January 30, 2022, Living Unafraid: Scripture Fulfilled, by Pastor David
Luke 4: 21-30 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Meditation - Let’s take a moment to bask in the love of a little one, the beauty of the music and to reflect on the challenge in these words of scripture this morning. Breathe deeply and feel God’s presence. 

January 30, 2022 Living Unafraid: Scripture Fulfilled

As Pastor Katie drove home with her six year old daughter, she asked her daughter what she had learned in Sunday school that day. Her daughter piped up and said, “Do you know that Jesus was not a Methodist!?”  When she got home Pastor Katie, as any parent would, posted this cute story on Facebook. And the comments came back, “Of course not, Jesus was a Presbyterian.” Someone else wrote, “Next they will be telling her he wasn’t even a Christian.”  - which of course, Jesus wasn’t. As Pastor William Barber often says, “I am a student of a Black, Palestinian Jew named Jesus.” 

I still remember my midterm exam in Hebrew scripture (Old Testament) in seminary. There was a question on the exam about the widow of Zarephath in Sidon. I got the question wrong. I’ll bet you don’t know either who the widow of Zarephath was, do you? I was upset that I got the question wrong. Who cares who the widow of Zarephath is, I thought. It seemed like a kind of insignificant detail, the story of a miracle by the prophet Elijah way back when. Someone even asked the teacher about it. My Hebrew scripture teacher was the great Phyllis Triple and she said, “You need to know about the widow of Zarephath. It’s important.” Ok, I thought, whatever. I got it wrong so that’s that. 

At the end of the semester when we came to our final exam, guess what question was on it? That’s right, a question about the widow of Zarephath. Guess who got it wrong? The widow of Zarephath was a poor woman whom the prophet Elijah met in the foreign town of Sidon and she was starving. She had no food to give her son. Elijah asked her for some food. She said she couldn’t spare any and Elijah told her to give her some food anyway, that God would help her. 

She experienced a miracle and she had food for the rest of the year. The story goes that her son died, and Elijah raised her son from the dead. The reason my Hebrew scripture teacher insisted this story is important is that the people of Israel knew the story well and Jesus knew the story - not just for a final exam. When Jesus held up this story about God’s graciousness to foreigners and immigrants, the people of Israel, as we hear in this story, tried to throw Jesus off a cliff!

We can imagine some people in our country getting that upset today, could we not? We live in a time where fear and hatred of foreigners and immigrants sometimes has the same kind of intensity. In response, some of us shake our head and decide we don’t want to have anything to do with ‘those kind of people.” We too keep our distance and talk about other people as though they are not worth God’s attention. 

When Jesus proclaimed to the people that the words of scripture were fulfilled in their hearing, they were not at all happy about it. But Jesus was proclaiming Good News for all of us, especially for the parts of us that are judgmental of others and fearful of strangers and people who are outside of our ‘tribe.’ 

In 1994, a famous serial killer was baptized in a metal whirlpool in prison in Wisconsin by a small-town pastor named Roy Ratcliff. Ratcliff’s congregants recoiled at the idea that their pastor baptized a convicted serial killer. Some congregants felt that Rev. Ratcliff had no business performing this sacred ritual for a convicted killer. They thought he was beyond redemption.

We might feel that way ourselves actually - at times. This week, in fact, Matthew Reeves, a 46 year old man, was executed in Alabama after the Supreme Court denied his lawyer’s appeal on the grounds that he is intellectually disabled. If I told you the horrible things that he had done, you might try to throw me off a cliff just for telling you - let alone if I baptized him, or told you that God has a special love for him. 

By baptizing that serial killer, Pastor Ratcliff declared that the love of Christ on the cross extends to all people and to all parts of us. Baptism is a declaration that no one is beyond the reach of the grace of God and that no part of us is beyond the reach of the grace of God. If we really believe that, we as a society might act differently toward people in prison, and people on death row, don’t you think? 

This might seem like a strange thing to talk about on a day when we baptize a little one like Sage who we all love, who is so easy to love, who seems as far from the situation of Matthew Reeves as we can imagine. I take the risk of telling the story today just to indicate how powerful the ritual of baptism is. But the truth is, when we think about how innocent a child is, why do we baptize them at all? They have nothing at all to be forgiven for. 

Let me put it this way, all of us parents have fears for the life of our babies, our young ones. The world is such a hard place, it is hard for us sometimes to let go and trust that God is with them no matter what. But that is what we have to do. Somebody told me when I became a parent that parenting from the very beginning is a process of letting go. We let go of our child bit by bit as they learn to walk, as they go to school, as they leave home and have a life of their own. This powerful ritual of baptism is an outward sign of an inward grace, that may quiet our fears and allow us to begin that process of letting go. 

I found as a parent that there is a kind of a push and pull feeling that happens. I wanted to protect my son as much as possible, and yet I knew that he had to experience the world in order to grow. All of us have that same push and pull - even for ourselves. For some of us the pandemic has been a good excuse for totally isolating and protecting ourselves - and not engaging with the world. 

I used to have a poster that said a ship is safe in the harbor but that’s not what ships are for. We are meant to take the risk of being there for each other. God calls us in baptism to love each other - to even love the difficult places ourselves and in each other. 

Yesterday in our planning retreat, some of the leaders of our church took the initiative to suggest that we as a church plan a trip with our friends from the Main Line Muslim Society and the Narberth Havurah. They were suggesting that we go visit together the African American History Museum, here in Philadelphia and down in Washington D.C. That’s a wonderful way to get to know each other and to pull ourselves out of the harbors we feel comfortable in. May we find ourselves constantly expanding our experience of God’s presence and our sense of God’s grace. May we come to understand that Jesus was not Methodist or Presbyterian - that Jesus taught that God cares for the poor, the hurting, and not just for the ones in our own circle.
O God, fill our hearts to reach out in welcome, make us to see your vision once more. 
Let’s dream of a world where our hands are your hands, we offer yourselves,  O God, make it so.