The Threshold of Trouble -- Luke 4:14-30 (Second Sunday After Epiphany; MLK Sunday)

Updated: Jan 20

Photo by Taylor Brandon,

used with permission via

In preaching class, we learn that – whenever we approach a Scripture text – one of the first things we should look for is “the trouble.”[1] Look for “the trouble in the text”: Where has the world gone wrong? Where are people hurting?

We look for the trouble, so we can then more clearly see the grace: Where is God at work in the world setting things right? Where and how is God liberating, healing, forgiving, empowering, loving, creating – all the ways that God’s grace abounds?

We look for the trouble and then the grace in the Scripture, so that – holding Scripture in one hand, and looking out into our world – we can ask: Where do we see trouble like that in our world? And where do we see God at work like that – today? And how is that coming to life in us?

It’s a helpful way– not just for preachers, but for all of us – to approach these ancient texts and look for a fresh word for today:

Where is the trouble? Where is the grace? Then and now.

In this morning’s Scripture, there is plenty of trouble: Jesus preaches a sermon, and the congregation, in response, tries to throw him off a cliff. Take it from this preacher: That’s some trouble.

But that’s just the culmination. The trouble in the story builds from the moment that Jesus says, “Listen up. This is why I’m here:

I have come to preach good news to the poor.

I have come to proclaim release to the captive,

and recovery of sight to the blind.

I have come to let the oppressed go free,

and to proclaim the year of God’s favor –

the year when all debts are cancelled,

and all those enslaved set free..”

Jesus is proclaiming good news – and it’s good news that is coming to set right the deep trouble in the world. There’s even bigger trouble in this text than the preacher being thrown off a cliff:

· Jesus says, “I’ve come to bring good news to the poor,” because people in Jesus’s world are poor. Most are living a life of bare subsistence – one day to the next. They are hungry and suffering.

· Jesus says, “I’ve come to proclaim release to the captives” because people in Jesus’ world are unjustly incarcerated – taken from their families by the power of empire – and held in jails and in slavery.

· Jesus says, “I’ve come to bring sight to the blind” – because people are hurting in body, mind, and spirit, and they need healing.

· Jesus says, “I’ve come to set the oppressed free,” because the systems of power are aligned against the people – the power of Roman empire, the power of complicit religious leadership.

· Jesus says that “I’ve come to proclaim the year of God’s favor” – the year of God’s jubilee – remember that? – the year when all debts are forgiven, and those enslaved set free – because the trouble is so big, that it requires a complete reset – a dismantling of all the systems and the powers that oppress – the walls are coming down.

There is big trouble in the world. And Jesus says, the Spirit is upon me to change all this, and today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.[2]

And for a moment, for a moment, the people say, “Oh, isn’t that nice? What gracious words – and from Joseph’s son.”

But then, Jesus speaks again, and says, “I’m sorry maybe I wasn’t clear, but I wasn’t talking about just you.” The people hear Jesus’s good words, and they expect that they will get something from him – some healing for them, a nice miracle for them. But Jesus clarifies – this is good news for the poor, for the captive, for the oppressed. The poor in Jesus’s world – the ptochoi – are all those held down by the forces of separation in their world based on economic status, gender, ethnicity, perceived religious purity, sickness, and disability.[3] Jesus’s good news rejects those barriers. Jesus says, I have come to re-order the world. Like Mary sang in the Magnificat, those held down low will be lifted up. Your world is about to turn.

And that... hits close to home. That stirs up more trouble – “Let’s- throw-him-off-a-cliff” trouble. Jesus preaches good news for the poor, the captive, and the oppressed – he puts the trouble of the world before them – they can’t turn away or deny – there it is. Jesus brings them (and us) to The Threshold of Trouble – the gap between the world as it is, and the world as God is re-creating it to be – even now. And Jesus says, Here is what I am doing” – with an implicit, “And what about you?

Sister Simone Campbell – who was in the news a few years ago as part of the Nuns-on-the-Bus movement – has a very straightforward answer to that question. Sister Simone says that, when confronted with the trouble in the world – the hurting in the world – the calling of those who follow Christ is clear: We walk toward the trouble.

You may remember Sister Simone Campbell – she’s a nun, a lawyer, and the director of an advocacy network that stands up for the poor. A few years ago, the nuns took to the streets – on a bus – crossing the nation – to raise awareness about the issues that poor and lower-income working families face every day. And they made the news – and Stephen Colbert’s show – these Nuns on a Bus. I had the chance to hear Sister Simone speak – back when we could gather to hear people speak.[4]

Sister Simone says that our response to trouble is often, first, one of Holy Doubt – a place of being confounded. We face big problems, big issues – and we don’t know what to do – where to start. They feel too big – too much for any one person to do anything about – too overwhelming – too messy – too painful. Holy Doubt – or what you’ve heard me call that place of not-knowing.

Sister Simone says that what we need to do – if we are to learn – if we are to live – We need to walk toward the trouble – and not away from it – toward the places of trouble and pain. We come alongside those who are hurting –and, she says, we need to listen and let what we find there break our heart. Standing in the midst of trouble, we need to let the reality of human pain and suffering – move us to action – to do our part – not everything on our own – but our part– the work that is ours to do – together.

We walk toward the trouble.

Some call this morning’s Scripture Jesus’ inaugural address, his mission statement. At the start of his ministry, what Jesus announces is this: I’m going to walk toward the trouble.

On this weekend when we honor the life and work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s pretty obvious that so much of his life and teaching was about “walking toward the trouble.” That was the central premise of his core strategy of nonviolent direct action. King’s nonviolent direct action was intended to bring to the fore the trouble in the world – the human cost of segregation and discrimination – through creative action like sit-ins, and boycotts, and marches – so that no one could turn away, or deny, or say it isn’t so. King explained it this way: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”[5] In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. King wrote to progressive white clergy, who were trying to quiet down the trouble, and he called them out: “Human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of people willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”[6]

We walk toward the trouble.

Thirty-six years into our national observance of MLK weekend, we know it is not enough to just quote Dr. King. We can’t just admire the beautiful words, and say, “Yes, yes.” We have to ask those questions – like we do with Scripture – about the trouble that Dr. King was making plain that persists into our day. Where do we see trouble like that – the trouble Dr. King confronted? And what is the work that is ours to do? Where’s the trouble, and how do we walk toward it?

I want us to think about that this morning – in terms of our anti-racism work – our individual work and the work we are committed to as a congregation. And I want to suggest that as we walk toward the trouble we travel two interwoven paths – what Dr. Howard Thurman might call – “an inward journey” and “an outward journey.”

We’ve been committed to our anti-racism work for some time now – and, those of us who are white have learned that the trouble of racism in America is at work in us. We’ve learned about “implicit bias” – that bias that is at work within us – enculturated into us – even when we aren’t aware of it. Our implicit bias leads us to respond differently to people of color when we encounter each other on the street – or in the workplace, or the grocery store, or in the public square and in public policy. This implicit bias – even when we aren’t aware of it – causes actual harm. We hurt people. Our work is to walk toward that trouble within us, to become aware of it and how it shows up in us, and -- as Professor Yolanda Norton has told us -- to stop.

In our anti-racism work, we are also learning about systems – about how American racism isn’t just individual racial animus – it’s a complex of persistent systems designed to benefit one group and harm another on the basis of race.[7] We’ve talked about a number of those systems –

· systemic efforts across history and now to exclude people from voting;

· systems of residential housing and lending that have allowed white families to buy homes and acquire generational wealth, while preventing black families from doing the same;

· unequal education systems, based, in large part, on those racist housing patterns and policies;

· a criminal just system designed to incarcerate people of color at significantly higher rates and with significantly higher sentences, and so on.

As we learn about those systems, those of us who are white learn how we participate in and benefit from those systems, at the expense of others.

If we walk toward the trouble of American racism – for those of us who are white – we must embark and persist on an inward journey. We have to walk toward our own implicit bias. We have to walk toward our own participation in systems of racism. And we have to face what we find there. And change.

It may not easy, but it’s imperative. This week, I heard a psychologist who focuses on anti-racism work say that one of the places that white people get stuck in this work is in making a mistake and being unable to recover from it.[8] We become aware of the racism at work in us when it shows up in our actions. And we can’t handle it. But we have to. We don’t get the luxury of fragility that others cannot claim. We have to deal with it, and change, and then persist even after we have stumbled. We have to walk toward the trouble. In us. With persistence.

That inward journey is essential – but it’s not sufficient – there’s also the outward journey – we have to engage the systems – we have to act. We have to join the work to dismantle and repair the systems, looking to the leadership of those who have been harmed the most. Now, I think that most of us this morning have some sense of what Dr. King’s nonviolent direct action looks like. We know what it is to protest – to put our bodies with other bodies in a public place – to help bring the trouble of the world into public view so that no one can look away.

I want to mention two other strategies of engagement that we’ll be talking about more over the coming year: abolition and reparations. Abolitionist thinking draws on the work of the 19th century Abolitionists who looked at the evil institution of slavery and set out to abolish it. The system had to go. Dr. Bettina Love writes of this in the context of systems of entrenched educational inequities.[9] Abolitionist thinking rejects as inadequate the strategy of just tinkering around the edges of a fatally flawed, death-dealing system. Instead, abolitionist thinking insists on dismantling the failed system, and imagining and building an entirely new system. A new creation. In the context of education, Dr. Love says that means not settling for a system where you hope that students of color can survive, but building an entirely new system where students of color can thrive. We walk toward the trouble, and we help dismantle it. And build something new.