July 7, 2024 — The Rev Canon Britt Olson

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Proper 9, Year B

The novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote, “You can never go home again.”  That never stopped anyone from trying.  We often have a nostalgic memory of what home means to us; the familiar rooms, the smells of good cooking or fragrant flowers, landmarks that help us find our way and the people we grew up with.  Sometimes it’s not even these exact memories but simply a longing to belong, to be in a place where you are safe and cared for, where everyone knows your name. 

I wonder if there was something like that going on for Jesus when he decided to return to his hometown of Nazareth.  After the baptism in the Jordan, 40 days in the wilderness and increasing fame as he taught, healed and worked miracles across the country, he came back to the place where he was raised and where his family still lived.  Like any devout and faithful Israelite, he showed up to the synagogue on the Sabbath.  It didn’t go so well.

His friends, neighbors and family weren’t happy with the changes in his life.  They didn’t trust his newfound abilities and strengths.  They were suspicious of his teaching and the people he was hanging out with – outsiders, foreigners, sick people, the mentally ill and women with a bad reputation.   He didn’t fit in anymore.  They hardly recognized him and questioned if he was still “one of us.”  Their reaction turns quickly from astonishment to suspicion and finally outraged offense.  In Luke’s gospel they even threaten violence.

He leaves saddened by their disbelief, distrust and rejection.  He is unable to heal, teach or help them in any way.  He slips out of town and as far as the biblical record is concerned, he never returns again.  He quotes the familiar saying, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”  His life and ministry have cost him his childhood home, his family and his place of belonging.

On Friday Bryon and I took a day trip to the North Cascades via Arlington, Darrington and Oso.  We especially wanted to stop as the Oso Slide Memorial since it was the 10th Anniversary of that deadly catastrophe and the memorial had just been dedicated this March.  It is beautifully done and there are steel memorial sculptures for every one of the 43 members of that small community who died in the mudslide.  There are even memorials for the pets and animals that were lost.

Whole families were taken; couples eating breakfast at the table, a mother cradling her baby, a worker fixing a broken pipe.  They will never come home again.  Many who survived will never return either.  Their homes and neighborhood have been washed away.  Every memento, all the landmarks and all their possessions are buried under the mud and rubble. 

People have lost their homes to fire, war, tornadoes, floods and other catastrophic events.  It is disorienting.  There is a grief that is greater than the disappearance of material objects and property.  It is as if a part of your identity has been ripped away.  It’s hard to know exactly who you are when you have lost sight of home. 

We all know older relatives and friends who have struggled when they are forced to leave a familiar environment and move into a care facility.  The world is full of refugees and displaced persons who have lost sight of all that is familiar and precious.  Those living on the streets are lucky if they can sleep safely in the same location for more than a night or two and are exhausted by the transience of their existence.

These are tragic and traumatic ways to become separated from your home.  But both Thomas Wolfe and Jesus were referring to different reasons for why you may never be able to go home again.  Sometimes it is because those back home see you as “different,” no longer “one of us.”  Maybe it’s your politics or religion that have changed.  Perhaps you haven’t changed, but instead have been open about who you really are, no longer willing or able to conform to the pre-set notions of your identity. 

Sometimes it’s because you are no longer willing to hide your truth.  You see this over and over again in those called prophets.  Once you start stirring up trouble, questioning the status quo, pointing out flaws and failings you are no longer well received. 

The prophet Ezekiel got sent back by God to his own people to proclaim a highly unpopular message about their rebelliousness.  Even God wasn’t optimistic about how he would be received.  He instructs Ezekiel on the difficult message he is to speak and tells him, “Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.    

Once Jesus experienced rejection by those who thought they knew him best he was unable to succeed in ministering to them.  He left his hometown for good. Then he sends his disciples out into similar situations.  They go out into the villages with nothing but the message of the gospel and the power of the Spirit.  They are to continue Christ’s ministry of preaching and healing but only to those who are willing to receive them.

When they experience the inevitable rejection, distrust and disbelief, they are instructed to move on and to famously, “shake off the dust that is on your feet.”   Frankly that’s a whole lot easier to do when it’s strangers who are rejecting you.  It’s much more complicated and heartbreaking when it’s your own family and long-time friends.

The fact that Jesus continued faithfully to live into his identity and to serve and love others in spite of opposition and rejection can be an encouragement to us when we experience similar criticism and hostility.  We are not to be surprised at disbelief, distrust, rejection and failure.  We follow a Savior who took on the worst of human behavior on the cross and by his love and God’s power transformed despair into hope, sorrow into joy and death into life.  The theology of the cross prepares those who pick up their cross and follow Christ when we encounter anger, disdain and misunderstanding, not only from those who oppose the gospel, but often from those who are closest to us.

We at St. Luke’s are familiar with the complaints and concerns of our neighbors as we feed and care for those on the margins.  We have experienced the ways some have tried to shut us down or stop us from feeding the hungry and befriending those who are without shelter.  But our sibling church, St. Paul’s UCC got a firsthand experience of this when they hosted a community meeting at the end of June. 

As the concerns and demands grew more heated, I witnessed the shock and hurt of the St. Paul’s membership.  They thought they were doing what was right.  They naively assumed that their neighbors would understand their good hearts and commitment to caring for people who are in need.  They were like deer caught in the headlights, paralyzed and unable to respond to those who didn’t want these kind of people near their homes, schools and children. 

Fortunately our Edible Hope Program Director and I were able to share some of the facts about our program and how we address the behaviors that would be most concerning for them.  We were able to assure them that the church would create a safety plan and present it to the neighborhood along with resources for various situations ahead of the time when EHK moves in.  In many ways it was a good meeting and less vitriolic than some I have witnessed.  And it was a reminder that a Christian commitment to the least, the last and the lost can often be in conflict with those who live right next door to us. 

All this begs the question, “Where is my home?”  “Who are my people?”  “Where do I belong?”  For Jesus, the answer to those questions became clearer and clearer the closer he came to the cross.  His home is in the heart of God, in the loving relationship of the Trinity.  His people are those who draw near to love and light and life as they seek God’s will and God’s way.  He belongs to everyone and to no one.  He belongs everywhere and nowhere.  He is committed in love to all who respond to him and serves all who are in need, whether or not they accept him.  He offers himself up for all and yet retains his true self. 

And so for us.  “In Christ we live and move and have our being.”  We are part of Kingdom and kindom of God, members of the Beloved Community, giving our lives away while being true to our best selves.  We are letting our current earthly house be destroyed in order to build dwellings for those who have no place to live affordably.  We are aligning ourselves with those on the margins even as we’re rejected by the rich and comfortable.           

Along the way we discover chosen family, siblings in Christ, part of one Body.  Amen.

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