Strengthened and Empowered by the Spirit

Transcribed from the sermon preached January 24, 2016

The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor

 Scripture Readings: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Luke 4:14-21

How many of you have read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment? The 1500 plus pages take place inside one man’s mind. He commits murder and then we see from inside his mind how his attempt to cover it up becomes all consuming until he is mad. I made it to somewhere around page 1,000 and had to give it up before I went mad. Think of a time when you have done or said something wrong, dishonest or untrue, and tried to cover it up. The first act then has to be covered up. And the cover up is the next act, and the next, and the next. We are stuck trying to create a world all by ourselves, a world that pays tribute to and justifies that first dishonest act. We do this collectively too, joining together to justify ourselves, insisting that the myths we have created are true. Maintaining this false world then consumes us, draws our attention and focus. We even have to attempt to get into the minds of others who might find us out, to imagine what they might think of us, how they might be trying to catch us. And the possibilities for what someone might be thinking are infinitely more than what they are actually thinking, so there is no end, no escape from our own endless thoughts, no escape from ourselves. The lie we are living becomes oppressive, we become captive to it, and blind to the truth. Who can set us free?

Jesus says, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach Good News to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of Jubilee. This has been called the manifesto of Jesus.

In Luke we start with the birth narrative; then Jesus is baptized by John. The Spirit descends upon him and then he goes on his vision quest in the wilderness for forty days. I am not sure why we have cut the vision quest out of our faith journeys. I guess we like to play it safe. Maybe parents don’t like the idea of our kids going without food and company. Anyway, Jesus goes on his vision quest, the devil meets him, throws a variety of tempting options for his life, Jesus rejects them, and comes back to Galilee filled with the Spirit. The word got out that something special was going on with this guy Jesus, and people started to pay attention. Then when he got back to Nazareth, his home town, he entered the synagogue, and the first words out of his mouth, as recorded by Luke is this passage from Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the Jubilee year.”

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” No doubt this is what the Church should be about, as it was what Jesus was about. And so we have offered sanctuary to the poor of Guatemala, and with our help a family was released from captivity and reunited, we work for reform of the justice system and drug policy which has incarcerated hundreds of thousands for petty crimes, and disproportionately people of color. And Food Not Bombs uses our kitchen to prepare meals for 70 homeless people twice a week. We have worked on health care reform, with a lot of help from Marietta, so that the poor have the opportunity to, among other things, recover sight. But I suspect that the vast majority of us, regardless of our economic standing, come to church seeking help for our own poverty, our own captivity to unhelpful ways of living, for our own inability to see the way out of our own messes, for help dealing with our own health ailments and handicaps, for liberty and relief from our own debt. In our heads we live our own version of Crime and Punishment. Whether it is economic, legal, physical or relational or mental bondage, Jesus has come to set us free.

We cannot really be liberated, and freed from something unless we admit we are captive and oppressed by it. So vision, the ability to see, is key. So often we are blind and ignorant of what ails us. We may know we feel captive and oppressed, but we don’t know why – at least we don’t understand enough to fix it ourselves. We cannot see. Often, the more oppressed we feel, the more our focus is drawn to the specific pain or relationship. Our focus narrows. We get nitpicky. We fight about the small things. We focus on our own strength and effort. We try to deny and push certain things, people or issues down and away. We get self-centered and narrow focused.

Now when I say self-centered I don’t necessarily mean selfish. Many of us may want to help others, and we think it is our duty to get others the help they need. But our focus becomes what we can and cannot do, on our effort, as if we are the only hope for this person, the only hope for the world. It is kind of like the United State foreign policy. We like to think we are really good and really powerful, and so whenever there is a bad problem in the world we want to go fix it. We are so focused on our own goodness and power that we may be blinded to what the real problem is, and what is actually needed. So we go in with good intentions, guns a blazing and our actions make things worse, and some of the people we say we are trying to help are not grateful; in fact they say we are oppressive. How dare they? After all we have done!

So one of the reasons we come to church is to get our focus off of ourselves and onto God. It is refreshing and a relief. One of the common criticisms of Christians by atheists is that we are afraid of being in the world alone, so we create a God who can sooth and comfort us. They can call that a criticism, but I don’t consider it so. I call it an expansion of our vision; a move from arrogance toward humility that enables us to observe, not from our own narrow perspective but from God’s. Humility does not mean low self-esteem and weakness, but simply a recognition that the world does not revolve around us, our power, thoughts, successes and failures. Many of us who feel like failures and depressed take responsibility for stuff that is not in our power or ability to control. If there is no God then our salvation depends on us, or we have to pretend we are fine and in no need of saving. Either way, sooner or later, we are going to find out that even without a God as judge, we fall short. We hurt others, we are blind, we are captive. We have sinned.

Here at church we join with this big vision of Jesus. He sets his manifesto out so that we can join in, join together and move toward it. It sets our lives on a track that is bigger than ourselves, bigger than the fads and fashionable of the day.

Without a God we are left with many gods, gods who tell us what we should look like, what we should buy, who we should be with and sound like. We get jerked this way and that by who knows who. We get so busy trying to make it and survive that we begin to neglect any kind of bigger vision of justice and freedom. Freedom narrows down to the freedom to choose between things on sale. Americans, in a very real sense, are oppressed by choice, obsessed by having to have the right thing, the next thing. The beautiful thing about capitalism is that people are free to see a need and create a product or service to meet that need. The evolution of the wheelchair and the baby carriage are just two examples. But when we move from meeting a need to defining and monopolizing, shutting off competition or evidence that the products we produce or are addicted to are harmful, then we begin to be oppressed by what was at first a service. The conservatives are correct that is the job of government to maintain freedom for people to work and earn, and get out of the way. But as a business like oil or banking becomes so big that they buy politicians to write their own laws, shape information, and shut down competition, what is called freedom for one becomes oppression for another. Such a situation is good news for the rich and bad news for the poor. The job of government is also to prevent anyone from becoming a god who lords it over others. The danger is in the balance of power. We don’t want government to become a god either. Without a compass, our allegiance can shift this way and that, changing like the currents and the winds.

So we come to church. Humility brings us freedom. Both personally and collectively, we confess our sins, acknowledge that we fall short of the glory of God, that we are ignorant and blind of many things, and are in need of God’s forgiveness. We receive God’s grace. Knowing we are forgiven, we are no longer in need of denial, no longer in need of pretending we can or should be perfect and all powerful, and therefore we can look at ourselves and the world with open eyes. We can live freely in the truth. Jesus cancels our debts. With God’s grace comes the Spirit. The Spirit, which is always and everywhere present, but forgotten and shaded by our sin and denial, it is now set free to empower us to a new life where we accept who we are with all our limitations, and yet answer the challenge to join in the limitless, grand and glorious vision of the people of God, a vision that is good news for the poor, sight for the blind, liberation for the oppressed, and where debts are wiped away.

As a part of the body of Christ, we do not have to be all things to all people, but are called to offer our unique gifts in our unique way, to play a part on a team where there are no distinctions between class, race or gender, but where each of us plays a special role, a part of the body of Christ. God offers you grace, empowers you with the Spirit. Thank you for being you here with us – for being a part of this body