“His Mission, Our Mission”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
January 27, 2018: Epiphany 3
In the spring of 1974 Fallston General Hospital opened not far from where my parents would begin our family less than a decade later. The hospital opened with great fanfare and one of the first people to walk through the doors on opening day was my grandmother, Edith. She was there to register as a volunteer. For a few hours each week Grandma donned her pink and white stripped smock and filled patient’s water pitchers, pushed patients to X-ray or therapy, and delivered meals. When I was old enough to start volunteering during summer break, Grandma led my orientation and introduced me to all of the doctors and nurses. I would often volunteer with Grandma and it was in those special moments that I saw her at her best. She was energetic and efficient, with a dry sense of humor that would make even the unhappiest patient laugh. She was compassionate and generous, often bringing a lot of light into some very impossible situations.
In 2000 Fallston General Hospital closed its doors to make way for the $63 million Upper Chesapeake Medical Center. Grandma was 76 and it would have been a reasonable time for her to start slowing down. Did she? No. When Upper Chesapeake Medical Center opens its doors, Grandma was among the first people through them. As she had done for almost three decades before, Grandma donned her now maroon smock and pushed patients to exams and procedures, made sure everyone had the meal they requested, and she sat with women in the cancer center to keep them company as they anxiously waited for mammograms or chemotherapy treatment. She told me once that in this newer, bigger facility it was not uncommon for her to walk a few miles each shift taking patients from one end of the hospital to the other. The last day Grandma volunteered at Upper Chesapeake was in April of 2018, and when she clocked out for the day she became the second-longest serving volunteer in the hospital’s history. She served as a volunteer for 44 years, nearly half of her life, and clocked almost 10,000 hours.
My Grandmother’s death last summer has given me time think about and be thankful for all the things I learned from her. I learned compassion and generosity from my Grandmother. I also learned from her that all human life is interconnected. As we said in the Call to Worship today, from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, when one member of the body suffers, all suffer; when one member rejoices, all rejoice with it. My Grandmother understood this truth deeply, and she lived in a special and peculiar way, sharing both the suffering and rejoicing of her fellow human beings. At night, Grandma would watch TV and drink coffee with my Grandfather and knit hats for newborns in the neonatal intensive care unit at the hospital. When she got enough of those done, she would knit blankets for the ambulance company in town, which they would use in the event that they had to transport a child. She was always doing something with her hands to make someone else’ life better. After my Grandfather died, Grandma joined a group at her church called The Holy Folders, a group of women who get together each week to fold worship bulletins and solve the world’s problems. And never one to pass up a coupon, Grandma would clip the Burger King coupons from the newspaper each Sunday and then go and spring her friend, Louise, from the nursing home Alzheimer’s unit and take her to lunch. Never mind the fact that she did all of this up until she was 94 years old.
All of these things came together in my Grandmother’s life through God’s Spirit to announce and enact a new and wonderful reality called The Kingdom of God. The things she did were good and right and noble, but with God’s Spirit they became so much more. Each act of kindness and generosity, each time she set her friend free from the nursing home for a meal at Burger King, pointed me and so many others to a world as God intends for it to be. That is what The Kingdom of God is—the world as God intends for it to be—and I’m sure that you’ve known people like my Grandmother who were and are so very good at making The Kingdom of God real. Their lives are peculiar, to be sure. But not peculiar in a way that drives people away. Their lives are peculiar in a way that brings the masses forward into the splendor of God’s abundant life. Yes, they do good and noble and kind and generous things, but it is in their intonation with God’s Spirit that causes their acts, their very lives, to transform the world as we know it.
The gospel lesson we’ve heard today is a familiar one. Jesus has gone home and on the day of worship he stands up in the synagogue and reads from the 61stchapter of Isaiah’s prophecy. “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.” With that, he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. Everyone was staring at him. “Is this Jesus, the son of Joseph the carpenter?” “Is this Jesus, whose mother we know?” Even before they can get an answer, Jesus begins speaking again and he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It wasn’t included in the reading today, but Luke says later that Jesus’ words and actions upset the people in Nazareth so much that they tried to throw him off a cliff.
Since Christmas the scripture lessons in our worship services have helped us to understand who Jesus is. Today our attention is turned away from who Jesus is towards what Jesus has come to do. Jesus has been anointed to remind God’s people that there is no break in the continuity of God’s covenant, the covenant established with Abraham and Sarah thousands of years before. Jesus, in his own words later in the gospels, says that he has not come to abolish anything, but to fulfill all that had been spoken of and prophesied before. Jesus has come to show to the world the God of heaven and earth who is stepping out from behind the curtain to be fully known. In order to make this fully know, Jesus has come to do all those things Isaiah prophesied about.
This seems simple enough, until we consider the context of Isaiah’s prophecy. Isaiah 61 comes later in the prophet’s ministry, at a time when the sad and defeated Israelites were returned to Israel from slavery in Babylon. The people are shattered, their dreams have been forgotten, and, most painful of all, they are entirely sure that God has given them the divine cold shoulder. They are in desperate need of a good word. They are in desperate need of a word that God has not forgotten them. Isaiah has that word, and proclaims to them an entirely new and transformative vision for everything from their bodily health and well-being to their economic and political culture. The poor will receive good news. The eyes of the blind will be opened. Captives will be set free. The oppressed will be released from the oppressor. Debts will be forgiven as part of the jubilee year of God’s favor. All will see and know that God has not forgotten, God is still working, God is still loving, God is still about the business of new and eternal life.
Jesus picks this up as he opens the world’s eyes—our eyes—to the scope and scale of his earthly mission. Jesus has come into the world to announce and enact God’s kingdom in acts of healing the blind, lame, lepers, the deaf, the dead, and the poor. These acts are not magic, they are not shows of power to whip the crowds into submission. They are acts through which God does the work of healing the damage inflicted on the people by kingdom’s other than God’s own. And the damage inflicted by other kingdoms can be great. Rome was the historical and political setting of Jesus’ ministry. Did you know that the Romans were as good at going to war with other nations as they were at going to war with their own people? Roman emperors were notorious for starving the citizens of Rome, leading them to fight with each other so the government would have no choice but to impose martial law. Roman rulers would make unhealthy food more available than food that was good for the people, naturally lowering a Roman citizen’s immunities and physical health. Roman rulers would even set fire to their subjects’ homes, sometimes for no other reason than to stress them to the point that they would take their own lives. It was a game for Rome, and they played it well. All of it kept the powerful powerful and the down and out on the down and out.
When Jesus says he has come to release captives and open blind eyes and proclaim good news to the poor, he’s not making some grand spiritual claim. He is not speaking in metaphors or hyperbole. He is not stumping on the campaign trail to build his base. He is announcing loudly and clearly that God has looked on his people, has heard their cries, and has come to save them. He announcing that God sees the true nature of things and has had enough. God has watched the starving and the fires and the fear-mongering and war-mongering, and God has said that it is enough. But instead of a flood—God already tried that—and instead of plagues—God tried that, too—God has something else in mind. God does not answer death and destruction with more death and destruction because that would perpetuate the evil that got it all started in the first place. Instead, God meets the desperate needs of the world in Jesus, the Word Made Flesh, who’s mission on earth is to fix, with love and compassion and generosity and truth, everything that has been broken.
This is Jesus’ mission and it is one that he fulfilled until the very end of his life. Jesus opened the eyes of a man who was born blind, though his parents and the religious folks were more interested in whose sin had caused his blindness. Jesus reached out and lifted Peter’s mother out of her bed, breaking the bonds of death that held her captive. Jesus sat on a mountainside outside of Jerusalem and preached his inaugural sermon not to those who trusted in their wealth and position but to those who were called poor, mourners, the hungry and thirsty, the persecuted. Jesus cancelled debts—Peter’s for having sold him out in the courtyard and the woman caught in the act of adultery because the patriarchal religion that called for her death was more guilty than she was. Jesus understood his mission and he did it so very well.
So well, in fact, that after he laid out his mission in the synagogue he proclaimed, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Fulfilled? All blind eyes have been opened? The prisons are empty? All debts have been forgiven in gratitude for the Lord’s favor? Not hardly. But Jesus had something even bigger in mind when he used that word ‘fulfilled.’ He had you and me in mind, my friends, his followers who have a baptismal calling to follow his agenda until he returns in victory. This means that while the poor are in our midst, we have good news to proclaim. This means that while there are those who languish away in prison, we have a system to critique and reform and a new way of life to exhibit. This means that while debt is piled on debt is piled on debt, we must live in the glory of God who says we have and are enough. This means that while there are blind eyes—literally or spiritually—we have an obligation to help them be opened to the radiance of God’s beauty. This means that as our systems and kingdoms continue to inflict injury and pain on God’s people, we must act so that God’s kingdom can break through and bind up everything that has been broken.
Today, I am grateful for Christ’s mission. I am grateful for Christ’s mission because his mission is our mission. It is a mission that can and does change the world. And thanks be to God we don’t do it alone and we don’t have to make up the steps as we go along. When we get on board with Jesus, when we take up his agenda as our own, we join in a long line of people who have gone before us to show us the way. We join with people like Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, with the Scriptures in his heart, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” We join with people like Dorothy Day, the Catholic nun, journalist, and social activist who said, “The final word is love.” We join with people like Eleanor Roosevelt, who said, “Anger is only one letter away from danger.” We join with people like Mahatma Gandhi, who said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” And we we join with people like my Grandmother, who, well, did far more than she ever recognized to make God’s kingdom real.
That is the power we have as Jesus’ people. So its time for us to get moving. Each of us has a contribution to make in fulfilling Christ’s mission. And with God’s Spirit, in big and small ways, the Kingdom comes. Amen.