No Good Reason
The First United Presbyterian Church
“No Good Reason”
Rev. Amy Morgan
Feb. 3, 2019
Now the word of the LORD came to me saying,
5 "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations."
6 Then I said, "Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy."
7 But the LORD said to me, "Do not say, 'I am only a boy'; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.
8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD."
9 Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, "Now I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant."
Then [Jesus] began to say to [those gathered in the synagogue], "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.
He was born in a public housing complex in Washington, DC. He wanted to be a basketball star. He’d excelled in basketball in high school college, where he majored in American government. But he didn’t make the cut for the NBA. After his basketball career was derailed, he worked his way up the corporate ladder, sights set on becoming an executive.
So when a local DC radio host encouraged him to audition for a job as a sports analyst for the Washington Bullets, he protested. He didn’t know the first thing about radio or TV.
Today, James Brown will be hosting the Super Bowl pre-game show for the ninth time. He’s become one of the most ubiquitous and long-tenured personalities in sports television. His career in sports broadcasting called him to accept opportunities he couldn’t have imagined and wasn’t sure he was ready for.
He had plenty of goof-ups along the way. During one of his first play-by-play telecasts for an NFL game, he announced the running back was “at the 45, the 50, the 60, down at the 65.” For those of you who don’t know football, there is no 60-yard-line. He had no particular training or experience to qualify him for a career in football broadcasting. And yet, he feels this is the path God has called him to. Brown is a man of deep faith, an ordained minister, and he feels blessed by his vocation.
Now, you may feel like it’s a stretch to call James Brown a prophet. But let’s think about it. His job is to forecast winners and losers of football games, to predict the moves players and coaches will make, to anticipate outcomes of events. Sorry, but it sounds pretty prophetic to me.
And so I have no qualms comparing his experience to that of the prophet Jeremiah.
For Jeremiah, the call of God on his life was characterized by uncertainty, resistance, and inadequacy. Like James Brown, God’s career choice for him was a surprise, and one he wasn’t sure he was ready for. And if fans got upset about Brown’s ignorance of the football field, it was nothing compared to the heat Jeremiah took over his prophecies of God’s judgment and condemnation.
Despite his resistance, uncertainty, and claims of inadequacy, God calls and equips Jeremiah to bring the word of God to the people of God. This was a challenging task in a challenging time for Israel. Caught between the superpowers of Egypt and Babylon, Judah was fractured and factious. The nation was eventually overrun by the Babylonians and the people carted off into exile. Jeremiah is tasked with trying to guide the people in the path God desires for them, keep them faithful to God’s covenant, and, through and after the exile, convince them that God is preparing a hopeful future for them.
But this wasn’t the job Jeremiah imagined for himself. In fact, he’s only a boy. He’s dreaming of the ancient Israelite equivalent of the NBA, not majoring in communications.
But God chooses him anyway. Not because he’s articulate, or good-looking, or self-confident. Not because he comes from a prominent family or is more intelligent or faithful than anyone else. He has no privilege or pedigree that qualifies him to speak for God. His one and only qualification is that God formed him, knows him, consecrated him and appointed him.
God chooses Jeremiah. For no good reason. And that’s it.
And I can tell you, people don’t like it when God does that.
The crowd gathered in a Galilee synagogue almost half a century after Jeremiah’s prophetic career are at first amazed by Jesus’ gracious reading and interpretation of another Israelite prophet – Isaiah. How could this hometown boy whom they’d known all their lives suddenly stand up to read so confidently and proclaim himself to be the fulfillment of this ancient prophecy of hope and redemption? Wasn’t he born in the projects? Sure, his dad worked hard as a carpenter to provide some upward mobility for the family. But now he thinks he’s God’s anointed? Who does he think he is, James Brown?
But this doesn’t anger the crowd so much as confuse them. No, the anger comes later. When Jesus starts picking a fight. We aren’t told that the crowd does anything more than wonder, express amazement. But Jesus jumps in, naming assumptions we can’t be certain were accurate. About Jesus needing to heal himself of his own spiritual malady before he goes picking on anyone else. About the crowd wanting to test his healing powers. He anticipates rejection before it’s even expressed.
But what really throws the crowd over the edge is the two episodes he brings up from Israel’s history. He could have opted to remind his home town of how God chose Israel from among the nations, brought them out of slavery in Egypt, guided them through the wilderness, and brought them to the Promised Land. He could have recited victories God had won for them in the past to overthrow their oppressors. He could have reminded them how blessed they were to have received God’s law from the hand of Moses. These are frequent themes throughout the Hebrew scriptures. This is what a learned man of God would talk about.
Instead, Jesus invokes two stories that describe God’s provision and healing for people outside the covenantal relationship Israel enjoys with God.
The widow of Zarephath was not an Israelite. During the famine of Elijah’s time, Israelite women and children were starving. People died. Hebrew people. But, Jesus emphasizes, God didn’t send Elijah to help any of them. Only the widow of Zarephath, a non-believer, a Gentile, was given food that mysteriously replenished and healing when her son almost died.
Likewise, Naaman, a commander in the army of Aram, Israel’s enemy, was healed of leprosy. Many people, many Israelites, suffered from this disfiguring disease. But God healed an outsider, an enemy.
The widow was not especially faithful, good, or kind. She didn’t keep the law or show kindness to strangers. In fact, when Elijah asks her for food and water, she tells him to bug off. She’s gathering firewood to cook up the last of her meager food, so she and her son can eat and die.
Likewise, Naaman is not a great guy. He gets ticked off that Elisha doesn’t come out to greet him with an honorable welcome, and at first he refuses to even follow Elisha’s simple instructions for healing.
The outsiders weren’t provided for and healed because they were righteous or worthy. God simply chose them. For no good reason. And that was it.
And that infuriates the crowd in Jesus’ home town.
They have suffered and are suffering. They are poor and oppressed. I’m sure there were those who were blind and captive. Jesus’ reading from the scroll of Isaiah was good news, as long as it was good news for them.
But when Jesus has the audacity to claim that this good news is not just for them, but for people outside the defined boundaries of the covenant community, they completely lose their minds. They form an angry mob and try to throw Jesus off a cliff.
God chooses unqualified, unimportant, unwilling people to bring good news to undeserving, unimportant, unfaithful people. And we don’t like it when God does that.
There was exactly one African-American woman in the church I served in Michigan. Her name was Rosa. She served on the Session and was active in the Presbytery. And everybody cringed every time she would raise her hand to speak in a meeting.
When the Presbytery attempted to permanently hire as the director for a community center a woman who was already serving in the position, Rosy raised her hand to object. When the church tried to hire from within for a new nursery school director without doing an open search, Rosy raised her hand. She raised her hand to lecture elders about attending the Presbytery’s annual MLK Convocation service. And she raised her hand to ask new ministers being ordained about how inclusive they felt the Lord’s Table should be. Rosy raised her hand, to include people, to broaden opportunity, to widen God’s welcome…and it drove people nuts.
Folks would argue that her insistence on open searches slowed down the process, that it wasn’t fair to those who’d been serving faithfully, preparing for the position. People complained that she sounded like a broken record, or that she was encouraging heresy.
But every time Rosy raised her hand, often as the only black voice in a chorus of white voices, she reminded us, in one way or another, that God chooses unqualified, unimportant, unwilling people to bring good news to undeserving, unimportant, unfaithful people.
She didn’t insist on open searches for job opportunities because she was certain we’d find a more qualified, better situated, more enthusiastic candidate. She knew God chooses those who are fearful, anxious, reluctant, and ill-equipped. She knew God just might choose a person of color to serve in a predominantly white congregation or Presbytery. And she knew that God could use an unqualified, uncertain, minority to bring good news to people who were on the outside of that congregation or Presbytery. Not because those people were more deserving, kind, or faithful than the folks inside the congregation or Presbytery. But because God chooses to be God for all people, not just those who feel they have a privileged relationship with God.
What people fail to see, in the angry mob attempting to toss Jesus off a cliff, in the eye rolls and heavy sighs of those who attended meetings with Rosy, is that this is really good news for everybody. Each time the circle is widened, each time God reaches beyond the boundaries we establish around God’s grace, it benefits everyone.
I found this to be true in a very personal way shortly after my son was born. The campus of Princeton Theological Seminary was constructed throughout the 1800’s and early 1900’s. These historic buildings had to be adapted over the decades to be more accessible to students, faculty, and visitors with disabilities. Ramps and elevators had to be retrofitted to these historic edifices, at great cost, no doubt, and perhaps against some resistance.
It wasn’t until I spent a semester navigating these sacred halls with a baby stroller that I became eternally grateful for the people with more permanent and more substantial disabilities who advocated for these ramps and elevators. I’m sure that new mothers were not who they had in mind when they insisted on structural changes to make the school facilities more inclusive. But including people with mobility challenges ended up making the school more inclusive for me, a person privileged to have legs and arms and a back strong enough to push a heavy, clunky stroller up a ramp or into an elevator.
God chooses to include those who are undeserving, unimportant, and even unfaithful because that is also how God manages to include each of us. Those of us who are privileged to be a part of the family of God are no more deserving, important, or, generally, faithful, than anyone else. The accommodations God makes, the unmerited grace of God’s reconciling love, are good news for all of us.
God chooses us – whether or not we are qualified, ready, and willing – to bear the gospel into the world. And the people God chooses to bring that gospel to may not be the people we think deserve it. But in widening the circle, reaching beyond the boundaries we establish around God’s grace, everyone benefits.
Rosy asked the same question of every candidate for ministry in the Presbytery of Detroit. “If someone came to receive Communion, and you knew they weren’t baptized, would you still serve them?”
Rosy knew that, at the time, our Book of Order stated that “the invitation to the Lord’s Table is extended to all who have been baptized.” To a person, each candidate confessed that they would of course not deny communion to anyone who came seeking it. Rosy’s point was not to put the candidates in an uncomfortable quandary, making them scruple with our church’s polity. Her goal was to change the Book of Order.
And she did. The 222nd General Assembly approved a change to our Book of Order. That section now reads: “All who come to the table are offered the bread and cup, regardless of their age or understanding. If some of those who come have not yet been baptized, an invitation to baptismal preparation and Baptism should be graciously extended.”
All who come to this table will be fed. Baptized or unbaptized, worthy and unworthy, weak or powerful, insiders and outsiders. Everyone is invited. Not because we choose to invite you. But because God chooses to. For no good reason. And that is good news for all of us.
Thanks be to God, Amen.