Springfield Cathedral -- Luke 4:16–21
This gospel passage from Luke, and the Isaiah passage from which it quotes, are among the most familiar words in all of scripture. We hear them nearly every year on this occasion, and they are scattered around at various other spots in the lectionary. In its original context in Isaiah, it describes the prophet’s own sense of vocation, and his endowment toward that calling by God’s own spirit. We can only assume, then, that the purpose of including this material in the Chrism Mass, where the ordained renew the vows they took when they were ordained, is that the lives of deacons, presbyters, and bishops are inherently ordered, configured, to some aspect of the ministry of Christ, that we are indeed anointed, that the Spirit of the Lord is actually upon us. The question naturally arises, then: How should the baptized faithful whom we lead, and, in turn, the world in which the baptized faithful are missionaries—how should those who look to us, directly or indirectly, expect to see us manifest, show forth, incarnate, the ministry of the Jesus who walked into the synagogue in Nazareth that day and took up the scroll to read?
The servant of God is anointed to “proclaim good news to the poor.” We cannot, as ordained leaders, or even as the whole church, solve the systemic causes of poverty, at least not any time soon. And I would remind us that “poverty” is a relative term. Those of you who have traveled to either of our companion dioceses have witnessed poverty of a sort that certainly does exist in our part of the world, but you have to look pretty hard to find it. So, while there’s certainly plenty we can to do to alleviate poverty to some degree, we can’t fix the systemic conditions that produce it. But what we can do is simply talk to people who are poor. We can take poverty out of the realm of the abstract and make it concrete. We can be with poor people. That much in itself is to “proclaim good news.” The good news is this: “We respect you. You have dignity. You have a voice. You matter. You are not a statistic. You are not an inconvenience or an eyesore. You are not invisible to us; we see you. Please allow us to be among you, with you.” We usually can’t pay next month’s rent, but we can respect the dignity of every human being.
The servant of God is anointed to proclaim recovery of sight to the blind. Now, when I get all poetic and metaphorical here in a moment, don’t think that I mean to degrade the reality of literal physical healing, whether through the efforts of the practice of medicine or through means that medicine cannot explain, something that we might refer to as a “miracle.” Miracles happen, mysterious healing happens, including recovery of sight for those who were blind. Praise God for it! But … what are people around us not seeing? How are those who can read all the letters on an eye exam chart without cheating still blind? What are we blind to, even if our eyes are working just fine?
People are blind to human dignity—first, their own human dignity, and then that of others. I have to say that technology has not been helpful here. Things that people are able to say under the perceived cover and anonymity of the internet nearly reduce me to tears at times, even when they’re not saying them about me! Even Episcopalians, for whom respecting the dignity of every human being is a prominent solemn vow, can be surprisingly and discouragingly blind about this.
People are also blind to manipulative rhetoric, both from political leaders and from critics of those leaders. It’s so easy to be blind to the way a question is carefully framed, so as to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, but nowhere near the whole truth, and is thereby hugely deceptive. Only a few days ago I looked at a piece of campaign literature that came in the mail. It was about a race I hadn’t paid much attention to. The campaign that sent it said some things about the candidate’s position that very much resonated with me, and about his opponent that made me go, “Ewww.” Then it occurred to me that I was being sucked in by classic negative advertising. I did some internet research, and ended up voting for the opponent. But I almost didn’t open my eyes. I was almost blind to what was happening. Of course, this happens not only in politics, but in commerce, by those who want to influence our buying decisions. It all tends to enflame our passions and stoke our fears and turn “good” people into human weapons. My sisters and brothers, the spirit of the Lord is upon us to proclaim recovery of sight to those who are blind in these ways.
The servant of God is anointed to proclaim liberty to captives, to let the oppressed go free. What holds people around us in bondage? What oppresses people? Certainly, the mindless and exploitative exercise of privilege rooted in race or gender is a major source of oppression, and Christians are rightly involved in efforts to change cultures in which such things are either unseen, tolerated, or perpetuated. People are also held captive and oppressed by addition: addiction to alcohol and other substances, addiction to gambling, addiction to sex, addiction to work and addiction to success. People are held captive by and addicted to fear: fear of failure, fear of abandonment, fear of suffering, and fear of death. Most pervasively, perhaps, people are held captive and oppressed by envy and by the anger that invariably accompanies envy. Our society constantly attempts to condition us to be envious of anyone who has a dollar more than we do, or lives in a nicer house, or drives a cooler car, or who has succeeded where we haven’t yet. And this envy gives birth to a slow-burning anger that eats away at us like a spiritual ulcer. Envy and anger hold people captive, and oppress them.
Our mandate to announce a year—a season, an opportune moment—acceptable to the Lord means we can assure those around us that poverty doesn’t have the last word, but that God, who is rich in mercy, has the last word. The acceptable years of the Lord means that we speak words of light and life into the darkness and blindness that surrounds us, that we enable people to recover their sight, and recognize that which wants to deceive them and lead them into falsehood. The acceptable year of the Lord energizes and vindicates our work of liberation—liberation from the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, liberation from addiction and fear, and liberation from envy and anger that corrode the soul.
As we renew our vows, as we connect once again with the anointing of our ordination, may grace abound for us to do these things. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.