Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Tony Campolo, a well known sociologist and pastor, tells a story of a time that he was in Hawaii and could not sleep at night/early morning due to internal clock being use to another time zone. He gets up and is feeling a little hungry, so he decides to see what he can find to eat in the very early morning in Honolulu. Being a busy city and everything you would think he could just walk out of the hotel and find someplace open. That was not the case, however, and it takes him a while until he comes along this little side street and finds this local greasy spoon open.
The gruff owner greets him as he walks into the diner that has no booths and just a long counter with stools. After seeing the gentleman at the counter in his greasy shirt and apron, he is not quite so sure if he is hungry anymore. He sees some donuts at the far end of the counter though and says he will have a donut and coffee.
While he is sitting there eating his dirty donut and drinking his coffee in walks a loud group of eight or nine provocative, loud prostitutes. As he is sitting at the center of the counter, they sit to both sides of him and he is all of a sudden feeling uncomfortable. As the conversation continues amongst them one of the women says that tomorrow is going to be her birthday. After getting some razzing from the group, she says she does not expect anything, she has never had a party for her birthday before, why should she now.
Tony stays until the group leaves and finds out the name of the diner owner is Harry. He suggests to Harry that they should throw a party for Agnes, the prostitute that professed it was her birthday. Harry thought that was a great idea and insisted on making a birthday cake and Tony would get decorations so that they could decorate the diner the following morning before the group came in again. Harry’s wife got the word out to everyone that knew Agnes so that when Tony returned the following morning the place was bursting to the seems with prostitutes. They waited for Agnes to come in with her and friends, and when she did, she could barely stand up that she was so shocked and in awe.
Harry presented her with a cake as she was in tears. It was so beautiful that she did not want to cut but wanted to take it home to show her mother, but promised that she would be right back since she just lived a few doors down. As she left Tony was left standing there in a room full of prostitutes not knowing what to do, until he asked the group to pray. They prayed for Agnes, for her health, for her life, and for her salvation. He prayed that her life would be changed. After he finishes, Harry looks over to him and tells him that he didn’t tell him he was a preacher. Harry asks, “What kind of church to you belong to anyways?”
Tony responds, after thinking about it for a moment, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.” Harry mocking says, “No you don’t. There is no church like that. If there was, I would join it.”
If this message was carried to the people during Jesus’ time it would have most likely incited a riot. After last weeks gospel lesson when Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth to preach we were left hanging to hear the response from the people. At first they are amazed and spoke well of him. Then he speaks again sharing stories from the Hebrew Bible where God was present with Gentiles in the midst of the struggles of the Israelites.
These are not stories that the Israelites want to be reminded of. These are not the stories that build up a nation. This is not the hope and promise that they were expecting when Jesus comes to preach and be with them. This was not a sermon that they were expecting, nor wanting. They were in fact so angered that they nearly drove Jesus off a cliff and yet he managed to get away.
So, what is it that they were looking for? They were expecting a Messiah to come and make everything right. In that moment right there. They wanted people to pay for the wrongs that they had done and for a Messiah to bring them salvation. They sought justice. Perhaps not the justice that is present in Jesus.
Richard Rohr this past week has been discussing justice in our world and where God is within it:
Poor theology has led most people to view God as a sometimes benevolent Santa Claus or as an unforgiving tyrant who is going to burn us in hell for all eternity if we don’t love him. (Who would love, or even trust, a god like that?) Psychologically, humans tend to operate out of a worldview of fear and scarcity rather than trust and abundance. This stingy, calculating worldview makes both grace and mercy unimaginable and difficult to experience. (1)
Many of the people then, and even so today, hope that Jesus comes bearing justice that looks retributive. This justice comes to us with the understanding that if you do this, you will get that. In a way, an eye for an eye justice. This is the justice that is most common in our legal system today.
The biblical notion of justice is much different as can be seen in the stories Jesus shares this morning. During the famine in the time of Elijah, he only was sent to the widow at Zarephath in Sidon to be cared for and her supply of meal to make bread never ceased to empty. Elisha chose to call for Namaan the Syrian to come to him so that he may cure him of his leprosy. God brings healing and wellness to those whom have not necessarily professed their faith in God.
The justice that comes to the people of God in the bible is one that is restorative. Even when the prophets chastise the Israelites for turning their backs on God, God returns to them in love that is irrefutable. God’s justice comes to us in a way of love that is forgiving.
This justice that Jesus brings into the world is radical! While it has always been present through God, it has now taken physical bodily form in the Son of God. Jesus comes bearing a justice of love for those that are downtrodden and have nearly given up all hope. His purpose of bringing up the justice of Elijah and Elisha is to inform those of Nazareth that he comes not just to them bearing the news of hope and love, but to the entire world!
This is our stumbling block. We stumble over who is in and who is out. We argue for justice to happen, a retributive form of justice. Yet that is not the practice of the kingdom of God. For us to move ever closer to the kingdom of God, we must open our hearts to the restorative justice that can be found in God’s love for us and all people.
Just maybe, we can reach out as Tony Campelo, to a people that are persecuted and hurting. Just maybe, we can be that sign of hope for them in a world that shouts discrimination. Just maybe, we can come bearing the kingdom of God to someone that has not yet experienced it.
(1) Richard Rohr Daily Meditation, https://cac.org/retributive-justice-and-restorative-justice-2016-01-26/