Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.
"All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’ ”
“Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown." — Luke 4:22-24
It takes a peculiar personality to want to become a religious professional—a rabbi, a priest, an imam, or preacher. What man or woman really believes that they are qualified to speak on behalf of God? I try not to interrogate this question too deeply, as I’m scared of the answer that it might reveal. But when we consider the charge and call of this profession, we are talking about men and women positioned to speak boldly to power; those called to articulate uncomfortable truths; and those situated to sound ethical alarms when a community’s moral compass goes astray.
This is why I think the personality pendulum must swing between the utter narcissist on the one hand and a self-deprecating flagellant on the other. Either one is so self-absorbed that what others say or think about them doesn’t matter at all. Or one views oneself as so unworthy of respect, that they don’t mind being the whipping post for others.
But that’s not the majority of religious leaders. The majority rest in the humane middle. We care about the truth of our traditions. We care about the values our community professes to hold dear. We care about injustice and inequality. This is why it pains us to see the suffering of others. But even more than that, it hurts us to see so many utterly oblivious to such suffering. The indifference of the majority injures more than the malice of a cruel minority.
So, yes, we care about truth. We care about values. We care about injustice and inequality. But we are also human. We also care about being liked. We care about being appreciated. Like all people, we want respect from our community.
I imagine that similar was the case for Jesus. Today’s lesson describes Jesus’s launch into ministry in his home region of Galilee. The writer of Luke makes it clear; Jesus’s start into ministry was no walk in the park. In one single chapter Jesus experiences popular acclaim and public contempt. Jesus encounters the intoxicating allure of mass affection and the sobering hangover of negative backlash.
Walk back with me to the outset of Luke chapter four. It begins with Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. It’s a pedagogical pit stop of a sort — a teaching moment for Jesus. Before his ministry begins, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. The Devil offers Jesus all the glory and authority of this world if he renounces God’s kingdom. The Devil sets out to test Jesus’s spiritual mettle. The writer wants to prove something about Jesus. Jesus, this son of a carpenter from a nondescript village has what it takes. He has spiritual awareness, emotional intelligence, and the moral discipline of the best in the tradition. Like Moses, Elijah, Amos, Jeremiah, and others, Jesus has the moral clarity, courage, and conviction to preach God’s word.
Has anybody here ever felt like that? Felt as if the trials of life were a veritable forty days and forty nights?
For some of us, it involves watching others excel for what appear to be all the wrong reasons. You’ve observed that coworker or classmate suspend morality and shirk integrity to get ahead. You’ve witnessed them genuflect to authority and demean other’s humanity in the name of self-preservation. And it seems that everybody around you is using whatever they’ve got, to get whatever they want.
But you know your momma raised you better than that! You hear a quiet voice in your spirit saying, “Don’t go there. Don’t prostitute your principles.” So you maintain your moral compass, while others seemingly speed through the pass to success. Forty days and forty nights.
For some of us its remaining faithful to a certain cause; a specific commitment. God gave you a vision. God put you in a position to love, help, and serve. You understand the importance of patience and delayed gratification. Life is not a television show. The matter is not quickly resolved — your problem is not ultimately fixed — by the end of the hour.
But now you have even begun to second guess your decision. Maybe it is time to move on. Maybe it’s time to walk away from that person — perhaps those kids just can’t be saved. Maybe my dream is just a hallucination. Common sense is telling me to quit. Though my brain and my heart remain in conflict. Forty days and forty nights.
This is the first of Jesus’s temptations. The Devil is testing his commitments. The Devil tempts Jesus to give up before he even begins — throw in the towel before the trial comes. And that is what so many of us face. We are tempted to take the path of least resistance from the outset — compromise our integrity along the way — concede to the dictates of self-protection whenever pain and heartache set in.
This is when we must remember that there is no abiding success without commitment, no permanence without perseverance, and no stability without integrity! No matter our call in life, to lead and serve we must commit and persevere. We must withstand the test of our commitment if we seek to leave anything of lasting significance in this world — for grit, endurance, and integrity are a solid foundation from whence to build. All other shortcuts are sinking sand.
After this first temptation, Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee. Here we read that “Jesus began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.” Jesus sits down in the synagogue and opens up the book of Isaiah. He impresses everyone with his recollection of tradition. Jesus excites and awes the crowd with his facility of scripture. He inspires everyone with his elocution and execution. “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free.”
The Bible says that all spoke well of him. They were amazed by his teachings. Some people even asked, “is this Joseph’s son?” The boy who used to play down the street?
This is where Jesus’s second temptation begins — the temptation of widespread compliments. They all spoke well of him. This is a temptation and seduction facing all of us this morning. It doesn’t matter your occupation. Public appreciation and praise can skew all of our moral compasses. The enticement and allurement of accolades can seduce us all to live below our potential and promise. It can cause us to chase what is popular, but not necessarily needed. It can cause us to act in a way that is celebrated, but not honest or true.
On this first Sunday of Black History Month, I recall W.E.B. Du Bois, the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. At the turn of the twentieth century, immediately following the 1896 Supreme Court case of Plessy vs. Ferguson, most of America’s thought leaders had seemingly given up on the prospect of multiracial democracy in America. So was the case for Mr. Booker T. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Booker T. Washington gained widespread acclaim in the South and favor in the North by accommodating to the structures of America’s racial apartheid. He accepted the logic of racial segregation. He shunned all language of social equality. He diminished the necessity of the ballot. He rejected the need for advanced education for the sons and daughters of the enslaved. And he embraced a vocational model of education that would transform African Americans into a more productive laboring class for the white overclass.
As a result, Washington curried the favor of white politicians and businessmen alike. From Andrew Carnegie to John D. Rockefeller, to Julius Rosenwald, all opened up their wallets to fund his Washington’s vision of “Negro education” — a view that caused many to celebrate him as the most successful and influential Negro in the country.
But in the critical words of W.E.B. Du Bois in 1903, “this very singleness of vision and thorough oneness with his age is a mark of a successful man. It is as though Nature must make men narrow to give them force.” Du Bois thus raised the question that we have sought to consider here at the Memorial Church. How should we define success? For if success, as was the case with Booker T. Washington, is just about “being totally one with one’s age,” and synchronically celebrated, then, most likely, it will be a success short-lived.
Might this be the question that God is asking of us today? Are we one with our age insofar as we seek public acclaim and acceptance? Or are we one with our age insofar as we are willing to be what our age needs of us?
Public praise and acclaim might make us feel good. We all want compliments, and I believe everyone needs them. There is nothing wrong with affirmation. But as Christian disciples, we also need to acknowledge Jesus's command to pick up our own cross and follow Him.
Maybe this is what it means to forego praise and popularity to leave a legacy that is larger than ourselves. Maybe this is what it means for us as the Body of Christ to be the ekklesia — a community that is called out and set apart. Maybe this is what it means for us to be a thermostat that can help establish a world defined by love and justice, rather than being mere thermometers that merely read and reflect the most popular opinions of our age.
Temptations abound. But maybe God is calling us to stand apart in order to remind an increasingly cold and cruel world that our call and commitment, like the prophet Isaiah, is to care for the least of these — those who hunger, who are homeless, and who are imprisoned, as well as call out unjust systems that contribute to hunger, homeless, and mass incarceration in the first place. Why? Because maybe we should admit that yet for the grace of God, there go I.