As part of his job as the executive director of The Pittsburgh Promise, the Rev. Saleem Ghubril talks to thousands of students in Pittsburgh Public Schools. Some of his favorite visits are to first- and second-graders, even though explaining that his organization is working to raise college scholarship money for them can be a bit over their heads.
So to better communicate the idea that the students could have a big reward waiting for them if they do well in school, Ghubril brought a huge wrapped box to one of his talks. Using the box as a prop, he told them about the promise of his organization, sure that he was getting through to them. When he asked if anyone had any questions at the end, one boy raised his hand, and Ghubril anticipated a deep question about the program. Instead, the boy asked why Ghubril's bald head is so shiny.
Maybe Jesus too wondered if he was reaching people through his sermons, Ghubril said, speaking July 29 at the New Wilmington Mission Conference at Westminster College.
He was speaking about Luke 4: 16-30, in which Jesus preaches to a crowd in Nazareth, telling them that the good news of God is for all people.
The progression of the peoples' response moves very quickly from rapt attention and amazement to rage and driving Jesus out of town.
"What happened in those verses that made them so mad?" Ghubril asked.
The people didn't like hearing that the kingdom vision is bigger and more inclusive than they could imagine. It's bigger than just one community, one people or one nation.
In his sermon, Jesus refers to the prophet Elijah being sent to a widow in Sidon when there was a famine in all of Israel. He speaks of the prophet Elisha cleansing not the Israeli lepers, but one from Syria. The kingdom is not just for one people, he said.
"Whoever the 'them' are to you, they're also included," Ghubril said.
But Jesus' vision was bigger than the crowd in Nazareth could accept. It messed with their comfort zones, and they only praised what he said before he told them the good news is for all.
God's people have long been willing missionaries — as long as the work is convenient, follows our desires and lets us serve the people we want to serve, Ghubril said. We all have people we’d like to exclude, whether it’s by kicking them out or not letting them in.
Ghubril spoke of a man he met at a Pittsburgh Promise dinner. Deacon Jenkins offered to sing at the service after dinner, and Ghubril accompanied him on the guitar, not knowing what he was going to sing. Deacon Jenkins wasn’t much of a singer, but he chose a familiar song: "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands."
He started out with the standard lines about God holding the little tiny babies and the brothers and the sisters, but then Deacon Jenkins started adding more unconventional lines — singing that God's got the short-skirted women and the pimps and the whores in His hands.
And although those lines might not be the traditional verses, Deacon Jenkins was right.
"If God don't got the pimps and the whores … He don’t got the little tiny babies," Ghubril said. "If He don't got the whole world, He don't got none of it."