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God’s Word Made Known

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Feb 03

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Texts: Luke 4: (14-20) 21-30

Before I dive in here, I need to share what a good and good-humored friend said last week when he found out I was coming back today. Straight-faced, he asked: “Are you going to show up on Sunday in your Adidas track suit?” He knew it’s been my outfit of choice for the past four months! Strange as it seems to be back in my Sunday’s finest and sorely tempted as I was to still rock my finest lounge wear this morning, please let me say it feels so great to be back and to be sharing in worship together, to be singing our hymns and soon to be breaking bread together. I missed this place, dearly. I missed all of you. My heart is exceedingly full of gratitude for our staff and lay leaders and for all of you for allowing me this time away. My heart is even more grateful to the Spirit who I dare say did some good work in me and with me while I was away! After a full four months in the proverbial wilderness, its good to be home again in this household of God’s love and justice. I am rested in body, mind and soul. I am ready to discern with you where God is leading us next.

Now, having said all of that, what is up with this homecoming passage being my preaching text on my first Sunday back?! Jesus returns from his stint in the wilderness, tries teaching in his home synagogue and the congregation ends up wanting to hurl him off a cliff! “Hurled” is the common translation here (I also like “throw him down headlong!”) What gives here?

Clearly, I didn’t pick this one. For better or worse, I’ve learned to trust that the lectionary has an odd way of working for good, so I usually just preach on what I’m told. I might have to revise that plan. I suggest we do all of ourselves a favor, and especially me, and just not go there with the facile comparisons of homecomings gone wild. Instead, I wonder if we might agree on a more straightforward and substantive takeaway, namely, that God’s Word in our text – that scripture that had been ‘fulfilled in [their] hearing’ -- is a highly disturbing, unsettling, and even instigating force for all those who hear it! Let me say that again. God’s Word is an unsettling and even instigating force, and the almost explosive tensions and fierce reactions in this passage prove the point.
Why such deep resistance? Why such a strong offense from Jesus? After all, he starts ir, right? He starts the fight by accusing the congregation of self-centered desire for his miraculous and healing power. And why such a brutal, hurl-him-off-the-cliff defense from the people? Honestly, the text isn’t entirely clear. What is clear is that God’s Word from Isaiah – proclaiming good news for the poor, release to the captives, freedom for the oppressed -- has somehow gotten under their skin and it’s surfacing all kinds of aggression or resistance on the part of its hearers. If we want to be generous to Jesus here (never a bad idea!), maybe Jesus knew not to waste any time in trying to penetrate the stronghold of that hometown status quo. Maybe he knew that they’d think the good news was only for them and so he needed to call them on it, pre-emptively. However we might explain these seemingly rash behaviors of Jesus and the hometown crowd, God’s Word made known, whether through Isaiah or through Jesus, is utterly unnerving, destabilizing and ultimately transforming. And judging from the end of the passage, it has the power to cut, pass and weave its way through even the best defenses!

If you will give me a few moments of personal privilege on this my first Sunday back in a long while, I’d like to share with you a bit of what I’ve observed of God’s Word made known in my own life over this time, and also some of what its taken for the Spirit to cut through defenses that I barely knew were there. It’s odd to think that I needed to step out of my professional church life for a time, away from the tasks of ministry, to allow the Word to reveal some of own my habits and my resistance to change and to genuine healing. Please understand that by God’s Word here, I’m not just talking about scripture though it is first and foremost that. God’s Word has indeed proclaimed good news and release and freedom to my soul. Some other time, I need to tell you about my experience just two and a half weeks ago visiting the Shrine of the Book in Israel which houses the oldest known manuscript of the Hebrew Bible. It dates back to the 1st century BCE. Interestingly, the Isaiah scroll is the most intact and best preserved. I saw a version of what Jesus himself could have been holding! With experiences like these and others here and in the Holy Land, these past months have been a lot about reclaiming my own relationship with our Book and finding a deeper sense of my Christian identity therein. Its not just the Word in scripture though. I’m also talking about that Word and that underground wellspring of God’s unconditional love that lies deep and buried in each of our hearts, and at the heart of this community, whether we realize it or not. I have far more to say about our theology of God’s Word revealed in scripture, in creation, through Jesus, the Word made flesh and through human relationship. For now though, I’d like to stick with my recent experience.

One of the first ways I encountered this living Word was in the profound sense of joy I felt in being more present to Nancy and the kids. As most of you know, I was still pretty new here when I met them all. I didn’t know them and they didn’t know me without the demands of this First Church home and family. This was a wildly unsettling joy, one that forced me swallow my defensive pride and to admit that I didn’t even know how deep and rich and good family life could be! I really hope many of you are out there right now saying “Duh!” As a step dad, I stepped in. Now I’m all in. I’m a dad and I love it! And for those who are wondering, yes, I did listen to those tapes of my own dad’s lectures that he gave a few months before he died when I was 17. Turns out they weren’t just audio; they were video. In them, I heard my dad say my name for the first time in 23 years. For 23 years, I’d been resisting those tapes, thinking I wasn’t ready. I finally let go and listened, and found in the buried closets of my grief some newfound space for joy and even love for my own family. This all was, for me, God’s Word made known. It’s been totally transformative and transforming!

I also came to experience and maybe even to live the Word through the graces of honest and soulful friendships often in long conversations with people who knew me before I became a minister. “You know, I’m loving this time off”, I’d say, “but every third day or so I wake up in a bit of a panic asking ‘who am I, really?’ When I’m not so busy doing this or that, who am I?” There were whole days of my sabbatical when I didn’t have a clue! The silence when I would first ask was extremely unsettling! Who am I without First Church, without GBIO, without the teaching at Harvard, without the crowd of demands, without distractions of email or internet? In this case, living the Word was living the question! Who am I, and for that matter who are you and who are we without the constant stream of activity? These questions became a great gift to me, but I needed to come to a full stop before I could really hear them and receive them and let the Spirit do her thing with them and with me. God’s Word made known.

Silence and solitude was another way I came to listen for and hear God’s Word. A three-day silent retreat in December kicked my butt into realizing that for all my talk of ministry being about relationships, which indeed it is, what I was missing and needing most was a healthy relationship with my aloneness. I learned new ways to befriend and cherish my need for solitude rather than to fill it and feed it with distraction. God’s Word made known!

And there’s an even deeper Word still. After two months of rest, two months of letting my guard down, I came to ask myself a simple question: “What wants to emerge?” In a room of my own in a North monastery, in a dark silence lit only by a wood-burning stove, the Word that came to me was wholeness. We often translate shalom as peace but it’s as accurate to say it’s wholeness. Shalom. Peace, wholeness be with you! Man did I need to hear that living Word, and to hear it from the inside out! Its been a key that has opened new doors of healing for me that I barely knew were there. God’s Word made known!

These are just a few of the headlines, not so much of what I did on my sabbatical, but of what this time of rest and renewal did for me. The good news that speaks to us all even through this violent text is that God’s Word is very near, right here and right now, just waiting to get under our skin and unsettle us in the best of ways! For me, these gifts of joy in family and the grace of friendship, the gifts of solitude and wholeness are still unsettling me and I hope will be for sometime.
I’m also dying to know what unsettling and transformative Words and gifts God has shared with you over these past four months. I wonder what Words and gifts and questions God may yet have in store for us, both in our own lives and in our life together. Hopefully we can let the offensive and defensive lines stand down so we can let the Word and that way that Jesus walked, work in us and through us.

On a far lighter note, and because it’s Super Bowl which I know is on at least a few of your liturgical calendars, I can’t resist sharing a few lines from a country hit by Bobby Bare. Its called Drop-Kick Me Jesus, and in a completely different parlance of country music and football, I think it captures at least some of these defenses-down dynamics. It goes like this:

Drop Kick Me Jesus through the Goalposts of Life.
End over end, through those righteous uprights….
Free from the earthly temptations below
I’ve got the will, Lord if you’ve got the toe.

You really have to google the whole thing. 1976 Grammy nominee. No lie.
And now let me close by reintroducing myself.

I’m Dan, or Danny as my dad used to call me, but you can call me Dan.

I’m a recovering workaholic.

I wear Adidas track suits in my Sabbath time on Fridays.

I’m a Christian, a person of the Book, and a beloved child of God.

Over the last four months, I’ve experienced a dropkick to my soul that far from knocking the wind out of me instead restored God’s breath to my being.

I am grateful beyond words to you all and to our amazing staff.

I am excited beyond words to soar with you all, maybe even end over end!

I can’t wait to see how God’s word made known in this place we can all call home will continue to unsettle us and transform us and give us a sense of shalom, of wholeness and peace, from the inside out!

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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