On What Lies at the Center
January 23, 2022
Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “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.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Today’s sermon is titled, On What Lies at the Center.
When I look out my window here in New Hampshire, as far as I can see, there is a foot of snow and ice covering the ground. For the next week, the warmest nighttime temperatures are predicted to be nine above zero and the coldest 6 below. The cold seems to come from the ground itself, but that is not the case. Five feet below the surface, covered in snow and ice, the ground is above freezing and the deeper we go, the warmer it gets.
1700 miles below the surface, in the very center of our planet, the heat generated at our planet’s formation is still trapped and scientists theorize that the temperature tops over 9000 degrees Fahrenheit close to the iron core.* Such temperatures would melt iron, of course, but the intense pressure keeps the core of our earth in solid form. Around that core is a very thick layer of molten material. That material is moving, en masse, slightly faster than the rotation of earth’s surface. Because there is that difference in the speed of rotation there is friction between the layers of the earth. Because of the friction, there is a magnetic charge generated. Because of the magnetic charge, we are more protected from the radiation of the sun. Without the protection of the earth’s magnetic field, we would have no ozone and life as we know it would not exist. Because of earth’s magnetic charge, we have lightning, electricity, and motors. So we see that the dynamics at the center of our planet have given rise to our way of life here on the surface.
Whether we are talking about planets or people, what exists at the center makes a difference. The same holds true for systems…systems like democracy and systems like religion, too. Today in our scripture reading from the Second Testament Gospel of Luke, we are presented with what author Ernest Hess describes as “what may be the most overlooked piece of scripture that could be, and should be, at the center of the modern church of Christ.”
We meet Jesus today in his hometown synagogue. He has been handed a scroll that contains a collection of writings attributed to the prophet Isaiah, and from those writings, Jesus chooses to read a passage that is brimming over with promise. In just 51 words, Jesus uses the ancient and familiar words to identify himself and to state his purpose and his mission for the remainder of his days in human form.
Listen again, if you will, to these following words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, 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.”
This is a radical statement, Friends. To better understand what Jesus is promising, let’s look at the converse; let’s look at the crippling forces Jesus aims to counteract…hopelessness, poverty, illness, and oppression. These are some of the forces that have, since the beginning of time, been the source of our greatest challenges. Three specific groups come to my mind in thinking about how huge portions of the population of our country are currently affected: women, children, and those without safe and sustainable shelter.
The Equal Rights Amendment, proposed in 1923 to grant equal rights to women, has never been passed by Congress even though it has been proposed every term for the past 98 years. This directly affects more than half of our population in the US. Women with the same qualifications as men would have had to work 42 more days last year to earn the same as their male counterparts. For instance, instead of working for 5 days a week, women would have to work 6 for 10 months out of the year to close the gender pay gap.
Childhood poverty was at an all-time low last summer, at 9.5%. It is on the rise again with the onset of winter. Even at its lowest rate in history, I am not sure we should be celebrating that only 1 in ten families are living below the poverty level.
Because we have not properly invested in housing in decades, we are in need of over 7 million affordable housing units in our country. The good news is that there is a new and effective model of Affordable Housing Trust funds, operating successfully in over 800 communities across the nation. Our church is part of the organizing effort to establish a similar fund in Cheshire County.
Friends, we are still grappling with issues that have been with us since way before the times of the prophet Isaiah, nearly 3000 years ago. Those ancient writings remind us, though, of the power of the word. “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
Words are perhaps the most powerful tools we have. Words can open minds and hearts or they can close them, just the same. The words of Isaiah that Jesus read in his synagogue on that Sabbath evening gave shape to the very center of what would become his enduring ministry. What and whom did Jesus place at the center? Those who were longing for healing, release, freedom and justice. As Christ’s body on earth, we the Church are wise to remember what and whom Jesus placed at the center of his ministry. As Christ’s body on earth, we the Church can and will use the power of our words to facilitate change, bringing healing, freedom and justice to all people, as Jesus intended.
In closing now, I lift up and celebrate that the center of Jesus’s ministry still holds, over two thousand years later. We continue his good work and I pray it will be taken up by those who will come after us. May our efforts be constant, like the spinning of the earth, centered in care and concern for all of humankind. So be it. Amen.
In the sacred silence, another world begins to unveil itself to us. Distances become irrelevant and the spaces between us are of little consequence. Our neighbors’ concerns are held tenderly, as if they were our own, and in these moments we are limitless…our capacity to love is infinite, for in these moments we are part of All That Is. God is within and all around us as we meet the demands of our lives. God grant us vision that sees beyond our shortcomings, vision that sees behind the violence, vision that shapes a path from where we are to where you want us to be. When we seek direction, Lord, turn our hearts and minds to the prayer Jesus gave us…Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with these words from Ephesians 3:
“I bend my knees to the Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ, that he may grant you from his glorious riches to be strengthened through his Spirit…that you may be filled unto all the fullness of God. Amen.”