I was 24 years old, and I’d spent the past 7 years of my life studying religion, the Bible, and spirituality, and I graduated for the third time in my life and I had no idea what was going to become of me. I had recently, finally begun the process of becoming a pastor but later than usual, so now I had to wait. I started looking for a job and could not find one. I mean, I contacted Starbucks and they didn’t call me back — (thanks, guys, like I don’t give you business).
Through a professor I ended up hearing about a position in a church that seemed to match some of my passions. I applied for it, and by the grace of God and some folks who saw potential in me, I got the job. My first ‘professional’ job. It was a director/missions position and I moved in to a place that I quickly realized resembled a book I was reading at the time — ‘The Help.’ I seem to have traveled back in time into pre-Civil Rights. This community is the only predominantly African-American county in Florida and at the same time segregated (by schools and funeral homes, etc), either really rich or underresourced and poverty stricken… A less than 50% graduation rate, poor literacy, and so on…
So, I moved by myself to the ‘ghtetto’, got a big dog like they told me, an alarm system, etc. My Mom’s prayer life increased exponentially, and I was genuinely excited to work on these ministries that had begun there — A neat after school program, English classes for non-English speakers, and the opportunity to get to know some beautiful people.
The couple years I was there God taught me many things. I learned things about how the world works, about suffering, isolation, community, and justice. I learned things about myself, but more than anything, I think God was showing me things about God-self. God is in the places where people avoid. God is to be found where there is seemingly little light.
In the cycles of poverty and violence and oppression that I witnessed I began to ask where hope was? Where justice was? Where the kingdom that we Christians hear about was? And as a minister, what I possibly could say that really meant something — not just nice words or just talk about heaven — but that actually changed someone’s life.
That brought me to the Gospel of Luke. All the gospels have their own ‘flavor’ so to speak — they are written for certain audiences for certain purposes and thus sometimes address different things. I resonate with Luke as a champion for the outsider. One of my favorite scripture passages is Luke 4:16-21:
Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been raised. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue as he normally did and stood up to read. The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”
Prior to the part to this passage, Jesus is born in a meager situation – one that allowed for shepherds to visit. He begins to grow and finds himself studying in the temple. He is baptized and then spends some time of preparation in the wilderness.
Jesus then went home to Nazareth. As his family’s habit he went to the synagogue to worship. There they repeated the Shema (found in Deut and Numbers), the central verse of Judaism, pledging allegiance to one God. Then they prayed, heard a passage read from the Torah, then a passage from the prophets, a sermon, and a final priestly blessing. Jesus was given the honor of rearing the scroll and then preaching. He read two verses from Isaiah 61.
The words Jesus read in the synagogue in Nazareth when he announced the beginning of his ministry are incredibly meaningful and reflective of his mission. He identified himself as the “Servant of the Lord,” prophesied by Isaiah, who would “bring justice” to the world (Isaiah 42:1-7). “Most people know that Jesus came to bring forgiveness and grace [and he did!]. Less well known is the Biblical teaching that a true experience of the grace of Jesus Christ inevitably motivates a man or woman to seek justice in the world” (Tim Keller, ‘Generous Justice’). How much more radical can you get than mentioning the year of the Lord, jubilee, in your opening statements!
Now, I will confess that I still have moments where I feel hopeless. Where I indulge in pity parties. Where I wonder what this ‘fulfilled in your hearing’ business means. I still see injustice, suffering, and oppression — I can think that the powers have won, and feel despair. But I find that this is why we are a people of hope… and a people of action.
The ‘fulfilled’ tense is one that is currently happening and continues to happen. I worked on my Board of Ordained Ministry paperwork while living in this community, and one of the questions was related to the kingdom of God. While reflecting on where the kingdom of God is breaking through I discovered it was often in the little things. In the midst of what seemed like a hopeless environment in seeing the big smiles of children. In telling kids who rarely if ever hear words of love in their homes, “I love you, no matter what.” In making chili; in giving out candy; in living in the midst of it all.
I read the Bible and I’m overwhelmed with the amount of Biblical material that expresses concern for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the alien. Jesus didn’t come in power and using all the glory and authority of God, he came lowly and without a place to rest his head. He didn’t show off his knowledge and stick to the synagogue alone, and built up his spiritual life for himself. He was continuously with people. He healed the sick. He liberated those who were oppressed by spirits. He was criticized for hanging out with the wrong crowds. In the same way we who go to church, and have Bibles (and maybe even read them), who know about a life of prayer and can talk about spirituality and grow in that way — but unless we use all of those things that build us up as individuals to build up the church and to love the unlovable, to speak up for those who don’t have a voice and to change our lives, we are not really following Jesus and walking where he is… we are posing.
“We must move beyond an anemic view of our faith as something only personal and private, with no public dimension, and instead see it as the source of power that can change the world. ”
-Richard Stearns, ‘the Hole in Our Gospel’
How do we as the church follow Jesus this way? How do we as individuals do this? God does not ask us to give things we do not have or cannot give, but God can’t use what we don’t offer to be used.
Prayer: God, thank you for the incarnation – for being a God who comes down and lives with us and doesn’t simply ask of us things from on high. Thank you for being with us still, through your Spirit — you never leave us alone. Thank you for continuing to call us deeper — beyond ourselves. Fill us with your love. Fill us with your compassion and with passion. Change our worlds again, and help us be agents of change, for the growing of your kingdom. Amen.