Only the Present

Sermon for Sunday, January 27, 2019 || Epiphany 3C || Luke 4:14-21

Stacey just read for you the entirety of Jesus’ first recorded sermon. If you spaced out for a second during the Gospel lesson, then you might have missed it. The sermon is really short – one sentence only: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

That’s it. That’s Jesus’ first sermon. Short and sweet. You wouldn’t even have time to be distracted by your text messages or Twitter feed during that sermon. Back in my last church, the pulpit was a good ten feet in the air, so I could always see when people were checking their phones. Don’t worry – you’re safe here with me on the floor.

Jesus’ one-line sermon comes in response to the beautiful vision of liberation 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 reading these verses, Jesus sits down to teach, as every good rabbi would have done, and says, basically, “Today’s the day.” Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

I imagine many of his listeners thought to themselves, “Really? How can you say such a thing when we, the people of Israel, are under the thumb of the Roman imperial machine?”

I imagine if Jesus were preaching these words today, we might say, “Really? How can you say such a thing when the minimum wage is far from a living wage and when student debt is crushing a generation and when the vicious cycle of poverty offers few exits? (And that’s just in the United States. Other parts of the world are mired in poverty the likes of which we can barely fathom.) Really, Jesus? How can you say such a thing when so many are captive in literal prison and so many others of us are held captive by our blindness to systems of oppression? Really, Jesus? You think this is the time to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor?”

To which Jesus says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words: There is only the present. There is only ever the present moment to decide to stand with Jesus’ “loving, liberating, and life-giving” proclamation, as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry likes to say. We can learn from the past. We can hope in the future. But we live in the present. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” quotes Jesus. Present tense. Now. And the Spirit of the Lord is upon us, as well. In our baptism, we are sealed by the Holy Spirit – anointed with oil, and for what? To be living proclamations of the good news of God.

In a world where bad news fills our newspapers and online feeds, I know it can be so hard not to just give in to apathy or isolation or rage. It can be so hard to care and to connect and to create: to create new systems, new modes of being that cherish the dignity of all people and honor the gift of our fragile planet. Such care and connection and creation takes the cooperation of people across the spectrum of differences all working toward a common purpose, God’s purpose of healing and reconciliation, one to another and all to God.

This vision may seem hopelessly foolish, but I prefer to think of it as hopefully foolish – the kind of foolishness that St. Paul talks about when he says God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. The vision seems hopeless because it’s such a big dream, a goal so far beyond the horizon as to be unachievable. But that’s where the present comes back in. No goal has ever been achieved without daily steps towards it – tiny steps, baby steps, one small piece of the dream at a time.

I’m reminded of the 80’s classic, The Karate Kid, in which Daniel-san learns martial arts from Mr. Miyagi by washing cars, sanding a deck, and painting a fence and a house. (You remember: “Wax on, wax off.”) The careful motions that the sensei teaches Daniel to use in the daily chores turn out to be the same motions he needs to learn karate. At the outset, Daniel’s impatience makes him frustrated because he can’t immediately achieve his dream. But Mr. Miyagi slows him down, and step by step, Daniel learns the art form (and, of course, wins the tournament and the grudging respect of his rivals).

The dailiness is what matters: our presence in the present. That’s where God encounters us with the Spirit of the Lord who anointed Jesus and anointed us in baptism. Today I’d like to invite you to try on a new spiritual practice with me. This new practice springs from the vision of the Prophet Isaiah and the loving, liberating, and life-giving message of Jesus. And this new practice will help us stay in the present, where we can partner with God in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation.

The practice is a series of three questions. You can focus on one if it really speaks to you or can use all three. You can pray with these questions on your own or with a partner. You can write down your responses or just hold them in your heart. You can speak your responses or plant them in the nourishing soil of silence. The three questions are these:

How am I loving God and loving my neighbor?

How am I working for justice and peace?

How am I helping to alleviate the suffering of others?

Between now and Easter, I plan to make praying with these questions my daily practice so that I can remain in the present with our loving, liberating, and life-giving God. The questions are written deliberately in the present tense. That way I can’t rest on my laurels, patting myself on the back for how I have loved God and neighbor in the past. Nor can I harness myself to a future dream without taking seriously the daily steps to get there.

There will be days when I can’t think of a way I am working for justice and peace or when I realize I’m working against them. Such sobering reflection leads to confession and recommitment. But without the spiritual practice in place to lead to reflection, I will surely fall back into my old blindness.

I hope you will try on these three questions with me between now and Easter. How am I loving God and loving my neighbor? How am I working for justice and peace? How am I helping to alleviate the suffering of others? On Easter Sunday, in my last sermon before my sabbatical begins, I will report back how this spiritual practice has helped me join Jesus in his mission. Remember, there is only the present as far as our loving, liberating, and life-giving God is concerned. Let’s join God there.

Banner Image: The Karate Kid (1984)

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