The Home Crowd
Isaiah 58:6-10; Luke 4:14-30
February 3, 2019
Emmanuel Baptist Church/FOCUS Churches Worship, Rev. Kathy Donley
In sports, when a team plays on their own field, in their home town, they have an advantage over the visiting team, because their fans will be there in larger numbers or because they’re playing in a familiar setting and they know any idiosyncrasies of the space. It’s one reason the Super Bowl is being played in Atlanta tonight. Neither the Patriots nor the Rams will have the advantage of being at home.
I don’t know if anyone has studied the concept of the home advantage for preachers. I’m not even sure how you would measure a winning sermon. Is it a win or a loss if the congregation tries to throw you off a cliff? Who scores if they don’t succeed?
Jesus was preaching to his home crowd that day in Nazareth. It started out well enough. He took the scroll without dropping it and found the passage he wanted and read it out loudly and clearly. Everyone was paying attention – all eyes were fixed on him, it says, and they spoke well of him. He seemed to have the home crowd advantage.
Part of the home crowd advantage was that they knew the text. Those verses from Isaiah about good news for the poor and release for the captives would have been familiar. This is a vision that has sustained them across generations, as their ancestors returned from exile, as they now suffer under the oppression of Rome. When Jesus ends with the phrase “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” they would have immediately have thought of the Jubilee, that cycle of renewal and restoration which was supposed to happen every fiftieth year. In the year of Jubilee, debts were forgiven and slaves were freed and the land was allowed to rest. It was a time of starting over for everyone. And Jesus announces that it starts today. Imagine, the working people of Nazareth who start to wonder if their mortgages will be considered paid in full, who start to believe their relatives in debtor’s prison may be released. This is good news and they want to believe it. This is Jesus, Joseph’s son – surely he wouldn’t lie to them, would he? They want to believe that God is making everything right again.
Maybe a few of them notice that Jesus left out part of Isaiah. Maybe they remember that the sentence in Isaiah says, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.” and it crosses their mind to wonder if Jesus left that part out on purpose. Nazareth is in Galilee, an area know as “Galilee of the Gentiles” because so many foreigners have been moved in by occupying powers.  Many of the native citizens resent that. They are tired of living under a harsh and hostile regime. So, maybe some of them wonder why Jesus left out the part about vengeance, because they have been waiting for a long time for the Romans and other enemies to get what they deserve. They have been counting on, anticipating, praying for, God’s vengeance. Maybe some of them notice, but at this point, the home crowd seems to be on Jesus’ side.
It was going so well until he brought up Namaan, the leper who was a Syrian general, and that unnamed foreign widow. He had them in the palm of his hand until he said, “Don't presume that because I am your hometown boy and I've got a reputation as a wonder-worker, that I will work wonders for you. Don't presume that God only loves and cares for you. Don't presume that you deserve more healing, more food in time of famine, more of God's protection than anyone else because of your religion or national identity. You know, if you choose to remember the stories from history, that God cared for foreigners and enemy combatants, people not like you or your ancestors, people who didn't even worship the God of Israel.”
And that’s when the fighting started.
What do we make of this incident 2000 years after the fact? What we make of it depends in part on where we locate ourselves. Are we part of the home crowd, those faithful ones who were in church every Sunday, even special services, (ahem FOCUS combined worship)? Or do we find ourselves in the outsiders, the foreign woman and enemy general who were encompassed by God’s mercy? In the tragic history of Christian-Jewish relations, this text has been used anti-Semitically and Christians have claimed superiority over those in the synagogue who would have thrown Jesus over the cliff. So where do we locate ourselves?
I suggest that most of us here can identify with the home crowd. Each of the covenant churches is at least 150 years old and one is over 300 years old. FOCUS itself has been in ministry in Albany for over 50 years. We have the home advantage.
If you are here and you haven’t experienced the story and ministry of FOCUS directly, you are welcome here.
If you are here because you are new to one of our covenant congregations, we are glad you’re here. If you just wandered into Emmanuel today and had no idea this was a special Sunday, thank you for showing up. You who are newcomers are a gift from God to the rest of us. Please give us an opportunity to get to know you as you get to know us.
Many, probably most of us, in this room identify as Christians. Christians claim Jesus. He belongs particularly to us. We are his home crowd. But that does not mean we are all the same. Some of you were here when FOCUS was founded. Some of you remember Bob Lamar or Ralph Elliot as your pastors. But some of us have come along much later. In fact, two whole congregations have joined FOCUS in the last ten years. So we who are the home crowd are not cookie cutters of each other.
And that was probably true for the home crowd in Nazareth too. It says “They got up, drove him out of the town, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.” Any time there is a they in a church story, there is also an implied us. Right? Someone says, “They want the new carpet to be green” in a tone of voice which clearly says that we don’t want that. Congregations rarely think and act unanimously. So when this story talks about they, I wonder . . .I would like to think that there’s a silent minority whose story is not told here.
Part of the home crowd definitely does not want to hear what Jesus says. They do not like being told that God was friends with their enemies. When Jesus makes them face the truth embedded in their own traditions, they respond with anger and violence. But maybe there could have been a minority report. Maybe the minority liked what Jesus said. Maybe some of them had once been outsiders and having been welcomed, they were ready to extend the same welcome to others.
I would like to think that some of us here in this home crowd would be right there with them. That’s not just wishful thinking. Last summer, we set up three open conversations with you, members of FOCUS churches. We asked for your input on concerns in Albany that we could address better together than separately. You responded with long lists at each gathering. We took those lists very seriously. We combined them and weighed all your answers and eventually we identified 4 issues that rose to the top. Those four issues, which you named as being of most pressing concern, were food security, housing, racism and immigration. Food security, housing, racism and immigration.
Those issues, identified by this home crowd, line up pretty well with Jesus’ agenda from scripture. Those of us in leadership at FOCUS are wrestling with ideas and strategies for how to engage these four priorities in hopeful and constructive ways.
We might take a cue from the church in the Netherlands that just ended a worship service that lasted for 96 days. Dutch law forbids the police from entering a place of worship while a service is happening. So Bethel Church held worship continuously in order to shelter an Armenian family living in their building for 3 months. The family has not yet been granted the asylum which they first sought in 2010, but as a result of this church’s initiative, the government has agreed to reassess the status of 700 families who had been previously listed for deportation. This round-the-clock effort involved almost 1000 pastors of various denominations who came from across Europe, sometimes bringing members of their congregations with them. The oldest daughter in the family is 21. In November, she wrote “I often think the only place where I am safe is the church. It really feels like a refuge.”
One of the organizers, said, “I hope it’s a new way of being a church — a new way of having an impact on society, a new way of standing up for vulnerable people,”
The Bethel home crowd offered safety to the oppressed and then literally welcomed strangers into their building to keep the worship service going.
Or we might look to some Methodists in Memphis, the heart of the Bible belt, as they responded to those who might have seemed foreign in culture or language, but especially foreign in faith.
Watch video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kYembGqZF94
Perhaps you know other stories like this, stories that would encourage and edify and empower us. We should be sharing those stories with each other. Because this is who we are – followers of Jesus whose self-declared mission was to bring good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed and to usher in the year of the Lord’s favor.
FOCUS churches, this is our calling. Home crowd, this is our mission. Standing within our broken and bleeding community, perhaps feeling battered and bruised ourselves, we have a loyalty to God who is the creator, redeemer and sustainer of the whole world. As children of God, we are called to be imitators of God, to live in love as Christ loved us, to welcome the stranger, and the foreigner and even our enemies. May it be so for you and for me. Amen.
 Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, ( Downers Grove, IL; Intervarsity Press, 2008), pp 152, 154
 Fred Craddock in Preaching through the Christian Year C, (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994), p.92