My back has been killing me all month and I have posted almost nothing.  But I did preach last week in Yuba City, and this is what I said:

Many of you may know already who Ruby Bridges is.  I have to confess I only learned this in this last decade.  Sometimes I’m slow.

For those of you who might not know, Ruby was the six-year-old African-American girl who, after the federal desegregation order, walked past 40 to 50 angry white adults each day, to attend elementary school in New Orleans.  She was accompanied by federal marshals, but otherwise alone.  She was the only African-American student.  And all the white students had been withdrawn because she was there.

Many of the adults who greeted her each morning, if that’s the word for what they did, were saying they were going to kill her.  And Ruby had to know they just might do it.  Yet she kept coming.

She not only kept coming, but she smiled at the mobs as they vilified her.  And she told her teacher that she felt sorry for them, and was praying for them.  It’s hard to imagine.  What kept her going?

Dr. Martin Luther King once answered a similar question this way:  “You’ve been asking about the ‘psychological burdens’ of living the way we have been living here in the South!  When people ask me where I get the courage, or how can I keep standing up to those mobs, I say the answer is very simple:  I can’t not do as I’m doing!  There is no alternative, you see.”

I was moved when I read this.  And I think it might even help me to understand this morning’s gospel better.

This morning, Jesus gives his “inaugural” sermon.  He defines his ministry.  He did this in front of his hometown.  And he probably had to know what he was getting into, just like Ruby did – and just like Martin did.  I’m pretty sure growing up in Nazareth was difficult for him – an irregular birth in some distant place with all sorts of bizarre stories circulating about him.  I’m sure everybody was just waiting to put him in his place throughout his childhood.

Luke tells us that after his baptism and his time of trial in the wilderness, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned to Galilee and began to teach.  When he came to Nazareth, where he grew up, he went to the synagogue, and was asked to read and comment on one of the lessons.

In other words, he was the guest preacher.  Possibly the locals saw him as a sort of minor celebrity:  local boy makes good and all that.  Hard to believe about Jesus.  But they wanted to know what all the fuss was about.  It sure wasn’t obvious while he was growing up.

He chose his reading from the scroll of Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Then he rolled up the scroll, and sat down, and gave his sermon.  If you think my sermons are short, you ain’t heard nothing yet!  Did Jesus give the expected line-by-line exposition of the text?  No!  He sat down (apparently you preached while sitting down) he sat down and he said, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

End of sermon.

He did not interpret the prophecy.  He simply told the people he grew up with, the folks who changed his diapers and teased him about his birth, who were not going to believe him anyway, that he fulfilled the prophecy.  The prophecy was about him!

You know what happened next.  There was an exchange of words.  The congregation didn’t believe him.  They wanted a sign.  When it became clear he wasn’t going to give them one, the townsfolk became enraged.  They got up, and drove him out of town, with every intention of hurling him off the cliff, to his death, for blasphemy.

Jesus was a bright fellow.  He grew up among these people.  He had to have a pretty good idea of how they would react to his message.  Yet he went ahead with his sermon anyway.

God proclaimed release for people from whatever burdened them: captivity, physical ailments, debt – any kind of oppression.  Jesus announced himself as the instrument of this release.  And he told the people he grew up with, by implication, that faith was lacking in their synagogue, just as it was throughout Israel in the time of Elijah and Elisha. So they weren’t going to get a sign.

I he were a kid, I think I’d picture him sticking out his tongue and wiggling his fingers at them!

I’m sure he was above this.  But it had to take a lot of courage to do what he did.  It’s hard to face people and tell them something you know they aren’t going to want to hear.  It’s harder when there’s reason to believe they might want to kill you for what you to or say.  But Jesus, and Ruby, and Martin all seem to sense that they were doing what God wanted them to do.  They were willing to face the consequences because in Dr. King’s words, “ . . . there was no alternative . . .”

I don’t think we’re always this faithful.  I’m not sure we’re willing to face vilification and wrath to live out our faith in obedience to God.  But I am clear, as I stand here before you this morning, that’s what Jesus did, and Ruby Bridges did, and Martin Luther King did.  And that is what we are also called to do.

Because God always has a word, a word of promise and hope, to bring to people.  Many of the people Ruby smiled at and Dr. King marched in front of and Jesus spoke to did not experience their message as one of promise and hope.  But they gave God’s message anyway.  And they paid the price.

God has not promised us that everything he asks us will be easy.  He has only promised that he will always be with us.  I pray that you and I will have the courage to live out our faith, and act upon our convictions, when God calls us into such a time of trial.

Because our God does not coerce us.  Our God invites us.  And we are the hands and feet and eyes and voices through which God moves and acts in creation today.  When we do our part, God’s power and grace are active in our communities.  The captives are set free.  And God’s love for us changes our lives – all of our lives – often in ways we never expected or imagined.

I say this to you in the Name of God:  Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.  Amen.

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