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. —Luke 4:18–21
Katie Lancaster and Christine Hides and Bev Kirk and Chris Johnson run the most wonderful Middle School Youth Group on Wednesday evenings. I wish you could hear their moving and eloquent prayer time. Sometimes Katie and Christine let me sneak in as a guest.
Last fall I was there and this young man strides purposefully across the room and extends his hand confidently and looks me in the eye and says “Hello, Dr. Evertsberg. How are you this evening?” He must have been in the fifth grade—what, 10, 11 years old? The room was full of people; it would have been so easy for him to avoid the scary senior minister, but he made me feel welcome in that room full of short people. I started noticing that this is just who he is—a young man of precocious confidence and character.
A few days later I told his father how much I admired his son, and the father looked a little stunned. He didn’t quite say this, but you could see what he was thinking: “Are we talking about the same person?”
It’s happened to me, and I’ll bet it’s happened to you: sometimes it takes a stranger or an acquaintance to point out what’s special about our own children. Sometimes it’s those who are closest to us who fail to appreciate us for the gifts we bring.
You know, in your home office in Chicago nobody seems to listen to a word you say, but then you visit the New York office and suddenly you’re a genius; they’re hanging on every word you say. You’ve heard the old saying, “An expert is someone who is 50 miles from home.”
“A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown,” says Jesus to the hometown crowd in Nazareth. When Jesus turns 30, he launches a preaching tour like Billy Graham or Joel Osteen through the synagogues of Galilee. The crowds are huge; the response is adulatory; everybody is stunned by his brilliance and silver-tongued oratory.
Until he gets to his home town. So there he stands on the bimah of the Nazareth synagogue and looks out over a sea of familiar faces. There’s the first-grade librarian who taught him to read, and there’s the third-grade Sunday School teacher who helped him memorize the 23rd Psalm, and there’s the Little League coach who taught him to hit a curve ball in whatever passed for baseball in first-century Palestine, and there’s Mother Mary sitting with his younger brothers and sisters.
Familiarity breeds...children, says Mark Twain. Right? Familiarity breeds—not contempt exactly, but indifference, “Meh.” But it’s not just familiarity that turns them off. It’s the boldness of his first recorded sermon: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Dangerous words, those. He’s telling the bourgeois shopkeeps and carpenters and vintners and bakers and millers in the congregation that they’re not his target audience. Jesus has come for all those who are not there—the unemployed, the unsighted, the unfree, the unregarded, the woebegones and god-forsakens.
And then he speaks the most subversive word in his entire sermon. Today! he says. “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” It’s okay for him to talk about justice in the distant past or the unseen future but not in the present moment. It’s okay for him to talk about the justice and equality Isaiah promised 500 years before when those words were first spoken, and it’s okay to promise justice and equality in a utopian future, but not now, not today.
It’s okay for me to talk about the evils of slavery because slavery died 150 years ago, and it’s okay for me to promise an unlikely future where people will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, but as soon as I say “Today!” I’ve stopped preaching and started meddling.
It’s okay for me to chastise the abominations of the Nazis because Hitler blew himself up 70 years ago, and it’s okay for me to dream a dream of a color-blind future, but as soon as I start talking about white supremacists in Charlottesville, I’m in trouble.
Cleophas LaRue teaches preaching at Princeton Seminary. In The Christian Century, he recently wrote, “Sometimes it is dangerous to do things now. If Jesus said someday, tomorrow, after a while, by and by, he could have pacified the congregation. But when he says “Today!” he draws a line in the sand and provokes a response.”
We’ve talked before about Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, and so you remember that Dr. King wrote his famous letter to eight prominent white clergymenfive bishops, two parish pastors, and a rabbi—who objected to Dr. King’s insistence on “Today!”
During the civil rights protests in Birmingham in 1963, these clergymen wrote Dr. King a letter which essentially said, “Not you. Not here. Not this way. Not yet. Not now. Not today. Someday.”
Dr. King wrote back: “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’... This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see...that ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’... We have waited more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights…. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and [people] are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. It’s always tomorrow.
“Three simple words,” he famously said, “Three simple words can describe what black people want: All. Now. Here.”
Taylor Branch is probably the most accomplished historian of Dr. King’s era. Twelve years ago he finally completed a three-volume, 2,900-page history of America during the King years. Taylor Branch is a Presbyterian elder and a dedicated chorister at his Baltimore church.
Taylor Branch says that it was actually the city of Chicago that gave Dr. King his national reputation. Dr. King came to the city in August of 1966 to protest the refusal of real estate agents here to sell homes to black people in white neighborhoods. Mayor Daley was apoplectic. You know what they said: Mayor Daley’s definition of diversity is nine Irishmen and a Swede. White Chicago’s reaction to the civil rights demonstration was angry and violent.
Until Chicago in 1966, northerners thought racism was a southern problem. In the north, we never had slaves. In the north, we are not racist. But the tensions in Chicago in 1966 showed us how wrong we were. The Saturday Evening Post bluntly told Americans: “We are all, let us face it, Mississippians.”
I don’t know how you feel about Jason Van Dyke’s relatively light sentence for killing Laquan McDonald, or the acquittal of his three protective colleagues from the Chicago Police Department, but it’s clear we haven’t come far enough in the last 50 years. My heart just aches. How long will we have to pay for America’s original sin—slavery?
It’s hard for us to know how to help up here in Snow White land, and I’m not talking about the stuff on the ground. Maybe you could get to know some of the folks Jesus was talking about in his first sermon by getting involved with one of our Outreach Agencies who try to serve those very folk. C.S. Lewis said, “Dogs and cats should always be brought up together. It broadens their minds so.”
Today. Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. Some people are just way ahead of their time. We sometimes forget that it was essentially the Christian faith that gave Jackie Robinson to baseball. Branch Rickey, the General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was a devout Methodist and just decided, by himself and against all sensible advice, that it was finally time, in 1945, to integrate Major League Baseball.
Besides Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey gave us the baseball farm system, spring training in Florida, the pitching machine, the batting helmet, and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Branch Rickey, University of Michigan Law School, Class of 1911.
So Branch Rickey decides to sign a kid named Jackie Robinson, and they start visiting National League cities, to the horror of the other teams. Before their first visit to Philadelphia, Herb Pennock, the Phillies’ General Manager, rings up Branch Rickey and begs him not to bring Jackie to Philadelphia. “We’re not ready for it here, Branch,” he says, “and if you bring that boy, we won’t take the field.”
Branch Rickey says, “Herb, the Dodgers are coming to Philadelphia, and Jackie is part of our team. What you do with your team is up to you. If we have to take the win as a forfeit, we will, which is 9–0, by the way.
“And oh, Herb, you think God likes baseball? Yeah, God likes baseball. Well, someday, you’re going to have to go face to face with God before you get into heaven, and when God asks you why you forfeited that baseball game? Just remember that ‘Because there was a black man on the opposing team’ might not be a sufficient answer.” Bam! Slams the phone back in its cradle.
Someday. Someday we’ll all come face to face with God. We may as well start getting ready for someday today. Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. Today let there be good news for the poor. Today let there be release for the captives and recovery of sight for the blind. Today let there be freedom for the oppressed. Today.
Slightly adapted, Cleophus J. LaRue, “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century, January 2, 2019, 19.
Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), pp. 292–293.
William Shakespeare, MacBeth, V, 5, 19ff.
Martin Luther King, Jr., in a speech on June 17, 1966.
Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965–1968 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006), pp. 501–523.
C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1960), p. 36.