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Visions from The Catacombs, Week Before January 24, 2016

Luke 4:14-21

14Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18“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, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

What I Am Learning:

Despite the imprisonment of John the Baptist by the Sith Lord of first century Palestine, King Herod, Jesus continued to lead the movement that John started. Luke reports that John the Baptist says, in a previous announcement, that Jesus was his rightful successor and even his superior.

I start with all of this because we discount the importance of the movement and focus only on the leader of the movement. When we forget the movement and focus only on the leader, we short-circuit our own capacity for action:

  • we imagine that the leader has an unusual set of gifts and that if we don't have those gifts then our gifts are useless. We then discount our own gifts and the myriad contributions of others.
  • we imagine the big strides of the movement were made in one step, instead of seeing that there were many small steps, millions of relationships, that made the movement possible. We then discount the long patient work necessary to make change.

Today we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. day. But really we celebrate the many movements that led up to it and and the millions who worked as a part of it. We could forget the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and their work, starting in 1957, to organize and clarify their strategy. We could forget the 69,000 people who taught at Citizenship Schools throughout the South, teaching other African Americans to read and to pass citizenship tests necessary for them to register to vote in the Jim Crow South. We could easily forget the people who came to learn how to read - carrying the heavy load of self-doubt and weary from long days and low pay. We could easily forget the training that many protesters received to help them respond with nonviolence the violence they would inevitably receive. We could for get other leaders like Bayard Rustin, who led organizations for civil rights before MLK was even born, and who was among those who encouraged others to see King's leadership potential.

Jesus and John built a movement of thousands of people. The scriptures bear witness not only to Jesus the Christ, but to the thousands that courageously worked with him, showed up to public meetings, and continued his work after his death and resurrection.

In this week's passage, we also see the central message of Jesus' movement: the restoration of Israel as a community of justice and equity.

Sadly, Christians not only underplay the importance of Jesus' partners, we often ignore his core message in favor of playing a competitive game of "my religion is better than everyone's."

The passage from Isaiah that Jesus reads is the core of the expectation of first century Jews for what the messiah (anointed one: king, prophet and priest) was to do:

18“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, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

  • The "good news" to the poor is that God stands with them and that they will no longer be hungry.
  • The political prisoners who stood against the oppressive Roman Occupation will be released.
  • Those who are "blind" to the destructive and toxic environment created by the domination system of Rome and thus supporting it, would become able to perceive it.
  • The oppressed peoples of Rome would be able to live in freedom and peace.
  • The year of the Lord's favor was a reference to an economic system envisioned by God to ensure that wealth remained widely distributed. You can read more about this in Leviticus 25.

Many of these, you will note, are about economic and political issues.

This weekend the OxFam report about wealth inequality came out. 1% of the world population now have as much wealth as the rest of us combined. 67 people have the wealth of the bottom half. They point out that offshore tax havens are allowing these rich to avoid contributing to the tax base of the world's governments, increasing taxes and decreasing services such as education, infrastructure (Flint, Michigan), and basic human services.

In the face of this, many Christian pastors will preach sermons that avoid the economic inequity and oppression that their Lord and Savior addresses. They will focus on how Jesus claims that he is the messiah, but fail to mention the very economic and political dynamics that people needed saving from so that we can avoid the same-but-different issues today.

In the image that Jesus used: we are often the blind justifying the blind.

The hard thing, of course, is that this broken system works well enough for enough of us that we don't want it to change AND that we don't know what to do AND we are not sure if our voice would make any difference.

This is precisely what John and Jesus had to overcome in the first century in Palestine.

So let's start from the beginning. Let's remember, and remind each other, that we are God's beloved children. No matter what blinders we wear, no matter our wealth or lack of wealth, no matter whether we feel guilt or not, no matter how despairing we may feel we are God's holy and beloved ones.

Rest in that for a while.

Then, prayerfully, joyfully consider how you can live your life in light of what Jesus found to be most important for his own life:

18“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, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”