The Rev. Alisdair Smith

St Luke, Transferred – October 15, 2017
The Rev. Alisdair Smith
Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver

Click here to download the audio mp3 of the sermon

Between the words that are spoken and the words that are heard, may there be peace.

I have just returned from Rome. Not literally, I have actually just returned from 6 days in Midtown Manhattan. Jesus and his followers existed in an economic empire centred in Rome. For you and I, the empire is centred in New York, as much as visitors from Toronto might believe otherwise.  Like Rome was, New York is swarming with people from across the empire, and beyond; there is no where on the planet that is not linked in someway to New York.

While there, we went to see the Statue of Liberty for the first time. Listen to a piece from the famous sonnet, “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus.

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

And now, here are the words Jesus reads from sections of Isaiah in the Gospel this morning:

“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,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

We know, deep, down below the fear and greed of the zeitgeist of this empire, that there is a sacred call to good news for all people, especially the poor, the captives and the oppressed. It is a call of liberty.

Today I would like to explore this idea of liberty. I want to focus on one line in our Gospel text; “He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives.” I’d like to play with this continuum between captivity and liberty, and ask what might we take away from this sentence, about “release to the captives”,  in 21st Century Vancouver, and in our daily lives.

I’d like you to think for a moment, what does “liberty” mean to you?

I wonder, how many of us would say that we are already free? We are at liberty? And you know, I have thought for sometime that we are. The National Post, The Economist Magazine and the Globe and Mail would likely say we are; we have free elections, we have rights. Virtually all of us here this morning can move freely around the world, especially if we have a Nexus Pass! And with the right frequent flier status, we can even move freely without having to stand in long lines at airports!

I wonder what the poet Emma Lazarus might think about liberty today? I wonder what Jesus might think?

You see, I think the liberation that God in Jesus offers is different from the way liberty is largely understood today. I think today we are far more about my liberty than we are your liberty or our liberty. And I think the empire Jesus lived in had a similar sense of liberty; a liberty for some, but not all.  As long as I am free, I’m ok. If you are not free, well there must be a reason.

I’ve been wondering a lot about this over the past few days, and I’d like to offer three observations; to challenge our thinking, to provoke some dialogue about what I think is a fundamental part of the message of God in Jesus; God’s deep, life changing gift of liberation for all people. I believe that in the midst of the current economic empire,  you and I are captives, in subtle but profound ways. We are called by God in Jesus to

“…proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free….”

Because we are all the captives, we are all the blind, we are all the oppressed. And we capture, blind and oppress ourselves, as well as each other.

First observation to challenge our thinking. Let’s begin with this idea of captives. It is an interesting choice of word. A captive is not a legal prisoner in a jail. A captive is someone “taken”, “captured”, usually in war. And I wonder if there is a different, deeper sense of a person being captive, being taken by an idea or a behaviour or something else outside of war.  I go there because the word in Greek that we hear this morning as “release”, as in “proclaiming release” for the captives, is aphesis which is also very often translated as “forgiveness.” God in Jesus forgives the captives? It makes no sense for God to forgive people who have been forcibly taken in war. But, what about those of us who are captivated by ideas, by behaviours and habits that are holding us back, preventing us from being the people we are called to be? What about being liberated from our own closed minds? Our closed minds that see people as others, as dangerous, as foes. Our own closed minds about who is victim and who is villain in our families, in our communities, and in our countries?  What about our own closed minds about the “rightness” the “correctness” of the Imperial way that the poor are poor because of some fault of their own, that refugees are automatically to be assumed to be terrorists, that the items we buy need to be so cheap that the people who make those same products are to be held captive literally by the owners of factories and businesses in their country.

God in Jesus first asks us to see how we ourselves are captured by our own habits, ideas and behaviours.

I wonder then, what are some ideas, habits or behaiovurs that might hold you captive?

Second observation to challenge our thinking. Did you know that Jesus does not read the whole of Isaiah’s prophecy?[1]  He actually reads the verse, ‘to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” without reading, its ending “and the day of vengeance of our God.” (Isaiah 61:2)

When we see ourselves as victims we cry out for revenge, for retribution we even sometimes today call it closure. In the words of the soldier day dreaming about revolution in Henry IV,  “First Dick, we kill the lawyers.”  But Jesus wants no part of that. The blame game, the victim game makes us captives again. Revenge and retribution simply move us around in circles. They hold us captive in a cycle of violence. Finding the space in your heart and mind to forgive yourself and others, moves you forward, and moves us all forward. As painful and as difficult as it may be, God’s liberty requires forgiveness. As long we are calling for revenge and retribution, or saying its not my fault, it’s that person over there, we are still captives. We might think we have liberty, but we are captives in this deadly cycle.

I wonder then, where do you need to forgive yourself or another person to free yourself from this captivity?

Third observation to challenge our thinking. There is some very interesting work emerging in psychology and neuroscience right now. I had the pleasure of hearing Lisa Son, PhD. the chair of Psychology at Barnard College. speak this week. Son argues that contrary to the worries of minds like Stephen Hawking about how Artificial Intelligence (AI) was making computers more human, her worry from her research is that we humans are becoming more and more valued as machines.

We were expected to be quick, predictable, manageable and low or no cost to the organization. We are expected to be confident and correct. And, my observation from nearly 15 years now as a business chaplain and coach, is that she’s right. We are making ourselves captives; we are reducing ourselves to our being merely part of the economic machine. We reduce ourselves to being consumers, not humans.

I don’t know if you heard the news this week that the Nobel Prize for Economics for this year was awarded to Richard Thaler.  Thaler’s great contribution to Economics? That we do not make rational decisions. I’ll say that again, you and I do not make rational decisions. We make decisions out of habits, we make decisions because of biases,  we make decisions based on emotions, and then tell our selves stories to rationalize our decisions. But we certainly do not make rational, machine like decisions. We are not machines. We are not cogs in a wheel. We just fool ourselves into thinking we are. Come out of the darkness of strange interpretations of 18th century economic theory. Listen to that sacred, still small voice inside that says, live, be free of your own shackles, and the shackles others place on you, by calling you consumer, or worker, or an asset. You are a human being, not a human doing!

Dr. Son’s great suggestion from her talk last week was, make mistakes, celebrate mistakes. Mistakes are how we learn. And if you are feeling uncomfortable about making mistakes, that is the empire’s economic machine that says we must be correct, we must be manageable, we must be confident and right.  But it is a lie. You and I, working with the incredible power of God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s liberty, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. There are more connections in your brain than there are stars in the Milky Way. And we call ourselves mere consumers.

And talking about mistakes, let us think about a fundamental basis of our faith; you and I are already forgiven. God knows we make mistakes, and She calls us to keep making them, to keep learning and growing into the people She knows we can be. Get out there, resist the empire’s machine ideology and love each other, forgive each other and yourself, grow from your mistakes. And it is in that journey you and I will release ourselves and each other from captivity. It’s what the food ministry here at CCC have been discovering; releasing captives is not about serving the poor and hungry, it is about sitting together, eating together, learning together as fellow humans on a journey.

That is the essence of Jesus’ reading for us here and now. It is in a forgiving and learning journey we will find true liberation, for all people, everywhere.


[1] I am indebted to Red Niedner In The Christian Century “Living by the Word” January 2001