|Today’s scripture reading: Acts 4:14-30|
When my husband Javen, who is also a pastor, was ordained, this is the Gospel passage chosen for his ordination service. It’s fitting for such an occasion, because this first sermon of Jesus lays out a mission statement for ministry and all who would be disciples of Christ. Here Jesus returns to his childhood home of Nazareth, is recognized to read and interpret scripture, then goes looking in the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Jesus chooses this passage to read: “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.” At Javen’s ordination, I’ll never forget what the preacher Grant Stevensen said to Javen and all the other church people in the room. Because this is the mission of Christ and therefore of all who would follow him, Grant said, let nothing you do in ministry be more than two steps away from this work. Don’t put anything on your calendar that you can’t easily trace back to good news for the poor, release to captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.
It’s a high bar for the Christian life, but it’s a clear and inspiring one. This grounds our actions and faith in daily life, a helpful benchmark to check ourselves and our priorities by measuring against the mission of Christ. How are we doing at daily walking in these paths of Jesus, and of the biblical prophets before him? Do we become so focused on what is routine, familiar, habitual and “right here” that we lose sight of the breathtaking universal scope of God’s good news? If that’s the case, it’s time to look again.
In the Nazareth synagogue, after Jesus reads the scroll of Isaiah, he proclaims that these teachings are being fulfilled on this day, coming to pass in their midst. Everyone praises Jesus for his good words, presuming that his mission of mercy and liberation are meant just for them. But Jesus pushes them to consider what this justice and righteousness mean beyond their own circumstances, beyond just what is near and dear to them. Jesus reminds them of the widow in a foreign city of Zarephath—someone likely a worshipper of the enemy god Baal—whom God fed throughout a three-year famine, and who kept Elijah alive. He tells them of the Syrian general Naaman, commanding enemy armies, who came to the prophet Elisha and received divine healing from leprosy. These foreigners didn’t belong to Israel, yet Jesus reminds his native audience that God’s healing love extends to them also. The wideness of God’s mercy scandalizes this crowd, and they run Jesus out of town. Nevertheless, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection from this opening sermon on testifies that divine love, justice, and healing salvation are for outsiders too. They extend to every neighbor, even the stranger and enemy, no matter what. If your practices and presumptions make God’s love too narrow, it’s time to look again.
I wonder if those good people of Nazareth had the same condition that I do. Back when I was a child in the third grade, my mother took me to Pearle Vision in nearby Rochester to see the ophthalmologist. It was there that I got the first clinical, official diagnosis of my life: myopia. It’s known more commonly as near-sightedness, and it means that I can see clearly only those things that are close in, almost right by my face. But ever since that diagnosis, I have worn glasses and now contacts so that I can see correctly and clearly, get the full picture all the way to the horizon. The people of Nazareth too could only see their nearby lives, activities, preoccupations, likes and dislikes. This is common and understandable, yet for them it becomes a myopia that limits the imagination of what is possible. So Jesus’ sermon is a corrective lens showing the fullest extent of release to captives, freedom for the oppressed, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. He extends their collective sight to the widow at Zarephath and the Syrian general as reminders that the loving realm of God extends far beyond their own situations. He restores sight to the blind, and also to those whose nearsightedness have missed the wider vision of God’s will for justice and righteousness everywhere.
We are in the Nazareth congregation also today, receiving Jesus’ words and those of the prophet Isaiah. I hear them throughout the activities of worship life right now especially, filled as it is with the busyness of trying to return to some sense of “normal”. The church staff, volunteers and I have been rather obsessively working in the last several months to put things in place so we can worship in person again. We have been making essential modifications to create audio-visual solutions so that folks can worship meaningfully either in person or online every Sunday. Yet the never-ending adaptations, tech rehearsals and troubleshooting have started to feel like it might be missing the forest for the trees. It’s as though I’ve been captured by the lie that if we can just get our worship in order, then all will be as it should be, and right with the world. If we can just keep our people happy, our budget supported, and our building maintained, then we will be doing the Lord’s work. Yet Jesus elsewhere cries “woe” on those who make a big deal over religious observance, “and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” Jesus calls us to set our sights on something far greater—look again.
Our purpose as Edina Morningside Community Church is “sharing the joy of Christ’s love by welcoming and serving”, with no exceptions or limits. Insofar as we practice the ministry of Jesus, we serve that vision of inclusion everywhere. We work to participate—through actions both near and far, great and small—in practices of justice that go beyond “just us”. We give our time and energy as a church, as families and workers, as individuals, not to nearsighted pursuits only, but to that unbounded mercy and lovingkindness which is the cosmic will of God known in the teaching of the prophets and of Jesus. This is what it is to be Christian, and if we forget that or become shortsighted, Jesus is here to remind us, to extend our gaze and call on us to “look again”.
So look again at our daily actions, and find in them the call of Christ for justice. Look again at the headlines on our screens, ignoring scandal and outrage,to amplify instead that which is good news for the poor. Look again at the incarceration practices of state violence, and ally with movements that seek the release of captives. Look again at how White supremacy has distorted our relationships, that blindedness would turn to sight, and then to reparative actions. Look again at our daily practices and their consequences for God’s creation, that we might in our behaviors and policies proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Look again even at Mother’s Day itself, which began as a faith-based movement celebrating women peacemakers between the warring sides of the Civil War, and then became a mother-led movement for global peace. These are the ways that—beyond the sanctuary and throughout our whole lives—we join the Jesus movement that leaves nobody out, but welcomes and serves everywhere. Look again, Jesus says, and live by such good news. Amen.
Cover image: “The poor invited to the feast” by JESUS MAFA (Cameroon).