I think I will always remember my first sermon. It was in May of 2004, and I was preaching what I guess we would call, a candidating sermon at a church where I was being considered to be their pastor. Of course, they really did not have a choice since I was the only one available and the bishop had already assigned me there. But, I was there to preach. I had just graduated from seminary so I, of course, had all the answers. Looking back on that day, 14 years ago, I will have to say, man was I still wet behind the ears.
I have had several other “first sermons.” There was the first sermon I preached after being called to be an associate minister. The first sermon I preached after being called, in the same church, to be the Interim Senior Minister, and of course, there was my first sermon here, last June. The one common thread in all of those sermons is I did not hold back, I left it all on the field as we like to say in the preaching world.
I believe that the sermon is designed to get people to think, to get their minds moving and to ask questions. I believe the sermon is intended to make some people mad, to make some people glad, to make some people shake their heads, and maybe, to make some people shake their fists. Sure, it would be easy for me to come here, week after week, and string together some pretty quotes so we can all leave here feeling good about ourselves. I could stand here and tell all of you how wonderful you are and what wonderful Christians we all are, but we already know that. My job, well the responsibility of any preacher really, is to say what needs to be said not what you want to hear. A relationship builds between the minister and their flock in such a way that we have a sense of what needs to be said, a where they are now and where they need to be sort of thing, and that is what the sermon is supposed to do.
Far too many of my preacher colleagues avoid certain “taboo” subjects because it makes people, including the preacher by the way, uncomfortable. Well, I am here to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. In the almost 15 years I have been doing this, I cannot remember a time when I have stood before a group or a congregation where I did not have butterflies. I stand behind the pulpit, and sometimes hold on, so you don’t see my hands shaking. I also stand back here in case you start throwing things, so I have some protection.
The art of preaching, and it is an art form, is to inform, form, and transform those who are listening. And, I do not do this alone, I rely on the Holy Spirit to guide me.
Kallistos Ware is a retired theology professor at Oxford University and a bishop in the Eastern Orthodox Church. He tells the story of a sermon he once preached in London. He begins by saying it was a beautiful day and that he cannot remember what the scripture passage was or really what the sermon was about. He started to preach, and all eyes were on him, but as he continued, he noticed fewer and fewer people were making eye contact. He says the somewhere in the middle of the sermon he could hear someone snoring, but he soldiered on anyway until he realized he was the one doing the snoring! We have all heard good sermons, and we have all heard bad sermons. I believe I have preached some good sermons and I have also preached some bad one. I have preached sermons that I thought were going to bomb but turned out to be the ones most people commented on. So I guess you never know.
Today, we heard from Luke’s Gospel of Jesus in the synagogue where he preaches his first sermon. He is asked to read from the scroll, this is not unusual, and so he climbs the bema, unrolls to scroll to the passage 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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
He then rolled up the scroll and sat down. Scripture tells us that “all eyes were fixed on him.” They were waiting for a word from him, and he said;
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Unfortunately for us, the scripture ends there, and so you will have come back next week to find out what happens. We call this a cliff hanger or a tease, and it is designed to get you to come back.
Well, what we do know is it does not end for him. He has told those sitting in the synagogue that he, Jesus, Joseph the carpenter’s son, is the fulfillment of this scripture and they do not take it so well. As we will hear next week, they lead him outside and attempt to throw him off a cliff. But he manages to slip away.
But let’s step back and look at what he has just read because they are just as upset about what he read as they are about what he said.
He, Jesus, has come to bring the good news to the poor.
He, Jesus, has come to proclaim release to the captives.
He, Jesus, has come to recover the sight of the blind.
He, Jesus, has come to let the oppressed go free.
And he, Jesus, has come to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
This is what he has come to do, to relieve suffering and bring a new way to the world. He has come to set religion on its ear, he has come to begin a revival in their hearts and in their minds. He did not come to walk the halls of the Roman legislature to convince politicians to pass laws to force people to do, or not do, certain things. No, he has come to influence people, one person at a time to change themselves and then help others to change. He has come to bring opportunity to those who have no opportunity. He has come to voice to the voiceless and to advocate for those on the margins because no one was advocating for them. He came to call out the hypocritical religious leaders that were making religion about fear and preaching about a vengeful God that was going to destroy them for their sin. He called out the religious elite for bending and twisting God’s word to suit their political needs. He came to preach a message of love in a world that preached a message of hate and division. And he came to leave us away, and a command, for us to do the same thing.
I will stand here this morning and boldly proclaim that this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing for I believe that I have been called to bring the good news to the poor, the spiritually poor that God loves you and God has a place for you no matter who you are. If you think you have done something so terrible that God cannot love you I am here to tell you that there is nothing you can do, nothing, that will make God stop loving you.
I am here to proclaim that we no longer need to be held captive to sin and that we should not hold another captive to sin. We should not think of ourselves or others as their behavior, we are all, all of humanity, created in the image and likeness of a loving God and we need to convince ourselves that we are not held back by something we did years ago, that Jesus has come to set us free not because of the blood of the cross but because of the love of God for his creation.
I have come to help the spiritually blind recover their sight. Far too many people are blinded by their hatred of others because of their skin color, their religion, the country they are from, their legal status, who they have fallen in love with, how they chose or not to choose how they worship God. We are blinded, sometimes enraged by people who have a different political philosophy then we do, we cannot stand to hear someone not speaking our language or those who need a little extra hand to make it through the day. We need to throw off those things that blind us from truly seeing the other as a blessed child of God that we are to love, and we need to begin that process by looking in the mirror and loving the person we see staring back at us.
I have come to free people from oppression, the oppression of hate and the oppression of others. For far too long religion has been used to oppress one group or another and we continue to see it today. There are Christians who believe that no matter what, it is their job to convert others. In the history of the Christian church, there are countless stories of people killed in the name of Jesus Christ because they would not convert. The Protestant Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, and all the rest. But how about spiritual death, how about Christians who claim they love Jesus so much that anyone who does not believe the same way they do is going to hell. They believe in freedom so much that they march on legislative bodies to enact legislation to remove those freedoms from others. Or those who merely stand and smirk in the face of people praying differently than they do.
My friends, Jesus left us the way and has called each of us to follow that way and that way is merely the way of love. I will ask each of us next time we are going to say something, stop and ask, is this something Jesus would approve of? Am I showing love in what I am saying? Are my actions, or my lack of action helping the situation or making it worse? Am I genuinely showing the love of God in what I say and what I do?
Jesus said what needed to be said at all times. Jesus did not think of the political ramifications of what he was saying, and he did not worry about whether people would put money in the collection plate or not. Jesus said what the people needed to hear not what they wanted to hear, he risked it all for the kingdom of God, and he left nothing on the field.