It is always fun to think about the rags to riches story–the child of modest upbringing doing good. I know I always beam a little bit when folk talk about Dabo Sweeney, coach of the National Runners-Up in football Clemson Tigers. Dabo and I grew up together. Oh, we weren’t friends, mind you. He grew up in Pelham, proper…. over near the trailer park if memory serves me correct. I grew up in the subdivisions. Me a band geek, Dabo the kid who played Split End (that’s a wide receiver… the one’s who catch the ball when the quarterback throws it). But he hard brick for hands. In other words, he was the kid the quarterback hardly ever threw the football to.
Fast-forward a few years. Here I am at Alabama, in the band. The football tea is blowing out some cupcake of a team for homecoming. It’s the 4th quarter of the game and even the 3rd string players are resting. All the players on the field are walk-on players. Several of us were joking that we ought to go suit up. As we were celebrating another win, imagine my surprise when I look out there on the field and see Dabo Sweeney. He was never the fastest guy. He didn’t always catch the ball when it was thrown his way. But he did two things well. He ran precise routes and he was more than willing to block downfield…. two things that more gifted athlete playing the same position are want to do. Good for you kid. You walk-on, practice hard and get to wear the Crimson jersey all the way to the 1992 national championship.
If that wasn’t a good enough story, he gets hired to be on staff at Alabama specifically because he’s young and can relate in a way the older coaches couldn’t. Ultimately, he gets hired to be the offensive coordinator for Clemson. Mid-year they fire their coach. He is promoted to be the interim Head Coach, again because he relates well to the players. At the end of the season, he gets the job full-time. Fast forward a few years and he played against his alma mater for the national championship. A cinderella story, especially when you find out about just how poor his family was. He was so poor that he and his mom shared a room in Tuscaloosa so that he could go to college. Meanwhile, his mother drove every day to Birmingham to work at Parisian so that they could afford to eat.
A rags to riches story. One everyone loves.
That’s the way today’s story about Jesus sets up. Here’s the guy from Nazareth (remember the phrase “does anything good come from Nazareth). Word of his miracles and wise sayings have made their way from his home as an adult to his childhood home, where he is now in the synagogue, teaching. Everyone wants to see him perform deeds of power. They want to see the spectacle. The want to see the hometown boy make good.
And he defies their expectation. He doesn’t perform a deed of power… well, now exactly. Neither does he tell them comforting words that reaffirmed their status quo or tickled their ears. Here, Jesus challenges them. Reminding them of Elijah and the drought, then he reminds them that Elijah was not sent to the widows of orphans who were suffering. No. Elijah was sent to Sidon–Lebanon. He reminds that during Elisha’s time, Elisha did not heal the child of Israel but a Syrian.
The message is clear and scandalous–Jesus, claiming to stand in the long line of prophets, takes up their mantle saying, “I didn’t come here simply to comfort you. I do not come here to do as you wish, to put on a show and bring fame and notoriety to Nazareth. I didn’t even come here to aggrandize myself. I came to announce the kingdom is here. The kingdom is now.”
His words were condemning them in their expectations. Infuriating them. After all, they were suffering at the hand of Rome. Their lot was decreasing, not expanding. Here they came, expecting to witness the same kind of spectacle they had heard about—teachings and deeds of power that had everyone amazed. This kind talk was so infuriating that they wanted to kill him–was he flirting with blasphemy?
So often, we receive one of two scripts with it comes to our faith in Jesus. One script is similar to the Nazarenes. Here, Jesus is the one who comes to us, hears out every concern, responds to them in a fashion that meets both our expectations and timeline, and we go on with our life.
The other script is that Jesus the one who calls us out to challenge the status quo, to be a new voice crying out in the wilderness, to always be the one who always speaks truth to power, who always is the outlier, relishing bucking every trend and saying “no” to collective wisdom.
I think we gravitate to one of those two archtypes based upon our natural predilections. But make no mistake, there’s the temptation for sin here.
The sin, my friends, is not in the deeds, the actions or the disposition. After all, Jesus is the one who has lived our life and died our death. He intimately knows all our passions, hopes, and heart-breaks. The Holy Spirit always abides, ever so close to us. But Jesus is also the one who calls us to, like him, “afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted”. He is the one who eats with sinners. He’s the one who chooses the 1 over the 99.
The sin that we are all guilty of, my friends, is when we do not let God be God. We bend Jesus to our whims, we align Jesus with our political party, we let the prompting of the Holy Spirit just happen to align perfectly with our expectations for our life, our community, and our world. I know in my own prayer life, many times I ask, “God is that you or is it just me trying to convince myself that my desires and my wishes are yours”.
This sin is, ultimately, one of arrogance where we tell God how to act and intervene in our lives. We’re the ones setting the agenda, not God.
But here’s the wonderful part… last week’s Gospel Lesson in the Lectionary… with God’s Kingdom present and happening now, we don’t have to try to control God (as if we could). We get to let God surprise us in how we are called to act, reflect, and respond in the world. We get to let God summon to the forefront all the contradictions to our life as we expect it to be–or life as we think it “should” be.
Our next task is to decide what to do.
Are we going to charge to the edge of the cliff, flinging God (and ourselves) over the edge into oblivion so that we can go back to our self-reinforcing, self-centered lives? Or, are we going to listen to what Jesus has to say. Are we going to heed the call to really and truly allow ourselves to follow him, to allow him to make ourselves, our hopes, our dreams, and indeed all things, new.