Release to the Captives

Around this time of year my mind usually wanders to Bangor Maine. Why? In the mid and late 1990’s I came to know two retired United Church Ministers, one lived in the valley and the other lived in New Brunswick. I discovered that every late January they would drive from Saint John to Bangor and attend a series of lectures by distinguished preachers and scholars in the United States. I confess I found the trip therapeutic, an excuse to get away in the middle of slush and ice as I did for the speakers at the Conference. I enjoyed the company, my colleagues were great travelling companions.

One year were storm-stayed in Bangor so on that Sunday morning, my friends went to the local Presbyterian Church and I went to the Methodist church. I remember getting there early, I thought the service began at 10 am, but it was an 11 am start. So as I walked into the empty sanctuary I could hear a lone voice, someone who was chanting or speaking out loud for some reason. I like to rehearse my sermons on long walks so I assumed this Minister might be attempting to master her words.

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But as I moved closer I could hear scripture verses being repeated. “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…today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” When she saw me from a distance the Minister, wearing her robes, waved me forward. She looked a little embarrassed. She told me that before anyone showed up she liked to walk throughout the church building; the Hall, the Sunday school rooms, the study room, the kitchen, the sanctuary, everywhere in the church, speaking the liberating words of Jesus so that she was reminded what Jesus had taught, what he had lived and what he had done. It was not only a reminder to her, being reminded that “Today this scripture has been fulfilled” she in turn could remind the congregation of what it is that the Spirit offers.

Karoline Lewis, Professor of Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary, reminds us that knowing this Jesus is a life-changing experience, that we have a life-changing God. Four weeks into the New Year, our resolutions to change our life may be waning. The exercise plan, the healthy eating, the additional time for meditation, all seem a little less capable of the hopes you had for them. Enter Luke 4 -- a reminder that our life-changing call does not always have to be for the sake of improving ourselves, but for the sake of uplifting the other. A reminder that our frequent attempts to set out to change our lives are often done in the absence of the one who changes lives. In other words, our endless attempts to improve ourselves often separate us from both the other and the Other, connecting to the Spirit is a reminder of who we are and whom we serve and what is happening in our midst.

God has now entered the world as flesh so that no human can be overlooked. No one can be left in a place of oppression. No one is unworthy of God’s good news. When your life is altered, transformed, reborn, well, that’s a rather big deal. A life change brings about something that seems so out of the range of possibility -- release from our captivity, sight when we have been blind, generous when we have hoarded, belonging when we have known isolation. To feel that energy, that Spirit, that renewed sense of being opens to us the possibility of something new, for me, for you, for everyone. This Minister who was walking around her church, she knew this and she wanted to hold to it, be kept in it, and be transformed by it. What happens here can and does make all the difference.

Those who would have heard Jesus’ words, in that context, they needed their lives to be turned upside down so that what was old knows only newness again. They don’t need a new diet, a new regimen, a new commitment to good habits that for various and sundry reasons have gone by the wayside. They need to know that God sees them, God regards them, God looks with favour upon them, because when that happens, it is life-changing. And that’s what the Gospel is all about. I recall a preacher friend who would always end the worship services he led by looking out at the congregation and saying, “the world may not see you but God sees you and knowing that, believing that, you are set free to be all God wants you to be, to have the opportunity to imagine it this way…”

Jesus’ sermon preached that day in Nazareth was a life-changer. Preaching involved making an ancient story, the wisdom of the prophets, alive for the day. Jesus’ listeners were shocked. What do you mean that the Spirit of the Lord is HERE? Now? Today? That the poor hear good news, that prisoners are being released, the blind see, and the oppressed receive justice? This is the year of Lord's favour? It’s one thing to speak this way about the sweet-by-and-by in this manner, you know “one day we’ll all get to heaven and…” It’s one thing to say one day the poor will hear good news, one day the prisoners will be released, one day the blind will see, one day the oppressed will receive justice, that this is the year of the Lord’s favour BUT to then say, “TODAY this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”, well that’s just confounding. Who says that? What does it mean?

Scholar and author Dr. Diana Butler Bass (we have explored some of her books in our recent faith studies) reminds us that, “Faith communities are often consumed with memories of the past and hopes for the future. Speaking of the past may take a form of maintaining buildings and structures, of teaching ancient texts, and passing on patterns of life and values from ancestors. Speaking of the future is often wrapped up in hopes for salvation and eternal life, desires for answered prayers, for the children to hold onto faith or come back to church. Both past and future are important to vibrant communities; healthy and life-giving practices of honoring our ancestors and embracing a hopeful future derive from the witness of the whole biblical tradition.”

However, a recent survey from Public Religion Research discovered that the majority of churchgoers in the United States express high levels of both nostalgia and anxiety. By strong majorities, religious Americans--particularly white Protestants, and without any significant difference between theological conservatives and liberals--believe that "our best days are behind us" and that the future of society is bleak. In particular, mainline congregations are caught between memorializing the good old days and a deepening sense of desolation that some promised future will never arrive. Evidently, most Protestants would rather look back with sadness than trust that a more just and beautiful future beckons. As a result, today is lost. Today is merely a stage upon which we mourn the loss of past and fear what we cannot imagine. 

Butler Bass says that Today places us in the midst of the sacred drama, reminding us that we are actors and agents in God's desire for the world. Today is the most radical thing Jesus ever said. Jesus essentially told his friends, "Look around. See the Spirit of God at work, right here. Right now. God is with us. Just as I AM promised to Moses at the burning bush, 'I will be with you.' This is the sign of God's covenant. The ever active, ever loving, ever liberating, always present God is here with us. Now."

In short my friends that Spirit of release to the captives, that Spirit that sets us free to love, to heal, to connect, to mend, to build, to hear, to dance, to be, that Spirit is present today, here, now. People sometimes ask me why, in spite of all the challenges of life, of the church, of Ministry, I seem so enthusiastic. Believe me I have bad days. But when I am inspired it is because I am aware that this Spirit is present today and I am excited to see what God is doing, I want to be part of it.

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. Today this promise has been fulfilled in your hearing--what we need is here. Today. Amen.