There is nothing quite like the experience of preaching a first sermon. Even after more than 30 years, I can still recall how I felt stepping into the pulpit for the first time and looking out on 20 faces of people who had mostly been in the church a lot longer than I had been alive, and wondering what I could possibly say that would be meaningful for them. I remember a pastor speaking at the retirement service at Annual Conference one year, talking about his first experience preaching. He said he got up to preach and was so nervous that he felt as though he might pass out. And so he grabbed on to the pulpit for support, only to discover that the pulpit was not fastened to the ground and could not hold all of his weight and he and the pulpit toppled forward into the laps of those sitting on the front pew.
Another tells of a dear saintly lady who came up to him on his last Sunday in his first appointment and said, “Son, when you came here you had never preached a sermon before, and after two years you still haven’t preached one. But we love you anyways. “It takes a lot of grace on the part of a church, to endure a first sermon. The folks, who were there on my first Sunday, were so supportive. After the service was over, Mrs. Gray, who had been the church treasurer for many years, came to the door and handed me my paycheck for the week. I took that as a sign that I could come back the next week. So imagine a young Rabbi, fresh from Hebrew Union College, going back to his home synagogue to preach his first sermon. And in the course of that sermon, he makes this statement,
“In 1943 there were a lot of sick Jews in Europe, but the only person that God chose to heal was Adolph Hitler.”
Can you imagine how the members of the synagogue would react to such a statement? But you see, that’s exactly what Jesus said in his first sermon. Naaman the Syrian was the greatest of all of the generals of the Syrian army that had conquered, not only Jerusalem, but also most of the known world in the sixth century B.C. He was a fierce warrior who had led the Syrian army in battle against Israel, thoroughly defeating them and carrying many off into exile. It was his desire to completely eliminate the Jewish state. The Jews hated him. For hundreds of years, they had bitterly recounted Naaman’s conquest around the campfires of Israel so that they might never forget their enemies and the atrocities done against their ancestors. Naaman was a brutal man, the worst of the worst. So even centuries later, he was reviled by the people of Israel. And so you can understand why the people of First Church Nazareth were so enraged by this young rabbi when he said that there had been many lepers in Israel but the only leper that God had chosen to heal was the hated enemy of the Jews, Naaman the Syrian. It had been one thing for Jesus to
claim that the Messiah had come. He was young, and not as experienced at waiting for the Messiah as the Jews had become after centuries of great anticipation.
There were other talented young men who had claimed to be the Messiah. They were willing to let the hometown boy show the impatience of his youth. But to imply that God had favored the great enemy of the Jews over other Jews who were suffering, that was too much to take. Even from their homegrown rabbi. Why in the world would Jesus make such a statement? What was he trying to say to his hometown synagogue? It is, of course, a reference to this incredible story that we find in the Old Testament book of second Kings. Naaman, the great Syrian general, fresh off his latest conquest, has a terrible secret. He has developed leprosy, which was perhaps the most dreaded disease of his day and also Jesus day. Now not only did Leprosy eat away at your flesh, but it also ate away at your soul because there was no cure, no treatment. The only way to deal with it, was to isolate the lepers from the rest of society. Forbid them to be in contact with anyone other than other lepers, separate them into colonies, where they would live out their days until they died a horrible, painful death. And the thought for Naaman that he would live such an existence was more than he could bear and seeing that the great general was in such anguish, a little Israeli servant girl who served Naaman’s wife, suggested that he should go to Israel and find the prophet Elisha, in Samaria, who could cure him of his leprosy. And Naaman was so desperate that he was grasping at any hope, swallows his pride and goes in search of a cure among his enemies. William Willimon tells of another who had reached a similar point. He writes:
I know a person, a powerful, successful business person who had everything, but he was an alcoholic. For years, he was able to hide it, cover for it. At last, at the end of his rope, having tried a fancy, expensive treatment center, he tried Alcoholics Anonymous. He walked into a church fellowship hall on a Wednesday night. The room was filled with rancid smoke; group of forlorn, poorly dressed (by his standards) folk sat around in a circle. The first person who spoke to him was a guy in a torn, old shirt whose first words were, “How long have you been a drunk?” “It was one of the most humiliating nights of my life,” he said. But that night his healing began… Naaman had reached that point in his life. And so, Naaman went to the prophet of lowly Israel at the suggestion of a slave child, seeking to be made whole. Probably the most difficult thing for Naaman to accept was that Elisha treated him, the great man, like any other leper. And so, Elisha’s prescription for Naaman was to go to the Jordan and be cleansed. But there was nothing magical about the water. The cure for Naaman’s disease came in humbling himself before God. Much as Jesus had done when He let John baptize him in the Jordan River. Allowing the living waters of God wash over him and make him clean. And Jesus perceived that it was a lack of humility that the people of Nazareth were struggling with. After all, they were the chosen people. How dare Jesus compare them to pagans like Naaman. Even imply that Naaman had a more favored place then they did. So often we let our own pride stand in the way of God’s work in our hearts and our souls. And so we choose to continue in our old lives, rather than embrace the new life that God offers. If we are going to continue on this path of discipleship we’ve got to embrace the new life that God offers through Christ. But first we need to acknowledge that we need new life. That was the stumbling block that kept Nicodemus from following Jesus, from continuing on the path of Discipleship. What must I do to follow you Jesus? You must be born again, embrace new life. Leonard Sweet writes this about Naaman: There was no other option for him if he wanted new life and not merely continues on in his same condition of dis-ease. Neither is there any other option for us who desire new life. Forgiveness, a new perspective on life, reconciliation, healing of a wounded heart; when we come to our senses, these are the very things we seek most in life. But they are not available if we insist on having them on our terms rather than the terms that are offered. What is required is some version of stepping down, becoming humble and opening ourselves to receiving what is offered. The people of Nazareth were okay with Jesus as the Messiah as long as He was the Messiah on their terms.
But there is, of course, more to this story than Namaan’s lesson in humility. Because if that was all this story was about, then why would it have so angered the home town folks who listened while Jesus referred to it, that they were ready to throw Him off a cliff To fully understand what Jesus intended, we’ve got to remember the context in which he spoke these words. Remember he had just proclaimed to them that the Messiah had come into their midst. But they did not believe Him. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” And though the word was not spoken, it probably hung in the air. “Is this Joseph’s illegitimate son?” He couldn’t possibly be the Messiah. And then Jesus tells them, that they don’t believe Him because through all of those centuries of waiting for the Messiah, they had been looking for Him in the wrong places. This is also a story about the sometimes arrogance of the church. They thought they would find God in the royal palace, a great king in the line of David. But instead God came from a tiny little out of the way place like Nazareth. There were probably many in Israel who thought “We would rather die than be saved by a Nazarene. We would rather die than look for God among the widows of Israel, or working in the lives of our enemies like Naaman.” They were angered by Jesus’ words because they did not want to look for God in those kinds of places. In a sense, they were just as angry and indignant as Naaman had been when Elisha told him to go bathe in the Jordan River, at the suggestion that for them to find God, they had to humble themselves to recognize that God had children other than the Jews. That the Messiah came for all and that we are all the same on this path of Discipleship. And though we may not like it any better today, then the church did back then, this is surely a message for us too. That we need to be looking for Jesus in out of the way places, among out of the way people, as we journey from membership to discipleship, that our church vision of Jesus Christ in every life must mean EVERY life. And sometimes God is in the
Familiar places like our hometown and our church but sometimes this path of Discipleship will take us to places where we least expect God to be and in the faces of those we would least expect to see him in, and that sometimes the path of discipleship leads us to the muddiest, dirtiest, smelliest, most out of the way places and circumstances.
And then finally as we contemplate this Sacrament of Communion, this is also a story about rejection. This incident in Nazareth was just the beginning of a ministry that was marked by rejection for Jesus. Here rejected by his friends and family, in his hometown. But later the Jewish leaders, the priests, the Romans and even His own Disciples, would reject him. But yet He continued to love them all. Increasingly in our world, disciples and the church must stare in the faces of those who would reject us and yet we must love them anyway. So Jesus, fresh off His Baptism and being claimed by His father and then the time in the Wilderness in which His identity and mission was confirmed, goes home to Nazareth to share all this with His family and friends and neighbors, and He meets nothing but rejection from those who knew him best. It is not much of a stretch to trace his path to the cross, and our path to this Communion Table, from this hometown moment and the rejection of family and friends. I suspect that of all the moments of rejection that He would experience in the next three years, this moment was the most painful. As disciples we will face a lot of rejection in this world. There is increasing hostility towards the church in many quarters today. But the most painful moments are those when we experience rejection by friends and loved ones. That is the hardest to deal with. In my years of ministry, I have been privileged to receive hundreds of persons into membership in the church. What a joy that’s been. But you know as I look back on 36 years of ministry, it is not those faces I see and those names I recall. No what I see are the faces of those who walked away. Who left the church during my ministry. And though I know that many did not leave because of me, it sure seems like they all did. I take their rejection very personally and they travel along in my mind on this path of discipleship. Luke concludes this story by saying that Jesus “walked right through the crowd and went on His way.” But I doubt it was that simple. I suspect that Jesus carried those people in His heart wherever He went. And when He was on the Cross and incredibly asked forgiveness for those who had rejected Him, I suspect that He had those who wanted to kill Him in Nazareth that day in mind also. The prophet said, “that the Messiah would be despised and rejected by men.” And so will those who follow Him. Remember what Jesus said to His disciples: “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name.” Rejection is part of the cost of discipleship. You see the church was never intended to be a reflection of the prevailing culture but rather be counter cultural. Not to condone life style choices, but rather challenge our choices in love. And the path of discipleship will often lead us not to go with the flow of life on this earth, but rather to go against the flow. And in those times we will experience opposition.
Mark Trotter relates this story:
In September of 1997, there was a groundbreaking for a new Catholic Cathedral in one of the toughest areas of Los Angeles. The Church commissioned a famous Spanish architect, Jose Rafael Maneo, to design the new Cathedral. A reporter for the Los Angeles Times attended the groundbreaking at which there were models of the Cathedral for persons to view. And in the article the reporter wrote, he said: Maneo is creating an alternate world to the everyday world that surrounds the cathedral, a testimony to the grandeur of the human spirit, an antidote to a world that is increasingly spiritually empty. The Cathedral, set in the midst of the city, will be an enclave of resistance. In relating this, Rev. Trotter comments that phrase should be a part of the mission statement of every church in the city. The church of Jesus Christ, he says, “should be an enclave of resistance against all that diminishes human life.” And I would add every life.
But resistance implies opposition and ultimately rejection by some. And this story tells us that those who walk the path of discipleship, the path of resistance, will experience rejection, sometimes by those who we know and love the most but that we must love them anyway. The greatest threat to Jesus that day in Nazareth was not that He would be thrown off the cliff. No the greatest threat was that He would die of a broken heart. And eventually He did. Rejection breaks our hearts as Disciples. And in Jesus’ view, the only cure for a broken heart is to love even more. Love your enemies. Love those who revile and reject you, Jesus said. That’s what Disciples do.
Many years ago now, Martin Luther King, Jr. was asked about the difficulty of the path that he had chosen and that he and his followers were on. And he replied:
“We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Throw us in jail and we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us, leave us half-dead and we will still love you. But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. And one day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory. For love is the most durable power in the world.”
And so it was that Jesus loved so much that He met rejection with a Cross. This bread is my body and this juice is my blood, take and eat and drink and remember how much I love you. And help others know. And come follow me.