Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“Setting the Agenda”
Rev. Art Ritter
January 27, 2019
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.”
I tend to be a border line procrastinator. I’m not as bad as some people I know but I am finding that the older I get the more I tend to put things off or delay doing them. There is an old story about a farm boy who accidently overturned his wagonload of corn in the road as he was taking it to market. A farmer who lived nearby ran out to investigate. “Hey Willis,” he called out. “Forget your troubles for a spell and come on in to my house and have some dinner. Then I will go out there with you and take care of the wagon.” Willis replied, “Why, that’s mighty nice of you neighbor, but I don’t think Pa would like me to.” “Aw, come on, son! Take a break for dinner!” the farmer insisted. “Well okay,” said the young boy, finally agreeing. “But Pa won’t like it.” After a hearty dinner, Willis thanked his host. “I feel a whole lot better now,” he said. “But I just know that Pa is going to be real upset.” “Don’t be foolish,” exclaimed the neighbor. “By the way, where is your Pa?” Willis answered, “He’s under the wagon.”
One of the questions that I often get from parishioners is “How is it possible to write a sermon every week?” Those of you who have had the opportunity to write and deliver a sermon know just how hard or how easy composing such a discourse can really be. I have to admit that if there is any place in sermon writing that is harder than the rest, it is the very beginning. After hearing the story about the wagon, you can probably agree! Usually I know where I want the sermon to go. Usually I will find a general lesson or theme that fits the assigned scripture passage. But often it is difficult introducing it. I work hard at creating a scene that captures your attention or at the very least creates a landscape of the scene. A colleague once told me that he writes the beginning of his sermon at the end, when everything else is completed. I’ve tried that but I find that it works best for me when I start at the very beginning, knowing what I want to say, introducing what I want to say, and then doing my best to say what I want to say.
The lesson that we heard from the fourth chapter of Luke is really the story of the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the opening words of his sermon of healing and preaching and teaching. The story of Jesus preaching in his hometown synagogue sets the stage for everything else that follows. This sermon comes at the very beginning of his ministry, at least according to the gospel of Luke. It takes place immediately after his baptism and temptation and before there are any specific accounts of interactions with others. Luke says that Jesus was “filled with power of the Spirit” and that there was lots of talk about him before that day. He had taught in some synagogues and people were praising him.
On that day, in his hometown of Nazareth, in the very synagogue in which he grew up, Jesus was given the privilege of reading and commenting on the ancient Hebrew Scripture. He chose a passage from the prophet Isaiah, words that are familiar to all of us, “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.” I think of these words often. They were painted in huge, colorful letters that wrapped around two of the walls in the cafeteria of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, which I attended. The words were there to remind us why we were there, the purpose of being called to Christian ministry.
Some commentators have compared the scene described in this scripture passage with the inaugural addresses of American presidents. Such speeches establish priorities and announce a vision of what the elected leader has in mind for the country. Students of history are likely to recall Abraham Lincoln’ second inaugural where he spoke of the evil of slavery and the price the nation had paid for such a curse. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural contained the words “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Of course, some of us can even remember the inaugural of John F. Kennedy when he spoke of the price that needed to be paid for freedom and delivered the memorable words, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Jesus’ words are much same. They are an announcement of his mission, an establishment of his priorities, a setting of his agenda, and a statement of his urgency. Jesus’ sermon was a reminder of God’s promise and presence in the here and now.
With that, Jesus rolled up the scripture scroll and the congregation waited for his comments. Would he preach about the world the prophet envisioned? Would he point toward the future, renewing the promised day of a coming Messiah? Would he talk about the oppression of the Roman Empire? Would he share a bit about the attention he had been receiving throughout the land? He did none of those things. Instead he simply said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The listeners must have been shocked. He did not focus on the past or on the future. He did not deal with nostalgia or hope. It is interesting that according to Luke, the very first public word that Jesus spoke was the word, “Today.” Today. You will see it. It will happen right in front of you. It can happen because of you. Not yesterday or tomorrow. Today. In his very first sermon, Jesus placed himself and his listeners fully in the midst of God’s unfolding work. He told them that they were part of God’s agenda in the here and now.
Diana Butler Bass writes that “today” may have been the most radical thing that Jesus ever said. She said, “Today is a deeply dangerous spiritual reality- because today insists that we lay aside both our memories and our dreams to embrace fully the moment of now. The past romanticizes the work of our ancestors; the future scans the horizons of our descendants and depends upon them fix everything. But “today” places us in the midst of the sacred drama, reminding us that we are actors and agents in God’s desire for the world.”
This was not a message that Jesus’ hometown family and friends received well. It made them uncomfortable. It challenged them to do something. It pushed them to heed God’s call. God’s Kingdom today is the agenda of Jesus. It should make us uncomfortable. It should challenge us. It should open our eyes and ears to the times and places where we are called to do God’s work. Today God’s promise has been fulfilled in our hearing. Today we need to live in ways that release captives, bring good news to the poor, help the blind to see, and set the oppressed free.
Preacher and professor Tom Long told a story about being asked to preach at a special family service at a small church. The notion was that the service would be held not in the church sanctuary, but in the social hall. Families would gather around tables, in the center of which would be the ingredients for making a small loaf of bread. The plan was for the families to make bread together, and then while the bread was baking with all of the sweet aroma, the preacher would preach. When the bread was baked, it would be brought out for a celebration of the Lord’s Supper. It was a great idea. It didn’t work well. Within minutes the social hall was enveloped in a cloud of flour. Soggy dough balls bounced off Rev. Long’s new suit as the children tossed bits of it at one another. The ovens didn’t work right and it took forever for the bread to bake. People were getting cranky and families were on the verge of falling apart. The script called for Long to pronounce a special blessing before the sacrament but given the irritability of the crowd and the frustration of the moment, Long simply held up his two flour-caked hands in the air and said, “The peace of god be with you.” Immediately, from the back of the trashed social hall came a young child’s voice, “It already is.”
We come to worship each week with our lives in disorder and our world in a broken mess. We come believing that the Kingdom of God has come to be in Jesus the Christ yet we know full well that there is still much that is incomplete and damaged. But as people of faith we are not to give up in the nostalgic recollection of a better day. We are not to remain stagnant, abandoning our responsibilities to a future time and people when things will get better. Jesus told his hometown family and friends, “Look around you. The Spirit of God is at work. Today. God is with you, right now.” Consider God’s promise and be attentive to how that promise is being kept this very moment. Jesus set the agenda. The work of that agenda begins today.