Sunday, January 27, 2019
First Congregational United Church of Christ of Manhattan, KS
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
You may have looked ahead in your bulletin today and noted that the sermon title is “The World’s Shortest Sermon.” Alas, the sermon *I* am about to preach is not the world’s shortest sermon. It’s a regular ol’ medium-ish sermon. I apologize if I ruined your day.
The World’s Shortest Sermon in question is one we heard just a few moments ago from the Gospel of Luke. Did you catch it? It’s pretty short, so let me just refresh your memory. Jesus went to his hometown of Nazareth. Whie he was in the synagogue, the scroll containing the words of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him and he read a portion aloud. Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.
The gathered congregation waited expectantly to see what commentary Jesus might provide on these selected verses from the 61st chapter of Isaiah. Their eyes were fixed on him. They leaned forward with bated breath.
This is the audience participation part. Go ahead, lean in.
They waited….and that’s when Jesus preached the World’s Shortest Sermon: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
That was it. Nine words in Hebrew. Full disclosure, I don’t actually know if this is the world’s shortest sermon but it’s gotta be a strong contender, right?
A lot has been said about this brief sermon over the years. Many learned scholars have said things like, “Huh?” And “What does that even mean?”
The portion of Luke that we heard today is really part of a longer segment that continues on through verse 30. We are going to study this second part of the story next week. As we look at this text today, I want to look at the HOW of what’s happening. When we return to the text next week, we’re going to look at the WHAT.
So first, HOW.
Because the how of Jesus’s sermon is important. Here we have Jesus, hometown boy who is starting to get a reputation as an important teacher. He remixes a few lines from the prophet Isaiah and then says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
The first thing to notice about the how of this sermon is HOW it took place in Jesus’s home synagogue. Those of us who call ourselves Christians must always be mindful that the one we follow was not Christian, but Jewish. His Jewishness is on full display here as he returns to the place where he likely received his religious education and demonstrates that he is very much an insider. He knows all the ins and outs of how to receive the scroll, unroll it just right, read the text aloud.
(You can even envision a little flashback to Jesus’s bar mitzvah with his mom and dad beaming proudly in the back of a crowded synagogue as teenage Jesus confidently and fluently reads the Hebrew that he’s been practicing at home. Okay, you CAN do that but it would be inaccurate because Jesus missed the opportunity to be bar mitzvahed by a few centuries.)
Nevertheless, he would have done his parents proud. He was brought up in the faith and it’s important for us to remember that everything Jesus taught was informed by his Jewish faith.
A second thing to notice about the “how” of Jesus’s leadership in the synagogue: he re-mixes the text from Isaiah. It’s not a direct quote, what he’s reading. The spirit is very much the same, but the words differ slightly.
Now, sometimes you’ll hear Christian teachers talk about how Jesus was some kind of radical who turned the teachings of Judaism upside down, threw the law out with the baby’s bathwater, and ushered in a new type of Judaism that was radically different than everything that had come before.
But this isn’t true.
Yes, Jesus had his own spin on the scriptures. Like any other Jewish teacher, he emphasized some of his favorite things and asked lots of hard questions. He re-mixed some stories and teachings here and there. Doing so was not at all unusual. Judaism has always been a vibrant religion with living scriptures. Texts are interrogated, details are added, stories are smushed together. All of this would have been very comfortable to Jesus and his audience.
The third “how” I want us to pay attention to today has to do with the way the author of Luke relays this story to us. The amount of time spent explaining exactly what Jesus is doing (the sitting, the standing, the scroll-rolling) is much longer than the nine words that Jesus speaks. I think this is to call attention to Jesus’s status as a respected Jewish teacher and it also serves another purpose.
We are supposed to be paying attention to the way Jesus embodies this particular moment. This is his big debut. The moment when he lays out his mission statement. The sermon that sets the stage for every other thing that is to follow in his ministry.
And two things are happening in this mission statement moment: first, Jesus says that the text is fulfilled today. Meaning that when Jesus shows up, filled with the Spirit (see verse 14), and speaks these words….something powerful is happening. Not because of his eloquence but because of all of it. The people present, the words spoken, the Word that embodies the text.
Sermons aren’t always about the words we say. Some of the most powerful sermons are embodied without words at all. Can you think of a time when you’ve experienced something powerful and true and good and right about the Holy that had nothing to do with words spoken from a pulpit?
What’s happening in Nazareth in Luke 4 reminds me of that quote that is oft-attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel always. If necessary, use words.” It turns out St. Francis probably didn’t say those words….but it’s easy to understand why they are attributed to him because he lived them with his life.
St. Francis lived in the 12th and 13th centuries in central Europe. He is probably best known as the guy who has a lot of birds and other animals with him in various icons. But there’s a lot more to Francis than just his love of animals. He was born into a wealthy merchant’s family and had a privileged upbringing. In his young adult years he fought in a war and had several mystical religious experiences that led him into a period of transformation. Eventually, he denounced his wealthy upbringing, left his family, and devoted his life to following Christ, petitioning the Pope to begin a new religious order.
Though he was not a priest, Francis was given a special dispensation to preach. What he is remembered for is preaching in the open air, which was particularly revolutionary in a primarily pre-literate society. Those of us who can read take for granted how easy it is to access information. If we want to learn a Bible story, we just look it up...either in our own copy of the Bible or at the library or on our phones. Not so in 13th century Europe. People relied on preachers (and stained glass!) to learn the Bible.
Francis traveled everywhere to preach outdoors - taking the word of God to people as they paused from their daily labors. And his preaching, like Jesus’s brief sermon in Luke 4, wasn’t primarily about the words coming out of his mouth. Francis once said, “It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.” He tried to not only life his life in a manner consistent with his faith, but also preached in unusual and creative ways. For example, the concept of a Live Nativity may have begun with Francis, who boldly brought animals right into the Church, not as a theatrical stunt but as a way of communicating a powerful theological message. Pastor Jamie Arpin-Ricci says, “[Francis] brought into the heart of the church and the Scriptures the messy reality of the nature of the incarnation (cow manure and all). He saw the story of Scripture to be something to be lived and experience, not merely commemorated.” 
In doing so, Francis preached a powerful Word using more than just words. Jesus does the same in today’s passage from Luke. Like Francis, Jesus used his presence, his body, and the gathered body of believers to preach with his entire life. He did so not to call attention to himself, but to invite people to be a part of the wider story of God’s goodness and love. Time and time again, Jesus said, “Follow me.” Not just “listen to me” or “think about these things” but “move your body and follow me.”
Our faith is an embodied faith. It’s more than ideas or words on a page.
It’s the reality of God embodied in Christ and embodied in us.
It’s found in the breaking of bread and cups overflowing with goodness. It’s the warm breeze on our face as we step into water and remember that God calls us beloved. It’s the ashes on our forehead as we remember that we are made of dust and to dust we will return. It’s the catch in our breath as we see the stone rolled away. It’s the confusion felt in the pit of our stomach as the flames descend like tongues and we see God doing something new again and again again.
Jesus arrives….and the Word is made flesh and dwells among us. Thanks be to God for the abiding presence of Love Incarnate.