A sermon for the third Sunday after the Epiphany

Back in the 1970s, the local priest in a community of farmers and fishermen in the Solentiname Islands of Nicaragua did a Bible study every week instead of a sermon. He was there to keep things on track, but he let the people of Solentiname speak for themselves. 

These were simple people—some of them couldn’t read—but they took to heart the teaching of the man from Galilee who did most of his own preaching to very simple people two thousand years ago.

The priest was a man named Ernesto Cardinal, a poet who later served as minister of culture in Nicaragua, and he was so impressed by these discussions that he began to take notes on them, and later to record and transcribe them, and he turned them into a book called The Gospel in Solentiname

It’s a very moving book. These people heard the Gospel message, and they got it. When they listened to the verses that we ourselves heard today, they knew Jesus was speaking to them when he said,

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.
[1]

These are Jesus’ first public words as recorded in Luke, a summary in seven lines of what his life’s work is going to be. He’s in the synagogue on a sabbath morning—as was his habit, Luke says—and they hand him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He finds the place he’s looking for and begins to read. And then he sits down to teach. It’s his first home-town sermon, and it’s a doozy. Next week we’ll hear the part where they try to run him out of town when he’s done. 

Jesus came to proclaim good news to the poor, and the little people of Solentiname—the campesinos—they knew it was good news for them. This was in the time of the Somoza regime, a terrible time for the little people of Nicaragua, and the people who took part in the Bible study were quick to apply the message to their own circumstances.

In their conversation, Cardenal talked first about the difference between the so-called “good news” proclaimed by the Roman Empire—often boasting about the accomplishments of the emperor—and the good news of Jesus Christ. 

“By using this word,” Cardenal said, “Christ was indicating that his announcement was the announcement of a new kingdom.”

And one of the men said, “His good news”—Jesus’ good news—“is for the poor because this new kingdom is the triumph of the poor and the humble.”[2]

A woman was next, speaking scornfully of those Christians who sing and pray fervently in church, but seem oblivious to the injustices other people were suffering all around them. It didn’t seem to matter to them, she said, 

that there are so many prisoners and that we’re surrounded by injustice, with so many afflicted hearts, so many people without education who are like blind people, so much unfairness in the country, so many women whose eyes are filled with tears every day. And, if they take somebody else prisoner, what do we lose? “Maybe he did something,” they say, and that’s the end of the story.[3]

Then a young man named Felipe chimed in:

Prisoners, in every sense. Yes, because it’s not just the ones who are in jail. It can also be a servant, a prisoner of a rich person, serving him. Also, the ones who are prisoners in their mentality, without any freedom to think.[4]

The discussion moved on to the bold claim that Jesus makes once he finishes reading, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”[5]

“Of course,” a man named Pedro said. “Just by announcing liberation he was already fulfilling this prophecy. And just by saying ‘today this prophecy is fulfilled’ he was announcing liberation.”[6]

And a woman named Natalia chimed in next: “And now it’s up to us to follow those words.”[7]

These people heard the message of the Gospel, and they got it. They understood that these words that Jesus spoke in the synagogue were a message of liberation for them, and they went out and did something about it. 

They were willing to fight and to die for their vision of a new kingdom, a better world. I mentioned that this was in the time of the Somoza dictatorship, and the country was on the verge ofcivil warThe Gospel in Solentinamewas banned in Nicaragua, even as it was being published in other countries and in other languages.

Some of the young people wanted to join the guerilla fighters, and Cardenal was able to hold them back for a while, but not forever. Eventually, a few including Felipe went off to train in secret to participate in an action against a military barracks. Cardenal says the Somoza army razed the community as retribution, and he and others had to go into exile. Felipe and several others from the community lost their lives in the struggle that followed. They were willing to fight for their Gospel-inspired vision of a better world. 

And the question that presses on me when I think about that is this: Are we?

Let me be clear: it’s not the violence I admire, it’s the passion and commitment. So maybe it would be better to put that question this way: 

What does liberation look like in Hilltown, Pennsylvania? What is the Gospel saying to us, and how will we respond?

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.
[8]

When I stand up and read those words out loud, I hear Jesus speaking to me, too. They lift my heart because I know these words of hope and liberation are for me. 

Because I, too, am poor—not literally hungry, but hungry for God, standing in the need of God’s grace. 

I’m captive to my own human failings. In some things I’ve done, and others left undone. 

I’m blind at times to the fullness of the truth of the Gospel message. Blind to the needs and the pain of others.

I feel broken, both in the spiritual sense of sin and weakness that is part of our human condition, but also by the things that weigh me down. The sadness I feel over losing Janet this past week, and over other deaths and losses that have touched our parish and my own life.

And these words from Jesus are a promise of freedom made to me. I know that the message of Jesus is a promise of liberation from all the things that hold me back and keep me from being the person I was meant to be.

This good news from Jesus is a promise that we can be lifted up from our poverty in the widest possible sense, a promise of release from all the things that keep us from living lives that make good of all the gifts we’ve been given.

But there’s another reason why I love this passage. Because it’s more than just a promise, it’s a call to action. Even as we hear Jesus’ message as a promise made to us, we must also hear it on behalf of all others, all of our sisters and brothers whatever their circumstances.

On behalf of those living in poverty in our cities and towns. Sometimes the poverty in places like ours can be harder to see, but it’s just as real to the poor who are living here.

We have to hear it on behalf of those who are captive to addictions of any kind, as this plague continues to sweep across our country, affecting so many places including our own.

We have to hear it on behalf of those who don’t have access for one reason or another to a good education, or to adequate health care. Who can’t find a good job to support their family. 

We have to hear it on behalf of people who are suffering in other parts of the world, not just within our own borders. We have to hear it on behalf of people who are living in places of violence and famine. 

We have to hear it on behalf of the women and children huddled in misery across our southern border because they fled violence at home with the hope that somehow, some way, they would be able to make it to a better life.

The campesinosof Solentiname listened to this Gospel proclamation of good news to the poor and heard it as a message spoken for them, and they weren’t wrong. If we hear it as a promise made for us, we aren’t wrong either, but we also need to hear it on behalf of all the poor of this world, wherever they may be. 

Because it’s hard to imagine how anyone could immerse themselves in the Gospels and not come to the conclusion that this world we live in is not ordered in the way God intended it to be. 

Cardenal says the simple people who gathered to break open the Gospel in Solentiname “knew very well that it was the Spirit who made them speak—the same Spirit who inspired the Gospels.”[9]The same Spirit whose power filled Jesus on that long-ago day in the synagogue, according to Luke.[10]

May that same Spirit fill us, too, with power to hear and act on the good news of the Gospel.

Amen.


[1]Luke 4:18-19 NRSV

[2]The Gospel in Solentiname, 64.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Luke 4:14-21

[6]Solentiname, 65.

[7]Ibid.

[8]Luke 4:18-19 NRSV

[9]Solentiname, xiii.

[10]Luke 4:14.