Freedom is an important word for us here in the United States, and especially, I think, here in Wyoming. Freedom is something that we fight for. Freedom is the ability to live as we like, free from too much interference in our lives from the government, whether it be city, county, state, or federal. Freedom is something that we as Americans can talk about with no problem. But when I read Jesus’ words, quoting the prophet Isaiah, that he has been sent to proclaim release to the captives, I had a much harder time trying to identify with that. Another word for proclaiming release, you see, is proclaiming liberation. And when I was trying to figure out how to start this sermon, I realized that I could not point to any powerful examples of liberation in my life. For I have always been free. I suppose I could point to that state that we are all in, that of being prisoner to sin, and how Jesus has liberated me from that. But that is a daily struggle that we all have, and I don’t think that this, necessarily, is what Jesus or the prophet Isaiah was referring to. I could speak of my own personal call as Jesus liberating me to speak to and to lead God’s people, when I wouldn’t have been able to do so in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, but again, I think that’s entirely too narrow a focus for proclaiming liberation to the captives. Instead, today, I want to put this in its context, connecting it to what else Isaiah and Jesus are saying: that of bringing good news to the poor.
You see, of all the gospels, Luke has the greatest emphasis on bringing the poor into the circle of those whom God cares for. If you contrast Jesus’ “Blessed are” sayings in Matthew and Luke, for example, Matthew has Jesus saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” whereas Luke simply has, “Blessed are the poor.” This week in our Thursday morning Bible study, we contrasted the Christmas stories as told in Matthew and Luke, and found that whereas Matthew was concerned with the reaction to Jesus’ birth in the great halls of political power, Luke spoke of lowly shepherds being invited by heavenly angels to come and see the newborn baby lying in a manger. It’s not that one Gospel writer is wrong where the other is right; it’s simply that, even though God inspires each writer, each of them retains his own personality and writes with that emphasis on what Jesus means for him and the congregation to whom he is writing.
One of Luke’s main emphases in his Gospel is to show how Jesus ministers to those who are on the margins, those who most good religious folks wouldn’t look twice at. Jesus’ purpose in ministering to these people, Luke says, is to show them that they are included and they are loved, and that the Christian community is not whole without them.
So, let’s set the scene for Jesus’ preaching in Nazareth. When Jesus comes back from his 40 days of fasting in the wilderness and being tempted by the devil, he is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit and he knows what his purpose is. And what better way to start his ministry than by giving his inaugural address in his hometown of Nazareth? So he makes his way home from the wilderness, stopping in synagogues along the way and teaching, so that word of mouth would tell his family and friends that he was on his way home.
When Jesus gets home, he goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath as was his custom, and he gets invited to read a portion of Scripture and to preach on it. We don’t know if Jesus deliberately chose this portion of the prophet Isaiah, or if that was the appointed reading for that particular Sabbath. Either way, Jesus uses this Scripture to lay out his agenda for his ministry, much like a new president lays out the agenda for his administration in his inaugural address. And here is Jesus’ agenda for his ministry, taken straight from Isaiah: to bring good news to the poor, 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.
Many people attempt to spiritualize this agenda and to say, “Well, we are poor and we are oppressed because we are in bondage to sin and we often can’t see that we are in bondage to sin, and so this good news is for us.” Now, I’m not denying that this is true. But Martin Luther often said that we must look first at the plain sense of the text when we are interpreting what it means, and nowhere in this agenda of Jesus is he talking about being in bondage to sin. No, Jesus is talking about those who are financially poor, those who are physically blind, those who are physically oppressed, and he is proclaiming jubilee, that is, the year of the Lord’s favor when all debts are canceled and all the land is returned to its original owners. That’s a very frightening thing for people who hold power, like, for example, bankers who hold a lot of debt. In this equalization that is to happen, those who hold power and money in this world stand to lose a lot. No wonder interpreters have spiritualized this text over the years: if we took the plain sense of this text seriously, many of the powerful in this world would fall. And that’s really scary for a lot of us.
But one thing that God tells us in Scripture over and over again is, “Be not afraid.” Do not be afraid, for in Jesus, God is with us. And so, we who want to follow Jesus more closely need to take seriously Jesus’ agenda as he preached in his hometown of Nazareth. And the question that we need to ask ourselves is this: how do we proclaim the same things that Jesus proclaimed in his inaugural address in Nazareth in a way that is meaningful to those outside of the church?
Let’s start with the premise that if someone is poor and is worried about finding money to pay for rent, utilities, and food, and has little experience with the church, they are probably not going to want to talk about spiritual things until their physical needs are taken care of. In the letter of James it says, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (2:15-16). This congregation has taken this admonition to heart: we give food and money to Loaves & Fishes; we donate money to ELCA World Hunger; we participate in the distribution of Christmas baskets that the Council of Community Services does each year; we donate to Backpack Blessings, which helps ensure that kids are not hungry over the weekends when they can’t get food at school; and we have set up a method to donate to our congregation’s Good Samaritan Fund. We are doing well, and we need to continue these efforts.
But poverty continues here in Powell, and even with all of the things we are doing to fight it, it seems like there is ever yet more that can be done. And that is because, as wonderful as all of these things are, they are addressing the symptoms of poverty and not the causes. It’s like a story that I heard recently. Some people were standing by a river and saw someone drowning. So, they pulled him out, healed his wounds, and sent him on his way. But then, a few minutes later, another person came down the river who was drowning. The people on the bank did the same thing for this person, but soon another person and another person came down. Finally someone suggested that they go up the river, find out what was causing people to fall in, and try to put a stop to it. There they found a rickety bridge across the river that had no railings. People were crossing this rickety bridge and falling in. So the people downriver tore down that bridge and built a new, sturdier one. By addressing the cause of the problem, the people may not have been able to put a complete stop to the drownings, but they were able to greatly reduce the number of people drowning in the river.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, this is the kind of good news to the poor that Jesus was preaching. If we find the causes of the poverty in our community and address those, then we can bring the kind of true liberation from oppression that people are longing for. This week I will be meeting with the pastor of the United Methodist church to begin talks about how we can come together and address the causes of poverty in Powell. I ask for your prayers that the Holy Spirit will guide us as we take these first steps, and your support as we continue down this road. I don’t know what kind of shape this idea will take in the future. Perhaps people from our congregations can come together to offer help with writing job applications and resumes. Perhaps we can help people in our community access government resources that they were not aware of. Perhaps those of us who are good with budgets can help people learn to budget the resources they have. Or, perhaps this idea will take shape in a way I can’t even imagine right now. The Holy Spirit has a way of doing that, and I believe that now is the moment for this congregation to act.
By addressing the causes of poverty in this area, we will not be able to eliminate poverty completely. But, like the people by the riverbank who decided to build a new bridge, we may begin to make a dent in the problem. Imagine with me for a moment: what would it look like if we were able to reduce poverty in Powell by 25%? 50%? Even higher? What would it look like to have more people working? What would it look like to have less children in need of the Backpack Blessings program? I think that this is the kind of good news that Jesus is bringing to the poor, and the kind of liberation that people are longing for. It’s not going to be easy, by any stretch of the imagination. But, when we are filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, we have the ability to do the things which Jesus dreamed of. And that power of the Holy Spirit is love. When we love power, we keep others poor and down. But when we act in the power of love, we lift others up.
Let us end today’s meditation with a prayer. Holy Spirit, fill us with your power. Fill us with your power of love. Help us to proclaim good news to the poor and release to the captives. Guide us as we begin steps to come together with our neighbors to lift others up out of poverty and into the fullness of communion with you and with us. Help us to see those in need as people you love, and help us to lift them up. In Jesus’ name. Amen.