Pastor Patty Ebner
January 27, 2019
Luke 4: 14 – 21
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
A preacher almost hates to follow such a wonderful, uplifting song such as that. As a side note, I want to let those of you who don’t know that our lead Pastor, Rev. Lisa Horst Clark, is with other senior ministers from the West Coast today, so that is why I am leading worship and preaching.
Today’s Scripture, from the Gospel of Luke, is written in a time where the temple has been destroyed for the second time by the Romans. Jesus’ ministry would have ended some forty years earlier. Luke’s message speaks to a community that is comprised of Jews and Gentiles, Romans and non-Romans. His theology was broad and inclusive, like the theology we enjoy in the United Church of Christ. Today’s story begins with the return of Jesus to his hometown of Nazareth, in the area of Galilee. Jesus is in his early thirties by this time, he has been baptized by John the Baptist and he has been travelling in the area, preaching and healing people he has chosen to go to, to be their minister. And right before coming to Nazareth, he has spent forty days in the wilderness. So this is often a Scripture we look at during the time of Lent, but today we visit this Scripture as a time when Jesus is re-introducing himself to the Jewish community.
We learn in today’s Scripture that it was Jesus’ custom to get up on the Sabbath day and go to Synagogue; imagine that. In my research I learned that synagogues were placed in prominent high places because it was considered important for something to be at the highest elevation, closest to the location of God. Outside each of these synagogues was a place where you could dip your hands in the water so that you would cleanse your soul before entering the place of worship. When Sue and I visited Greece this last September we saw these fonts in front of places of worship.
On this particular day, when Jesus arrived to the synagogue, the service would have begun with the Shema, following by the reciting of the Ten Commandments and then the Amidah, the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy. Much like our services today, the readers would have been chosen in advance, but since Jesus was returning to his hometown after several years of being away, he may have been invited to read the Scripture. The Hassan, who is known as the assistant in a Jewish service, would have handed the scroll of Isaiah to Jesus. So Jesus took that scroll and initially he began to read the words of Isaiah verbatim: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me.” But when Jesus gets to the second sentence, “He has sent me to bring the good news to the oppressed,” like any good preacher or teacher he deconstructs the word “oppressed.” He renames the oppressed as people that were poor, those who were captive, those who are blind. He was describing the mission that God had sent him on. He goes on and he actually eliminates references to the broken-hearted and the day of the vengeance of God, because this is the God that the people had known, a God of vengeance. Scripture tells us that he finished that portion of the reading and he took a seat. And while he was seated he said, “Today the Scripture has been fulfilled by your hearing of it.”
I can imagine that the friends, family of Jesus were stunned at his announcement. As I read the Scripture I could imagine the silence in the synagogue with this proclamation of his. I can imagine that you could have heard a pin drop: that people were sitting on the very edges of their seats wondering, “What does he mean by this?” I can also imagine that there were a few in that group who thought, “What has happened to Jesus? What in the world has happened to his good theology that he left here with? Has he forgotten about the vengeful Isaiah, the God which called Abraham to bring Isaac to sacrifice? Has he forgotten about the God of Noah who brought floods upon the earth? Has he forgotten about a God who requires us to be doers, to prove our loyalty to our God?” I can imagine that those same people would have been saying, “I think that time in the desert may have made Jesus tetched, not anointed.”
I remember a story told by one of my professors while I was in Seminary. He came from the Southern Baptist tradition, he had gone to Harvard Divinity School on the East Coast, he happened to be African American, which describes a little bit of the theology that his family enjoyed. When he came home with all of these highfalutin ideas about a progressive God, about a God that meets us exactly where we are, a God who welcomes us no matter who we are, and he began to boldly proclaim this to his family. And his family stood back and said, “Oh, my goodness, what in the world has happened to you?” I am grateful to tell you that in this isolated story his family did not reject him. Often that is the case when someone has the courage to speak up. But instead his family asked him to be patient with them as he spoke this new message from God.
Theologies are an interesting thing, I believe. Often they are given to us early in life, before we face the challenges that life usually brings. We are protected from life experiences that challenge and test our belief systems. I know this has been true in my own life. Sometimes we treat our belief systems like stone statues and forget that our God is the dynamic force capable of forming and reshaping us in the times when we need to be reshaped or when we get lost in the wilderness. Instead of wearing our theologies like adjustable Velcro, we wear it like Super Glue, holding tight to it, not allowing it to develop with us and God as we move through life. I’m sure each of you can tell me a story about a time in your personal life or in the life of this faith community or another, an experience which shaped you, which changed your belief about the ways things should be done.
In today’s message, Jesus is redefining the mission of the church and he has come to share it with the people n the synagogue. In my first year here I have heard many of your stories. I have heard about the changes in this faith community: I’ve heard about personnel changes, changes in staff, the decision to become open and affirming, the decision to sell the old church to relocate to the new, to bring the beautiful stained glass windows to provide continuity from the old location to the new. We have formed new commissions and committees since we have arrived in this place and each of them is charged with leaning into this church’s mission which is to be an inclusive faith presence in the city and beyond, claiming one God with many names, the Christian faith with many paths, offering an open and affirming welcome to all, affirming diversity and advancing the work of justice in our world.
In today’s Scripture, Jesus not only announces but proclaims that this is the year of the Lord’s favor. He spells out what is to become of the mission of today’s church: bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of the blind, let the oppressed go free. These words could easily be the checklist of every single Christian congregation when we analyze the effectiveness of our ministries.
When I read Scripture and reflect upon its resonance with us today, I am usually very curious about the similarities between us and the early Christians. The Rev. Joan Gray commented that the dunamis of the spirit is the only thing the early church had going for it; it had no building, no budget, no paid staff and few members. She goes on to say that the opposite situation might apply to us: that we have buildings, budgets, staff and members, but do we have the presence of the Holy Spirit? I am hopeful and fairly certain that we do have the presence of the Holy Spirit and that we are willing to name its presence among us in this place and beyond. Isn’t it interesting, though, that the very elements the early church lacked are the very items we struggle with today.
A former boss of mine, many years ago when I was working in the non-profit sector on AIDS research, we had a very brilliant and demanding executive director. And when he would get up in front of people to make the pitch for them to make donations to our organization, he would give a long list of all of our accomplishments and an even longer list of all of our goals. And he would finish each sentence with,”And we do it on a shoe string,” meaning that as an organization we did a whole lot more with very little. Perhaps this describes the efforts and achievements of the early Christians. With fewer material resources than we have, they found a way to carry the message, to carry the good news, to preserve the message in a way that served them and has served generations since that time. They found a way to pay it forward.
The words Jesus spoke that day to his home community required great courage. I hardly think any minister ever gets up in front of the congregation and says, “I just can’t wait to introduce these words of change,” and most especially in the Congregational Church. Jesus didn’t beat around when naming the mission his faith community was to follow. He didn’t squirm in his seat and fret about changing the words of Isaiah and introducing a more compassionate God, a God concerned with justice for the least of these. And he didn’t stand from an elevated position to make his proclamation. What Jesus did is he sat down: he brought the good news to people who awaited the message, who had gathered there that day to hear the good news. We don’t know exactly where he sat. He might have taken his seat on the benches which lined the three sides of the Synagogue. But he might have taken a seat on the dirt floor or in more fancy synagogues that was lined with mosaics. But like a basketball coach or the quarterback of a football team, Jesus got right in the middle of the people to let them know what the call was, what the next plan was. He chose that place to meet people, to let them know that the Scripture had been fulfilled by their hearing of it.
Now it would have been wonderful if they had all exited the Synagogue and the blind could see, and that poverty had gone away, that the incarcerated had been let out of jail and that oppression had ceased in Nazareth. After all, didn’t he say, “The Scripture has been fulfilled?” Surprisingly, many people hold this understanding of God, kind of a Santa Claus God that just delivers the goods whenever we need them. But because Jesus sat with us, the common people, this is one of the first times we see him becoming one of us and in so doing he invites us to follow his example towards the fulfillment of God’s vision.
I love to watch Pastor Cristina work with our young children. She always gets on the floor with them: she meets them exactly where they are. Those of you who are parents or grandparents know you sit with your young person, you get right on their eye level as you instruct them or love them or just create a safe space for conversation with them. Any counselor will tell you that when they sit with a client they meet face-to-face. They don’t try to drag down into their space; they meet down where they are and move forward from that point.
We are invited today to this clarity of vision, to the commandment and courage it takes for us to focus on the communities Jesus named: the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed. As we go forward from this moment may we be mindful of a dynamic God who flows with us, who moves with us, who is speaking to us, who allows enough room for change, a God who knows us individually and knows us as a faith community. And let us remember the words of the Reverend I quoted earlier: let us not be afraid of that Holy Spirit. Let us pronounce the power of the Holy Spirit as we heard evidenced in the singing of our choir this morning. Let’s meet people where they are, as Jesus did with us. Amen.
© Copyright. Patty Ebner. 2019. All rights reserved.