Living out our calling (A sermon from Luke 4:14-21)

In today’s Gospel passage Luke describes a scene set in the context of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. Now, Mark’s Gospel, which Matthew’s Gospel follows, doesn’t have Jesus visiting Nazareth until later in his Galilean ministry. Luke has Jesus in Nazareth right away and describes the scene somewhat differently than what appears in Mark and Matthew. This reminds us once again that the Gospel stories are not historical reports. They are proclamations of spiritual truth centered in the life and teachings of Jesus. The reason Luke places this first in his account and has Jesus say and do what he says and does is because Luke, at the very beginning, wants his readers to know what Jesus is all about and what God has called Jesus to do. So as we look at Jesus’ calling today, perhaps we can learn something about our own calling.

According to Luke’s arrangement we can conclude that Jesus’ sense of calling emerges out of his confidence – his trust and faith – in who he is. The scene follows right on the heels of Jesus’ baptism and struggle in the wilderness, both of which relate to Jesus’ understanding of who he is and what he is called to do. After Jesus’ baptism Luke says that while Jesus was praying the heavens parted, the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove, and a voice from heaven affirmed him saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The symbolism of the heavens opening, the dove descending, and the voice affirming his belovedness and sonship symbolizes the intimacy and connection Jesus has with God. Jesus knows who he is. Do we? Do we know who we are?

One of the keys to living out our calling is our capacity to trust and claim our identity as God’s daughters and sons. Have we heard the divine voice whispering to us that we are God’s beloved children? Like our birth into this world, this is not something we earn or achieve? It’s a given. It’s all gift and all grace. We are loved with an eternal love. Our true self is the Christ self – that’s who we are.

When we tap into our true self, the Christ self, we find the inspiration and courage to live out our calling, even when it is difficult. On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery Alabama, Rosa Parks did something that she was not supposed to do. She sat down at the front of a bus in one of the seats reserved for whites—a bold and daring act in a racist society. It has been told that years later a graduate student came to Rosa Parks and asked, “Why did you sit down at the front of the bus that day?” She did not say that she sat down to launch a movement. She had not planned to launch a movement. Rather, she said, she sat down because she was tired. But she did not mean that her legs were tired. She meant that her soul was tired. Her spirit was tired. She was tired of playing by racist rules; she was tired of denying her true self.

There were many influences and factors that contributed to her courageous and provocative act. She had studied the theory and tactics of nonviolence at the Highlander Folk School, where Martin Luther King Jr, was also a student. She was secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, whose members had discussed civil disobedience. But that day when she decided to sit where she was not allowed to sit, she had no guarantee that the principles of nonviolence would work or that she would even be backed by her community. She simply decided to be true to herself. She decided that she would claim her authentic self and not act in any way contrary to the truth about who she was, regardless of the consequences. I believe that if we are to be true to our calling we will be true to who we really are.

I also believe that when we live out our calling we will reflect something of the character and passion of God that we see embodied in the character and passion of Jesus. We will value what the Christ values. We will give ourselves to his agenda, not our own. What Christ regards as a priority will be our priority.

Jesus understood his calling in light of Isaiah 61. Luke says that he read from the prophet Isaiah: “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.” After he concluded the reading, with all eyes in the synagogue fixed on him, he said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” He is telling them that this is what he is primarily about. This is his calling. This is his mission. This is his agenda.

Jesus believed that the Spirit was leading him to bring good news to the poor. What might be good news to the poor? Perhaps it is the good news that in the kingdom of God, when God’s purpose, God’s intent, God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven poverty will be no more – for all will have enough to not just survive, but to thrive. Perhaps it’s the good news that there will no longer be an economic pecking order, but all will have just what they need to live a full live – no more and no less. If the first are made last and the last made first as Jesus said apparently numerous times, then all are placed on equal ground. If the first are last and the last are first, then everyone is equal. We all occupy the same place. There are no distinctions. There are no levels of worthiness or privilege.

Now maybe that’s not such good news to those who enjoy having more than others. Maybe that’s not what those in power, those who deem themselves “first” or “greatest” in society want, but that’s how it’s going down. We either love others as we love ourselves, or there’s no place for us in God’s kingdom. Whatever God’s judgment may involve or whatever form it may take, it’s purpose is to teach us how to love all people. Maybe this doesn’t sound like good news to those who enjoy having others indebted to them, those who enjoy place and position and power over others, but it’s good news to the poor. Jesus brings good news to the poor.

Jesus understood that he was called to proclaim release to those held captive and to work for the freedom of those oppressed. Our society employs any number of ways to hold folks down, to keep them captive, and to oppress them. And unfortunately and sadly too often today Christians are involved in the oppressing of others, rather than working for their liberation, just like the religious authorities did in Jesus’ day. Different context, different time, same sin and same problem. Consider how many Christians today side with the powers that be when refugees fleeing violence and poverty and abuse are denied asylum. These poor, vulnerable people are even accused of being criminals with evil intent. Families are separated. Children are stripped from their parents. They are held in tent cities and treated with disdain. “You don’t belong,” they are told. Those in power would crush the spirit and extinguish the divine light within God’s little ones. How is it possible to love’s one’s neighbor and side with the oppressor? It’s not. One can’t claim to love one’s neighbor, when one favors oppressing one’s neighbor.

But Jesus says that in the kingdom of God all belong. All are chosen. All have worth and dignity. All reflect God’s likeness. Jesus would heal those held captive to sickness, and he would liberate all those oppressed by demonic powers that want to beat them down and keep them captive. Jesus understood that he was called to open people’s eyes to the truth of God’s love and grace, because he knew how blind people are to the reality of God’s magnanimous, unconditional love.

Do we have any idea, sisters and brothers, that we are called to proclaim and work for the same kind of things? We will if we share the Spirit of Christ. We will if we realize that we are all God’s daughters and sons who are called to be conduits through whom the Spirit of Christ can flow. Do we not realize that we, too, like Jesus, are called to share the character and passion of God?

If we are to live out our calling then we must not only trust in and claim our identity as the sons and daughters of God, we must also share the heart and passion of God, by mirroring, reflecting, and channeling the character and passion of Jesus. Jesus is our definitive revelation of what God is like and what God wants for all God’s children. We are first and foremost followers of Jesus. If we have no desire to share Jesus’ love and mercy and compassion, if we have no interest in bringing good news to the poor, or proclaiming release for the captives, or liberation for the oppressed, or helping the blind to see, then we shouldn’t call ourselves disciples of Jesus. In today’s “Christian” America there can be a vast difference between being a disciple of Jesus and being a Christian.

I shared last week, when just a few were here, about the time when I pastored in Maryland and was able to have a conversation with the chaplain of the Senate, who at the time, was Rev. Lloyd Ogilvie.  A church member, who was a Lieutenant with the Capital Police, invited me to offer a prayer at a New Officers Induction Ceremony, and while I was there he arranged this meeting. I asked Rev. Ogilvie  what he thought was the greatest need in the church today. He said, “For religious people to know God.” I will put it a different way, though similar. I think the greatest need in the church today is for Christians to be disciples of Jesus. Unless we aspire to obey his teachings and to share his character and passion we are not disciples of Jesus.

Last week, Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee shared a stage with Rev. William Barber of the Poor People’s movement, for an event celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. I’m not sure how those two were invited to the same event, but it sure made for some interesting conversation. Rev. Barber is a Christian prophet who doesn’t hold back. Rev. Barber said, “Politicians can’t say they love Dr. King and how he stood for love and unity, but then refuse to support his agenda.” He turned and said, “Right Governor?” Rev. Barber said, “Dr. King believed every citizen should have health care. If you believe that adequate health care should be the right of every citizen stand.” People all over the auditorium stood. Gov. Lee remained seated. Rev Barber then thundered, “If you can’t stand, then don’t say you love Dr. King!” He went on, “Of the twenty-five wealthiest countries in the world, we are the only one that doesn’t offer some form of universal health care. Now, some want to take away the pre-existing conditions provisions. There’s something wrong spiritually with people who want to do that.” I imagine Gov. Lee will think twice about the invitations he accepts next year. Rev. Barber didn’t stop there. He gave it to us preachers too. He said, “If you are a minister of the gospel and they can find you on your pastor’s anniversary, but can’t find you in the streets with the students and other folks standing up against injustice then you have no business being a minister.” He said, “If you are a preacher of the gospel and you ask your people to tithe, but you are not fighting for them to have a living wage you are lying.” He prophesied against us preachers too.

If we do not aspire to do the will of Jesus and to carry out his agenda, we are not followers of Jesus. We have no right to say we love Jesus. We might be Christians, we might be church members, we might be religious folk, we might love our country, but we do not love Jesus, we are not disciples of Jesus. Living out our calling means experiencing and expressing the character of Christ – his unconditional love and grace, and his passion for the poor, the captive, the oppressed, and the blind.

I would also add this. If we are to live out our calling, we, also, must realize that we ourselves are among the poor, the captive, the oppressed, and the blind. We might not be economically poor, but we are poor in spirit in so many ways. We are often poor in the way we care for each other. We are often poor in the way we express God’s love to people who are different than us. We are often poor in the meager ways we express God’s grace. Can we see how poor in spirit, how spiritually poor we are? Can we see how often we are held captive by our greed and pride, and how we are oppressed by feelings of prejudice toward and disregard of others? How often are we held in captivity by our feelings of hate and disdain of others, and by feelings of both superiority and inferiority. Sometimes our little self thinks of itself more highly than it is, and sometimes it deems itself more lowly than it is. Either way our ego holds us captive. Do we realize how blind we can be to these realities, and to our own biases and prejudices? Can we see how confined and constricted and oppressed our ego is when we lack mercy and the ability to forgive, and hold on to bitterness, resentments, and the seeking of revenge? Too often we cannot see, because our hearts are hardened and insensitive and calloused. We become blind to what is. So until we are able to see ourselves among the poor and the blind, among the captives and the oppressed, we will not be able to live out our calling, and we will not share the character and passion of Christ. 

Our calling as disciples of Jesus is to share his love and compassion for all people. We do that first, by trusting in God’s word to us that we are God’s beloved daughters and sons. We listen to the voice of the Spirit telling us who we are. Then we yield to the flow of the Spirit so that we can become who we are, so that we can experience and express the character of Christ and his passion for the rejected and excluded and those pushed out and beaten down. And in order to have the humility to live out the agenda of Jesus, we need to see how spiritually poor we are, how imprisoned to our ego we are, how oppressed we are by our negative patterns, and how blind we are to our biases and prejudices. Whatever the specifics of God’s calling upon our lives may be, it will always lead us into the way of Jesus – to engage in the agenda of Jesus, which means bringing good news to the poor, setting captives free, bringing sight to the blind, liberating the oppressed, and proclaiming the acceptance, forgiveness, and gracious welcome of God.  

Our good God, let it be so. Amen and Amen.


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