A few weeks ago—a little more than a month ago—we read this passage from Isaiah… and I told you that this moment was coming. I told you that Jesus would stand in front of a congregation and read these words:
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 I told you that, when he was done reading, he would sit down, and he would say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
And I told you that I would say this. I told you that I would say that this is Christ’s mission statement. Why, O God did you come into the world? Why, O Christ, are you here among us? To bring good news, to proclaim release, to announce freedom… to the poor, to the captive, to the blind, to the oppressed. To proclaim a time of God’s favor.
And I told you that I would say this. I told you that I would say that this is the church’s mission statement. If you want to know why we are here… if you want to know what the work of following Christ is… it is this: Bring good news to the poor. Proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. Free the oppressed. Proclaim a time of God’s favor.
But I did not tell you what would happen next.
After Jesus reads the scripture… after Jesus sits down… after Jesus tells the people that the scripture has been fulfilled… even after the people are amazed and speak well of him…
Jesus tells them a hard truth.
I’m in a little bit of a bind here.
Believe it or not, when I am in this pulpit, I strive to be non-partisan. I am political, of course. I craft my sermons from what I see in the news, and the facts as I understand them, and the gospel of Jesus Christ. I preach, to paraphrase the Swiss theologian Karl Barth—who knew a thing or two about preaching during times of political strife—with the Bible open in one browser tab and a variety of news organizations open in others.
And I am political because the gospel is political. I cannot talk about Jesus Christ as my lord and savior—I cannot talk about waiting anxiously for him to usher in the fullness of the kingdom of God—without being political. Talking about lords and kingdoms is political.
It’s so political that the Roman Empire nailed my lord and savior to a cross… and let him be buried in a tomb… because they feared that people were calling him their king.
But I strive not to be partisan. I know that we represent a variety of parties and ideologies. I have friends who represent a variety of parties of ideologies. And I grew up arguing for fun. I believe that we can disagree and still be united as a little consulate of the kingdom of God.
But… about a week-and-a-half ago, a woman named Ashli Babbitt was shot and killed by police. And we have to talk about that. There’s no getting around it.
She was not asleep in bed (Breonna Taylor) or eating ice cream in her apartment (Botham Jean). She had not been accused of passing counterfeit bills (George Floyd) or carrying a switchblade (Freddie Gray).
No. She was shot while trying to get through a broken window and into the Speaker’s Lobby in the United States Capitol building.
You see, about a week-and-a-half ago, some people were outside the Capitol… protesting. Some of them carried American flags. Some of them carried Confederate flags. Some of them carried flags emblazoned with the name of the president of the United States. Some of them even carried Christian flags.
Some of them were tattooed withe the symbols of white nationalism. Some of them wore t-shirts that said things like Camp Auschwitz or Six Million Wasn’t Enough. Some of them, like Ashli, wore hoodies and American flag backpacks.
Some of them were there because they believed that an election had been stolen. Some of them were there because they believed that high-ranking politicians and celebrities—mostly Democrats—were part of a global cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who kidnapped and enslaved children. Some of them, like Ashli, believed both.
Some of them erected a gallows in front of the Capitol. Some of them broke down barriers and crashed through doors. Some of them milled around inside. Some of them chanted, “Hang Mike Pence.” Some of them broke into offices. Some of them, like Ashli, went looking for senators and representatives.
Some of them grabbed a fire extinguisher and killed a police officer. Some of them came with weapons and zip ties, and intended to kidnap or kill government officials.
One woman who was there said, “This is not America. They’re shooting at us. They’re supposed to shoot [Black Lives Matter], but they’re shooting the patriots.”
And one woman who was there, Ashli Babbitt, tried to get through a broken window and into the Speaker’s Lobby, and was shot.
And here’s the thing. Ashli Babbitt didn’t start there. Like so many others, she had a life filled with triumphs and troubles. And, like so many others, one day she started wandering down a paranoid path… mostly on the internet, but in other media, too… where people didn’t ask questions like, “is this story true?” or “does this story add love to the world?”
And it would be nice to believe that Ashli was unique, but she wasn’t. And it would be nice to believe that no one we know could wander down that same paranoid path, but that’s not true. Because that path—Ashli’s path—doesn’t start with going to a demonstration intent on being a storm. It starts with seeing a lie… and saying, “I will believe that, because it feels good to believe that.”
There are different versions of this story about Jesus telling the people a hard truth.
The way that Mark and Matthew tell it, Jesus comes home, and teaches in the synagogue, and the people say, “Who is this guy? It this Mary’s kid? Where is he getting this stuff? Who does he think he is?” And Jesus tries… a little. He lays hands on a few people… he performs a miracle or two… but doesn’t do much… because no one believes.
But the way that Luke tells it… Jesus sees it coming. And he tells the congregation.
Surely, you’re going to say these things. Surely, you’re going to ask for miracles. Well, let me tell you, prophets don’t do miracles at home. You all remember the story: when there was a drought in Israel, Elijah went to the widow in the Phoenician city of Zarephath. And when there were lepers in Israel, Elisha healed a Syrian.
And the congregation responds by chasing him out of town… to a cliff… so that they can throw him off of it. But Jesus… just walks away.
And I don’t know what’s going on with Jesus’s hometown. I don’t know what’s going on with Nazareth. I don’t know what’s going on with these people who know Jesus from way back… who passed him around the synagogue when he was a baby… who looked after him when he was a toddler… who taught him the scriptures… who brought him up.
But I suspect that they got a little confused. I suspect that they thought that all they had to do was hear about the work that the Lord was doing.
They heard about good news for the poor. They heard about release for the captives and recovery of sight for the blind. They heard about freedom for the oppressed and a time of God’s favor. And they thought, “Well ain’t I poor? Ain’t I here in captivity? Ain’t I blind and beat down? Show me the miracle! Show me God’s favor!”
They thought that the good news was for them… and it was… but…
The thing about good news is that once we hear it, we’ve gotta pass it on. Once our chains have been loosed, we gotta free our neighbor. Once we can see the truth, we gotta show other people. Once our burdens are lifted, we gotta lift the burdens off of everyone else. Once we know God’s favor, we’ve gotta show everyone else that blessing.
We have been given good news. We have been told that we are loved and worthy of love. And the other side of that is that we are loving and we are worthy of loving. The moment we saw Christ, we saw the miracle. And the moment Christ called us, we could go and be the miracle.
Believe it or not, when I am in this pulpit, I strive to be non-partisan. But that’s not exactly true.
I am partisan of Christ. I am a partisan of good news for the poor… and of loving my neighbor… and of refusing to pass by on the other side… and of so much more. And there are reasonable debates—there are passionate debates—about what that looks like in an imperfect world… in a fallen world… in a world where redemption is still growing like a small bit of yeast in a whole lot of dough. And I am happy to have those debates, because those debates might lead to a better world.
But because I am a partisan of Christ, I have to tell you a truth that might be hard.
In our current political climate… in our current media climate… it is easy…
…to find lies that are comforting and seductive… to hear the whispers of serpents… telling us that we belong on top… that it is all for us… that we can claim our miracles… and believe them.
…to ignore the truths that are challenging and uncomfortable… to chase the people who tell them to the edge of a cliff… or to simply walk away.
…to wander down paranoid paths—and to let others wander down paranoid paths—where no one asks if things are true or add love to the world… and that don’t always end the way that Ashli’s did… but that can end the way that Ashli’s did… in a crowd among people with Confederate flags, and tattoos of the symbols of white nationalism, and deeply anti-Semitic t-shirts… in a crowd among people who are ready to kill.
And I am telling you this for three reasons.
First, because Ashli Babitt… and Brian Sicknick… and Kevin Greeson… and Benjamin Philips… and Rosanne Boyland… and Howard Liebengood… were loved and worthy of love. They leave behind families and friends and communities who are mourning their losses.
Second, because Ashli could have been one of us. Ashli could have been a member of this church; she could have been a friend or a neighbor or a colleague. So could have any of those other names, whether they were police or protestors.
Third, because we are called… as Christians… first and foremost… above everything else… no matter what our politics in this world may be… to be good news to the poor… to release captives and help the blind see… to free the oppressed and to proclaim a time of God’s favor. That is our mission. And it is a miraculous mission.
And because of all of that, we have a responsibility… to ourselves, to our friends and neighbors, and to the Christ who we follow… to look at and think about and carefully consider the things that we share on social media, and the comments that we make to each other, and the news and entertainment that we consume… to ask whether we are answering that call… or heading down a paranoid path.
And we have a responsibility to look out for one another… to see when our friends and neighbors are starting to wander down a paranoid path… to remind one another of our mission… and to call each other back to the Christ who we follow.
And here’s the thing: if we follow that call… if we seek the truth… if we act—and argue—in love… then we will see the kingdom of God.