How many of you have heard of Nadia Bolz-Weber? She is a Lutheran pastor who has a lot of tattoos, wears boots and leather, is a phenomenal preacher, and has somewhat of a sailor’s mouth. She started a church in Denver called House for all Sinners and Saints. She hoped this place could be healing, a true spiritual home, for people who had previously found church hurtful—especially LGBTQ folks, addicts and alcoholics, and others outside the cultural mainstream. Nadia takes very seriously that God loves everyone, period, and that we can receive forgiveness and transformation from God regardless of who we are, what we have done, or whether other people value our existence or not. So her church was born and grew and flourished. At one point Nadia noticed that it wasn’t only LGBTQ folks and people in recovery who were coming to her church; also there were some corporate people and bankers and soccer moms, and she started freaking out because she thought they were the “wrong element” and would scare away the marginalized people who came. But it turned out that all kinds of people, both people in the mainstream and out of it, all needed to hear what she had to say.

At one point when Nadia had to write a grant to fund her church, they asked her for a mission statement, and she was at a bit of a loss. To her the mission statement of her church was the mission statement of every church. The way she put it was this: “Our ‘ministry’ is Word and Sacrament —everything else flows from that. We see a need, we fill it. We [mess] up, we say sorry. We ask for grace and prayers when we need them (a lot). Jesus shows up for us through each other. We eat, we pray, we sing, we fall, we get up, repeat. Not that complicated.” [1]

These are traditional concepts. But to her they are alive and being lived out in the messy reality of imperfect people who flocked to her church like kids to a candy store.

Our culture really values innovation and newness. The more unique or original something is, the more valuable. And there are lots of times things do need to change. We can look around and see so much that is really badly broken, like the impact of industrial society on climate change, or like a government and an economy built on competition and not collaboration. But there are some things that are priceless and endlessly powerful, that are right under our noses, and it’s easy to miss them. There will never be an end to how beautiful a newborn baby is, or the breathtaking majesty of a sunrise in winter. And there are some things that are so true they are a plumb line for everything else. Jesus’ manifesto in today’s gospel text is exactly that. It is the good news for followers of the way of Jesus.

At the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Luke’s gospel, three things happen. First, before Jesus has done anything important—before he has healed anyone or performed any miracles, before he has taught, before he is famous—he is baptized and the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove, telling him in no uncertain terms that he is beloved for who he is. Next, he is led by the Holy Spirit to the wilderness, where he rejects all the devil’s attempts to make him trust anything else beyond the love of God. The third thing is what happens in today’s gospel text. Jesus returns to his hometown, the place where he played the 1st century Palestinian equivalent of baseball with his friends and where his brothers and sisters and parents knew everything he’d ever done, and he declares his purpose for living to them. He pulls it right out of their own scriptures, from the prophet Isaiah. He says this:

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.[2]

This is Jesus’ manifesto and mission statement and the plumb line that he measured all his subsequent ministry upon, for which he was willing to give his life. It hasn’t changed. Jesus cared for those who were literally poor; he also knew the deep inner poverty of ordinary people every day, like people who are going through the motions in their social lives and who go home alone, and no one notices how crazy lonely they are; or like people who have everything the way the world measures things, but still feel empty because no amount of wealth or power grants healing and fulfillment. Jesus came to announce good news to them all. He wanted to give sight to those who were blind to the presence of God in their midst, and to those who were blind to their own need for healing and forgiveness. He wanted to free the captive and the oppressed—those captive to their own sickness and addiction, and those captive to unjust systems like white supremacy and a legal system based on zero-sum-game winners and losers. In other words, every one of us—you and me.

 

The last thing Jesus says in this beautiful manifesto of his is that he has come to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. That is a reference to an ancient Hebrew practice called the Year of Jubilee. When God comes to Moses on Sinai to give Moses the law, one of the things God commands the people to do is to have a Year of Jubilee every 49 years. During that year, the land must lie fallow; all debts must be forgiven; all slaves freed; any land that had changed hands to satisfy a debt must be returned. It was a massive amnesty, a reset, in which the accumulated losses and burdens and debts of five decades were simply erased. Jesus is saying that the kind of healing and liberation he wants to offer is not small. It’s massive. It’s the forgiveness of a lifetime of accumulated debts and wrongs and being messed up.

This is the mission of Jesus, and therefore it is the mission of the church. In all those ways we have tried and failed, there is forgiveness, amnesty, a reset in which we can start afresh. In those ways we’ve been stuck because we can’t see any way out, Jesus can grant a vision of the presence of God whose will is for restoration, and for whom nothing is impossible. When we despair because we see no end to the captivity of this culture to sick and broken ways of thinking and living, there can be freedom, because the way of Jesus offers a radical, life-giving, costly and faithful alternative that is worth all that we are and have.

We don’t have to come up with a new mission statement. We don’t even have to re-create our religion or our spirituality. There is an orthodox theologian from the 20th century named G. K. Chesterton who said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Christianity hasn’t failed. It’s just never been tried.”[3] Actually I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration, because in every era in every place there have been people who have had eyes to see the priceless reality of God in Christ, the living power underneath this tradition we are sitting on, and who have given all that they have to follow Jesus’ way. People like Dr. King, and Nadia Bolz-Weber, and Mariann Budde, and people of all walks of life across space and time. And speaking of not needing a new mission statement, even Jesus didn’t make his mission up – it came from the prophet Isaiah, and he interpreted it in fresh and empowered ways for his day, because Jesus knew God’s presence and will were active, not relics of a dead tradition meant to be cherished like something in a museum. We can step into a line of countless followers of the way of Jesus to take these same scriptures and understand that God means them for us, here, today, and to today’s world, in Linden Hills and Minneapolis and where you work and live and have family. And like Jesus, we don’t have to do this in our own power. Jesus was claimed, tested, empowered and sent by the Holy Spirit. We too can become aware of, and empowered by the living Spirit of Christ who is here among us and whom we need to follow Jesus’ way.

So the next phase of life at St. John’s is going to be about listening and discernment even as we go about business as usual. The point of this listening and discernment is to recognize where God’s Spirit is truly active among us, doing for us and through us what we know is God’s will in this world—speaking good news, healing, liberation, amnesty, the capacity to see things truly—so that we can let go of what isn’t important and throw all our weight behind what is. Amen.

[1] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People.

[2] Luke 4:18-19, NRSV

[3] The true quote is: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World, part 1, chapter 5, as quoted in “The Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton: A Christian Ideal,” https://www.chesterton.org/the-christian-ideal/, accessed January 24, 2019.