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Exiles at the Table

Burke Gertenschlager, one our newly installed Table Leaders at St. Lydia’s, wrote this reflection on Luke 4:16-24 for our first Leadership Table meeting on January 9. Burke is a sociology and religion editor at Palgrave Macmillan; you can read more of his writing at bleaktheology.com.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “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 sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all of the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 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?” 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 in Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly, I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. -Luke 4.16-24, NRSV

This is the gospel I know the least, so please bear with me. Luke’s gospel is the Gentile gospel. It’s the most formal gospel, the most cosmopolitan. I like to think of it as the gospel to New Yorkers, like Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is the letter to the New Yorkers. It’s the first of the two-part set known as “Luke-Acts.” It moves from theory to praxis, from Jesus to the Church. It’s polished. It’s comprehensive. It’s the New York Times.

In Luke, the last time we saw Jesus around institutional religion was when he was twelve. When his parents left him behind in Jerusalem in the Temple. And while they’re pissed, as any parent would be, Jesus casually responds, “Did you not know that I would be in my Father’s house?” And in the temple, the people are amazed at his teachings.

But now, he’s thirty. He’s not a kid whose behavior you can chalk up to immaturity. Luke’s taken us through Epiphany. We know he’s got lineage credentials. He’s been baptized in the Jordan by his crazy cousin. He’s endured the devil’s three temptations in the wilderness. He’s “filled with the power of the Spirit.” He’s had a big high and a big low. He’s tested. He’s ready to go. And go he does: teaching throughout Galilee and the countryside and everyone’s impressed.

And then he comes home to Nazareth, where everyone knows him. He was where the canonical gospels are silent: the context of his youth. Nazareth knows. And he goes to the synagogue, where the old guard knew very damn well who he was, thank you. If he’s raising eyebrows at twelve in Jerusalem, then he’s really raising them at thirty in his own town.We all come from somewhere. I think of New York City as a land of exiles. We have escaped the homes of our youth to come to this place where we find acceptance and freedom, to make our own identities. We don’t carry the baggage of history here, like when we go back to our origins. No one knows our awkwardness here. This is part of being in New York, new selves. And Jesus is not in New York.And Scripture is given to him and he reads from what biblical critics call “Third Isaiah,” written after Cyrus the Great, God’s anointed, the Messiah of the Jews, has freed them from their long captivity in Babylon. And they have been allowed to return back home to Israel, where they belong. But after Cyrus liberates the Jews, not everyone wants to go back. They’d gotten used to life in Babylon. It wasn’t home, but it was pretty good. Isaiah is telling them to go home to Jerusalem to where they belong.

Now, Jesus, full of the spirit, anointed by God, God’s messiah, reads and proclaims God’s anointing on him. But it’s a particular kind of anointment. He speaks the words of the prophet Isaiah that he is acting for the benefit of the poor, the imprisoned, the blind, and the oppressed. This is his first specific, proactive act after baptism and temptation. Big goals. And he says that the words of the prophet has been fulfilled in their hearing this. Boom.

He preaches to the Jews who have become comfortable in their institution. He’s telling them to go home, to where they belong. To get back to their roots, to who they are. He goes home to tell the Jews to come home, to leave exile.And everyone rolls their eyes. “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” The carpenter’s son?  And Jesus basically says you can never go home again. “Physician, heal thyself. Do what you did here what you did in Capernaum. No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” The reading ends here, but it’s not the end of the story. Like any good prophet, he speaks truth to power and pisses everyone off and they throw him out of town. And he is the one who goes to do his work in exile.And we live in exile in New York City, our happy exile. And we have come together to find a new home at St. Lydia’s. And those of us here tonight serve at our home’s table, this Leadership Table. This Leadership Table is now official. We’ve been commissioned and it’s worth reading again from St. Lydia’s Rule of Life what we’re here to do:

We endeavor to serve our community and support our pastor. Directed by the Holy Spirit, we freely desire to read the spiritual compass of the community, to measure the bearings of all that has come before, and to take soundings of what lies beneath. We desire to stand at the helm of the ship and to keep our focus on the horizon to plot the way ahead. With our Pastor, we desire to keep an eye trained toward the horizon, listen to God’s call for the community, and set that vision before the congregation. Just as the body of St. Lydia’s has many members, all with different functions, we reflect a diversity of gifts and roles in the community and believe that the healthy growth of our community is based upon our trusting relationship. Through committed attendance, active engagement, and a cultivated practice of financial stewardship, we desire to serve. With God’s grace we desire and seek to be Christ to another. With God’s grace, we desire to work to be of one accord to serve God and the Church in the world.

Jesus, using the words of Isaiah, basically claims he was commissioned by God. He takes that for himself and he pissed everyone off. In our commissioning, it is our goal not to do that. We seek to be guided by the Paraclete, the Helper, in order that we may help and serve. Our role is to enable great things to happen at St. Lydia’s, both mundane things and astounding things.

We are in the midst of something old and something new. We are doing something different. We do not simply sit and receive the images and sounds of the church service. St. Lydia’s does the service and preparing, making, eating, and cleaning the meal is its central act. In Isaiah, Jesus is proclaiming action, a bunch of different kinds of liberating actions. Big ones.

And everyone in Nazareth knows Jesus. And they’re watching him. St. Lydia’s is watching the Leadership Table, like St. Lydia’s is watching Emily and Rachel, to see what we will do, how we will do it. In December, St. Lydia’s watched our commission and affirmed it. We’re active members or we wouldn’t be here, tonight. We are familiar to people. They know our faces, even if they don’t know our names. By becoming members of the Leadership Table, we are now more public than we used to be. That’s not to make us uncomfortable or make us anxious. That’s to say that we have been commissioned, (“sent together”, to use the literal etymology) to serve for the benefit of St. Lydia’s.

Something new has happened, is happening. The Leadership Table is the table where the actions and activities of St. Lydia’s can be worked out, hammered out, spread out, handed out. This is a worktable for the food table. St. Lydia’s is a unique community. Just as we formally begin our work as a religious community, we already are in the midst of change. Change is good, but change is difficult and requires a listening ear and an open eye and heart to become of one accord, to be of one heart.

It is important to note that, tonight, Jesus does not read the second half of the last verse from Isaiah, the one that says “and the day of vengeance of our God.” In tonight’s reading of Luke, we do not read the following verses about the Jews of his hometown, the people who grew up knowing Jesus, getting so pissed off and wanting to push him off the cliff. But we may be told, “physicians, heal thyself.”

What is it when a prophet is not accepted in their own hometown? For us, our hometown is our town of exile. Part of Leadership Table is the responsibility to speak truth to power. That is prophecy. It means that we, individually and communally, can speak truth to the power of poverty, the power of captivity, the power of blindness, and the power of oppression. This is our opportunity for St. Lydia’s, for Brooklyn, and for New York City. This is what prophets do. It’s not to foretell the future, but to work to make a better present.


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