Those of you visiting or relatively new to the parish will assume that I scheduled the Annual Meeting on this day to coincide with the readings from Corinthians and Luke. In particular, if you are here because of the work we have been doing against Human Trafficking, you now know the passage from which the “ransom note” t-shirt comes and the words which drive most of our ministries around here. Of course, far many more of you have been here a while. You have known me six years. You know that neither I nor the Vestry plan that well. In truth, the date was encouraged by our by-laws, and I did not see the readings until Robin printed them out for the lecterns. But, yes, I did give a fist pump. Is there a better set of readings for us as we head into an Annual Meeting? The pranksters among us might suggest John 11:35 (and yes, I am going to make you look that one up if you want in on the joke), but Luke 4:18-19 sure describes a great deal of our calling as a parish. I find it amazingly appropriate for us to consider this day the verses which we so often use in public.
Notice where this pericope occurs in Luke’s narrative. This passage follows the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness right after His baptism and comes before the healing ministry which should confirm His identity in the sight of those who witnessed the events. The dove has already anointed Jesus as the Christ. Satan has tried unsuccessfully to dissuade Him from His mission. Jesus has returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit. So what does He do? He goes to church. Technically, He goes to synagogue, but the purpose is the same. He goes to the gathering of God’s people to worship God and give thanks to God for the blessings of this life. One of our struggles around here has been attendance at worship. “Community Meal was my worship, Father.” “I was just tired this week, Father.” “I just wasn’t feeling like worshiping, you know. He feels a little distant in my life right now, and I just couldn’t get up for it.” “Well, I had this scheduled and that scheduled and, you know, I didn’t think about attending one of the midweek services.” Sound familiar? Perhaps this narrative speaks to you about your attendance. Maybe you find yourself distant from God. Maybe you have forgotten all that He has done for His people and for you. Perhaps it should speak to all of us. Is our worship stale? Are our services no longer creating that thin space where this world and the next meet through the sacrament? These are certainly questions we need to be asking both individually and as a worship community, and an annual meeting serves as a good time to take an inventory of such things.
Of course, the pericope is only beginning with Jesus attending worship. Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah and then gives the most amazing sermon on the lesson. “Today the Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus takes the declaration of Isaiah and applies it directly to Himself. Is He egotistical and simply bragging? Has He lost His mind? Certainly not. Initially, those in attendance were amazed at His gracious words. Better still, those miracles which follow testify to His authority and to the truth of His sermon. He has come to preach good news to the poor. He has come to set the prisoners free. And we know by His life, His death on the cross, His Resurrection, and His Ascension that He was anointed by God and that He successfully completed the mission given Him by His heavenly Father. Truly that congregation present was given an amazing insight into the plan of salvation. Like us today, some accepted Jesus; others rejected Him.
Those that accept Jesus’ message, naturally, are among the anawim--the so called pious poor--of the Old Testament. Samuel, Amos, Isaiah, and the Psalmists refer to this group as the humble whom God will exalt. Yes, many are economically disadvantaged, but not all are. The “pious poor” to whom Jesus is sent to proclaim freedom and release are those who recognize that they need God. Some are prophets, some are economically well off, some won’t even be Israelites, as Jesus will remind us next week as His teaching continues. Put in modern worship words, these are the people with contrite hearts, and Jesus is here to proclaim a specific message to them and to those who eventually reject Him. Are we, both individually and corporately, among the anawim. Do we truly recognize our need for God in our lives and in our parish? Or are we about glorifying ourselves? Just as importantly, do we minister to those pious poor in our midst the way God is truly calling us? Are we ignoring some? Are we paying to those who might not be among the pious poor that God has called us to serve? Again, the annual meeting serves as a great time for us to pause, both individually and corporately, and examine ourselves and our ministries. Are we proclaiming Him in all that we say and do, and are we inviting others to join us in our calling?
As a congregation, you and I might better understand than some of our brothers and sisters in the world around us the significance of the “year of the Lord’s favor” with which He is tasked to proclaim. Those who studied Deuteronomy for three years around here can answer all your questions on the subject, but God taught a unique economic system in Israel, an unique system which was, for the most part, ignored by His people. In those days there were no credit cards. If you lacked funds to pay for necessary items, there was a kind of slavery. One could sell oneself to the one to whom a debt was owed. The catch was that every seventh year, all those enslaved in Israel were to be set free. In other words, no enslavement could last more than six years. Think of how radical such a system was. Think of the testimony it would have given to the nations around Israel had they upheld it and God had blessed it. And think of the hope for those enslaved. Unlike in other nations and their systems, if you were a slave in Israel you knew when your time of service ended. You had hope! You had God’s promise! Now we understand the betrayal that some felt and the need for that proclamation. Imagine being in a system where the Pharisees are scrupulous about the torah to the point that they add some 600 new laws, and yet they seem never to call Israel to honor the year of the Jubilee, the year of release. And, just for a second, place yourself in the shoes of the slaves or their families. What would your joy have been like to be freed or have a loved one freed? How inclined would you have been to give thanks to God for yours or their release? Again, the annual meeting gives us an opportunity to re-examine our message. Are we proclaiming release from sin and bondage through the work and person of Christ? Are we loving others as Christ first loved us? Are we harbingers of joy and thanksgiving and freedom? Or are we saddlers of guilt and weight?
And that message and our calling brings me to the bit we will consider today. Do we truly believe and proclaim that the release and freedom announced by Jesus has been achieved, both in our individual lives and in our corporate life together? Is Jesus to us an interesting figure of history, a wise teacher, a radicalist of one sort or another? Or is He the Savior of us and the world as He proclaims and demonstrates through His life, death, and Resurrection? Is He the Way, the Truth, and the Life, or is He just a remarkable figure who had some interesting ideas? Those of us who have met Him in our lives testify to the freedom and release He has given us. Better still, as a congregation, we can testify to His power at work among us and through us as we serve others and proclaim that same message of release, of freedom, and of light burdens.
Brothers and sisters, today marks an important day in the life of this parish. The Vestry and I have asked you to pray and fast and help us discern where God is leading us as we look ahead to our life together. But it also serves as a day when can reflect on those things we are doing. Are we glorifying God in our life together? Do we exhibit the joy and thankfulness one might expect from a redeemed people? Are we cognizant of the cost of our freedom and release and moved at all times and in all places to give thanks to the One who first proclaimed and then acted to secure our liberation. Our passage reminds us today of three chief responsibilities that we have as heralds of His message of release. (1) Christ is unique. He was given a special task and anointed to accomplish it by God, a task which He completed at cost of His life. (2) The message we are given, in marketing terms, has a specific target group. Specifically, we are called to teach the pious poor in our midst all the saving work He has done, both in our individual lives and in our corporate life, that His saving deeds will be passed on to a generation as yet unborn or unreborn in the church. (3) Unlike other teachers and pundits and so-called wise men in history, Jesus brings about the release He has promised. We have talked many times that one of the unique ways in which the Lord works is to proclaim, to do, and then to remind the audience that He proclaimed it first. You and I are called to share in the proclamation and then to work to make God’s will happen in our midst. As we enter more formally this period of discernment, how are we doing? How are you doing? Are you living and sharing by word and example HIs good news? Are we as a church? How can we be doing better? This is the time when we can all take a breath, listen carefully for that still, small voice, and then recommit ourselves to His service in our community.