Sermon for Sunday, October 21, 2012
In the Gospel narrative today, Jesus has just returned from the desert where he was tempted by Satan, and this is his coming-out-party of sorts: he goes to the synagogue and reads a passage from Isaiah that is, for the Lukan Jesus, the absolute definition of his ministry:
'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."
This is good news—it says it right there in the text. But in the context of bringing this good news something interesting happens to the people who hear it. At first hearing, they love it. “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth,” says the very next verse of the Gospel. The people heard the good news and they loved it! They loved Jesus! Amazing! Remarkable!
Seven verses later, those very same people are trying to throw him off a cliff. Because the news that they thought was good news turned out to be hard news. It’s not bad news for anyone… but it is harder news for some than it is for others.
Warning. The Gospel is a radical document. Jesus is a radical—probably dangerous to say that on the Upper East Side, but it’s true. And nowhere is this so evident as in today’s gospel. We, as a congregation, might have a response similar to the congregation in Nazareth… at first things are great, then when the news sinks in, we want to throw the preacher off a cliff. Listen to what Jesus is really proclaiming via Isaiah.
Jesus says he has been anointed in order to bring good news to the poor. Well, what is good news to the poor? Good news to the poor is to not be poor any more. Good news for the poor is to have work, and money, and food and a roof over your head. And in Luke’s gospel, perhaps more so than any of the other gospels, Luke preaches the reality that if you’re going to bring some of the people on the bottom up, that means that some of the people on the top are going to come down. Listen to these verses from the Magnificat, the song Mary sings, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” Luke’s Jesus preaches a great economic flattening of society—far more so than any politician in America will ever say out loud. In Luke’s Beatitudes, it’s not “Blessed are the poor in Spirit,” it is “Blessed are the poor.” And “Blessed are the poor” is followed up just a few verses later with “Woe to you who are rich.” The Gospel good news to the poor is going to be hard news to the rich. But it’s still good. Hard choices can lead to health and healing—just ask a physician.
Ready to throw me off a cliff yet?
Next Jesus says he has come to proclaim release to the captives. Now, if you think about the release of someone like Aung San Suu Kyi, we’d probably all say that was great news, and not very hard—at least for us. But throughout Luke and Acts, which Luke also wrote, you have stories of prisoners being released through their faith in God. Luke is the Gospel where the criminal who is crucified next to Jesus says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” and is assured of his place in paradise by Jesus as he dies. So what about people who are less nobly imprisoned? What about everyone in Riker’s? What about the 50 to 60 to even 70% of prisoners who are re-arrested because they have neither the skills nor the opportunities to find legal work when they’re set free? To be released from the cycles of poverty and lack of opportunity that put so many in captivity would require money and work and time on all of our parts. Is that good news? Yes! A thousand times, yes. But it’s hard news, too. It’s easier to keep people in prison and out of sight than it is to acknowledge our complicity in the system that has held them captive, and change that system. Proclaiming release to the captives today would mean starting before they’re captive—improving education and family lives and giving role models; it would mean rectifying a system where the accused are given poor legal counsel because they can’t afford anything better; it would mean reforming laws that punish minor offenses disproprotionately while letting white collar criminals walk free.
Is that cliff getting closer?
Recovery of sight to the blind… hard to hear bad news in that in the literal sense. But what about metaphorically? To what are we deliberately blind? IF we could see everything, if we could see that system that keeps people captive, that keeps people poor, might we be so overwhelmed we couldn’t go on? Or might we be significantly changed? Might it be that the hard news that comes with vision brings us closer to the Kingdom? I believe so.
How can you argue with “let the oppressed go free”? Well, because to let the oppressed go free, someone has to stop being the oppressor… the oppressed don’t just magically “go free” without anything or anyone changing around them, and the hones recognition of oneself as an oppressor is a dangerous and unflattering piece of self-knowledge. Jesus constantly goes to people in the Gospels and calls them on their oppression—even people who would consider themselves to be the oppressed. Jews in the 1st Century were in a Roman-occupied state. But instead of encouraging them to throw off their own oppressors, Jesus goes to the Jewish leaders and the wealthy and the tax collectors and points out the poor, the lepers, the old, the lame, and say, “Gee, I know you feel like you’re the oppressed, but what are you doing about them?” There is not a person in this room that has not benefited from the oppression of someone else in this world, including the person in this pulpit right now. So how on earth do we stop oppressing people? First, we acknowledge that we do. We acknowledge that we might not want to, but that we do benefit from systems that keep us up and other people down. And then we pray. And we work to cross those lines, break those systems, and give up privileges that we have been given for no other reason than that we’re the right ethnicity or gender or sexuality or nationality or have the right diploma on our wall—even if it means that we feel like we’re jumping off a cliff… because we know that God will provide the parachute. That people who give grace receive grace.
And finally we get to the year of the Lord’s favor. According to Leviticus, every seventh year was a Sabbath year, when the land would lie fallow, but every fiftieth year—so once in a lifetime, maybe—came the Jubilee year. And during the Jubilee year, the year of the Lord’s favor, there is liberty—slaves are freed, debts are forgiven, land that had been sold is returned to its owners… society is restarted. It’s like people are liberated from all the bad things that have happened over the past fifty years. And that year is what Jesus is here to fulfill. To restart our lives—to throw off our past, our debts, our servitude, and to give us freedom and hope for the future. Jesus says every year now, with him, is the Jubilee year. Renewal and new life are always possible now—not just once a lifetime.
The purpose of all this radical good news is to heal us and to heal the world. I mentioned in the blurb at the beginning of the bulletin about my son Nathan and my husband Jonathan playing their little Pentecostal “Be healed” game, where Jonathan bonks Nathan on the forehead and Nathan collapses. “Be healed.” Healing isn’t that easy—I don’t think—but sometimes the proclamation makes it so. There is power in the Word. Sometimes you need to hear someone say “be healed” in order to believe that healing is actually possible.
We need different types of healing. Some of us need the healing like the rich young man we heard about in the Gospel last week, who really wanted to follow Jesus, but loved his possessions more. It that’s you, be healed! Some of us need physical healing. Be healed! Some of us need to be healed by being freed from oppression…. Some of us need to be healed from being oppressors. Be healed! Some of us need to be healed from our blindness.. and some of us need to be healed from blinding others. Be healed! Some of us need to be healed from time in captivity and others of us need to be healed from our systemic need to put people in captivity. Be healed! And we all need the healing that comes from being in the year of the Lord’s favor—the year of the restart—of returning what has been given to us, and receiving what we have lost. A new life, a new start. Be healed, be healed, be healed!
Hard news. But so good. So good for our world, for our city, for ourselves. So healthy. But let’s get there with the confidence of Paul, who writes to Timothy from his final imprisonment, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness.” Let us fight the good fight. Let us continue the race. Let us keep the faith. Amen.