This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Life Always Finds a Way.

Ezekiel 37:1-14

            The prophet Ezekiel is in exile with the people of Israel.  As we can imagine, they are a broken nation.  Their Temple and capital city have been destroyed.  Thousands of their people have been slaughtered, including many of their children killed before their eyes.  The priesthood and the nobility have been decimated.  Anybody left who had any wealth, education, or power has been force-marched over the desert about a thousand miles to Babylon, where they live in a ghetto and serve their masters.

              It sure looked like the end of their religion and nation.  It sure looked like their God was a false one, or was dead.  It sure looked like the smart-money would be casting their lot with the victorious Babylonians, abandoning the old religion about the Lord who brought them up out of the land of Egypt.  The pressure to do so was immense and sometimes subtle.  If you wanted to get ahead in life, the only way was to cooperate with, or actually capitulate to, the empire.  We see some of that happening in the Book of Daniel, like when the smartest Jewish boys were taken away and sent to the emperor’s special school for their education/indoctrination.

            Every empire has done this kind of thing.  We treated the Native Americans the same way.  We marched them away from their homelands to reservations in the deserts of the west.  Even into the last century we took their children away from their families and forced them into special schools where their language and culture could be literally beaten out of them.

            It’s called genocide.  It doesn’t always involve death-camps and mass murder, like with the Nazis or in Rwanda.  It can involve forced deportation.  Or it can involve more subtle pressures, like only allowing you to have an education or a job or a say in the decisions affecting your own life if you renounce your faith and your people.

            Most of us have never known anything remotely close to the despair and brokenness that you feel when your people is subject to this kind of assault from far more powerful forces.  Soldiers are not likely to show up here, kill many of us, and force some of the rest to walk to Mexico.  That’s not going to happen.
            So it can be hard for us to relate to staring your cultural death in the face, which is what the Jews in Babylon had to deal with.  Extinction.  Annihilation.  Wall-to-wall death of everything you have ever known, loved, or believed in.  Absolute vulnerability.
            Ezekiel understands why all this happened.  The people of God had failed to keep God’s laws which were designed to prevent them falling into injustice and violence.  When they chose to give power to kings, priests, and successful merchants, who proceeded to hammer the poor and the needy, they were choosing to suffer the inevitable consequences.  The more they wandered off to worship the god of economic growth, whose name was Baal, the more they brought down on themselves the destructive result of such a regime.  God hates that stuff. 


            So after the dust has settled and the people are installed in their new ghetto in Babylon, Ezekiel has a vision.  And the vision he sees is of a broad valley, the kind of valley where significant battles were fought between large armies.  Whatever battle has happened there is now over.  In fact it had to have been a few years before, because the valley was paved with the dried up bones of the dead.  Birds and other scavengers have removed even the flesh from the bones.  It is a wasteland of death.
          And the Lord asks Ezekiel this rhetorical question.  “Can these bones live?”  The obvious answer is, “Of course not.  These bones aren’t even connected to each other anymore.  Nothing this dead can ever come back to life.”  But Ezekiel knows whom he is speaking to.  He knows that the Lord is the Lord of life.  So he responds, “That’s up to you, O Lord.”

            And God commands him to prophesy, which is to speak, to the bones.  “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.  Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.  I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

            And when Ezekiel speaks, there is a clattering across the whole valley as the bones reconnect.  So the first thing that happens, when death is transformed into life, is a reconnection.  An arbitrary, random mess of disconnected bones has first to reattach with each other in order.  Each bone does not spring back to life by itself.  The bones are reanimated together, as bodies and as a community.

            God does not give Ezekiel this vision merely for his own entertainment.  This is not a divine magic show the sole point of which is for God to show off.  No.  Ezekiel’s vision is a message for his shattered community, the Jews in exile.  The valley of dry bones represents them, the defeated, practically annihilated nation.  God cares about the living.  And when God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, God means go back and prophesy to the broken Jewish people.
            And the first result of such a prophecy has to be reconnection.  The people have to get organized.  They have to resume relating to each other and meeting together.  The scattered bones have to find partners and start working together again.  If they remained a collection of isolated individuals, they would be easy for their Babylonian masters to defeat, one at a time.  But if they reconnected and got together and organized – formed a living organism – then they would start feeling God’s life at work in them again.


            So Ezekiel sees that “the bones came together, bone to its bone.”  And once the bones come together, then flesh starts to materialize on them.  Coming together starts generating a community, with hopes and dreams and conversations and arguments and conflicts and growth and purpose.  When the bones connect the superstructure of a community grows on them, and they become integrated, whole bodies.  They start to have an identity.  They start doing things together.  They become a congregation.

            But they’re still dead.  In the vision, the valley is now filled with what looks not just like bones, but like dead bodies.  Something else is needed for these bones to truly come alive.  They need to breathe.

            So God says to the prophet: “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”  Ezekiel does this.  He preaches to the breath.  And remember that “breath,” “wind,” and “spirit” are all the same word in Hebrew, “ruach.”  A body that isn’t breathing is still dead.  The community of Jewish exiles are also not yet alive until they are animated by the Holy Spirit.
            And when he prophesies to the bodies, I imagine a sudden collective intake of breath.  And hearts start beating, and blood starts flowing, and muscles get energy, and brains awaken, and this whole mass of bodies starts moving and stands up together. “And they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”
            They rose up.  Reconnecting is important.  But it’s not enough.  Organizing and engaging in conversation is important.  But it’s not enough.  Growing and becoming embodied is important.  But it is not enough.  When we receive the Spirit it means we are empowered to rise up.  Rising up means no longer accepting being kept down, held down, oppressed, repressed, suppressed by your conquerors.  That is what the Spirit gives us.
            The Jewish exiles did not, so far as we know, rise up in violent revolution.  That would have been hopeless and counterproductive.  But they did rise up in their own integrity and start to make something of this situation together.  They got busy.  Much of the Old Testament was compiled, written down, edited, and published in Babylon.  Much of what over 500 years later Jesus would know as Judaism was developed and institutionalized in Babylon by the exiles.  The whole thing about this being a Scripture- and synagogue-based faith, was developed in Babylon.
            Because of the encouragement and inspiration the people received from the prophets in Babylon, the people were able to focus on God’s promise again.  They remember that this is the God who brought them up out of the land of Egypt, and slavery.  If God could do that, then delivering them from Babylon should not be too much trouble.  In fact, it would be perfectly within the pattern of what they can expect from this God.
            When the people wallow in self-pity and moan in despair, saying: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely,” God has Ezekiel proclaim to them: “Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.  And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.  I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”
            Life is God’s job.  Life is the meaning of the universe God created.  No matter how bad it gets, no matter how thoroughly we choose to wed ourselves to the gods of death and fear and anger and injustice, no matter how we let inequality reign in our common life, and no matter how catastrophic the consequences in terms of the natural or political or economic or military disasters we bring down upon ourselves, we do not have the power to stop God from bring God.  We do not have the power to cause death to triumph over life.  We do not have the power to keep God’s will from being done.
            Life always finds a way.  Life always wins in the end.  Life continually triumphs, even if it suffers serious setbacks.  It is the trust that life wins that motivates the Jews in Babylon to connect and organize and start rebuilding their nation and faith, even though they had no land and no Temple and no power and no resources except their own memories.
            The Spirit that animates them is the Holy Spirit, and the message of the Holy Spirit is always resurrection.  The Spirit is about bringing life out of death.  The Spirit shows us that this is the meaning of creation itself.  Ezekiel’s vision reveals that, no matter how powerfully death seems to triumph, still it is God’s will that matters, and God’s will is for life. 
            On one level, his vision prophesies deliverance and liberation for the exiled Jews, that God will bring them back home.  On another level, his vision looks ahead to the final resurrection at the end, when the whole heaven and all the earth are renewed.  The apostle Paul sees this as well, when he says, “The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised imperishable.  And we shall all be changed.”
            Having in our hearts this knowledge, that it is God’s will that life triumph and God’s will is never thwarted, gives us freedom to obey God here and now.  Having the knowledge of the resurrection in our hearts is something that can only come from the Spirit that God has breathed into us.  This is what gave the apostles the power to move out of being a defeated, fearful group of men who had abandoned or denied their Lord, and begin to preach and gather new disciples in Jesus’ name.  They too were dry bones that came to life.
            And so are we.  In Wendell Berry’s great poem of resurrection, he says: “Be joyful / though you have considered all the facts.”  The “facts” don’t matter; it is the good news of resurrection that matters.  And that is the source of our joy, even in a time and situation where there might not be much evidence of anything joyful.
            Be joyful!  And live as if God has already won.  Live as if life has already triumphed over death.  Live as if the light has shined in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.  Live as if joy has swallowed up all sorrow.  Because that is what is true.  By informing us of the truth, God’s Spirit equips us for a new life in Jesus’ commandments.  By informing us of the truth, God’s Spirit empowers us for life, a life which is summed up by the imperative in the last two words of Berry’s poem: “Practice resurrection!”


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Stand Up! Rise Up!

Luke 13:18-21.
            Jesus makes these comments, these two little parables, immediately after he does something else.  The parables both make the same point about how the Kingdom of God has to do with something starting very small but growing to become very significant.  We’ll talk about that later.
            But first I want to talk about the situation Jesus is addressing when he tells these parables.  You’ll notice that the passage starts with the word “therefore.”  Therefore always refers to something that has happened before.  You can’t start a conversation with “therefore.”  We would be justified in being confused and asking “therefore what?”  It is very annoying to me when the lectionary passage starts with a word like “therefore,” which happens a lot.  “Therefore” means “because of this” or “in light of this,” and it makes no sense unless you know what “this” is by knowing what just happened.
            What just happened here is that Jesus has healed a woman who had some kind of osteopathic disease causing her to be bent over for 18 years.  Luke says she was crippled by a demon; indeed, later Jesus will blame Satan for her condition.  She was unable to stand up.  Her head was always down; all she could normally see were people’s feet and the ground.  If she wanted to face anyone, she would have to twist her whole back and head around and try and look up.  In this way she is cut-off from a lot of human contact.  It is a vulnerable position as well.  And, since it defied gravity, I assume it was also painful.  It also must have been hard to breathe.
            She has had this condition for 18 years.  Everybody in town knows her.  And today she has come to the synagogue.  As a woman she had to sit or stand in the back with the other women.  We don’t know, neither can we conjecture, much else about her.
            Jesus, standing in the bema, which is a raised platform with a desk on it for unrolling and reading the scrolls of the Torah and Havtarah, must have looked up.  Somehow he sees her, even though she is bent over and therefore shorter than everyone else.  And he interrupts his sermon or reading and calls her over.
            This seems simple enough, but synagogues were divided between the women’s section in the back and the men’s section in the front.  If the woman were to approach Jesus as he instructs her to do, she would have to basically go through the men’s section.  Unless Jesus goes back to the women’s section to meet her. 
            He says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”  Then he puts his hands on her and helps her to stand up straight, for the first time in 18 years.  For a man to touch a woman to whom he was not related was not generally permitted.  For him to do so in a synagogue on the Sabbath could have been scandalous.


            Now, almost every synagogue seems to have had an obligatory sour-puss rule-Nazi.  Many churches do too, as surprising as that might be… present company excepted, of course….   And the leader of this one immediately starts chastising the woman.  “Jesus was here yesterday and could have healed you then.  He’ll still be here tomorrow and you could have come then.  You should not come to the synagogue for medical treatment on the Sabbath.  What were you thinking?  You’re just trying to draw attention to yourself.”
            She doesn’t answer.  Jesus answers.  “You hypocrites!”  he says.  This means there were probably other people complaining as well. “Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?  And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”
            Jesus says that the Sabbath is supposed to be about freedom.  It’s about being set free.  It’s one of those laws God gave their people to help them realize their liberation from slavery in Egypt.  It’s not supposed to be a time you are obligated to sit down and shut up!
            Jewish tradition agrees with Jesus.  This is not some radical new teaching.  Healing on the Sabbath was never considered prohibited work by any respectable rabbi I ever heard of, going back to before Jesus.  Sabbath is about release, being set free, liberation, and if you don’t get that, you don’t get Judaism.  Sabbath is not supposed to be a drag or an oppressive institution.  Even animals and slaves and foreigners were given a Sabbath. 
            So he calls them hypocrites.  Their animals – who were worth money – can have Sabbath, but not this daughter of Abraham.  The Sabbath is a day to witness to God’s victory over Pharaoh, and by extension over Satan himself.  It is leaving someone in bondage on the Sabbath that would be the great sin.  That is Jesus’ sermon for the day right there. 
            His opponents were put to shame.  But the people rejoiced.  His opponents were the ones in charge, the rulers, the “clergy,” the estabishment, the maintainers of the religious institutions.  But it is the people, the ones the rulers lord it over, who get it.
            Then, after this reaction, Jesus says, “Therefore,” and proceeds to tell these two brief parables: the mustard seed and the leaven.  The parables are supposed to illustrate and augment what he has just done.  The small things that become large somehow reflect and interpret what he has just done for the bent-over woman. 


            Both the authorities and the people understand very clearly what is going on here.  Jesus makes people stand up straight.  He even makes a woman stand up straight.  Those who are profiting from people being bent over in abject labor, bowing to this or that ruler who threatens them with violence, have reason to be concerned.  If people start standing up for themselves, this whole regime comes crashing down. That’s why those who had turned the Sabbath into a means of controlling people had to find something to criticize in Jesus’ action. 
            I mean, what if everyone started standing up straight?  What if they stopped doing what the authorities tell them?  What if they refused to pay the taxes, and the interest rates, and the prices, and the fees that keep this system going?  What if they refused to stay bent over in hard labor so the rulers can continue to live in the style to which they have become accustomed?  What if it’s not just about this woman?  What if it’s about all of the people, starting at the bottom with the most broken, most rejected, most alienated, most impoverished and exhausted?  What if it’s about them standing up straight?  Then there would be a serious problem!
            Jesus seems to say, “What you have seen today may be insignificant.  One person, a woman, gets healed.  It will be the talk of the village for a week or two.  You’ll congratulate this woman for a while.  But will you then let this memory fade?  Will you fall back into your normal routines and relationships?  You’ll get used to having among you another woman who can stand up straight.  But will you realize that it’s not just about her?  That it’s about getting everyone, all of you, to stand up straight?”
            “But I am telling you that this is not the end.  This is the beginning!  Therefore… what is the Kingdom of God like?  And to what should I compare it?  It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”
            “This woman is like that mustard seed.  You can imagine that it’s just about her, and leave it at that.  A miracle; praise God!  Or you can open your minds and realize that she is just the small harbinger of great things to come.  What happened to her has to do with all of us.  The Kingdom of God is where we all stand up straight.  We are intended to be this vertical connection between God and creation.  We are the last creature God made and just about the only one that stands up straight.”
            “To what should I compare the Kingdom of God?  It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
            “This is not supposed to be an isolated event that happened to one woman alone.  The good news of this liberation has to permeate through our whole society and even the whole world.  Just like I called her to stand up straight, so the whole loaf of leavened bread rises up and even overflows the baking pan.”


              Jesus is saying that it’s not about just what happened to her anymore.  It’s about what happens to you.  It’s about what you are going to do.  It’s about what seeds you are going to plant, and in what ways you are going to serve as leaven in lifting up your world.  How are you going to do the small thing that becomes something huge?  How are you going to stand up straight?  How are you going to rise up?  How are you going to help other people do the same?
            Jesus isn’t asking us to do great things.  He is asking us to do small things, that he will transform into great things.  Be the good news for one person today, or even this week.  Plant the seed of God’s love for the world in one soul.  Let one heart be touched by the leaven of your love.  God will do the rest.  God will raise up an unusually strong community.  That love will eventually, through kneading and heat, and rest, permeate and infiltrate and infuse through the whole world.
            But you have to start with the small thing.  You have to start with the act of kindness and comfort, healing and generosity, blessing and touching, that brings the good news of the Kingdom into someone’s life. 
            A seed, Jesus says elsewhere, has to die before it can sprout and grow into something newer and greater.  The seed that seeks to preserve itself intact will eventually rot and return to the soil.  The people who don’t want to change or be changed, who are content to leave the gospel message inside the shell of their own buildings, will not participate in the spreading of the good news of the Kingdom.
            The same is true for the leaven that stays in the jar or the package.  Unless it is mixed in with the rest of the dough… that is, unless a disciple is integrated into the world, nothing will happen.  By itself a spoonful of leaven is fairly useless.  When the bread comes out of the oven you can’t even find the leaven anymore.  All you see and smell and taste is its benign influence.  The seed and the leaven disappear. 
            In two weeks we are going to be doing our “Be-the-Church” Sunday.  We are going to invest our Sunday morning time in reaching out in mission to three places in our community.  We are going to be planting some seeds and mixing in some leaven.  We are going to be preaching the good news by our actions, as well as our words.
            We are going to be doing some small and seemingly insignificant things.  But because they witness to the liberating power of Jesus Christ, because they invite people to stand up straight, these small actions will have large effects. 


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Cleese Does Screwtape.

Here's a link to the complete audiobook (now apparently out of print) of John Cleese reading C. S. Lewis' "The Screwtape Letters."  Very cool.

Release to the Captives.

Luke 4:14-21
            When Jesus goes back to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, he chooses to preach on a passage, or several passages, from the prophet Isaiah.  It becomes the inauguration of his whole ministry, in Luke.  Here he is announcing to the people the shape of what he was sent to the Earth to do.  It is Jesus’ mission statement.
            We see precisely these things then embodied in his on-going ministry.  The fact that he does these things is a validation of his being the promised Messiah.  These are the kinds of things the Messiah was supposed to do.
            I also think that, as his disciples, they are also supposed to characterize our own ministry.  We are called to do the same work that Jesus does.  He sends us out into the world with the same mission.  By his Word and Spirit he anoints us, he equips us, he empowers us, to continue his work.  This is what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
            The first thing in Isaiah’s list is bringing good news to the poor.  The good news that Jesus brings to the poor in his ministry is that they are no longer poor.  Not only does he favor a redistribution of wealth, as when he instructs people with wealth to sell it all and give the proceeds to those in need, but he inspires communities of sharing in which no one has any need that is not met by the resources of the whole group.
            Jesus does not say that the way to help the poor is to give money to the rich, who will supposedly create jobs and grow the economy.  Jesus knows this to be a self-serving mythology that wealthy people perpetuate in order to make themselves wealthier.  Neither does he have his disciples spend on social programs that help people only indirectly.  No.  With Jesus it is very simple.  If someone is in need you address the need to the best of your ability.  “Give to whomever asks of something from you,” is how he rather bluntly puts it elsewhere. 
            He doesn’t fret over whether he is instilling “personal responsibility” in people or not.  He is only concerned about instilling personal responsibility for other people.  He doesn’t seem to be at all concerned about rewarding laziness, or any of the other paternalistic rationalizations we like to weave around this issue.  For Jesus, if somebody needs food, you feed them.  If they need clothing or shelter, you provide those.  If they need health care, once again, you give people what they need.
            And I don’t think he’s talking just about economic poverty.  But we also find many who are impoverished educationally, emotionally, relationally, intellectually....  Wherever there is a lack of something we need to live happy, healthy, productive, and good lives, that’s what Jesus would have us do our best to provide for anyone who needs it.  Jesus is about wholeness. 

            The second thing characterizing Jesus’ mission is his proclamation of “release to captives.”  In his ministry, Jesus is not reported to have actually broken anybody out of jail.  The prisons from which Jesus sets people free from have to do with the captivities of disease, sinfulness, exclusion from the community, and hopelessness. 
            Captives are not necessarily the most popular people to minister or proclaim release to.  Whether you are held in bondage to a chemical addiction, or actually, physically languishing in jail or prison, people often tend to imagine that this is something you brought on yourself by your bad behavior or moral failings.  So we have ample excuses to ignore these folks.  And we do.  Raising money for agencies that provide services to prisoners or addicts is about the most difficult of all fund-raising tasks.
            It is interesting that Luke uses the same word here, “release,” that is elsewhere translated “forgive.”  Forgiveness is a setting free from a type of bondage, a liberation, a letting-go of someone from punishment.  To forgive is to release the anger, resentment, desire for retribution that you are holding onto about a person who has harmed you.  Forgiveness means releasing someone from punishment, even if deserved.
            Jesus calls on his disciples to be forgiving – that is, freeing, liberating, releasing – people.  We are to be a community that sets people free from whatever is binding them and enslaving them.  And often it is the community itself, in the way it welcomes, accepts, and includes people, that makes this liberation happen.  Most of the things that enslave us we cannot escape from on our own.
            I do feel led to add, at this point, that one of the greatest and most hidden scandals in our country is the absurdly and tragically high rate of incarceration.  A higher percentage of Americans is in jail or prison than any other country on earth.  It is higher here than in China, or Russia, or any brutal dictatorship.  It is higher here than in North Korea or Cuba.  And it has risen dramatically in the past 20 years.  This is probably our greatest civil rights problem today, and it is rarely talked about.  An overwhelming majority of prisoners in America are non-white.  And it is a corrupt and devilish system propped up by both a for-profit private prison industry and powerful corrections officer unions.  This is a major evil in our society which undermines our effectiveness in witnessing against human rights abuses in other countries.  Working on this would be a very good thing for followers of Jesus to do.

            Jesus also knows himself to be empowered to bring “recovery of sight to the blind.”  Jesus in his ministry heals several cases of blindness, and we are called to engage in ministries that bring sight to people.
            At the same time, the church is also called to address the more pervasive moral and spiritual blindness we encounter around us.  People who refuse to see the truth because they are blinded by various ideological, political, or economic assumptions.  Fear and anger are great blinders of people, preventing us from seeing our neighbors as they are, and instead turning them into something we can more easily hate, reject, and even kill.
            Jesus repeatedly lamented the moral blindness of his opponents, who claimed to be able to see better than anyone, but who really failed to see what was most important.  People find it very difficult to see what they don’t want to see.  When our loyalties and commitments are challenged, we don’t want to know about it.  We are often blind to the evil in ourselves, and blind to the good in others.
            Or we can be blind to the truth about ourselves, like the anorexic young woman I used to know who would look in the mirror and see a fat person, even though at the time she weighed less than 90 pounds.
            Jesus comes to connect people with a vision of the truth, which is God’s love for the whole world.  When we see the world as a place of scarcity and violence, we are not seeing the truth… but we are at the same time creating a false world where scarcity and violence reign.
            The truth about each person is that they are a beautiful, miraculous, cherished, valuable, and blessed child of God.  That is the truth we need to communicate and help people to see about themselves and others.
            We are oppressed by our negative and false vision.  We think we see a world divided into enemy camps, a world of competition and jealousy, a world of fear and hatred and anger and violence.  The tragedy is that when that’s the world we see, that is the world we create.  When that is the lens through which we perceive reality, it determines our actions, and our actions project and maintain the world that we and others live in.  If we think we live in hell, we will act like we live in hell, and then we will actually live in the hell our actions have generated.
            So we who follow Jesus have to help people see the truth, and to do that we have to become the truth by enacting and embodying a community where this blessing and goodness and forgiveness and love is made real.  We see Jesus, who is God’s love for the world revealed in all its fullness. 

            When Jesus proclaims the next part of his mission, which is to “let the oppressed go free,” he seems to be repeating himself about the captives… and he is.  All these are basically restatements of the same chronic condition that affects humanity, as exemplified in those who suffer under them physically.  To be poor, to be captive, to be blind, to be oppressed… these are all symptoms and manifestations of the same disease, which is sin, the state of being cut off from God and from others.
            Cut-off from reality, we collapse and implode into our own little, false, but somehow comfortable, worlds, worlds of our own making, worlds that are really hermetically sealed little boxes allowing us to wallow in delusion.
            Finally, Jesus summarizes his mission as “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  This is something that also had an inward and an outward manifestation.  Preaching the Lord’s favor means proclaiming and living in the world as God made it, in love, justice, peace, sharing, healing, forgiveness, and blessing.  It means announcing through word and deed that God is love, and in him is no darkness at all.  It means creating together a community where this actually happens in the way people interact together.  It means addressing the poverty, blindness, bondage, and oppression of people both on the level of our spirits and our physical circumstances.
            At the same time, there is nearly universal agreement among scholars that what Jesus and Isaiah are referring to when they talk about “proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor” is the Jubilee Year from Leviticus 25.  The Jubilee Year was supposed to happen every 50 years or so… but it probably never actually happened, which is part of Jesus’ point.
            The main characteristics of the Jubilee Year were the cancellation of all debts, and the reversion of all real estate to its original Israelite families.  The Jubilee Year basically hits the “reset” button on the economy.  And the point of it was to prevent the unequal distribution of wealth that happens when you leave people to do as they please.  God’s intention was that every 50 years all debts, all mortgages, all loans… were simply nullified.  It was bad news for bankers and creditors; but it was very good news for debtors, and those who had lost wealth in the previous half-century.
            The idea that it is integral and essential to Jesus’ mission that he came to proclaim wall-to-wall debt relief, is not something we hear about very often.  And yet that is the case.  Jesus knows that debt is one of the most unjust and pervasive manifestations of bondage, oppression, poverty, and even blindness, that can corrode the heart of a whole society. 

            Jesus’ message is about release.  He uses the word twice in this short passage.  It is about freedom.  It is about real freedom, not the counterfeit “freedom” that the wealthy and powerful preach to justify their oppression of others.  Neither does he advocate the kind of false “freedom” by which people supposedly choose to remain in bondage and captivity.  An addict isn’t free.  Neither is a debtor.
            But for Jesus, freedom and release had to do with being in resonance with the truth of God’s infinite love for the world.  We are only free when we are operating according to God’s Word and Spirit, which are the foundations of all creation and reality.
            On May 20, we are going to go out and spread some of the freedom.  We are going to bring some of that release to people in need.  We are going to defeat a little bit of people’s bondage, whether it be the bondage of loneliness or poverty or the bondage of simply having a body that doesn’t work as well as it used to.  We are going to be emissaries of God’s freedom, Gods release, God’s liberation in some small but important ways.
            I hope you will all find a way to join us.