Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"
(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)
Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.
Dear Working Preacher,
While our lives are full of words, some matter more than others. The words we used to invite someone on a first date, for instance, rather than the other dates since. The words we used to apologize as opposed to the words we used to hurt. The words we use to say goodbye to a loved one for the last time in contrast with the thousand other goodbyes we said.
In this week’s Gospel reading, we are treated to those kinds of words. Not last words, but first – at least the first Luke records of Jesus. Which makes this scene very important to understanding who Jesus is and what he is up to. In a sense, this is Jesus’ inaugural address, and having only recently heard President Obama’s address (or at least portions of it on the news), our people may find this sense of an inaugural address a helpful entrance into the significance of this week’s reading.
Inaugural addresses are important. President Obama just used his to announce the priorities of his second term. But of course it’s more than priorities, it’s also a vision, a vision for what this country can and should be. A century and a half earlier, President Abraham Lincoln used his second inaugural address to do something no President had ever done before – speak in critical terms of the nation – in order to name the evil of slavery, the toll it had exacted in human flesh and warfare, and the need to stay the course and resolve both the war and its cause.
So what kind of vision do we hear in Jesus’ address? It is an announcement of his mission. It is a description of the kingdom of God. It is a promise of God’s aid and presence. And all of this and more is summarized by the words good news: “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.”
What is striking, if you listen closely, is that this good news is only good if you are willing to admit what is hard in your life, what is lacking, what has been most difficult. It is not “good news” in general, but rather good news for the poor. It is not just release, but release to those who are captive, sight to those who are blind, freedom to those who are oppressed.
Do you see what I mean? God offers words of comfort, but such words only mean something to those living with discomfort.
How do you think we hear those words today? We spend so much time acting as if we have it all together. We spend so much money trying to look better, get fitter, appear younger. There is so much pressure on us externally from the culture at large and internally from ourselves to not need anything or anyone that it makes you wonder if Jesus’ message has any value or can find any purchase among today’s listeners.
Except for one thing: the stories we tell ourselves about being perfect, the commercials we pay attention to telling us that we really can have it all, the ads that promise us that if we just purchase this product we’ll never feel insecure again – these are all false. And deep down we know it.
So while Jesus’ message is good news, in order for us to hear it that way it must first strike us as bad news, the bad news that that we are not who we want to be, can be, and should be…and we never will be. Jesus comes bringing good news to those in need, and those who don’t see and admit their need want nothing to do with him.
But when we can admit that need, when we can be honest about our deep hurts, fears, and longings, three things happen. First, we feel an immense freedom simply from admitting the truth. Bad news – when it’s true – is still better than a pretty lie. Second, we can receive the help and comfort that God offers – release, sight, healing, freedom, and more. Third, we realize we don’t simply receive help and comfort, but we are also invited to offer it to others. We are invited, that is, not just to hear and receive good news, but to be it.
This, in a sense, is what the Body of Christ and community of faith is – God’s hands delivering the promise of good news to all who come in need. Afraid? We may ask those around us. Come here to find courage. Lonely? Come join our community. Ill? Come here – or better, let us come to you – to care for you. Isolated? We will visit you. Discouraged? Let us gather together and encourage one another.
This looks and feels a little different in each and every community, as we are placed in different context and invited to respond to different needs. But the call to be the Body of Christ – to be, that is, good news to those around us – is the same.
So perhaps this week, Working Preacher, after inviting us to hear Jesus’ inaugural address, perhaps it would be good to invite some conversation about how we hear Jesus’ words addressing us, calling us, inviting us to be the Body of Christ living out and extending God’s good news to all those we meet.
This might be an actual conversation, where folks speak with those around them about their dreams for the congregation. Or it might be that you ask folks to write down one dream or hope for the congregation this year and one way they can help make that dream a reality. Or maybe it’s just the start of a conversation that you’ll continue via social media. However you do it, Working Preacher, it seems like a good time for us not only to hear God’s word, but to share our own. Because words matter, and those we say to each other on this day could be very important.
Then, if you will, just one more suggestion. After we have heard God’s word and shared our own, let us also say together those words that reminds us that God comes for not for the perfect but the imperfect, not for the healthy but for the ill, not for the righteous but unrighteous, not for the strong but for the weak. God comes, that is, for us. So perhaps a time of corporate confession and absolution using the words of your particular tradition would orient your people to the good news of the God who comes to those in need as well as give them strength and energy to live into the dreams just articulated in response to Jesus' promise.
However you approach this week’s sermon, Working Preacher, know that I believe the words you craft and speak are among the most important your people will hear all week. Thank you – bless you – for offering them.
Yours in Christ,