Sermon preached January 27, 2013
Texts: Luke 4:14-21
Last Sunday night, I was at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Ecumenical Worship Service at Church of Restoration. For two hours and forty-five minutes, I was at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Ecumenical Worship Service. While the service lasted a bit longer than normal, I knew that the worship would not be a sixty to seventy-five minute proposition.
I also know going in that the worship style will be more emotionally expressive than the worship style most of us grew up with, unless you grew up in a Pentecostal church. The MLK worship service was held at Church of Restoration, which is a predominantly African-American Pentecostal church.
One of the gifts of the Pentecostal stream in the Christian tradition gives us is the permission to be more emotive and emotionally expressive in our worship. We are emotional beings, and our worship should allow some opportunity for that, though we should also acknowledge that one can express one’s emotions more quietly, as well. The overreach of the Pentecostal stream in the Christian tradition is the claim that forms of raucous emotional expression are definitive evidence of the presence of God’s Spirit. I know Pentecostal Christians who claim that one cannot have a deep experience of the presence of the Holy Spirit in one’s life unless one speaks in tongues.
Our text for this morning tells me something else. It gives us other indicators of the presence of God’s Spirit on our lives and in our life together.
Jesus is in the synagogue in Nazareth “where he had been brought up.” Handed a scroll for the Sabbath reading, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61. 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.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me – and what happens? There is no mention of hands raised or of tongues or of emotive expression. Those are all o.k., but when God’s Spirit is present, there are other things that happen. When the Spirit shows up there are other more important, more vital, more central indications. These signs of the Spirit have personal and social dimensions. These signs of the Spirit give us both promise and task or mission.
When God’s Spirit is upon us, among us, within us, there is good news for the poor. The good news is that the poor become visible, the poor become a part of our care and concern. In the 1970s, primarily in Latin America, theologians who had been working with the poor and oppressed in those highly stratified societies began to think in some new ways about theology, formulating a “theology of liberation.” A central insight of liberation theology is that our spiritual life involves a “conversion to the neighbor, to social justice, to history” (Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, 205). Liberation theology claimed “to know God is to do justice” (205).
If this seemed startling and new, it really wasn’t. Liberation theology, at its best, we an attempt to recover an essential element in Christian faith and life. James 2:15-16: If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that. When the Spirit of God is upon us and among us and within us, when we are “Spirited,” there is good news for the poor, and we are driven to mission and task.
There is a personal dimension, here, too. Recall that Matthew 5:3 talks about another way of being poor. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Eugene Peterson, in The Message renders the passage this way: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”
We know what it’s like to be at the end of our rope, to feel that our inner resources for dealing with the stresses and strains of living are thin. I think we all experience that sometimes. Theologian Marjorie Suchocki, In God’s Presence (55): “To be human is to hurt.” We know the hurt and pain of living – disappointment, rejection, dreams deferred or denied. There is good news for us, too. We are objects of God’s love and care. One phrase of Isaiah 61 that does not find its way into Luke 4 is the phrase, “to bind up the broken hearted.” When our hearts break, when we are poor in spirit, there is good news for us too. Where the Spirit of God is upon us and among us and within us, when we are “Spirited” the good news is that God cares and wants to bind up our broken hearts. This good news is personal. This good news is promise.
When God’s Spirit is upon us, and among us and within us there is release for captives and freedom for the oppressed. There is a strong social dimension here. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood this very well (“I Have a Dream”):
So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvannia.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that.
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.
King understood that the struggle of African-Americans was rooted not only in the American dream, but in the work of the Spirit to proclaim release to the captives and freedom for the oppressed. When God’s Spirit is upon us and among us and within us, we join the human struggles for freedom. This is a task for Spirited people.
Might another task also be to ask about literal prisoners in our own society? The United States has 6% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners. The median incarceration rate among all countries is 125 prisoners per 100,000 people. The rate in the United States is 743 per 100,000, by far the highest in the world. The issues are complex, but perhaps Spirited people should ask if we could not do better.
There is a personal dimension, here, too. Not all forms of unfreedom are political oppression. Not all our captivity is incarceration. People are not free when they act out of inner compulsions, often the result of past pain. People can become captive to patterns of behavior that are hurtful to others and themselves. The range of such captivity is wide – addictions, inability to manage one’s own anger responses, holding on to past hurts in ways that diminish present experience. When God’s Spirit is upon us, among us, within us, God’s Spirit works in us to set us free. Spirited people live by the promises of John 8: You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free…. If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed (v. 32, 36)
When God’s Spirit is upon us, and among us and within us there is recovery of sight. There is a social dimension here. There is mission and task here. Christians for centuries understood that responding to God’s Spirit meant care for the whole person, including care for physical well-being. How many hospitals has the Christian church founded over the years? Our current emphasis in The United Methodist Church on Imagine No Malaria is another manifestation of our understanding that God’s Spirited people care about the health and well-being of others. God’s Spirited people seek to help the blind recover their sight. I think of my friend, Dr. Lowell Gess, an eye doctor and United Methodist pastor who established the Kissy Eye Clinic in Sierra Leone, and made countless trips over the years to perform eye surgeries, bringing recovery of sight to the blind.
Here, too, there is a personal dimension. Recovery of sight is a primary metaphor for spiritual renewal, healing and awakening in the Bible. Jesus understood that. When God’s Spirit is upon us, among us and within is, our ability to see the world is enlarged. Narrow patterns of perception, which can also enslave us, are opened up. We can be more open to our own hurts and shortcomings, trusting that with God there is healing and new life. We are open to the hurts and pains of the world, to the poor, the oppressed, the hurting, knowing that these, too, are beloved of God and we are invited to do what we can to be good news for the poor, to set the captives free, to heal the hurting. We cannot do it all, but we cannot simply turn away.
In a way, Jesus, himself, has his eyes opened in this morning’s text. He finds his life in the larger story of God’s dealings with humanity as recorded in Scripture. The promise of reading the Bible is always that in these words we will find new ways to see our lives, and encounter God more deeply. Reading this text, we have the opportunity to become more Spirited.
There is one other Spirited word for us in this text. Jesus reads, sets the scroll down. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The indications that God’s Spirit is upon us, among us, within us are that good news is brought for the poor, including you and me when we are poor; that release is proclaimed to the captives and freedom to the oppressed, including us in our unfreedom and captivity; that there is recovery of sight for the blind, including you and me when we are blinded in our souls.
This is what happens when God’s Spirit is upon us, among us, within us. And when is that? Now, always now. Today, this scripture is fulfilled. Now is always God’s time. Now is God’s time for good news for the poor. Now is God’s time for releasing the captives. Now is God’s time for freedom for the oppressed. Now is God’s time for the blind to see. Today is the day for God’s spirited people to take up the tasks that the Spirit sets before us.
If you are feeling poor, today there is good news. If you are locked in unfreedom, find yourself in captivity, today, there is release and freedom. If you are soul blind, today there is recovery. Now is always God’s time. Today is the day to be God’s spirited people, letting God bind up our broken hearts.
The Spirit of God is upon us, among us, within us – there is work to be done, there is love by which we are embraced and healed and freed. Spirited indeed! Amen.