Opening the Conversation

SERMON 

3rd Sunday after Epiphany 

Sunday 27 January 

Nehemiah 8: 1-3,5-6, 8-10 

Psalm 19 

1 Corinthians 12: 12-31 

Luke 4: 14-21 

Opening the Conversation ©Sue Wilton 

It is a morning of beginnings, it seems. The passage we have heard  from Luke’s Gospel is often heralded as the inauguration of Jesus’  public ministry; the moment when he is brought into the public eye  and declares his mission statement. And yet, on closer inspection, we  know from the opening to this passage that Jesus is already  renowned in the surrounding country and had been teaching in the  synagogues. But the writer of Luke is using this moment to announce  the ministry of Jesus as the dawning of a new day of justice and  liberation. This, says the author, is what it is all going to be about.  This is why Jesus has come. The slow detail of the text points to the  drama of the moment- Jesus stands up, receives the scroll, unrolls  the scroll, finds the place he wants and then proceeds to read from  the words of the prophet Isaiah; 

‘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 favour.’ 

Of course, the passage quoted isn’t word for word from the Isaiah  text we know. Luke has Jesus apparently making some notable edits.  Omitted is the reference “to the day of vengeance of our God”- a  judgemental tone very evident in John the Baptist’s preaching but  absent in Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom that has come. Like his  mother before him, Jesus recognises that his ministry will be “good news to the poor.” Luke also includes an earlier reference from  Isaiah and has Jesus proclaim that God will release the captives,  setting the scene for a ministry that has at its heart, freedom from  bondage of all forms- demonic, economic, social and political.  

This articulation of the core of Jesus’ ministry sits rather  uncomfortably with some presentations of what the Gospel is all  about- particularly in modern Western Christianity. Jesus says nothing here about his mission being coming to earth to die for our  sins so that we can go to heaven. If we want an individualistic  religion that is our own private ticket to the afterlife, we need to find  a different kind of saviour. The Jesus who comes proclaiming  freedom not just from our personal sins but from all systems that  oppress and keep human society enslaved in poverty and violence is  not the kind of Messiah many people seek. Apparently, when they  heard it, the good people of Nazareth also decided Jesus was not  their kind of Saviour, since after the conversation that follows, they  seek to drive Jesus off a cliff.  

Some conversations are terribly difficult and confronting. Jesus  reading from the Isaiah scroll is just the beginning. The main act  actually happens when he sits down to talk. The reading paints a big  picture of the kingdom Jesus is inaugurating, and then what follows  grounds the conversation in the lives of the born and bred  Nazarenes. This, of course, is when it gets tricky. Anyone can inspire  others with the big picture, but to lead a movement that involves  real change in the particular and the local- that is something  different entirely, and cannot be achieved by avoiding difficult  conversations. If Jesus had confined his teaching to inspirational  slogans about peace on earth and hadn’t challenged the systems and  powers that were keeping people poor and oppressed, he would not  have ended up on a cross. Once the conversation really gets going,  the Nazarenes were offended that their hometown boy Jesus could  begin challenging the exclusivity of their personal claims to be  children of God. When the year of the Lord’s favour means setting everyone free from what binds them, this new Messiah apparently is no longer saying what they want to hear. 

The challenge for us all sitting and receiving these words in a  different place, thousands of years later, is to allow the scandalous  particularity of the Gospel to speak to the systems of violence and  oppression which hold us captive in 21st century Australia. Who are  the poor who need the good news? What is holding people captive?  Who are the oppressed who need our voices and our actions joined  with their own if they are to be set free? How could this year, 2019,  be a year of the Lord’s favour for us all in this nation? It is easy for  the church to preach about justice and freedom in general terms, but  as soon as we start applying it to our particular situation and seek to  make a difference in our world in practical, local terms, then what is  good news to some becomes inevitably repellent to others.  

Australia Day, as we know, is not a day of celebration for all. Sometimes, opening the conversation can be the hardest thing in the  world to do, but we are called into the ministry of being co-creators  of God’s kingdom- which means being truth speakers, life givers,  peace-seekers and liberators of all who struggle under the weight of  oppression. Being co-creators of God’s kingdom also means we  celebrate with joy and gratitude all that we have in this nation where  so many people have worked hard for the common good; indigenous  and non-indigenous, people who have been born in this land and  those who have come from the far reaches of the globe. But  celebrating does not mean we edit our history to make it fit a more  pleasing narrative. The church who follows the liberating Jesus of the Gospels has a leading role to play in Australian society to open  conversations that set people free to tell the truth and own our  history. The church who truly believes that we are all part of one  body, and that if one member suffers we all suffer with it- that  church has a role to play in reminding our country of the over 300  nations of peoples whose home and country this was over a 65  thousand year history. Listening to one another and telling the truth about our history- including the violence of colonial history- is vital if  there is to be healing and maturing into one people together. Where  one member hurts, we all hurt. Where one member is silenced, we  all lose our voice. We desperately need the gifts of all the parts of  the body if we are to walk together.  

So how do we open conversations that lead us further down a  pathway to liberation? The answer lies of course in what St Paul  describes in his letter to the Corinthians as ‘a still more excellent  way.’ We need to embrace all the social and political implications of  the Gospel of Jesus, but if we do it without love, we are no more  than a noisy and disruptive gong or irritatingly clanging cymbal. We  are called not to be activists for activism’s sake, but lovers working  for a vision of unity and peace. But we cannot just be so “nice” that  our presence in the world makes not even a ripple. Gandhi once  wrote that love is not merely a negative state of harmlessness… “but  a positive state of doing good to the wrongdoer, while refusing to  cooperate with the wrong.” Martin Luther King wrote, “When I speak  of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I  am speaking of that force which all the great religions have seen as  the supreme, unifying principle of life.” What would it look like if, as  followers of Christ in this country at this time, we could deepen our  own experience of love and be agents of this kind of unifying power?  Could we love enough that we would hold space for one another,  including all the voices who disagree with us? Could we so honour all  the parts of the body that there would always be a place of dignity at  the table for all, and always enough to go around? And maybe  around the table, we will be courageous enough- and tender  enough- to listen to the truth, even in the most difficult of  conversations. 

+Amen.

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