Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written…
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind. To release the oppressed, to proclaim the Jubilee, the year of God’s favor.”
Then Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4)
So it took me a while before I could figure out what this man was really getting at. We were sitting just over there, in the Pastors’ Office, for one of those Muffins with the Minister gatherings. People who were new to the church or just wanted a better sense of who we are, or what our denomination is, they were all gathered together, to talk and to listen and to ask questions. And this man, attending with his partner, also male, had asked about our open and affirming stance toward gay and lesbian people. He said, “What do you mean when you say we are welcome?” And I gave the sort of standard, “Well, we mean that we accept and celebrate all people, for who they are; we believe that God does, too.” And he wasn’t satisfied, he said, “Sure, but – what can we do?”
And I must have looked blank, like I didn’t understand the question, because he said, “I mean, I’ve been in worship – I know we can take communion… But could we, could we have a part in the worship service?” And I said, “Of course.” He said, “Could we sing in the choir?” I said, “Sure.” He said, “Could we help collect the offering?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Could we volunteer with the children’s program? Like, could we teach Sunday School?” I said, “Yes. We’re always looking for new Sunday School teachers!” He said, “But could we serve communion?”
And I was starting to grow impatient. I just wanted to say, “Yes; yes – whatever you ask, the answer is always going to be yes.” But I stopped myself, because it hit me that this litany we were doing, this list of questions he had for me, was because this was how it had happened for him before.
He was told he was welcome. He was at a church that genuinely cared about him. And the deeper he got connected – the more he wanted to offer his own gifts back to that community. And that’s when he was told no. He was welcome as long as he was being ministered to but for him to be a vessel through which God’s grace came to other people – that was too much. Too far.
And as I kept saying yes to him – as this room full of people now had turned to listen to this conversation – his line, over and over, really was just – how far does this welcome extend? How long will it be before you tell me no? Where’s the line? – And I realized it was my role, my part in this litany, to bring good news. I could just say, “Yes. You are welcome. There is no line. There is no break. There is no place you cannot serve, no ministry you cannot be a part of, no sacred bread and wine you cannot offer to any other person here.” And when I slowed down long enough to say that, this tremendous gratitude washed over me. What a privilege, to speak on behalf of this congregation, and say, “As far as this welcome extends to any one of us, it extends to all of us.”
See, Jesus, was a better preacher, a better pastor, than I am. He knew when he had good news. He knew when people needed to hear it. He did not grow impatient; he took his time.
We meet him here in a synagogue in Nazareth – the place he would have grown up hearing the Scriptures and teachings – he’s been away and people are excited for his return. But his presence is a counter to their frenzy. Luke, as he’s telling the story, makes us slow down. The tiniest actions on Jesus’ part are detailed so that we have to pay attention. Here’s how it happens – Jesus goes to the synagogue. He stands up to read. He’s handed the scroll. He unrolls the scroll. He finds his place. And after all of this slow-motion plays out, when their eyes are fixed on him, their ears are pricked, he tells them, “Listen up: By God, for the poor, I have good news. For the blind, sight; for the captive, release; for the oppressed, liberty; for the world, a Jubilee – a celebration, a setting right of all things.”
He’s speaking for himself, but he’s speaking for God. Jesus is God’s way of being in the world. So when we hear these first words of his in Luke, we are promised that God’s being in the world, is good news.
And Jesus tells it. And then he says, “Did you hear? Then it’s done.” He says, “This Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” He says, “As I speak these words and they enter your ears, they come true.”
This is the part that’s so difficult for me. How is that possible? How can he even say that, when any brief glance around confronts us with evidence that poverty, and blindness, and captivity, and oppression are terrible realities – in the world as he spoke to it and still in the world we inhabit?
And then I think of John Lennon, and Yoko Ono, in 1969 – how they took over public space – billboards in Times Square, in London, in Tokyo, around the world, just huge black letters on a stark white backdrop: War Is Over! And then, in smaller font, If You Want It. And then, even smaller, Happy Christmas from John & Yoko. They passed out littler versions of the poster for people to hang in the windows of their homes, even littler versions for people to mail as postcards. And John Sinclair, a prominent anti-war activist, said, “That’s got to sound awfully stupid to people in Vietnam – war is over, if you want it – as they are being burned and bombed –”
And John Lennon said the campaign is not for people in Vietnam. It’s for people who live in places that are waging war, that they might come to understand the power of their own voices. …See we can only live in tension with the truth for so long. If we sing peace and we see it declared in our public spaces and we send it as greeting to our friends and we say that war is over then soon enough we will not be able to abide that war rages on. What do we want, friends? When do we want it?
And there are connections between this grand-scale violence of war and the small violences we inflict on one another every day. Long ago this congregation knew that. And so this church’s earliest members dedicated this place to peacemaking and declared it open and affirming for just such a time as that Mufffins meeting, so that when a man came, with a litany of doubts and questions, we could just answer, each one, “Yes. Welcome.” For as long as it takes him to be convinced. Because like peace begins to happen in the declaring of it, welcome happens in the speaking of it. It goes beyond that, of course. But to begin, as we say it, we make it true.
We need to say it louder.
It is one thing to be a sanctuary. Right? – to be a safe space, a place of welcome. But is quite another thing to be a prophetic community. Sanctuaries, by their very nature, are quiet. And when people find their way to a sanctuary, then they can rest in it. And we all have days when we desperately need that rest.
But you and I know, from listening to the news of our world over the last six months, or the last six weeks, that there are those who never find their way to these quiet spaces of refuge and welcome. And we do them a terrible disservice if we sit smugly in our good news and do not speak it loudly.
If we decry the violence that has for so long plagued our world and defined our faith, but make no movement to tell a different story, this culture that lives and breathes violence will continue to search for its redemption in that bad, bad news.
But if we can say that war is over – our wars against those we share soil with and our wars against those half a world away – all of that, over – if we can say that God’s holiness is not determined by how many are excluded but by open embrace of all – if we can offer a creative vision of redemption to a yearning world, then we are faithful to our call to bring good news. And good news is meant for sharing. Loudly, and widely.
Now we are God’s way of being in the world. And God’s being in the world is good news.
How will we tell it?