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Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany 2019

Jesus is talking about us, challenging us to live the social ramifications of his message.

The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon Theologian

Sunday, 27th January 2019 at 11:15 AM

In Chapter One of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, Lord Henry famously remarks, “there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” The Gospel we have just heard is one of the most famous and well-loved passages in the whole of Christian scripture. As St Luke makes clear, this is the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry; the remainder of this chapter is full of movement as, fresh from the desert of temptation, Jesus bursts onto the scene teaching, healing and casting out demons. But first, in the place where he had been brought up, he unveils a famous manifesto by proclaiming that the scripture for the day has been fulfilled right there, in his presence and through his action: good news for the poor, release to captives, the healing of the blind and the liberation of the oppressed as the year of Jubilee – the Lord’s favour – is announced. It is clear to whom Jesus is speaking: those in the synagogue. But whom is he speaking about and why?

For a long time it was believed that the earliest Christian disciples were most frequently drawn from the poorest parts of society. The social world of the New Testament certainly reveals quite a mixed picture in which those who are marginalised have a unique and honoured place, but alongside figures who are established enough to host house churches and engage in substantial trade. In fact, a large part of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians is dealing with some of the problems inherent in such a first century social mix. Jesus’ revolutionary point is that those whom broader society considers to be “outside” are actually right at the centre of the new creation which is found in his company. The word which Luke uses for “the poor” is quite a precise term, it refers to those who cannot work at all; the crippled, the handicapped, the lame. In the Kingdom which Christ’s Good News inaugurates, those who are pushed to the sidelines are no longer begging for mere survival, but liberated and honoured by grace. The very fact that Luke places this scene right at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and so early in his Gospel points us in the direction of what the liberation theologians of the twentieth century described as the “preferential option for the poor.” Initially articulated by Latin American theologians including Gustavo Guttierez and Leonardo Boff, this insight which is now placed at the heart of the Social Teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, has developed in multiple contexts, and in different directions, including taking into account the effects of the global environmental catastrophe on the world’s poorest people. It has unfolded further to embrace other oft-marginalised communities through black, feminist and queer theology. Yes, Luke’s Jesus certainly is proclaiming good news to those whose humanity is trampled upon as a result of social status, poverty, abuse of the environment, and bias. He is talking about those whose circumstances force them to the margins. And so, the Gospel challenges us to remember that systems and social norms are never quite neutral – each time and each place needs to hear Jesus’ prophetic utterance of God’s blessing upon those whom the powerful forget.

But there is another important strain of the prophetic tradition, which also cries out for our attention, and offers another slant on today’s Gospel. It emerges in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and comes to a literary climax in the message to the Church of Laodicea in the Book of Revelation. “To the angel of the Church of Laodicea, write, For you say ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing. You do not realise that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.” Now, the Church of Laodicea was particularly lethargic; a prosperous trading city, where for reasons of business, Christians would sometimes cooperate with the Imperial cult.  Perhaps they had not sufficiently heard St Paul’s letters to the Corinthians – as he wrote just two chapters before the portion we heard for our Epistle this morning, “If you think you’re standing, watch out that you do not fall!” We too are poor, blind, and captive. It’s a subtle form of theological noblesse oblige to think that this story is just about others, or just about economics. It is also about us. We need good news, release, healing, and liberation. Our own lives need the message of the Year of Jubilee. Jesus’ highlighting of the spiritual blindness and poverty of vision in those around him was surely one reason why he was rejected in his own home town. We can be blind to the poor, but we can also develop all sorts of strategies to avoid dealing with our own poverty.

One common feature of both these blindnesses – failing to listen to those who are on the margins, and thinking that “we’re OK thanks very much” - is a kind of self-obsession. This is why the church teaches ascesis, from which we receive our English word ascetic, being stripped back to basics. The inner journey of honest self-appraisal and prayer will highlight ways in which each of us is poor and in need, or in thrall to destructive patterns, or painful memories which hold us captive, or unable to glimpse the radical, total and absolute love and desire which God has for us. That is why this is good news, and frankly, that is why so often we can’t cope with it. As well as pointing us towards those who are excluded by wider society and reminding us that they have great truth to tell us which we really need to hear, today’s Gospel encourages us to name ourselves as those who need good news, release, healing and liberation. None of us is exempt.

Tomorrow is the feast of one of the greatest theologians, St Thomas Aquinas, known as the Angelic Doctor. In December 1273, having made an almost unmatched contribution to the shape and content of Western theology, Thomas had a deep mystical experience as he celebrated Mass. After this, his secretary Brother Reginald urged him to dictate in order to finish his greatest work, the Summa. St Thomas simply replied, “I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw to me.” He never put down another word. Compared with the overwhelming beauty and glory of the vision he had just glimpsed, one of the greatest theologians in Christian history knew himself poor, captive, and blind. Thomas teaches us as much in this refusal to write as he does in his writing. In the absolute presence of God, our fragile, creaturely-reality is exposed; not exposed to ridicule or competition, rather for healing in the superabundance of the love which saves us.

A twin sense of care for the poor and marginalised alongside an awareness of our own individual and corporate need opens up a new sociality. In today’s Epistle, Paul almost falls over himself as he breathlessly sketches his symphonic doctrine of the Church. We are many members, each with our own gifts – but we are responsible to each other, in it together, and especially bound to honour those weaker and vulnerable. They tell us the truth about our own need.

As in Nehemiah, where Ezra and the Levites help people to understand the Law, it is perhaps as if Jesus says, “if you want to understand this scripture, become part of the unfolding of my ministry.” The only way to comprehend this is to allow yourself to become part of the dynamism of the Good News. To become a member of this new sociality. The Good News promised to us poor, captive and blind ones, is that within the Body of Christ where we each have a place, we will grow together into his likeness.

So, Jesus is talking about us, challenging us to live the social ramifications of his message, and promising us that in his company, his Good News will transform, heal, and liberate us.

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