Getting our words right. Pastors worry about this a lot, myself included. Those of you who know me, know that I am pretty careful with my speech. My parents had very clear expectations of our speech. Like – our phone was on a party line, shared by three other households, and so we had to keep our business short. No chatting on the phone. We never want to inconvenience those with whom we share the phone. So, there was a 3-minute egg timer by the phone which Dad turned over for us – regularly.
In church we learned that we should let our yes be yes and our no be no (Matt 5:37). And that whatever we said, was our commitment. So, when someone asks: “Will you do me a favor?,” I never say ‘yes.’ Rather, I will say, ‘What would you like me to do for you?’ Swearing of any sort was closely prohibited. Verbal expletives which don’t even count as swearing were viewed with concern. I was taught to be polite and very careful not to offend with my words. To speak with respect.
So I learned to pay attention to the words I use. Once something is said, it can’t be unsaid. The disadvantage of this training is that the pause to consider is often misunderstood as hiding or indecisiveness. Sometimes, perhaps, it is.
For pastors, this concern over getting our words right is with us in most everything we do. And particularly in the sermon. Sometimes the text at hand is difficult to hear. Should we pass over it and choose something else? Sometimes the obvious applications are to a volatile public agenda. Do we risk naming that, and being thought too controversial? Or do we look up a gentle sermon illustration from the file, or tell a joke? When is the story of the day too close to the heart? Pastors are back, week after week. We can’t just preach a sermon and walk away. The ripples, if any, stay in the water in which we swim. Is it better to make waves or to leave the water undisturbed? – the preacher’s question.
In today’s story, it seems that Jesus was not careful with his words.
Or, if he was being careful, he was certainly not gentle! In the Year of Peace, this is a tricky passage to read. One thing it asks us to clarify is what we mean by peace. If the Prince of Peace could use his words to trigger fury, then making peace may be more than keeping the waters of our pond smooth and clear.
We can get a clue from the Hebrew word peace translates: Shalom. For our church’s mission statement, we chose to use the word, ‘shalom,’ rather than ‘peace.’ “…All this we do in the hope that God’s shalom will be made real and tangible for the healing of our neighborhoods and the nations.”
The common western definition of peace is — the absence of conflict or war — but in Hebrew it means so much more. Shalom comes from a root word, which means, “to be safe in mind, body, or estate.” It is not limited to the political domain — to the absence of war and enmity — or to the social realm — to the absence of quarrel and strife. Rather than the absence of something, shalom refers to the presence of something. Shalom speaks of completeness, fullness, or a type of wholeness that encourages one to give back — to re-pay with generosity in some way. This has taken the form of tikkun olam, or, repairing the world, in modern Jewish practice. By keeping the Law and blessing the world and seeking justice, we repair the world revealing the light broken into shards since the beginning of creation.
Shalom, then, is the restoration of God’s light in Creation, so that all may see it, so that all nations may be drawn to it.
By the way, have you wondered why we have the work “epiphany” on our bulletins? We are in the season of Epiphany, the season of when we remember that all people are drawn to the light of God, and that all people – friend, enemy, neighbor or stranger – are all drawn to the light. Like the Magi, who saw the light from far away and came to give it honor. All are welcome.
For Jesus’ first sermon, possibly his only sermon in his home town, he chose not words of comfort which would be pleasing, but words of truth that the hearts did not want to hear. He knew these people – what they talked about when they went to synagogue – sure – but more, he knew what they talked about when they did laundry, when they made deals with laborers, when they sat around the sheep-watch fire, when they sat on their rooftops in the evening. He knew their every-day hearts, and he would speak to them there.
He read the lines from Isaiah promising release and redemption and healing for those who have been cast off by the world. It was like music to their down-trodden ears. They had been oppressed for so long. It was time for their nation to redress the wrongs which had been done to them. The oppressors must pay!
Even in his reading, though, Jesus chose his words carefully. He did not read the next line – ‘and the day of vengeance of our God.’ The passage goes on to tell of that day when the Lord will trample down all Israel’s enemies, crush them underfoot and restore Israel to its rightful place. But no, Jesus doesn’t read that part. He’s not thinking locally, but globally, and this isn’t a nationalistic sermon, but one in which he declares that God loves all the world and has a special concern for the poor. And so he clipped the sentence about vengeance. I wonder if his audience, familiar with the passage, inserted them without his reading them? They assumed, they expected something. They did not listen.
Jesus’ village audience at first seems well-pleased by his words, even proud of the hometown boy made good. They thought he was proclaiming what they wanted to hear. But Jesus knew that they did not understand his meaning, nor the meaning of Isaiah, nor perhaps the meaning of much of Scripture. And he did not let that be.
Yes, these words are full of grace. And they are not exclusively for the people of Israel. Jesus’ next words seem stark, slap-in-the-face words. Taunting these aunties and uncles he grew up among, he comments, “Doubtless you will say…,” meaning, I know what you are thinking. I know you. I see your stubborn arms-crossed body posture challenging me to do here among you what the reports say you did elsewhere. “Prove it,” your bodies say to me. You don’t trust me.
You think I am saying sweet words to win your hearts? Is this a prosperity gospel? Do you think this will bless you and curse your enemies?
No, if you hear sweet words, then you hear me wrong. Listen. I’ll tell you what I mean. I need to get my words right. “When I talk about God coming to free the oppressed and bless the poor, I’m talking about God blessing the people you can’t stand, the people you don’t want to be near, the people you think are your enemies.”
And so he reminds them of a couple of stories where God blessed not Israel, but Israel’s enemies. And then they’re mad, so boiling mad that they turn murderous. But it isn’t Jesus time and he simply slips out from their grasp. No drama. He just slips out and goes his way. Kind of anti-climactic. It is not his escape which is to grab our attention, but his words. Daring! Bold! Offensive!
The good news is for the people you think of as enemies, or irrelevant, or the ones you simply don’t think about at all.
If there is one line that sums up the Jesus we discover in Luke’s account, it’s this: God came to redeem everyone. When we focus on “redeem,” it’s good news. When we focus on “everyone,” and call to mind those we believe have done us wrong…or who frighten us…or who are different…or who seem unnatural… that same line is terrifying.
Being drawn into God’s light, we lose all claims, you see, to why we deserve something (and presumably others do not), as we recognize that deserving simply has no place in the kingdom of God.
Getting our words right, means making peace, shalom, wholeness. Building bridges, making connections rather than alienation. And it is a tricky thing to do. Because peace is not made in the absence of truth, light, love.
Jesus’ words brought division. It was going to continue to happen throughout his ministry. I don’t particularly like this version of Jesus. I have grown up on ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild,’ lamb of God, taking children in his arms. This is not the Jesus we meet today, in his first sermon in his home town. He wanted to be clear, very clear. He was indeed the one they were expecting. But they were expecting something he was not called to do. He required that he be heard correctly. Getting his words right that day set the course for his ministry.
So what do we do with this? There are a couple of insights. One is that true peace comes with truth. In this case, the truth Jesus was pointing out was that we are all loved by God. No one is left out. The grace of love is offered to me and to you and to the other, equally. And this loving grace is intended to bring us into God’s light, with those we have called enemy.
Peacemaking with our friends and family may be the hardest part of the job. Here our relationships are so colored by expectation and a history of pain, which we must let go to move on. Peacemaking may be more welcome with strangers than with our neighbors. There is a radical welcome in this peace Jesus was making.
Peace is something bigger than we often ask or imagine.
And I am left a bit dissatisfied with this story. I want a different ending. I want the people to wake up, to understand Jesus and to accept the bridge he is offering to those who have been enemy. I want them to leave their sense of privilege aside. I want to see them, like the old Coca-Cola commercial, people of all races and nations, taking hands on the top of a mountain singing:
I’d like to build the world a home
And furnish it with love
Grow apple trees and honey bees
And snow white turtle doves
I’d like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
I’d like to hold it in my arms
And keep it company
Perhaps this is the point. We can chose a different ending today. It isn’t easy. It required humility, and sacrifice. But we can choose to be the ones who stand with the oppressed, with the ones walled-out, as the ones who stand for truth. God loves us all equally.
So be it. Amen.