Some Kind of Fulfillment
Luke 4: 14-21
Stuart Smalley was a recurring Saturday Night Live character a while back, played by now-Senator Al Franken. Smalley had a television show called “Daily Affirmation with Stuart Smalley.” Each episode opened with Stuart Smalley gazing at himself in a mirror while saying, “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And, doggone it, people like me.” He was supposed to be an encouraging TV. personality for folks who needed to take it one day at a time and be reminded of their own worth. The daily affirmation was supposed to give Stuart and others the strength and courage and conviction to get out there! Of course, the joke was that Stuart was not completely convinced of his own worth, no matter how many times he looked in that mirror and repeated his mantra.
You know, there is something to this sort of daily ritual. Of course, just saying something you don’t believe won’t make you believe it. And this sort of practice can be pointless in the other direction, too: Plenty of folks get up each morning and repeat huge claims like, “Today’s the day I make a million.” I suppose that’s not a bad goal, but repeating it superstitiously every day does not make it happen. Same with vague new-agey sounding slogans like: “I attract the power of the universe and the good in people to me and my life.”
I suspect that many of us get up each day and –consciously or not – repeat some mantras to ourselves. Things like: I’m too fat…Crap! My face has broken out – again!…I’ll never get an A on that test today…I’m not smart enough…What am I doing with my life? Why can’t I get it together anyway? Or even the less personal but still day-defining: Why is it raining again? This winter reeks!
The story goes that Martin Luther – he of the 95 theses and the protesting – got up every morning, splashed water on his face, and said, “I’m baptized!” We could do worse than that as a daily mantra/affirmation.
I’m baptized! This was Luther’s daily reminder to himself that his baptism was the context for the whole rest of his life. This was how he grounded himself in a reality bigger than any one day or mood or feeling or doubt. This was his way to reorient himself, daily, to God and God’s call on his life. This was Luther’s way of putting the day into context – the only context that mattered: he was a baptized Christian and the whole rest of his life and his call and each of his days flowed like a life-giving stream from that source.
I like to imagine today’s reading from Luke as a scene in a movie. We’ve been watching the movie for several weeks now, starting back in Advent. Luke’s movie tells the story of Jesus’ birth and John the Baptist’s, then shows a little about his childhood, then the movie skips to adulthood with John proclaiming and baptizing. Just before our scene for today, John baptizes Jesus and immediately afterwards Jesus is “led by the Spirit in the wilderness” (Luke 4: 1) and then suffers temptations for 40 days.
He comes back to the Galilee region, “filled with the power of the Spirit” (v. 14) and people start to talk about all that’s been going on. That’s the first part of our scene. Jesus starts teaching in the synagogues and ends up on the Sabbath in Nazareth.
Here’s where the action slows down. Did you notice as Lacey read the passage how many details are given about this moment? It’s like suddenly the film slows down and important music begins to swell and all those movie cues kick in to alert us that this part’s important. Every little detail and action is recorded here: Jesus stands. Someone hands him the scroll. He unrolls it. He finds the place in Isaiah. He reads it. He rolls it back up again. He hands it to the attendant. He sits down. Then we even get this pay-attention line in verse 20: “The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” And then he says one more thing to them.
What does Jesus say? First he says he’s been sent and empowered by the Holy Spirit to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (vv.18-19). That’s all. And that last thing, after he sits down again to teach them? He says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v.21).
That’s a pretty tall order he reads from Isaiah. And it’s been “fulfilled” in their hearing? Do you think you could get away with this in class? So, you go into class at the end of the semester, read out the big assignment, sit down, and proclaim that the assignment has been fulfilled in the hearing of the class. That would be some kind of fulfillment. Would that fly?
How is the scripture fulfilled that day in the synagogue? Specifically, did the poor hear the good news? Were the captives released? Did the blind see again? Were the oppressed set free? Were they truly in the year of the Lord’s favor? If all that happened as Jesus spoke and the people in worship that day heard him, then he wouldn’t have had to heal many folks later on in the gospel, would he? What kind of fulfillment is this?
We sang a Charles Wesley hymn this morning at Wesley Memorial, #550 in the hymnal. It’s not one I know and the last line caught me by surprise: “Love, like death, hath all destroyed…” (The United Methodist Hymnal, “Christ, From Whom All Blessings Flow,” p. 550). What? One of my favorite passages from the Song of Solomon proclaims that “love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave…Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it” (Song of Solomon 8: 6-7). I love this: fierce, strong, passionate love that can not be drowned or carried away by raging floods!
So Wesley’s line confused me. “Love, like death, hath all destroyed”? Sounds powerful like the lines from the Song of Solomon but it sounds scary and maybe not all that positive. I’m thinking all this while the rest of the congregation continues to sing the rest of the line. When I “caught up” I was surprised again. Here’s the whole last verse: “Love, like death, hath all destroyed, rendered all distinctions void; names and sects and parties fall; thou, O Christ, art all in all!”
That’s better. Or is it? Is this how we think of love? Are we ready for love like this?
This is the kind of love Jesus proclaims in the synagogue and announces is fulfilled in their hearing. This is the kind of love that erases distinctions – the poor are no longer poor, the captives and oppressed are free men and women now, the blind can see!
The sad truth of our struggle is captured poignantly by one scholar commenting on this passage, who says, “Throughout history, the gospel has always been more radically inclusive than any group, denomination, or church, so we continually struggle for a breadth of love and acceptance that more nearly approximates the breadth of God’s love. The paradox of the gospel, therefore, is that the unlimited grace that it offers so scandalizes us that we are unable to receive it” (The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, p. 108).
When the blind can see do we still call them “the blind”? When the poor hear the good news do we persist in naming them “poor”? Or do we start to say “brother” and “sister”? I find it interesting that in the list Jesus reads from Isaiah most of us are not mentioned. It’s: poor, captives, blind, oppressed. Even on my most self-pitying day I don’t put myself in that list. We in the church should be throwing the doors open wide and begging the poor, blind, captive, and oppressed to make themselves at home.
“We,” for church folks, should not mean “us in here” but “all of our brothers and sisters on the planet, children of God like we are.”
In United Methodist circles in recent years we’ve been using the motto: Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors. When we open the doors and proclaim the year of God’s favor, are we scandalized by who comes in… comes home?
In February Jan Richardson will spend the weekend with us, leading a retreat on Saturday and preaching at both Wesley worship services on Sunday. I encourage all of you to come meet her and participate that weekend. As I have mentioned before, one form Jan’s ministry takes is her blog. It’s a place I find helpful for my own devotional time and recently she shared an amazing story about baptism. She writes (paintedprayerbook.com, 1/3/10):
“Years ago, a woman named Fayette found her way to Hobson [church]. Fayette lived with mental illness and lupus and without a home. She joined the new member class. The conversation about baptism—“this holy moment when we are named by God’s grace with such power it won’t come undone,” as Janet puts it—especially grabbed Fayette’s imagination. Janet tells of how, during the class, Fayette would ask again and again, “And when I’m baptized, I am…?” “The class,” Janet writes, “learned to respond, ‘Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.’ ‘Oh, yes!’ she’d say, and then we could go back to our discussion.”
The day of Fayette’s baptism came. This is how Janet describes it:
Fayette went under, came up spluttering, and cried, ‘And now I am…?’ And we all sang, ‘Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.’ ‘Oh, yes!’ she shouted as she danced all around the fellowship hall.
Two months later, Janet received a phone call.
Fayette had been beaten and raped and was at the county hospital. So I went. I could see her from a distance, pacing back and forth. When I got to the door, I heard, ‘I am beloved….’ She turned, saw me, and said, ‘I am beloved, precious child of God, and….’ Catching sight of herself in the mirror—hair sticking up, blood and tears streaking her face, dress torn, dirty, and rebuttoned askew, she started again, ‘I am beloved, precious child of God, and…’ She looked in the mirror again and declared, ‘…and God is still working on me. If you come back tomorrow, I’ll be so beautiful I’ll take your breath away!’
Beloved, the voice from heaven had proclaimed as the baptismal waters of the Jordan rolled off Jesus’ body. Beloved, the voice named him as he prepared to begin his public ministry. Beloved, spoken with such power that it would permeate Jesus’ entire life and teaching. Beloved, he would name those he met who were desperate for healing, for inclusion, for hope. Beloved, echoing through the ages, continuing to name those drenched in the waters of baptism. Beloved. Child of God.
Fayette—beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold—haunts me, blesses me, goes with me into this season. She challenges me to ask what it means that—like her, with her—I have been named by God’s grace with such power that it won’t come undone. As I remember the Baptism of Jesus, how will I reckon with the fact that I, that we, have shared in those waters—that in the sacrament of baptism and as members of the body of Christ, we, too, are named as beloved children of God? How will we live in such a way that others will know themselves as named by God, beloved by God—especially those who have been given cause to think they are less than loved, less than children of the One who created them?”
Look who came in when the doors – and our hearts and minds – were truly open! Look who came home and what she had to teach us about that place – baptism – where we first know ourselves claimed as God’s own.
Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit at his own baptism and anointed to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. It’s already been fulfilled, if we will hear it.
Are we scandalized or are we listening?
Stuart Smalley was wrong. None of is good enough, smart enough, or liked by all people at all times. But God loves us anyway. God loves us more than we can imagine and is willing to wash over us in the waters of baptism and through us in the Holy Spirit and change our lives and the life of the world.
Luther had it right. We are baptized! And look: there are people all around us who are brothers and sisters, people who can see again and who’ve been set free! We are baptized and love, like death, has destroyed everything we put up in its way.
Thanks be to God!
© 2010 Deborah E. Lewis