A Liberating Gospel

Luke 4:16-30
November 8, 2015
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

I received my training for ministry at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School which has a long tradition of equipping ministers for work in social justice and so as part of our curriculum, we read the works of Walter Rauschenbusch, the founder of the Social Gospel, learned of the ethics of Martin Luther King, Jr., and read James Cone, an early advocate of Black Liberation Theology.  As pastors-in-training, we were steeped in the literature and thinking of radical reformers who dared to challenge the structures that disenfranchise and oppress people in our society.

One day, our ministry professor broke us into small groups and gave us an assignment:  “Imagine you are the pastor of an inner-city church in an impoverished neighborhood.  I want you to create a church program that will address the issues of poverty confronting that community.”

My small group pondered the problem, drafted a proposal, and I volunteered to write our presentation.

Accordingly, on the day our task was due, I stood before the class and delivered a fervent speech about the problems of institutionalized injustice and the cycle of poverty.  I put all of my young writing skills on display as I channeled the soaring oratory of the great reformers.  My rhetoric was polished, passionate, and persuasive and throughout my speech I scattered the words of the prophets: Isaiah 1:17 — “Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed;” Amos 5:24 —   “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!”  I hammered home the need for all Christians to commit themselves to the radical agrenda of social change, and then finally I presented our proposal.  The church, we suggested, could use its Sunday School rooms for a Day Care Center during the week.

When I finished, the professor was silent for a moment and then he asked, “And what will make your Day Care Center different from the other Day Care Centers in the city?”

The members of my small group looked at one another blankly and finally someone offered, “Ummm, it will be closer to their houses?”

My professor shook his head with a sigh.

“After that impassioned speech,” he said, “I expected something a little more profound. Your rhetoric raised my expectations but your proposal doesn’t match your promise.”

I think of that day every time I read the prophets from the pulpit.  Does the rhetoric we Christians proclaim match the action in which we are engaged as a Church?  I mean, try to imagine for just a second that you are a homeless man who has come to church this morning, or maybe you are a single mother working a minimum wage job.  Or put yourself in the shoes of a young Black man facing 25 years in prison on a minor drug charge, or a transgendered person living in Kentucky this week.  Or imagine that you are an immigrant who just put in an 80 hour week picking apples for New York’s cider industry, and you settle down in your pew, maybe hoping for nothing more than a moment of rest but to your amazement, you hear these words being proclaimed:

And Jesus said, “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,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

What might you — you the homeless man, you the single mother who cannot feed her children, you the outcast because of your sexual orientation, you the migrant worker — what might you do when you hear these remarkable words?  Maybe you weep tears of joy because someone has finally heard your cries.  Maybe you will hug the members of the congregation in heartfelt gratitude believing that here in the church are people who will help to break the shackles that bind you, who will give your children a reason to hope for a better future.  After all, you just heard Christ’s promise that he has has come to bring liberty to the people, not just freedom for the soul but for the body as well.  Christ promises to put real food in your mouth.  He will make sure there is real justice for your family.

And after you have embraced those around you in tearful gratitude, certainly, the next words you will want to hear are, “And this is what are we going to do together to make Christ’s promise a reality.”

But like my small group those many years ago in seminary, the church’s radical rhetoric isn’t always matched by radical action.  We Christians are really good at relieving immediate suffering.  If there is a tornado, the church will be there to help put lives back together after the destruction or if there’s an earthquake, we’ll give generously and help hand out supplies.  The church will set up soup kitchens, and homeless shelters, and we’ll care for the sick.  We are great at the Good Samaritan stuff.  And don’t get me wrong; that is extremely important.  Our food pantries and relief programs are absolutely necessary because people can’t always wait for society to change before their wounds are tended, but we would be gravely mistaken if we think that is all that Christ is calling us to.  After we’ve stocked the food pantry and prayed for the victims of injustice, Christ calls us to ask, “Is there a way we can make sure that fewer and fewer people need our help in the first place?  How can we bring them not just relief but the possibility of freedom from all that has oppressed them?”

When Jesus said,  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor,” he was quoting Isaiah and setting up the tone for his entire ministry.  His mother Mary had declared his mission before he was even born singing out, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior….  God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;  he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”  Jesus had come to inaugurate the great reversal.  He said it himself in that synagogue in Capernaum:  “I have come to proclaim ‘the year of the Lord’s favor,’ or what was known in Israel as the year of Jubilee.

The book of Leviticus said that every fifty years, the Israelites should enact a year of Jubilee, and in the year of Jubilee all land would returned to its original owners, all debts canceled, and all slaves freed.  (Every seventh year was considered to be a sabbath year, and so 49 years would be seven sabbath years.  The 50th year was the Year of Jubilee.  Leviticus 25.)   Just like our Leap Year which is designed to reset our calendar and make sure it doesn’t get too far out of sync with the sun, the year of Jubilee was supposed to reset Israelite society to make sure that it didn’t get too far out of sync with God’s plans.  The Jewish law recognized that people are human and that corruption and injustice inevitably seeps into our dealings with one another, but every 50 years, it declared, Israel would correct for this by resetting the entire society back to the way God intended it to be.

When Jesus stood before those comfortable middle-class worshippers in their comfortable sabbath pews and said that the year of Jubilee was now upon them, most of them knew right away, this wasn’t good news for them.  It’s no wonder that they tried to throw him off a cliff.

John Eldridge said, “We’ve made elevator music of Jesus Christ. We’ve made Him the most boring, bland, blah person; and He was the most revolutionary man.”

There are some memories that stay with you for a long time, to niggle at your conscious and demand that you learn from them, and so for 32 years, I’ve thought about that Day Care Center proposal.  And I have come to realize that the whole assignment summarizes our dilemma as caring Christians.  I think most of us here really do want to make a difference.  Maybe we are not the poor and oppressed who will benefit most from a Jubilee year but we are on board with the idea.  Who among you wouldn’t love to see a society where food pantries are no longer necessary, where we don’t have to look into the eyes of hungry children anymore?  Who among you wouldn’t love to be confident that if your neighbor’s son finds himself in court, he will be treated fairly regardless of the color of his skin?  We don’t want to read about one more horrible case of bigotry, or of another homeless person frozen on the street, or corrupt politicians, or the rich getting richer while the poor become destitute.  I don’t know about you, but I sure am tired of injustice and oppression.  If we could do more than just bandage wounds, we would, but how do you change a whole system?  And so we preach our soaring rhetoric and then follow it up by our modest bland proposals because frankly, we don’t know what else to do.

I have come to believe, however, that my classmate’s and my error that day long ago in my seminary classroom was not that our proposal was bland but that our rhetoric became bland once we stepped out of preaching mode to move into the world.  When our professor asked how the Day Care Center would make a difference, we should have continued to talk about justice for working parents, and programs that can help children in poverty, and about the need to step across the divide between church and society to connect with people in their own neighborhoods.  These things do make a difference but we didn’t really believe in our power to change anything and so instead we stammered and went silent.

Change in a society comes from programs that challenge the status quo, and from people who are willing to live out that challenge in their lives with every choice they make and every word they speak.  Change comes from our willingness to look at the world from the eyes of those greatly different from us — whether it is a difference of skin color or sexual orientation or income or education or class — and see the world as they see it.  Change comes from our commitment to speak with the people our society oppresses instead of against them.

And so maybe I can’t do much from my little house in Alfred about the horrible rate of unjust incarceration for African-American’s in this country, but I can support people who can do something about it.  I give money to the NAACP every month, and I will challenge anyone who says that there is no racism in our country.

And maybe we can’t do much about the poverty of Haiti from our little church in Alfred but we can support people who can do something about it.  Our church chose to support Haiti Outreach because it doesn’t just give charity to the poor but it works to change the society.  It becomes partners with the Haitian people to strengthen community networks, teach sanitation, healthcare, and engineering skills.

I can make sure that my money supports not just relief efforts but programs that target injustice and try to enact social change.  I can challenge the quiet prejudice of my neighbors by saying, “Well, my church says that God accepts people of all sexual orientations,” and being comfortable with their discomfort at such radical speech.  And I can make sure that everything in my life matches my rhetoric, because unjust societies are changed when the people in that society practice justice.  We must become the just people we preach.  We must be the compassionate people that we preach.  We must be the change that we call for.

In our Bible Study this week, Catherine Chambers told us about the Reverend Michael Curry who was just installed as the Presiding Bishop of Episcopal Church.  He is the first African-American to hold that position.  Catherine said that we had to listen to his installation sermon, and so I did, and I want to end today with the story he told at the end of his sermon.

[It was] just after the Second World War. In the United States, Jim Crow was alive and well. Segregation and separation of the races was still the law in much of the land …

An African American couple went to an Episcopal church one Sunday morning. They were the only people of color there. The woman had become an Episcopalian after reading C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, finding the logic of his faith profoundly compelling. Her fiancé was then studying to become ordained as a Baptist preacher. But there they were on America’s segregated Sabbath, the only couple of color at an Episcopal Church service of Holy Communion according to the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.

When the time came for communion the woman, who was confirmed, went up to receive. The man, who had never been in an Episcopal Church … stayed in his seat.  As he watched how communion was done, he realized that everyone was drinking real wine — out of the same cup….

Would the priest really give his fiancée communion from the common cup? Would the next person at the rail drink from that cup, after she did? Would others on down the line drink after her from the same cup?

The priest came by speaking these words to each person as they drank from the cup: The Blood our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s Blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.

The people before her drank from the cup. The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ….

Another person drank. Preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. The person right before her drank. Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s Blood was shed for thee…. Then she drank. And be thankful. She drank. Now was the moment her fiancé was waiting for. Would the next person after her drink from that cup? He watched. The next person drank. The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee…. And on down the line it went, people drinking from the common cup after his fiancée, like this was the most normal thing in the world.

The man would later say that it was that reconciling experience of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist that brought him into The Episcopal Church and that he had an evangelism. He said, “Any Church in which blacks and whites drink out of the same cup knows something about the Gospel that I want to be a part of. ”

The man became an Episcopal rector and his son is Michael Curry, now the first African-American to preside over the Episcopal Church in America.  (http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2015/11/01/video-currys-sermon-at-installation-of-the-27th-presiding-bishop/)

When the people in that church so many long years ago chose to share the cup of Christ across racial lines, they could not have guessed that it would lead to a chain of reactions that would put a Black man at the head of their entire denomination one day.  They were simply matching their lives to their rhetoric.  Let us go and do likewise, so that when people hear us speak, and watch us act, they will see embodied in our lives this promise:

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