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 The Christ Inaugural

Sermon - 1/27/13
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Luke 4:14-21

This is Annual Meeting Sunday, and I know that's not exactly a liturgical event :) And you don't find references to annual meetings in the lectionary, and you don't hear too many stories about people who found Jesus in an annual meeting :)

I've always joked that our Annual Meeting is set as that Sunday that occurs on either the 3rd or 4th Sunday of Epiphany, as determined by the divine authority of the NFL (as that Sunday as there shall be-eth no playoff games!). But that's better than when I was a kid growing up in Albany and the Chair of the Board of the congregation at that time decreed that we were not going to change the church's calendar because of a new sporting event called the "Super Bowl". Yeah, I'm that old that I can remember the very first one (go Green Bay Packers!).

So, on this particular third Sunday of Epiphany, the scripture from the gospels is actually very fitting for this high-liturgical event of annual-meeting Sunday. And it comes after the baptism of Jesus, and he goes on that camping trip, you know, 40 days in the wilderness, and before he does anything else in Luke's gospel, before any of those signs that we saw last week from John's gospel, before any of the healings that are recorded in the first chapter of Mark's gospel, before he calls the Disciples (according to Matthew's gospel), before any of that, Luke tells us about his trip to his home church. So here's that account:

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

16 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, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 
18 ‘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, 
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ 

20And 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. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ 

So, you get the sense, I think, from reading and from hearing this text that this is much more than the local college boy come home, you know, who's done real good and you can just hear the people "You know that boy from Mary and Joseph? Why, he's educated now! He's done learned how to read. Isn't he a good boy!". And that's kind of the sense you get from the rest of story when you read it, we'll come back to that next week. Turns a little sour on him. But here, that's not the main sense that we get out of the story, from observing, from the outside.

Looking back from our historical perspective, we can see that this is Luke's equivalent of John 3:16 -- "For God so loved the world . . . ". It's the equivalent of Matthew's Sermon on the Mount. It is the introduction of Jesus in his public role as the Christ. And so this is, to use that image from that big event in Washington DC on Monday, this is the inaugural of Jesus the Christ. This is his inaugural address. And like President Obama, Jesus lays out the core of his program. And no, I'm not trying to compare the two. But, I have to say, you look at this, healing the blind, letting the oppressed go free, release of the captives, kind of sounds like "Jesus-care", right? :)

So, this is, Luke tells us, what the proclamation of the Kingdom of God is all about. This is what it means to be the Christ, the Messiah. This is his definition of the Savior of the world, the one who does these things. Jesus is using here, from the prophet Isaiah, 5 key phrases to describe that task. First of all, to proclaim good news to the poor. And you know, that's a major theme, especially in Luke's gospel. The Beatitudes in Luke's gospel begin by saying "Blessed are the poor" (not the "poor in spirit" as in Matthew's gospel). Just simply "Blessed are the poor". And we remember that wonderful Magnificat from Mary that we typically read during Advent, where she speaks of the reversal that her child will bring. Of how the hungry are filled with good things, and the rich sent away empty. And then in Luke, we see Jesus fulfill that in the story of Lazarus, remember? The poor man begging from the rich man, and then the tides are reversed in the next life. And then in Luke, Jesus advises us, whenever you're hosting a banquet, don't invite in your friends, those you want to impress, those who can pay you back -- instead, invite in the poor, the blind, the crippled. The people who can't pay you back, right?

In Luke, we hear about the story of the widow praised by Jesus who puts her last two cents into the Temple treasury.

And then there are those stories we find in the other gospels as well, the rich young ruler who is told he has to sell everything he has and give it to the poor and come and follow Jesus. The feeding of the crowds. And on and on it goes.

So bringing good news to the poor is a major and consistent theme throughout the gospels, and especially in Luke. Without it, you see, the gospel is not complete. Without it, the good news is not very good.

And then the next three phrases -- release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, liberation of the oppressed -- are all variations on the same theme. These are the kinds of things Jesus does, that he talks about in various ways. The freeing of women from their stereotypical roles of servitude. That story of Mary and Martha, and so now women get to the serve in the military in combat roles. Praise Jesus, right? That's a weird one, what do we do with that. . . .

Jesus stopping the stoning of the woman, stopping the crowd from stoning the woman. Showing a tax collector how to practice economic justice. Remember Zacchaeus? I mean, how radical is that? He pledges to give away half of all his wealth and to a return four-fold anyone he has defrauded. Freeing a man from the captivity of demonic possession. Showing the Samaritan woman at the well some dignity and respect, and showing empathy for a Roman centurion's ailing daughter. Two different sides of the spectrum, totally challenging and changing the oppressive norms of society. The lines of privilege. The boundaries of class.

And all of this is summed up in that final phrase from the quotation from Isaiah of proclaiming the year of the Lord's favor. What is known as the Jubilee year. In theory, every 50th year, when all slaves are to be freed and all debts are to be forgiven. The ultimate wealth distribution in ancient society. And of course people fear that our government is trying to do that today, that it's some evil scheme, when it turns out it's right here as part of the gospel. Not just part of it, it's central to it. It comes right out of the Torah, out of the first 5 books of Moses. It was the yardstick used by the prophets to measure whether or not the nation was living up to their covenant with God. How have you cared for the poor, the least of these, the widows, the orphans?

We all pledge allegiance to one nation under God, our politicians all call upon God to bless America. People clamor for the return of God to our schools and statehouses, and all of that is utterly meaningless if it is not backed up with a program of action to deliver. To do the kinds of things that Jesus did.

We say "In God we trust", and I'll believe it when I see us put an end to homelessness and hunger in this country. I'll believe that we trust in God when we put more into education and than we put into the military. I'll believe that we trust in God when we put our faith into the nonviolence of Jesus and Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King rather than into the possession of guns. That's when I'll believe that we trust in God.

For Jesus to read this text from Isaiah, with its lofty ideals, and then for him to conclude by saying "Today this is fulfilled in your hearing", you see, is a radical call for change. It's a daring proposal.

Now, there's lots of debate on whether or not Jesus chose this passage after spending those 40 days in the wilderness meditating on his mission, his call, deciding what passage kind of sums it up for him, and chooses that for his inaugural. Or, whether or not this was part of the lectionary that they had in those days, that was then given to him to read. And then it becomes for him that kind of Epiphany, coming out of that wilderness experience and saying "Aha! This is what I'm called to do and to be". But all of that is speculation and it misses the real point, that whether it is chosen by Jesus or chosen for Jesus, or whether even created by Luke, the point is that this inaugural address by Jesus explains all else that follows. This is what Jesus is about.

So what are we going to do? We're going to hold an Annual Meeting :) The Savior of the World has given us world-changing news! What are we going to do?! We're going to think about changing the times of our worship services :) Annual Meetings are not just perfunctory necessities in the business of the church. They are occasions for us to reflect on where we have been and where we are going. For those that stick around this afternoon, and I hope you will, and after we've had our meal, when we are discussing our budget and that proposed change to our worship schedule (and a unified Sunday-school program between the 2 services, which may perhaps be reversed in order), I invite you to keep the big picture in mind -- our purpose as a community of God's people, our mission to be a light to the world. Because when we ask people to help us to steer the direction of the church in deciding those mundane things like budgets and schedules, we are asking everyone to look past your own personal interests, to keep that larger perspective in mind.

Now, I love that moment in Al Gore's movie "Inconvenient Truth", when he's talking about climate change and the impact upon the world. And he uses a scale, and then he says on one side of the balance we have the earth, and all life. On the other side of the balance we have corporate profits. Now, which is more important? Hmmm. . . . . . Life as we know it, or profit? It's a great moment that kind of sums it all up. But, you know, sometimes we have discussions like that, don't we? On the one side is the Kingdom of God on earth, Martin Luther King's beloved community, salvation of the world, and on the other. . . . what time do I want to worship? :) What's my favorite music? I know which music is preferred in the Kingdom of God -- it's the kind I like, right? :)

And I'm not suggesting that these aren't important things, they are important to us. But to keep that perspective.

So I know it may be shocking news, but we're not going to usher in the Kingdom of God by finding the perfect schedule on Sunday morning, right? So whatever the outcome of our discernment process today (and I don't know what that will be), our mission, our reason for existence, is not going to change. Our mission is no less than that of Jesus, to proclaim this good news to the poor, to let the oppressed go free, the release of captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, to proclaim that acceptable year of the Lord's jubilee. Our calling is to be that light to the world.

So if we're going to offer true good news to the poor, we have to be willing to do more than to offer a free meal once a week, or a free bed on those nights when it's freezing outside. We have to be willing to ask why is poverty and homelessness and hunger on the rise in this country when there is so much wealth that is also on the rise?

If we seriously want to consider who are the captives in need of release, we might want to consider how is it possible that 25% of the people in this world who are in jail right now are in this country, that holds 6% of the world's population.

If we believe that we can offer sight to the blind, we might want to begin to ask, as Jesus said, to look at that log in our own eye, you see, before we make sure we can at least as well help those who may be seeing better than we do.

Letting the oppressed go free? I mean, take your pick -- victims of domestic violence, sex trafficking, Palestinian struggle for statehood, undocumented immigrants struggling for official status, unemployed struggling to find work. There are so many that need to be set free.

To call for a Jubilee year as did Jesus is to call for a radical change of the social order that make President Obama's call for collective action to change the political order in Washington look like a squirt gun against a fire-hose. Or against a tsunami. This is tough stuff, it is big stuff. We're just one little medium-sized church with big dreams. And more than one idealistic thinker :)

The consultant that we hired last year that we're still working with comes from a big mega-church, gay-friendly church in Dallas from the big state of Texas. And he challenged us at our retreat to think and to dream big, and you will hear some of those dreams and that big thinking when John presents his report this afternoon in the annual meeting.

For the gospel itself, you see, is a mighty big dream. It's God's dream, of how the world can be. Should be. And because we are followers of the Christ who gave us that dream, we dare to believe that we, the people of Christ's church, can bring a glimpse of it into reality. Right here. Right now. Today, the gospel is fulfilled in your hearing.

May it so be.

 


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