Pr. Brooke Petersen
Third Sunday after Epiphany
January 26, 2019
Homecomings are tricky things, at least for those of us who might have some complicated relationships with home. I don’t often return to my hometown, but last summer we packed up our kids and took a roadtrip to Northern Michigan and the place where I grew up. I found myself really wanting to show my son where I went to elementary school, where we used to swim in the summer heat, where we always got ice cream after a softball game. Yet even to me, not all things appeared quite as I remembered. Some things were smaller. Some places were full that had once stood vacant. Being the largest town in northern Michigan, my home had always seemed to have an urban flair, but after living in Chicago for the past 17 years, everything seemed small town. It was tricky, that return home. It filled me with joy and left me a little tender all at the same time.
Homecomings can be complicated stuff, in our readings for today as well. Everyone is going home, and reality of home is setting in. In the reading from Nehemiah, the people, once living in exile, separated and lonely, yearning for God’s presence, they have come home. And home is not what it once was, in fact, home, Jerusalem, is a big pile of destruction. But, what has kept them together over this long exile, what has held them together, is the Torah, the law, and so they gather at the Watergate, all the men and the women and the children who can understand and preacher Ezra gets up in front of them and he reads for six hours. Six hours. He reads and he interprets the scriptures for half of the day and the people are weeping, falling on their knees, and lifting their hands in praise at the sound.
It reminds me of being in Hebrew class in seminary. I had a professor that I adored. I couldn’t get enough of Dr. Klein. He would get out his big, impressive copy of the Hebrew Old Testament, and he would stand in front of us, holding this well worn book, and he would translate the Hebrew for us as if it was the simplest of stories. But, that wasn’t all. Sometimes, this old, incredibly educated, amazing professor, would start to read the word, and he would just start crying. He’d be telling us the story of Joseph being returned to his brothers, restoring that relationship after they had thrown him in a hole and left him for dead, and professor Klein, a man I respected so much would be reading God’s word with tears streaming down his face. It could completely freak you out.
That is what happens when the Word of God gets a little too real. It can just make you fall down crying. Perhaps that is what happens to that hometown synagogue when their hometown boy, Jesus starts reading. As was his custom on the Sabbath, he heads out for worship, and sits down among the crowd in his hometown of Nazareth. They hand him the scroll, and he reads from 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.” He sits down. Maybe it was the tone of his voice, maybe it was his gestures, but something in his reading turns all the eyes of the synagogue on him. And then he interprets the text, “Today this has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Quite a sermon for the first public words Jesus has spoken in Luke’s gospel. But here is where our text ends for today. It is unfortunate really, because this return home for Jesus is not going to be as pleasant as you might imagine from the ending of our text this morning. In fact, it is going to get down-right rough next Sunday. But, we’ll leave it like a cliff-hanger for now.
Have you ever been listening to the radio and heard a song that sounded just a little familiar? Much like returning home, it can feel a bit like something you almost know, but is slightly different. It feels both old and new all at the same time. You know you haven’t heard it before, and yet you have. I’ve learned over the years that when this feeling comes upon me, it is usually a remix. An old song put to new words.
What we have here in the beginning of Luke’s gospel is a remix. Jesus is taking scripture right out of the Hebrew holy book, right off a scroll in the synagogue, and he is remixing it. These words in Isaiah, they aren’t just words anymore, because right there in that synagogue, the one who was baptized only chapters ago and then spent forty days out in the wilderness facing temptation says those words have been fulfilled in the hearing of the people. It isn’t a new song, it is an old song being sung to a new tune, an old word being given new life in the very personhood of Jesus.
But the very same word, the very same word that has the power to make seminary professors cry, and make those who hear it weep for joy, the same word that is going to have these people in Jesus’ hometown a little upset next week, that word is not just an old song. When Jesus says it has been fulfilled in their hearing, he isn’t telling us that the work of liberation is done. Jesus isn’t suggesting that those of us that keep our eyes open, that are aware of how far away the world we dream of and the one we live in are from each other, have somehow missed the arrival of liberation. Jesus isn’t proclaiming poof! as if in some wave of the hand there are no more captives, and there are no more people walking around blind, and no longer is creation, and real people, in our neighborhood, in our midst, in our city, in poverty. That promise, in Isaiah has been fulfilled in his being, is just an invitation to remix for us sitting here today.
That’s what has the Israelites weeping and the people in the synagogue staring. The Word is not just given flesh in Jesus, it is given flesh in us. That means we take what we hear read in our midst, we take the Word of God, and we are called to be people to be a community who know how to remix. That means when you show up to the office tomorrow, you have to ask yourself how you are going to proclaim release to those who are captive to greed and fear and self-interest. When you wake up on Monday morning, that means we have to take the word, and remix it so that we have a way to sing a song that restores sight to those who are blind to injustice, to racism, the sexism, homophobia, transphobia and violence. When we encounter friends and family this week, we are called to remix the word in such a way that the oppressed are set free- those who are oppressed by sin and sickness, who haven’t heard a word of grace in so long they don’t even know what it would feel like, we remix because freedom is God’s work. When we walk out in the cold this week, we are called to remix this word so that our siblings shivering in the cold know that there is a place where they can get a meal, and some support for both their mental and physical struggles. When we walk out of this church we have the remix the Word so that it doesn’t just get to be left with Jesus in the synagogue, it gets new meaning for us this very day.
We know the great promise of this text. We know that in the life and death of Jesus we have seen the kingdom of God come near. We can tell stories of our own captivity, of our own blindness, our own oppression. Jesus is the living liberation we have needed. As people who remix, we aren’t just proclaiming an old song, and we are also not just singing something completely new, we are living in that in-between, that third language of faith, not the old, not something completely new, but a story that spans from the book of Isaiah, to Jesus in the synagogue, to our own understanding of the freedom we have been given as a gift in Christ.
This is not easy work, and we’ll see next week that sometimes the most natural response is to leave the Word where it doesn’t touch us. But, I promise you, there is nothing like being a part of setting people free. There is nothing better than telling an old story remixed with a new one. We can leave the Word, or we can take it on, step out in faith, sing a new song to an old tune. May it be so, that God’s promise of liberation may reach the person sitting next to you on a bus, may Christ’s freedom touch the person in line with you for lunch, may the work of God, through your hands, help to set the world free. Amen, and thanks be to God.