Luke 4:14-21; Isaiah 65:17-25; Galatians 5:1, 13-25
How do you say “goodbye” when so much of whom and what you have known for the past 20 years is right here in this room? If I would take my cue from Jesus as his departure is described in the Gospel of Luke, I would say to you, “These are the words that I spoke to you while I was still with you according to our scriptures and this is what I would like you to do after I leave you—specifically to proclaim the good news about repentance and the forgiveness of sins to all the nations. So that you may be my witnesses to these things, I will send you the power of the Holy Spirit.” In his departure, Jesus basically shared with his disciples what was most important to him regarding the message that could transform this world to become the beloved community about which he spoke so often. Knowing the risk that this message might bring upon his disciples, Jesus promised to send them the Spirit of peace by whose power they would be able to fulfill all that he had taught them.
Following this cue, I cheated today because I substituted for two of the assigned lessons for today readings from scripture that are most important to me—the reading from the prophet Isaiah and the gospel lesson from Luke. As far as I am concerned, these two lessons, along with the assigned lesson from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, sum up the mission of the followers of Jesus—the one who came to proclaim good news to those who were impoverished and to those who were held captive to the principalities and powers of this world, to restore sight to those who were blind to the truth of God’s love, to liberate those who were oppressed, and to proclaim the year of God’s favor—otherwise known as the year of the Jubilee when all debts would be cancelled, slaves would be allowed to go free, and the land would be redistributed so that everyone would be able to own their own property on which to grow food for their sustenance. Jesus perceived this reading from Isaiah to be his marching orders in this life and he would die attempting to fulfill this mission.
Of course, reading on in the prophet Isaiah, Jesus also knew what the vision of this fulfillment would look like. The city of Jerusalem would be filled with joy because the instances of infant mortality as a result of harsh economic conditions would be no more, people would have their own houses and vineyards to take care of instead of working as slaves so that others could luxuriate in their abundance, and peace would exist throughout the entire city because no one would hurt anyone else or destroy any one else’s property. Just as Jesus took his cue from the scripture that was so important to him, I also take my cue from this scripture that describes for all of us what Jesus’ vision was and what he understood his mission to be in order to realize this vision of Isaiah in the here and now.
Jesus did not set out on this mission all on his own. When Jesus was baptized, God basically commissioned and called Jesus to do all that would be pleasing to God and filled Jesus with the power of the Holy Spirit in order to accomplish this mission. Those of us who have been baptized in the name of Jesus likewise have been called and ordained to do all that is pleasing to God and have received the power of the Holy Spirit in order to accomplish this mission—a mission that won’t necessarily be easy because daily we will have to decide whether we are going to live according to the fruit of this Spirit or according to the passions and desires of our flesh. Don’t think that Jesus didn’t have to make these same decisions every day of his life, because he did. He was tempted with the same temptations that we all have to deal with on a daily basis—the temptations that are rooted in our pride, our greed, our lust for power, and our want for control.
Our human flesh is all about me, myself, and I. Jesus was all about we, ourselves, and us as a beloved community. That’s why he taught his disciples to pray, “Give us all our daily bread,” and why he said to his disciples as he passed around a piece of bread, “This is my body given for all of you, not just for you as an individual.” That also is why Jesus’ command to love our neighbor is so important because concentrating on loving our neighbor gets us outside of ourselves and helps us to realize that life is much more than making sure that I have food on my own table and that my own family is safe and secure. The whole point of Jesus’ proclamation about the good news of God’s reign on earth was that we all are in this world together and if we want to experience the justice and peace of God then we best learn how to love our neighbor—all of our neighbors—as we ourselves have been so graciously loved by God.
That’s why Jesus was so focused on what he could do for others. Jesus saw people in need all around him all the time. It didn’t matter whether the person was a leper, a prostitute, a tax collector, a Roman centurion, a religious leader, a gross sinner, a Samaritan, a rich man, a poor widow, a little child, a gay person, a Muslim, a fascist, a beggar, a revolutionary, an atheist, a drug addict, a racist, a slave, a murderer, or a hypocrite. From Jesus’ perspective, all of these people were his neighbor—even his worst enemy—who were meant to be loved by God just as Jesus knew how much God loved him. Such was the love that compelled Jesus to love all people, because Jesus knew that the best way to demonstrate his love for God was by loving his neighbors, including his enemies.
Such love goes against every passion and desire of our flesh that is grounded in our fear for own survival, safety, and security. No wonder when Jesus called his disciples, he told them that they would be challenged to deny themselves and to be willing to accept death on a cross in order to follow in his way of inclusive love and non-violent resistance to the principalities and powers of this world. In order for Jesus’ disciples to be able to fulfill this calling, Jesus breathed on them the Holy Spirit who would give them other passions and desires to go out and proclaim good news to those who were impoverished and to those who were held captive to the principalities and powers of this world, to help people to see the truth about God’s love and God’s desire for peace in this world, to liberate those who were oppressed, and to proclaim and live according to the year of God’s Jubilee.
I hope that you are never at a loss for wondering, “What does God want me to do with my life?” because we all have been given more than enough information and instruction by Jesus about what to do in our lives than we ever will be able to fulfill on our own. That’s why we have been given this community of faith so that we might know that we never are alone in our mission to follow in the way of Jesus and to do all that God desires of us in loving our neighbors as we ourselves have been loved by God. We are here for each other to encourage one another in our mission as Jesus’ disciples, to admonish one another when we stray from this mission, to forgive each other when we fail to do what God desires of us, and to remind one another of our shared vision about being the beloved community in which infant mortality will be greatly reduced, women no longer will be dominated by men, slavery will be no more, hunger and homelessness will be abolished, poverty will be a thing of the past, and gun violence and warfare will cease to exist.
For the past 20 years, we have been on this journey together. From the moment that I led you in the song, “Spirit of Gentleness,” at my interview, we have been a people on the rise with visions in our eyes for what might be possible in breaking ancient schemes and allowing people who are captive to homelessness to dream dreams. Such was the vision given to us by the Spirit of God that gave birth to Elizabeth Gregory Home and the Sanctuary Art Center, and that prompted us to continue our involvement in the Community Lunch Program at Central Lutheran, to cook breakfast at ROOTS Young Adult Shelter, and to produce thousands of quilts to send around the world. Together, we challenged the ancient schemes of denominational divisiveness by forming the University District Ecumenical Parish and the University District Ecumenical Campus Coalition. Even though these endeavors did not realize their fulfillment, our passion and desire for breaking down the historical dividing walls among us persists as we are in dialogue with University Temple United Methodist Church about a joint mission and collaborative ministries.
As a beloved community, we have welcomed 71 people, including 12 adults, into our community of faith through baptism during the past 20 years. During this same time, we have said farewell to 100 saints of this congregation and committed them to their eternal rest, and we pause now to remember who they are. Every week, and sometimes more often, we have gathered around this table to share in this holy meal so that we might be set free from the passions and desires of our flesh and be renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit to love one another with God’s love, to do the justice that God requires of us, and to pursue the things that make for peace in our homes, our neighborhoods, our city, our state, our nation, and throughout the world.
I have had the honor and privilege to serve you at this table—a table to which everyone is welcome no matter whether or not you have been baptized or whether or not you believe, because this sacred meal is not about fulfilling the right prerequisites to earn God’s favor, but rather is a gift of God’s grace. If I may be so presumptuous, every one of us in this room has pursued some passions and desires of our flesh this past week and we all are in need of God’s forgiveness and the freedom from any guilt that we might be bearing for the wrongs that we have done. That is why all of you are welcome to this table.
In closing, don’t ever let anyone tell you that you did not hear about Jesus in this place. No matter whether you believe that Jesus is truly divine and/or truly human, Jesus still is the One who has revealed to us the face of God that was willing to forgive all of us completely, no matter whether or not we knew that we had done anything wrong to nail Jesus to the cross. Having been set free from our sins, we are never to use this freedom as a license or opportunity for our self-indulgence. Instead, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are to use our freedom from sin to love one another and all of our neighbors with God’s love, to err on the side of forgiveness when our flesh and the world cry out for retaliation and revenge, to advocate for justice wherever poverty, oppression, or corruption exist, and to refrain from any form of violence or warfare that would shed the blood of another human being.
Jesus died hoping that by his example his blood would be the last blood to be shed on this earth and trusted that his followers would pursue this vision and mission by the power of the Holy Spirit. As I leave you this week, I pray that you will dwell in the divine fruit of this Spirit and be the love, the joy, the peace, the patience, the kindness, the generosity, the faithfulness, the gentleness, and what I call the ego control that will bring justice, peace, and freedom to all the Earth. As you continue to live into this vision by the power of the Holy Spirit, may the grace and peace of God that goes beyond all of our human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds ever faithful unto Jesus, our Savior and our Servant. Amen.