By Joanna Lawrence Shenk
I think it was sometime in 2012 I was invited to speak during an evening, student-led, chapel service at the conservative Christian college from which I graduated. This was about 7 years since I had graduated, so the current students didn’t know me, but some of my friends were on staff and many of the professors remembered me. I had been student body president and very involved in campus life while in college. I had also worked on staff as a Resident Director for two years after graduating. Although I had changed a lot since my college days, it still felt like a homecoming.
I was invited to speak by a friend who was on staff with the campus ministry department. He had heard me speak in another venue about faith and identity and thought it would be a good message for the students. I was looking forward to the opportunity because I felt like I could say things that would challenge the students who thought they had all the good Christian answers.
Even though my faith was a lot less complexified when I was in college, I was still disappointed with the judgmental, small-minded Christians that the institution seemed to breed. There were three general categories of people on campus: the Christians who had all the answers, the people who partied a lot and sat at the back of chapel and the cynics who made fun of them both. So I crafted a presentation that would name this dynamic and be an interesting alternative to the usual chapel services that patted the good Christians on the back and felt alienating to everyone else.
I talked about the identities that were seen as good and moral on campus and then the identities that were not the campus Christian ideal. I asked the students to consider where those terms came from and if they actually were in keeping with the way of Jesus and his message.
I talked about three primary identities for me: Mennonite, feminist and anarchist. In the course of these explanations I talked about how Jesus didn’t just come to earth to die on the cross, but that Jesus came as a poor person in solidarity with poor and dispossessed people and that’s ultimately what got him killed, because he was a threat to the status quo.
What I didn’t realize immediately but what unfolded over the following days was that a lot of students got really mad about what I said. My chapel talk created a big stir on campus. I started to get a glimpse of this when I did a Q&A time with students immediately following the chapel. They asked questions like if I thought Jesus was the Son of God and if I believed the Bible was the word of God. A few people seemed like they were trying pin me down as a heretic with their theological questions but I didn’t struggle to respond to their challenges.
The following morning the campus pastor apologized in front of the student body for my chapel talk the night before. He said they were sorry to have allowed someone to speak who thought differently than they did at the college. Turns out some students got so mad they called the campus president that night to complain and the campus pastor was afraid he would lose his job if he didn’t say something to discredit me.
I also know that other students thought what I said was awesome and were so glad to have something provocative like that happen on campus. They loved how much conversation it generated and thought it was ridiculous that the campus pastor apologized for my talk. I realized that I thought since I had been an upstanding Christian leader while a student, even though I was saying difficult things, that the students would consider it. I thought they would see me as one of them, but that did not happen. I was also surprised to learn that the thing that made them react the most was when I said that Jesus didn’t just come to die for their sins. That was totally not acceptable for anyone to say from the chapel stage according to them.
Although the stories are not exactly parallel, I couldn’t help but remember that experience when I read the gospel story from Luke today. Jesus shows up in his hometown and speaks the truth and the result is people wanting to throw him off the cliff. Jesus was embracing his prophetic calling and it did not go over well with his relatives and old friends. They wanted their hometown hero to do a bunch of miracles for them and tell them they were special, but instead he said, “God is in the business of welcoming outsiders and that’s my work too.”
You might remember me saying a couple weeks ago that when God’s spirit shows up in scripture something subversive is happening. This story is no exception. Jesus is naming his calling to the people on the margins, the outcasts, not to those who think they deserve God’s blessing. Not those on the inside, but those on the outside.
As you may know this story comes right after Jesus’ first sermon, where he says “The Spirt of the Lord is upon me because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. I have come to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Last year the youth group rewrote his sermon like this:
I have come to proclaim good news to the poor.
People who have too much money and stuff will give it to those who do not have enough.
God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives.
Release to immigrants in detention and people in prison.
Recovery of sight to the blind.
Everyone can go to the doctor whether or not they have money.
To let the oppressed go free.
To let the oppressed go free.
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
To proclaim that everyone living on the street will have a house.
This is what Jesus is doing in the world and maybe he was interested to see if his peeps in Nazareth wanted to do this too. It’s interesting that their response to him seemed to be, “What are you going to do for us??” rather than, “How can we join you in your calling of liberation… that sounds awesome!”
And maybe that’s part of why Jesus provoked them to the point of anger. He was like, “Turns out it’s not about you.” God is always reaching out beyond our categories of the deserving and the undeserving. It’s still with us today in the ideas of the deserving and undeserving poor or the deserving and undeserving immigrants and refugees.
Jesus says, “That stops right here.” His calling was to the outsiders and undesirables, and if we say we follow him that’s the way we’re going too.
Near the end of this life Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. echoed this calling:
“I choose to identify with the underprivileged … I choose to identify with the poor … I choose to give my life for the hungry … for those who have been left out of the sunlight of opportunity … I choose to live for and with those for whom life is one long, desolate corridor with no exit sign. This is the way I’m going. If it means suffering a little, I’m going that way. If it means sacrifice, I’m going that way. And if it means dying for them, I’m going that way, because I heard a voice saying, do something for others.”
Our call is beyond ourselves AND taking care of ourselves still matters.
The Jesus followers were creating a community of support and love in the midst of adversity. It was both internally and externally committed to love. Jesus wanted that kind of community to be extended to everyone. He knew his way was difficult and that people in his movement would need to have a deep and resilient love for each other to make it through the hard times.
For that reason I think it’s no surprise that 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 is also in the lectionary today. It’s the chapter about the kind of love we need to have for each other in community. This was in a letter to a Jesus following community that was really struggling to love each other.
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.
For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
Love is what holds us. Love is what sustains us in the valley of the shadow of death. Love is what we offer to each other with prayers and food and hugs and presence. Love is sitting together and letting the tears flow. Love is holding out a light in the darkest hour. This is the starting point as we discern the Spirit and act in the world. Our belovedness and connectedness makes us bold.
During this season of Epiphany I think the subversive Spirit of God is calling us to this deeper love and solidarity.
Last Sunday we heard from Cyneatha Millsaps (executive director of Mennonite Women USA) about what it means to not cut off parts of the body of Christ. Specifically she talked about the violence done to Black people and Black communities and called those removed from that pain to feel it and act for justice.
The week before that Chude Allen and Rachel Stoltzfus reflected on the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and its meaning for us today. Chude exhorted us to love ourselves as we take steps and stumble in building community across lines of difference. Rachel shared the story of Sandra Bland and the price she paid in challenging the racism of this country. Rachel called us to remember her story, to Say Her Name, and be a part of changing unjust systems so Sandra Bland’s story is not repeated.
The subversive Spirit of God is present in our midst. The choice is always before us… will we listen to the prophetic call and be part of the movement for liberation or will we decide it’s better for us to disregard and discredit the prophetic words? I bet the people in Nazareth were going through hard times and they were anticipating Jesus would give them a boost. But he said, “It’s way bigger than you… can you see that? Can you go that way with me?”
As a community following in the way of Jesus we are called to take subversive action in the world believing that the Spirit is guiding us and will give us the strength we need. We are called to a ministry at the margins, to solidarity with the excluded (at our borders, in prisons and on the streets), and to speak the truth of the Gospel even if it means getting publicly discredited.
We are also called to be a community of love and care for each other because life is hard and there is much we grieve. We are called to be this kind of loving community so that we know it’s possible in this cruelly unjust society and so that we can keep extending that tenacious love further and further beyond ourselves.
May we not idolize the loving, supportive community we are creating together as a buffer from the world, rather may it be the foundation and our well of resilience to live out our calling each day. May it be so. Amen.