The Poor and Vulnerable

Isaiah 42:1-9 & Luke 4:14-22                                          Epiphany/Baptism of the Lord

Elizabeth M. Deibert                                                8 January 2016

 

We move so fast in the church year from Jesus in the manger to Jesus engaged in ministry.   Friday was Epiphany, and today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday, as we focus on Jesus’ sense of calling, which he announced after his baptism and testing.  Some of you who took down your tree and went back to work on January 2 or 3, may feel you are fully engaged in the newyear already.   But we Deiberts are still in transition. Having just returned Friday night from a week away, some of it with my mom and extended famiy, but most of it at the College Conference in Montreat, I am still settling, still reflecting. 

 

As I reflect on my childhood Christmas, one stand-out memory, is of William, a prisoner, who came to share our family’s Christmas Day for a few years.   I cannot imagine the system of incarceration even allowing such a thing in today’s world.   But I’m glad for the way it helped me at an early age to see that many in our prison population are not dangerous people – they are just people who need time away to consider their impulsive, horrible choices, or they are people with mental illness who need better psychiatric help or they are drug-addicted folk who need years of rehab more than years in prison.  Prisons used to be called penitentiaries because we hoped people would be penitent and reform their lives.  

 

In our readings today, we hear Isaiah promising a suffering servant Messiah who will gently but confidently bring justice to the nations and all creation, and especially to prisoners, the blind, and those despairing in the darkness.  Then we hear Jesus announcing his mission to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed.  

 

Isaiah promises new things, and Jesus says, these new things, the prophecy of Isaiah has been fulfilled in the midst of the people.   Christ has ushered us into a new age which is initiated but not yet complete.  

All you have to do is look around and you can see that to be true, but as we live like Christ, it becomes more true, more complete.   We have two choices – to be angry at all that is desperate and broken in the world, or to keep lighting candles of justice and hope, believing that the prophecy of Isaiah is true and the mission of Christ belongs as much to us as it did to him, and that by the power of the Spirit, we are one with him in it, able to do more than we can imagine or think.

Isaiah 42:1-9

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. 2 He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. 4 He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. 5 Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: 6 I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, 7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. 8 I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. 9 See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.  (NRS)

The key thoughts from this text – that the suffering servant will bring forth justice and that the people are called to be a light to the nations and to lift up those who are vulnerable and poor.   This servant and all who follow in his path do not grow faint, they are not crushed until justice and peace arrive.   This servant and all who are filled with Holy Spirit do not break the bruised or put out dimly burning wick.   They quietly and gently do the right thing.    This is non-violence action, compassionate care, and tenacious trust in God.    The same faith we see in Jesus, after he is baptized and tested in the wilderness.   After resisting the temptation to abuse his power, Jesus begins his ministry.

Okay, the first thing I need to say between the reading of these two texts is that when Jesus quotes Isaiah, it is Isaiah 61, not Isaiah 42, which we read, but each of these three passages has a similar message.   Even Jesus’ quoting of Isaiah 61 is not a direct quote, except perhaps from the Septuagint, which was a Greek translation of the original Hebrew text.  

As I read these two scriptures over and over again in Montreat this week, it became so very clear that the promised Messiah in Isaiah and Jesus in hisannouncement of his mission is decidedly for those most desperate – the poor and vulnerable.   You see this in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and you see it here in Luke – that when God comes to earth, God’s biggest agenda item is taking care of the hurting.  

Luke 4:14-22

14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16 When he 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, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 "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, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." 20 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. 21 Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.  (NRS)

So let’s talk for a moment about each of the people groups on Jesus’ merciful agenda. 

The poor.   They are blessed and God is determined to let us all know that we who have power and means should give preferential support to the poor.    There are over 200 references to the poor in the Bible.   Many of them instruct us to care for the poor, and not to mistreat them.     

Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar? To whom will you run for help? Where will you leave your riches?

  — Isaiah 10:1-3

The captives:   The scriptures make it clear that God is concerned that people get liberated, freed, released, visited and treated with compassion.   You only have to read the judgement of sheep and goats in Matthew 25 to hear that if you do not treat those in prison as if they are Jesus himself, you are missing the mark.

That has serious implications for Christians who live in the country where more people are incarcerated than any other country and where people with dark skin or mental illness are imprisoned at astonishingly higher numbers.   Half of those imprisoned once return to prison, which demonstrates how difficult it is for the system to make a real difference in the rehabilitation of inmates.   Research shows that the perception or certainty of being caught and punished is a deterrent to crime, but the actual time spent in prison increases the chances of a person being involved in crime again.  So the only people stuck in prison should be people who are truly a danger to society. 

The Oppressed.   Just like the Israelites who were not imprisoned but were oppressed as captives, so in our day, we have people trapped or caught in oppressive situations, at no fault of their own.   The Syrian refugees fit that category.   Others stuck under the oppressive rule of tyrants, or those who are unable to access opportunity without breaking the law, like many in this country, who are here because they needed to be able to feed their families.   It is so easy to judge them and ask why they crossed over illegally into our country…until you seriously imagine being forty years old with absolutely no opportunity for work and a family of hungry children, and so you flee to a place where you’ve heard it might be better, even if dangerous to get there and stay there.   Those of us who have had access to opportunity need to open our eyes to what is like to grow up without that.   That leads us to the last of Jesus’ four groups of people.

The Blind.  When the prophets or Jesus speak of blindness, they are often talking about literal, physical blindness, which we can assume was a condition nearly everyone understood at some level, because there were no corrective lenses.   How many of you in this room are wearing no lenses, or have not had eye surgery?   But scripture also uses the term “blindness” to mean without knowledge, without seeing what is true.   Jesus called the Pharisees blind for not seeing that integrity of faith involved cleaning the inside as well as the outside of your life.  NRSProverbs 28:27 Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing, but one who turns a blind eye will get many a curse.   (NRS) 

 

What are we doing to correct vision?   We can leave the physical eyesight issues to our ophthalmologists and optometrists but the blindness that comes from not seeing the truth, we must address.  One way we are trying to open our eyes to truth is through our Peace Ethics Forums, the first of which is next Sunday night at 7:00, when we will listen to diverse voices, people of different ethnicity and race speak about their experiences in this country.   Our panelists, some of whom are members of this congregation and others have natural connections with us through friendship and common Christian faith, will each take five minutes to share a story or experience.   We participants will come to listen and learn.   Some of these stories may make those of us in the still dominant white European culture of the USA uncomfortable.  

 

At the college conference in Montreat this week, our eight students and two Deibert chaperones were challenges to listen to voices long-silenced.   We were challenged to consider that we, who are not blatantly racist, in that we are not bigoted, still need to wake up to our blind spots – to the injustices that still plague our country and the assumptions we make about the lives of others.

 

When Richard and I were first engaging an intentionally inter-racial new church development in Montgomery, Alabama, birthplace of both Civil War and Civil Rights, we were told by a wise African American professor teaching at Princeton Seminary, that if we wished to be successful in blending races and ethnicities in a new church, we should maintain a commitment to discomfort.   By that he meant, we needed to listen to perspectives different from our own, even if it made us uncomfortable.   We did that and this congregation became diverse not only in race but also in sexual orientation in the 1990’s.  

 

 

Healthy churches that are serious about following Jesus are interested in people of all races and ethnicities.   We are committed to poor and vulnerable people, people on the margins of life, people treatly unfairly in any way.  To support them in ways that bring dignity and self-development, not just compassionate care that perpetuates the system of injustice.   This means we are committed to being uncomfortable, because a church on the wealthy side of the county cannot turn a blind eye to the poor.  A church with a majority of people who have enjoyed the privileges that come with being white in the USA has to listen to those who have had a different and generally more challenging experience of life.   A church of people who benefit from enormous freedoms -- to worship as we want, to live as we want, to speak freely as we want, has to do more than send a little money and a few volunteers to support those who are struggling.   We have to open our eyes to how systems might be changed to make life more fair and just for all.  

 

When we help the least among us, the most-challenged people, then it lifts all of us to a more peaceful plain.   Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, said Martin Luther King, Jr.  From the Birmingham jail he wrote, When you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.  There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men (and women) are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.  Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. 

So let’s commit in 2017, Peace Church, to a deeper understanding of those who by the systems in our society are poor and vulnerable, often feeling like nobodies.  Let us be clear that black and brown lives matter just as much a white lives, poor lives as much as rich lives, refugees, prisoners, and captives lives as much as the lives those of us who enjoy all kinds of personal freedom.   Let’s try to figure out how to address the mental issues that plague a 26 year-old veteran like Esteban Santiago-Ruiz, so that he gets help before the breaking point and subsequent atrocities.  Jesus came to bring hope and love to all the people of God, even those who do not know they belong to God.   Jesus seemed particularly concerned with lifting up the poor and mistreated, the powerless and those lacking.   Christ’s mission is our mission.