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Sermon, January 23, 2022

by Rosie Snow


The Recovery of Sight

Luke 4:14-21

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon 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

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Who is God? What is the character of God? What does the existence of God mean for our lives? How does God relate to the universe, and what does God want for us human beings?

All these questions are questions of theology. As Christians, we may spend our whole lives working out our theology. And the time is well spent, because Christians hold many, vastly different theologies, with vastly different implications for our lives and our global community. Your theology may lead you into a life of solitary prayer, or of service and charity work, of non-violent resistance, or of violent fascist nationalism. The stakes of theology are high indeed.

As Christians seeking to answer these questions about God’s character, we have some very helpful insight. We look to Emmanuel—God with us. Jesus’s life and death show us God in human form. The Gospels show us who God is, and what the reign of God looks like: building blocks upon which to build our theology.

The Gospels are deep and rich and themselves involve a lifetime of study. Lately, I’ve been particularly interested in how each of the Gospels begins—in how Jesus begins his ministry in each Gospel, as these stories seem to offer particular definition and weight in telling us who Emmanuel is. In Mark, the first thing Jesus does is liberate a man from an unclean spirit. In John, Jesus’s first act is one of incredible abundance—turning water into wine. In Matthew, Jesus begins his ministry in solidarity with the least of these, healing people who were previously cast aside in great numbers. Here, in Luke, Jesus begins his ministry by going to a synagogue in Nazareth to read. Jesus is given the prophet Isaiah, and out of that entire, long, book, he chooses these verses:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon 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

In these lines, Jesus tells us why he has come, and what God’s plans for humanity are. It’s radical stuff. Unlike a lot of other popular schools of thought in Jesus’ time, which focused on individual morality but left class structures intact (and which were only accessible to the upper classes anyway), the implications of these words are collective and profound, requiring a complete upending of how society was ordered. The end of poverty, oppression, and captivity means everyone gets free and everyone thrives. Such reversals are not possible in a world that resembles the Roman Empire in any way. The beginning of God’s reign means an end to Empire.

We don’t live in the Roman Empire anymore, but does our world still resemble it many ways? Certainly, especially insofar as poverty, oppression, and captivity persist. That’s the plumbline that Jesus gives us to measure our structures by, and so many of our structures serve to keep people poor, oppressed, and unfree. Now, though, we can also add the entire planet to the list of those who are impoverished. As Philip K. Dick writes in his bonkers, vaguely Christian-themed novel VALIS: “The Empire never ended.”

And so, we are left to contend with Jesus’s proclamation, and its implications for our lives and the systems we live within, in America in 2022. The implications are overwhelming because of the sheer amount of struggle, and work, and transformation that they bring. Yet there is one line in the proclamation Jesus reads from Isaiah that I have so far left out—one little line that might help us orient ourselves in this struggle. That might bring some clarity as to where we even begin.

The Lord has sent me to bring…recovery of sight to the blind.

This line about recovery of sight to the blind is interesting because it can be yet another way that Jesus is directly liberating the marginalized. But it might also be the only line that has a message not for the oppressed, but the oppressor. Not for those crushed under the wheel, but the wheel itself.

The Bible contains numerous mentions of blindness, in many different contexts. Blindness was seen as an especially terrible and disabling physical affliction, and in the Prophets, the reversal of blindness is a key marker of hopeful reversals of fortune for Israel. It is also a key marker of the coming messiah. In Isaiah 42, it is promised that the servant, who will have the Holy Spirit upon him, will open eyes that are blind.

But blindness is not merely a physical disability in the Bible. It can also be a metaphor for grave deficiencies in spiritual understanding. In Isaiah, we also hear the line: bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes, who are deaf, yet have ears! And in Jeremiah 5, the prophet speaks: Hear this, O foolish and senseless people, who have eyes, but do not see, who have ears, but do not hear. In these instances, blindness is an inability to hear or see God and God’s will for humanity. In the New Testament, it is the blindness of people who resist and refuse the liberating message of Christ, as the Nazarenes ultimately do to Jesus in the Gospel of Luke.

The messiah comes to reverse this kind of blindness too.

Today, the worse kind of blindness is not the physical kind, but the metaphorical kind. The blindness of those who refuse or simply don’t see the implications of a reign of God that frees the oppressed, the captive, and the poor. We are often blind to the mechanisms of the social and political structures that keep people unfree. And we are also often blind to the prejudices and attitudes that allow these structures to persist.

Our blindness does not come about by chance. There are many forces in our world that work tirelessly and effectively to keep us blind. Unsurprisingly, the forces that work for our blindness are those that have the most to lose should our spiritual sight be restored: the people, parties, and corporations that sit at the top of various hierarchies. Hierarchies that would topple if our societies were to reorganize themselves around the unconditional love and care that mark the reign of God. And so, these forces work hard to keep us blind—to keep us tuned out, confused, numb to others’ suffering, overwhelmed, or actively hateful.

Most people have the capacity for both cruelty and goodness, and if it seems like our culture is starting to lean more towards cruelty lately, this is because the forces working to stoke cruelty are doing a better job. And it’s not fair, because in many ways it’s easier to bring out the worst in people. Easier because you don’t have to be honest. You can lie and cheat and bully and use violence and abuse power and use all sorts of tactics that are very effective. Appeals to distrust, grievance, vengeance, and scarcity are effective because they correspond to the human emotions of fear and anger, which are powerful and easy to trigger.

And yet, these forces that work to bring out the worst in people don’t, ultimately, have the upper hand. And Jesus knew this. As the Son of God, he knew well the full landscape of spiritual forces at work in our world and could see which was destined to win. Directly before this passage in the synagogue, he is tempted by Satan in the wilderness and rejects the kind of power Satan offers him. He knows it is bound to fail. Which is why he has the confidence to stand up in the synagogue in Nazareth and say what he said:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon 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

Ultimately, love is stronger than fear and anger. As a spiritual force, it is not as easy to trigger, cheap to come by, not as reactive, not as easy to summon into being. But once it has been summoned, it is far more powerful. When present it is deep, abiding, all-pervading, and all-transforming. It is the power we humans were designed to map onto and made in the image of. It is God. The ability to summon, see, partner with, and believe in God-Love is the gift Jesus gave us through himself.

So, when we see cruelty gaining sway in our culture and our politics, it is not because good and evil are fighting with equal ferocity and evil is winning. It is because Love has not been summoned into our midst as fully as it should be. Blindness holds sway not because shadow is more compelling, but due to the absence of a strong liberating vision. If such a vision were fully, vibrantly, enthusiastically present—if it were “manifested” as the young people would say—it would win and the competition wouldn’t even been close.

And we haven’t been “manifesting” the vision that restores sight to a blinded culture. There have lately been groundswells of great resistance to evil. Resisting evil, wherever it shows up in politics, propaganda, our social structures, and in ourselves—is crucial. It is a big part of our baptismal vows. But resisting evil is not enough. It is defensive and defenses can only hold for so long. There’s really no spiritual offense on the move right now. No real love movement to answer the hate movement that continues to grow in our culture. Though I see the components of it in different places, they have not come together in a unifying vision or visions.

Why not? Perhaps because we keep trying to do it ourselves? Because we haven’t invited the Holy Spirit into the process?

Only the Holy Spirit can supply such a vision, and animate such a movement as the one we need. When Jesus speaks these words from Isaiah, he is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. The verse he reads begins with the line: the Holy Spirit is upon me. It is through the power of the Holy Spirit that good news can come to the poor, release to the captive, freedom to the oppressed, and the recovery of sight to the blind.

In Isaiah 42, we read the words

I will lead the blind

By a road they do not know

By paths they have not known

I will guide them

I will turn the darkness before them into light

The rough places into level ground

Are we ready? Are we prepared to open ourselves to a force as wild, and unpredictable, as the Holy Spirit? Will we allow ourselves to be led down paths we have not known? Can we trust in the triune God to lead us now, to make of us something unprecedented in beauty and power and grace and unconditional love?

Holy Spirit, come upon us now. Give us the liberating vision we need right now.

The Holy Spirit responds. She gives us not one vision, but two. Both are contained in these very verses from Luke.

The first vision is that of the Jubilee Year, the year of the Lord’s favor, which Jesus also proclaims in his reading in the synagogue in Nazareth. In the Hebrew Bible, the Jubilee Year is the last in a 50-year cycle when all debt is forgiven, all enslaved people are freed, and property is returned its original owners. The Land also receives a year of Sabbath every seven years—a year to rest undisturbed. Truly, this is the vision and the energy we need right now, and Lord knows we are long overdue for a Jubilee. We need a Jubilee decade. A Jubilee century. There is actually a growing chorus of faith voices preaching, envisioning, and clamoring for the Jubilee. Can we join them? What if this positive, gorgeous vision were to grow, in church and community and art? What if it began to pervade our culture, and to clarify our collective demands regarding the rest of this century? What if?

The second vision is one we have the ability to embody whenever we want. It is the ritual of communion, when we share both in the essence of Christ and in a glimpse of the reign of God. The sacrament of communion brings past and present to collapse into the promised future. At the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus dissolves time in his words, saying these things have already been fulfilled, speaking a Holy future into the fabric of a broken present. For me, the reign of God comes most clearly into view when people from many backgrounds, histories, ages, races, sexualities, social statuses, gender identities, and sexualities, all come together to receive the body and blood of Christ. Including, especially, those who have been excluded before, whether by prejudice, or borders, or unaddressed harm. Importantly, communion that brings so many different folks together must be backed up by concrete actions addressing harm and the heart-blindness that causes it.

In her book How to Have an Enemy, Melissa Florer-Bixler writes:

A few years ago I heard a pastor offer up his church as a model for nonpartisan, apolitical worship. In his church, he bragged, ICE agents and undocumented people worship together and share the eucharist. I read this statement and wondered about the spiritual and emotional harm that occurs when we ask victims and their tormentors to be made one at the common table of communion…I was not comforted by this thought. I was horrified.

The vision of shared communion doesn’t come cheap, just as love doesn’t come cheap. We are always called to side with the powerless.

But if we can do that—if we are up to the task—these visions are powerful enough to bring the recovery of sight both individually and collectively. These are visions we can come back to in our moments of hopelessness, to share with others as a guiding light, and work towards embodying. The more we do so, the more we recover our own sight, so that day by day, the Kingdom of Heaven starts to come into better view. Amen.

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