Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Future Is Today

“The Spirit of God is upon us because God has anointed us to bring good news to the poor; sent us to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of God’s favor.” - Luke 4: 18-19

This is one of my most favorite scripture passages. Known as the “programmatic statement” for the Gospel of Luke, this passage sets the stage for Jesus’ ministry about to unfold. It is a manifesto, a mission statement, a prospectus, perhaps, that outlines Jesus’ call to ministry, a ministry of justice, healing and liberation. It is the passage which drew me to Christianity and the passage whispered to me at the moment of my ordination.

Many of you know that I did not grow up as a practicing Christian. In fact, I was the insolent child who used to argue with my “Bible-believing” friends at school, proving to them that their religion was just a bunch of hypocritical hooey. It wasn’t until I was in college when I first heard this passage that I really became interested (beyond school yard scraps) in finding out more about this Jesus thing. If this is what Christianity was about – justice, healing and liberation – then I wanted nothing more to follow this man Jesus. Years later, as I found myself waiting in line for ordination, I told my friends who were to anoint me to hold me down if I tried to bolt…because I thought I just might. Yet, it was these very words, whispered into my ear to that stilled my soul and allowed me to be ordained in good conscience. Throughout my life, Jesus’ programmatic statement has oriented, centered and strengthened me as I sought to be faithful to the gospel message.

Many scholars are quick to point out that this particular section of Isaiah which Jesus chooses to read is not just the summary of Jesus’ ministry but is also the programmatic statement for God’s vision of peace and justice, what some refer to as God’s kingdom, or reign or commonwealth. It is a vision of a time when God’s rule of justice and peace will govern the people instead of the broken systems of nations and states that seek their own security and welfare above all else.

A state of the union address, so to speak, for God’s Commonwealth, this statement lays out a clear social, political, economic, and religious agenda that does not originate with Jesus but is rooted in Scripture and the ongoing history of God’s relationship with humanity. From age to age the prophets have spoken of just such a vision.

It is a vision about seeking justice in a world plagued by economic inequality, prejudice and discrimination. It is a vision about healing people, not from what the world thinks they need to be cured of, but rather from all things that keep them from being whole: addiction or depression, illness, isolation or marginalization. It is a vision of liberation, freeing people from that which enslaves them whether that be unjust regimes, economic systems, abuse or violence, both physical and emotional.

It is a vision that was well known to the people sitting in the synagogue that day in Nazareth. But when Jesus read that passage there was something distinctly different about his interpretation. At the end of the reading, Jesus declares, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Once distant promises of prophets, these words now become a present day reality through Jesus’ bold pronouncement.

Jesus proclaims that the words of the prophet are not about some distant future, nor even about the near millennium. The jubilee year, the good news for the poor, the release of captives, the healing, the liberation of the oppressed: these are proclaimed now.

The future is today, says Jesus. The Commonwealth of God is here in your midst! Not tomorrow, not next week, next month or next year, the future is today!

Sometimes when we read these words, we want to add a caveat to them, to contextualize them in a way that makes them seem safer, easier to credit. We can’t possibly believe that Jesus really meant that the future is today, that the Commonwealth of God has already come. Why that wouldn’t make sense would it?

Look around. Certainly there is still poverty, dis-ease, captivity and oppression, the greater part of the prophecy’s promise lies unfulfilled, doesn’t it? If the Commonwealth has come, what good has it done? All we need to do is open our newspapers to find evidence to the contrary. Poverty continues to plague us. Just today 24,000 people have died from poverty related disease. War still rages; just today, in the time before we have come to worship at least 17 civilians died in Iraq and 25 in the Gaza Strip. The HIV/AIDS epidemic continues to ravage the world with 15,000 new infections just today.

And these are only the world news headlines. We know that countless others suffer from oppression of all sorts that goes unnoticed or unreported; economic, social, political, even religious oppression continues to exist. For many of us we know the personal struggles of friends and families who give testimony to the fact that God’s Commonwealth has not yet come.

We know that within our own denomination, besides the continued ban on gay and lesbian pastors, weddings and funding for those who “promote the acceptance of homosexuality”, more and more people are being denied membership based solely on their sexual orientation. Cases have popped up in Florida and Illinois as pastors continue to exclude and oppress GLBT persons based on bad theology. This does not seem like the Commonwealth of God as described in Scripture! In fact, after listing off these statistics, it is enough to make one completely give up on the truth of that vision.

In the face of so much evidence to the contrary, many interpret Jesus’ proclamation, not as if "today" were the actual day of freedom, but rather just the day when the anointed proclaimer of that future appears. Many are willing to accept this interpretation, even putting off fulfillment to some second-coming, when we are all whisked away to heaven to dwell in the Commonwealth of the Sky. While perhaps not as satisfying, this interpretation works.

Just this weekend I was talking to my brother about political advocacy and change in the world. I was desperately trying to convince him that change is possible and that even in the face of so much that is wrong in the world, there still exists the capacity for something better. Despite my soap box and talk of God’s desire or vision for the world, my brother was just not buying it at all. So, I began to give him the example of my work with the Reconciling Ministries Network and the United Methodist Church. I thought surely he could see the value of struggling for change. I was ready for a homophobic response, questioning my work or attacking my advocacy for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender folks. But that was not the response I received.

At first he seemed puzzled. He said, “Wait, I thought you were Methodist?”

“Yes, I am”

“But doesn’t the Methodist Church hate gay people?” my brother was never one for subtleties.

“Well, yes…”

“So, you are working for an institution that believes the exact opposite of what you believe? Don’t you feel weird working to strengthen a church that you think is so wrong? How can you have a gay church in a denomination that doesn’t seem to want you?”


I think it was the first time in our relationship that he ever silenced me. Trying to recover from so deep a wound, I tried to fashion a similar argument to the sweet bye and bye, pie in the sky, kingdom come notion.

“Well, B, it’s not like the fulfillment is today…we have to keep working for change…one day we will have equality…”

But suddenly in the midst of back-peddling and justifying myself, that argument of patience and waiting didn’t seem like enough. Although I understand fully that institutional change is a slow, gradual process, it suddenly didn’t seem like a good enough reason for my brother or for me.

Sometimes in the midst of struggle it is easy to forget why we do what we do.

I had not been drawn into this church and this movement for equality because I thought this grand programmatic statement of Jesus’ was some future utopia. I did not steel myself to bear the weight of the bishop’s heavy hand because I was waiting for him to relent on his or the Church’s anti-gay policies. I became and have stayed a Christian, particularly a United Methodist, because I actually believed these words of Jesus as proclaiming a new, reality that is already at work in the world…a reality of which I want to be a part. I was drawn to a future that is today.

Rev. John Stendhl once said, “To believe the proclaimer, to hear authority in Jesus’ claim, means believing that this proposed future is at hand. The present leans into it and it has begun. Such proclamation is not an abstracted statement of fact, but a reality declared to reshape reality now.”

A reality declared to reshape reality now.

Here in Luke we read of the initiation of this new reality, this new rule of love, as Jesus is anointed. But the story doesn’t end there. Each and everyday the future becomes real as we participate in it. We are called to live our lives as if the Commonwealth is complete so that by our witness, we are the ones who reshape reality now.

The early Christian communities knew this. They lived their lives completely under the new reality of God’s Commonwealth, holding all property in common, treating each other with equality, dignity and respect, forgiving one another, refusing to participate in state sponsored violence, ministering to the poor and outcast, abolishing social hierarchies that marginalized, proclaiming there was now no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. They lived their lives as if the Commonwealth was indeed fulfilled as Jesus proclaimed and in doing so they made it real.

We are called to do no less. In form and action, our community here at Cambridge Welcoming Ministries, is a sacrament of God’s Commonwealth, not just a sign pointing to or proclaiming this future vision of peace and justice, but a concrete instantiation of it that makes God’s Commonwealth real through our lives and our ministry. Despite the oppressive and exclusionary policies and practices of our denomination, our very presence points to a reality already here in our midst where all are welcome, where GLBT persons are affirmed, valued and honored, where justice is lived out and love made known. By our very being we live into the new reality Jesus announced at his anointing in the temple. For it is not just Jesus who God anoints to make real this vision; it is each and every one of us.

Remember Paul’s bold words in 1 Corinthians: "God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are." This is our call in the world, to make real God’s vision through our lives, witness and actions.

By being the Church together in this place we imagine and enact the shape of a future given to us by God. We believe in such a way that we are re-knit as a body, members of one another, in a Commonwealth of peace and justice, not just for us but for all.

“The Spirit of God is upon us because God has anointed us to bring good news to the poor; sent us to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of God’s favor.”

These words have been fulfilled in us. The future is today.

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