Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 | Psalm 19 | 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a | Luke 4:14-21
When my oldest child is home and knows I’m ruminating on the scriptures for the week in my sermon preparation, she’ll most likely ask, “What’s the gospel reading for this week?” I offer her a quick headline or summary statement. This week, in a kind of frustration, I said, “It’s when Jesus is in the synagogue, reads from Isaiah, and says the scripture has been fulfilled in their hearing.” And I kind of shrugged my shoulders as if to say, not that exciting, huh? It’s not like he turned water into wine like he did last week–that’s the good stuff.
So I read yet again, and the words Jesus chose to read from the scroll stand out anew:
“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.”
Not only the words but what happens afterwards–the attention to his movements of rolling up the scroll, handing it back to the attendant, and sitting down with all eyes fixed on him–slow time. There must have hung a pregnant pause in the air before he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
We might be tempted to say, “Jesus, you’re getting ahead of yourself. Your ministry is just beginning.” He was baptized and survived wandering in the wilderness for 40 days, and now he’s filled with power of the Spirit to teach with authority in the synagogues, even in his hometown. But at least in the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus has yet to perform any miraculous deeds of liberation or healing.
While we might be inclined to focus on the remarkable acts, what Jesus reads from Isaiah is about having the Spirit of the Lord upon him, being anointed to bring good news, being sent to proclaim liberation and restoration. If anything, he’s likening himself to the Prophet Isaiah, who was called to bring the good news to the people of Israel, to announce their deliverance. But those prophecies were already fulfilled
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” Jesus says with both continuity and disruption of tradition. Continuity because he calls to mind the familiar words of Isaiah, pulling from Chapters 61 and 58 (as we know them), and disruption because he’s saying that today the scripture has been fulfilled. There’s yet another era of people who need good news, who need to be freed from their prisons and oppression, who need vision, and who need restoration. And those people were likely sitting among the crowd or would be among the people who heard the reports of this man proclaiming good news. Also sitting among those in the synagogue were likely people who felt uncomfortable at the calling out of those who are oppressed, people who would be uncomfortable with someone filled with spirit and chosen by God to be the one to bring about the year of the Lord’s favor for those vulnerable people, a year of jubilee when people’s fortunes would be restored, debts forgiven. A year of jubilee sounds an awful lot like valleys being raised up and mountains brought low, and those in position on the top don’t necessarily want to move lower, even if it means a more level playing field. We’ll continue with this moment in Jesus’s ministry next week to recall the response of his teaching.
“Today,” Jesus said, and that “today” was over 2,000 years ago. “Today,” our scripture reads in this time and place, and the power of the Holy Spirit hovers about us, waiting to see if we are willing conduits for the work at hand. I imagine it has similarities to the moment there in Nazareth when the people listening to Jesus got to contemplate what he meant.
Of course I’m not saying I’m Jesus in this moment! What I am saying is that I am a child of God, having been baptized in the name of the Trinity like most of you, I presume (if not, we need to talk about baptism!). I’ve been given gifts of the Spirit, marked as Christ’s own forever, and confirmed by the bishop to assume responsibility for my journey in faith. I strive daily to live into the promises I’ve made, and some days are better than others. And like you, I am one of many who make up the Body of Christ in this world.
Paul, advising the church in Corinth, is trying to maintain cohesiveness among the peoples. He’s told them there are many gifts, and now he’s telling them there are many members, each with their own role to play, individually and collectively. Not only is Paul trying to overcome personally competitive behaviors, but he is also trying to overcome a communal mindset that is governed by a top-down political view that was inclined to see Jesus as Caesar more than Jesus as shepherd. An egalitarian view of the body, incorporating all members be they weak or strong, was not normative. Striving as a corporate body for a greater good challenged the Corinthians then as much as it challenges us today.
So here we are, members of the Body of Christ, lingering in this holy place with the Spirit of the Lord hovering, ready to course through all of us and each of us like a central nervous system activating us for a greater good.
How does that make us feel, knowing that all of us, rich or poor, weak or strong, are an invaluable component of the Body of Christ?
How does it feel to hover for an extended moment at the threshold of what is yet to be?
In that kind of moment, do we feel vulnerable? Scared? Intimidated? Would we rather put our head down and pretend we haven’t seen or known or experienced delight in the Lord our God, effectively hiding our light under a bushel? Do we feel helpless? Or, do we feel well-equipped, ready to rise to the challenge? Elizabeth Gilbert in her book Big Magic writes about creativity seeking outlets and how if one person doesn’t latch onto it and run with whatever idea is trying to be conceived, that it will find another conduit through which to be birthed.
Thankfully, the creative Holy Spirit with which we identify is already finding willing conduits in this place and in our community, and because of that, the work that Jesus began continues. The work of Christ continues to be fulfilled, but it’s not yet complete.
Work like sharing good news to the poor. The food pantry at Christ the King, our discretionary assistance, our openness to everyone regardless of their financial or spiritual portfolio are ways we share the message that God loves–inclusive of and especially–the poor, be it in body, mind, or spirit. The simple message of “God loves you” is a powerful one. There are other churches and organizations that share this message, too, and collectively we partner with them to be advocates for the poor because we have the privilege to do so. Because if people of privilege don’t advocate the poor, who do you see in our governance that does? If I am an immigrant from Guatemala, who do I see in our city/state/nation who represents me and my interest, my struggle?
Work like release to the captives, setting the oppressed free. This doesn’t mean that we go to the jails and release all prisoners. When we commit crimes, we do suffer consequences. We also, however, offer means of reciliation, and when it’s called for, priests and bishops can offer absolution. We believe in being released from the bondage of sin, of making way for reconciliation. This is why we support recovery and rehabilitation programs. We’ve already put word out that when there’s an AA or Al-anon group who needs a meeting space, we’re available. Padre Guillermo and I have ability to go into our county jail. David Myers, a deacon at St. Andrew’s, is instrumental in the gardening program at the Benton County Jail. The Episcopal Church advocates for the abolition of the death penalty, incarceration reform, and support of refugees, those seeking asylum. Remembering that our prisons or what binds us aren’t always visible opens the gates of empathy and compassion to relate to one another on a level plane. We all stand to benefit from the message of liberation from the bondage to sin, captivity to our self-will. We have the Way to be released to something greater.
Giving sight to the blind can be enabling one another to have the vision to see God’s dream for us, the “something greater” of which we are all a part. Enabling each other in hope and imagination helps restore the ability to see things that maybe we thought were impossible or had lost sight of given the way we’ve always experienced the world. One way we do this is through Continuing the Conversation, where we talk about racism and prejudice and where we see that our eyes are being open to see injustices that take place in our lives and in our world. Sure, Jesus restored literal sight to the blind, but we are much more likely to remove blinders in our worldviews, revealing the Truth of what really is.
The work of revealing the year of the Lord’s favor would be a tremendous accomplishment. Imagine erasing all student loan debt and mortgages. Imagine everything being returned to its natural state so that we remembered that all of Creation is actually God’s, and we are merely stewards of Creation, no one of us more entitled to “ownership” than another. God’s blessing is unbounded by human limitations and is available abundantly to all. In our burial rite, we offer the same message of resurrection, offer the same liturgy, use the same pall, whether you were a high level CEO or a homeless addict with multiple felony charges. God’s favor is for everyone.
As always, it’s up to us to decide what we do in any given moment. Maybe it’s our moment to be on the receiving end of the good news, liberation, and abundance. If that’s the case, you’ve come to the right place–the table is set for you. Maybe it’s our moment to rise up, and bow our heads and lift our hands in “Amen” like the people listening to Ezra, receiving the law, repentant for their disobedience, and turning the to joy of the Lord for their strength. They were hungry for guidance, for direction, and the law of Moses filled them.
What are we needing now? Personally and communally? The Holy Spirit surrounds us, waiting to fill our hunger, waiting to empower us, if we are ready to receive and be sent to do the will of God.