Tell me, Emma Faye

In the gospel of Luke, the Spirit drives the plot. The story begins with the births of John and Jesus. John, we’re told, would be filled with the Holy Spirit while still in his mother’s womb (1:15). Jesus’ mom would give birth to a holy child, because the Holy Spirit would come upon her (1:35). When the two mothers meet, John leaps in his mother’s womb and she is filled with the Holy Spirit (1:41). Then his father is filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesies (1:67). Then we meet old Simeon, upon whom the Holy Spirit rested, and to whom the Holy Spirit had revealed that he would see the Lord’s Anointed before his death; and guided by the Spirit he comes to the temple when Mary and Joseph bring their child (2:25-27). And then Jesus comes to the Jordan to be baptized by John and the Holy Spirit descends upon him, and led by the Spirit, Jesus enters the wilderness where he is tempted by the devil (3:22; 4:1). Then, we read this morning, Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, where he began to teach in the synagogues and was praised by everyone (4:14-15). The Spirit drives the plot. Women and men, young and old, entrust themselves to the Spirit’s presence and direction, and the story of salvation unfolds.

And now the famous son returns to Nazareth where they’ve known him all his life and where they’ve heard stories, bits and pieces, about his teachings and other wondrous things he’s done down in Capernaum and the other villages by the lake. It’s the Sabbath, and he’s in the synagogue, and they invite him to do the second reading and teach, and they hand him the scroll of Isaiah. He opens the scroll, he finds the passage he wants to read – it’s like all the movement, the back and forth from Nazareth to Bethlehem, back to Nazareth and down to Jerusalem, to the Jordan and into the wilderness and back to Galilee – it’s like all the movement slows down to this one moment. Jesus reads from Isaiah.

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.

Ancient words of promise and hope. Jesus sits down to teach, Luke tells us. The eyes of all in the synagogue are fixed on him. They want to hear his comments. They are hungry for a teaching, for a word to, perhaps, assure them that the ancient promise is still theirs, a word of encouragement not to give up hope, that the day would come, that their suffering would come to an end someday, and they would live in freedom. And the first word out of his mouth is “today.”

Jesus identifies himself with this Spirit-bearer, anointed and sent to bring good news to the poor, to the captives, the blind, and the oppressed. He wasn’t reading, he was giving his inaugural address. “This is who I am. This is what I’m about. This is my mission.” Good news for the poor. Release for the captives. Sight for the blind. Freedom for the oppressed. His Sabbath talk is short because his whole life is the teaching, because all he is and says and does and suffers is the embodiment of who God is for us and who we are, who we really are, as creatures made in the image and likeness of God. In great compassion, he has made our broken life his own, and his own life ours, a life of unending communion with God.

In the gospel according to Luke, the Spirit drives the plot, and in the second part of Luke’s work, the book of Acts, the Spirit continues to inspire and empower men and women for mission. Baptized into Christ, immersed into his death and resurrection, and filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, the church is called, anointed and sent to be the proclamation of good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed – to be the embodiment of the life of Christ. The church, of course, has been and continues to be all kinds of things, but in the power of the Spirit, we are a new humanity, fully alive in communion with God and with each other.

Good news for the poor – that is as simple as Room in the Inn, as simple as making a bed in fellowship hall and cooking a meal, so a veteran who can’t escape the ghosts of war can escape the cold and find rest for a night. Good news for the poor is as simple as the Souperbowl of Caring, reminding us of the power of sharing God’s abundant gifts. It’s as simple as a pair of jeans, a shirt, and a winter jacket for the man whose things were stolen, few as they were, when he was looking for help at the Campus for Human Development. Good news for the poor is as simple as food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, and a couple of nights at the inn for the man who was beaten and left for dead by robbers by the side of the Jericho road. But it doesn’t end there; it can’t end there, because the Spirit of the Lord is the Spirit of life that is nothing but life, fullness of life, for all. We can’t stop asking what we can do to keep people from being pushed to the margins of our communities. Simple charity won’t do. We must be willing to open ourselves to the power of God who makes all things new.

A few years back I read what became for me an eye-opening story. I don’t want to merely tell it, I want to invite you to imagine walking in someone else’s shoes for a moment.

You’re Emma Faye Stewart, a thirty-year-old, single African American mother of two. You were just arrested as part of a drug sweep. You are innocent. You don’t use drugs, let alone sell them. You just happened to be there.

After a week in jail, you have no one to care for your two small children and are eager to get home. Your court-appointed attorney urges you to plead guilty to a drug distribution charge, telling you the prosecutor has offered probation. You refuse, steadfastly proclaiming your innocence. You didn’t do anything wrong.

Finally, after almost a month in jail, you decide to plead guilty just so you can return home to your children. You are sentenced to ten years probation and ordered to pay $1,000 in fines, as well as court and probation costs.

You are now a drug felon. This means you are no longer eligible for food stamps. This also means that on any job application, you have to check the box that you have been convicted of a felony. And it means that you cannot vote for at least twelve years, but that’s the least of your worries: You are about to be evicted from public housing, and once homeless, your children will be taken from you and put in foster care.

You think it couldn’t get any worse? It can and it does. A judge eventually dismisses all cases against the defendants who did not plead guilty. At trial, the judge finds that the entire sweep was based on the testimony of a single informant who lied to the prosecution. You, however, Emma Faye, are still a drug felon, homeless, and desperate to regain custody of your children.[1]

Tell me, Emma Faye, what do you hear when Jesus proclaims freedom for the oppressed? From where you see the world and know life, what does release for the captives mean? I’m asking you, Emma Faye, because you and I live in the same country, but in very different worlds.

I’m asking you, because you and I are baptized, and the apostles of the church teach us that we are one in Christ. He has made us his own, and that makes us family, and that makes us each other’s business. I can live my life quite comfortably without you, tucked away in my little world and you in yours, but in God’s household our worlds are one.

I’m only beginning to see you; only beginning to see fullness of life from your angle; only beginning to see what freedom from oppression might look like for both of us, a black woman and a white man, wondering what life outside the long shadow of slavery might be like for us.

The apostle writes, “The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you, nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.” He says you and I are parts of one body, which is a whole lot closer than being siblings or members of one household.

It’s a dangerous metaphor, the body, because every body needs a head, and who determines who’s the head and who’s a toe and who’s the appendix? The apostle doesn’t want us to go there, I know;  he wants us to know in our bones that in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, male and female, young and old—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Each of us indispensable for all of us to be whole.

Tell me, Emma Faye, how will we let the Spirit draw us deeper into the life that is nothing but life?

[1] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow. Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition, p. 95

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