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Embodied, Emboldened, & Free
A sermon preached by the Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson
Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Saint Paul, MN
January 27, 2019
He unrolled the scroll [of the prophet Isaiah] and found the place where it was written:
“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.”
Then he rolled the scroll back up, returned it to the attendant, and assuming the posture of a rabbi and a teacher, he sat down as if to preach. Everyone’s eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to speak, saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
My children recently discovered the joy of Google’s “Alexa” at a friend’s house, the delight in shouting out demands for songs and jokes and having those demands realized in an instant, in real time, in their hearing. Would that all of life could be just as simple, that we could speak and change would happen.
Yet, this is what Luke seems to be telling us is possible. Something happened in that moment, in that synagogue, as Jesus read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Scholars tell us that Jesus used the perfect form of the Greek, “it has been fulfilled” implying that there, in that moment and recurring over and over for all time, these things, liberation for the poor, the oppressed, the captives and slaves, and those caught in blindness, liberation for all of these is made real, right there and right then, in their hearing. But, we who live at the beginning of yet another century, millennia removed from that moment, know all too well that the world is still in need of liberation, recovery, and release. The good news supposedly fulfilled in that moment feels like a broken promise. If it was made real in their presence, in the body of Jesus, in that moment, why are we still divided and broken?
In his retelling and explaining a story from the Babylonian Talmud, theologian and priest Henri Nouwen offers us a possible answer.
When Elijah had explained to him how he could find the Messiah sitting among the poor at the gates of the city. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi went to the Messiah and said to him:
“Peace unto you, my master and teacher.”
The Messiah answered, “Peace unto you, son of Levi.”
He asked, “When is the master coming?”
“Today,” [the Messiah] answered.
Rabbi Yoshua returned to Elijah, who asked,
“What did he tell you?”
“He indeed has deceived me, for he said ‘Today I am coming’ and he has not come.”
Elijah said, “This is what he told you:’Today if you would listen to His voice.’” (Psalm 95:7)
To announce…that the Liberator is sitting among the poor and that the wounds are signs of hope and that today is the day of liberation, is a step very few can take. But this is exactly the announcement of the wounded healer: “The master is coming – not tomorrow, but today, not next year, but this year, not after all our misery is passed, but in the middle of it, not in another place but right here where we are standing.”
Like the gospel, this story assumes that liberation needs a body. Jesus’ proclamation that “today it is fulfilled in your hearing“ holds with it two assumptions about bodies. First, Jesus himself is, in that moment, in the flesh, in his body, the fulfillment of the prophecies of God’s justice and mercy. His life, death, and resurrection, in short, his body, wounded and broken, inaugurates a new way of reconciled and liberated living. And, second, in the hearing of these prophecies, in taking these words into themselves, into ourselves, the words of justice and liberation find new agency and power. These two are not disconnected. If Jesus is the liberator, the bringer of justice, the one who will march straight through death and empire and out the other side, by the power of God, in the flesh, then we, who purport to be his Body, the Body of Christ, here, now, in this moment, are called to the same embodiment of liberation and justice in all our woundedness and brokenness.
As Doran Schrantz, Executive Director of ISAIAH told over a thousand of us this past week gathered for the faith organizers annual meeting, things like racial, economic, and climate justice will not happen because some caped politician swoops in to save the day, not because of some senate or judicial body is able to kill once and for all the corrupting influence of money in politics, or any of our other political pipedreams, regardless of which side of the aisle we may lean toward. Justice will happen because of us, because of our bodies protesting in the streets, organizing and lobbying and meeting with neighbors and elected officials.
Even more than this, justice and reconciliation in the world will happen when we begin to take seriously our own liberation, when we take to heart that by God’s grace, we are free to love and live more deeply connected with one another.
Most of us are familiar with Dr. King’s quote that echoes this sentiment, saying in 1968, not long before his own martyrdom,
“We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an
inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”
A couple of weeks ago Nate Van Ypren used this quote at the opening of his powerful forum on the life and work of an unsung hero of the Civil Rights Movement, Bayard Rustin, a deeply influential figure in the organizing of several of the movements most prominent actions, not least of which was the organizing of the March on Washington. A contemporary of Dr. King, Rustin found himself often having to fight for his dignity on two fronts, outwardly as a black man fighting against the influence of hundreds of years of slavery and Jim Crow laws, and inwardly in his own community and within the movement, because he was an out gay man. In our forum, we heard a powerful and moving story told of Rustin describing his own path to liberation. The story goes that in the ’40s in the South, Rustin was heading to the back of a segregated bus, and a young white boy reaches out, is drawn to touch something shiny on Rustin’s necktie. And, the boys mother, using the N-word, commands the boy to stop – do not touch that N-word, she said. Rustin claims this moment as pivotal in his own formation and part of what helped him realize he needed to “come out” as a gay man… in the 1940s and 50s.
He said to himself,
“I owe it to that child, not only to my own dignity but I owe it to that child that it should be educated to know that blacks do not want to sit in the back. And, therefore, I should get arrested, letting all these white people in the bus know that I do not accept that. Now, it occurred to me shortly after that that it was an absolute necessity for me to declare homosexuality because, if I didn’t, I was a part of the prejudice that was a part of the effort to destroy me.”
We are all a part of the same garment of destiny. Justice and dignity for me means I must seek justice and dignity for you. Either we are all liberated or we are all still captive. Either we are collaborators in our own liberation or we are collaborators in our own destruction. Rustin’s powerful story reminds us that the church is called to embody liberation, to take the words Jesus spoke, the words his life and death fulfilled, into ourselves. We, the Church, are to make manifest, in all our giftedness and brokenness, the Body of Christ, given for the world.
Today the call is as fresh as when Jesus first preached it. The call to be fully in our bodies, to be courageous in being who God created us to be, to live as liberators and reconcilers.
For God’s Spirit is upon us, calling us to proclaim and embody good news for the poor, release for captives and slaves, new sight for those blinded by selfish ambition and pride, freedom for the oppressed, and forgiveness of all debts owed. These things are fulfilled, today, in your hearing. Make it so in the flesh, in your self, in the world you will encounter from this moment forward and forever.