It was the fall of my first year in seminary. I had settled into a chapel pew early one morning for our regular Morning Prayer service. We were listening to the lessons when, all of a sudden, a voice boomed out from the balcony a stream of words in some incomprehensible language. My head twisted upward along with everyone else’s to see who it was who was taking over the service and I recognized an upper-class fellow student.
After a few moments of this he blurted out, “This is the word of the Lord.” And then now in English he began to boom out his translation of what he had just said. I have to admit I was outraged. What kind of a place was this seminary going to be, I wondered. This was bizarre and intrusive.
I learned later that this had been a one-of-a-kind outburst, right there in that proper Episcopal Seminary, of the new charismatic movement of speaking in tongues that was making its way around back then. It never happened again, but in a way something like that happens every week here in this pulpit and in churches everywhere. A preacher steps into the pulpit, glances around to size up the congregation, looks quickly down at his or her notes, and begins to preach, in essence saying, “This is the word of the Lord.” Only, in these cases no one is alarmed—far from it. Instead people settle back in their seats, maybe glance at their watches, and wait calmly to see what the sermon’s all about. It all seems safe and predictable. But is it? Hearing sermons can be riskier than you think.
Jesus’ ministry had gotten off to a strong start. Ever since his baptism he had been moving around Galilee, going from village to village, teaching in the synagogues and healing the sick. The crowds were growing and excitement was in the air. And now it was time to go back home to Nazareth, back to the people who had raised him and to the synagogue where he had learned his Hebrew and played in the yard. The villagers who had known him all his life came out to hear their young star.
One of the elders handed him a scroll, he found the passage from Scripture he wanted, and began to read:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, …
he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, …
release to the captives, … sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free.
The congregation would have loved the passage. After all, they were the poor, oppressed, and captives, and Rome was the oppressor. They had been waiting for a liberator to come and lead them in throwing off the tyrants. It’s always comforting when it’s clear the sermon is on your side.
Professor of Preaching Tom Long in fact suggests that we usually come to church looking for a nice, reassuring sermon—something interesting, maybe, that talks about God’s love for us, with a poignant story or two, but nothing that is going to get our juices going or make us fidgety in our seats. A word from the Lord, though, can be disruptive, make us uncomfortable, make us want to argue and look at things we don’t want to look at. It could intrude into your morning the way that noisy seminarian broke into my calm day in chapel and made me think and struggle and consider new things.
I remember reading once writer Annie Dillard’s saying how naïve we are coming to worship week after week. Here we are doing business with the power that launched the Big Bang, spun a billion galaxies into space, and holds both the past and all eternity in existence. We easily slip into our regular seats, read through the leaflet announcements, maybe even making a mental list of what to do with the rest of our day. But if we had any sense, she says, we would be wearing crash helmets and ushers would be issuing life preservers and signal flares as we braced ourselves for an encounter with the Creator of the Universe.
Well, things start getting uneasy in the Nazareth synagogue as the bright young preacher finishes his reading. He proceeds to give the shortest sermon on record. With all eyes fixed on him, he rolls up the scroll he’s been reading from, hands it back to the leader, and says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” How’s that—a 9 word sermon. I’ll bet you wouldn’t mind one of those sometime. Not today!
‘What’s he saying,’ the crowd must have wondered. “Today,” he says, “this scripture has been fulfilled.” Does he mean that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him, that he is going to be the liberator? He can’t be serious.
In fact, they have just heard what we might call Jesus’ Inaugural Address. This is his vision at the beginning of his ministry, his program, his sketch of what God is going to do. And it’s not about a dream of some future reality; it’s an announcement of the whole purpose of his life. Here and now, he says, God is breaking into their world, launching a new kingdom where the poor hear good news, the prisoners and captives are set free, and the blind and oppressed get new lives.
“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Now, right here. It’s happening not just in me, Jesus is saying, but in you. God is alive and at work right now, calling you, speaking words that are meant to send you out to do Christ’s work.
But Jesus keeps going—and this is next week’s lesson—when he probably should have stopped, and tells the crowd two brief stories about outsiders—a Syrian soldier and a poor pagan widow, both non-Jews and non-Israelites—who receive God’s blessing while the Israelites do not. Now he’s actually insulting the hometown crowd, and they become infuriated and almost throw him off a cliff and kill him. Here they are, having welcomed back their young star, and by the time church is over he has launched what sounds like a revolution, criticized the hometown crowd, let them know they aren’t the center of God’s universe, and unleashed a furious mob. So much for a nice sermon from their favorite son. So “this is the word of the Lord”?
And here we are. We’ve been listening to Jesus’ Inaugural Address, and he’s speaking to us too. “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus is giving his marching orders to his followers like you and me. God’s kingdom is breaking in now, and that is going to mean good news to the poor, release to the captives, and setting at liberty the oppressed.
These are not the words of a polite teacher. They are strong, provocative, disruptive, inspiring words—words a revolutionary might use to overthrow the way the world is working. He’s saying that a new world order is breaking in. And it’s not going to take over by power or weapons or a political party or by defeating an enemy. It is going to advance slowly, quietly, under the surface, like yeast in dough or a seed growing in the ground. This new order will take shape as people begin to believe it is real and begin to live that way for themselves. And its strategy will be loving strangers and forgiving enemies and living an open-hearted, generous life.
What, I wonder, is the intrusive word from the Lord we need to hear today? Who are the poor, the prisoners, the oppressed, and the forgotten in this moment that we should turn to? Let me name a few.
“The Spirit of the Lord has called me to preach good news to the poor,” Jesus says. We are living daily with the sight of the poor of Haiti—on our television, in the newspapers. A friend and former parishioner is a doctor with Partners in Health in Haiti, and he wrote this week from the Central Plateau in Haiti:
People are still arriving from Port-au-Prince, all the hospitals are filled…. Patients are dazed. The disruption to their families is beyond description. Many of our injured patients are not mobile, have few resources, have no home to return to, and many have lost their entire families. We care for their wounds. We listen. We grieve with them.
Many of the medical staff… have lost members of their own families. And yet they remain here, working tirelessly…. Those of us fortunate enough to be here to contribute to the immediate relief efforts labor side by side with complete humility. We are in awe of their strength, compassion, and dedication.
The Spirit of the Lord is on him. What about us? What can we do to be good news to the poor? Send checks, for sure. But what else? Somehow we need to commit for the long haul through an aid organization, or adopt a family or child, support a church. Or maybe simply serve the poor in this city who are close at hand—tutoring, working in a public school, building a relationship with a family.
“The Spirit of the Lord has called me to proclaim release to the prisoners.” I am learning more and more about the appalling life of prisoners in America, the nation with the largest prison population in the world in both percentage and number—over 2 million. Conditions are inhumane, prisoners are ignored, the justice system often fails them.
And when will we face the inhumanity of capital punishment in a system where 90% of those executed are poor, a disproportionate number are minorities, where DNA has shown that erroneous convictions have led to wrongful deaths, when there is no indication that this brutal treatment is a deterrent, and where the heart of Christian faith, the possibility of redemption, is ruled out?
Thomas Cahill, a Forum guest here last year, has written a book called A Saint on Death Row that details the story of Dominique Green, who as a boy was repeatedly tortured and abused by his mother, abandoned by his father, and at 18 was implicated in a shooting in which his three friends got off free by blaming him. His lawyer was incompetent, the conviction was clearly unjust. And for the next 20 years Dominique grew into a man of grace and kindness to everyone, only then to be executed.
Thoughtful people disagree on this, but it is hard to read Jesus’ refusal of violence and his readiness to forgive without wrestling deeply with the plight of people whose own lives have been brutalized as they have themselves done terrible things.
Good news to the poor, hope for the captives… What would Jesus have us do about desperate immigrants coming here seeking survival for their families? We have not found a humane response to this surge of fellow human beings seeking a better life for themselves and their families.
Did you wince at any of those issues I just listed? Welcome to dealing with Jesus. He is insistent, intrusive, demanding. He wants us to wrestle. He’s launching a movement to turn the world upside down.
We don’t all hear the same word from the Lord. We do have to listen for the strangeness of God’s word—the word from beyond us, beyond our politics, beyond our comfort, beyond our familiarity.
God has a role for every one of us to play in serving this kingdom where the least and the left out are gathered in.
My hope is that some of the times when you’re sitting in church things will get a little surprising. Who knows, hearing the scripture, listening to the sermon, singing a hymn, it will be as if you hear a voice up in the balcony—edgy, provocative, intrusive, breaking into your morning calling and claiming you and saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon you—to preach good news to the poor, release to the captives, and recovery of sight for the blind.”
And the voice will end by saying, “This is the word of the Lord—for you.”
[I’ve been helped by Thomas Long’s sermon “This Has Been Fulfilled” in Pulpit Resources, 2004.]