Sunday dinner was always big occasion at our house. After I had just preached my first sermon several guests had been invited to join our family. Among them was a well-known retired Methodist preacher who, sometime during the meal. began to tell us about listening to another first-time preacher at a service that followed a covered-dish supper. The old preacher said he noticed the young preacher was not eating much and suggested that he needed nourishment before he preached. The young fellow replied that he preached better on an empty stomach because his blood was in his brain and not in his stomach digesting food. After the service the young preacher approached his older colleague and asked him, “So, how did I do?” The older preacher looked at him earnestly and said, “Son, I personally think you might as well have et!” (sic eaten) I didn’t ask whether that story was told for my benefit – but I made it a point thereafter never to preach on an empty stomach or ask ‘How did I do?’
Since then I have sometimes wondered whether my experience may have been, in any way, similar to what Jesus experienced when he preached his first sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth. He had been born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth, and made his home in Capernaum – so he was just visiting his home town. The villagers hadn’t reckoned him as the Son of God – they had watched him grow up yet they didn’t understand him until they heard what he said. But years later – when word began to trickle back to Nazareth that Jesus was teaching in synagogues and performing miracles – the townfolk began to plan a homecoming. I can imagine them saying, “If Jesus turned water into wine in Cana, he can do that here – if he can feed 5000 with a few barley loaves and a couple of fish, he can do that here, too – and if he healed the blind and sick and lame people down there in Capernaum, just imagine what he will do when he comes back home”. By now Joseph may have died – but Mary might have been present – and memory of my own mother’s delight conjures images of Mary’s joy at seeing her son reading the Tanakh, the Jewish scriptures, in the synagogue where she had brought him as a boy. Later I can imagine the people of Nazareth telling him how proud they are – and saying things like, ‘I used to be his teacher’ – ‘he was such a fine boy’ – ‘and smart, too’ – and worst of all, ‘I enjoyed his sermon’.
It was in a setting like this that he read from Isaiah 61:1-2: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor – to proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind – to let the oppressed go free, to pro-claim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And then, according to custom , he sat down. The Nazare-ans were already wondering out loud about the miracles Jesus was not performing in Nazareth. ‘What about us? What good is it to be Jesus’ hometown if he doesn’t work his power here?’ So the congregation waited expectantly to hear what their home-boy had to say. It was customary for someone to comment on the scripture read that day – but because most of the men were not trained to preach they simply recited what they had learned in the synagogue as children – another compelling reason that Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is so important for our children. So with all eyes fixed on him, Jesus began to speak. His sermons typically didn’t last long – but this one probably broke all the records for brevity. All he said was, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. The Lord has anointed me and sent me to bring good news’.
We didn’t read the verses following today’s appointed gospel – and that’s regrettable because they make it clear that Jesus didn’t perform according to the locals’ expectations. Instead, he told them that God often bypasses those who think they are entitled to his benedictions and confers his blessings on those who are apparently least deserving. Have you ever been listening to a sermon – and everything was going along just fine when, all of a sudden, the preacher said something that really upset you and got you all bent out of shape? That happens when preaching gets specific and concrete – when it exposes our blind spots – areas of our lives in which we’re in denial. Colloquially we say that “she’s stopped preaching and gone to meddlin”. So I’ve wondered: where do you draw the line? When does preaching the gospel become little more than meddlin’ in the personal affairs of parishioners? If Deacon Sarah were to say, as she regularly does at the dismissal, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord”, our expected response is “Thanks be to God.” But imagine if she were to say, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord – and before you come back next week, you must do the following 3 things….” Or suppose that during the announcements she and Mother Stephanie did not invite us to participate in various projects but declare that they are mandatory obligations. What would we say to that?!
In Jesus’ first sermon he had apparently been specific enough when he said “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. The Lord has anointed me and sent me to bring good news”. It was an astonishing thing to say. But there’s more. Oh yes – about the omission of vv. 22-30. If this episode had ended at v. 21, the men could have left the synagogue with warm good feelings and gone home to tell their wives what an amazing young man Jesus had turned out to be. Who would have thought it – the carpenter’s son a learned rabbi! And he’s from Nazareth already! John [1:46] had Nathaniel ask rhetorically, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” But wonders never cease! The whole village should be proud of him – he was a hometown boy who had made good. Jesus would have accepted the praise and approbation of his elders and the story would have a happy ending. But this story doesn’t end there.
In his first sermon it’s clear that Jesus was meddlin’ when he got specific with two examples of how God pours out his love in unexpected ways and places. He first mentioned the widow of Zarephath [I Kings 17] – and then he mentioned Naaman, the Syrian [2 Kings 5] – and his audience hated both of those stories. The widow was a poor, helpless nobody who lived in the land of Sidon – a mostly Gentile area to the north of Galilee – so why should God favor her over the proper Jewish widows of Judea? And then there was Naaman – not only a Syrian military officer but a leper to boot – and there were plenty of Jewish lepers in need of healing – so why would God show such mercy to a Gentile? What these additional verses [4:22-30] make clear is that Jesus’ hearers were furious – deeply angered and offended – so much so that they drove Jesus out of town to the top of a hill with the intention of hurling him over the edge to his death.
When preaching turns to meddlin’, all hell breaks loose! But Jesus somehow escaped to Capernaum – Luke simply says “He passed through them and went on his way” – and my guess is that it would be a long time before he came back to his home town. Meanwhile, many of his disciples followed his example – and most of them with a similar reception. Peter healed a lame man in the temple – and everyone was amazed and rushed to hear what he had to say – but instead of seizing his 15 minutes of fame, Peter accused the crowd of helping to crucify Jesus – with the result that guards seized him and put him in jail. [Acts 3-4] And Paul – in one of his first sermons to the Jews in Antioch – got run out of town. In Lystra they dragged him out of the city and stoned him – and left him for dead. [Acts 14] Then he and Silas were thrown into jail in Philippi [Acts 16] – and in Ephesus he nearly started a riot and had to run for his life [Acts 19]. When preaching turns to meddlin’, all hell can break loose. And we’re not without more recent examples – preachers like Martin Niemöller, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrated a week ago. All of them were guilty of the same fatal flaw – going from the general to the specific – from preaching to meddlin’.
To be sure, we have our moralistic meddlers, but since the 17th c. preaching in Anglicanism has been less about right behavior than about right belief. Right belief that identifies right from wrong and good from bad derives, we say, from our ‘3-legged stool’ – scripture, tradition, and reason – each of which is formed by our common life and shared commitments. Scripture contains all that is necessary for salvation, but not all of scripture is equally binding – tradition is not to be slavishly followed but it is respected because it connects us to our past and gives us a sense of our common inheritance and identity – and reason is how we love God with all our mind and the capacity for thinking through morally perplexing situations. In Anglican theology each of these legs is formed by common worship and shared promises – to God and to each other.
In fact, the role of our prayer books is about shaping our beliefs and not promulgating be-haviors on moral issues. That task is typically performed by synodical and convention resolutions on capital punishment, abortion, racism, sexuality, and the like. These resolutions are not binding nor do they carry magisterial authority – because the burden of proof always lies with an individual Anglican to show why he or she should be exempt from the Church’s moral teaching. But this is not autonomy or individualism in the conventional sense. Instead, we trust each other to make our own faith-formed and conscientious decisions and then be accountable for them. And that’s why, on virtually every moral issue, diversity in moral commitments persists among Anglicans. We disagree – so the ethical teaching of the Prayer Book displays the traits of character and the virtues that are meant to exhibit the kind of person God means for us to be.
And this, as I’ve observed it, appears in the preaching of most Episcopalians which tends mostly to be about how God’s life becomes our life. I think that’s good. We emphasize that right belief and a rightly formed conscience are the precursors of right behavior, and that what counts is whether there is an intelligible connection between what we say we believe and how we act. Disconnects between what we say we believe and how we behave we call hypocrisy. So long story short, our preaching is typically more pastoral than juridical, more indicative than imperative, more methodological than substantive. In sum, it’s more descriptive of a Christian life than prescriptive of behaviors required for a life of holiness and our sermons typically ask passive aggressive rhetorical questions (like “now that you have heard the gospel preached, what will you do to act it out?”) instead of give act-specific orders (as in “do this or suffer God’s eter-nal wrath).
I’ve learned that even a right and sensible thing, said without indicting or accusing, can still touch a very sensitive nerve. Once on Epiphany 2 – when the gospel was about the marriage feast in Cana – I said some specific things about Christian marriage – and rehearsed a teaching that’s both biblical and catholic: ‘If you’re married, be faithful to each other – and if you are single, live a life of celibacy’. Afterwards a couple waited to speak with me privately. “Do you mean that if we want to keep living together, we ought to be married?” “Absolutely” I said, “and I can tell you why – but for openers, I’ll just say that I didn’t make the rule – I’m only passing it on”. They got angry and left – and I never saw them in church again. When we find ourselves getting defensive – and unable to talk reasonably – about sensitive areas in our lives – we’re in denial – we have ‘blind spots’.
Given the history of Israel’s subjugation and captivity – its messianic expectations – and its Roman occupation – when Jesus said that this passage from Isaiah is fulfilled here and now his congregation likely supposed that he was going to gather an army to expel the Romans. What they apparently couldn’t fathom was that Jesus had a much grander counter-cultural vision when he announced that the Lord’s favor is proclaimed not tomorrow but now: good news to the poor – release to captives – recovery of sight to the blind -freedom for the oppressed. You may have noticed that the last words we will say together, when we pray our post-communion prayer, are that this is our mission and ministry as well.
My sense is that what all this has to do with Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth, and his stunning announcement, is that Isaiah’s 800-year-old prophecy was fulfilled in one sense but left unfulfilled in another sense. We celebrate Jesus’ life as the manifestation – the unveiling of the life for which the Father created us – while simultaneously we recognize his tragic death as demonstrable evidence of this imperfect world’s unwillingness to acknowledge and embrace a life like his. Resurrection and ascension are then the Father’s declaration that his Word transcends the ways of this world – and that death does not have the last word. So though we live in an imperfect world in which these tasks will never be fully achieved until our Lord returns, we yet believe that imperfect people like us can still make the world a better place.
I’d reckon that all of us know this contradiction in our lives. We know that our Lord’s phrase “He has anointed and sent me” is descriptively accurate of the vocation he has shared with us who venture to follow him – and that against all worldly odds we, too, are to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor – bring good news to the poor – proclaim release to prisoners – sight to the blind – and let the oppressed go free. These are tasks are committed to us. But we don’t tell you how to do them – or what you have to do to achieve holiness and allow God’s life to become your life. Instead we plead with you to do who you claim to be as a follower of Jesus – and of course that’s a really big job – so I and we support and encourage you to embrace it and cherish it as your personal vocation to give God’s vision a chance in this world.
I think we will have opportunity to do that in today’s annual parish meeting.
Now let us pray: Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior – and to proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, who lives and reigns with you and your Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen
Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.