Power of the Word

Sunday, February 3, 2019
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany Year C
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Focus Theme:
Power of the Word

Focus Prayer:
O God of all the prophets, you knew us and chose us before you formed us in the womb. Fill us with faith that speaks your word, hope that does not disappoint, and love that bears all things for your sake, until that day when we shall know you fully, even as we are known by you. Amen.

Focus Scripture:
Luke 4:21-30

Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

All readings for this Sunday:
Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-6
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 4:21-30

Focus Questions:

1. Why do you think Jesus confronted the crowd that day in the synagogue?

2. How do the readings from Luke 4 shape (or re-shape) a congregation’s ministry?

3. How might your congregation fulfill the promises of the prophet Isaiah?

4. What does the phrase, “the year of the Lord’s favor” mean to you?

5. How can a capitalist society practice Jubilee?

by Kate Matthews

Last week’s reading from the Gospel of Luke (4:14-21) left us right in the middle of Jesus’ homecoming appearance in the synagogue at Nazareth, when he read an inspiring passage from the prophet Isaiah, and followed it up with a simple yet powerful sermon in verse 21: “Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.'”

If this were the movies or television, there would have been a beat of silence, for dramatic effect, while his words sank into the hearts and minds of his audience.

This week’s reading picks up the story where we left off, and begins on a positive note, repeating verse 21 as a kind of hinge, and then describing the enthusiastic response of the crowd as they marveled, at least for the moment, at Jesus’ “gracious words.” Isn’t it amazing, they wonder, that one of our very own boys–Joseph’s son–could be so impressive? And doesn’t he know his Bible!

Reading expectations

The warm reception lasts all of two verses, however, because something seems to be bothering Jesus as he listens to the hometown crowd gushing about him. Clearly, he’s not basking in the glow of their admiration. Does he know more about their expectations than we can read from the text? Does he feel that they’ve missed the point?

Does he have a sense that they won’t like where he’s going with this line of thought, about Jubilee (“the year of the Lord’s favor”) and the liberation of the oppressed? Or does he suspect that that kind of talk is fine as long as it applies to them, but not to those who are somehow judged as standing outside the favor of God?

Making sense of God

Peter Eaton reminds us that we often find ourselves in a difficult starting place when we have to “make sense of God, life, and important issues before us,” when we find ourselves “in the middle of things,” rather than at the beginning.

That’s certainly true of this week’s reading, which begins, literally, in the middle of a story, and provokes many questions about many things. We do not know the answers, but scholars suggest several questions we might ask as we find our way into the text.

Remember where we are

“Remember.” Richard Swanson urges us to remember where we are when the scene opens this week, and what has happened. Jesus doesn’t charge into his hometown, brashly preaching a new message that contradicts the God of his ancestors, the God of his people’s holy scriptures.

No, in fact, Swanson writes, Jesus recites the “old Jewish promises that the Jewish community in Nazareth had nurtured and preserved for long centuries….through all the years of change and loss.” We might say that he’s helping them “un-forget” the promises of God.

The vision of Isaiah has sustained the people as they have struggled to rebuild their community after exile, as they have suffered under the heel of the Roman Empire, and as they have looked forward in faith to a day when God would make all things right and whole again. And now here’s Jesus, beginning his own ministry by announcing that the day they have been waiting for has finally arrived–in him.

Too good to be true?

Did you ever hear news so good that you instinctively hardened your heart against it, in fear of disappointment? Swanson suggests that the crowd may have been bracing themselves for the letdown, protecting themselves and their ancient hope by rejecting the very one who claimed that those promises were true: “Is this,” Swanson asks, “more about the offense of trifling with hopes that have lived for so many years, and have died for so many hopeless quixotic errands? You don’t get to claim that the ‘hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight,’ and then go on with business as usual.”

Is it possible to live for the future so ardently that we do not see the day of the Lord when it arrives, or experience in this moment a time of liberation and healing, when it is right here, right now, right before us?

Reluctance, or offense?

Were the people around Jesus that day reluctant to get their hopes up, or were they mightily offended by Jesus’ call for a Jubilee? The latter seems to be Walter Brueggemann’s read on this text: he calls their reaction “the most dramatic resistance to Jubilee.”

He evokes the drama of Jubilee itself by recalling the sound of the trumpet that began “the year of the Lord’s favor”: “a signal,” he writes, “not unlike the great gavel that ends the fury of Wall Street every day, only it signifies something very different.”

Not good news for everyone

I’ve often heard it said that the Good News isn’t going to be “good” for everybody, at least not those who want to hold onto excessive wealth and power and place.

Indeed, Brueggemann claims that the people were resisting any “curb” on such excessive accumulation; Jubilee, he writes, “is not just a kind thought or a good intention or a religious idea. It is about money and property being transferred.”

Our own resistance to Jubilee

We reflected a bit last week on the discomfort we feel, steeped as we are in capitalist values and principles, at the thought of restoring property every fifty years to the previous owner (God, of course, was understood to be the actual owner in those days). And we seem to find comfort in scholarship that says that Jubilee was rarely if ever actually practiced.

Brueggemann seems particularly incensed by our need for such reassurance, and our own resistance to what Jubilee would accomplish: “It is the most difficult, most demanding, most outrageous requirement of biblical faith,” because it flies in the face of “our deep practices of accumulation and our intense yearning to have ours and keep ours and make it grow.”

It actually is about the money after all

Brueggemann’s sermon on this text is an eloquent but hard message that wouldn’t go over very well in many of our churches, where money is not even supposed to be discussed, despite the fact that the Bible addresses the subject of money and possessions, and our attitude toward them, more than 2,000 times in the Bible (and most of us have a pretty good idea what it says about them). He notes that it’s primarily in the area of economic justice “that the Bible questions our usual assumptions about life in the world.”

And it is a question of justice, because the practice of Jubilee enacted “what Moses understood” (and surely Jesus did as well), “that you cannot have a viable, peaceable, safe urban community when deep poverty must live alongside huge wealth, when high privilege is visible alongside endless disadvantage in health and housing and education,” Brueggemann writes. “You can have some inequities, but the inequities must be curbed by a practice of neighborliness that knows every day that rich and poor, haves and have-nots, are in it together and must find ways of being together as neighbors in common.”

The challenge of Jubilee

For people of faith, could the challenge of Jubilee and of Jesus’ speech be more timely, as the gap between the rich and poor widens, and wealth is more and more concentrated at the top? I’m reminded of the words of Justice Louis Brandeis: “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

Words of wisdom as we are embarked on yet another endless political season (can a season really be two years long?), leading to a time of decision-making about what really matters to us, and who we are striving to be.

Claiming our true identity

Who are we? While many like to claim (correctly or not) that we are a Christian, or a Judeo-Christian nation, Brueggemann’s concept of “neighborliness” is one that all of us should be able to embrace.

How does “neighborliness” enter into our political and economic life, if at all? Do we even see our political life as an opportunity to “love our neighbor,” as one of the two great commandments requires?

What are we waiting for?

Many scholars approach this text and the anger of the crowd that day in the synagogue by focusing on Jesus’ words after his sermon, when things seem to turn on a dime and become quite unpleasant. The people are waiting, all right, and not necessarily for a Jubilee that means they have to give anything up, but for “the day of vengeance”–the line that Jesus, curiously, leaves out of his reading of Isaiah–when their enemies will finally get what’s coming to them.

Among these enemies, and outside the circle of God’s grace, are, presumably, the Gentiles. But who are the very ones in his people’s own holy scriptures that Jesus lifts up as those who received God’s favor and attention? The (Gentile) widow Elijah helped, and the (Gentile, enemy) commander, Naaman!

What kind of Messiah shows up and announces “the day of the Lord’s favor” without also bringing “the day of vengeance” that was promised so long ago? No wonder the people are so incensed by the stories Jesus recalls: “anger and violence,” Fred Craddock writes, “are the last defense of those who are made to face the truth embedded in their own tradition.”

Galileans and Judeans

Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that (it always is). The people of Galilee, including Jesus, were looked down upon even by many of their own people. Kim L. Beckmann draws on the work of Caleb Rosado to help us understand that the Judeans would have seen the Galileans as “peasants,” “common people,” “unwashed people of the land” with an accent that betrayed their region’s long history of a rich mix of cultures and races.

“Rosado,” Beckmann writes, “observes that Luke mentions the inn at Bethlehem of Judea as having ‘no room’ for Mary and Joseph, not as being ‘full,'” which gives another layer of meaning to our Christmas story.”

Waiting for those promises to be fulfilled

No wonder, then, that the Galileans longed for the day when the “ancient promises of restoration for those oppressed” would be fulfilled, even (especially?) for the people of Galilee. However, Beckmann and Rosado would claim that the Galileans were, perhaps, missing the point, or maybe not thinking big enough, because’s God’s concern was for all the oppressed, not for one group or another, each one hoping that they would end up on top.

Being only human, however, the Galileans “wanted the privileged, chosen status and the prosperity gospel that their brothers and sisters of Judah aspired to, and that the dominant culture had normed.”

All of us in the same boat

Perhaps the most moving–and therefore transformational–way to read this text is to let it read us. Renita Weems says that’s what Jesus was doing that day, more than just reading the text itself, but “allowing Scripture to read him.”

Ann M. Svennungsen says something similar when she says, “In this text, we, too, are made known.” Both of these scholars join other voices in reminding us of our human nature, our persistence in drawing lines and circles that create a world of insiders and outsiders, and the dismaying way we have, once we’re the ones on top, of stepping on those below us.

There is always hope

What a revelation for this Epiphany season! And yet there is hope, great hope, and Svennungsen describes God’s indifference to “who” we think we are: “God is not interested in faces,” she writes; “God is interested in hearts. Not beautiful hearts, not pure hearts, nor perfect hearts, but hearts that know their need of God.”

If there is something that needs to be made clear to us in this season of light and manifestation, it is this deep need that we have for God, and “recognizing our need,” Svennungsen writes, “will transform our relations with others.” (We might say that our need for God levels the playing field for all of God’s children.) There are no lines, no protective walls: “We are all in the same boat–lost without God.”

Shining the light of the gospel on the experience of women

Renita Weems and Ann Svennungsen provide two entry points for deeper consideration of the text in light of the experience of women. Rather, it might be better to say that they suggest ways to shine the light of the gospel on the lives and the dreams, the suffering and the hope, the responsibility and the call, of women in the church and in the world.

We recall that, when we read the story of the miracle at Cana two weeks ago, Asian women theologians observed that Jesus had learned “compassionate justice” from his mother, Mary (remember her song, the Magnificat?), and that Mary’s attention toward the predicament of the host facing a wine shortage was a good illustration of women’s “compassionate sensitiveness” deepened, perhaps, by spending their own lives on the margins rather than at the center of power.

These theologians suggest that Jesus, then, was formed in his passion for compassionate and inclusive justice by being raised by such a woman. How do you respond to this suggestion?

Women as examples

It’s also striking that Jesus uses the example of a widow–a pagan woman, definitely an outsider–to illustrate the expansiveness of God’s grace and of the vision he is presenting in his inaugural address. It’s that example, of a woman, that infuriates the crowd, of course, for there are lines drawn around who is in, and who is out of the circle of God’s mercy.

Today, we need to challenge ourselves to “next steps,” now that women have made recent progress in securing their rights and freedoms, without slipping into the same kind of longing of the Galileans to be privileged and prospered, even at the cost of others. Is it possible for women to hear a call never to forget the “others” who have made little or no progress in recent decades? (Granted, most of women’s progress has occurred only in the last few decades, and there is still a long way to go.)

Freedom and justice for all

How fitting that it was a woman, Emma Lazarus, who said, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free”! Lazarus was, of course, the author of the words on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” an inspiring vision of a community where the oppressed can taste and breathe both freedom and dignity.

Is that what Jesus was talking about when he said that he had come to let the oppressed go free, and wasn’t he talking about all the oppressed, not just the group we belong to? Where have we fallen into the same pattern of drawing lines around us, and around them?

God focuses on the heart

The other note in Ann Svennungsen’s commentary is intriguing in light of the experience of women in a culture that tells us that how we look matters more than just about anything else: the “indifference” of God toward “faces,” and God’s focus instead on our hearts. Does this ring true for you, and does it mean something different or particular for women?

It may be that women have already been raised to have tender hearts even as we exert considerable energy toward maintaining a “face” that is pleasing and socially acceptable (but strong, too); do those hearts have enough time, given all the demands in a “you can have it all” way of life, to recognize our deep need for God, which might be nourished even by the simplest of spiritual exercises, like sitting quietly in God’s presence, and breathing more slowly, more contemplatively, more gratefully?

How do you think women would have reacted that day, if they had heard Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue? Did women have anything to lose? Would they have been threatened by Jesus’ message, or would they have had the courage to hope for “the day of the Lord’s favor”?

What would we have said, and what would we have done?

A few weeks ago, we began a new year, but we brought many of the old fears right along with us into a “new” day. If we just sit quietly with this story for a time, would we be able to feel ourselves in that crowd around Jesus in Nazareth so long ago?

Is Brueggemann telling us something that we don’t want to know about ourselves, that we dread the demands of Jubilee so much that we find incendiary “code” words for it, like “redistribution,” so no one will even think of proposing ideas that might make our systems work more compassionately, more justly for all of God’s children?

Our deep anxieties

Or does Swanson expose our deep anxieties about hope itself, and our refusal even to try to give ourselves over to a whole new vision for our lives, to risk what we have for what might yet be? Perhaps the other scholars are right: the story of Jesus being driven to the edge by the crowd that day is a story about us, too, because we don’t want to hear the truth about ourselves, and we don’t want to think that “those other guys” could ever be like us, with us, one of us.

Barbara Brown Taylor says that we should expect to be challenged and upset by the truth, by the “people sent to yank our chains and upset our equilibrium so we do not confuse our own ideas about God with God.” We don’t like “being told that our enemies are God’s friends,” she writes; “No matter how hard we try, we cannot seem to get God to respect our boundaries. God keeps plowing right through them, inviting us to follow or get out of the way.”

“As finite and fragile as clay pots”

When Taylor draws on the thought of Parker Palmer in his book, The Company of Strangers, I’m reminded of one of my favorite passages from that excellent work: “At the heart of any authentic religious experience,” the Quaker theologian writes, “is recognition that God’s nature is too huge, God’s movement too deep, ever to be comprehended by a single conception or point of view…. God’s truth is singular and eternal, but the forms in which we give it expression are as finite and fragile as clay pots, and we must always be ready to break them open on behalf of a larger vision of truth.”

If that’s true, and if this reading of our text is true, then isn’t it also true that God calls us, who claim to follow Jesus, on a path that may get us into trouble but impels toward an expansive, generous, justice-seeking vision of the world, a vision that shapes a ministry to and with all of God’s beautiful children?

Fulfilled in our midst

What would it look like for Jesus’ first sermon and the reading from Isaiah to be fulfilled this day, in your midst? Might it, for example, inspire not only compassionate, generous aid to those who are in need, here and around the world, but also a deep hunger to understand the root causes of that need, and then an even deeper commitment to transforming that suffering–and the systems that cause it–into a new and better way of life for all?

Might it call for the kind of interfaith respect and dialogue that could model discourse across divides for our polarized and deeply antagonistic political parties? Would such commitments take us out to cliffs, to “edges” we would rather not face? How large is your view of God’s nature, how wide is your understanding of God’s embrace, how deep is your sense of the movement of God?

Will we run from such a love, and such a call, or will we seek it with all our heart, and let it take us out to the edges, where risk, and hope, and courage all lie?

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

Paulo Coelho, 20th century
“The two hardest tests on the spiritual road are the patience to wait for the right moment and the courage not to be disappointed with what we encounter.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century
“We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”
and (in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches)
“It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time.'”

Georg Lichtenberg, 18th century
“I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is that they must change if they are to get better.”

Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 19th century
“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”

J.K. Rowling (“Harry Potter”), 21st century
“It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”

Robert Frost, 20th century
“Freedom lies in being bold.”

Flannery O’Connor, 20th century
“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”

August Wilson, 20th century African American playwright
“Confront the dark parts of yourself, and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing.”

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 19th century
“There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”

Winston Churchill, 20th century
“Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.”

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