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The First United Presbyterian Church
Rev. Amy Morgan
January 27, 2019
The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard;
4 yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
5 which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
6 Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat.
7 The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.
11 Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
12 But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults.
13 Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.
14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.
14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.
15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
16 When 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,
17 and 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,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
20 And 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.
21 Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
It seemed like good group. Early on in my first year of seminary, a new friend invited me to join a student group. She was a little vague on the details of what the group was all about. Something about being attentive to the movement of the Holy Spirit. Promoting missional renewal within our denomination. There would be Bible study and advocacy work. It all sounded good to me.
I attended several gatherings and started to make friends in the group. But I still couldn’t quite put my finger on what they were about.
Then, several students from the group attended General Assembly, the bi-annual meeting of our denomination. I had offered to host the group’s next meeting in my apartment, where we’d hear the report from the students attending the assembly.
And only then did I suddenly become aware of the group’s mission and purpose.
The students railed against all of the General Assembly’s theologically progressive decisions and discussions. They praised those leaders who championed conservative causes. And they began to talk about the future schism of our church.
At the time, I wasn’t certain where I stood theologically on every issue. But I knew I wasn’t securely in the camp of conservative evangelicals. Up to this point, I had heard only about mission and gospel and Spirit. They hadn’t talked about abortion or ordination standards or marriage. Up to this point, they hadn’t been divisive and dogmatic. At this meeting in my home, I suddenly realized their true purpose, and I was not on board with it.
The Gospel of Luke wanted to make sure no one joining in the Jesus group found themselves in that awkward position. While the other gospels tell about Jesus returning and teaching in his hometown, Luke’s gospel elaborates on the content of Jesus’ teaching, and he places this episode front and center in his gospel narrative. Jesus is baptized, he is tempted in the wilderness, and right at the start of his ministry he returns to his hometown, to state loud and clear, with no ambiguity, what his purpose and mission is all about.
In the wilderness, Jesus has been tempted with numerous false missions. Be the king of consumerism by turning rocks into bread. Worship power and become powerful. Test God’s promises and prove your invincibility. Jesus shuns all these false purposes. Then he returns to Galilee to name and claim and proclaim his true purpose.
Jesus takes his mission right out of scripture. He takes up the scroll of Isaiah and reads from the beginning of chapter 61. "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."
His mission is clear and specific, but let’s unpack it a little bit for our 21st-century ears.
Bringing good news to the poor was not a purely economic statement. While Jesus talked more about money than just about any other topic, “the poor” in the first century were not simply those without economic means. Nor is this referring exclusively to the “poor in spirit” as Jesus says in the Beatitudes in Matthew’s gospel. “The poor” refers to anyone who, for whatever reason, is considered to be on the margins or outside the bounds of God’s love and provision.
Some of those sitting in the synagogue that day may have heard this as a reference to their non-Jewish neighbors. Others might have understood Jesus to be talking about those who were ritually unclean. “The poor” in this instance could have meant women and children, gentiles and tax collectors and sinners, lepers and the mentally ill, and those who were economically impoverished.
However Jesus defined “the poor,” the message that is clearly communicated is that Jesus has come to destroy whatever boundaries we have constructed around God’s love and provision. The good news is that no one will be poor in the eyes of God any longer. God is God for everyone, not just the rich or the righteous or the powerful.
Next, Jesus says he will proclaim release to the captives. This message has massive historical connotations for Jesus’ audience. The prophet Isaiah is referring directly and literally to those who were taken into captivity in Babylon. But there is also the resonance of the Hebrews’ captivity in Egypt. God’s relationship with Israel is defined, throughout the Hebrew scriptures, by this activity of release from captivity.
But this relationship becomes about so much more than physical captivity and release. The word in Greek that is translated as “release” here is used throughout the rest of the New Testament exclusively in relationship to sin. Each time Israel becomes captive to their own sinfulness, their wayward wanderings from God, their chasing after self-righteousness and power, God’s role is to release them from that captivity. Jesus has come to proclaim a final and complete pardon, to break down the bars of the prisons they have constructed for themselves.
Some may have heard this part of Jesus’ message to imply he would free them from their Roman occupiers, once more literally releasing them from captivity. But as Jesus’ story unfolds in unexpected ways, we see that his true purpose is to release everyone from captivity to sin and death, a release far greater and more powerful than overthrowing an earthly occupier.
Jesus says he will give recovery of sight to the blind. He certainly follows through on this promise, curing many people who were physically blind. But there is also a spiritual dimension to this mission. Later in his ministry, Jesus calls out the blindness of the religious leaders, calling them “blind guides” and “blind fools.” In using parables to teach, Jesus claimed he was revealing hidden insight intended for those who could see and understand it. So recovery of sight to the blind certainly also means helping people to see and understand God’s cosmic vision.
Next, Jesus says he will let the oppressed go free. This statement echoes the prior missions of good news to the poor and release from captivity. But the word translated here as “oppressed” in Greek literally means those “broken in pieces.” The emphasis is not so much on marginalization or captivity. It is about justice and wholeness for those whose lives have been shattered by injustice and oppression.
Finally, Jesus reads from Isaiah’s prophecy that he will “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This is usually understood to reference the mandate in God’s law for the year of Jubilee, found in Leviticus 25. Every 50 years, the Israelites are to let the land rest and lie fallow, debts are forgiven, slaves are set free, and land that has been purchased is returned to the original owner. The Jubilee year is a way of resetting the order of society every generation. Jesus has come, not simply to hit that re-set button for the Jewish community but to re-set the entire cosmos, to restore the goodness of the whole created order.
Today, after worship, we’ll be having our Annual Meeting of the Congregation. We have some official business we’re obliged to do at this meeting, but it really serves as a nice year-in-review opportunity. Typically, the question at these meetings is “How are we doing as a church?”
But if we take seriously the notion that the church exists for the sole purpose of fulfilling Jesus’ mission on earth, what we really need to be asking is, “As a church, how are we doing for God?” How are we bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, how are we letting the oppressed go free and proclaiming the year of the Lord's favor?
So let’s just take a moment now to review some of the ways 1st on 4th has been living into this mission statement from Luke’s gospel throughout the last year. It’ll save us some time at the meeting.
In bringing good news to the poor, 1st on 4th assisted those on the margins in so many ways. Through the MEND fund, we assisted families with rent and utilities, we provided shoes and clothes and gas money to folks in immediate need, and we did so with dignity, confidentially and compassion. This fund doesn’t grow our church membership or get us on the front page of the paper. This fund brings good news to the poor.
You’ll hear in the mission report lots of other ways we shared good news with those experiencing economic challenges, through One Community, One Family, Kids’ Pak, the Nappie Project. This congregation is astoundingly generous.
But the poor, as Jesus understood them, are not just those who are economically disadvantaged. Others on the margins of society, folks who might feel excluded from the family of God, were also welcomed, loved, and cared for by 1st on 4th. People experiencing homelessness regularly grace our pews, seeking warmth and maybe some nourishment, but also community and respect. And that is exactly what they find here. Several folks in our congregation advocated for funding for mental health treatment in Larimer County, and thanks to their efforts, we now have it. We are affiliated with Together Colorado and the Interfaith Council, groups that seek to affirm and uphold the dignity of all human beings and break down the walls that divide us.
We also worked to break down the walls that hold us and others captive, proclaiming release from our imprisonment to selfishness and greed, sin and suffering. We were even blessed to rejoice in physical release as one of our members was released from his jail sentence and welcomed back into our fellowship. While he was imprisoned, we prayed for him and sent cards to him. He knew he was cared for and not forgotten, and when, last month, he was released from his captivity to the flesh, as the Apostle Paul says, we celebrated his life and his release from captivity to addiction.
Okay, I will readily admit that we did not cure anyone’s physical blindness here at 1st on 4th this year. I’m working on my faith-healing skills, but I’m working on it by correspondence course, and it’s just taking a while. Maybe next year we’ll get to that.
But in the meantime, we’ve done a lot to open people’s eyes to the reign of God. New education and faith formation opportunities for people of all ages and stages of life have given us new insights and helped us to experience God’s vision for the world. Our engagement with the downtown community and opening our doors to our neighbors on a regular basis are changing people’s perspectives about who Christians are and what it means to follow Jesus. We’re becoming known as “that church”: you know, the one that isn’t judgmental and is more concerned with love, justice, compassion, and peace than self-righteousness and self-preservation.
Freedom for the oppressed – those shattered and broken by injustice – has been central to our ministry this year. We’ve written postcards to children in refugee camps around the world. We’ve supported young people who don’t know where they will sleep tonight or where their next meal will come from. We’ve given financial support to our denomination’s efforts to free the oppressed around the globe. We are working with Together Colorado to end injustices that are oppressing people right here in Loveland.
Finally, we have been proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, the year of Jubilee, at 1st on 4th. We know that things cannot go on as they have been. We cannot enslave public workers to political stand-offs. We cannot force the land and its people to produce more and more, without rest and recovery and rights. We cannot allow greed to govern us and debt to enslave us.
And that is why 1st on 4th works, and partners, and witnesses and advocates for the values and characteristics of God’s Jubilee, for a time when slaves are freed and debts are forgiven and the land rests and returns to God, who is the original and rightful owner of all land.
Every time I talk about what we are doing at 1st on 4th, people ask me what more we can do. This congregation does not rest, will not rest, I believe, until God’s reign is complete.
And there is a great deal yet to do. We are not perfect, but we are faithfully, with God’s help and empowered by the Holy Spirit, striving to fulfill the mission statement of Jesus Christ.
Plans are already in place for the coming year for us to do more. We’ll expand our proclamation of good news to the poor with a mission trip to Mexico. We’ll continue expanding our educational offerings and our presence in the community. We’ll partner with other congregations in new ways, witnessing to God’s love and our unity in Christ.
But in all that we do, it is essential that we maintain our focus on Christ’s mission. We must stay on message. It does the gospel no favors for us to lure people in with friendship and cookies and then reveal our hidden purpose. We need to be loud and clear, putting our mission front and center in all that we do. We are the Heart of Christ in the Heart of Loveland, and that means our mission is to bring good news to the poor and proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.
And I hope that this time next year, we are able to once again look back and recognize how this mission is being fulfilled, day by day, in the life of this church and in each of our individual lives. To the glory of God, Amen.