Friday, February 22, 2013

Angels and Demons

Sermon preached February 17, 2013

Texts: Luke 4:1-13

When I think of old television shows, I think of programs broadcast only in black and white from the 1950s and early 1960s – “Father Knows Best,” Leave It To Beaver,” “The Honeymooners.” I have seen reruns of all these shows over the years. Most of us have seen popular entertainment that is a little older than we are. We are aware, I think, of popular entertainment that is even more distant in the past for us. I know that before such programs as these, radio was the popular medium, and I even know the names of some radio shows, though I never listened to them. "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!"
What boggles my mind, when I think about it, is that “The Shadow” was closer in time to me that television programs like MASH or The Mary Tyler Moore are to today’s children and youth. The other day I was sharing with my medical ethics class about taking a girl to a Gordon Lightfoot concert when I was in high school and none of them had ever heard of Gordon Lightfoot.
"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!" The temptation story of Jesus is a story about angels, and demons, and shadows. If you thought you were going to hear something about the Dan Brown novel or the Ron Howard movie, sorry.
“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” The wilderness. In the Bible and Christian tradition, the wilderness is a provocative image. It is a place of danger, “the howling wilderness waste” (Deuteronomy 32:10). But is it also a place of discovery. In the wilderness, the desert, one discovers oneself. In his brief book on the Christian Desert Fathers, Thomas Merton wrote, “What the Fathers sought most of all was their own true self, in Christ” (5). They went to the desert, the wilderness, to find it. And in that place of self-discovery, God is found. From Deuteronomy 32, God sustains God’s people “in a desert land, in a howling wilderness waste.” Our Lenten theme is pathways to God, and this text suggests that one such pathway is the pathway of self-awareness, self-discovery, the kind of self-discovery that happens in wilderness places.
Led by the Spirit in the wilderness. This is a story of angels and demons and shadows. Jesus is tempted by the chief of the demons, the devil. He is tempted, in one instance, with angels. He confronts shadows.
The shadow, not the pulp fiction radio character Lamont Cranston, but the human shadow, comes out in this story. The human shadow consists of those parts of ourselves we struggle with and tend to hide. The poet Robert Bly uses the image of us putting things in an invisible bag that we carry behind us – those things about ourselves that we are told are not so good or so nice, yet they don’t go away. (Robert Bly, A Little Book on the Human Shadow; Zweig and Abrams, Meeting the Shadow). We need to deal with them.
One element of the shadow that is part of us is the shadow side of our strengths. Our strengths have negative dimensions when they are overused. Our strengths can be misused. We are uncomfortable acknowledging that. It is part of our shadow.
Jesus has wonderful creativity. He could turn stone into bread. Too quick a use of such creativity to feed a hunger may hide deeper hungers. We can be satisfied with too little. Sometimes over-reliance on one’s own creativity does not allow room for the creativity of others. If Jesus had given in to this temptation to turn stones into bread would he later have been able to say to the disciples, confronted with a hungry crowd, “you give them something to eat”? (Luke 9:13)
Jesus has charisma and power. How often do we see charismatic people, powerful people, get caught up in their own power, misusing it for narrow gain, hurting others? Henry Ford could not give his son, Edsell, proper credit for the good work he did on the Model A. Religious figures like Jim Jones or David Koresh would rather have their followers die than deal with their own abuse of power. Jesus has to keep his own charisma and power in check. “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”
Even piety and religiousness can have a shadow side. How often the language of religion is used to put down, to hurt. Christian language has been used to justify slavery, the subjugation of women, the exclusion of gay and lesbian persons. Islamic language is used to justify suicide bombing and killings. The temptation is there to use the strength of our religious language and bend it the wrong way. Surely angels will come to rescue you , Jesus, if you throw yourself off the temple.
In the wilderness, cut off from distraction, we can discover more about ourselves. We can begin to see the shadow side of even our strengths. I remember an incident from my seminary days. My first seminary field placement was in a supervised hospital setting working with a clinical pastoral education supervisor. At the end of the year, he did a group evaluation. There was a woman who he recommended do some therapy around anger issues. There was a man who he thought should do some reading to open up his thinking a bit more. I remember asking, “what do you think I should read,” and he told me to stop reading. It was not a literal suggestion, but a recognition that I can rely too much on my head. I love words and language and concepts. I love to use language to paint a more complex picture of the world. That’s good. That’s helpful, but there is a shadow side. Reality is richer than even the concepts. Explanation can be important, but just being there for someone without explaining matters a great deal. I haven’t stopped reading, but I haven’t forgotten that encounter either.
We wrestle with angels and demons and shadows in the wilderness and in discovering the depth in ourselves, we find God in new ways. The poet Rilke once wrote, “If my devils are to leave me, I am afraid my angels will take flight as well” (quoted in Rollo May, Love and Will, 122). God has given each of us wonderful gifts. Affirm them, but also acknowledge that even good gifts have shadow sides.
A second dimension to the human shadow that I see in this story and want to touch on, but more briefly, is our vulnerability. We tend to hide our vulnerable places, put them in the invisible bag we carry behind us. Yet when we are willing to be vulnerable, we discover God more deeply. About the Desert Fathers, Thomas Merton wrote: These monks insisted on remaining human and “ordinary.”… The simple men who lived their lives out to a good old age among the rocks and sands only did so because they had come into the desert to be themselves, their ordinary selves, and to forget a world that divided them from themselves. (The Wisdom of the Desert, 22-23)
Now I happen to think each and every one of you is extraordinary, but there is a shadow side to the language of extraordinary. If everything is always extraordinary, it can be difficult to be open to the vulnerable places we have, to the ordinary moments. Yet such openness seems a pathway to God. I recently read this simple sentence that had a powerful impact – yes, I am still reading! Messing up is a part of existence, perhaps a needed part (Michael Eigen, Contact With the Depths, 94)
We hunger, yet we need not be defined by our hungers. That is a radical word in a society that would like to see us act on most of our hungers, typically by buying something to assuage them. We hunger, and that is o.k., but if are willing to admit our hungers, perhaps we have a better chance to sort them out and discover which hungers are deepest. Perhaps we have a better chance of discovering that letting go of some lesser hungers helps feed deeper ones.
We are confused about our own power. We want to control more than we can control. We don’t always want to acknowledge the power we have, because with power comes responsibility. From our baptismal liturgy – “Will you use the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?’
We have questions about our faith. When should we take leaps of faith and when are such leaps simply foolishness? It is o.k. to admit we have questions and that some matters of faith and life don’t admit of easy answers.
We would hide our vulnerabilities, but being open to them opens us up to God’s Spirit in new ways.
Awhile back I came across this poem by Rilke that speaks to me about hanging with vulnerabilities. It is printed on the bulletin insert.

How dear you will be to me, then, you nights
of anguish. Why didn’t I kneel more deeply to accept you,
inconsolable sisters, and, surrendering, lose myself
in your loosened hair. How we squander our hours of pain.
How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration
to see if they have an end. Though they are really
seasons of us, our winter-
enduring foliage, ponds, meadows, our inborn landscape,
where birds and reed-dwelling creatures are at home
(“Original Version, Tenth Dunio Elegy, tr. Stephen Mitchell)

The reason the Spirit leads us into the wilderness, where we have the opportunity to deepen our self-awareness is that in so deepening, we discover something new about the closeness of God. In the wilderness, in our self-discovery, God meets us. We find God loves us, shadow and all. God gives us gifts to be affirmed and calls us to use those gifts, in spite of their shadow side. God is there to help us overcome the most destructive sides of our shadow. God uses us to touch the lives of others with beauty and grace and love, even as we continue to wrestle with angels and demons and shadows. The wrestling doesn’t end. The devil only departs for a time. The wrestling doesn’t end, but we discover in the wilderness that neither does God’s love for us. Amen.

Friday, February 15, 2013

I Want To Take You Higher (and Lower)

Sermon preached February 10, 2013

Texts: Luke 9:28-43a

Sly and The Family Stone, "I Want To Take You Higher"

Playing music during sermons, I am afraid that I might be risking becoming something of a caricature of myself. I might have to give this up during Lent. We’ll see.
I want to take you higher. Mountaintop experiences. There is this wonderful story that comes from the Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers tradition. Abbot Lot went to see Abbot Joseph. “Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of bad thoughts: now what more should I do?” Abbot Joseph stood, raised his hand up in the air, his fingers becoming like lamps of fire. “Why not become all flame?” (Kathleen Norris, Dakota, 123).
I love that story. Why not become all flame? I want to take you higher – up the mountain.
The French philosopher Pascal, had sewn in his coat something he had written on a scrap of paper, the scrap of paper being discovered only after his death. From about half past ten in the evening to about half an hour after midnight. Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not the God of philosophers and scholars. Absolute Certainty: Beyond reason. Joy. Peace. Forgetfulness of the world and everything but God. The world has not known thee, but I have known thee. Joy! Joy! Joy! Tears of Joy! (Happold, Mysticism, 39).
I want to take you higher. Why not become all flame? I have had some of those kinds of experiences in my life – moments when God was extraordinarily close, remarkably real, moments when the light and warmth and power of God’s love embraced me closely. This past week I was for three days at Christ the King Retreat Center near Buffalo, MN where the Minnesota Conference Board of Ordained Ministry meets. We interview persons coming for ordination in the UMC in Minnesota. A couple of years ago, in that same place, while in worship in their chapel, I had such an experience of the closeness of God. The physical presence of Jesus, a presence I saw on a crucifix in front of the chapel, became very real to me. I was in the same chapel this year, but did not have that same experience.
Today’s Gospel reading from Luke, there are some of these moments. One is a very literal mountain top experience where Peter, James and John go with Jesus to pray. “And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” There is a shared experience here. Jesus experiences something. Peter, James and John experience something. They see Jesus becoming all flame.
The very last words of the reading for today also indicate some kind of mountain top experience, though everyone has come down from the mountain. A father, concerned for the well-being of his only child, a son, brings him for healing. The healing happens, “and all were astounded at the greatness of God.”
There have been times when I have felt something like the dazzling presence of Jesus. There have been times when I have been astounded at the greatness of God.
As human beings, we are wired somewhat differently. I can hear Sly and the Family Stone sing “I Want To Take You Higher” and I get taken higher. I can hear the words of a poem and feel them deep in my heart or gut. Many years ago, I heard the Irish poet Seamus Heaney on public radio. It was a broadcast from the Guthrie Theater. I was so moved by it that when the program was re-broadcast later, I taped it and have often enjoyed listening to Heaney’s reading.
But I know that Sly and the Family Stone, or the music of John Coltrane, or the poetry of Seamus Heaney don’t take everyone higher. That’s o.k. Not everyone has intense experiences that might be called mystical. I do think that we all have some capacity to experience the closeness and love of God and I hope that for you all, you have had such experiences in your own way. And the experiences are not always solitary. We can experience the closeness of God together, like at worship. We can experience the closeness of God sharing a common task done in love. The hug of another can feel like the very hug of God.
I believe Jesus wants to take us all higher. I believe that we all have some capacity to know and feel and experience God and God’s love deeply. Such experiences may not be frequent. A couple of years ago, Mother Theresa’s journals were excerpted, and many were surprised to read that she went for many years without an intense experience of the presence of God. Still, Jesus wants to take us higher.
Jesus also wants to take us lower. There is this remarkable weaving in the Gospel this morning. The story immediately preceding the transfiguration is about Jesus anticipated suffering and death. When Moses and Elijah come they speak to Jesus about his departure and what he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem. They speak about the difficult road ahead and about his death. Whatever wonderful experiences we may have of the presence of God and the love of God do not isolate us from difficulties and the harsh realities of life, including death.
Then they come down from the mountain and are immediately confronted with another difficult challenge. A caring father needs help for his tormented son, his only child. The son is traumatized. Something in his life is tearing him apart. We can wonder about the language of the demonic, but we know that lives can be traumatic. We know that people can be torn apart by forces that go beyond them – think addiction, think sex trafficking, think gangs, think vicious bullying, think of grief that won’t let go, think of having done something that haunts you.
There is a loving father. There is a hurting child. The situation is difficult, seemingly beyond the ability of the disciples of Jesus. Jesus seems a little peeved about it all, too, even after his mountain top experience. Perhaps the journey to Jerusalem is weighing heavy on his heart. Yet in the end there is healing. In the end there is astonishment – another transfiguring moment.
In his introduction to The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, Bernard McGinn writes: One thing that stands out in the accounts of all the Christian mystics is that their encounter with God transforms their minds and their lives. God changes the mystics and invites, even compels, them to encourage others by their teaching to open themselves to a similar process of transformation (xvii).
God desires a relationship with us. The God we know in Jesus wants God’s love to be known in the depth of the human heart and soul, in our human hearts and souls. We may experience that differently, but I believe God wants us to know God’s love deeply and intimately. God wants to warmly and strongly embrace each of us. Jesus wants to take us higher.
The same love which God desires to have penetrate our deepest being is a love that cannot be contained there. The love we know within is a love for the world that drives us out to be there in the difficult moments, to confront the demonic, to plumb the depths, to engage the work of transformation. It has never really hit me before, but this story of the transfiguration always comes on the last Sunday before Lent, that time when we are asked to plumb the depths of our hearts, when we are asked to commit ourselves anew to the loving way of Jesus.
Jesus wants to take us higher and lower. And here is one final remarkable thing. This journey with Jesus is not simply a two-step movement – up the mountain for extraordinary experiences, down into the world to minister God’s love, justice and care. The same Jesus who takes us up the mountain walks with us in the valleys and can be known there, too. It is not just when we get away from the difficulty and messiness of life that we know God’s love intensely. God’s love in Jesus can be known right in the midst of the messiness and muck and difficulty. It’s there where demons are cast out leaving us astounded at the greatness of God.
At the end of the day, the most important transfiguration is that a son is made well and restored to his father. Every time there is a little bit of healing, we catch glimpses of the dazzling greatness of God’s love, and we can be moved just a little higher. Amen.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Real Love

Sermon preached February 3, 2013

Texts: I Corinthians 13:1-13

Play a bit of The Beatles, “Real Love.” Real Love

“Real Love” is the last Beatles single to reach the Top Forty charts here in The United States. It did so in 1995, fifteen years after John Lennon had been killed. How is such a thing possible? Multi-tracking – layers of sound. Lennon had recorded a demo tape of “Real Love,” but had never released the song himself. While working on their anthology project – a film and cd collection about their history, the other Beatles recorded their voice and other instruments and mixed their layers of music with John Lennon’s layer. The result – “Real Love.”
Love itself has layers, dimensions. Many of you may already know that the Greeks had multiple words that we translate “love.” Where the word “love” appears in the New Testament, it may be different words in the original Greek.
One layer of love that gets a lot of attention in our culture, gets the most attention in our culture, is what our culture typically means by “love” is romantic love. In our culture romantic love is often thought to have some of these features. Each person has a single soul mate, a one and only. Our task is to find that person, and when we do we will know it. Further, “it’s sad to belong to someone else when the right one comes along” – that from a popular 1970s song. Love means never having to say you’re sorry – that from a popular early 70s movie. Such love just hits us, bubbles up, but can also leave. Psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell writes about this in his book Can Love Last? (187): Popular culture tells us that “chemistry” is crucial in love…. The excitement is either there or not there.
Is this layer of love, this love that we spend so much time on in our culture – our songs, our movies, our television, really the heart of love? Bluntly – No. It is more “reel love” than “real love.” Our idealized notions of romantic love are often misleading or simply plain wrong. This is probably where you should all feel kind of sorry for Julie. I sound pretty unromantic here.
To be sure, there is a truthfulness in some of our popular notions of romantic love. I hope those in love in this way do feel that their partner is a soul mate, and uniquely so. I do hope that there is a passion in such love that rises up and carries us away sometimes. However, there is some danger in taking this as the heart of love, even of romantic love. If love is all about chemistry, and the feelings seem to have ebbed, does that mean you did not locate your true soul mate? Some seem to think just this.
This idealized romantic love bifurcates, splits love and effort, love and intention, love and the ordinary. We want to experience in our romantic love being carried away sometimes. That’s o.k. Yet this is not the only layer of love. It is not the only layer of love we should think about, and certainly not the only layer of love we should be living. It is not even the only layer of romantic love. The passionate dimension of romantic love can ebb and flow. It needs other dimensions of love. Stephen Mitchell: Chemistry certainly contributes to creating the components, but there is a choice, a commitment in loving, that cannot be reduced to its emotional ingredients…. The cultivation of romance in relationships requires two people who are fascinated by the ways in which, individually and together, they generate forms of life they hope they can count on. (194, 201)
There are more layers to romantic love than reel love often imagines. Real love is more than that, and real love is more than romantic love. Real love is a love which is intended to guide all our living, from our romantic relationships to the way we relate to people every day, to the way we think about our life together in society and across the globe.
Real love, the heart of love, the deepest layer, is the love Paul writes about in I Corinthians 13. Paul was not concerned with romantic love here. He was not penning a poem for the wedding of his first cousin once removed, though weddings are often where we hear this text. In the movie The Wedding Crashers there is a scene at a wedding. The priest says that the second Scripture reading will be read by the sister of the bride. As she makes her way forward to read two men talk. “20 buck, First Corinthians.” “Double or nothing Colossians 3:12.” The sister begins, “Now a reading from First Corinthians.
Paul was writing not for a wedding, but for an early Jesus community that frankly was having some big problems getting along. This is the kind of love with which you should live – a love that is patient and kind, not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude. It is a love that does not rejoice when things go wrong, but rejoices when people act truthfully. It is a love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Here are a couple of other translations which help us get at what love is about. Love is always supportive, loyal, hopeful, and trusting (Contemporary English Version). Love puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back (The Message). It is this love that Paul has in mind when he concludes his letter to this feuding Jesus community – “let all that you do be done in love” (I Corinthians 16:13).
But real love is not just our task. The love Paul describes here is the love with which God love us. God is not mentioned in this chapter, but early on in the letter Paul is clear that God’s grace and God’s Spirit is active in this community when they are at their best. It is God’s love which is a model for our love.
This is love, real love. This is the love with which we are loved by God. With us, God is patient and kind. With us, God rejoices when things go right. With us God is always supportive, loyal, hopeful, trusting, enduring.
This is love, real love. This is the love into which we are invited to grow. John Wesley, in a quote I’ve used with some regularity over the years, once wrote this: By perfection I mean the humble, gentle, patient love of God and our neighbor, ruling our habits, attitudes, words and actions (January 27, 1767) This is our task, this is our calling as followers of Jesus. Knowing how deeply we are loved by God, love. Love with real love. Failing to do that, we become a lot of noise in an already too noisy culture. Failing to do that, we become a lot of busyness in an already too busy world.
In this real love there is intention. We want what is best for others. In this real love there is effort. We want what is best for others and are willing to do something about it. This love is intended to shape our ordinary lives, our day to day interactions – in our most intimate relationships, as well as our relationships at school, work, in the community. This love moves us to care for our culture, our society, our politics, our environment. We ask hard questions about the meaning of love for issues such as gun safety, climate, immigration, same-sex marriage, taxation, war and peace, bringing together individual freedoms and common care for one another. Real love does not shy away from tackling such issues, but it also shapes the character of our discussions. Real love leaves no area of our lives untouched.
Real love is our task, our goal, the way. In our journey toward becoming more loving as followers of Jesus, we need to return again and again to the heart of God’s good news in Jesus – God loves us with real love. Amen.

Friday, February 1, 2013


Sermon preached January 27, 2013

Texts: Luke 4:14-21

Last Sunday night, I was at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Ecumenical Worship Service at Church of Restoration. For two hours and forty-five minutes, I was at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Ecumenical Worship Service. While the service lasted a bit longer than normal, I knew that the worship would not be a sixty to seventy-five minute proposition.
I also know going in that the worship style will be more emotionally expressive than the worship style most of us grew up with, unless you grew up in a Pentecostal church. The MLK worship service was held at Church of Restoration, which is a predominantly African-American Pentecostal church.
One of the gifts of the Pentecostal stream in the Christian tradition gives us is the permission to be more emotive and emotionally expressive in our worship. We are emotional beings, and our worship should allow some opportunity for that, though we should also acknowledge that one can express one’s emotions more quietly, as well. The overreach of the Pentecostal stream in the Christian tradition is the claim that forms of raucous emotional expression are definitive evidence of the presence of God’s Spirit. I know Pentecostal Christians who claim that one cannot have a deep experience of the presence of the Holy Spirit in one’s life unless one speaks in tongues.
Our text for this morning tells me something else. It gives us other indicators of the presence of God’s Spirit on our lives and in our life together.
Jesus is in the synagogue in Nazareth “where he had been brought up.” Handed a scroll for the Sabbath reading, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61. 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.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me – and what happens? There is no mention of hands raised or of tongues or of emotive expression. Those are all o.k., but when God’s Spirit is present, there are other things that happen. When the Spirit shows up there are other more important, more vital, more central indications. These signs of the Spirit have personal and social dimensions. These signs of the Spirit give us both promise and task or mission.
When God’s Spirit is upon us, among us, within us, there is good news for the poor. The good news is that the poor become visible, the poor become a part of our care and concern. In the 1970s, primarily in Latin America, theologians who had been working with the poor and oppressed in those highly stratified societies began to think in some new ways about theology, formulating a “theology of liberation.” A central insight of liberation theology is that our spiritual life involves a “conversion to the neighbor, to social justice, to history” (Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, 205). Liberation theology claimed “to know God is to do justice” (205).
If this seemed startling and new, it really wasn’t. Liberation theology, at its best, we an attempt to recover an essential element in Christian faith and life. James 2:15-16: If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that. When the Spirit of God is upon us and among us and within us, when we are “Spirited,” there is good news for the poor, and we are driven to mission and task.
There is a personal dimension, here, too. Recall that Matthew 5:3 talks about another way of being poor. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Eugene Peterson, in The Message renders the passage this way: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”
We know what it’s like to be at the end of our rope, to feel that our inner resources for dealing with the stresses and strains of living are thin. I think we all experience that sometimes. Theologian Marjorie Suchocki, In God’s Presence (55): “To be human is to hurt.” We know the hurt and pain of living – disappointment, rejection, dreams deferred or denied. There is good news for us, too. We are objects of God’s love and care. One phrase of Isaiah 61 that does not find its way into Luke 4 is the phrase, “to bind up the broken hearted.” When our hearts break, when we are poor in spirit, there is good news for us too. Where the Spirit of God is upon us and among us and within us, when we are “Spirited” the good news is that God cares and wants to bind up our broken hearts. This good news is personal. This good news is promise.
When God’s Spirit is upon us, and among us and within us there is release for captives and freedom for the oppressed. There is a strong social dimension here. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood this very well (“I Have a Dream”):

So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvannia.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that.
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.

King understood that the struggle of African-Americans was rooted not only in the American dream, but in the work of the Spirit to proclaim release to the captives and freedom for the oppressed. When God’s Spirit is upon us and among us and within us, we join the human struggles for freedom. This is a task for Spirited people.
Might another task also be to ask about literal prisoners in our own society? The United States has 6% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners. The median incarceration rate among all countries is 125 prisoners per 100,000 people. The rate in the United States is 743 per 100,000, by far the highest in the world. The issues are complex, but perhaps Spirited people should ask if we could not do better.
There is a personal dimension, here, too. Not all forms of unfreedom are political oppression. Not all our captivity is incarceration. People are not free when they act out of inner compulsions, often the result of past pain. People can become captive to patterns of behavior that are hurtful to others and themselves. The range of such captivity is wide – addictions, inability to manage one’s own anger responses, holding on to past hurts in ways that diminish present experience. When God’s Spirit is upon us, among us, within us, God’s Spirit works in us to set us free. Spirited people live by the promises of John 8: You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free…. If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed (v. 32, 36)
When God’s Spirit is upon us, and among us and within us there is recovery of sight. There is a social dimension here. There is mission and task here. Christians for centuries understood that responding to God’s Spirit meant care for the whole person, including care for physical well-being. How many hospitals has the Christian church founded over the years? Our current emphasis in The United Methodist Church on Imagine No Malaria is another manifestation of our understanding that God’s Spirited people care about the health and well-being of others. God’s Spirited people seek to help the blind recover their sight. I think of my friend, Dr. Lowell Gess, an eye doctor and United Methodist pastor who established the Kissy Eye Clinic in Sierra Leone, and made countless trips over the years to perform eye surgeries, bringing recovery of sight to the blind.
Here, too, there is a personal dimension. Recovery of sight is a primary metaphor for spiritual renewal, healing and awakening in the Bible. Jesus understood that. When God’s Spirit is upon us, among us and within is, our ability to see the world is enlarged. Narrow patterns of perception, which can also enslave us, are opened up. We can be more open to our own hurts and shortcomings, trusting that with God there is healing and new life. We are open to the hurts and pains of the world, to the poor, the oppressed, the hurting, knowing that these, too, are beloved of God and we are invited to do what we can to be good news for the poor, to set the captives free, to heal the hurting. We cannot do it all, but we cannot simply turn away.
In a way, Jesus, himself, has his eyes opened in this morning’s text. He finds his life in the larger story of God’s dealings with humanity as recorded in Scripture. The promise of reading the Bible is always that in these words we will find new ways to see our lives, and encounter God more deeply. Reading this text, we have the opportunity to become more Spirited.
There is one other Spirited word for us in this text. Jesus reads, sets the scroll down. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The indications that God’s Spirit is upon us, among us, within us are that good news is brought for the poor, including you and me when we are poor; that release is proclaimed to the captives and freedom to the oppressed, including us in our unfreedom and captivity; that there is recovery of sight for the blind, including you and me when we are blinded in our souls.
This is what happens when God’s Spirit is upon us, among us, within us. And when is that? Now, always now. Today, this scripture is fulfilled. Now is always God’s time. Now is God’s time for good news for the poor. Now is God’s time for releasing the captives. Now is God’s time for freedom for the oppressed. Now is God’s time for the blind to see. Today is the day for God’s spirited people to take up the tasks that the Spirit sets before us.
If you are feeling poor, today there is good news. If you are locked in unfreedom, find yourself in captivity, today, there is release and freedom. If you are soul blind, today there is recovery. Now is always God’s time. Today is the day to be God’s spirited people, letting God bind up our broken hearts.
The Spirit of God is upon us, among us, within us – there is work to be done, there is love by which we are embraced and healed and freed. Spirited indeed! Amen.