Sermon on Luke 4:16-30 preached January 24, 2016
In our gospel for today it says that in the synagogue in Nazareth that Sabbath morning when Jesus was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, he unrolled it “and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll again and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And it says that the eyes of all the synagogue were fixed upon him.”
Without boring you too much with my family’s doings, I want to tell you a little about a relative of mine–Mary Lois Olson, my father’s younger sister. Dogs and children always adored my Aunt Mary Lois. They just couldn’t help themselves. When I was little and she came to visit us, I fell deeply and hopelessly in love with her. She was very pretty, for one thing, with an ocean of red-gold hair, and when she looked at you, you filled her eyes. And what a smile! It would take your breath away. When she smiled at you like that, for that magical, mystical moment you were the center of the whole universe.
But Mary Lois was what they used to call “wild” girl–which meant that she wanted to have her own way and be free. And that frequently put her at odds with my grandmother—the state officer in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union–who was a force of nature in her own right and—Bless her heart!—who also liked having her own way. And if you combine a wild, independent-thinking girl and a state officer in the WCTU you are bound to have an explosion. And that’s exactly what happened. BOOM! Oh, my Aunt Mary Lois fought like a bobcat for her independence—and she won–pretty much. She moved out to western Montana and got a job teaching first grade—as I said, children and dogs adored her–and she married a man who smoked and drank beer, and who was much older than herself. She married him, I suspect, precisely because my grandmother did not approve of him at all.
But my Aunt was independent as a hog on ice, as my father put it. She rode motorcycles when women didn’t do that and flew airplanes when women didn’t do that, and lived her own life precisely the way that she wanted to live it, which most women didn’t do either, not back in those days. You would have liked her, beloved. She was so determined and smart and funny. She taught first grade out there in Livingston, Montana for 42 years in the same school. And I am sure that hundreds of little boys must have fallen in love with her just the way I did. They just couldn’t help it. Now I have known and loved a number strong-minded women—I married one of them—but my Aunt Mary Lois was in a class by herself when it came to tough-minded self-sufficiency.
But life goes on, beloved, and everything changes in time. Now Aunt Mary Lois is ninety-one years old, and Nature has thrown everything it had at her—she has had cancer, several heart attacks, and numerous strokes—but she is still ticking, still clothed in her right mind, and confined to a nursing home. And she is miserable. She has lost her house, her beloved dog, and worst of all she has lost her freedom. And she is also furious at the way things have turned out for her. My Cousin Kathy told me that the other day her mother is in trouble at the nursing home because she threw her walker at one of the nurses, and hit her. Oh, I forgot to tell you that Aunt Mary Lois was always very good at sports. But for her this is no laughing matter.
She is trapped, and she is putting her poor daughter through absolute hell, only and all because she just wants to be free, as she always has been, and go back to her own house and live her life as she always has, on her own. But she can’t.
Because it turns out that freedom, beloved, is a more than just a little to ask of life. It is more than life is prepared to grant. My Aunt Mary Lois has discovered the truth–that none of us is as free as she thinks she is—rather later than most. But sometimes it just takes a lifetime for us to recognize the depth of our bondage. We are accustomed, you and I, to regard liberty as our birthright, a given, something to which we are entitled. Or we think of our independence as something we fought for and got by our own strength and will, as ours by right of conquest. We take freedom for granted, as something that belongs to us, like car or a cell-phone or a wedding ring.
Then life comes along and reveals the facts of the matter—that true freedom, is a grant and not a given. It is not so much a civil right as a gift of God smeared with the blood of Jesus Christ. . . . So many people are angry and miserable because they can’t quite grasp that—especially these days when none of us are as free as we used to think we were. But the truth is beginning to dawn upon even the dimmest among us that other people, to a large degree, run our lives.
The other day I read that 158 families and corporations donate almost half of the money for the early stages of any presidential campaign. They decide who we will eventually vote for. And that’s not so surprising because they are the ones who have the money. In America today the richest one percent of our population owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. Consider that, beloved–in our lifetimes the United States of America has become a banana republic, a dictatorship of the rich.
So is it any wonder, beloved, that our system seems so unfair and that ordinary voices, like yours and mine, go unheard in the marble halls of power? And is it any wonder that ordinary people like you and me, are hopping mad. Some of us crazy mad. That anger is the source of the popularity of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, strident voices to which in earlier times no one would have paid any attention. But these days the loudest voices speak to people’s sense of helplessness and anger. They are mad because they feel that they have lost their freedom. Like my Aunt Mary Lois, they would like to pitch their walker at one of the nurses.
But before we lose our cool and start pitching walkers, you and I need to consider what freedom really is in the light of the gospel. Because I would suggest that none of us are really free, in and of ourselves–not the rich or the powerful any more than the poor and dependent. And if there is freedom to be experienced, it is gift and not a given.
So when Jesus wanted a text to sum up the reason for his coming he used those beautiful words from the writings of the prophet Isaiah—“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives. . . .” And it is worth noticing that the good news Jesus proclaimed is addressed to people who are not free. Oh, they thought they were free, just as many modern Americans do.
The Jews in Jesus time believed that because they were descended from Abraham they were of all peoples uniquely free. So they were offended when later in the Gospel of John Jesus says to them, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They got all puffed up and insulted when he said this. “We are descendants of Abraham,” they replied, “and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” (John 8:33). But those people who heard Jesus preach weren’t politically free nor were they spiritually free. They were at the mercy of powers greater than themselves, and they found their condition of bondage humiliating. It made them mad.
And there are a lot of people around us here in this country who are hopping mad because they are not free either. They are angry because they are not as young as they used to be. Because they have gone grey upstairs and have a touch of sciatica that makes them shuffle a bit. They have what I would call “age rage.” Or they are angry because they are not as wealthy as they thought they once were. So what if gas at the pump is $1.71 a gallon, and they can still afford eat out four times a week? They still feel as if they have been robbed because they have to pay taxes. And they are mad as hell with the government or the president or congress or Wall Street or big oil or the media whatever because of who and what we all are—limited.
But no one has stolen our freedom, beloved, because we are slaves to our own selves. We are limited by these bodies we inhabit–in time they wear out. In the Gospel of John, chapter 21 verse 8 the risen Lord says to Peter, “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and go where ever you wished. But when you grow old, someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go” (21:18). And that happens to us all, if we live long enough, someone else will fasten our belts and take us somewhere where we do not want to go—like Aunt Mary Lois.
We are limited by the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Our lives are out of our control in so very many ways and in the indifferent hands of others. We are always waking up and finding ourselves where we never in this life expected to be–in these bodies and in these circumstances. You never know where you are going to end up and it isn’t always where you want to be–the world is filled with unhappy people who cannot reconcile themselves to that most basic of all truths. We are captives of our selves.
As Jesus said to those Jews were insulted by the mere suggestion that they might be anything less than free—“Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” Our bondage is built into our very souls; it is hard-wired into who we are–death-bound sinners. Nevertheless, Jesus of Nazareth once came to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and the risen the Lord is still setting men and women free to live a new kind of life. . . .
I want to tell you a little about someone else before we part, beloved. It is someone you have never heard of, but he has been on my mind lately. His name was Elmo Weeks, and he was the owner of a funeral home in Savannah, Georgia. Back in the bad old days when AIDS was exploding and people were deathly afraid of it, Elmo did something remarkable. He said, “Yes.” In those bad old days when fathers and mothers shunned their sons and left them to die alone because they were ashamed and local funeral homes in Savannah wouldn’t take their bodies because they were afraid of catching AIDS, Elmo Weeks always said, “Of course. I’ll come over myself.” Then he always went and he never sent a bill.
I was a pastor in Savannah for a long time and I cannot remember how many times I knew of that Fox and Weeks Funeral Home took the shunned, the destitute and homeless, the unwanted remains of those whom only Jesus loved and found them a decent place to lie. When he was asked Elmo Weeks always said, “Yes. Of course. I’ll come over myself.”
Elmo himself died the other day, but it is worth remembering him this morning, because in his own modest way he demonstrated what true freedom is. If God had left us alone with our fears we would never be able to say anything but “No,” beloved. When offered the hard choice between what is right and what is not, we would do nothing at all.
But the Spirit of the Lord, which filled Jesus in such a remarkable way, was poured out through his cross and resurrection unto the whole world. It was poured into our lives, beloved, in baptism, and the Spirit of Jesus makes it possible, when we are confronted with crying needs of a suffering world, to say “Yes.” When others harden their hearts and hide their faces, we, beloved, are able to say, “Of course”–like Elmo Weeks–and like so many others of whom you could tell me. Maybe you yourself may have said “yes” from time to time. If so, bless your heart. Bless your heart. And thank you, Jesus! I myself, don’t want anything else from life, beloved. I have everything I need. By the grace of God I have money, marbles, and chalk, as my father used to say. I certainly don’t need to tell you how to run your lives, beloved, and I doubt you would let me if I tried.
But I still have one more thing to say—not my words but those of Ahmed Fouad Negm, another person you have never heard of, an Egyptian poet who died recently and who during his life was often imprisoned because of his outspoken criticism of the Egyptian government. He wrote this—“Don’t tire your brain in the work of politics. Mind your own business with vim and vigor.” That’s good advice for us, living in these interesting times. But in the course of minding your own business with vim and vigor, recall that Jesus has also set you free. Think continually about Him. And whenever you are offered a choice whether or not to do what is loving, what is compassionate and gentle, what is difficult and painful and unpopular but right—whenever possible for Jesus’ sake say—“Yes, of course. I’ll come over myself.” And then go. . . .