Sermons

Something You Said; Rev. Dee Ledger; January 23, 2022

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…(John 1)

The written word and the spoken word have life.  In two recent books, Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr and The Book of Form and Emptiness, by Ruth Ozeki, books occupy a central place in the story.  In one story, books fly from shelves and allow future persons to travel in 3D back in time and a particular story shapes generations in the past, present, and in space-time, a distant future.  In another book, books are actual, living entities with voices, disappointments, hopes, community, emptiness, and the capacity to form intimate relationships.

The written word and the spoken word have life…in you.

Which is to say that books, the written word, and the stories we tell, whether spoken, sung, whispered, read, shouted, or ignored – have immense power.  Of course, you who read and look for God’s message in the bible know this intimately; words have life, in their various forms.

Have you ever been searching for something, or out on an errand, and someone says something to you, something that you needed to hear, something that seemed “just for you,” something that fell upon your ear or your heart or stuck in your mind so much that you felt it was divine intervention?  Have you ever opened the pages of your bible, or heard a podcast, talked to a stranger, or found a random slip of paper in your pocket that seemed to have a message just for you?

We look for meaning in various places; we are meaning-making creatures.  Particularly when we yearn deeply or when we are trying to navigate choppy waters, or when we are lost in a state of fog…we try to forge meaning and make sense of our lives through the words we see, hear, and experience as embodied.

Jesus’ first sermon were borrowed words that he heard, he embodied, and then shared.  The words that he used when he stood up to face his family’s friends and the hometown crowd in the synagogue weren’t his own.  Those words belonged to Isaiah from long ago and they had form, power, and magnetism.  Jesus knew those words had life and he saw his life reflected in those words, in the same manner that memes or a quote on social media might immediately resonate with you, might cling to you, or comfort you.  You want to share that resonance, that immediacy, and the way those words seem meant for you.

So, too, we borrow the words and ideas of others to shape our personal truths, our hopes for humankind, and even our own narrative.  None of us form our life’s story completely from scratch—in a very real sense, we are each other’s words of life—and death.

In the scroll Jesus read, Jesus found words that had meaning for him and for others; but they were Isaiah’s manifesto, Isaiah’s take on life.  And because Isaiah’s truth captivated Jesus too, he shared them with the congregation that day in Nazareth.  In doing so, Jesus said, this is who I am and who I will be; in these words, you will find my life, my call, and my purpose—from God’s mouth to my heart to your ears, or more succinctly, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.”

Friends, what words do you use to describe your life, your call, and your purpose?  Are they words of hope and trust?  Or words of defeat?  It’s completely okay if you struggle to answer this question.  If I were to ask you what your manifesto, your message to the world is, what would you say?  What words would you choose?  Would you borrow the words of another master of language, like Jesus borrowed Isaiah’s words?  Or would you quote your great-grandmother’s kitchen table talk?  Would you carefully craft your own message and place it in a book that you give to your grandchild on his 10th birthday?  Or would you write a letter to be opened upon your death that summarized how you’ve lived and why?  All of these are manifestos of a sort.

I’ve found that the words that give life and that appeal to us change over time.  Words that you sung passionately at one time in your life may not sound the same to you years later because you have changed in time and they resonate in a different way.  Quotes that you might have circled or underlined as a new parent might speak differently as an empty-nester or a retiree.  And our own person manifesto, our own “take” on life, our strongly held opinions, or the way we shape meaning, purpose, and our own foundational truths may slowly grow and change, only to return to similar themes at a later date.

Jesus’ words that first Sabbath were not completely original to him—so it’s completely okay to borrow your foundational truth.  However, his interpretation was.  Your desire to embody God’s values will give that truth life, will give your interpretation life; the reverse happens as well.  What we don’t embody loses life, luster, and meaning.  For a long while, I admired several passages in Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography about how human beings reach and grow.  I’m not sure I’d embrace them quite the same way now.

Did you know that books can read us too?  The bible does this.  While we try to make sense of context and story, the story speaks to us and reads our emotions, our character, and our experience—which is why we can see parts of ourselves in different characters and in different settings at the same time.

So, Jesus unrolls the scroll and proclaims release to the captives by saying that he is anointed to do this holy work, among other things, with his life.

Now, the bible shows us that we have all been captives at one time or another.  Maybe we have not personally suffered from slavery, in the sense of our African brothers and sisters in the past.  And maybe we are not imprisoned physically behind bars, like those convicted of crimes.  But our minds and hearts can be confined, constricted, and imprisoned by circumstances, beliefs, hardships, idols, the past, and all manner of pain.  The human spirit longs to be free: to play, to seek, to find, to love unhindered, to hope unwaveringly, and to experience life in all of its variety, beauty, and depth.  Think of the last time that you felt trapped and why that was.  Part of religion, part of the bible story, is to speak freedom to captives, to the trapped, the hurting, the indebted, the confined, cramped and constricted.  Jesus saw this as part of his purpose: to give life and release to the captives and to announce a Jubilee year, the year of the Lord’s favor.

Start with each other.  Nadia Bolz Weber writes, “there is loosing to be done in this world. We are bound by our failures and missteps and the words we said in our worst moments. They form the bars in our spiritual prison cells. And we gotta take the keys out whenever we can and free each other — remind each other that we are forgiven.

“We need to be loosed. Loosed from that which weighs us down, our sin, shame, and despair.  Loosed from us our pride, anger and resentment and guilt for not being able to live up to even our own values.”[1]

In speaking words of life, Jesus took the keys out.  Those trapped by poverty became rich.  Those trapped by communal shunning and rejection found community and relationship.  Those imprisoned by judgement, sin, societal injustice, and misfortune found release through the embodied love and speech of Jesus and his disciples.

So, what went wrong on that first sermon Sunday?  Why did the good folk of Jesus’ synagogue rise up in anger at Jesus’ borrowed manifesto?  Basically, he says that the prophets have been speaking these words over and over again but the people could no longer receive the word in such a way to change their lives or free one another.  To borrow Nadia’s words, they refused to take the keys out.

But friends, that is where the comparison stops.  Here, you CAN and you DO.  Here, you both speak and share, listen and transform.  The words that you choose to use and to embody free those oppressed by this pandemic, free those oppressed by disparity, and free those oppressed by micro-aggressions, too many obligations, and ill-health.  You, Bethesda United Church of Christ, have that power.  You, whether visitor or member, friend or family, share in that blessing.  You are anointed by your God, your history, and this present moment to bring a good and living word to those within your circle of influence, within your community, and within your digital world.  You are both listener and speaker of the borrowed word and the embodied word in Jesus.  The transformation that you seek already lies within you because the word lives in your desire and in your daily actions.

The famous Garrison Keillor once related this story about the poet, Maya Angelou:

When she was 3 years old, [poet Maya Angelou’s] parents’ marriage ended, and her father put Angelou and her brother on a train and sent them to a tiny town in Arkansas to live with their grandparents…Occasionally she went back to live with her mother, and during one of these periods, her mother’s boyfriend raped 7-year-old Angelou. She told her family, and the man was murdered, possibly by her uncles. [But] Angelou felt responsible, and she stopped speaking for five years. She said: ‘I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone.’

Angelou and her brother went back to live with their grandmother in Stamps. One day she met Bertha Flowers, a stylish, educated black woman who wore voile dresses and flowered hats and had a library of great books. Flowers took the girl under her wing; she had a beautiful voice, and she read aloud from her favorite novels and poems — from Shakespeare, Dickens, Poe, and many more. She was insistent that language was the most important thing that separated people from all other species, and not just written words, but also spoken word. When Angelou was 12, Flowers took her to the library and suggested that she read everything, beginning with books whose titles began with the letter “A”; Angelou eventually read every book in the library.

Flowers encouraged Angelou to memorize and recite literature, especially poems, and slowly, by reciting other peoples’ words, the girl began to speak again.[2]

Friends, you can give God’s word life and meaning.  You, too, can speak a good word starting today.

But there’s one more thing…

And don’t run me off a cliff for saying this too:

You can be either captive to your purpose or captivated by your purpose.

You get to decide.

You get to embody the one that you choose.

And you get to tell the story—whether borrowed or not.

Because the strength of the story, the key to sharing God’s freedom, is in your hands.

Amen.

 

[1] Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Confession and Cancelation: a sermon on Forgiveness,” August 23, 2020.

https://nadiabolzweber.substack.com/p/confession-and-cancelation.

 

[2] Garrison Keillor, The Writer’s Almanac for April 4, 2020.

http://www.garrisonkeillor.com/radio/twa-the-writers-almanac-for-april-4-2020/.

 

Menu Title