Originally, this blog post was presented as a Scripture reflection by Susan Baller-Shepard on the Scripture passages of Jeremiah 1:4-10 and Luke 4:21-30 on February 3, 2019 on Day1 radio. It will be presented in two parts – the second part of the reflection will be posted next Sunday, February 24, 2019 on Monasteries of the Heart.
In 2008, after losing her parliamentary seat, Wangari Maathai urged tribal elders to help stop ethnic killings, following a disputed presidential election. This was a precarious season.
The text messages to her read like this:
"Because of your opposing the government at all times ... we have decided to look for your head very soon."
Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, and the Nobel Committee said of her, that she was "a strong voice speaking for the best forces in Africa to promote peace and good living conditions on that continent ... her unique forms of action have contributed to drawing attention to political oppression."
The push for peace, for justice, made her dangerous. She'd already changed vast numbers of women's lives, pushed for civil rights, as she founded the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, and worked to get over 30 million trees planted in that country. 30 million trees! Of course, there was the fact that she'd faced house arrest, been beaten to unconsciousness, jailed, and received death threats. But we know this, right?
To work for peace, to work for justice, to work for civil rights is dangerous work. I got to meet Wangari Maathai in 2007, a year before these death threats, when a friend of mine interviewed her in Chicago, got to hear her sing "Amazing Grace" in Kikuyu. Four years later she died of ovarian cancer.
I thought of Wangari Maathai right away when I read the gospel text, Luke 4:21-30. In this passage, listen to the arc of the narrative. Jesus reads from the scroll. All speak well of him. They listen to him, amazed at the gracious words from his lips. They become furious at him. They drive him out of town to a cliff to kill him.
We've seen this in our lifetimes. People praised on social media, quickly become recipients of death threats.
Prophets challenge people, things, institutions. They challenge the status quo. They shake things up. People find them "unsettling" at best. At worst? People want to do away with the prophet altogether.
In this reading from Luke, did you catch it? Why did the crowd turn on Jesus? Why so quickly? Jesus angers the crowd because he highlights the fact, in the readings he chooses, to show how outsiders find their way to God through prophets.
Elijah goes to a widow during a great famine in Sidon. Sidon was in a Gentile region, it had a long history of paganism, and would have been "unclean" by Jewish standards. Elijah goes and lives with and helps the widow of Sidon, and it's a mixed bag, but in the end, the woman says to Elijah, (verse 24) "Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth."
And then Jesus mentions Elisha and Naaman the Syrian. It's the fascinating story of Naaman, that Jesus highlights to the crowd - Naaman, a strong Syrian army commander, who had leprosy. Naaman's wife's servant girl was from Israel and she knew Elisha could help heal Naaman. Naaman didn't believe what Elisha told him. Naaman didn't want the cure, if it involved bathing in the Jordan River seven times, but eventually he's sick and tired of being sick and tired, he goes to the Jordan and is healed.
And now he knew. He knew that the God of Israel was a God of compassion, a God with courageous prophets, a God of powerful healing. Naaman said to Elisha, "Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel." Now I know.
It's striking what the widow and Naaman told the prophets, isn't it? Both said, "Now I know." Now I know.
I know. By this I know. Do we get this? That it's in these acts, in these times, God is known. People know the presence of God. What more can we want them to be a conduit for God, to know God, to help God be known?
In Exodus, Jethro, Moses' father-in-law says, "Now I know that the Lord is greater than all other gods..." -Exodus 18:11
And later, Micah said, "Now I know that the Lord will be good to me, since this Levite has become my priest." -Judges 17:13
Jesus was a disrupter - a paradigm shifter - a table turner. To get to know Jesus, was to get to know about the great love of God.
He made the circle bigger - and those who had power were saddened by all they lost when the circle included others.
He made the circle bigger - and those who had much had to let go or walk away and they hated having to make that decision.
He made the circle bigger - and those who had always been on the outs, on the outs of society, on the margins, those who had little were glad to be seen.
He made the circle bigger - and those who'd been ill, those who had suffered, they rejoiced because his very nature was one of healing, and they were now well, and now they knew.
Now they knew.
Rev. Susan Baller-Shepard is a co-founder and editor of Spiritual Book Club with its blog "Real People, Real Lives, Real Spirituality" with over 200 interviews from around the world. Susan blogs for the Huffington Post religion section and is author of Matching Yu. She teaches religion at Heartland Community College in central Illinois, where she lives with her family.
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