Notes from the sermon by Jon Dorsett on Sunday 21 January 2018
It doesn’t seem that long ago since the last election; and we can hope it won’t be that long until the next! The promises and pledges made at election time are designed to appeal to the segment of the public that each party hope to garner support from, as well as hopefully push forward some of their own particular ideology.
In the election last year we saw the Conservatives proposed policy on elderly care, (requiring those with assets over £100k being required to sell them to pay for their own care needs). A policy that could have been said to have some merit, if it meant those who have accumulated enough wealth to support themselves did so in order for the savings to be used to support those in need. However, the policy was quickly labelled the ‘dementia tax’, and with a massive backlash from the very middling sections of society that they hoped to win over, the Conservatives had to quickly backpedal, (and potentially lost their commons majority as a direct result). Labour on the other hand produced what one Guardian columnist described as ‘a cornucopia of delights’, promising increased funding for the NHS, A national care service, renationalisation of the railways, a lifelong education service free at the point of use, and capping inequality in pay. All paid for with modest increases in corporation tax and a small percentage extra for higher earners. And Labour did see a groundswell of support, particularly among younger voters who didn’t have the vested interests of those who over their lifetime have accumulated wealth and security from the status quo.
But this is a sermon, not a party political broadcast. So what is my point?
Political parties, whatever their colour, always have to take into consideration the interests of their voter demographic when shaping their potential policies and designing their manifestos. If they get it wrong, as undoubtedly the Conservatives did with the ‘dementia tax’ it can cost them dearly. If they can appeal to, and even shape the mood of the times, they stand a chance of being able to implement some of their proposed ideas.
In the second section from Luke that we’ve heard today, a section commonly referred to as the Nazareth Manifesto, we see that Jesus doesn’t care whether his message appeals to his audience. His message is not about seeking power for himself, or for anyone else, it is about God’s justice and true human flourishing for every person and all of creation. It is in the interests of the whole, and not a particular segment of society that this manifesto is concerned.
The word ‘Manifesto’ derives from the Latin manifestus which means ‘obvious, conspicuous, plain to see’. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary this Latin word is ultimately drawn from two other words ‘Manus’ meaning ‘hand’ and ‘infestus’ meaning ‘hostile’. It therefore is an open display of one’s intention.
So what was Jesus’s intention, and why at the end of this passage did his audience attempt to kill him?
Well firstly it’s worth noting that Jesus is quoting a passage from Isaiah that would have been very familiar to his audience in Nazareth. The passage was routinely drawn upon by the Jewish communities of the day to find reassurance and comfort in the justice God would bring. Freedom from being prisoners to their oppressors, whether the Romans, or the domestic authorities that colluded with the Romans. Significantly however, Jesus leaves off the end of this quotation which after proclaiming the acceptable year of the Lord continues ‘and the day of vengeance of our God’. The original passage in Isaiah appealed not only to the righteousness and restoration of justice to the people, but also to their wish to see their enemies suffer retribution.
Jesus is having none of this, and his omission of the line of promised vengeance would have sounded alarm bells for his audience. Why isn’t he giving us the best bit, the bit we’re waiting for? It’s like watching a Hollywood film where the bad guy doesn’t get his comeuppance at the end – we’re programmed to want to see the narrative of redemptive violence played out.
So the Nazarenes were ‘amazed’ and shocked that this very nice young man who was known to them, would not share in their deeply held need to see their enemies punished. ‘Isn’t this Josephs Boy?’ they say. He’s one of us, why’s he siding with them? Why’s he not joining with us in asserting our righteousness and importance and ultimate vindication?
So Jesus goes on to say that no prophet is accepted by his own people, and cites the examples of Elijah and Elisha’s message only being heard and understood by outcasts, enemies and foreigners. He rams home the message that what he is speaking is not designed to appeal to their social and psychological need for being ‘better than, and righteous’, for creating divides of us and them, but was about the truly inclusive liberation that God’s justice and reign would bring, where vengeance and othering was no longer needed, but where all could be free from oppression and free from demonising the other to feel better about themselves.
Clearly the Nazarenes were not ready to hear this message and so they attempt to thrown Jesus off a cliff (a fate reserved for those who blaspheme).
I was trying to think about where we see similar reactions today? Where do we see such violent push back when a group’s privilege and sense of superiority is unveiled?
Black Lives Matter?
Compassion for Refugees and immigrants?
Support for those in Poverty?
Whenever there is a movement that threatens the predominantly white patriarchal culture, there is a backlash of vitriol from those that benefit from that culture.
But lest we begin to ‘other’ straight white males, Let me just return to the section where Jesus is quoting from Isaiah.
There’s an interesting textual device being used here by Luke. Something called a Chiastic structure. We don’t immediately notice things like these when we read the bible in the form it is presented today, but as an literary device it serves a purpose to point the listener/ reader towards a specific point in the text. And it’s worth taking note of.
The lines mirror each other and point to the central verse…
on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom.
He stood up to read,
and the scroll
of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him.
Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll,
gave it back to the attendant
and sat down.
The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.
Now it might seem to stretch the idea in places, but this structure is pointing to the rather odd verse about recovery of sight to the blind sandwiched between clear refences to the Levitical laws of Jubilee.
Jubilee for anyone not familiar with it, was a social structure codified in Israel’s past to ensure that no one could amass wealth and power at the expense of others in the nation. Every 49 year there was a Jubilee year when slaves were freed, land returned to those who originally held it, and debts were written off.
There is very little evidence of this ever actually being lived out in reality, but the intention and the understanding was that the earths resources belonged to God to be equally shared, and that a good society was one that didn’t allow some to become wealthy and powerful at the expense of others.
So Jesus is announcing his identification with the jubilee message as what his ministry is all going to be about.
But this is not a communist revolution.
The phrase about recovery of sight to the blind does not appear in the original Hebrew version of the Isaiah verse that Luke has Jesus quoting. Leading some commentators to believe that Luke has used this to make a point about Jesus’s ministry.
It IS about the inauguration of the Jubilee, but this is done not by seizing power, subduing an enemy, and the previously disenfranchised taking the place of the powerful, but by helping those who are not seeing whole to recover their sight. Those whose wealth, power, position make them feel ‘better- than’ or more righteous than others who are poor, weak, vulnerable, foreigner, or other. Helping those who hold themselves in higher regard than other people, realise that we are all human, that we all belong to the same family, to the same creation that belongs to God. That we no more deserve the wealth and privileges we have than those who are destitute and disenfranchised deserve the situation they are in. That we are all equal, and that we should treat each other as equal, as loved beautiful creations of God, both at an individual level, but also in the way we order our society.
But this message of recovery of sight, was and is, not only for the wealthy super-rich. It is meant for all of us. For the Nazarenes, it was their sense of righteousness that Jesus’ was targeting. The belief that because they believed the ‘right things’ that because they belonged to the right people group, that God would save them and smash their enemies with vengeance.
And it’s not nice to hear that we are part of the problem as well as part of the solution. That within each of us there is the seed of superiority, as well as the potential for genuine humility and community with all. (an interesting aside, the word humility comes from humus, meaning of the earth – as does the word human/ Adam – of the earth. We are all made of the same stuff, we are all connected to and part of the living system of creation).
It is not nice to realise that we are all guilty of othering, of thinking (consciously or unconsciously) that we are better than the next person. I’m cleverer than them. My job is more important than theirs. My right to do this is more important than their right to do that. I am wealthier than them, I’ve worked hard for it, I deserve it. I’m better than they are because I give to charity. I’m on the side of the righteous and they’re on the side of the wicked.
We all do it. I know I do. There is a time to polarise in trying to create positive change, but this has to come with the understanding that we are all part of the solution, and all part of the problem. We are all valuable human beings. We are all equally wonderful. You, me, Theresa May, even Donald Trump. Treating others as we would ourselves like to be treated, goes in all directions. And is as important structurally as it is socially.
Next week the Leeds Poverty Truth Commission is coming to a close with a large public event at the City museum. Over the last 2 years the Poverty truth commission has brought people with lived experience of poverty in Leeds together with civic and business leaders in the city, to build relationships and explore ways to tackle poverty together in Leeds. At the closing event the commissioners will be presenting their Manifesto to the city – or rather their HuManifesto for the city. The biggest finding of the poverty truth commission, and it’s challenge to the city, is that it’s the de-humanising effect of poverty and the systems and stereotypes that cause de-humanising that are the biggest problem. One of the Commissioners, Geoff from Seacroft, put it succinctly when he said ‘People think poverty is about having no money. It isn’t. it’s about having no love and respect’.
And the Poverty Truth HuManifesto has a challenge for Leeds – how can we be a more human city? How can the systems we have treat people as human beings rather than numbers? How can the way we talk about those experiencing poverty be respectful in the media, on social media, in the everyday? How can those working to change things for the better do those things ‘with’ people experiencing poverty and not ‘to’ or ‘for’ those people? How can those experiencing poverty not blame the ‘suits’ but find ways to build relationships to find solutions together?
I think the poverty truth HuManifesto embodies the heart and essence of the Nazareth Manifesto. It IS about a jubilee for those experiencing poverty; it IS about trying to create a city and society based on principles of justice and equity; but it is also about each of us realising our blindness to people we ‘other’, whether that is the ‘feckless poor’, or the uncaring ‘suits’. How can we humanise each other? How can we build relationships across social, cultural and geographical divides? How can we work together to be a truly human city? Like the Nazareth manifesto, it is not a manifesto based on appealing to people for their votes and support, but a HuManifesto that appeals to the part in each of us that knows connection to each other and creation.
So I have an invitation and a challenge…
Firstly a practical invitation… to the closing event of the Poverty Truth commission on Friday 2nd February. If you would like to come and hear more about the experience directly from the commissioners and get a copy of the HuManifesto, then come and ask me for an invite.
And a challenge…
Firstly a personal challenge. Who do you ‘other’? in what ways do you catch yourself feeling superior to others? And how can you find ways to build relationships with those people or that person?
And a wider challenge. How can we at All Hallows find ways to help others recover their sight? How can we challenge those who are blinded to the struggle for justice and equality of others, whether it’s gender equality, the struggles of refugees and asylum seekers, those experiencing poverty, those who seeking justice and acceptance of for their sexuality and gender identity. How can we play our part in changing the attitudes of those blinded to these struggles? How can we follow Jesus’s Nazareth Manifesto in not only proclaiming liberation, not only being with the captives, but in directly helping those who can’t see, or refuse to see their part in perpetuating these injustices, to see whole again?