Peace. Be Still.
When Jesus Gets to Preachin'
You know of my deep admiration and affection for Dr. White and the joy I feel for the musicians who join him every year. But what I didn’t fully expect of this annual tradition was to grow so deeply fond of you, the Mardi Gras congregation. You are a different and rare creature every year, just like our beloved Carnival season. This thing we create when we come here together on this one Sunday of the year doesn’t exist at any other time, even though I may think about you and wonder about you in June or October. We are neighbors and friends and strangers and family, we are devoutly Christian and quietly agnostic and nominally Jewish and boastfully atheist. We are, like our city, a mashup of all kinds of people from all kinds of places and all walks of life, gathering together for just a little while to honor something rare and set apart. It’s the music and the traditions of this city, yes, but there’s this other thing that happens when we are together. And it’s a pretty holy thing.
I wonder…How has the past year been for you? Has it been good? Have the kids grown? Did you get the promotion? Are you retiring soon? Have you moved? Have you buried ones that you loved? Do you have all of your ducks in a row? Have you lost your ducks and would settle for even just carrying them in a bag if you could find them all again? Have you gotten a divorce? Ended a friendship? Are you facing the diagnosis or in total denial? Have you worked hard on yourself and repaired something broken? Pushed past an old blockage? Are you watching the news and devouring Twitter or turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to all of it in hopes the chaos will be over soon? How has the past year been for you?
Last week we sat with these words from Luke chapter 4:
“[T]he 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,
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.”
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.”
It’s Jesus first time preaching in his hometown. He emerges from a struggle with the devil in the wilderness, begins preaching around Galilee and is praised for his message and presence. So much so that word has reached home about him leading up to this first recorded sermon in Luke’s gospel. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus proclaims. “And this word of good news bringing, sight giving, oppressing smashing is fulfilled right now, today, in your hearing.”
The Power of Water
Practice sacred imagination with me for just a moment as we hear the text again. Jesus stands in a place where he stood so often in his life. The listening audience knows him, knows his parents, has watched him for years. But now they’re hearing rumors about him as a powerful teacher, a Spirit-filled presence. Maybe some of them are more skeptical than curious. The ones who have heard him teach are trying to convince the others that he’s as remarkable as his reputation touts. Perhaps a few are whispering to one another of this report spreading around the country. The room falls silent and everything becomes completely still when he is handed the scroll. Then he reads:
“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.”
He rolls it back up again, hands it to the attendant, and sits down—never breaking eye contact with the congregation. No sound returning. No movement stirring. Then he breaks the pregnant silence to add:
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Repent and believe! We’ve come back to these Lukan texts about John the Baptizer three times in the past six weeks calling us to examine the powerful initiation of new life this peculiar man proclaimed. It’s an ancient ritual, dipping into water—hands and feet, faces, whole heads, bodies immersed. The Egyptians did it. So did the Mesopotamians and the Hittites. The ancient Near Eastern cultures surrounding the ancient Hebrews and the Greeks surrounding John and Jesus also did it. Water is about as good a symbol as any we have, and water rituals span the millennia.
Frederick Buechner writes, “FOR NINE MONTHS we breathe in it. The sight of water in oceans, rivers, and lakes is soothing to the spirit as almost nothing else. To swim in it is to become as weightless and untrammeled as in dreams. The wake of a ship, the falling of a cataract, and the tumbling of a brook can hold us spellbound for hours, and in times of drought we feel as parched in our being as the lawn that crackles beneath our feet. Air is our element, but water is our heart's delight.” (Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words)