The Feast of Saint Luke

Preached on October 21, 2018, at Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church, Woodstown NJ

My New Testament professor and mentor taught me over two decades ago that all the academic study, all the textual criticism, all the historical criticism, all textual analysis and study, all of what is called exegesis in academic settings have to answer one question: So what? So what? That is what all the analysis and study is for. So, what that the text says this or that? So what that it meant this or that in its original setting?
And I’ll admit that I have been having a hard time with this text. And it took me about a week to realize why. I don’t know what the “So what?” is. I mean, don’t get me wrong. There is a lot of academic stuff and historical stuff and theological stuff that I would love to talk about. But they do not answer the “So what?” for this text as it relates to today, right here, right now.

What is the “So what?” Is it Luke and the Feast of Saint Luke? Is it Jesus visiting Nazareth? Is it all of the above? What’s the “So what?” here? Or to put it another way: Who cares? Who cares that is it the Feast of Saint Luke? Do we care, other than the fact that this church is named “Saint Luke’s”? Who cares that Jesus visited his hometown and read Isaiah in the synagogue one particular Saturday? How does any of this make a difference in my life? How does any of this do anything for me other than hearing a nice story and hearing a sermon in church in keeping with our standard process and procedure?

How do we get the Gospel out of the clouds and into the pew? And more importantly, how do we get the Gospel out of the pew and into our cars, and into our homes, and into our lives and our work and into our Facebook and Twitter accounts, and into our comings and goings? Is the Gospel something we hear in church, or is it something we take with us? And if we take it with us, what does that look like?

Regarding Saint Luke, there is not much I can say. We do not know much. Luke is mentioned in maybe three verses in the New Testament. On one of the occasions, he is referred to by Saint Paul as “the beloved physician,” leading to the tradition that Luke was a doctor. But I personally suspect that was more of a nickname than a job description. Elvis Presley was the King, but apparently, he was not royalty at all. Michael Jackson was the King of Pop, but that did not make him an actual king. I refer to my dog Shiloh as “My little velociraptor, but she’s just a dog, not a dinosaur. So, when Paul refers to Luke as “the beloved physician” in Colossians, I suspect it had to do more with Luke’s healing presence than it did his profession.

Nevertheless, Luke is responsible for writing about 25% of the New Testament. The only other person who wrote so much of the New Testament is Paul. Paul wrote about one-third, Luke wrote about one-quarter, and the remaining 40% or so of the New Testament was written by at least a half-dozen other people. Luke is also the only Gentile (that’s non-Jewish) author of the Gospels. Actually, Luke may be the only Gentile author of the entire New Testament.

But so what? Who cares? Sure, they are fun facts, but how does that make a difference to us sitting here in Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church two thousand years later? What does this Gentile writing about Jewish people and a Jewish Messiah have to say to us? I mean, I get it. Jesus is supposed to be important to us, and Luke is writing about Jesus; therefore, what he says is supposed to be important to us. But is it? If we are honest with ourselves, does it matter? I have gone days, maybe even months, without Luke or his writings in my life and spending time in these texts is what I do. So, I can imagine that those of you who are not in the pray trade can go even longer than that.
So let’s look at this together and see if we can find the “So what?”

The Gospel reading begins today with Luke telling us:

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit.

The Spirit is the Holy Spirit. The passage this morning is from the middle of the fourth chapter of Luke’s Gospel. If we had started reading from the beginning, we would see that the Holy Spirit is an active character in Luke’s Gospel. In the opening chapters of the Gospel, the Holy Spirit has been busy. It has interacted with Zachariah (John the Baptist’s father), Elizabeth (John the Baptist’s mother), the Blessed Virgin Mary, Simeon (the old guy in the Temple), and that’s just off the top of my head. Up to this point, the Holy Spirit has acted upon people; it has moved to conceive Jesus in the flesh, it has preached sermons, sung spontaneous hymns of praise, and inspired the unborn John the Baptist to kick within Elizabeth’s womb. So, by the time Jesus rolls around as an adult ready to begin his ministry, and his movement, the reader (and hearer) of the Gospel has become familiar with the Holy Spirit.

We learn that:

Jesus was also baptized when everyone else was. The sky opened up as he was praying and the Holy Spirit came down on him in a physical form like a dove…”

Immediately after that:

Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit. He left the Jordan, and the Spirit led him out into the desert to be tested by the devil for forty days.

After Jesus had successfully withstood temptation, we are told:

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit. Reports about him spread throughout the entire region. He taught in their synagogues and everyone sang his praises.

And:

Jesus went to Nazareth (the town where he grew up) and entered the synagogue like he normally did on the Sabbath. He stood up to read and was given the Book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book to the passage that reads:

The Lord’s Spirit is on me!

That is: “The Holy Spirit is on me!” Luke is letting us know that the Holy Spirit is the guide and power of the Church. Just as Jesus was filled with, directed by, and empowered by the Spirit, so too is the Church that formed around Jesus, and so too is the church that gathers in Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church on this October day in 2018.

The Church is guided by the Holy Spirit. That fact is made clear in the Acts of the Apostles. The Apostles and the disciples were continuously gathered in prayer and praising God, but they did not become “THE CHURCH” until the Holy Spirit empowers them on Pentecost. The Holy Spirit confirms the preaching and teaching of the Apostles and disciples with miracles. Just as each of us has a spirit that animates the body, the Holy Spirit is the spirit that animates the Church, which is the Body of Christ.
So, the Holy Spirit is upon Christ, and since we in the Church are the Body of Christ, the Holy Spirit is upon us. But again, so what?

The Lord’s Spirit is on me.
Because of this, he has anointed me

To anoint someone was to pour olive oil over their head or to rub olive oil onto their head. This act was meant to represent the flow and empowering of the Holy Spirit. It was a sign that the anointed person was appointed by God to serve as a prophet, priest, or king. To be anointed was to be imbued with the authority and the power to carry out a divinely sanctioned task. To be anointed was to be called by God to carry out some religious service. So let’s hear that again:

The Lord’s Spirit is on me.
Because of this, God has called me and empowered me to religious service.

What is that religious service?

To bring good news to the poor.
To proclaim freedom to prisoners,
The restoration of sight to the blind,
The liberation of all who are oppressed,
And to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

The word “Gospel” means “good news.” It is God’s good news. God’s good news is directed at “the poor.”

The good news is not directed at the up-and-in, but at the down-and-out. The Greek word for poor is πτωχός, and though it is usually translated as “poor,” it has the sense of one who cowers and crouches with fear. It is one who is bent over like a beggar. It is one who is low. It is not just poor. It is not just peasant. It is the completely destitute. It is the helpless. It signifies those who are so helpless that they are hopeless. That is who is to receive God’s good news.

The Lord’s Spirit is on me.
Because of this, God has called me and empowered me to religious service.
This religious service is to bring God’s good news to the helpless and the hopeless,
To proclaim freedom to prisoners,

The prisoners who are set free are those who were taken by the spear. They are prisoners of war. It marked the end of hostilities. But what does that have to do with us in our daily lives? We may not be taking literal prisoners of war in our daily lives, but I would venture that each of us take emotional and spiritual prisoners each day. I see this on Facebook all the time. We take prisoners. We label people and put them in cages we determine for them. We label them and ignore them. We call them “Liberals” or “Conservatives” or “Socialists” or “Fascists” or whatever label we use to dismiss them because if they are one of those things, then what they have to say is not important. We label them, and in the process, we dehumanize them. But we also put ourselves into cages by the labels we use for others and for ourselves. If we are “Liberals” then we cannot listen to certain things or ideas that are not “Liberal.” If we are “Conservative” then we cannot listen to anything that is not Conservative or which does not come to us from Conservatives. We imprison others and ourselves by the labels we use and by how we treat each other. We use our words to conquer and not to communicate. We use our words to hurt and to harm and not to heal. We declare war on each other every day and we take prisoners and lock each other up in cages.

And yes, we use real cages and real locks sometimes. We put children in detention camps. We punish the poor with prison when they have to steal to survive. We have more prisoners than any other country in the world. We also lock people up by limiting their futures. Fall behind on your credit and watch your opportunities disappear. You can’t even enlist in the military with bad credit. Limiting opportunity is a form of taking prisoners.

But most of us are taking emotional and spiritual prisoners each day. We may do it in our relationships, in our marriages, at school, at work, on social media, in traffic during our daily commute. We are both the captives and the captors.

The Lord’s Spirit is on me.
Because of this, God has called me and empowered me to religious service.
This religious service is to bring God’s good news to the helpless and the hopeless,
To stop taking prisoners and to let prisoners go free,
To restore sight to the blind,

The blind are those who physically cannot see, but it is also those who are mentally and spiritually blind. Blinded by their attitudes and their egos. Blinded by their stubbornness. To restore sight to those who are spiritually blind is to recognize our own blindness and short-sightedness – to stop being blinded by our own attitudes and presumptions – and to help others to see beyond their limited judgments of others.

The oppressed who are liberated are, in the Greek, those who are “broken” or “shattered.” It is those shattered by sin and those who are shattered by circumstances. Yet, there is release from this. There is remedy. There is remission. That is what the “liberation of the oppressed” means. It is forgiveness of sins, remission of illness, mending broken lives.

The Lord’s Spirit is on me.
Because of this, God has called me and empowered me to religious service.
This religious service is to bring God’s good news to the helpless and the hopeless,
To stop taking prisoners and to let prisoners go free,
To help others to be free from their bigotries and short-sightedness,
To mend broken lives, to forgive sins, to heal the wounded and the sick,

And to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, which is a reference to the Year of Jubilee. In the Torah, every fifty years was to be a year of jubilee. It was supposed to be a year where debts were cancelled and property was restored. It restored balance and returned everyone to an even footing in society. It was a reset that leveled the playing field and restored everyone to a state of social equality.

So, Jesus stood in the synagogue in Nazareth where he grew up and took the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah and read something that sounded like:

The Lord’s Spirit is on me.
Because of this, God has called me and empowered me to religious service.
This religious service is to bring God’s good news to the helpless and the hopeless,
To stop taking prisoners and to let prisoners go free,
To help others to be free from their bigotries and short-sightedness,
To mend broken lives, to forgive sins, to heal the wounded and the sick,
To cancel debts, restore relationships, level the playing field, and restore equality.

And then he sat down and said: “This passage has come true today as you listened to me read it.” If this passage had come true for those who heard it then, is it still true for us? And if so, how is it true for us? What does it mean for us? So what? Who cares?

And before we fall into the usual line of thinking of this is what we are to do for others. Let’s remember that the helpless and the hopeless and the blind and the prisoners and the oppressed are not just out there in the world waiting for us to get off of our pews and do something to help them. There are helpless and hopeless and prisoners and blind and oppressed and broken people in the Church and I would venture to say in this sanctuary. Sometimes, ministry is not what we do for others, but what we let others do for us. Sometimes the most loving thing we can do is to let others love us and care for us.

I don’t know about anyone else in here, but I have been poor in every sense of the word. I was so financially poor for a while I had to take out a second mortgage on my cardboard box. I have been spiritually poor, emotionally poor, poor in compassion, poor in forgiveness, poor in love, poor in grace, poor in mercy. I have been blind – blinded by my own arrogance, my expectations, my attitudes, my judgments, my bigotries, and yes, even blinded by my hatred. I have been oppressed by fears, addictions, bad relationships, bullies, and even religious authorities. I have been imprisoned by my own bad choices and my own self-imposed limitations on myself and others.
I don’t know about anyone else in here, but I have, at times needed some good news, but not just good news, not just good talk, but good action. Talk is cheap so speak with deeds. The first rule of writing is “show, don’t tell.” Show your love, don’t just say your love. Saying “I love you” when your actions say “I don’t care” gets old fast.

It really does not matter that God is love if God’s people are indifferent. It really does not matter what God wants to happen in the world if God’s people do not want it. The harvest is huge, and the workers are few, so pray to the Lord of the harvest to make what we want the same as what God wants. Then, and only then, will the world see the power of God, which is the power of love – because the Holy Spirit is the spirit and power of love.

The Church is filled with the Spirit; therefore, it is filled with love. The Church is empowered by the Spirit; therefore, it is empowered by love. The Church is guided by the Spirit; therefore, it is guided by love. This Holy Spirit of Love is the same Spirit that hovered over the chaotic deep at creation. It is the same Spirit that descended upon Jesus, filled Jesus, drove Jesus, empowered Jesus, and was on Jesus. It is the same Spirit that has created us, and this church, and who guides us and forms us and inspires us and who empowers us. The Spirit of Creation, the Spirit that was on Jesus, is the same Spirit that is on each of us if we are in the Body of Christ.

God is love. The Kingdom of God is the Kingdom of Love. The people of God are the People of Love. The Church of God is the Church of Love. Love is not what God does. Love is what God is. And whatever we do and whatever we say, if we are not doing it with love, we are not doing it for God.

The same Spirit that was on Jesus – the same Spirit of Love – is on each of us, collectively and individually, right here, right now. And because of this I can say to you:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church
Because of this, God has called Saint Luke’s and empowered it for religious service.
This religious service is to bring God’s good news to the helpless and the hopeless,
To stop taking prisoners and to let the prisoners we have taken go free,
To stop being blinded by our own limiting attitudes and biases and to help others to be free from their bigotries and short-sightedness,
To mend broken lives, to forgive sins, to heal the wounded and the sick,
To cancel debts, restore relationships, to level the playing field, and to restore equality.

Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

That is the “So what?” The only questions that remain now are: “Do we care?” and “What are we going to do about it?”

Amen.

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