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.
This morning our lectionary has done me a favor by serving up one of my very favorite passages from scripture, this gospel we just heard from Luke, where Jesus speaks to an astonished crowd in the synagogue.
Jesus has just returned from forty days of fasting and praying in the wilderness—we’ll hear all about those forty days in a few weeks—and makes this proclamation: God’s mission, as told to the prophets many generations ago, is my mission. This is essentially what he says when he picks up the scroll, which just happens to be Isaiah speaking about God rescuing and redeeming his beloved people. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” says Jesus.
The chutzpah of what Jesus does may not come across upon first reading. Imagine that someone we vaguely know, but haven’t seen for a long time, comes in here, maybe a young woman with no formal education, picks up a bible, and stands where I’m standing. Imagine that she reads, as if at random, the first verses of the Gospel of John: In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. Then she says: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. You’re looking at the Word of God.” We would be speechless, too.
What does Jesus mean when he says “today this is fulfilled in your hearing”? Last time I checked, there were still lots of poor people around, waiting for good news, captives imprisoned, and people suffering from all kinds of blindness and oppression.
In the scripture Jesus quotes, the prophet Isaiah says God has sent me to proclaim good news to the poor.
What has been fulfilled on that day in the synagogue when Jesus picks up the scroll is the claiming of identity, the anointing, the sending forth to proclaim good news. Jesus is saying God meant it when he said he was sending someone to set free the captives and give sight to the blind. Here’s the catch: when we follow Jesus, we follow Jesus in being sent. God doesn’t just sending Jesus to do this, he sends Jesus so that we might all do this.
What it means to proclaim good news and set prisoners free means different things for different people. During this Epiphany season I’ve invited people to talk about how it works for them in daily life. I’m having so much fun with this, I want to do it every Sunday. Today it’s a treat to have Maggie Gardner come up here.
And here’s what Maggie shared:
When I was a young student, bright and idealistic (and I’m sure many of you can relate to this), I felt like I could really hear God’s call, and that call was really clear: I was to GO FORTH AND SAVE THE WORLD.
Now I’m all growed up — am I saving the world? Meh, not really. I’m a lawyer; I work for a judge. I can safely say that most of the subject matter of our cases … matters: criminal trials, environmental disputes, work place discrimination, civil rights complaints, you get the picture.
But at the end of the day, I’m a bureaucrat. I shuffle papers. I spend my days scouring administrative records, reading legal briefs (which, you may be surprised to hear, are not always page turners) – my days are filled with rules and procedures.
Not exactly the work of superheroes.
But that’s Ok. It’s not that I’ve given up on my call to save the world. I haven’t. It’s more that, as I’ve grown older, as with many things, that call has grown more nuanced. It’s no longer, “GO FORTH AND SAVE THE WORLD,” but “Go forth and do your part to make things better today than they were yesterday.” It is a daily call to put my best effort into any work that I do, any interaction that I have, in the belief that the sum will be greater than the parts.
Allow me to elaborate just a bit. I am here to say: I think bureaucrats are great. I love bureaucrats. Seriously: Our country could survive a major disaster because it is run by bureaucrats – because so many people make all of its many different pieces work. The same goes for our community, any community: it works, and will keep on working, because many different people do many different things very well.
So this is how I live my Christian life: by doing what I do as well as I can, to keep moving the ball in the right direction. And I’m not just talking about the Protestant work ethic here. I’m talking about – when I do my work – feeling like I am fulfilling God’s creative impulses; like I’m really using my blessings – my intellect, my health, whatever it might be that day – to do something useful. It’s about crossing my “t”s even when no one is looking over my shoulder.
That’s not compulsion, crossing my “t”s even if no one’s looking – and the good Lord knows I can be compulsive. What I’m talking about is pouring myself into whatever is that I have to do, in the hope that this bit of work I am doing right now might matter. Maybe it won’t. Maybe it will just end up in the dustbin of history. But I choose to act as though it will matter because I don’t want to waste the chance that it might.
When I was that young, bright thing – fired up with passion to save the world – one of my battle hymns was Hymn 541: Come, labor on! Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain, while around him waves the golden grain? And to each servant does the Master say, “Go work today.”
Maybe it’s a big thing – applying for a new job, making a difficult decision, choosing to take care of someone. Maybe it’s a small thing – even just to get up out of bed on those dark winter mornings. It all matters – it all can matter – if we pour ourselves into it.
Come, labor on! Away with gloomy doubts and faithless fear. No arm so weak but may do service here: By feeblest agents may our God fulfill his righteous will.
Come, labor on!
And here’s how Sara finished:
Thanks, Maggie, for your message, which is perfect for an Annual Meeting Sunday.
There is a restaurant in NW Portland that has been around for a long time, named Paley’s Place. I had heard of it for years but only ate there for the first time a year ago. The menu is a single sheet of paper with all sorts of delectable things spread across three columns of text. In the center, is a box, with three or four items in it. When the waiter explained the menu he said: “What’s inside the box never changes. It’s who we are, no matter what.”
As a community of Christians, we need to think from time to time about what’s in the box in the center of our menu. I’d like to suggest that it is this mission that Jesus proclaims on this third Sunday of Epiphany:
- Bring good news to the poor and release to the captives.
- Help the blind to recover their sight, and let the oppressed go free.
- Proclaim God’s gracious favor.