27 January 2019

A Liberating Word

Luke 4:14-18

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born into slavery on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, in Talbot County, Maryland, around 1818, but no one knows for sure. In early March 1826, Frederick received word that he was being sent across the Chesapeake to Baltimore to live with the Auld family in Fells Point. Sharing the deck with a flock of sheep, Frederick boarded the Sally Lloyd, around March 18.  He moved to the bow of the sloop and, as he wrote years later, “spent the remainder of the day in looking ahead.”[1] After a brief stop in Annapolis (he was not allowed to go ashore), Frederick arrived in Baltimore on a Sunday morning.  He approached the city in a state of awe as he looked out and saw two- and three-masted sailing ships, steamers, church spires, four- and five-storey buildings and warehouses, and landed at Smith’s Wharf in Fell’s Point.  He lived with Hugh and Sophia Auld in their home on Aliceanna Street, just up from the harbor.

Frederick arrived in one of the most thriving and growing port cities in North America. It was the largest trading center for tobacco, wheat, flour, coffee—and, sadly, slaves. The city had 80,000 people: 60,000 whites, four thousand black slaves, and more than fourteen thousand free blacks—the largest concentration of free persons of color in the United States. Frederick entered a new and wondrous universe—of technological innovations and culture, an intellectually diverse and sophisticated society, a cosmopolitan city linking him to a larger world.

Frederick couldn’t read, but he was bright and intellectually curious. He was obsessed with words, and not just any words.  Sophia used to read aloud from the Bible as Frederick slept under a table near her feet.  He became obsessed with the Bible. He wanted to read, and Sophia started to teach him privately.  When Hugh discovered this, he rebuked her and told her to stop, because literacy was unlawful in Maryland for slaves.  Hugh said, “Learning would do [Frederick] no good, but probably, a great deal of harm—making him disconsolate and unhappy.”  And if Frederick was taught to read the Bible, Hugh said, “there will be no keeping him.”  It would “forever unfit him for the duties of a slave.”[2]

Frederick went to church with Hugh and Sophia, Wilk Street Methodist Church; there he heard the sermons and the stories.  He heard from the pulpit that, “All men…bond and free” were sinners in need of redemption. Frederick was befriended by a black lay preacher, Charles Johnson, who taught him to pray and awakened his heart and led him to confess “faith in Jesus Christ, as the Redeemer, Friend and Savior.”[3] After that, Frederick saw the world, he said, “in a new light.”  He said he “loved all mankind—slaveholders not excepted; though I abhorred slavery more than ever. My great desire now was to have the world converted.”[4]  Frederick developed an insatiable hunger to hear more from the Bible. And he wanted to read the Bible for himself—and so he secretly taught himself to read.

In 1833, Frederick was sent back to the Eastern Shore (because of a feud between Hugh and his brother, Thomas), and forced to live in a cruel, sadistic setting.  Around this time, Thomas had something of a “conversion” at a camp meeting revival in St. Michael’s, but he continued to brutally beat his slaves, including Frederick, and didn’t see the hypocrisy in that.  Frederick saw it and felt it; he came to see the hypocrisy in the entire Christian slaveholding universe.[5] With his knowledge of the Bible, he knew what scripture really says about redemption and liberation for all God’s children. 

Frederick eventually escaped from slavery, headed north, changed his surname to Douglass, and became one of the greatest writers, orators, humanists, and Christian prophets of the nineteenth century. As historian David W. Blight argues in his recently released (and outstanding) biography, Douglass became, “one of abolition’s fiercest critics of proslavery religious and secular hypocrisy.”[6] Douglass felt in his soul and body, the “blood-chilling blasphemy,” he said, at the heart of proslavery piety, these “professedly holy men” who owned his body and tried to own his mind.[7]

And it was the Bible, but not just the written words of scripture, it was the witness of scripture, the voice that comes through the text, God’s world-creating, world-judging, world-renewing, radical, liberating, life-giving Word carried by the words of the text, which told him who he was, and who his neighbor was, and gave him a vision of what God desired for all people. 

That’s the power of God’s Word.  That’s what God’s Word does.  I’m not talking about words, but the Word, and by Word, I don’t mean the Bible.  I’m talking about the Word—the creating, redeeming, sustaining, life-giving Word that is God, the God who speaks, the God who said, “Let there be….,” and it was. I’m talking about the God who spoke in the beginning, who spoke and caused the beginning, and spoke the universe into being. The same God still speaking and causing new beginnings. The Divine Voice is dynamic and purposeful and continues to act and move and shape us.  The Divine Voice spoke to Isaiah, and Isaiah listened to the Word, and the Word turned him into a prophet.  God told Isaiah, “My word shall go out from my mouth: it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Is. 55:11).  And then, in God’s good time, the Word became flesh, and lived among us, “full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14).

In Luke’s Gospel, the Word made flesh begins his ministry in Nazareth. Where? In a synagogue. And what is Jesus doing there? Reading scripture, and not just any text. He’s reading from the Isaiah scroll, and just not any reading, but these words: “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” (Lk. 4:18).

According to Luke, when Jesus was finished reading, he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. Sitting down, Jesus does something bold and daring—and arrogant, but for the fact that Jesus was who he was—and says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk. 4:21). Jesus claimed for himself and his mission the prophetic stance of someone like Isaiah. In fact, Jesus is saying that this mission will now be embodied in and through him. The Spirit of the living God is upon him and empowering him to act on God’s behalf. And then that same Spirit sends him into the world, calling disciples to follow where he leads.  To be a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, to bear the name “Christian,” means we, too, are being led by the same Spirit who anointed Jesus, led by the same Spirit-anointed Jesus, led by the same Holy Spirit who continues to speak through the pages of scripture and calls us to offer a liberating word.

There is a direct line from the prophetic voice of Isaiah to Jesus of Nazareth to countless other prophets throughout the centuries, to Frederick Douglass, to preachers, writers, poets, reformers, to scientists—heck, anyone anointed by the Spirit of God to bring good news—not bad news or negative news, and certainly not fake news—but good news to a world that desperately needs to hear it, especially the poor.  This is what God’s Word continues to offer in the world.  What we say, what we preach, how we live, how we treat our neighbors and strangers, our gestures should be proclamations of release, they should release people from what binds them—not bind them further, not throw them into greater captivity.  We are to be about offering insight and light so that people can see and see clearly. We are to be about helping people who are blind come to see God’s desire to liberate all people. We are to be about helping those who are oppressed.

We can only be about this work when we realize that it’s not really our work, but the work of God at work through Jesus and, therefore, at work in us. We can’t begin to offer good news until we have heard (and continue to hear) God’s good news to us. And we can’t begin to offer good news to the poor without having some understanding of what it feels like to be poor, perhaps remember what it felt like to be poor, to have not.  We need to be empathic toward those who have less (often through no fault of their own). What would be good news for the poor? What if we asked them and listened to them, instead of assuming the answer. Perhaps we need to acknowledge our own impoverishment, the things we lack, or the things that impoverish us which, ironically, might just be our wealth and privilege.  Similar questions can be raised around releasing the captives, recovering sight, letting the oppressed go free. 

Where in your life, as a follower of Jesus, where has God released you from captivity or recovered your sight or freed you from oppression?  

Where have you heard God’s liberating Word? 

For it’s only because we have heard and experienced the liberating Word that we are able to offer a message of good news and liberation. That’s what God wants for us: liberation.

You can easily see why the Bible is no friend of dictators or enslavers or oppressors or tyrants. You might have read about (or seen) the recent exhibition of the so-called Slave Bible at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC. It was a redacted Bible, published in 1807 in London by the Society for the Conversion of Negro Slaves. It omits 90 percent of the Hebrew Bible and 50 percent of the New Testament. Its pages include “Servants be obedient to them that are your masters,” from Ephesians (6:5), but omits the portion of Paul’s letter to the Galatians that reads, “There is neither bond nor free … for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).  I went online to read the text, myself, and was surprised to learn that Luke 4:18-19 was included, although slightly modified. Instead of “let[ting] the oppressed go free,” it reads, “set at liberty them that are bruised.” 

The words of the Bible can be so easily manipulated by cruel people bent on keeping poor people poor, keeping captives captive, gaslighting the truth and keeping people in the dark and blind, and making sure there’s always someone around to oppress or marginalize or frighten.

This is why we need the help of the Holy Spirit to help us hear God’s Word in and through the words, this is why we need the Spirit to help us see what God is trying to do in the world.  It’s only because the Spirit is at work in us that we can bring good news in Jesus’ name.  It’s fitting that this text is today’s gospel reading, given that we will have our Annual Congregational Meeting following worship this morning. This text is a good reminder about what we are called to as a church, and what are lives are to be about individually.  This is what Jesus came to do, it’s what he did, it’s what he does, and it’s what his church still does, because we are his.

And the text is also a good reminder of something else we need to remember as a church: nothing happens apart from the movement of God’s Spirit. The Spirit anoints us and empowers us to do this work, and to do this ministry with joy and gratitude. It’s often easy to think that the effectiveness of our ministry, the growth and vitality of the church, the financial health of this congregation are all exclusively dependent upon us, upon the gifts and skills and treasures of the membership and the staff, dependent on our passion and commitment, dependent on our wisdom or knowledge. All this is good and helpful and useful. But apart from the work of the Spirit in us, through us, among us, we don’t have any news worth sharing—we have nothing, absolutely nothing.  Without the Spirit, we’re completely ineffective and, then, thrown back upon ourselves, left to trust our own resources to serve or save the church, to serve or save the world from the mess that it’s in.  It’s not about us. It’s never about us. And if the church becomes about us, then something is seriously wrong.  As the Scots Confession (1560) reminds us, with words that are sobering, and eloquent and true, “human beings are dead, stupefied, and trapped in disobedience until and ‘unless the Spirit of the Lord Jesus,’ enlivens, enlightens, and breaks their captivity.”[8]

One of the oldest hymns of the church is Veni, Creator Spiritus, from the ninth century.  Come, Creator Spirit. And, so, may this prayer be the prayer of this congregation.

Come, Holy Spirit.
Create and recreate us. 
Speak to us and give us something to speak to your people. 
Shape us, move us, shake us, God,
    and send us out beyond these beloved walls with your good news.
Make us hearers of your Word and doers of your Word—your liberating word.

May it be so.


[1] Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, originally published in 1855.  Cited in David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), 36.
[2] Recounted by Douglass in My Bondage and My Freedom, cited in Blight, 39.
[3] Douglass, cited in Blight, 52.
[4] Douglass, cited in Blight, 53.
[5] Blight, 58.
[6] Blight, 59.
[7] Blight, 59ff.
[8] Grateful to Philip G. Ziegler’s reference to and paraphrase of the Scots Confession, pertaining to the Holy Spirit, in Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic Press, 2018), 76. See also article 12, Presbyterian Church (USA), Book of Confessions.

20 January 2019

There Must Be Something in the Water

Luke 3:21-22

Baptism of the Lord 

“Welcome to the life of the church.” That’s what I say to an infant (or child or adult, usually an infant) after being baptized.  It’s how we often think about baptism, as initiation into the church—emphasis on church, the community of God’s people.  John Calvin (1509-1564) himself said, “Baptism is a sign of initiation, by which we are admitted into the society of the Church, in order that, being incorporated into Christ, we may be numbered among the children of God.”[1]

Now, I certainly don’t want to contradict Calvin. And I don’t want the heresy police coming to my study or people questioning my theological orthodoxy, but there’s a problem here. There’s something missing with a one-sided view of baptism. The problem comes into focus when we take this initiation-into-church view of baptism and then read the accounts of Jesus’ own baptism.  The dilemma is staring right at us. Was baptism as initiation-into-church true for Jesus when Jesus, himself, wasn’t baptized into a church? And he certainly wasn’t baptized by the church.  John the Baptist wasn’t out in the wilderness baptizing Jews into the Christian church.  At Jesus’ time, baptism was a ritual used by radical Jews who were fed up with the abuses of the religious authorities in Jerusalem, who wanted to be purified or cleansed of those abuses to be more fully faithful to the ways of God. Those who went out to see John in the wilderness didn’t want to be associated with the Temple community in Jerusalem; they wanted to separate themselves from it, distance themselves from the Temple and the Temple’s alliance with Roman Imperial authorities. Instead, those seeking baptism wanted to identify themselves with God.

When we read the account of Jesu’s baptism in this light, setting aside our churchy view of initiation, we begin to see that for Jesus baptism was less about initiation, than it was identification. It was about identity—Jesus’ identity as the son of God and being identified with God’s mission or kingdom in the world. In his baptism—going down under the water and coming up out of the water—Jesus participated in a profound ritual that helped him come to grips with who he was. In these waters Jesus was aligning himself with the Baptist’s mission of radical reform, of the need to focus more clearly upon ways of God. When Jesus came up out of the water, he entered a new life, determined to embody his call and embark on the mission and purpose of his life. After his baptism, Luke tells us, while he and the others who had been baptized were praying, the Holy Spirit “descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’ (Lk. 3:22).  You are my beloved Son. You are my beloved. A designation of identity.  Therefore, “With you I am well-pleased.”  Can you hear this in your heart? Can you feel it? 

In this divine declaration we begin to see that being baptized has something to do with identity, with who we really are in the core of our being. It seems to me that we also discover something about what our baptism can mean for us, whether or not we remember being baptized. What we discover when we consider the meaning of our baptism, not into the Church, but into our call as people of God, is something akin to what Jesus discovered about himself in the waters of his baptism.  It’s a designation of identity.  Baptism tells us who we are.  Not that we are mini-Messiahs, because we’re not, but that a similar designation—Beloved—belongs to us as God’s children.  It’s a designation, a claim, and identity that we need help remembering all our lives. This means that baptism is never an event that occurs once in our lives (whether as infant, child, or adult), and then we move on, but an event, or, better, a truth that we need to live into day after day, year after year.

During the stress and strain of the Reformation, attacked on all sides, Martin Luther (1483-1546) took great comfort in knowing he was baptized. He would repeat to himself, over and over, “Remember your baptism. Remember your baptism. Remember who you are.” Luther said of baptism that is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that takes our entire lives to complete.[2]  He’s correct.  We’re not “done” and then we’re “in.” It’s an experience that yields saving, personal knowledge. And the knowledge we gain of ourselves in baptism, when we come to see who we really are, a knowledge that takes a lifetime to fathom and acknowledge and live out and really claim to be true in our heart of hearts is like what Jesus learned in the divine declaration, the truth that defined and determined his mission, and it’s this: we too are beloved children of God, daughters of God, sons of God, with whom God is well-pleased. Your name is Beloved—Beloved Child.

I wonder, though, why is it so difficult to hear this, to accept this, to believe this? I believe it’s truly tragic that someone can spend their entire life in the church and never hear this, never able to accept it, never able to view themselves this way, as Beloved. Sometimes we know, but then we forget, and we need help remembering. Sometimes we hear other messages, voices that tell us something else, voices from family members, or at school, at work that tell us we’re something else—unwanted, unaccepted, unlovable.  Or it might be those negative, piercing voices of judgment and recrimination that we say to ourselves, the voices that are less than kind or compassionate or graceful.  We’re surrounded by a cacophony of voices competing for our attention.

Who tells you who you are? Who has the authority to tell you who you really are? Who grounds your identity?  Do we look to our families, our neighbors, our friends to tell us who we are? Your colleagues at work? Your boss? Is it the culture with its distorted drives and wayward passions that we turn to guidance? There’s no way to live apart from these voices. But we need to remember that there’s only one voice that truly counts, only one who speaks with authority, only one who knows you—through and through—the only one who can tell you who you really are.

Several years ago, we saw The Lion King on Broadway. Amazing production; amazing show; amazing story, really. There’s one scene in which Simba—son of the great king of Pride Rock, a son in exile from his father who lost his way without the courage to fulfill his life’s mission—receives a visitation by Rafiki, a priestess offering wise counsel. Rafiki is a Swahili word for “friend,” related to an Arabic word for “companion.” She’s a kind of Holy Spirit-like figure offering guidance to Rafiki. She tells him to look at his reflection in the waters of creation, to see himself and to remember who he really is—he’s the son of the king. Rafiki sings,
He watches over
Everything we see
Into the water
Into the truth
In your reflection
He lives in you.[3]

Simba begins to see a vision of his father long dead who speaks words of assurance, of affirmation, of identification, like what Jesus heard from the Spirit: Remember who you are.

When we are in exile and far from home,
when we have lost our way in the world,
when the future looks scary,
when nothing seems to make any sense,
when the pressures and anxieties 
and pain and immense sorrow of the world overwhelm us, 
and we forget our place in the universe,
Jesus invites us back—again and again—to the waters,
the waters of new creation,
to remember who we are.

But it’s so easy to forget. That’s why we need people who love us and remind us who we are.  It’s also what the church does when the church is really being the church: we remind each other who we are.  You’re a beloved child of God. That’s what a sacrament is meant to do, it helps us remember. That’s what we need to hear whispered in our ears whenever we approach a baptismal font, whether it’s this baptismal font or any other font anywhere in the world.

When the great St. Francis of Assisi (1181/1182-1226) was called by Christ in a vision to enter a world of poverty and care for the poor, his father, Franceso, a leading public figure in the town of Assisi, Italy, was furious. His father publicly shamed Francis in the public square. And Francis shamed his father for taking his call seriously. Francis lived in a small hut in the plains below the town of Assisi (you can still go there today). When he had to walk up the hill to town, he was deeply fearful of meeting his father in the street.  His father cursed at him publicly and rejected him again and again as his son. Francis carried a lot of guilt about this and the relationship with his father remained broken for the rest of his life. One day Francis had to go up into town and feeling fearful, invited a beggar from the streets to join him.  He invited the beggar to walk by his side and protect him. And Francis instructed him, “When my father hurls curses and abuses at me, I will hear them painfully in one ear, but I ask you to walk on my other side, and whisper God’s favor into my other ear, ‘Francis, you are my beloved son. You are a son of heaven and a son of God.’ Just keep repeating it until I can believe it again.”[4]

That’s what our baptism continues to say to us today. The font reminds us who we are. In its waters we see our reflections. Here we discover our true names.  Rachel Held Evans said it so well. “The great struggle of the Christian life is to take God’s name for us, to believe we are beloved and to believe that is enough.” That’s the only voice and the only name we need to hear.  Against the many competing voices telling us otherwise, we need to hear the voice of truth, and hear it repeated in our ears again and again, until we believe it and know it. At the font, God’s Spirit whispers to us again and again, and won’t stop until we really believe it, know it, feel it in our souls: You are my child. My daughter. My son. You are my beloved.

One final thing, this identity…it’s never an end in itself.  It’s important to know who we are so that we can faithfully live out our lives, serving God, and fulfilling the purpose of our lives.  The well-loved poet Mary Oliver died this past week.  She knew who she was as a child of God and lived out her life to the fullest.  She said, “Love yourself. Then forget it. And love the world.”[5]  Indeed.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), Book IV, XV,1.
[2] Cited in Anthony Robinson, Transforming Congregational Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Press, 2003), 37.  The French Confession (1559), written by Calvin, says, “We hold…that although we are baptized only once, yet the gain that it symbolizes to us reaches over our whole lives and to our death, so that we have a lasting witness that Jesus Christ will always be our justification and sanctification.” 
[3] The Lion King, Music and Lyrics by Elton John & Tim Rice.
[4] “Legend of the Three Companions,” St. Francis of Assisi Writings and Early Biographies: English Omnibus of the Sources for the Life of St. Francis, cited in Richard Rohr, Wild Man to Wise Man: Reflections on Male Spirituality (Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005), 78.
[5] Mary Oliver, Evidence: Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010).