Sermon for January 27, 2019, Epiphany 3 | Luke 4:14-21
Alone among the gospels, Luke notes that Jesus was born in a colony, a colony of the Roman Empire. Perhaps you remember these words from the Christmas Eve gospel: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Of course that “registration” or census had nothing to do with the allotment of federal funding or the proportion of senators from each region of the empire. Rather it was focused on the brutal taxation of the people who would never see a single penny returned to them in the form of emergency aid or social assistance; no support to the homeless, the destitute, or the working poor. For this was an empire that hungered for control of the economy of its many colonies, eager to gobble up the profits of the hard-working, profits that would benefit only the emperor and his wealthy elite business associates. Now if you could not pay the tax or if you could not pay your creditor, you would be imprisoned as a form of extortion, you would become “captive” to the Roman prison system, a threat to prod your family members into coming up with the tax or payment. Indeed, the goal of every empire is to exercise complete control over a people who have been colonized, to deprive the people of their liberties and demand absolute loyalty to the political authority of the ruler – in this case an emperor who was acclaimed the son of god.
Well, if that were the world in which you and I live, might we not find this proclamation of Jesus at least modestly if not incredibly attractive? Good news to the poor, release from prison, the restoration of freedom, and – most remarkably – a year of the Lord’s favor, that is, the jubilee year, that is the year in which all debts are cancelled, those enslaved to creditors are released, and all lands or homes taken by another are returned to their owners. Of course this would be nothing less than a gift of economic grace that would relieve the suffering of millions. And, of course, it would be aggressively opposed by those institutions that profit from the misery, bad luck, and ill health of the many. After all, who cares about the lives of the many toiling just to get by?
Well, it appears from today’s gospel, that Jesus, born in poverty, cares profoundly about those who are challenged by poverty, unjust imprisonment, and the various forms of shameful oppression that shred the fabric of our common life. What interests me about this text – in which he sets forth his mission, a mission into which he calls his disciples ancient and modern – is that it becomes dangerous when its literal meaning is taken seriously by you and me. That is, when we recognize that Christian faith and life is far more than an individual relationship with God, is far more than a comfortable relationship with other Christians; that Christian faith and life is marked, from the moment of baptism and at every Eucharist, by an intrinsic social dimension. Or say it this way: to identify as a disciple of Jesus Christ is to accept his invitation to expand our circle beyond the comfort of what we know and cherish.
I grew up in a suburban church in sunny California. It was a generally happy parish in which building a strong communal bond was of great importance. After all, newcomers were streaming to the Golden State from all over the country, from Central and South America, and from many Asian cultures along the western Pacific. That is, until the day my father – the pastor of this robust congregation – went golfing with his buddy, Monsignor Ryan, from St. Joseph’s Catholic, and Fr. Darren at St. Andrew’s Episcopal. It was on the links that Monsignor Ryan reported that the state’s governor, a former actor in Hollywood, would be defunding the state hospitals and releasing thousands of patients with severe mental challenges on to the streets or into “the care of church agencies.” It just so happened that each of the three golfers were on the boards of their church social service agencies. And so they drove from San Francisco to Sacramento for a meeting with the governor, urging him to stop this process since, they said clearly and forcefully, none of their social agencies were prepared to assist severely mentally challenged and that, in their estimation, the newly released patients would simply end up homeless or in jail. The governor smiled warmly and assured them that if their prayer were actually effective, they could meet any challenge. It was in that moment and on the drive from Sacramento to San Francisco that these three experienced a sobering revelation: that nurturing a warm and communal bond in their parishes was simply insufficient; that unless they – the people gathered for worship – claimed the social mission of Jesus to bring good news to the poor – they would become silent witnesses to the suffering that would soon mark the lives of the innocent.
In this Christ Church, so beloved of God, we have experienced the effects of a mentally challenged person, also beloved of God, in the shattering of our glass walls. And so I wonder: as we enter this year that marks the fiftieth anniversary – the jubilee year – of the consecration of this building to the service of God, would it not be appropriate to celebrate the sheltering walls of this space by considering how we might, together, proclaim this a year of the Lord’s favor, how we might, together, receive anew this challenging and yet life-giving mission of Jesus. I wonder: what if this ancient proclamation of God’s love and justice were prayed by each of us every day – The Spirit has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. And then, out of prayerful meditation on these words, what might happen if we asked God to guide us in this fiftieth year, to renew our commitment to bring good news to the poor and the working poor in our parish and in our beloved city?