When Jesus comes to his hometown to stand, read, and interpret scripture, his actual standing up to read isn’t the problem. These scriptures from Isaiah had been heard before, handed down generation after generation, heard, discussed and interpreted way before Jesus comes along. Jesus asks for the ancient scroll. He moves his finger along the text and finds his place in it.
I say that “he finds his place in it,” as we might find our place today in any one of the lyrics of the songs that we sing, or the prayers we pray, or even, perhaps more importantly for this day, our budget document which faces the church. Where do we see ourselves, our purpose, our mission, or our input? Jesus unrolls the scroll and finds his place and purpose in these particular words of Isaiah: “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, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” It is his primary purpose, mission, and understanding of his faith.
Like those who had come to stand and read in the synagogue, the people thought they knew the scripture. When Messiah comes, Isaiah says, the blind will see, the chains of the oppressed will be broken, and the poor will hear good news that is for—and not against—them. Then Jesus arrives and applies these words not just to the Messiah, but to himself, saying “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The stress is on has been fulfilled—and not will be. The time is now. When Jesus proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor, when Jesus proclaims the Jubilee year in which debts will be forgiven, and in which the captives go free, he means now and not some future date. He means that this has happened by him, and not by some future Messiah. The waiting is over. As former President Obama once said, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”
When Jesus arrives at his hometown synagogue, he has had a bit of a following. The people in the surrounding towns have been eager to hear his message. No doubt, when he arrived at his hometown synagogue, many whom Jesus already knew or were related to were present in the gathering that day—here were his brethren, his cousins, and those who knew him as a child. Here were his teachers, those whom he would have known from the village square, and those whom he had passing acquaintance when attending market with his mother. And as he read, this grown man of thirty years, their eyes were fixed on him. Can you imagine their expressions? Were some skeptical? Were some open eyed and smiling? Were some smirking? Were some fiddling with their sandals or distracted by children? Yet, something that he said, something about the way he said it, created the moment at hand.
In the following passage, we are told that some of his listeners were filled with rage. He has reminded them about their own scriptures, their own responsibility to the poor, and his mission and identity. And by declaring his own identity in such a public way, he has reminded them about their own identity as a people shaped by God.
Luke tells us in the following passage that the people listening to Jesus that day were at first amazed, and then furious. It will be foreshadowing for Jesus’ life in ministry. To stand in his truth while the people move back and forth between their understanding and support, and their fury at the truth which cuts to their hearts about God’s desire to lift the oppressed and bring well-being to the poor. They are confronted, in that moment, about the truth about how we are tied to God’s vision and how we manifest that vision or do not manifest it in the world beyond our domicile and beyond our blood ties.
The great writer, Flannery O’Connor, once wrote, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” It is part of spiritual maturation to grow a stomach for the truth. It is part of our faith to examine where, when, and how we might drift from the original purpose and identity that Jesus claimed for himself and why. It is part of our self-examination and communal examination to hold the various priorities that we have in the light of Jesus’ hometown message and to see if he engages us or enrages us, inspires us or causes us to turn away sadly like the rich young man who had too many possessions to let go of any.
But I also think that Jesus has something to teach us about standing up courageously in our own truth as Christians and a people of faith. It is a courageous thing to say that this Jesus has something to teach us about our humanity or lack of humanity towards one another both in the public square and in our own homes. It is hard sometimes to stand in the light of one’s truth and in service of one’s God when you know it will bring you grief or further abuse. It is hard to courageously stand up for oneself when one’s experience may be radically different from friends and even family.
Yet Jesus does not just stand up for himself—but he stands up for others before others. His is not a private faith but a public proclamation. His is not provocation for provocation’s sake, but for the sake of communal change and transformation of the communal heart. His is not public display for narcissistic supply, but for the sustenance and support of the marginalized and debt-burdened. He says, in so many words, that he will be part of the solution, not the problem. He says that he will proclaim the year of the Lord, the year of the Jubilee, even when others –who have more power and influence—refuse to do so. He says that he will enact Isaiah’s words even when others prefer to wait on another indefinitely. And for this stand, Jesus is run out of town to a cliff’s edge. It is a hard beginning to his vocation and call.
For what causes or people are you willing to stand? In our public square last week, we witnessed three different people standing for three different kinds of communal vision: teenagers on a fieldtrip from Covington Catholic High School, a Native American activist who was in D.C. for an Indigenous Peoples Rally, and a group of Hebrew Israelites. The sad thing about this incident and the contrasting viewpoints offered about its escalation is how those who stood with and against one another were trading noise and chants, divisive politics, and powerful emotions. However one viewed the incident often depended also on one’s own preferences and politics. So when we talk here about standing as Jesus stood in the synagogue, it is not to drown an opponent with our own noise or deeply held opinions; it is not to trade barbs or slurs, or to create provocation for provocation’s sake, but to stand and act upon a mission and purpose that we have discerned from the trajectory of God’s actions on behalf of the poor, marginalized, and disenfranchised. It is to stand in the uncomfortable truth whomever our supposed opponent may be, that same person also is loved and cherished by God. It is to stand, as Jesus did, in the midst of stormy waters, and to be a place of calm and peace, not mockery, not bullying, and not denigration of another human soul.
Even so, quite frankly, it is hard to stand when we want to sit one out. It is hard to say, “I declare…” when we are fearful of another’s power or our own financial well-being or security. It is hard to stand when we may be unsure of consequences or even if we have a full picture. It is hard to follow and to fund Jesus when we ourselves may feel the pinch of promises unmet or diminished possibilities. And yet, God brings fruition to our efforts to stand as well as we can with what we have and who we are– together. Even our sitting-one-out can bring change, if it means that another may stand in our stead and carry on God’s work with intention and renewed energy. Even sitting can mean change, if someone expects us only to stand for the status quo or to stand at the back of the bus.
So, friends, for what causes are you moved to proclaim the year of Jubilee, the year of the Lord? For what causes would you go to bat for Jesus? For what cause are you personally anointed to bring good news to the poor? For what will you stand, for what will we stand together as a church?
I am reminded of a poem by writer, Ruth Forman. In “Stand,” she writes:
why so afraid to stand up?
someone will tell you
but here is the truth
someone will always tell you
the ones we remember
Sisters and brothers, on this Annual Meeting Sunday, may you stand and sit, wisely and well. Amen.