A reading from the Gospel of Luke the fourth chapter:
Then Jesus filled with the power of the Spirit returned to Galilee and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When Jesus came to Nazareth where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day as was his custom. He stood up to read and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God 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." And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then Jesus began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
Here ends the reading.
When Jesus finished reading, he gave the scroll back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then Jesus began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." And all spoke well of him-except for some longtime church members who were sitting toward the back, which is where they liked to sit. Okay, I know. This story didn't take place in a church. It took place in a synagogue, the synagogue in Jesus' hometown of Nazareth. But I'm trying to imagine Jesus coming to Zion Lutheran Church in Gowrie, Iowa, my hometown. Or maybe to the congregation where I'm a member now, on the upper west side of Manhattan. You might picture your church if you go to one-or any church you've been in for a wedding or a funeral.
So there's Jesus way up in the front and he's reading from the scroll of Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.
Well, it's after that reading that Jesus gave the scroll back to the attendant and sat down. Everyone was looking at him because they were expecting him to say a word about what he had just read, for that was the custom. That's when Jesus said, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." And all spoke well of him except for some longtime members. Now in my Iowa church they would have been Lutheran, but they might be Baptist or Methodist, Roman Catholic or Pentecostal.
Some of them began to murmur. "He didn't say anything about forgiveness," one of them said. "And not a word about sin," said another. But there was a seminary professor sitting with them who said, "Now wait just a minute; you don't have to say everything you know in one sermon." Some people laughed, but others didn't think it was very funny. "But he did talk about setting the captives free, didn't he?" The voice came from the back pew and everyone turned around to see. "And aren't we all captive to something?" Everyone brightened up considerably. "Yes," they agreed, "we are all captives." And soon they were engaged in a lively discussion about a host of captivities. "I'm captive to television," someone said. "And I'm captive to my job."
"And Jesus came to set us free from all of these," said the person in the last row. "He was talking about salvation and forgiveness after all." They were all very relieved and talked on and on until finally the custodian asked if they could go somewhere else so he could lock up. So they put on their coats and agreed to go out for coffee. The custodian picked up the discarded bulletins and turned off the lights, until only the lights at the very front were shining on the place where Jesus had stood to read. The words of Isaiah still echoed in the empty sanctuary. Standing at the very back of the room, the custodian heard Jesus' words all over again: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
"Can it be true?" the custodian whispered. Then he locked the doors and went out.
Of course, I have no idea if any of this would really happen. I guess we assume that if Jesus came to any of our churches, everyone would listen eagerly and no one would murmur.
This is Jesus' first public appearance in Luke's Gospel. It's his inaugural address-not to be confused with the inauguration of our new president. Surely the choice of reading was not accidental for Jesus or for Luke the storyteller. Oh, it's true they handed Jesus the scroll of Isaiah, but then Jesus found the place where it was written-that is, he found this particular place and read these particular words from the prophet. Though Jesus had been teaching in Galilee before, Luke doesn't report anything that Jesus said publicly before this day in his hometown. Luke is a careful writer. Everything has a place and a time and a reason. When Jesus stood up to read, he chose to read these words, and when he sat down, he said, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." Today is Jesus' first public word, the first word remembered this side of the wilderness. Today this word is fulfilled.
This word changes things. Dramatically. Nothing will be the same. Jesus is setting forth his agenda borrowing words from the prophet Isaiah. The Spirit has anointed him from the beginning for this mission, even as the Spirit descended on him in baptism and then led him in the wilderness. But what has Jesus been anointed to do? In Isaiah's words, it becomes clear: Bring good news to the poor. Proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. Let the oppressed go free and proclaim God's jubilee year-when ...debts are cancelled and land is returned.
These are earth-shaking words, life-changing words. It's no wonder that the imaginary people sitting in the back of the church had a hard time hearing what Jesus was saying. They had to reframe Jesus' words into something a bit more personal and a lot less literal. He didn't really mean captives, like people in prison. Surely, Jesus wouldn't tell us to open the prison doors and let everyone inside go free. Jesus must have meant our captivity to spiritual temptations that harm the soul for eternity. It's strange what we do with the words of the Bible. We insist on the literal meaning of things we agree with but when we come to something that's too hard or too threatening, we look for a meaning behind the words or above the words or beyond the words. It's very possible that the words of Isaiah do have many meanings. Recovery of sight can mean more than physical blindness for Isaiah and Jesus spoke of those who have eyes yet failed to see. It's certainly true that you and I can be captive to forces that are as strong as prison bars-addictions that trap and kill or materialism that keeps us on a treadmill working faster and faster but never, never getting enough. But isn't it possible that Jesus meant what he said literally? He meant good news for the poor-the homeless ones still on our streets, though often hidden to make life more pleasant for the rest of us. And Jesus meant captives, including those imprisoned in his time for failure to pay ...debts or for standing up against Roman occupation.
"Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." Does Jesus also mean today? Some months ago I was given a plastic wristband, you know, the kind you get when you're in the hospital. We received them in church one Sunday from the director of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. We were invited to write a name on the wristband. I received a very long name. Kanapathipillai. I'm not even sure I'm pronouncing his name right. He escaped from Sri Lanka after his parents had been killed, after he lost his house and all his property. Since 1999, he has been detained in a refugee detention center in the United States, awaiting a decision on his plea for asylum. He's one of 20,000 asylum seekers imprisoned in our country though he's done nothing wrong, committed no crime. Many of these refugees have been imprisoned for over four years, often without legal help, usually very much alone.
Does the Spirit anoint us to set the captives free? Two Sundays every month people from Riverside Church in New York City get into vans and travel south on the turnpike to Elizabeth, New Jersey, to one of the largest detention centers in this country. There may also be a jail near you for refugees are imprisoned in over 800 places throughout our country. The people from Riverside visit refugees who came here to find freedom but, ironically, found none at all. Twice a month they bring hope and friendship. On other days, they advocate for those forgotten men, women, and children, helping them find lawyers, writing letters to Congress, doing whatever they can to set these captives free.
I continue to pray daily for Kanapathipillai, though the yellow wristband wore out weeks ago. Will you join me in praying for him and for thousands of other refugees imprisoned across our land? Write a letter today asking Congress to pass the bill reforming the treatment of asylum seekers. Or find out how you can write to one of the people detained. You can get a name from Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service in Baltimore or from a concerned agency in your own denomination. Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Today, not in the dim past. Not in the distant future. Today, may it be so among us.
Let us pray.
Holy and life-giving God, be present today with all who are refugees, with all who are in prison. Open our eyes and our hearts to those who are forgotten and unjustly detained. Anoint us with your Holy Spirit that we may bring your Good News and help to set the captives free.