Jesus is in attendance at a first century synagogue where he and others would be singing the Psalms, reciting the Shema, rehearsing the Eighteen Benedictions, reading from the Torah and the Prophets, followed by a teaching and a final blessing.
But this is not just any Sabbath service, because what we find is that Luke has constructed a composite of Isaiah 61 and 58. In actuality it would not have been read directly from the scroll. We do discover in these words Luke’s theological point, however, for we find Jesus announcing that the Messianic era had come.
The Gospel writers, and I love this, so often have Jesus breaking out of the orthodoxy of his day to reinterpret and reapply God’s word in his context for a new age. The Sufi poet Rumi wrote: “God’s truth is an ocean and orthodoxy is a boat.” So all that unfolds here in this Lucan account is subordinate to the person of Jesus, for Luke is clear that he is the eschatological fulfillment of God’s promises for the poor, imprisoned, blind and oppressed. “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Once again we find that we cannot spiritualize this call, our ministry, the Church’s ministry, in which we are engaged. We serve among real people, in real life situations. Our flesh meets flesh. Christ’s ministry is for the benefit of the economically, physically and socially unfortunate. Our ministry, in the name of Christ, is about setting people free, released in the power of the Spirit so that the structures of our social and economic life reflect the reign of God among us.
The oils of Chrism and Unction are sacramental signs of this call: The Chrismatum signifies that all the baptized have a responsibility to minster to the marginalized; Oleum Infirmorum sacramentally participates as a sign of God’s desire that all be set free, made whole, and released for God’s service. Yet I hope we see that this is also about our being set free, you and me, released from the prison of “churchiness” or anything else that holds you captive, in order to be more fully who God calls you to be. I’m speaking here not just of who you are as a clergy person, but first of who you are as a human being on planet earth.
I want to tell you of a revelation I had last year in El Salvador. One of the great privileges I have had over the years is to hear the stories of the Salvadoran people as they try and negotiate the very difficult geographies of their life, literally and figuratively. Many times I have listened to painful stories of great loss: a way of life; the death of a spouse, sons and daughters; many of whom now being named among “the disappeared.” The term “los desaparecidos” became a noun during the El Salvador civil war,
This time I was asked to offer spiritual direction to Salvadorans who were open to speaking with me as referred by the medical personnel of the Central New York mission team who saw a pastoral need. One of the things to which any team like this needs to pay attention is that for most of the patients, their life as a person of God is central to their self-understanding. Over and over again, when I asked a person in great distress how they even begin to go on, they told me of their trust of God who sustains them.
My revelation was this. Much of Western spirituality, particularly among the “haves,” is about finding meaning in life. Indeed, much of Western psychology is about the same. I discovered, however, that the people with whom I was engaged were not looking for meaning. They know why they exist. They know they are a person of Christ. What are they looking for? Liberation!! They want to be set free from their captivity: fear and threat; violence; economic slavery; you name it.
I wonder if that is a place to which we need to return? What is it from which you need to be set free? From what do our people need to be set free? It’s not that this conversation is divorced from that of meaning, but I wonder if meaning can even come until we are able to identify our prisons? Being a Christian is supposed to be a radical statement.
Perhaps it starts with getting clear once again about what constitutes your relationship to God, in Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. I firmly believe that one of the easiest places to hide from God is in the Church. It is especially true for we clergy. We go about doing good things, godly things, handling holy objects all the time, but sometimes not allowing ourselves to be encountered by the living God. In 1930, Anglican divine Evelyn Underhill wrote to the Lambeth Conference: “The Church wants…a disciplined priesthood (and I would add diaconate) of theocentric souls who shall be tools and channels of the Spirit of God: and this she cannot have until Communion with God is recognized as the first duty of the clergy.”
So today, yes even in the first full week of Lent, we are being called back to the center, to start again. Jesus’ vision of the Messianic hope, the year of God’s favor for the poor, the prisoner, the blind and the oppressed, is rooted in communion with God who is that ocean. Swim in it, frolic in it, be immersed in it--the baptismal imagery here is intentional--and find again your deepest longing in communion with our liberating God. This is your first duty as a Christian, a deacon, a priest, a bishop, for the sake of God’s people. You and I also need to be set free!