After Christmas we did our usual post-holiday clean up and clear out and I came across one of the first sermons I preached as a student minister. As I read it, I literally cringed and while I tried to practice some grace, I also felt a little remorse for ever inflicting it upon anyone. But as I look back on those early days as a student and then as a new minister, what I remember most is how patient and supportive the listeners were. While I pray that they got something out of those sermons, I will never forget how their kindness and affirmations were formative to my confidence as a preacher. As my mentor would always say, it’s easy to find something to criticize, but it’s far more productive to find something to affirm.
Jesus preached his first sermon as an adult in his “home church” at Nazareth. The synagogue services in those days were rather informal; prayers were given, scripture was read, a teacher gave comments and offerings for those in need were received. People might wander in and out, babies might cry, and children laugh outside the door. The synagogue was like a neighborhood center, there was often a school there and a place for administering justice. The community gathered there for most of its social and spiritual needs. Jesus, I imagine was at home there, among friends and relatives he had known most of his life.
“Luke offers us this reading scene as the inaugural act of Jesus’s ministry. An act in which Jesus proclaims his identity, his purpose, and his vocation. What I love about the scene is that Jesus chooses to reveal the meaning of his life and work through the beloved and well-worn words of Scripture. Words his audience has heard a thousand times. Words no doubt rich with communal memory and meaning, but also words in danger of losing their power through over-familiarity.” When he stands to speak, everyone stops to listen. It is his first public witness, and we can imagine his family and friends might be interested in what he has to say. When he reads Isaiah’s words, Jesus places himself inside a tradition that is alive today…that of prophetic ministry and witness. He promises to put his strength at the disposal of the marginalized and encourages his followers to do the same. This passage lays the foundation on which communities of justice and peace will be built. The social gospel is born in that moment and millions of people have followed Jesus down the path.
Luke’s Jesus defines himself through alignment with the poor, the oppressed and the dispossessed. To Luke, faith in God without attention to injustice is incomplete. Luke’s Jesus made a clear stance, siding with those who suffer injustice and oppression. Parkminster has a long history working and partnering with local and global organizations in the name of justice. It is always exciting to recognize the good work so many are doing which is why we were so delighted to learn that A Better Tent City – of which Parkminster has many close connections – was named the 2021 Barnraiser in Waterloo Region for its radical approach to addressing homelessness. This is the kind of work Jesus’ aligned himself with in today’s gospel lesson.
Marcus Borg, in the Heart of Christianity, describes the life of Jesus as having these characteristics: Jewish mystic, a healer, a wisdom teacher, a social prophet and a movement initiator. As a social prophet, his voice rose in religious and social protest against the economic and political injustice of the dominant systems of the day. He was a radical critic of the system that channeled wealth to a few and delivered poverty to the many.
At the end of February, we will be celebrating our Annual Meeting as a congregation. It’s a time to reflect on where we have been but also where we are going. It’s a time to reflect on big questions like: 1) How shall we as people of faith be framing the issues that are important to us? 2) What will we engage in regarding the needs of others in the coming year? 3) How will we be called to respond to those who are in need and oppressed in our neighborhood and in the world? 4) What are the injustices we are being called upon to act and address?
Today’s gospel reading is as relevant a word for this contemporary moment. “God’s ‘today’ is not a day to postpone and defer. Not a cosmic fairy tale ending to expect in some fuzzy, indistinct future… the good news is available right now. The time for transformation, renewal, and metanoia is at hand…Lean into liberation today. Accept the joy of God today. The time of God’s favour — luminous and rich — stands in front of us, [just as it did Jesus’ audience] – embodied before our very eyes, if only we will dare to see it. Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
As I reflected on those words this past week, I realize how reluctant I am at times to embrace the holiness of “today.” Like some of you, I have spent the past two years living somewhat on pause. Deferring and deflecting, as if the days we live in right now don’t count as “real life.” “Real life will resume after the pandemic,” I tell myself. Real life will resume when church services go back to being in-person. When we can celebrate Communion together without our Covid-friendly elements. When we put away our masks unless we’re not feeling well. When we get some sort of handle on climate change, police brutality, the toll on mental health, and sectarian violence.
A preacher once said that “the truth will make you free, but first it will make you miserable.” Omicron is overwhelming the planet. Hospitals are reaching capacity, physicians and nurses and caregivers are exhausted, national and local economies are flailing, and Covid’s death toll continues to rise. And this is before we mention any of the other challenges facing us. Wars and threats of wars. Violence in many forms. The catastrophic effects of climate change. The long shadow of racial injustice. Alarming breakdowns in civility and basic kindness. Rising epidemics of anxiety, depression, addiction, and despair. But it is through these hard truths that we hear the call to do justice.
We need to be careful that our understanding of justice includes, but not be limited to, charity. We need to recognize that our very economy is based on the growing inequality between the rich and the poor. Rather than protecting our own self interests, it is up to us to speak up and demand the necessary changes that will result in real and meaningful change. Marcus Borg comments that justice asks, “Why are there so many victims?” To practice justice is an act of social transformation.
In Luke’s Gospel, the first public word of Jesus, apart from the reading of Scripture, is “today.” “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The time is today. There must be changes in the conditions of the world. For those who are waiting for an end to oppression and poverty, it begins today. The time of God is today. Fred Craddock comments that throughout Luke, “Today” never dissolves into yesterday or disappears into tomorrow. It is present and immediate.
I take that to mean we have work to do, today. The Spirit of God is upon us in this hour to do ministries of peace and justice. To speak of the Spirit is to speak above all of the power of God, as life-changing, world-transforming, church invigorating power to redeem and resurrect. God’s people are called to be holy and loving in a world that sometimes feels like it has little time for holiness and even less time for love and justice.
As people of faith, we cannot escape the political shape and nature of the world and our own country. To recognize this moral imperative of our faith places us firmly in the tradition of the prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Nehemiah, and Jesus. To know God is to do justice.
The Spirit of God is upon us
to bring Good News to those who are poor.
God has sent us to proclaim liberty to those held captive,
recovery of sight to those who are blind,
and release to those in prison— to proclaim the year of our God’s favour.”
Rolling up the scroll, Jesus gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he said to them, “Today, in your hearing, this scripture passage is fulfilled.”
May it be so. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Heather Power