God's Favor is Now

A Sermon Shared with the People of St. Matthew’s, St. Paul, October 20, 2013
Luke 4:14-21
Lisa Wiens-Heinsohn

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,

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 God'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."

The other day I was talking to a young woman who is about 19 years old at Youthlink, let’s call her Janiece.  She was asking me if I could give her and her boyfriend a ride, and so I asked, what for? Her face just lit up and she said, because I finally have a crib after all these years – I am moving into St. Barnabas today, and I need help hauling my bin of clothes over there.  I said, I’d love to drive you over there.  So she and I sat in my office at Youthlink for a few minutes while I was finishing up my lunch, and she started telling me some of her life story.  When she was a little girl, every single man in her extended family sexually abused her.  She’s been struggling ever since.  But she is thrilled finally to be able to move into her own place, her own apartment, in St. Barnabas-  which the people of St. Matthews financed and built. Anyway, we took her bin of clothes, which as far as I can tell is all that she owns in the world, to my car and I drove her across downtown to St. Barnabas.  After we got there, we sat in the car for a few minutes while we finished talking.  Then she turned to me and said, What if they don’t like me?

Moving into an apartment wasn’t just about having a roof over her head. It was about having a place where she could belong, where she could be safe and accepted and even liked.  I looked at her face, with both total joy and real fear vying for first place all over it, and I just said, Janiece, what in the world is not to like?  Look at you, so happy, you’re just beaming.  People love positive people – but even if their own stuff gets in the way and they don’t love you, just hang onto your joy. You are on your way, lady.

But this need to be accepted, to belong, for people to “like” us, is a universal human condition.  We need to know we are OK as we are.  This isn’t just about being popular. It’s the deep need to know we are loved and valued, when we are successful and when we are not.  When we are on top of our game and when we really screw up.  We need to know that someone can be delighted to see us just because we are there, just because we are alive.

And let me tell you, there are times when I step into the door at Youthlink and look around at a building full of really troubled homeless teenagers who know how to act out like no one else I’ve ever met, and I don’t feel love or like or anything remotely close to it.  Sometimes they drive me nuts.  Sometimes they act like jerks.  “Bad behavior” isn’t a descriptive enough phrase to describe what they can be like sometimes.  But none of that changes the question they need answering, and if we’re honest every single one of us needs answering too: will they like me?  Do I belong? Can I belong?

So when Jesus in today’s text, filled with the Holy Spirit, says that he has been sent by God to announce Good News to the poor, release to the captives, freedom for the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of God’s favor—he is saying many things, but I think one of the main things he is proclaiming is that the oppressed, the captive, the poor, the blind, have God’s favor.  That when God looks at them God is captivated, and delighted – before they are successful, before they get their act together, before they figure out how to behave politely.  It is that love and delight in human beings that is the basis for the justice that God brings about.  

One of my personal heroes is Father Gregory Boyle. He is the Jesuit priest who created the largest gang intervention programs in the world, in Los Angeles, called Homeboy Industries.  At Homebody Industries they employ former gang members and their motto is “nothing stops a bullet like a job.”  When Father Greg talks about these young people candidly, he says that sometimes his staff joke that the employees would have to detonate a nuclear bomb before they would be fired—because they just keep getting every chance in the world to learn the people skills and habits of accountability their families of origin never taught them.  Why do they do this?

They do it because they believe the gospel is about kinship and beloved community and relationship, not primarily about success.  Kinship is about looking at another human being, no matter who they are, and seeing a relative, not a stranger.  It is about the capacity to take delight in another human being, to laugh together, to be happy just to be in the presence of another human being, regardless of who they are.  Apparently Mother Theresa said what was wrong with the world was this: that we have just forgotten that we belong to each other.”  Father Greg says that “if kinship were our goal, we would no longer be promoting justice – we would be celebrating it.  Without kinship, there can be no justice, there can be no peace.”

I think this kinship is the foundation of the practice of reconciliation and of the healing we celebrate today because it is the feast day of St. Luke the healer.  What heals us?  It is connection.  It is belonging.  It is seeing in the eyes of another human being that they know you and they delight in you.  This is what I believe God sees when God looks at us.  It is what God wants us to see when we look at each other.  It is the foundation for creating justice, because without that delight and sense of connection, we won’t have the stamina to participate in God’s endless work to release the captives, give sight to the blind, give freedom to the oppressed—to proclaim good news to the poor.

So what do we do with all this?

I’d invite you to consider two things this week.  First, notice where you yourself feel in need of God’s healing.  Allow yourself to imagine that God delights in you.  You have God’s favor.  The word meaning “God’s favor” only appears five times in the New Testament – once in today’s text, where Jesus proclaims that it is the year of God’s favor.  It also appears in one of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, where he says that NOW is the time of God’s favor, NOW is the time of God’s healing.  In your personal prayer or meditation this week, I invite you to be open to experiencing God’s delight in your being, God’s intimate awareness and acceptance of who you are.

Next, I invite you to go out of your way to see others with this same delight.  Try it with the people you know best (sometimes that’s the hardest) and also try to really see someone totally outside your normal comfort zone – someone at the margins, wherever that may be.  Try to carve out just a little bit of time to observe someone with the intention of delight.  This might take a little practice, but we can do it.  The foundation of experiencing the other with delight is experiencing God’s delight in you first.  Scripture says that “we love because God first loved us.” 

The people of St. Matthews care passionately about social justice, and rightly so.  We want to create justice so that people can be in relationships with one another across lines of difference, so that everyone can belong and have their needs met.  Let’s not wait for the captives to be released, for the oppressed to go free, to build relationships with them.  Let’s create kinship with the poor, and recognize those parts of us that are poor, that need healing.  God’s favor is endless and contagious.  It brings about reconciliation.  Now is the time.  This is the year of God’s favor.  Amen.