Sermon preached at Gorbals Parish Church, January 24th 2010 – Third Sunday after Epiphany.
Two weeks ago I was away at a Probationers’ Conference for about four days. It was really good to catch up with friends, to exchange stories from the churches where we are all working and training for ministry, and to learn about the things we will have to deal with after the end of our training. Training sessions were great, but we always seem to get a lot more from the more informal, personal interactions between and after sessions, when we discuss things in detail and we try to figure out how the theory applies in our everyday life of ministry. The whole conference was centred on the issue of mission, which fits so well with today’s Gospel reading.
It was also during this conference that we found out about the earthquake disaster in Haiti, with all the devastation, death and suffering it created. For me, this disaster put the whole idea of mission into a very practical, down to earth perspective, so that’s what I would like to share with you today.
One of the things that came up at our conference was the idea that we, the church, haven’t been very good at communicating the gospel to people outside of the church. But I felt I needed to challenge that idea and ask if what we actually need is not a repackaging of the gospel we preach, but rather a re-evaluation of what the Gospel is all about. Now, the passage we read today is perfect for this kind of exercise:
What is the Gospel? What is the good news? Is the good news that if you believe in Jesus you get to go to heaven after you die? Is that it, or is there more?
In our passage, Luke describes in great detail how Jesus walked into a synagogue in his native Nazareth, and stood up to read the Scripture; how he was given the scroll, he opened it and read a passage from the prophet Isaiah. As I read this again, please keep in mind the question I just mentioned: What is the Gospel, or the ‘good news’? And also think about how this might apply to the disaster victims in Haiti:
“The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
What is the gospel? In a nutshell, according to this passage, it is four things: good news to the poor, freedom to prisoners, sight to the blind, and freedom from oppression. There’s enough material there for at least four sermons. We don’t have enough time today to unpack what each of these mean, but perhaps we can broadly look at what they mean for Haiti.
And I think this is especially appropriate because we know that Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. What does it mean for them, that the Gospel is good news for the poor? What does it mean for the thousands of people trapped under collapsed buildings that Jesus was sent to proclaim liberty to the captives? What does this mean for the 84 year old woman trapped under her house on Thursday, when her son heard her cries and called his friends to dig her out a day later on Friday, seriously injured and severely dehydrated?
Only yesterday, the Haitian government announced with great sadness that the rescue operations are halted throughout the country. Over 200.000 people died in the disaster, and over 1.5 million people lost their homes. What is the good news to the poor, to the captives and the oppressed? And what does that mean for us, for the body of Christ, as we seek to preach this good news?
This is not an easy question. Sometimes we find ourselves in the middle of extreme tragedy, without a clue as to how to respond sensibly. Poverty itself is not an easy problem to solve. There are no easy answers. Poverty is often a lot more than just lack of money. Most of the times simply giving money to the poor creates even more problems, as it makes the poor dependant on handouts, it robs them of their dignity, and often prolongs the agony. I’ve seen it happen in my country.
And when you have a disaster of such monumental proportions, with 1.5 million people who lost their homes, the issue of poverty becomes even more complicated. Especially when you have a weak government that is unable to cope with the crisis.
This is not something that can be solved by a knight in shining armour. Slaying this dragon is not up to one superhero with a magic sword, not matter how hard Hollywood movies are trying to convince us.
Look at the response of the world to this crisis. This is not the time for a knight on a white horse – the whole world got involved. We found out about the disaster within hours of the earthquake. Airplanes and ships poured in with emergency supplies from all around the world. Troupes were deployed on the ground to ensure that supplies are reaching those in the greatest need. Make-shift hospitals were installed to care for the injured.
And all this was done in the midst of utter chaos, with people sleeping on the streets next to the dead bodies of relatives.
It’s one thing to sit on our sofas and watch the news, and quite another to be there on the ground, feeding the starving victims and distributing bottles of water to desperately thirsty people. The complexity of rescue operations is absolutely staggering. And if we think about what is coming after the disaster, in the task of rebuilding a shattered nation, again, the complexity is overwhelming.
On Tuesday morning I was in my car listening to the Jeremy Vine show on BBC Radio 2. There was a discussion about the exceeding number of orphans in Haiti, and if British people should go in and adopt Haitian children. Here’s where the complexity of the ‘good news to the poor’ is so clear. Is that an appropriate response to the crisis? On one side, women called in to say they would fly out tomorrow if they could, and adopt Haitian children. On the other, there were questions about how that would affect the future of the nation, if children are displaced from their own land and culture. Also, there are many children who have been separated from their wider families by the disaster. Going in and adopting such a child would prevent the extended family to take them in, and bring them up in their own culture. Another caller suggested that it’s so much better to send money and support these extended families to care for the orphans themselves.
Isn’t that such a clear example of how good intentions are not enough? Dealing with poverty and oppression is not an easy task. It is not up to one person, or even a small number of people at the top. This is a task for the whole of humanity. And this is what we’ve seen in Haiti for the past two weeks: the whole world pulling its resources together to intervene and help a destitute nation.
I don’t know about you, but the way the world responded makes me very hopeful for the future of humanity.
Now, of course you may ask what does that have to do with the Gospel or the church? We must not underestimate the influence that the church has had and continues to have in the political agenda of developed nations. The church has championed the cause of the poor and the oppressed for centuries. It hasn’t always done it well, but nonetheless, it made this cause central to its proclamation. The church not only advocated the cause of the poor and the oppressed, but got involved and used its own resources, financial and otherwise, to champion this cause with tremendous energy and dedication.
Why has the church done this? Because this is the essence of the gospel: good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, healing for the sick, and freedom for the oppressed. These four things, with all the complexities involved in each one, come from the very heart of God.
Where does the energy for this mission come from? It comes from the very heart of God: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” This tremendous drive in humanity to take the problem of poverty seriously, to ensure that people have justice, comes from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, because it is at the very heart of who God is.
The beauty of this is that the Holy Spirit is not confined to the church. We mustn’t be arrogant and think that only Christians are driven by compassion and a thirst for justice. The Bible tells us that the Spirit is like the wind, blowing wherever it wants. When we look at the whole of humanity we are humbled as we realize that Jesus is indeed the saviour of the world; that Jesus did indeed die for the salvation of the world, and not just for the church.
We are all blessed to be called to be a part of this mission to bring good news to the poor, freedom to prisoners, healing to the sick and liberation from oppression. And we are all encouraged even when faced with the complexity of this calling, because we know that this mission is at the very heart of God, and it is the Holy Spirit who enables, inspires and equips us for the task ahead.