvelous works have reached the crowds in Nazareth, his home town. They know he is heading in their direction. When he arrives in Nazareth he goes straight to the synagogue. He takes up the scroll from Isaiah and begins to read. In this reading Jesus proclaims who he is and what his ministry will be to those who will hear. He says the Spirit of the Lord is upon him. He has been anointed to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, to give sight to the blind, to free the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. After he reads these words he returns the scroll and takes his seat.
The people in the synagogue are very impressed. They have already heard of his teachings and exploits on his journey to Nazareth. Jesus is doing and saying things reminiscent of the prophets of old. They are excited. Jesus can put Nazareth on the map. They think, "Here is the one who may free us out of our oppression. We can be famous because of him. Finally, we have a prophet of our own area. He will be our prophet. Because he is of our hometown he will do his greatest works and greatest teaching here." Jesus is like the hometown boy who has made it good. They want to claim him for their own.
However, they could not be more mistaken in their interpretation of what Jesus has said. Jesus is not talking about one town's greatness and authority. Jesus' proclamation is for the salvation and redemption of the world. Everyone, even the Gentiles, even the Romans, are welcome to receive the salvation of God. It is only when Jesus begins to explain what he has read that they begin to understand.
After any reading in the synagogue by a teacher there was always a time of interpretation. When Jesus sits down they are thinking about what he has read. Then Jesus begins to teach. He uses examples from Elijah and Elisha, two great prophets of Israel. The reference to Elijah refers to a time when Israel had not seen rain for over three years. The Israelites were also under persecution by the Syrians. Elijah was sent to a widow in Zarephath and she was a Gentile. He stayed with her during the drought and when her son died he raised him from the dead. Notice Elijah was not sent to the Hebrews. He went to this woman because she was responsive to God's will.
In a similar fashion, Elsiha was not sent to the lepers of Israel. Instead he was sent Naaman, another Gentile who was willing to follow God's direction through the prophets. He was healed while many of Israel's own were not. In both cases God went to those the Israelites of the day would have considered outcasts and outside the possibility of redemption. These people would not receive God's grace because they were not of the right race. They were not of the chosen people of God.
The reaction of the people in the synagogue reflects this same attitude. They are angry at Jesus. The Messiah is theirs. Great prophets belong to Israel. If he is going to do this kind of teaching, then he can not be from God. They will not claim him as their own. In fact, they drove him out of town. Indeed racism is very, very old. It has been practiced by some degree by every society on the face of the earth. In fact, it is still practiced today in every society on the face of the earth.
The tragedy is that it is still practiced in our churches. Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of the week. We are divided by our race. We are divided by our denominational beliefs and we are divided by our worship practices. To some degree each group believes that they know more of the truth than the other. It is almost like we believe we have some inroad to God the other believers do not have. Perhaps we believe we have the secret code word. Perhaps we believe we are redeemed because we have more faith. Maybe we believe we are redeemed because we raise our hands higher. The reality is we are all wrong. We are not redeemed for any of these reasons. We are redeemed because of the grace of God. We are redeemed because Jesus was sent to us, to all of us. We are the blind. We do not always keep our eyes on Jesus. We are the lame. Our footsteps do not always follow the light of Christ. We are ones called to hear that we have received God's favor. In this crazy world in which we live, it is a comfort to hear and know that God is with us. The Good News is that Jesus came for us, for all of us. There is not one person that God intends to leave behind.
With this knowledge we have a responsibility. It is our responsibility to tear down the walls that separate us one from another. We begin by opening our hearts to the message of Christ. Then we open our arms wide and invite all to join us as we worship God together. We invite others who are just as blind and just as lame as we are. They can be of any race, any creed, any background. As we open our arms and our hearts we hear the Good News that Jesus came for us all. And all of Godís people say, "AMEN."