Lesson: Luke 4:14-21
My first sermon…stunk. I had not yet had a preaching class and I was returning to my church, Northminster Presbyterian, in Pensacola, Florida to check in and tell them about all the wonderful things I was learning in seminary. The pastor asked me to preach. I should have asked for a rain check. My sermon was little longer than the one sentence we have recorded from Jesus. It was something like six minutes delivered in a vocal speed that was fast even by New York City standards. I was painfully aware that it had not gone well. Problem was, there was a second service. In between the two services was a called session meeting (this is Presbyterian talk for the governing board held an official meeting). It was at this point that our minister joked that when I give my sermon in the second service, I will breathe and aim for eight minutes. We all laughed and my cheeks flushed. I hope that part was not recorded in the official meeting minutes.
Those six to eight minutes were my first attempt to bring an enlightened understanding of feminist theology to a somewhat conservative southern church. Can’t blame me for trying. I’m grateful for how much grace Northminster showed me that day. What can I say? I was raised for this.
I can trace my desire to work toward the end of oppression back to my youth. My family cannot be discounted here, but the galvanizing force that helped me understand the gendered differences in our culture were explained to me in my 7th grade Sunday school class. Our teacher, Elizabeth, was an ordained southern Baptist clergywoman who had left her denomination due to her new-found feminist liberation. Our small group of tween girls soaked in all of her righteous anger. We spent the entire year studying women in the Bible. Fifteen years later I was claiming it for myself….to understandably mixed review.
Luke’s gospel recounts Jesus’ first sermon to his home congregation. We know that this is not his very first sermon, because he already has a following. Luke gives this sermon priority in his gospel—this is Jesus’ first official act. Previously Jesus was born and tempted. Now an adult Jesus begins his ministry. Our passage is like his inaugural address. The rest of this gospel will be a recounting of Jesus enacting his priorities.
Luke says he reads from the scroll of Isaiah, but did you notice that the words we read in Isaiah and Luke did not quite match? It is close. Jesus words may not be direct quotations, but his words stand in the Jewish tradition he was raised in, and loved dearly. A tradition that his own mother and aunt nurtured. Do you remember Mary’s Magnificat? Mary and her cousin Elizabeth are both pregnant together and Mary proclaims God’s radical love for the marginalized. Hear it again from Luke chapter 1:
God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty[i]
I wonder what it might have been like to be raised with the Magnificat as your bedtime lullaby? Mary’s words reinforce an understanding of God who is active and supportive of people who are in need. And, we hear Jesus’ proclamation standing in the prophetic tradition of both Isaiah and Mary.
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
God 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 favour.’
Interesting to note Jesus does not include the next line, “and the day of vengeance of our God”. Interesting, but not surprising. Vengeance is nowhere to be found in the Magnificat. It’s not what Jesus is known for. Isn’t that good news? Rather Jesus’ focus stays with the grace-filled language of release, recovery, and freedom. And, his focus sticks with the marginalized poor, captives, blind, and oppressed.
Jesus is about his Father’s and his mother’s business.
Luke also records how this is not always easy for Jesus. In the next few verses of chapter 4, Jesus’ hometown crowd warms up to him then tries to run him off a cliff. It’s in the minutes.
For those of us who yearn for some good news, I think we may be on the right path. That is to say Jesus’ priorities are not comforting to those of us who are comfortable. It’s not GOOD news if we pretend that we are perfect and live in a protective bubble. It’s not good if we think Jesus’ news is for someone else. The minute we become vulnerable with ourselves, or with another, it’s difficult to maintain comfortable.
It is good news when we engage in a faith community where we can offer support to one another and walk with one another through profound pain and profound joy. It is good news to ask ourselves questions and listen to the deep answers: I wonder what in my life needs to be released? I wonder what in our community needs to be freed? I wonder… I wonder if we realize how much we have to offer one another in Christian love? I wonder if we are aware of the many ways in which we are invited to BE the good news? I wonder if we are aware of the many ways in which we are already BE-ing good new to others? I wonder if we have adopted Jesus’ vision for ourselves-for our entire lives, even when it’s scary?
A colleague shared this story she heard from Heather Balou, a preschool teacher in her congregation:
When Heather was a young girl growing up in Atlanta she overheard her mother and father talking one morning. She remembered her father saying, “If you and Heather go, you will die.” And her mother replied, “Well then, Heather and I will be martyrs.” Not knowing what it meant to die, or what a martyr was, she dutifully joined her mother in a car ride through the city of Atlanta. They drove through very poor parts of town where people were throwing bricks into car windows, setting buildings on fire, and rushing angrily through the streets. At that time, the only thing Heather had seen remotely like this before were war scenes on the news. So she asked her mother, “Are we in Vietnam?” Eventually her mother parked the car. They both got out and slowly approached a gathering crowd of people. The crowd grew so quickly that soon she could not tell where the sidewalk ended and the street began. But in the midst of all those people, she noticed three things: first, it was incredibly quiet; second, people were dressed in their Sunday best; and third, she and her mother were the only two white people they could see. They moved slowly and maneuvered as close to the front of the crowd as possible. They found their place next to people she had never met. Soon, everyone in the crowd began holding hands and sang slowly and softly, “We shall overcome.”
Heather recalled watching the funeral procession for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His casket was pulled down the street in a wooden farm wagon carried by two local mules. She remembers a deep sense of sadness but also a sense of joy because she was in the midst of all these strangers holding hands, knowing she was a part of something special.
It was just months later, that Heather’s father took her to see a Giants baseball game. At the game, she went to get an autograph from one of the players, indeed one of the greatest baseball players, Willie Mayes. As she held out her pen for him to sign his name, Willie looked down at her and said, “Hey, you are the little girl with freckles. We held hands together at MLK’s funeral procession.”[ii]
I wonder if Heather would remember the baseball game if it weren’t for the funeral? The kingdom of God, the vision of Jesus, surrounds us and we partake in no small ways.
Today’s congregational meeting is one way our community comes together to reaffirm that we, too, recommit ourselves to a vision of living out Jesus vision by prioritizing our faith rooted in justice and freedom (and fabulous music). Strong programs that feed the hungry, shelter the poor, provide space for people walking their steps, raise each others’ spirits, memorialize after a loss, laugh and love, educate and inspire our children. We affirm that this community of faith deserves a place in our lives and the life of this community as we prayerfully consider the issues before us.
I am apart of a list serve—an email conversation—for an organization named WATER. It stands for Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual. They are based in Washington DC and follow issues related to women in religion. Typically the conversation is very supportive, but this past week’s conversation was feisty. The founder of the organization, Mary Hunt, responded to a long, somewhat heated discussion with these words, “WATER exists to keep asking the hard questions, finding ways to live with disagreement, but always prioritizing justice.”[iii] Here’s an organization that is about their maker’s business.
May we continue, each of us, and together, to follow Jesus’ vision of bringing good news to the poor. May we stand in our rich tradition and draw strength for the journey. May we pass along our own stories and truths of release rather than vengeance. May we continue to keep asking the hard questions, rejoicing in discomfort, finding ways to live with disagreement, and always prioritizing justice. Amen!
© Diana Bell 2013
[i] Luke 1:51-53
[ii] Walkup Bird, Julie Excerpt from sermon, “Water to Wine,” given January 17, 2010 at McGregor Presbyterian Church *adapted slightly from the original DBell 01/26/13
[iii] Mary E. Hunt, Ph.D. (from email on Jan 24-25th re: ban lifted to allow women to serve in combat) Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER)