In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge; let me never be ashamed. AMEN.
Last week’s Gospel ended with today’s first sentence, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” We, like those who heard Jesus say this originally, hear this with awe and wonder. Imagine being present to hear the person speak who has the Spirit of the Lord resting on him to preach: good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, and to set at liberty those who are oppressed. Imagine how exciting that would have been, would be. Then, we might have second thoughts. The psalmist acknowledges taking refuge in the Lord, and asks, “never [to] to be ashamed… For you are my hope…my confidence since I was young.”
Jeremiah talks back to the Lord. He says, “Truly, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” The Lord encourages him and touches his mouth, saying, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms…” That’s the two parts of a charge that the Lord repeats in Jesus. The young person, newly identified publicly, understands the charge the Lord has given and wonders whether they be embarrassed. They’re diffident and afraid to be ashamed. They trust, and yet they think they won’t be up to fulfilling the charge.
Last week Gospel portion end with Jesus’ bold assertion that he’s the one to come, with the Spirit of the Lord on him. Everyone is excited and amazed, and exhilarated at being in the presence of the One, long expected by Scripture. Jesus reminds his hearers of how earlier prophets and commentators fared in the communities they’d spoken in. Jesus names three. He reminds people listening in Nazareth of Elijah’s action in the time of severe famine over his land. He helped none of his people, going only a foreign woman to give her help and relief. That action, touching and effective as it was, made his people angry. Similarly, Elisha cleansed of his leprosy, a foreign Syrian military commander and enemy of Israel, Naaman. That made his people angry. There is a feeling that the Lord, my G*d, should only exert guiding, helping, healing hands of my group, and both Elijah and Elisha extended themselves well beyond their own group. Those are the stories Jesus reminds his hearers of, capping these with, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” Thinking about the Elijah/Elisha stories, Jesus’s Nazareth listeners joined in the same kind of “How dare he, how dare the Lord go outside of my group, caring for my people,” anger. They chased Jesus, aiming to hurl him over the steep hill.
This phenomenon of not honoring prophets in their hometown is this week’s Epiphany reality, recognizing who Jesus was. The homefolks are excited to recognize Jesus as bearing the Spirit of the Lord, but then they turn on him and attempt both to drive him out and kill him. There are other ways of recognizing that same “prophet are not accepted in their home town.” Occasionally this happens in reverse. Pedro Martinez, probably the greatest Red Sox pitcher of our time is up for the first time this year for the Hall of Fame. Roger Clemens pitched for far longer, and accrued bigger better statistics, linked to banned substances, growth hormones and steroids in all probability. Martinez, a comparatively small man, not only, never varied in weight (a visible sign of steroid use), but had to pitch against steroid using batters. Even then, his record in Boston was astonishing and unmistakably Hall of Fame caliber. Clemens, the pitcher known around baseball for more years, was not voted in to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility because of his suspected drug use. Around the country, many sports fans say therefore there’s no way Martinez should be voted on in his first year of eligibility, actually, 44% of ESPN viewers, but in this case the home folks, know better. One of the reasons Martinez’ career was short given his astonishing ability was that he was small enough, that without drugs and throwing as hard as he did, he wore him his arm out. We saw and know that, and we saw those few memorable, truly astonishingly stellar years, well worthy of election in his first year. In this instance, he’s recognized in his hometown, but this is a genuinely unusual occurrence, made possible in part because he left town, and there was time to think about how remarkable he was.
A more ordinary example of the lack of honor to a hometown hero could come from the Beatles. When they were recording, I think it was, the “Abbey Road”, the group was somewhat fractious. Lennon and McCartney seemed to speak disparagingly of Ringo Starr. It was uncomfortable for him, and he was often seen as just the “replacement” Liverpool drummer, and just a drummer anyway, nothing special, no one special, no creativity, and no talent. As that recording ended, he quit and decided he’d had enough. He was hurt and weary, and so he took his kids and went to Sardinia with his friend (and former drummer) Peter Sellers. He vacationed happily with Sellers on his boat, wrote “An Octopus’s Garden,” and enjoyed himself.
Each of the other three tried to be the drummer to finish up the recording. Within days, Starr had received a telegram from each, saying roughly, “We can’t do it, come back.” Paul was said to characterize Ringo later as the “human metronome.” Each of the group recognized that his humor, and skill, helped keep each song on track, and that he was not a casual Liverpool pickup, but a real artist. The story goes that when Ringo eventually came back to the group, George Harrison had completed decorated his drum set with garlands of flowers and more with a sign “Welcome back.” We all recognized that talent, while they thought he was just an ordinary homey, easily replaced.
Ordinary and easily replaceable are what makes it hard to recognize hometown prophets for anything more than local. If we know someone, they must be like us, and we’re not remarkable, and most of us know pretty clearly that other people can do our jobs as well or better, than we can. The up close perspective makes it hard to see someone we know in a larger context, and it confuses us about our own place. If they’re really all that great, why don’t we know it, and why don’t they do great deeds of power for us, at will, on our demand, and we get uncomfortable, and then angry, and say that they don’t matter much, and they don’t belong at home, because they’re to puffed up. If a quartet of musicians couldn’t notice the drummer in their midst as a good drummer, imagine how hard it would be to imagine someone in our midst as having the Spirit of the Lord on them. “That’s just the neighbor’s kid.” We’d get angry for their being puffed up and seemingly thinking they’re so special, and we blame them for that and maybe we also see our own distance from their specialness, excellence, talent, skill, or whatever distances them from us.
We get angry at them and want to drive them out of our comfort zone. They don’t match and it’s their fault, and we want them gone. One of my good friends’ sisters was married to the now well-known and distinguished American composer, John Adams. When we knew him, he was just a Sox fan from New Hampshire trying to be a Musician. His artistry is far more believable since he’s no longer married to someone we know. With Jesus though, the claims he was making, that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, must have sounded outrageous. The claim was out-scaled, and it was challenging to his friends’ sense of self, and to their understanding of who he was. The more they understood the claim the more uncomfortable they were, but then as they began to take in the reality and truth of those claims, fear was added to that discomfort. Fear of what? I’m not sure I’d be all that easy with the G*d’s Son, as neighbor and companion. Jesus wasn’t partisan enough for them, just as Elijah and Elisha had taught. It’s bad enough to have someone famous nearby, but we don’t get much for it, other than to feel more limited, less filling out our possibilities, and somehow more challenged—it must be their fault and we want them gone.
Jesus slipped through the crowd. He didn’t come to harm then, and in the Lord’s protecting him from the crowds’ anger, they recognized both how angry they were at their companion and how right his claim was, not a claim, but a statement of recognizable reality. Then they felt smaller and more embarrassed at themselves, and perhaps relieved that the Lord had protected him. Those who come in the name of the Lord can trust on the Lord as refuge, strength, and some kind of deliverance from the hands of the wicked. We learn that early we think, act, and react as children, but we learn both we’ll know more fully and be known. We grow to know in Jesus the living G*d, and that we’ll be known with his love. He promises that we’ll be with him for ever: Good News.
©Katharine C. Black C Epiphany 4, 3 Feb 2013