The lesson from Hebrew scripture and the Gospel lesson that have been paired together today describe what has become a familiar scene for us–the reading of Scripture to a gathered community and an interpretation or teaching of it.  Ezra the priest reads the law of Moses to the people of Israel, recently returned from exile, who have gathered in the square facing the Water Gate.  Jesus returns to his home synagogue, after being baptized and tested in the wilderness, and is handed the scroll with the prophet Isaiah on it, a portion of which he reads to them, concluding with “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

It’s what we do every Sunday morning here–someone reads a portion of our tradition’s Scriptures–usually one from our Hebrew tradition and one from the Christian testament–and they often conclude that reading by saying, “May God add understanding to the hearing of this word” or “This is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and this is good news!” or “Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church.”  Our more liturgical brothers and sisters say, “This is the word of the Lord.” And the response is,   “Thanks be to God!” and, after the gospel reading, “This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” with the response, “Praise be to you, Lord Jesus Christ.”

For Jews, Christians, and Muslims, there are certain written words that are considered sacred, or scripture–the Torah, the Bible, the Koran.  Other traditions have texts and sacred writings which illustrate eternal truths, but for the Abrahamic faiths, God is somehow present in the words on the page.  We differ across and within traditions as to how we understand that Presence–  Is it word for word, dictated by God, or are the words “God-breathed,” as Eugene Peterson says, through their human authors in their very concrete human contexts?  Did “God say it, we believe it, that settles it”? Or, as we say in the United Church of Christ, is God “still speaking”?

Wrestling with the texts is a time-honored Jewish tradition.  In fact, Israel’s name means “one who has wrestled with God.”  (You may recall the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel.) Students of the Torah sit across from one another and literally go back and forth, debating, arguing, examining all sides of the text.  The Talmud is a collection of stories and commentaries of the rabbis who have imaginatively expanded the text.  Faithful Muslims memorize the Koran–
the whole thing–so one must immerse oneself in that text, understand what you’re saying, if you are to be able to hold such a body of work in your heart and mind.

We Christians, on the other hand, especially those of us in the more “liberal” traditions, are more likely to regard our bibles as holy but prefer to keep them at arm’s length.  We may know or recognize a few passages–we recognize the shepherds and angels in the Christmas story, for example, or the creation story in Genesis, but do we know that there are two different creation stories there?  How many of us can really find our way around our Bibles, and when we happen upon one of those bizarre or especially troubling or violent passages, do we know what to do with them, except slam our bibles shut and exclaim, “That’s why I don’t read the Bible!”  You may have grown up in a different time and with a different approach to the bible, but I can tell you that more and more people have no training or experience at all in reading, let alone wrestling, with the bible, and the public exploitation of biblical texts to condemn or exclude people is becoming many people’s only exposure to this sacred text.  That’s why one of the 3 main goals of the UCC is to educate about and immerse our members in this text so that we can offer a different understanding and living out of its truth.

In the story from Nehemiah which David read for us this morning, the people wept when they heard the law and had it interpreted for them.  (From the very beginning, the texts have been explained and interpreted.)  We are not told why they wept, but I imagine that after being in exile for a couple generations, and coming to understand their exile as the consequence of their having turned away from God and God’s law, that it was a bittersweet homecoming to their Truth.  This is how God wants us to live, this is who we are meant to be, this is our true identity…and look how far we’ve gone astray from that.  The recognition of that and the deep understanding of the pain that wandering and turning away had caused them dropped them to their knees.  That is what a recognition of guilt–what we’ve done or haven’t done that has caused harm to ourselves or others–can do, but it should not leave us there, on our knees, weeping.  As long as we can recognize those actions or thoughts that have taken us away from our true center, we can get up off our knees and continue the journey, wiser to the pitfalls that await us and that have tripped us up before.

“This day is holy to the Lord your God,”Nehemiah and Ezra and the Levites say to the people. “Do not mourn or weep…go your way..” Eat and drink and share what you have with those who don’t have anything… “and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,” Jesus read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, “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.”  Even Jesus picked and chose verses from Scripture, or at least Luke does as he tells this story.  These words are actually from a couple of different chapters in Isaiah, and Jesus leaves out, “to proclaim the day of vengeance of our God.”

Here in this season of inaugurals, we might think of this as Jesus’ inaugural address.  This is his vision for his ministry, this is how he understands his calling–anointed by God to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of God’s favor.  This is what the kingdom of God looks like.  It has arrived and it is still coming.

But just as some Americans heard President Obama’s second inaugural speech as visionary, hopeful, empowering and others heard it as a power grab, a frightening liberal rant; so too the people in the synagogue in Nazareth had different responses.  Our assigned reading for today ends at a rather deceptive point, for next week we’ll read that while some thought Jesus spoke remarkably well, especially for a carpenter’s son, others thought he had become too big for his britches, and in fact, by the end of the scene, the crowd turns into a mob trying to throw Jesus off a cliff.  “What child is this?!” indeed!

Good news to the poor, release of the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and God’s kingdom come sound like good news in the abstract.  But when you start to get real, the news sounds less good–you mean, good news for the poor means I have to share? You mean, I’m actually holding some of the chains of those prisoners?  You mean, my eyes are the ones that need to be opened to the truth?  You mean, the structures that oppress some people actually benefit me?  You mean, God’s kingdom come means my comfortable world will get shaken up?  This is the “good news”?  And for Jesus’ neighbors, who were some of those who were oppressed, where was that phrase about ‘the day of  the vengeance of God’?

Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address was, like Barack Obama’s, relatively brief as inaugural speeches go, but it was actually critical of the nation, it named slavery as one of the sins of the nation.  Like Obama’s speech, like Jesus’ reading and interpretation, it too engendered wildly different and emotionally charged responses.  Jesus’ choice of text and his interpretation of it are good news only to those who acknowledge that all is not right, that too many people are hearing and living only the bad news of shame, of oppression, of exclusion.  This isn’t some “new age” thinking that Jesus has come up with–he reaches back into the tradition, back to ancient notion of “jubilee,” “the year of God’s favor,” where every 50 years, all debts are forgiven, the land returns to the original owner (who, by the way, is God) and all slaves and prisoners are released.  It is an old hope given new life.

Leslie Cooke writes, “Too long we have been concerned that our gospel should give offense; it is time we were concerned that it is not giving offense enough.  Our condemnation is not that [people] sometimes oppose the gospel but that so many ignore it.  If people paid us the tribute of their antagonism, we should have less cause for concern.”  (Faith Stakes a Claim, cited in Vt. Conference e-Kit, 1/24/13)   Are people criticizing and staying away from our churches because we are setting too many people free from the prisons of self-hatred and doubt and fear?  Are our numbers dwindling because we feed too many hungry people or house too many homeless people?  Or are we just too easy to ignore?  Does anybody notice what we do?

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,” Jesus read, ““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.”   The story of that reading in the Nazareth synagogue is not over yet–we’ll read what comes next next Sunday, and Jesus’ vision continues to guide us as live into God’s future for us.  In the meantime, I offer these words which echo those of Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr. and all those who throughout the ages, have called us to come home to our Truth–

Within the belljar of your heart let freedom ring…
And if that means one gesture today of permission to love your self or another a bit more kindly so be it…
And if that means a clarion call against oppression in your own backyard so be it…
And if that means a shofar blast of awakening to the potential within each of us to care for one another so be it…
And if that means a resonant voice in front of a crowd naming a shining future that is possible in a time that is dangerous then so be it.
What ever it looks like, however it sounds, however small or grand the shift, let freedom ring.
We must wear this mantle and carry this staff as if it was gifted to us…and it was…and we must.
(Maria Sirois, Daily Inspiration, 1/25/13)

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark

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