Can we read this all together: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because God 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, and to proclaim the year of God’s liberation.” (Luke 4:18)
This is not a new scripture to us. It was Jesus’ first sermon, right? We know that God is a God of justice and compassion, and calls us to work for the coming Realm of Hope. It’s old news.
But back in the day, that being about 800 years before Christ, the way we worshiped our gods was by praying to them with tasty treats (known as sacrifices.) Tender lambs, grains, honey- the good stuff. Worship was about us trying to keep the gods happy so they’d send us rain for our crops.
But then around the 700s BC, something changed. It is called the Axial Age, when all the religions- not just us, but all the world religions- were inspired to start thinking ethically. Intellectual, philosophical, and religious systems were overturned: Greek philosophers; the Indian philosophers who birthed Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism Persian Zoroastrianism; Confucianism and Taoism in ancient China; and of course, the Hebrew prophets- all of these ethical religions began about the same time. The ethical world suddenly arose across the earth, forever changing the way we worship and think.
For the Jews it had changed a bit earlier, but it became blatantly obvious around 760 BCE. Because right about then, God let it be known that God didn’t give a fig for fancy prayers and sacrifices. The only way to worship the true God was by caring for the vulnerable, the hurt, the oppressed. Worship of God was seen ethically, not just in temple sacrifices.
That’s when the word of God came to the prophet Amos, who condemned the wealthy for “buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals” (Amos 8:6.)
A bit later, the prophet Micah was more poetic: “God has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.’ (Micah 6:8)
No more of this trying to buy God off with tender lamb chops and incense. No, God told Israel that the true way to worship is seek the welfare of the hungry, the hurt, the prisoner.
The prophet Isaiah said it this way: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry, and to provide the homeless with shelter, and when you see the naked, to clothe them…?” (Isaiah 58:6-8)
That’s the first time the world heard of such a worship, of such a God. 800 years later, for His very first sermon, Jesus chose to read another portion from the prophet Isaiah. There in His hometown synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because God 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, and to proclaim the year of God’s liberation.” (Luke 4:16-18)
And for the rest of His life, this is what Jesus preached, this is what Jesus practiced. This is what Jesus was about. The core of Jesus’ message was justice and compassion
There’s very little in the Hebrew and Greek scriptures about individual salvation. That’s not what God is about. God is about the salvation of communities, specifically, the poor and vulnerable. God is about creating a new world in this world, right now, where, it says in the book of Revelation, there is no more crying, nor pain.
We usually only hear those words in funerals, as we comfort ourselves that our beloved dead are not suffering. But that verse from Revelation doesn’t just refer to Aunt Mabel when she finally meets her maker. It’s for all of us, in this world, before we die.
Jesus was a radical prophet. That’s why He was executed: not because He preached niceness, but because He preached justice, the overturning of the systems of oppression. He was a man of deep prayer. Prayer was His lifeblood, which gave Him direction, strength, hope and vitality. Prayer- asking God for our own needs and the needs of others, but even more, listening for God’s guidance- prayer is essential in the worship of God. But it’s not just speaking and listening without doing anything, but listening with the intention of obedience.
And that’s what Jesus’ church is supposed to be about. Yes, we find comfort in our congregation, and warmth, and kindness. We find a lot of that warmth and kindness here in Emmanuel; it is one of our strengths.
But our larger mission is something even greater than that. It’s the same mission that Jesus was sent on: to bring good news to the poor, release of prisoners, sight to the blind, and God’s liberation of all- especially the oppressed and vulnerable.
Next Sunday is my last Sunday with you, and I want to make sure you get what God is about, in case you missed it in my previous 16 years of preaching! God wants Emmanuel to stand up for the poor, and speak out for those who have no voice. God wants each of us in Emmanuel to step out of our comfort zones, and commit ourselves to making a difference in bringing about God’s realm of compassion and justice. We are God’s hands, God’s heart, God’s eyes.
Of course, the problem is that there is too much oppression, too much injustice.We can’t get our heads around it all.
- Immigrant families and children behind bars, or worse yet, being sent back to certain death in the countries from which they fled;
- the rattling of nuclear sabers among the nations of the world- the US among them;
- insurance companies and pharmaceuticals breaking the backs of the working poor;
- and in case we miss it, the most serious threat there is to all of us: Climate change.
And that’s just in the first 15 seconds of consideration. What is a faithful person supposed to do in the face of such oppression and despair?
I don’t know. You and I both know that a single person or congregation can’t change everything. And yet a single person, a single congregation, can become part of a groundswell, can lend its prophetic voice to the voices of others
We can’t change everything, but we can work toward the redemption of our own corner of the world. Pick one thing, and study it, embrace it, commit to it, and find a way to make a difference.
- Austen Pearce is 14 and lives in Maricopa, Arizona. He learned to garden on a small patch of ground in his backyard. At age ten, he started volunteering at a food bank and was smart enough to see that the produce being sold was often past its prime. Wouldn’t it make more sense, he thought, to grow fruits and vegetables locally? Now, four years later, he’s supplying 200 needy families with fresh produce. Pearce lobbied his city for a community garden, and within months, a farmer had donated an acre of land and valuable irrigation. A master gardener helped Pearce plan his plots. From March to July, Pearce and other volunteers tend tomatoes, cucumbers, okra, and other crops; they harvested more than 7,000 pounds of donated produce within the first year alone. “I would love to see such gardens in more cities,” says this 14-year old. “Why stop in Arizona?”
- Emmanuel United Church of Christ in Dousman saw a shut-in neighbors in need of community support. So in 1987, together with St. Bruno’s Roman Catholic church, we started Dousman Home meals, a daily hot-meal program that serves shut-in neighbors in a 10 mile radius around Dousman. It has always been led by the pastors of Emmanuel, and the reins have now been taken over by an Emmanuel member, Nicole Kerr, who is spearheading it to make a difference in her corner of the world. Because of our vision, hundreds of vulnerable people have been able to stay safely in their homes.
- Charlie Starbuck is 74, and lives in San Francisco. He moved there in the 1960’s and noticed that there were very few trees in any of the neighborhoods. He heard about a citywide tree-planting program, “Friends of the Urban Forest,” and has been volunteering to plant trees every week, rain or shine, for the past 30 years. He’s helped to plant over 1,000 new trees in his weekly outing, making neighborhoods not only more beautiful, but more healthy.
- Emmanuel United Church of Christ in Dousman had a few gay members who came to us for refuge when their other faith communities hurt them and shunned them. Our hearts grew to love them in the midst of their pain, and so we set about becoming a congregation that publicly embraces LGBTQ people. October 30, 2011, we became the first Open and Affirming congregation in Waukesha County, encouraging other churches in the following years to do the same. Because of our public stand, there are now a number of churches that provide and safe embrace to LGBTQ people.
- Paul Stamets is 55, and lives in Kamilche Point, Washington. His life is given to mushrooms. Why mushrooms? Because many of the 150,000 species of mushrooms have environment-healing properties. The oyster mushroom can break down oil from spills. The King Stropharia mushroom filters bacteria like coli before they get into the water supply. And the turkey tail mushroom may help strengthen the immune systems of women with breast cancer. A mushroom’s cells encourage new growth in old-growth forests. “The mushroom creates soil and fosters other life in the soil. Without healthy soil,” Stamets warns, “we don’t have life.” Stamets has invented the Life Box, a cardboard carton embedded with tree seeds and fungi. “Each box can become a forest,” he says. “Get the box, tear it up, plant it, and little trees come up.” It’s Stamets’s way of driving home the notion that small, individual actions have earthshaking potential- and helping us to participate.
- Emmanuel United Church of Christ in Dousman saw homeless people in their community, and determined to find a way to help them. Through extensive research, we discovered Family Promise, a shelter and support system for homeless families. For two years, we worked to find and coordinate 13 other churches who would be willing to work with us to develop a network of support. Oct. 31, 2014, we opened our doors to homeless families, and continue to work as a host church. Because of our public actions, homelessness has become a visible issue in our community, and we have helped 101 families find homes, jobs, and life support.
We are part of Jesus’ life work to bring good news to the poor- not just in the past, but now and into the future. And let me put in a plug: we’re low on drivers for Dousman Home Meals right now; and for Family Promise, we don’t want to burn out the faithful volunteers we have- some of whom sleep over 2-3 nights a week. If you can help with either Dousman Home Meals or Family Promise, please see Donna the Blessed Church Secretary. Because our past is admirable, but it isn’t worth much if it doesn’t live into the future.
So in case you missed it in the first 16 years- or in the first 2,800 years since God introduced the idea to the whole world-we are the hands and voice and heart of a just and compassionate God. And God calls us to labor for the redemption of God’s creation.
The same God who will never let any of us go: even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Scripture for Jan. 19, 2020 LUKE 4:16-21
When Jesus 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, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to Him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because God 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, and to proclaim the year of God’s liberation.”
And Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were upon Him as He began to teach, saying, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.