Sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, C, January 24, 2016, on Isaiah 61:1-2a and Luke 4:14-21
The Wonderful World We Seek
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor
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.”
As hard as it is for me to believe it, by this time next year we will have already witnessed the swearing in of the 45th president of the United States. We will have seen another inauguration day and heard another inauguration day speech.
Without having heard it, we already know how it will go. Inauguration speeches lay out the agenda. They cast a vision. In it, the new president announces what he or she wants to accomplish. Implicit or explicit in those plans, is a vision of our country. What should we look like? What should we value? What should we be known for in the world?
Lincoln’s 2nd Inauguration Speech
One of the most famous is probably Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural speech in which he said,
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
We just heard a reading of Jesus’ inauguration speech, or at least the closest thing to it. Jesus never got elected to any office, and he certainly was never a head of state. But he did have a vision of how things should be, and a plan for how to get there.
Clearly Lincoln was consciously echoing Jesus and the biblical tradition, in lines like “bind up the wounds” and in the words “widow” and “orphan.” Normally, in the bible, “widow and orphan” are only two, of a three-word triad, that includes “stranger,” meaning someone from another blood-line, an “alien”.
But Lincoln did not mention “the stranger” in that speech. I cannot help but wonder if reconstruction would have looked different if welcoming the “stranger,” including the former slaves, would have been included, as part of our ethical vision. Speeches are as important for what they do say, as for what they do not say.
Jesus’ “Inauguration Speech”
So, Lincoln echoed Jesus. Jesus himself, of course, was consciously echoing the biblical tradition of the prophets in his inaugural address. His reading was from the prophetic book of Isaiah. In this part of Isaiah, the prophet announces a new vision for the people who have been devastated; devastated by the calamity of war, of loosing the war, of becoming forced immigrants, of living under oppression in Babylon, captives of an empire, just as their ancestors had been in Egypt.
Jesus used Isaiah’s words to speak of a new vision to people who were back in their land, but who were living under the boot of another empire, this time Rome. Most of the people in that synagogue in Nazareth, where Jesus was reading, according to Luke’s scene, were poor people. Many had lost their land; many were in debt, literally. And many were in the process of being seduced by a vision of their future solution that included violence; rebellion.
What Jesus did not Quote
It is powerfully important to observe that Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah’s vision of the future God has for the people, stops short of a final phrase. Jesus affirms the vision of the prophet, in which there can be, as he quotes,
“good news to the poor…release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind,”
and in which “the oppressed go free,” and “the year of the Lord’s favor” is proclaimed.
But Isaiah’s final line, after proclaiming “the year of the lord’s favor” is “and the day of vengeance of our God”.
Jesus rejected vengeance and violence as a solution. He rejected the notion that God’s future was going to be accomplished by force. Even though John the baptist believed this – that God (not humans) would come down with fire, Jesus’ vision of God’s future was a non-violent vision.
Jesus’ Kingdom Vision
If you had to summarize Jesus’ message in a phrase, what would you say? I hope all of us would know to say that Jesus announced that the kingdom of God is here and now as a present reality.
How do you get to that point at which you understand that what God wants is for everyone to embrace the vision of a peaceful kingdom, instead of a victorious war?
I believe this insight, for Jesus, came spiritually. It is not an accident that the first words from the Isaiah text Jesus read from are:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me”
Jesus’ Spiritual Practice
Jesus habit of practicing prayer was at they heart of his spirituality. Today we call this contemplative prayer, or centering prayer, of simply meditation. It is sitting in silence, in the present moment, aware of the Presence of God.
In that silence, we stop the mental chatter that normally fills our minds. We turn of the chatter that wants to judge everything according to our own tastes and preferences. We turn off the chatter of comparison and competition. We turn off the chatter of wanting things to be different than they are.
And in this state of silence, we find that we become more aware of the presence of God. We find that we are more sensitive to the Spirit of God. We find that we are more awake to the signs of God’s presence in the world; to beauty, to goodness, and to truth.
Let us think about these three signs: We are more aware of beauty, and the way the beautiful is given to us freely as a gift. We respond with awe, and with wonder, and even with scientific curiosity.
We find that we are more attuned to goodness; we see it all around us. We watch the way people are lured to be good to those around them, without hope for return. People will go out of their way to transport people to doctors. People will come to and donate to a yoga benefit for someone they may not even have met. People will help refugees of another religion from a part of the world we have never been to, just because we feel the lure of goodness.
And people will long for the truth, instead of deceptions and outright lies. We notice that strange tug of truth, when people live into an awareness that we humans are all essentially one. That we all share this fragile planet. That each of us is, as Genesis says, an image of God, or in the Greek version, an icon of God. Each one, full of the dignity of person-hood, worthy of respect; deserving of compassion.
A Spiritual Vision
To be able to say, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me” – which Jesus was able to say, which we all are able to say, is the basis for everything else. How could this Spirit of the God of all creation not want peace among all his children? So Jesus’ vision of God’s future is a vision of peace, without vengeance.
The fruit of a practice of spirituality, that includes meditation, is always compassion. In meditation, because the incessantly needy ego voice is not permitted to speak in our minds, we become more aware of others. Our compassion muscle strengthens.
And so we begin to see the people we used to not see. We begin to notice, as Jesus did, the needs of the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed.
We notice that the poor may be in poverty after working hard all week long at a job that does not pay a living wage. We notice the people captive to addictions and to self-destructive life-styles.
We notice that there is great blindness all around us; that our own white-privilege blinds us to the ways people of color are still marginalized. We notice that there is oppression all around the world – there is still slavery; there are children mining cobalt instead of going to school. There are families who will never be free from cycles of forced labor in Asia and in Africa.
Jesus’ Method of Response
We cannot solve all of the world’s problems, but we can make life better for one, or two, or some. We can do what Jesus intended: live as though God was king. Live into the reality of the kingdom.
And so we will do what Jesus taught us to do: we will form small communities. These communities will practice “open commensality”; they be open-table communities that welcome to all people, with no purity boundaries to cross.
These communities, called churches, will be communities of spiritual practice, and of compassionate response. We will gather to worship the God who shows God’s self in every moment of beauty, of goodness and truth. And we will break bread and share one common cup, in affirmation of our unity, and of God’s infinite grace.
And we will rise up from common worship and go into our mission, into our worlds. We will create practical conduits for our compassion; food pantries, homeless shelters, children’s homes, and places to help local children with their homework. We will be outposts of the kingdom, or kin-dom of God.
So, as we affirmed in our call to worship, let us hear the call to believe and practice our vision, set forth in Jesus’ inaugural words:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon us!
God has anointed us to bring good news to the poor,
To proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free.
Let us worship the God of justice and peace!”