This week the #blacklivesmatter movement in the US touched our lives. It affected my sermon writing. Here is the message, based on Luke 4:13-21
Our scripture reading leaves us in a state of suspense. We know where this story is going, but, the creators of the lectionary seem to have stopped it in the middle, cut it in half.
This morning we have Jesus reading scripture, sitting down, making a one sentence statement about the reading and himself, and then we stop, we don’t go on to the reaction of his home town crowd to his words. We’ll get to that next week
I think it’s wise, this stopping place. If we consider the entire piece, we tend to focus on the reaction of the people of Nazareth, wonder at their blindness to what was going on around them, and skim over the important message that Jesus brings to his home town synagogue.
Luke makes it clear that Nazareth was not the first village Jesus had stopped in, and their synagogue was not the first one he where he had been given the opportunity to speak.
By the time Jesus arrives in his home town there is already a sense of excitement. Jesus had become something of a celebrity in the province of Galilee, part of a country where theology was almost a national sport, the national pass time. The country had been built around the worship of God. God’s word in the Pentateuch, the prophecies, and the wisdom writings, had been inspected, dissected, and intersected in more ways than you can imagine, to squeeze out every last bit of meaning that could be found in it. Those who could explain scripture the most eloquently, with the most descriptive turn of phrase, the most innovative arguments, were the superstars of the day, the heroes of the people, the role models for children, the ones old men looked up to, wished they could have been.
In fact Luke says Jesus was glorified by the people, the only time this word is used to describe Jesus in all of Luke’s writing. It is used elsewhere to describe glory being given to God.
So, if the national sport, the national pastime is theology, the synagogue in town might be the equivalent of our local hockey arena. You can imagine the excitement there would be in town if Cam Talbot, local boy now playing in goal with the Edmonton Oilers, came back to Caledonia to mind the net for a game with the league leading Caledonia Corvairs of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League. The arena would be packed, just to catch a glimpse of the young man who had done what so many could only dream of. The local boy who did good….
So, its not surprising that there is excitement and anticipation as Jesus comes to the synagogue. It’s not surprising that after the traditional recitation of the words of the shema, and the reading of the law, that he is offered the scroll to read the scripture of the day. He unrolls the scroll and reads the assigned text from the book of Isaiah.
The reading that Luke quotes, which is written in the form of poetry in your pew bibles, is based on Isaiah 61:1-2, but if you flip to those verses, while you will recognize the words, you will find that there have been additions and subtractions. Some of the additions come from Isaiah 58:6. I don’t imagine that Jesus didn’t actually read the words of Isaiah, that he added to them or subtracted from them in any way. What Luke has done is boil Jesus reading down to its essence and in doing so has mashed a number of prophetic texts together into what is really Jesus mission statement.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Jesus has been standing to read, and now he sits down to teach, to expound on what has been read. All eyes are on Jesus, Luke reports, everyone is leaning forward to catch every word of this up and coming theological star, the home town boy and what they heard was this:
“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Luke reports the beginning of the teaching time, we don’t get the rest, the exegesis of the text and the amazing hermeneutical gymnastics that everyone had come to witness, and it’s likely because, they were so distracted by the beginning words that they didn’t hear the rest.
“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Fulfilled, that word is a game changer…. A thought stopper….
What does Jesus mean, fulfilled?
As far as they know no prisoners have been released, no blind people are seeing, they are still being oppressed by their Roman occupiers, and on top of all that, they are not even sure they want to have the year of the Lord’s favor, which would be understood to refer to the year of Jubilee, a year when all debts are cleared, all ancestral lands returned, all slaves set free, proclaimed. If this prophecy, made hundreds of years before to a people in exile in Babylon has truly been fulfilled, why hasn’t anything changed?
We could very well ask the same question over 2000 years later. We hear Jesus words of fulfillment again this morning, but with our eyes and our ears we doubt the truth of it. We face a worldwide refugee crisis, almost 60 million people displaced by war and oppression, more than any time since World War 2. In our cities we see the effects of poverty first hand on the streets. It’s more hidden in the rural areas, but you don’t need to scratch very hard to find it here as well. We see the struggles of those chained in prisons of addiction, wishing for freedom, but finding it impossible to attain. We see the rich getting richer, and the poor getting poorer and further into debt and we recognize that no year of Jubilee is being proclaimed to set everyone back to the same level, the place where they started.
We too….as the word “fulfilled” lands on our ears, might miss all the rest of Jesus teaching time as we think about how not fulfilled this prophecy seems to be.
But maybe we, and Jesus first listeners are looking at Jesus words in the wrong way. Maybe what Jesus is really saying is that through the power that he has been anointed with, the power of the Hoy Spirit, he is going to preach good news to the edges of society, and maybe to the edges of our own lives. He has come to proclaim God’s love to everyone including particularly the margins of society, the unloved, the unappreciated, the unseen, those that we discount somehow, walk past and never see.
In this first sermon of Jesus, we cannot avoid the conclusion that perhaps one of the chief powers of Jesus is to declare that God sees all of us – not just those the world sees, but everyone. Because the very fact that Jesus’ sermon is all about what God will do for the least of those in the world tells us that God gives special attention to those whom the world doesn’t want to see.
My daughter-in –law was arrested this past week. She was part of a Black Lives Matter protest which closed down the Bay Bridge in San Francisco for almost an hour. It’s the bridge that goes from San Francisco to Oakland and carries 240,000 cars a day. The protest caused a major inconvenience to travelers on Monday, Martin Luther King Day. After five hours with her hands behind her back secured by zip ties, she, and 24 other protesters were released with misdemeanor charges and a pending court date with the potential of six months in jail, but full of excitement for having stood up for what she feels is right, full of optimism that their action will make a difference, that maybe society, particularly in San Francisco will now see, and pay attention to the black lives living in the city.
Here in Canada we have had our own demonstrations particularly around the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women. These demonstrations, like those of the black lives matter movement have tried to elevate the issues of a particular group into the public eye, out of obscurity. They simply want to been seen, be heard, be recognized.
We might not necessarily like their methods and opponents to both causes question these movements, wanting to know why we would focus on aboriginal lives or black lives, don’t all lives matter. The focus on one group or another seems to imply that other lives are not as important.
But I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think it’s more a matter of the movement calling attention to the fact that the way this world and culture acts makes one think that we have collectively decided that black lives in the US and aboriginal lives here in Canada don’t matter, at least not as much as white ones do, and so they are calling attention to this through their actions. They want to be seen.
Jesus, I think, is doing something similar. Filled by the power of the Holy Spirit, he testifies to the fact that God’s power is always seen as peculiar, odd, and uncomfortable by the world because it focuses on, shines a light on, those the world has overlooked, forgotten, or discarded. Its not that God has no interest in the regular middle class life, that we need to be poor or oppressed or blind to merit God’s attention, Jesus knows that while we act in a way to make it seem like some lives matter and some don’t, God sees all.
Jesus proclaims that those distinctions fade away in the face of grace, that God sees all, loves all, and intends and promises to redeem all. In Jesus something new has come and it has as its mission statement to bring good news into all, including the dark and forgotten corners of our world; to bring a message of hope, healing, and release.
God sees us and the outer edges of our society with love
David Lose points out that it also means that God sees the parts of us that we don’t want seen. That God sees the parts of us that we deem ugly and unlovable and loves us anyway.
That God will not wait for us to improve enough to be loved, and that God is never satisfied that we are all we can be. God loves us enough to see us, God loves us enough to forgive us, God loves us enough to challenge us, and God loves us enough to send us out to see and love others – especially those the world does not see.
God loves us enough that in Jesus we see the fulfillment of Isaiah’s words, not just in a short sermon which shakes up the quiet of his home town, but in his willingness to go all the way to the cross for us, to make the good news carried in his words, fill out with action. God Loves us enough to give Jesus, to give God’s self for us. Not just the mainstream…but all of us.
We are called to take up this mission as well; to take up the work of proclaiming good news, particularly focusing on those who need to hear good news the most. To do that is to share in the peculiar power that drives Jesus to preach such an odd and inclusive sermon.
It is an odd an inclusive message. One that points to the fulfillment of prophecy in the person of Jesus Christ, points to a fulfillment that is both now and not yet, both here and still coming. The kingdom has landed, God is busy in the world, but the work is not yet finished, there is much to do, oppressed who still need to be lifted from oppression, blind who still need healing, prisoners, both real and metaphorical who still need to be released.
We see and share in God’s love again this morning, this radical kingdom bringing love as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper together.
God sees all, loves all, and intends and promises to redeem all. This is Good news for those who heard it then and for those who hear it today.
But, it is also challenging, as we’ll see next week, as it makes it difficult to rule out of bounds anyone whom God has called and claimed.
Let us Pray,
(based on Isaiah 61)
O come, faithful God,
who empowers the weak,
who encourages the fearful,
who enlightens the blind,
who intones the deaf,
who energizes the lame,
who emancipates the speechless,
who enriches the poor,
who invigorates the dead;
O come, faithful God,
come and enable us, right now,
to worship you and work for your Kingdom,
filled with your strength,
All this we pray,
through him who came to be our Savior,
who lives to be our Lord,
who will return and fully make all things new;
In Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen.
(Prayer written by Peter L. Haynes, and posted on the Long Green Valley Churchwebsite. )