A week ago Saturday, the vestry held its annual retreat, gathering to reflect on the previous year, to strategize and dream about the future, and to do the usual business of the first meeting of the year. We were meeting at a significant moment in the life of our congregation. As most of you know, there is in the works a proposal to develop much of the block on which we are located, with the center of the project a proposed new State History museum. That development may affect both our property and our congregational life. In addition, we have seen significant growth over the past years, bucking the overall national trend in the Episcopal Church and in American Christianity in general. We are located in a downtown that continues to experience development and growth in population, while many of the challenges that we face as a city are most evident in our immediate vicinity—racial and economic inequities, homelessness and the scarcity of affordable housing, and Wisconsin’s broken and oppressive criminal justice system.
We began with a brief bible study on today’s gospel reading. I chose this text because it’s a great text for the beginning of a year and it speaks directly to our context and to our congregation. We talked about what it might be calling us to do in this year, 2019, as a vestry and as a congregation. We talked about all the ways in which we already do much of what Jesus calls us to do, as well as the ways in which we fall short.
Today’s gospel reading is Luke’s version of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus has just been tempted in the wilderness and Luke reports that “filled with the power of the Spirit” Jesus begins his public ministry, a preaching tour through the synagogues of Galilee. Eventually, he finds his way back home in Nazareth. When he gets there, his reputation seems to have preceded him. He goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath. We can imagine that there’s quite a crowd in attendance; people want to know what the fuss is about, they’ve heard about Jesus’ activity in Capernaum and the other towns of Galilee.
So Jesus stands up, reads from the Torah, and sits down to interpret it. The text he reads is itself dramatic: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, 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.”
Luke puts this story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to tell us something very important about Jesus. It’s a summary of the key themes of Jesus ministry. We can see how important it is for Luke by recognizing how he has changed the story from the versions in Mark and Matthew. In both of those gospels, the visit to the synagogue in Nazareth comes after a significant portion of Jesus’ ministry. Both gospels put it after big chunks of Jesus’ teaching and a number of his healings. For them, it is only a story about Jesus’ rejection in his hometown. They don’t tell us anything about what Jesus said. By placing it here, by putting these words in Jesus’ mouth, Luke is telling us to pay attention—this is what Jesus is all about.
So Jesus reads these verses, then he sits down and tells the congregation, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” The people are amazed by the power of his words. There are several fascinating things about this text. In the first place, we see Jesus behaving like he’s supposed to do. He’s a good Jewish boy, he goes to synagogue on the Sabbath, he knows his scripture. But then, when he begins to speak, he blows away people’s expectations. Perhaps the congregation was expecting to hear how all this might happen when the Messiah comes. Instead, Jesus tells them, it’s happening right now!
Another key element of the text is the importance of the spirit. It’s something Luke stresses throughout his gospel, and I’m sure we’ll have more to say about it as we go through the gospel this year in the lectionary. Today’s reading begins, and Jesus, filled with the power of the spirit. And of course, the words Jesus reads from Isaiah begin with the phrase, the Spirit of God is upon me…” So, Jesus filled with the spirit, proclaims the year of God’s favor, preaches good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, proclaims release for captives, and freedom for the oppressed.
To put it into contemporary language—this is Jesus’ mission statement according to Luke. He makes this clear later in the gospel when the John the Baptizer, now in prison, has gotten word of Jesus’ activity. He sends two of his disciples to Jesus to ask him if he is the Messiah or if they are to wait for another. Jesus response to them, and to John is “Go tell John what you have seen, the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the poor have good news preached to them.”
Jesus’ mission statement, but is it ours? I suspect that, just as in the case of the wedding at Cana, where our usual focus is on the miracle, here, we want to see Jesus’ words as relating only to him, and to his miraculous powers. But we’re not so easily left off the hook. If we follow Luke’s gospel, and then read in the book of Acts, which is the second half of Luke’s story, we see the same emphases being stressed. In Acts, the disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit, do amazing things, like give sight to the blind and set the oppressed free.
As followers of Jesus, this passage that Jesus read publicly in his hometown synagogue, speaks not only to us, but for us. As followers of Jesus, we need to claim it as our own mission statement, a vision for what we are called to do in the world around us. Some of it, some of us do. We have members who are actively involved in various things that quite literally reflect the words of Isaiah, advocacy for criminal justice reform, cooperation with the Madison Jail Ministry, MOSES, and other efforts. While we may not literally be restoring sight to the blind, our outreach efforts include the homeless shelter, the food pantry. Efforts like our scarf tree project and the First Monday Meal are visible symbols of our work in the community.
But as we talked in the vestry retreat, there is one area where we fall short of Jesus’ call to action—sharing the Good News. I wonder how many of you paid attention to the collect I prayed at the beginning of the service today and if you did, whether you were comfortable with its petition: “Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation.”
Many of us have experience the transforming power of Jesus’ love in our lives. Many of us have been changed by our relationship with Jesus Christ. But I suspect, that even for those of us for whom that is not only a reality but a great joy, we are often reluctant to share our stories with others. There are good reasons for this. We are uncomfortable with forcing our own religious beliefs on others. We may have experienced the awkwardness of others’ efforts to convert us. In a time when so much of Christianity in the US is so closely aligned with intolerance and white supremacy, we may not even be comfortable identifying ourselves with people who call themselves Christian.
Still, if we are reluctant to share the story of Jesus Christ, if we are reluctant to share our stories of Jesus Christ, we are falling far short of what we are called to do as followers of Jesus. And Good News is something the world and our community need. We can see the spiritual, psychological, emotional suffering all around us, in the immediate recourse to violence in attempts to resolve personal conflict, in the opioid epidemic that is a response to the despair and hurt so many people feel. The world, our community aches for the good news.
Some of us ache for it as well. The person next to you in the pew today may be suffering, broken-hearted, in despair. That person may be you. When we share our stories, we begin to share our pain as well as our joy. My prayer for all of us is that this year is a year of God’s favor, when we experience the grace of God, and when we invite others to experience that grace as well.