Good News for Who?

Sermon prepared for Wesley United Church Montreal’s Sunday Service of Jan. 27, 2019 based on the Gospel (Luke 4:14-21) and Epistle (1 Cor. 12:12-31) for Year C Epiphany 3.

With the up-coming by-election in the riding of Outremont, I have been watching as colourful party signs appear on lampposts and balconies around my neighbourhood.

I’ve also been receiving some material from candidates, on Facebook, by email, and in our mailbox. And, let me tell you, they seem to have all sorts of Good News to tell me.

They are proclaiming Good News to the underemployed, to the middle class parent, to the business owner, and newcomer. Their promises are filled with hope, and assurances, and an invitation to follow them.

***

Jesus, here in Luke, has just returned from his not-so-relaxing retreat in the desert, and is giving his first public appearance in his hometown. He’s in the right place, with the right people, at the right time. He stands at the front of the assembly to read from the Scroll of Isaiah. He is amongst his neighbours, those who saw him grow up, and he speaks with power and authority.

It’s all very good optics.

And, Jesus reads these words from the prophetic text:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good newsto the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captivesand recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressedgo free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.[i]

It’s a solid opening. And when we read this passage we can’t help but think to ourselves, Yes! This is the kind of man whose side I want to be on. This is the kind of teacher I want to follow.

Because, we could all use a little Good News in our lives. It is a New Year, and yet it feels so much like the last, with our newfeeds brining us one hard story after another.

But, this isn’t a unique experience to our time and place. This past week we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and we were reminded of the past and present struggle of the Black community for equality and justice. With the on-going conflict between the RCMP and Wet’suwet’en People, we are reminded of the continued struggle of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. This week is Muslim Awareness Week in Montreal, and we think of the not-so-distant shooting at the Quebec City mosque, and the history of islamophobia in our country.

Is it any wonder that these words of God’s rescue and favour have been echoed throughout history? Throughout the Jewish and Christian scriptures? They are a sweet reminder to those who are struggling in a world filled with Bad News.

***

Yet, we’re missing part of the story here in Luke.

Jesus announces that the scriptures are fulfilled as he sits down, and folks say to themselves… “Is this really Joe’s kid? Yeah, the one who was really bad carpentry… Huh. No kidding!”[ii]But the story doesn’t end there.

Next week’s reading will show how Jesus’ first forays into public ministry end up with a furious crowd who want to throw him off a cliff!

The Nazareth Gazette the next day likely read: Hometown boy bombs first townhall of his public career.

***

Jesus’ Good News doesn’t seem so good to this crowd. But, why? What is so startling about Jesus’ message?

He proclaims a great reversal of fortunes, that the bound will be free, the impure will be made pure, and the oppressed liberated![iii]What’s wrong with that?

You see, the thing is: Jesus is not preaching merely to his neighbours, the people in that assembly. In the following section he recalls a story of how Elijah, the great Jewish prophet, was rejected by God’s people and instead went to Sidon, to stay with a non-Jewish widow.[iv]

The Good News is great news if you’re the one God is talking to, but it is a tough pill to swallow if you’re not.

Certainly, the Jewish people in the 1stcentury were oppressed by the Roman Empire, but the rural populace was also weighed down by the administration of the Jerusalem elite—who Jesus criticizes openly in his ministry.

Yet, Luke shows Jesus as stepping even further to the margins. He doesn’t just speak to his neighbours (Jewish men and their families), but he reaches out to children, the disabled, the widowed, and non-Jews in the surrounding region, offering them Good News as well.

The image of a righted world, reconciled with God, is so much bigger than his listeners would like it to be. Throughout his ministry, Jesus begins to break open the text to say God is not just speaking to you and I—the vision of God’s Kingdom is bigger.

***

Luke’s version of what we call the Beatitudes is a bit different than you might recall, because Luke pairs his four declarations of “blessing” with four declarations of “woe”.

Blessed to you who are poor, who hunger, who weep, and who people hate because of the Son of Man.[v]

But woe to those who are rich, who are well fed, who laugh, who are spoken well of.[vi]

The mission Jesus was gifted in his baptism and time in the desert, to proclaim Good News, is a double-edged sword. Yes, he delivers a message of hope, but he also has a hard message for those who hold power and privilege.

The Kingdom of God is not some vending machine of niceties and goodwill—it is a great upheaval, a reversal of a world set too long down the wrong path.

***

When Indigenous Peoples in Canada speak about reconciliation I am often struck by this recurring sentiment: that right-relations will feel wrong to those who are used to holding power. Equality will feel like injustice, because settler people are so unused to a balance of power; we will feel off-kilter as we try to find equilibrium with our Indigenous relations.

***

All this makes me wonder, whether this Good News is truly good news for you and I?

There is a part of me that says, yes! Yes, because there are things in my own life I need liberation from. Things I no longer want to be captive to.

And yet, there is another part of me that is contrite, knowing I am culpable in the oppression of my neighbours.

I am both the someone who Christ would call “blessed”, and the someone to whom he would say “woe”.

And, I can respond in one of two ways: I can choose, like the Nazarenes who hear Jesus’ teachings, to refuse to acknowledge that God’s Kingdom extends beyond the boundaries of my imagination; or, I can choose to allow God to make me new in this great upheaval.

***

How remarkable that God offers us grace in this in-between place. How remarkable that we are invited to take part in this great working of love.

Jesus, throughout the Gospels, not only extends us the invitation to be a part of God’s Kingdom, but he also asks for our elbow grease too. Today in our readings the Apostle Paul reminded us that we are each gifted, and called.

We are gifted, and called: from the last, to the least, to the littlest. We are called from the margins of society, and out of its great houses of power. We are made new in this Kingdom of God, as equals.

It is a Kingdom that desires us to be reconciled with our creator, and fellow created. It looks to put back in balance a world so off-kilter.

And, Jesus tells us this isn’t some far off utopia—some distant promise—but that it is fulfilled today, in our hearing.[vii]Wherever God’s people are, proclaiming the Good News and acting in service of the Kingdom, there is God at work. There we find our world, and our own selves, being made new.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[i]Luke 4:18-19 NRSV

[ii]Luke 4:22

[iii]Luke 4:18b

[iv]Luke 4:24-27

[v]Luke 6:20b-22 NIV

[vi]Luke 6:24-26 NIV

[vii]Luke 4:21

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Because God said: I will give light to those who sit in darkness

This sermon was prepared for Chapel at the United Theological College / La Seminarie Unie for November 16th, 2016. It was based on the following Sunday’s lectionary (Proper 29).

In the Luke passage, we hear Zechariah speaking to his newborn child. We hear, in this old man’s voice, both the expectancy of a father who looks at his child, so full of potential and the expectancy of a Jewish man of God waiting for his Messiah.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:76-79 NRSV)

Darkness. The shadow of death.

A nation oppressed by empire; a people searching for their identity through God’s covenant with them. John the Baptizer was called to be the voice crying from the wilderness “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!”

Because God said: I will give light to those who sit in darkness

In the Jeremiah reading today Christians hear a foreshadowing of Christ’s ministry:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness. (Jer. 23:5-6)

Of course, the writer likely wasn’t imaging a wandering tradesman from Nazareth when these words were taken down. However, the Messiah figure, whom Christian believe to be Jesus of Nazareth, would be in his mind.

Messiah, a saviour king, who would come to restore Israel to its rightful place in this world—a special place for God’s chosen people.

The metaphor of the shepherd speaks of gathering a scattered flock, bringing them back home, and caring for them—ensuring their safety—so that they are able to prosper. It also brings to mind Psalm 23, images of compassion, prosperity, and righteousness.

As 21st century Canadians, we don’t hear a call to exiled community members—we don’t have the recent memories of the destruction of Jerusalem in our mind—we don’t live in fear of a foreign power. However, for Jeremiah’s listeners, this was their reality—oppressed by Assyria, they were a nation conquered and scattered.

Then, for 1st century Jews, these distant memories lived on as their reality under Rome—they were a nation that had been living in darkness—a nation that had been living under an oppressive regime.

You and I, however, still experience oppression, violence, and pain in our world. We still experience darkness, as communities, as individuals, and, as mortal beings, we live our lives under the shadow of death. And, there are those in our world who these words—promises to a people oppressed and scattered—reflect the desires of their own hears.

We think of new friends we’ve made in our communities who have fled their homes—they are called by many names: refugee, asylum-seeker, migrant. In their own stories, they have insight into these ancient ones. Ancient stories filled with timeless human emotions of fear, desperation, and hope.

And, some of us have sat on the other side of the table. We identify better with the Assyrians and the Romans. Maybe not through our own direct actions, but certainly through our communal history as peoples of privilege.

During the sentencing of a young Cree woman, named Josephine, in Toronto this year Ontario Justice Nakatsuru spoke of the darkness of Canada’s colonial legacy, saying to Josephine:

The trauma you suffered may not be unique to indigenous offenders. But it is unique how these traumas have been created or contributed to by the colonial legacy of our country. By some deliberate policies and laws of our nation. By overt and systemic discrimination against indigenous peoples.

The line between your identity and history as an indigenous person as well as the effects of the injustices done to indigenous peoples and your breach is direct and obvious. […] The life you lead as a young woman. With its dangers. Its lack of meaning. These problems are ones that many in the indigenous communities face. They are problems that have their origins in the way indigenous people have been treated.

The shadow of death falls on us all in different ways, sometimes it is circumstance, sometimes it is our own body that feels like it is betraying us, and often it is at the hands of other people.

But, God said: I will give light to those who sit in darkness

This king figure, whom Zechariah and John, point us towards… This shepherd who their ancestors waited for—expectantly… Would come and transform us through a message of peace.

However, in our story, today, we have yet to meet this figure. This week we are still in the liturgical season of Ordinary Times, next week marks the beginning of Advent, the beginning of our journey through Luke’s account of the conception and birth of the Messiah figure.

For now, we are left to contemplate the promise God provided the Jewish people through Jeremiah, through Zechariah, and then through John. The promise of a shepherd. The Most High. A figure, who…will bring the break of dawn…bring light into our darkness…bring a new pathway of peace.

And so, as Advent draws near we imagine ourselves as those scattered sheep, waiting to be taken home.

Justice Nakatsura, at the close of her sentencing of Josephine made this statement:

It is the most natural of human instincts to want to go home. Even when memories of home are at times tinged with sadness, fear, or regret. Because I am not talking about someone’s actual home. Or a home from one’s childhood. We all nurture in our heart the idea of “Home”. The idea of home is about a place of safety. A refuge. A sanctuary. Where love resides. Home is a place of hope. A place of potential. A place where every one of us can feel like we can become better. Every one of us has such a home.

And, God said: I will give light to those who sit in darkness

The Good News of our gospel story is that, in the midst of all this darkness: this violence, pain, and oppression, there is a God who cares enough about us, who values us, who hopes for us.

This light, we will soon discover, is a light of hope, a light calling all of us towards a home, filled with relationship, safety, and potential. A light breaking through our darkness, like the rays of dawn cutting through the night.

Thanks be to God.