When our district superintendent and I first started talking about the possibility of me being appointed to serve in Tonganoxie I immediately thought of a story from scripture. When other people began to hear about my appointment many of them chuckled and immediately referenced that same story. The morning after Heather and I came to be introduced to staff parish my phone rang and I answered it to find Francis Stockton on the other end. We had barely said good morning when he jokingly said, “you know what they did to Jesus when he came back to his hometown don’t you?” We had a good laugh and I could tell he was pretty amused with himself.
This spring, shortly after being introduced as your new pastor, I was having coffee with a friend and we were talking about my appointment and what happened to Jesus when he returned to his hometown. My friend reminded me of another story in scripture, a story I hadn’t yet thought of in the context of my returning to Tonganoxie; the story of Paul and Barnabas.
This morning we’re going to spend a couple of minutes looking at these two stories, the stories of Jesus and Paul both returning to their hometowns. As we explore these two stories I invite you to think about them as your stories as well. Yes, I have been appointed by the bishop to serve in Tonganoxie, the town in which I grew up. But each and every one of you who live here and who call Tonganoxie home, you have also been called to be in ministry in your hometown…
This morning’s reading from the Gospel of Luke happens very early in Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus has been baptized by John the Baptist, he has spent 40 days being tempted in the wilderness and he begins his public ministry in Galilee. In verse 15, immediately prior to where we picked up the story this morning, Luke tells us that Jesus “… began to teach in the Synagogues and was praised by everyone.” Sounds like he’s off to a pretty good start, right? Jesus preaching in the synagogues throughout Galilee and being praised by everyone…
Then Jesus arrives in Nazareth, the town in which he grew up, and goes to the temple on the Sabbath. When he gets there he gets up to speak and is given the scroll of Isaiah from which to read. We are told that he intentionally seeks out the verses that he reads, “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 sign to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
After reading from the scroll Jesus rolls it back up and gives it to the attendant and we’re told that everyone’s eyes were fixed on him. The author of Luke interrupts Jesus’ message here by explaining that, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” Seems like Jesus is still doing pretty well, doesn’t it. He has taken the opportunity to share God’s word with his fellow citizens of the town and they appreciate what he has to say and speak well of him. But Jesus doesn’t stop there.
What happens next is in and of itself good material for an entire sermon series and so I want not to venture into it in too much depth this morning. The best way to sum up what Jesus says next is that he steps on the toes of folks in his hometown – big time! He essentially challenges the very core of their thinking and does so in a very direct confrontational way. He has barely begun to engage this community and he pushes them in a way that is anything but pastoral. He hasn’t taken the time to listen to them, to really know where they’re coming from, to let them know that he cares about them, all of those things that we’re supposed to do as we grow in relationship with one another.
And the great thing about this is that Jesus knows he’s going to tick people off. It is before he begins pushing their buttons that he makes the statement that was so often referenced after it was announced that I was coming to Tonganoxie to serve. Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown…” and then he really pushes their buttons and the tide quickly turns on his popularity. Folks in the temple rise up, chase Jesus out of town and to the edge of a cliff where they might throw him off and he slips away.
The story of Paul’s homecoming is quite different than that of Jesus’. Of course, their stories begin quite differently as well. You’ll remember that in the earliest days following Jesus’ resurrection his followers were looked down upon, threatened, intimidated and sometimes even tortured. One of the greatest persecutors of these early Christians was Saul of Tarsus.
You see, Saul was so adamant about his persecution of Christians that he had heard there was a growing community who had left Jerusalem and were seeking refuge in Damascus. He set off to travel the more than 135 miles to Damascus to track down and presumably do away with these early followers of Jesus. But, as Saul traveled on the road to Damascus had a powerful and profound experience of the risen Christ that led to his conversion. After he encounters Christ he becomes a missionary and seeks to spread Christ’s message and God’s love far and wide. First Saul spends time in Damascus preaching Christ, but soon a plot is hatched to have him put to death and he escapes to Jerusalem, his hometown.
When he gets there he seeks to join the disciples of Jesus. Now can you imagine what this looks like to Christ’s followers who had previously experienced Saul’s persecution? They’d been bullied and beat up and picked on by this guy and now all of a sudden he’s acting like one of them. Paul returns to Jerusalem, his hometown, and encounters a great deal of resistance. People are suspicious of him and his motives as he seeks to be in ministry.
At this point it would seem that Paul was destined to fail in his ministry. His past haunted him too much. People were suspicious of him and his motives. He tried to talk about Jesus and people wondered what he was up to. And then Barnabas steps in… In Acts we read, “Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus.”
After Barnabas shared this testimony on behalf of Paul people began to let down their guards and welcomed Paul to be in ministry. Jesus and Paul both seek to be in ministry in their hometown and experience very different outcomes…
Now remember we’re exploring these stories this morning not just because they’re fun stories and not just because I happen to have grown up here and am now appointed to serve here. We explore these stories because of the way in which our stories are related. We are all called to be in ministry in our hometown.
Yup, you heard me right, we’re all called to be in ministry. I realize that might sound funny and seem odd to some of you. I understand that some of you might understand the church to be the place where you come to be ministered to by the minister. I am, of course, here to comfort you in pain and to journey with you through the tough stuff of life, but the church is not primarily about a pastor serving a congregation. The church is a place where Christians come together to do ministry together, to be in ministry to and with the community.
This call begins in our baptism. And I share the image that is on the screen here, because baptism is the powerful and profound event that creates ongoing ripples in our lives. In baptism God is acting to formally claim us as God’s own, we are washed clean and made new, and God promises us abundant life not just in the life that is to come, but here and now as well. At the same time we make promises in our baptism, promises to God and to the community of faith, that we will grow in God’s love and seek to share that love with the world through our actions. That is, to be in ministry, sharing God’s love. In your baptism, you are called to ministry.
If you have not yet been baptized, I invite you to consider that it might be that God is nudging you to take that step, to claim God’s grace and love for yourself, to be washed clean and to experience a new beginning, and to begin living the abundant life that God offers. I invite you to contemplate this and find me in the next couple of weeks for some conversation…
Just as Jesus and Paul were both called to be in ministry in their hometowns, so too are we all called to be in ministry. In Jesus’ story we are invited to find words of caution regarding stepping on toes and burning bridges. We see how important it is to listen to others, to get to really understand and know them, and to share God’s love in the community in a helpful and pastoral way. In Paul’s story we see the importance of coming alongside a trusted colleague who can help us grow in relationship with those in the community. We are called to share the good news of God’s love with the world around us, but should speak intentionally and pastorally and should surround ourselves with trusted colleagues as we do.
As we respond to God’s call on our lives in the coming years we are going to need to rely on one another in community. The reality is that you’ll rely on me as your pastor and I’ll rely on you as a congregation. As pastor and congregation we’re called to be in ministry to the community together, this is the responsibility that comes in our baptism, that comes with being the people of God. And the good news is that in our baptism and in God’s love for us we are claimed by God as God’s children, we are made new, and we are offered abundant life. These realities free us to live lives of joy so that being the church together might be something that is fun and energizing and gives us life. God loves us and fills us with that love as we are called to be in ministry in the community. Thanks be to God!