Saturday, January 26, 2013

All Eyes Fixed Upon Him ~ Luke ~ Sermon

I love to watch figure skating on television.  It’s my favorite competition in the winter Olympics – I love to watch the skaters glide across the ice, leap – seemingly without effort – into the air, spin in dizzying circles, and land gracefully on one foot, still moving at top speed.  Judging from the television ratings, I’d say I’m not alone in finding their skill and grace to be utterly captivating.
What about you?  What mesmerizes you?  What causes you to stop and stare, completely transfixed by what you are seeing?
                A lot of people feel the same way about football that I do about figure skating.  They love to watch that player running down the field like a gazelle, weaving his way back and forth between his would-be destroyers until he makes his final dash across the goal line.  When I mentioned this to a friend a couple of days ago, he told me about having seen a game in which a player about to be tackled literally sprang into a flip.  He flipped completely over in the air, came down on both feet, and raced toward the goal – leaving the defense reaching into thin emptiness.  Mesmerizing, yes ?!
                Sometimes it’s a work of art that captures our attention.  You know Michelangelo’s great statute of David, poised in anticipation of his encounter with Goliath?  Tears came to my eyes when I saw that statue for the first time a few years ago.
Sometimes it’s the grandeur of nature.  I know from a Sunday some months ago that many of you have been to the Grand Canyon; I imagine that to be a completely enthralling sight.  For myself, I would add the sight of the sunrise over the ocean, or the full moon sparkling over the water.
                What about speeches?  They’ve come to mind, haven’t they, in this past historic week in which the inauguration of an African-American president took place on Martin Luther King Day?  President John Kennedy, at his own inauguration, urging us to “[a]sk not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Dr. King, in his speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, rolling out the words of the prophets Amos and Isaiah as he proclaimed his dream.  Perhaps the most mesmerizing speech in the history of our nation.   Unless, perhaps, that prize goes to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, or maybe his Gettysburg address.  Almost all of us can repeat the first words of the latter, “Four score and seven years ago . . .”.
Does Jesus have the same effect on you? Is he a mesmerizing figure for you?  Maybe, maybe not.  For many people, he’s such an ancient figure, trapped in the archaic language and customs of a time unfamiliar to us – it’s difficult to do much more than honor his memory and try to follow his teachings.
                For many others, if there’s anything that draws them unwaveringly toward Jesus, it’s the cross.  We gaze at the crucified Jesus through the long week-end preceding Easter Sunday; if you happen to attend a Catholic church, the crucified Jesus will confront you for any entire service.  And for many Christians, the phrase “he died for me” sums up their understanding of Christian faith and life.  What happened on that cross, the suffering and death that Jesus endured for others – that’s the sum total, or at least the larger portion, of Christianity.
                But what about when he acts, or speaks, as he does in today’s passage? 
                Let’s look at his actions, which seem to be slow and deliberate.  They  must have made an impression, as each one is recorded separately: He went to the synagogue, he stood up, he received the scroll, he unrolled the scroll, he found his place, he read, he rolled the scroll back up, he returned it to the attendant, he sat down, and he began to preach.
                Usual and customary actions, for a reading and preaching rabbi.  Not usual and not customary for Jesus, son of Joseph, local boy making good.  But is that why the eyes of all were fixed upon him?
                I think there was more to it.
                I think, first of all, that there must have been something about Jesus that morning – that morning and for the next three or four years.  Remember, Jesus has just returned from the desert. Forty days in the desert, into which he was led by the Spirit, in which he was tormented and tested – the place in which he came face to face with who he was, with what his deepest loves and passions were, with what was going to be required of him.  I think that Jesus was not just Joseph’s son making good, local boy all grown into adulthood.  I think that Jesus was completely transformed, and that he radiated love and passion and uncompromising faith – and promise.  And that the eyes of all were fixed upon him because that transformation was unmistakable, and demanded attention.
                But there’s more.  More than his actions and appearance. His words.  What does he say?
                He says,
                “The Spirit of God 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.”
The words of the prophet Isaiah.  Words written hundreds of years previous to a broken people.  The words of the prophet Isaiah become the words of Jesus.  Jesus sees himself, understands himself as a prophet – as one who points out the failures of the people and calls them to accountability and torenewal – and he understands himself as the fulfillment of prophecy, as the one who will establish the Kingdom of God in which God’s broken and yet beloved creation is transformed into God’s new heaven and new earth for all. 
                And to what does he call the attention of those whose eyes are fixed upon him?  To what does he call our attention? 
                To the poor, to the captive, to the blind, to the oppressed.
Let me tell you how those words have mesmerized me recently:
Have any of you seen the BBC television series, Call the Midwife?  It’s based on a series of books written by a British midwife about her real-life experiences in the impoverished East End of London in the 1950s – at least so far.  Young and somewhat naïve Nurse Jenny Lee heads to the East End to work with a group of midwives founded by a Church of England order of nuns – and so four of the main characters are nun midwives, and four are young women who come to work with them without joining the convent. 
As midwives, the women are primarily responsible for the care of women in pregnancy and childbirth – most births take place at home, and healthy women without complications are cared for by midwives rather than by doctors.  Given the high population, deep poverty, and lack of resources in the East End, however, the midwives also find themselves to be the primary health caregivers for their neighbors in all sorts of other ways as well.
                One of the storylines in the Christmas special last month for focused on the plight of one             Mrs. Jenkins, a disheveled woman who comes to the attention of the midwives due to her interest in the babies of the neighborhood.  The young mothers find the attention of this miserable old woman of the streets to be very disturbing – one of them essentially beats her up to keep her away from the mother’s baby – and so the midwives come to the rescue and begin to care for her. It develops that Mrs. Jenkins’ story, in a nutshell, is this:  Widowed at a very young age and left with five small children she could not support, she – and her children – had been sent to the workhouse, a brutal solution to the problems of the poor – the sort of place that novelist Charles Dickens had publicized and criticized decades earlier.  One by one, Mrs. Jenkins’ children had died – and she knew not when, nor where they were buried.  Once in the workhouse, all of one’s autonomy and dignity was stripped away.  Now she roams the streets, wearing filthy clothing and sleeping at night in a hovel of an apartment – and she is enchanted by other babies, who remind her of her own beloved children, all lost to her.
                Jesus says,
                “The Spirit of God  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.” 
Mrs. Jenkins.  Utterly impoverished.  Captive, imprisoned, by her grief, by her guilt, by the unavailability of second chances.  Blind to the loving help the midwives offer her – at least at first; frightened and defensive, she physically attacks two of them when they first come to check on her.  Oppressed by a system that took her children, her self-worth, her capacity to care for her family, and the very lives of those she loves most.
There is an extraordinary scene in the episode which I’m describing, in which two of the midwives, one an elderly and savvy sister and the other the young and no longer quite so naïve Jenny Lee, persuade Mrs. Jenkins to permit them to bathe her.  Jenny Lee discovers that Mrs. Jenkins’ boots, probably not removed for months, must be peeled away from her skin with the help of Vaseline.  Slowly, removing one flea-infested article of clothing at a time, the nurses prepare to immerse Mrs. Jenkins in a steaming bath and, as they do so in respectful silence, what we hear are the eerily exquisite sounds and words of the song, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” 
I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen an illustration in any form that conveyed to me so eloquently the holy beauty of the Incarnation: God coming to us in human form to share bodily in our poverty, captivity, blindness, and oppression.
And I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a more starkly dramatic rendition of the prophetic words of Jesus in Luke 4: Two midwives in one of the most impoverished urban areas of the word, bringing good news to the poor, freeing the captive, bringing sight to the blind, and freeing the oppressed. 
Jesus went to the desert and he emerged, no longer an ordinary boy playing on the streets of Nazareth, no longer a typical young man learning a trade.    Jesus emerged from the desert and strode into the synagogue to fulfill his calling, to proclaim with clarity and conviction that the long-ago words of the prophet Isaiah had become present reality in him.  Jesus entered the synagogue to articulate his mission, to lay out his plan.
This, this mission of Jesus, is what it means to know yourself as beloved. To be a Mrs. Jenkins, broken in every way, finding love in the hands of unexpected caregivers.  This is what it means to recognize others as God’s beloved.  To be a midwife, in the broadest sense of the word, bringing others to light and life. 
This mission of Jesus means that we are all caught up in the wonder and mystery of a God who seeks to heal all of creation.  It means that we are all invited into the life of the Son who comes to proclaim and to enact the good news for the poor, freedom offered the captive, sight given the blind, and the burden of oppression lifted from all.  It means that when one is led by the Spirit and filled with the Spirit and speaks out of the Spirit, one is soaked in the freedom and love of a God who calls to us all: Join in a new creation, a new heaven and a new earth, a universe in which all that impoverishes and traps and blinds and burdens us is demolished by the God who loves us.  
Does Jesus mesmerize you now?  Jesus, launching the Kingdom of God, offering riches untold, freeing us from sin, inviting us into a new vision of life, and releasing us from all that threatens to oppress and limit?
Do you see God revealed and hear your name called and your mission named?  You are beloved, and you are called by the prophetic voice that says: Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.  Go forth to share the good news, and to participate in the freeing of the captive, in opening the eyes of the blind, and in eradicating oppression.
The eyes of all were fixed upon him.  Are yours?