To act or not to act

Epiphany 3 -2-16

Luke 4:14-21

Marian Free

In the name of God who challenges us to build a world without poverty, injustice or oppression. Amen.

The Clergy Summer School usually has two guest speakers. This year our guests were a Professor of Physics from the University of Queensland – Ross McKenzie and an American who is passionate about the pastoral uses of social media, Joshua Case. I’ll share more about social media another time, but this morning I wanted to tell you something about the Parish from which Joshua comes – The Church of the Holy Innocents in Atlanta, Georgia.  From what I can gather, the parish is not too different from our own. It is Anglican and is situated in a middle-to-high income suburb. There are at least two differences between ourselves and Holy Innocents. One is that on a Sunday five hundred people regularly attend services.  Another is the social justice focus of that Parish.

As I understand it, Joshua was employed to assist the congregation discover how they could live into their name – Holy Innocents. This exploration led to a realisation that if their church were to honour the children slaughtered by Herod, they would need to identify and to side with the vulnerable in their own time and place. A number of initiatives have emerged from this starting point. For example, every year the church seeks and obtains the names of all children in the state who have been violently killed over the course of the year. The names of the children are recorded and once a year the church holds a twenty-four hour vigil during which the names of all the children are read aloud.

Children are not the only vulnerable members of society.  In Atlanta, as elsewhere, homeless people have created a tent city on vacant land. The local fire department has made it their mission to support the homeless with food and other necessities. Last week (when the temperatures were still between -1 and 10 degrees C) the local authorities moved in and bulldozed a section of the camp.  That same week, the Federal authorities shipped a number of Latinos – some who had arrived through the appropriate channels and some who had not – to a detention centre in another state. Most of the children detained attended the school associated with the Parish.

The Parish’s relationship with the members of the Fire Department and with the children attending the school means that these actions directly affect them and their mission. They must work out how to respond, knowing that taking a stand may well make them unpopular with others in the city, the state and even the nation.

In today’s gospel, Luke depicts Jesus reading from the book of Isaiah. The language is uncompromising: “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 favour.” From Exodus to Malachi, the Old Testament records God’s preference for the poor and the marginalised and details God’s anger: “against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear the LORD of hosts” (Mal 3:5). “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice” (Deut 27:19).

Even though the Bible is very clear about God’s expectations, many of us find social activists to be uncomfortable people and we tend to want to distance ourselves from those who challenge the status quo. There are a number of possible reasons for our disquiet – the words and actions of social activists can and often do bring them into conflict with the government and the law and we don’t want to be seen as law-breakers. Activists are uncomfortable people because their willingness to act and take risks can lead to our feeling that we are lacking in courage or determination or, worse, that we have no compassion or understanding for the situations in which some people find themselves.

Those who challenge the status quo are often made to pay for daring to name things as they see them, for standing for and with the oppressed. Michael Lapsley a New Zealander and a Franciscan received a letter bomb that robbed him of both hands and an eye because he dared to speak out against apartheid. Oscar Romero, an El Salvadorian bishop was shot at the altar for taking a stand behalf of the poor. Peter Greste an Australian journalist and his colleagues were arrested and jailed in appalling conditions for reporting the truth as they observed it in Egypt.

We should not be surprised at the crowds’ reaction to Jesus. Jesus’ claim that the words of scripture had been fulfilled in himself was not the source of their anger. Rather it was his interpretation of the words of Isaiah (at least this is N.T. Wright’s suggestion).  With the passage of time, these words and other OT texts had lost some of their sting. As a people who had been in exile or under foreign domination for the better part of 500 years the Jews had come to believe that the words of Isaiah spoke to their situation – they saw themselves as the poor, the oppressed and the imprisoned.  They believed that when God’s anointed came, he would to set them free. They had lost sight of their responsibility for the vulnerable among them.

In his words and in his actions, Jesus demonstrated his compassion for the outsider – the poor and the dispossessed. By claiming that the words of Isaiah were fulfilled in himself, Jesus was calling the people to return to their biblical roots, to revive a concern for the widow and the fatherless, the hired worker, the alien and the poor.  This made him an uncomfortable figure, someone whom they didn’t want to have around. In the first century, Jesus is interpreting words that were written some five hundred years previously. In the twenty first century, it is our task to make sense of the words for our own time and place.

What do we make of Jesus’ words? Do they make us anxious, uncomfortable or uncertain?  Are we tempted to push the uncomfortable Jesus away from us (over a convenient cliff)? Or do these words challenge us to consider how we should respond. Do they encourage us to ask: Whose are the voices that are not heard in our day? Who are the people who are longing to be set free?  Where are the marginalised and the oppressed?

What is our role as Christians in the world today? Are we meant to keep our hands clean and our heads down or does God demand that we take an interest in and demonstrate a concern for what is going on around us? Do we leave issues like domestic violence, homelessness and refugees to the secular world, or do we take a stand and, with Jesus, initiate God’s kingdom here on earth?

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