First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
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.”
As some of you know, I was raised as an evangelical. And there were many wonderful things about that tradition that formed and continue to form my faith and ministry. For example, I was taught a great respect for the Bible, and learned its stories and its teachings from a very early age. And I learned a deep love for Jesus Christ, and a firm belief that he is, indeed, Lord of All.
I carried that evangelical label for a long time, even when my own life led me in a different direction. But somewhere along the line, my comfort-level with the label began to change - because the church of my childhood began to change. It seemed to get lost in the pursuit of political power. Something called the Culture Wars erupted and evangelical religion was right in the center of it. And the basic message of Jesus – to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself – seemed to me to be eclipsed by the pursuit of power. And to this day, I mourn that loss.
Truth is, I mourn a lot of things about the church – conservative and progressive. I mourn that the church is so divided, just like our country. I mourn that so many churches are closing, and so many more will. Experts tell us that 85% of American congregations are in decline. I mourn the church’s diminished influence for society’s good. I mourn the fact that the church has become a subject of derision, the punchline of a million bad jokes. I mourn that we often brought that on ourselves. I mourn that so many young people feel no connection to the church at all. And I wonder, what will become of us? And I wonder, how on earth did we get here?
I had an associate minister in my last parish who once told me that my problem was that I still believed in the church. He, on the other hand, claimed that he didn’t. His faith was in God alone, he said. But he had no hope that the church would ever fulfill its calling. But I do. I guess I’m a dreamer. But then again, so was Jesus.
And what was his dream? Well, he laid it out in the very first sermon that he ever preached. Jesus had gone back to his hometown of Nazareth. At that time, Nazareth was a village of several hundred, many of them relatives of Jesus. So there he was, amongst his siblings and cousins, their spouses and children and in-laws.
It was the custom of the day that any male might be handed a Torah scroll to read a passage and then to make some comments about it. On this day, the attendant handed the scroll to Jesus, maybe because he was home visiting. Jesus stood up to read, as was the custom. Then Jesus sat down to teach, as was the custom. These physical movements made a clear delineation between the words of Scripture and the words of commentary or sermon.
Jesus’s sermon that day was exceedingly short. He simply read the passage from Isaiah and then said: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Well you could have heard a pin drop because the people understood this passage to be about the Messiah, the promised Savior. But Jesus certainly couldn’t be that, could he? And so they began to whisper: “We’ve known him since he was a boy. We know his family. We know that crazy story about how he was conceived. He always was a little strange. Just who does he think he is?”
Who indeed? In this short sermon, Jesus makes quite a claim about who he is. And as shocking as this claim was, it’s even more shocking when you dig a little bit. It’s shocking because of what Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah. And it’s shocking because of what Jesus did notread from the scroll of Isaiah.
So let’s look first at what he read: "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."
Now, this was a passage that everyone in the synagogue would have known because it was an essential part of their national narrative. Its original context was the Babylonian exile – that awful time in the past when the people of God had lost a war with Babylon, and the best and the brightest had been carted off to live in a foreign land. The Holy City had been destroyed, and with it, their sense of identity. This passage, then, was a bright promise of restoration and a return home.
Biblical scholars say that in this inaugural address, Jesus actually laid out his vision for everything else he ever did – from his teaching, to his miracles, to his great compassion. And in saying: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” Jesus claimed that the work of God continues in every age. God’s people are called to the holy work of good news, release, recovery, freedom, and favor every day.
Now, what Jesus didn’t read. The attendant handed Jesus the scroll with the passage to be read already marked. But Jesus made an incredibly bold editorial choice right on the spot. Remember that the original context was the bitter captivity of Babylon. And after that kind of humiliation, the people wanted to see their enemies punished. This passage concludes with a prayer for “the day of vengeance of our God.” But Jesus did not read that part.
Renowned biblical scholar “N.T. Wright suggests that this omission (therefore) would have offended those first-century Jews who understandably hungered for God's vengeance on all of their enemies..." Don’t we all. But set a different course for his own ministry, and thus for the ministry of his church – for the ministry of this church.
And that brings me back to my original quandary: how did so many of us Christians get so lost on the way? How did we come to understand our faith primarily as power and control and political will and even vengeance? How did we forget the basics of humility and service and forgiveness and compassion and justice?
I have stood in this pulpit for one year and one week. And during this time, I have observed your faithfulness, your diligence, your love, and your commitment to welcome all in Christ. What a wonderful congregation this is. - But I have also observed your struggles with some basic questions like: what is our mission? What is our purpose? Why are we still here? How do we stay here?
Friends, these are frightening times for the American church. And so we reach for solutions we know. Our go-to model has been the American business model. It is for most churches. We see the statistics and trends and ask, “How are we doing as a church?” which really means how are we doing in terms of membership and attendance and giving. We talk about market share and demographics. We think about branding and promotions. I think about those things all the time. But maybe the more pressing question is: how is our soul? How is our commitment to the Gospel?
Immediately after this service we will gather in the Parish Hall for our Annual Meeting. And we will primarily use a business model to discuss where we are and how we’re doing. And that’s OK. But I think we can go a step further as we reflect on Jesus’s first sermon. Instead of simply talking about the budget and how much we are allotting for this or for that, what if we also asked: how does our budget and its priorities actually bring good news to poor people? How does my pledge; how does your pledge proclaim release to those who are captive to addictions and depression and hopelessness? How does the work of our boards and committees light up the dark places in this town and the towns around us? How do our programs relieve oppression – not teach us about oppression, but actually relieve it? How do we use this beautiful building and our beautiful Green to make it clear that 2019 is the year of the Lord’s favor? And how do we do that without grasping for power and control?
Jesus took the scroll, stood, and read: "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 now he hands the scroll to us. What will we say?