“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..,“
I am a lover of film and theater. I greatly appreciate the interpretation of the human story on the big screen and on the stage. There is something powerful about confronting dimensions of ourselves through the story of others as they journey throughout history. The art of entering into the human experience through the life of another can remind us of our common hopes and aspirations. They can remind us of our commonality, our mortality, our temptations and our redemption. Like an effective sermon, these artistic portrayals can invite us to believe and reach beyond “what is” to “what can be.” Last week my husband and I went to see Black Klansman, a “truish” interpretation of the first African American police officer hired in Colorado Springs in mid-80s and his story of infiltrating the Klu Klux Klan. That is all I am going to say about the plot – as I would encourage you to see it. But what was particularly effective in the development of this film was the use of clips from the civil rights movement more than 20 years earlier to prepare and direct the viewers’ minds.
Those clips portrayed real-time images of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as he prophetically challenged a world where the assumptions of race and hate found themselves challenged by the demand for equality and justice. As we know Rev. Dr. King was a Christian whose understanding of the Gospel was woven into the centrality of his ministry as he confronted the evil of his time.
This past week our nation celebrated the witness of Dr. King. Many of our churches participated in service projects in their communities, pausing to remember one who sacrificed much so that others might be able to take one step further and lift their heads a little higher. This year some of our churches provided support to those affected by the government shutdown. Through these efforts, the spirit of Dr. King continues to remind us that we still have work to do if we are truly honoring his legacy.
Recently, however, there has been some conversation about the danger of how Dr. King is being remembered. Harvard professor and friend, the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Walton, speaks to how we as a people have romanticized and sanitized the memory of Dr. King. Whether we agree with Rev. Walton or not, his words are important to consider. Walton says, “In so many ways, Dr. King has become America’s racial Easter Bunny… He is the poster boy of American diversity that is brought out to lay the feel-good eggs at the feet of an otherwise sinful society. As long we focus on the Easter Bunny, we don’t have to deal with the cross and suffering.”
These words compelled me to consider whether we have done this to the very one we claim to follow – Jesus of Nazareth. Has his witness become sanitized? Have we distanced ourselves from the sacrifices, the pain and reality of his journey? Have we moved quickly to Easter Sunday minimizing the reality of the cross? Are we not guilty of often engaging the “love” part of his teachings without fully engaging the “centrality of his life’s call?” And in this Lukan text, as Jesus begins his public ministry, his “life’s call” is clear. It is to “bring good news to the poor…release the captives…recover sight to the blind… and let the oppressed go free…” Everything Jesus does and says in the subsequent three years is clearly framed by this mission – a mission given to him by his Father, God, in an act of relentless love for all humanity. And as we know, embracing this mission can collide with existing values. Confronting the systems and powers in place within our society (including the church) will more often than not be met with resistance. That very resistance and collision of values escorted Jesus to his execution on the cross – an execution blessed by both political and religious powers in their effort to sustain the status quo or social order as they believed necessary.
The clarity and centrality of our call – perhaps this is the challenge to each of us as individual disciples and our communities of faith. This is our 2,000 year old mission statement. It is one that understands and embodies the love of God in the expressed commitment of concretely transforming the lives of those within our walls and those outside the walls of our churches. As we continue through this season of Epiphany – as we continue to consider how God reveals self in the person of Jesus, perhaps it is a time to reaffirm what this means for us as a people in the greater Philadelphia area at this time in place. Have we sanitized our understanding of the Gospel in an effort not to deal with the pain? How are we reflecting our commitment to this Jesus call? In what ways are we serving as agents of bringing “good news to the poor…releasing the captives…recovering sight to the blind… and letting the oppressed go free?” And friends, while poverty, imprisonment, blindness and oppression are visible around us, they also take on forms beyond the economic and physical realities around us. They also find themselves among and within us – in our spirits and assumptions – compromising the very hope we proclaim to a hurting world.
I find myself in a deeply reflective place as together we faithfully seek to be a people of hope at a time when hate and fear are again the rhetoric of our culture. I am profoundly grateful for the witness of which we are a part – I am deeply moved by the commitment we embody in our congregations and other ministries serving our communities and neighborhoods. That being said, in a culture of quick phrases, twitter feeds, and social media memes, I invite us to again boldly consider and embrace the words of Jesus as he self-reveals the centrality of his call – the centrality of our call: bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovering sight to the blind and freeing the oppressed. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us. May it be so!