by Michael UseyLuke 4. 14-21
Tomorrow is the only US holiday in honor of an American Baptist Minister, at least so far. I’m glad we have a Martin Luther King Day. It is, however, a mixed blessing. For most of America, we celebrate the domesticated Martin, the Martin of the “I have a dream” speech–the safe Martin, the one who inspires, but does not critique or challenge. Every city in America has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. How many streets are named for Malcolm X? We celebrate the MLK who encouraged people of color to hang in there and inspired whites to change their ways–the Bringer of Peace and Concord Between the Races.
There actually is some fine truth in that, but it is certainly not the whole picture. Dr. King was a firm progressive, a believer and advocate for economic justice as well as social justice. If Dr. King were with us today, we all know that he’d have some choice words for the bankers of our nation–and the government, too, for letting them get away with it.
King talked about Walter Rauschenbusch and supported his notion of the “social gospel,” which is the dangerous idea that being a Christian means following Jesus. If Dr. King had lived, his would have been a strong voice against the heresy called “prosperity gospel,” which is materialism dressed up in faux-Christian guise; instead he’d have been a strong voice for what he called the Beloved Community, which, in the four gospels, is known as the kingdom of God.
Now, of course, most everyone lauds Dr. King. Sixty years ago, however, many hated him and wanted him dead. Americans can pat ourselves on the back for having produced a Martin Luther King. We ought also to ponder and meditate on why so many of our fellow countrymen hated him in the first place.
Still I’m glad we have a Martin Luther King Day, not because we need a day of hypocritical self-congratulation on How Far We’ve Come, but because having a day for Dr. King might prompt someone to want to learn more about him, who might then catch a vision of God’s Beloved Community, and be inspired to work for its realization.
This story in Luke’s gospel is one often used on MLK weekend. The story begins with a rather dull, truly typical event in ancient Jewish synagogue life. On the Sabbath, a preacher, not a rabbi or some other formal religious authority, but a person known as a darshanim, a “speaker” or a “teller” reads from the scroll and comments on the verses. This preaching style of Jesus’ day was widely practiced and expected by congregations–that the speaker would take biblical verses literally out of their textual context–such historical criticism as understanding contextual context is, of course, a modern development. Then the speaker would apply them to the religious, political, and ethical questions all around. Preaching involved making an ancient story, the wisdom of the prophets, alive for the day.
Jesus was a darshanim in his hometown on this particular day. A synagogue leader handed him the scroll, and Jesus finds the place where the reading last week left off and reads from the words of the prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because she has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
God 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.
Jesus then rolled up the scroll and handed it back to the attendant. All eyes fixed on him. The congregation awaited his comment–his interpretation of these ancient words, which was a messianic promise for them. Would he address the occupation, the oppression of the empire, or perhaps his own ministry that is gaining attention throughout the region? No one breathed, the community alert with expectation. What would Jesus, their neighbor, say? (And here I’m using Diana Butler Bass’ excellent thoughts on this passage.)
Jesus might have preached on the wisdom of the old prophet: “In the past, our fathers and mothers envisioned a world of justice, freedom, and healing. The fullness of abundant life in a land of milk and honey as God covenanted with Moses.”
Or he might have elaborated on the world to come: “We, along with Isaiah, await the fulfillment of this glorious promise! One day, the poor will be lifted up, captives set free, and the blind will see! Oh, how we long for that! How we pray for that! But it seems so slow in coming.”
Jesus could have appealed to his friends’ sense of theological nostalgia—How great Isaiah was!–or their fragile theological hope for a better future. The kingdom of God will come! But he did none of these. Instead, he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
They were shocked. What do you mean that the Spirit of the Lord is HERE? Now? Today? That the poor hear good news, that prisoners are being released, the blind see, and the oppressed receive justice? This is the year of Lord’s favor?
Have you been watching the news, Jesus? Are you aware of how horrible things are? That there is more inequality than ever, more people in prison unjustly, more plagues of all variants, more violence and terrorism than our ancestors ever knew? This now–today–is the kingdom of God?
Are you crazy? “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Not yesterday, not tomorrow. Today. And with that word, Jesus’ furious neighbors tried to throw him off a cliff. People who knew him tried to Peter Pan off a cliff to be street pizza.
Faith communities are often consumed with memories of the past and hopes for the future. Speaking of the past may take a form of maintaining buildings and structures, of teaching ancient texts, and passing on patterns of life and values from ancestors. Speaking of the future is often wrapped up in hopes for salvation and eternal life, desires for answered prayers, for the children to hold onto faith or “come back to church.” Both past and future are central to vibrant communities; healthy and life-giving practices of honoring our ancestors and embracing a hopeful future derive from the witness of the whole biblical tradition.
But both “past” and “future” as the primary location of faith have their shadow sides. Overemphasizing the past results in nostalgia–the belief that the past is better than either the present or the future–a disposition that is steeped in grief and fear. Overemphasizing the future–the belief that all that matters is that which is to come–often results in thwarted hope, doubt, and anxiety.
A recent survey from Public Religion Research discovered that the majority of churchgoers in the US express high levels of both nostalgia and anxiety. By strong majorities, religious Americans–particularly white Protestants, and without any significant difference between theological conservatives and liberals–believe that “our best days are behind us” and that the future of society is bleak. In particular, mainline congregations are caught between valorizing the good old days and a deepening sense of desolation that some promised future will never arrive. Evidently, most Protestants would rather look back with sadness than trust that a more just and beautiful future beckons. As a result, today is lost. Today is merely a stage upon which we mourn the loss of past and fear what we cannot imagine.
But “today” is a deeply dangerous spiritual reality–because today insists that we lay aside both our memories and our dreams to embrace fully the moment of now. The past romanticizes the work of our ancestors; the future scans the horizons of our descendants and depends upon them to fix everything. But “today” places us in the midst of the sacred drama, reminding us that we are actors and agents in God’s desire for the world. “Today” may be the most radical thing Jesus ever said.
Jesus essentially told his friends, “Look around. See the Spirit of God at work, right here. Right now. God is with us. Just as I AM promised our father Moses at the burning bush, ‘I will be with you.’ This is the sign of God’s covenant. The ever active, ever loving, ever liberating, always present God is here with us. Now.”
In effect, Jesus is asking his friends to open their eyes, to see the burning bush, to become more attentive to God’s promise to abide with Israel in the land, and that God is keeping God’s promise, no matter how awful the outward circumstances. This is not a call toward quiescence–meditate and everything else will go away. Instead, it is a call to see more deeply, past the immediate sin, injustice, trials, and evils of human life to the profound reality of love and compassion upon which everything else truly rests: The love of God and neighbor. If we can see, experience, and grasp that the active force of love is at work in the world now, our fear recedes, our hatreds melt, our willingness to murder and kill and seek revenge flows away with the tide, and we can recognize that in the midst of all things–even in the worst oppression–God is with us. Through our delusions of domination, the clarity of grace, mercy, and justice make themselves known to us. And that transforms fear into compassion, giving us the power to walk in the way of love God intended.
That preaching created two scandals. The first was that the messiah who came to bring us life now, went to the poor, the outcast, to the people that the respectable had given up on. They just assumed that they would always be the way they are. They will never change. The scandal was that Jesus went to them and said, the time for you is now. You can change. Now is the time of the Jubilee. The past is forgiven. You can put the past behind you. The future is laid out in front of you. Now is the time for you to start living.
That was the practical effect of Jesus going to all of those who had been ostracized by society, “the wretched of the earth.” They were allowed now to begin their lives, to start over again. That is the meaning of the healings: people who are lame walk, those who are blind see, those injured are able to throw away their crutches and walk.
That is the meaning of the comfortable words on the front of our worship building, “Come unto me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me.” He was talking to people who were in bondage of one kind or another. He is saying to them, you don’t have to be in bondage. Follow me and I will set you free. He is talking to those people who ate with him, sinners and outcasts, the unclean. He said to them, you are discriminated against in this society, but you are first in my beloved community. All of those people who were in poverty, illness, or were discriminated against, he said to them, now, today, you can be free.
Is there anyone here offended by that message? Because the time is now. If the time is now, it means that Jesus is still saying to all those people, you can be free. It means that Jesus believes that all of them can start over, find new life. It means that those who follow him as the messiah, should go to those people who are in bondage, or poverty, or illness, and tell them, the time has come for you to live. We are here to help you.
Sixty years ago Dr. King offended a lot of people by writing a letter from a Birmingham jail. He wrote that letter to church people. He said, “Now is the time.” God wills that all God’s children be free. God wills that all God’s children be given an equal chance in this life. King challenged the Church to believe that what the scripture says, applies to “now.” Not to sometime later, not to when everything is ready, but now. Not some other time, but right now.
When Bishop Tutu was visiting this country and lecturing in those days just before the fall of Apartheid, I heard him at Emory, where he said, “God is at work in this world breaking down the barriers that separate people from one another.” Then, interpreting scripture, he said, “God was not only freeing the enslaved in Moses’ time, but Moses’ story is there to reveal to us that God is always freeing those enslaved, always freeing those who are in bondage.” So, he said, again in scripture, in the words of Deuteronomy, “Choose this day whom you will serve.” Choose on whose side you are going to stand. “Today this scripture is being fulfilled in your hearing.”
The first scandal of Jesus’ preaching was that he said, I’ve come in the name of God to free those people whom you believe to be Godforsaken. The second thing that he said that was a scandal was, I have come to free you, too.
God’s wild Spirit was upon Jesus. But it was also upon his friends and neighbors, too. For Jesus was one of them. And by emphasizing the word “today,” Jesus transformed Isaiah’s words, Isaiah’s prophecy, into a powerful invitation for the whole community to act on behalf of God’s justice. The text might have been read:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me (and therefore also with you),
because she has anointed us
to bring good news to the poor.
God has sent us 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.
Living in God’s promise is not about yesterday. Nor is it about awaiting some distant Messiah and eternal life in the Kingdom of God. It is about NOW. This is a hard truth to hear and receive. Jesus’ friends refused. They would rather stay mired in nostalgia and complain about the future. How great the prophets were! If only a savior would appear and get us out of this mess!
But Jesus’ sermon remains as clear and poignant and important and urgent as ever: Today this promise has been fulfilled in your hearing–what we need is here. Today.