Consequences, Intended and Otherwise

Passage: Luke 4:21-30
Date: February 3, 2019
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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Of course many of you are familiar with Isaac Newton’s third law, that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. As it is in the world of nature and science, so it is in the world of human relationships – our actions often, if not always, result in an equal reaction.In today’s story from Luke, I think it’s safe to say that Newton’s law is well displayed here. Jesus’ action – teaching in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth – results in an equal and opposite reaction – his hearers becoming so enraged that they try to kill him.

The arc of this story started well. Jesus comes home to Nazareth, where his ever-growing reputation has preceded him. He goes to the synagogue to read from the scroll, as was his custom. He reads strong words from Isaiah and tells the people that today that scripture has been fulfilled in their hearing. The people, at first, are proud of their hometown boy. But then a note of discord creeps in.

“Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they begin to whisper among themselves, and not in a good way. It’s not that they remember the naughty little things Jesus did when he was a boy, nor the ways he might have rebelled when he was an adolescent. No, they cast dispersions upon him because he is the son of Joseph, the son of a mere carpenter who makes his living using his hands in a village that’s of no account. They remind each other that this man Jesus is stepping beyond his station. He’s putting on airs, interpreting the word of God. He’s claiming more honor than is rightfully his, telling them that he – Joseph’s son! – has fulfilled this reading.

Earlier Jesus announced what his ministry would be: good news to the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed, and the debtors. Now he explains who will receive this good news. He says, ‘Hey! Remember the great prophets Elijah and Elisha? They are heroes of our faith. They responded to the call of God to help the people. And do you remember which people they helped? Not the children of Israel. Not our ancestors. No, Elijah and Elisha helped a Gentile woman on the verge of starvation, and then the foreign commander of the army. And I’m going in that direction too.’

Modern observers of human behavior would say that what Jesus does next is healthy differentiation. He doesn’t play to the crowd. He doesn’t humble himself, but he does explain himself and in so doing, intentionally provokes them. He pokes the bear. So arrogant do they find these words, so dishonoring of his Nazarene roots, that the crowd flies into a rage, chases Jesus out of town, and tries to throw him off a cliff.

What about his words is so infuriating that they want to kill him? Is it that he has dishonored them? Is it that he has dared to proclaim that God’s love stretches far wider than they want to imagine? Is it his intentional inclusion of those on the outside of accepted boundaries?

The question of what we do with the “other” is a persistent one. We cannot escape the “other,” whether it’s the new kid who shows up in the middle of the school year, or the stranger who dares to sit in “our” pew, or the refugee who comes to the border looking for asylum from war or violence.

The other is the one who doesn’t look like us, who worships a different God or no God at all. The other is the one whose language we cannot understand, whose politics we find abhorrent, whose life choices are incomprehensible to us. The other is unknown and therefore a little scary and maybe even dangerous. We’re hard-wired in our amygdala brain to distrust that which we don’t recognize.

In these modern times, we get real-time video of the other. We watch faithful Muslims answer the call of the muezzin and drop to their knees in prayers that we don’t understand. And because we don’t pray like that, it seems strange. We see parents who are seeking asylum being willing to expose their children to tear gas and smoke bombs and wonder what could be so bad at home that they are willing to risk so much. We watch refugees land in their inflatable rafts on the shores of Greek islands, or we see refugees who drowned trying to leave and we cannot imagine being faced with two impossible choices.

What do you and I do when faced with these others – people we don’t recognize, people who are so different from us that we can’t imagine ever finding common ground with them? Our reptilian brain would warn us against them, would say that what we don’t recognize might be dangerous, so we need to be on guard. We turn people away, and we make ourselves so safe.

But we do not live by the reptilian brain alone. We have these frontal cortexes, this part of our brain that oversees executive function and helps us set aside knee-jerk fear. We have minds that can reason and understand complex things. So sometimes when we are confronted with the other, we replace fear with curiosity. We learn about these people and begin to understand why they made the choices they made. Maybe we study their religion; maybe we learn to speak their language. The stranger becomes an acquaintance.

We have brains and we have hearts too, and souls, and the heart and soul have yet another response to the stranger: who is this person, and does God care for them too?

It may well be that the people who heard Jesus speak that day in the synagogue in Nazareth did not want to believe that God cared for the foreigner and the Gentile. Maybe that’s what enraged them – that they themselves were not uniquely chosen and loved.

But I think that there’s good news in this expanse of God’s love. Maybe the Nazarenes did not understand the nature of God’s love. It wasn’t finite; it isn’t finite. It’s not that God only has so much love to give or a limited amount of grace, so that more for someone else means less for me. If the message of God’s love was to grow, and if Jesus was going to be able to expand his ministry and reach more people, that meant breaking barriers and going beyond the usual walls and setting aside old assumptions.

The ancient prophets Elijah and Elisha reaching beyond their borders, and Jesus reaching out beyond what was socially acceptable, did not deplete the reservoir of God’s love. Luke tells us that in the course of his ministry, Jesus did take care of his own, in Capernaum, indeed in every village of Galilee and Judea. Then he healed the servant of a Roman centurion. He forgave a sinful woman. He exorcised a demon from a Gerasene, a Gentile. He told a parable about a good Samaritan. He touched people who were ritually unclean. You get the point.

No one was unworthy. Every person was worthy of God’s love and Jesus’ healing, and that meant Jesus would need to upset a few apple carts and a few religious purists in order to fulfill his ministry and show God’s love.

Of course you and I already know that God’s love is not finite, and that God’s grace has no boundary. We know that, and we relish that, especially when we think about ourselves and those who are dear to us. But let’s admit that sometimes even the most wise and deeply faithful among us have a hitch in their gitalong when it comes to expanding love and grace to the other.

That’s when we rely on our high-functioning brains that help us temper our fight-or-flight response to the stranger. That’s when we rely on our faithful hearts that help us see the other not as an enemy or stranger but as a neighbor.

You might not recognize the name Hamdi Ulukaya, but you probably know his product: Chobani yogurt. Ulukaya came to the U.S. as a student, with a visa and $3,000, and now he runs a billion-dollar business in Twin Falls, Idaho. In an interview with The New York Times, he spoke about his life and his company. “I’m from the eastern part of Turkey. It’s Colorado weather — snow, mountains, and then a beautiful spring. I grew up with shepherds. We were nomads. We would go up in the mountains with herds of sheep and goats and cows, and make yogurt and cheese, and then come back in the winter to the village.

“There was this sense of being part of community that gave so much security and safety. We grew up not worrying about anything, basically. Money didn’t mean much because up in the mountains there was nothing you could buy with it. If a wolf attacked your herds, and you lost all of your sheep, each family would bring one. And the next day you would have all your sheep back….”

That childhood experience would inform the way he created his company. He pays at least twice minimum wage because, as he says, “One of my first dreams was to make this company a place where everybody’s a partner, and they deserved a portion of what they have helped build. So I made a calculation. If you make $7 or $8 or $9 an hour, you can’t have a house. You can’t have good food for your kids. Forget going on vacation. The math just doesn’t make sense.

“And I look at it from the bigger perspective. Especially for rural communities, I don’t see any other way of finding a long-term solution than businesses stepping up, for their own employees and especially for their own communities. We have to start worrying about our own employees, their families and their children’s well-being, and the school, and the firehouse, and the baseball field.”

Taking care of his own isn’t enough.Himself an immigrant, Ulukaya made a commitment to hiring refugees. Though now in Idaho, he began his business in New York. He said, “I lived in Utica, and I heard that there were people being settled in Utica from different parts of the world. And one of the biggest issues they’re having is finding jobs. So, I said, ‘O.K., let’s find a solution to this thing.’ So, we start hiring them. And these people are hardworking people. They’ve gone through a lot.

“There are now people from 19 different countries working at Chobani….It’s like the United Nations.” Because every action has an equal and opposite reaction, there have been false claims and Islamophobia directed at Ulukaya. But he has persevered, and his company, and the town of Twin Falls, have thrived. It’s a great story of people reaching beyond the usual borders.

I can’t imagine that any of us here feel called to start a yogurt business, and that’s not the point of my sharing the story with you. Already there are people and organizations doing the work of caring for the outsider – for refugees and immigrants; for the bullied kids at school; for those whose illness of body, mind, or spirit separates them from community. I think we are called to come alongside those doing that work, and whether we say it or not, know that the love of Jesus compels us to reach out, further and further, to live out the truth that God’s love has no bounds.

Sure, people will react. But always remember: love defies so much, even Newton’s third law.