Sunday’s Sermon: Sometimes You Can’t Go Home

Country roads, take me home/ To the place I belong/West Virginia, Mountain Mama/Take me home, country roads.

I am confident that this may be the first time John Denver’s “Country Roads” has been quoted during a sermon on this side of the Big Sandy River. I make no excuses for the fact that I am from the place known for coal mines, Hatfields, WVU football, pepperoni rolls, and cole slaw on a hot dog. I am from West Virginia, though Kentucky has grown on me in the nearly six years since I moved here from North Carolina.

My home state has played a significant part in my life. Those 22 years in the Mountain State formed me as a person and helped shape me as a follower of Christ and a pastor. From Martin Hall on the campus of West Virginia University, to a journalism classroom at Shady Spring High School, to the newsroom of several newspapers, the memories I have of West Virginia are special to me.

As much of a blessing West Virginia has been to me, I know that I cannot go home. This might seem like an odd statement, but I know it is true. I cannot go back because my home rejected me. Through words and actions, I have been told that I am not a true “West Virginian,” because of my willingness to challenge known “truths” and to suggest alternatives to norms that go against commonly held beliefs.

The hurt of lost friends and connections has been painful. Rejection is never easy or pleasant. So too is the realization that I will never serve a place I called home. Over the years, and especially now that I am in the ordination process in the Kentucky Annual Conference, I have come to terms with this.

For many of us, an illustration of this kind of rejection of this magnitude is one that is unfamiliar to us. Most of us still live in the same communities we grew up in. It is a blessing that we give thanks to God for. The rejection we are most familiar with is the personal. It is the rejection that comes with losing a friend, a loved one, or someone else over some dispute that causes irreconcilable differences between the various parties. That is the rejection many of us are familiar with.

Being able to call upon our past experiences with rejection will help us understand what is going on in our passage from Luke 4:21-30. This morning, we have a continuation of the story we encountered last Sunday. As you will remember, Jesus has returned home to Nazareth after spending time in ministry in Capernaum. Words of his ministry greeted him upon his arrival. The people of Nazareth were excited to see and hear from Jesus. At the worship services on that Sabbath, Jesus preached on the text from Isaiah 61:1-2 and applied it to his own Messianic ministry. His words were well-received by the people in attendance.

But something happened by the end of Luke’s story. Something happened that moved the people of Nazareth from accepting Jesus, at whatever form or level it might have been, to a place of outright rejection. At the end of our story, Luke tells us that Jesus has to avoid a mob that was attempting to kill him. This doesn’t seem like a hometown reception that went well.

Something changed inside the people of Nazareth who had gathered to hear Jesus speak. Their progression from acceptance to rejection is something to pay attention to this morning, especially as we seek to understand what this passage from Luke might be saying to us.

The end of the story is not expected when we focus only on the initial response to Jesus’ words. After preaching that today the Scripture had been fulfilled in their presence, the people of Nazareth were amazed at what they had heard. Amazed that they could confirm in their hearing the reports of what Jesus had been preaching throughout the region. Amazed at the depths of the knowledge “Joseph’s son” had of the Scripture. Amazed that this man, whom they had known for so long, was standing before them as the long-expected Messiah.

It was the beginning stages of wrestling with the person they had known with the person they see before them. While they believed Jesus spoke well, they couldn’t disconnect themselves from the person whom they knew of being “from Nazareth.” His words hadn’t made a deep impression in their souls.

The reason is that the people of Nazareth, and especially those gathered at the synagogue, wanted to see Jesus at work. They didn’t just want to hear Jesus preach, they wanted to see Jesus “do something” for them. Reports of Jesus’ miraculous acts of healing in Capernaum, a place heavily populated by a non-Jewish people, had made their way back to Nazareth. The people figured that if Jesus did these acts of healing to people “outside the faith,” what more would he do for those inside the community of faith, and especially his beloved hometown?

It is here where the conflict between the Jesus they wanted and the Jesus that stood before them begins to show. It is a conflict that Jesus is fully aware of, and makes note of. He makes note of their desire by quoting a Proverb: “Doctor, heal yourself,” which he interprets through their desire for this hometown prophet to do wondrous things for them. He follows this with something very interesting. He says that the conflict between the Jesus they knew and the Jesus that is the Son of God will lead them to rejecting him. A prophet, he says, is not accepted in their hometown.

What does Jesus mean by this? Even though the people of Nazareth are wrestling with what they see before them and their desire to have something done for them, there is nothing yet to indicate the pain of rejection that is to come. Jesus knows that the truth he has come to present will not be accepted. They will not accept his prophetic voice, which will lead them to rejecting him all together.

The role of a prophet is to speak God’s truth and to alert us, as Katherine Lewis suggests, to where God is active. A prophet challenges known truths and helps to bring us to greater dependence and realization of the love of God. A prophet calls attention to our held beliefs and helps us see that God’s truth might be calling us to take on a different set of beliefs or a new life. Jesus knew that this prophetic role would go unheard, because when someone close to us challenges us and what we know to be true, we become defensive or angry.

Jesus’ challenge to the people of Nazareth comes in the application of his Messianic role. The call to bring Good News to the poor, the imprisoned, the oppressed, and the blind includes all people and not just those within the Jewish community. The Good News, he says, is good news for the people of Capernaum, and other Gentiles, as much as it is for the people of the Jewish faith.

He expresses this out through two stories from 1 and 2 Kings where Elijah and Elisha went out to serve the Gentile population. He speaks of how Elijah, in 1 Kings 17:8, was sent to care for Zarephath and how Elisha, in 2 Kings 5:1-14, cared for Naaman.

Jesus is using Scripture to make a point about God’s love for all. He is reminding the people of Nazareth about how God’s love reached across divisions, even in the days of the prophets. He is sharing truth with them in the hopes that it will bring them to a deeper level of trust, faith, and hope in the Lord.

It is this truth of God’s love that was too much for Jesus’ hometown. They were unable to hear Jesus’ words that the mission of God extends not just to the chosen few, but to all people. They refused to hear that God loves the Gentile as much as the Lord loves them. It created a rupture in their love for Jesus, and they rejected him. They refused to hear a deeper reality that extended beyond what they knew, and they reacted as perhaps any of us would when confronted by someone close to us. They got angry. They got mad. They cut their ties with Jesus.

The story of Jesus’ hometown rejecting him is difficult and uncomfortable. I recognize this. We are uncomfortable with the fact that an entire community would refuse to walk with Jesus, especially when they have known him for so long. However, I think it is difficult and uncomfortable for another reason this morning. As much as it is uncomfortable to think about how Jesus’ hometown rejected him, it is even more so to think about the times that we have rejected the Lord when Jesus’ truth challenges us.

Each of us, at one point or another, have rejected Jesus’ truth. Through our words, actions, and deeds, we have made the choice to disassociate ourselves with the difficult task of following Jesus’ words and examples. The temptation to reject Jesus is as real for us when challenged by God’s love and truth as it was for the people of Jesus’ hometown.
There are several ways we do this. We reject Jesus by minimizing his words. When confronted by Jesus’ truth, we’ll twist the meaning of his words to make it agree with what we want it to say. We’ll reduce the truth to conform it to the beliefs we want to hold. At the same time, we can reject Jesus by saying Jesus’ truth doesn’t apply to us today. We say we are living in different times and that Jesus’ words are not applicable to us in our more “modern” context. Finally, we reject Jesus by simply walking away. When Jesus’ truth hits home, and we refuse to listen, we might simply say “no” to walking with Christ any further.

Do not be in despair, there is hope for us this morning. The good news is that rejection is not the end of the story. Our acts of rejection are what led Jesus to the cross. The grace of our Lord offers forgiveness to us all when we face times we are unable to hear what Christ is saying to us. Even when we say “no” to Jesus, the Lord continues to say “yes” to us. That is the amazing nature of Jesus’ love. To paraphrase the communion liturgy, “even though we rejected Christ, the Lord showed his love to us.”

In a moment, we will come to the table to celebrate communion together. Part of our communion liturgy is a prayer of confession that calls to mind our acts of disobedience, our moments of rejecting Christ’s truth. As we say these words together, I hope we will take a moment to reflect on when we’ve rejected Christ. Where have we refused to follow God’s truth and leaning? In the saying of our confessional prayer, give this rejection over to the One who came to set us free and show us the truth of God’s love. Be transformed by the Living Presence of the truth of God’s love for us all.

Today’s story is a sad one. An entire community who had known Jesus for so long refused to walk any further when the truth of God’s love went against their known beliefs. It doesn’t have to be so for us today. Allow the Spirit of God to examine our hearts this morning to see where we might have turned away from God when challenged by the Lord’s truth. May today be a day known for our acceptance of God’s truth, instead of our rejection.

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3 thoughts on “Sunday’s Sermon: Sometimes You Can’t Go Home

  1. While I’ve never been told that I’m not a “real Kentuckian,” I know that back home is somewhere I can never stay for long. Sometimes, and often unfortunately, a person grows out of the place they came from. Good post.

    • I think I need to explain why I made the “real West Virginian” comment in my blog. It’s an attitude that I have noticed, especially since I announced that I was entering into ministry. Then again, it has always been prevalent. This sense that I do not fit in because I do not maintain a certain list of ideals.

      At the same time, I am very proud of my heritage being from West Virginia. I never would take that away. The education that I received was excellent, even though it could have been much better. The support I received from professors at West Virginia University was influential in making me who I am today.

      But, you are not always able to challenge people that you grew up with to take on a different life. You can, but you have to be in the right situation with the right amount of support. I don’t think I could. I recognized that when I went back home in 2009 and preached on 1 Corinthians 1 and the foolishness of the cross. I’m sure that sermon is somewhere on the blog, but I challenged my home community to see how the cross calls attention to our ideals and our agendas. Looking back, I didn’t have the investment to say what I did and I have learned.

  2. Very true. I think that is a lot like when I said that I wanted to go to graduate school and get my PhD, a goal that is very near to my heart, even today. My parents were very supportive, but when others asked what I wanted to do, I was met with a “Well. That’s nice if you like 8-12 more years of school.” or my personal favorite “I don’t know why you don’t become a nurse like your mom or take x-rays like your aunt.”

    Life, especially rural life, is tricky. However, I don’t think I’d have it any other way.

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