The Common Lectionary Gospel reading for the third Sunday after Epiphany is from the fourth chapter of Luke. Luke tells the story of Jesus' first sermon in his hometown synagogue... and tells how Jesus had to sneak away from the crowd to escape their anger. I think this is a good time to share some uncomfortable thoughts about Christian living. Check it out; I welcome your comments!
Fulfilled in Your Hearing; or,
You Heard It Here! It Just Came True!
A sermon preached at Wesley Church, United Methodist,Medford, MA, January 24, 2010
The Rev. Dr. Joan M. Saniuk
In this Sunday’s Old Testament reading, all of the exiles who have returned to Jerusalem come together to hear an amazing document. A scroll of the ancient Law has been found in the ruins of the Temple, and the people listen all day as Ezra reads and explains it. In the reading from Luke’s Gospel, we hear Jesus’ first sermon in his hometown, in which Jesus says, “Scripture has just made history! It came true, right here.” What is the Word of God saying to us today?
One of my favorite people at the Episcopal Divinity School was its previous president, Bishop Steven Charleston. Steven is a bit unique among Episcopalians; he grew up in a Pentecostal church, and he brings that charismatic style of preaching to his ministry. I remember that sometimes, when he wanted to emphasize his point... or, when he wanted to say something challenging, he would say to us: “Do you hear me?” Of course, we would reply yes, and then he would ask the same question again. Again, we would say “yes,” and then he would stop and say “I don’t think you heard me” before launching into a more challenging idea. I want to play a little bit, today, with that notion of “hearing” God’s word. Do we hear Jesus? Do we really hear what he is saying to us?
The writer of Luke has Jesus giving his first public teaching in his hometown, and as Fate (or the Holy Spirit) would have it, Jesus’ text is from Chapter 61 of the Book of Isaiah. This is the passage in which Isaiah promises that those who have been carried off into exile in Babylon will come home again; that all they have lost will be restored; that all their shame and humiliation will be erased. To Jesus’ audience, living at a bare subsistence level in Roman-occupied Galilee, the prophecy brings with it the hope of a complete restoration of their nation and of their fortunes, hope of a jubilee which the Messiah will usher in. These are great hopes. Jesus says, it has just come true in your hearing. I have been anointed, deputized, sent, to bind up the brokenhearted. To bring good news to the poor. To proclaim release of prisoners and freedom to those who have been oppressed. Do you hear him?
Do you really hear him?
Too often, I think, the Christian church has not really heard Jesus. It is easy to over-spiritualize his proclamation. Likewise, it is easy to interpret his promises as a promise of prosperity with no strings attached.
It is easy to over-spiritualize Jesus’ message in this sermon. He has been anointed to bring Good News! We say it with capital letters: The Good News. To those of us who have been blind, not understanding our purpose or God’s ways, we are enlightened; we can see that God loves us and has a wonderful plan for our lives. We can tell other people about the Good News, Jesus Christ. We have been, as St. Paul says, enslaved by sin and death, but by our faith in Christ we have been set free, delivered, forgiven, and promised eternal life after our death: Hallelujuah!!
Hallelujah! It’s worth shouting and praising about. It is a precious gift to know that we are loved by God, forgiven by God, important to God. Do you hear me?
Please hear me. All of this is important. Having said that... do we hear Jesus?
If we take this good news to be purely spiritual, I believe we aren’t hearing all that Jesus wants to tell us. In Jesus’ time, and certainly in a place like Jesus’ Nazareth, 95% of the people were living at a bare subsistence level. Almost everybody was living hand to mouth. In this context, salvation has a practical connotation as well as a physical one. Do you hear me?
You know, a lot of people believe that being Christian is a way to be successful in the world. If you go to church, if you live right, then God will bless you with prosperity. I remember reading an article, a few years ago, about a man who was an elected official, in Texas or Oklahoma or someplace like that, and about how his wife talked to reporters who were at a function in their home. She pointed out some beautiful, and quite expensive, Oriental carpets and said that they were led by the Holy Spirit to buy them. She said, “the Lord just laid it on my heart that we were to have them.” I have to admit that I cringed when I read that story. It doesn’t connect at all with the way I was brought up to think of the Holy Spirit. Do you hear me?
Is it God’s will that we should be rich? Maybe, but the Bible is very clear about at least one thing: it is not God’s will that some should be rich at the expense of others’ poverty. Is it God’s will that those of us who are doing well, right now, should hang on to what we have for dear life, and under no circumstances share it with anyone else? Do you hear me? I don’t think we are hearing Jesus if we expect to be rich as a reward for loving God, and especially if we then fall into the trap of thinking that other people are poor because they are morally challenged. Do you hear me?
The Biblical concept of Jubilee means, among other things, that debts will be forgiven, that the environment will go for an entire year without being abused, and that people will get their ancestral lands back. It is the opposite of an economic system in which people can lose their homes, in which creditors can charge any rate of interest that they can get away with, in which the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. Jubilee means that wealth is redistributed, to restore the balance in the community. Oops! Can I say that here, in the USA? It sounds...Communist. Unthinkable.
Do you hear Jesus?
I don’t think we are all hearing Jesus clearly... yet.
The Good News is about more than knowing that we do not need to fear death. The Good News is also about living in such a way that we, AND OTHERS, are not ground down by want or humiliation in the here-and-now. I know that Methodists understand this; that’s why I like hanging out with you all. Jesus is calling us to make Scripture come true by bringing that same Good News to others, not just by telling them about Jesus, but also by our acting to bring about justice.
Do you hear me?
There are some really easy ways to ease want. For example, I can take my cell phone and send a text message to 90999, with the text ‘HAITI’. When I do this, I will get a confirmation message back, and when I reply again to that message, the phone company will charge $10 to my cell phone bill and forward that amount to relief of the horrible disaster.
Do we have the power to do even more? As citizens of what is still probably the wealthiest nation on the planet, even when we fall on hard times, we have better access to the necissities of life than most of the rest of the world. Do we have the political and exonomic power to not only give charity, but also to change the rules of the game? To end the outrage of seeing families become bankrupt because they cannot pay their medical bills? To end financial practices that impose higher rates of interest, and higher fees, on precisely those people who are least able to pay off their debts? To insist that recovery must be for all of us, and not just some of us? For each person is a beloved child of God, and God’s will is that we be restored in community.
In her book “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” Annie Dillard writes: “there is not a guarantee in the world. Oh, your needs are guaranteed, your needs are absolutely guaranteed by the most stringent of warranties, in the plainest, truest words: ask, seek, knock. But you must read the find print. “Not as the world giveth, give I unto you.” There is a catch...” the catch is that the God who ensures that we will have all we need also requires something of us: that we allow God to use us in return. Even if it takes us by surprise, even if it changes us in ways that we never imagined.
Do we hear Jesus?
Do we hear what Jesus is asking of us, today?
Whatever it is, rest assured, it is all good news. And I give you my testimony: I have trusted in God at the same time that I have kept my heart and my pocketbook open to help others, and I have never, ever been disappointed.
Today, may we hear Jesus, and may we follow. AMEN.