by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Jesus unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me…” Then he began to speak to them: “Today this text is being fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 1, 1-4; 4, 14-21

Garrison Keillor is an American writer, storyteller and comedian who was host of a radio programme in Minnesota for 42 years before his contract was terminated in controversial circumstances in 2016. He comes from a family that had strong connections with the Plymouth Brethren but now describes himself as a member of the Episcopalian Church. One of his stories is to be found in a collection called Listening for God: A Reader, but most are in the many books he wrote about the people of Lake Wobegon, a fictional town he created. He once stated that he was on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Among the many quotes attributed to him are the following: “One reads books in order to gain the privilege of living more than one life. People who don’t read are trapped in a mine shaft, even if they think the sun is shining.” and “It’s a shallow life that doesn’t give a person a few scars.” and “Computers can never completely replace humans. They may become capable of artificial intelligence, but they will never master real stupidity.” and “Thank you, God, for this good life and forgive us if we don’t love it enough.”

In one of his “Lake Wobegon” volumes entitled Leaving Home, he tells of a character who went to visit his home town after many years away. The frontispiece of the book carries a poem which begins:

One more spring in Minnesota,
To come upon Lake Wobegon.
Old town, I smell your coffee.
If I could see you one more time—

I can’t stay, you know, I left so long ago,
I’m just a stranger with memories of people I knew here.
We stand around looking at the ground.
You’re the stories I’ve told for years and years.

That yard, the tree – you climbed it once with me,
And we talked of cities that we’d live in someday.
I left, old friend, and now I’m back again,
Please say you missed me since I went away.

Today’s gospel reading describes Jesus’ return for a visit to his home town of Nazareth, after a considerable absence. There were people there who remembered him as a boy growing up. There were many who knew Mary and Joseph. But Jesus’ reputation had gone ahead of him, and the crowd gathered in the local synagogue had come to see for themselves if the rumours of him were true. So, here he was in the synagogue he had known from his infancy, and, in keeping with the courtesy extended to any visiting rabbi, whoever was in charge handed him the scroll they had been reading. It was from Isaiah. Jesus opened it and read: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, release to prisoners, and to announce a year of favour from the Lord.” Having finished reading, he sat down, thereby giving his audience the traditional sign that he was about to give an important teaching. But it was a teaching with which he completely startled them: “Today, this passage is being fulfilled even as you listen.” The people gathered in the synagogue were so accustomed to hearing promises and predictions about what would happen in the future that they could not even hear that Jesus was telling them that, as they sat there in front of him, God was actually breaking into their lives. And it’s that very message that is put to us today. Not tomorrow, not next week, next month or next year. God is present to us in everyone we encounter today, in everything that happens to us today, in every aspect of the created world that impinges on our senses today. And God is still present even if today turns out to be not quite what we anticipated.

Just imagine how different our world might be if Mozart had said: “I don’t write music”, or if Van Gogh had said: “I don’t paint irises”, or if Michelangelo had said: “I don’t do ceilings” or “I’m not going to waste my time chipping away at marble” and if Ruth had said: “I don’t fancy my mother-in-law” and if Florence Nightingale had said: “I don’t touch sick people”! The world would be the poorer, as it would if we were to repeatedly pass by people we would rather ignore and refuse to go to places to which we are invited but to which we would rather not go.

Gerald Jampolsky is an internationally recognized medical doctor, psychiatrist and adult educator. He founded a self-help group called Attitudinal Healing. It has spread to almost thirty countries, including Italy, Kenya, the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, India and Argentina. He, himself, has written well over twenty books. Among them are best-sellers like Forgiveness, the Greatest Healer, Love is Letting Go of Fear, Aging with Attitude and Advice to Doctors & Other Big People from Kids. In Love is Letting Go of Fear, he wrote: “Have you ever given yourself the opportunity of going through just one day concentrating on totally accepting everyone and making no judgements?…Everything we think or say or do reacts on us like a boomerang coming back. When we send out judgements in the form of criticism, fury or other attack-thoughts, they come back to us. When we send out only love, it, too, comes back to us.”

If we were to release our creative talents, set aside our fears or carry out Gerald Jampolsky’s advice, we, too, could say: “This scripture is being fulfilled in your hearing.” How would we be seen by those who know us if we had a succession of days without judgement, without complaint and not bound by fear?

Those gathered to hear Jesus in the synagogue of Nazareth had him judged and categorized before he even opened his mouth. He was much too ordinary looking. He didn’t live up to the people’s expectations of what a prophet should look like, much less a Messiah. And, when they caught on to the real meaning of what he was saying, their disappointment turned to hostility. And there lies an important message for us. The Spirit of the Lord has been given to you and to me. We, through Baptism, are all anointed by God’s Spirit as prophets to proclaim in word and action the coming of the kingdom of God. And like Jesus and so many other prophets, we look like the ordinary people we are. Yet God is reflected in us and in the other ordinary people and things of our world.

But let’s think for a moment about the pressure Jesus must have felt to satisfy his home-town crowd, to deliver on their hopes, desires and expectations. Instead, he preached the simple, unembellished truth which disappointed and angered his audience. He held fast to the courage of his convictions and told them not only that he was the Messiah but outlined for them the kind of Messiah he would be. He was not prepared to sacrifice truth simply to please them. This last week, we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr, a man of courage, who, in imitation of Jesus, found the courage to speak the truth, knowing there was a price to be paid. We, too, are called to speak the truth in support of strangers, refugees and those treated unjustly, to do so with credibility, love and generosity, but without compromise.