by Michael Shelley
Associate Professor of Christian-Muslim Studies; Director of A Center for Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice
I’m sure we’ve all heard sermons that have stirred the pot a little. But my guess is few, if any, of us have heard a sermon that so riled a congregation that they wanted to throw the preacher off a cliff. Aren’t we more likely to frame our message in such a way that, even if we intend to challenge our audience, we don’t want to alienate them? Certainly not to the extent they’ll want to run us out of the church or out of town.
I recall helping to cause a little controversy in my home church as a teenager when our Luther League group, of which I was the president, was given the task of leading a Sunday morning service. One of our objectives was to appeal to younger members of the church. For one thing, we wanted to use some music other than hymns in the old Service Book and Hymnal, known fondly as the SBH. So we recorded on cassette tape some songs from the rock musical “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and piped them into the sanctuary through the PA system.
Some of the older folks in the congregation didn’t share our taste in music, and they subsequently grumbled behind the scenes. Our response as youth was a bit cheeky. We quoted one of the lines from “Jesus Christ Superstar”: “What’s the buzz? Tell me what’s happening.” That didn’t endear us to those who were upset! Nevertheless, they didn’t want to run us out of the church, and there wasn’t any permanent alienation. When I’m home in Ohio, I’m still very welcome at my home church.
Several commentators note that our Gospel pericope has a programmatic function in Luke’s Gospel. To quote one commentator, it “announces who Jesus is, of what his ministry consists, what his church will be and do, and what will be the response to both Jesus and the church.”
In this text we see Jesus, at least initially, as affirming and comfortable within the Jewish community of his upbringing. He observes the Sabbath, attends a service at the synagogue, reads the scriptures and comments on them. At first, the audience’s response is positive. We’re told, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth” (v. 22). Who here wouldn’t like that kind of response from their audience? This young man, who grew up in their village, is doing ok.
However, the mood changes as Jesus goes on to speak. First, he’s critical as he anticipates they’ll want him to do among them the same sort of signs he has done in Capernaum (v. 23). Then, and I think here is where the real rub comes, he recalls two biblical incidents in which the prophets Elijah and Elisha performed miracles for foreigners (1 Kings 17:8-24; 2 Kings 5:1-19). They took God’s favor to people who were not Jews, even though there were plenty of people in need right at home.
Jesus is ready to do the same. He may, indeed, go to the Jews first, but he makes clear that God’s love and promises are not limited to the people of Israel; they are intended for all people. His words turn the crowd against him, so that they’re now ready to drive him out of town and throw him over a cliff. People often want to protect what they consider their prerogatives, and will sometimes go to great lengths to defend them.
Professor Rosanne Swanson and I had the privilege of serving as pastors at St. Andrew’s United Church of Cairo in Egypt. It’s an interdenominational congregation, located in the heart of the city. It provides a church home for English-speaking foreigners who come from a variety of countries and Christian traditions. One of St. Andrew’s principal ministries for some thirty years now has been serving refugees and other displaced persons. In our time as pastors there, St. Andrew’s served people who came chiefly from Ethiopia, Eritrea and the Sudan. We offered financial assistance, medical care, educational opportunities for adults and children, training in producing hand-crafted items, and advocacy at several embassies for resettlement. A high percentage of those we helped, at times seventy percent or so, were Muslims. Occasionally, I would hear fellow Christians raise questions about whether we should utilize our resources for helping people who were not Christians or were not Egyptians. They would argue that there was great need among these latter groups of people, and the resources should be utilized to help them.
The issue of whether or not it’s appropriate or a good use of resources to help the outsider isn’t simply a half-world away though, is it? To take just a couple of issues, think of the controversy that swirls around migration and immigration to the United States. To what extent should we open our doors, and to whom? Should we grant legal status, or even just basic services such as health care, to those who have entered illegally? Should their children be free to go to school? What should be the role of churches in serving such people?
What about the religious affiliation of immigrants? Should that influence who we let in? Should we limit the number of Muslims, for instance? Muslims in the U.S. face considerable discrimination. A recent issue of The Christian Century reported some results of a survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which was released on September 9, 2009. The survey reports “that 58% of U.S. adults think Muslims face ‘a lot’ of discrimination.” 38% of those surveyed think that Islam is more likely than other faiths to encourage violence. Although this number is down from 45% two years ago, it’s still high.
I occasionally receive e-mails with attachments that are disparaging of Islam and Muslims, suggesting that Islam promotes terrorism, is incompatible with democracy, suggesting that Muslims do not, and cannot, fit well in American society. What should be the role of Christians in this discussion? Hopefully, our Center of Christian-Muslim Engagement and the courses we offer here in the area of interfaith relations help you in reflecting on this question.
In our reading from 1 Corinthians 13, Paul speaks about the preeminence of love, particularly love in relationship to Christian community. But such love is not to be confined to the Christian community. Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians Paul says, “Let all that you do be done in love” (16:14), and in 2 Corinthians he says, “The love of Christ urges us on” (5:14) and God “has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (5:18). If our love is grounded in the love of God, love that knows no end or boundaries, love we see manifested in Jesus, then surely our love must not be limited to our own community. Jesus challenges us to reach out beyond human-imposed boundaries to be agents of God’s good news and justice—to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to help the oppressed go free, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves.
 Fred B. Craddock, Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press), 61; See also Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke, I-IX (New York: Doubleday), 529; I. Howard Marshall, Commentary on Luke (Exeter: The Paternoster Press, 1978), 177-178; David L. Tiede, Luke (Minneapolis: Augsburg), 101.
 Craddock, Luke, 61.
 The Christian Century (October 6, 2009): 14.