Change Happens

Jesus shows up in his hometown, in Nazareth, and the first thing he does is to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath day to preach. I imagine the people there are fairly excited, like the people in a seminarian’s home congregation on their first visit back from school. This is a kid that they have known since he was a child. Jesus is 30 years old now, and he’s beginning to get a little notoriety. The people of his hometown are glad to welcome him back, the hometown boy done good. Maybe he should preach the sermon they told us at seminary that we should preach our first time home. 

They said that at seminary you are going to learn a whole bunch of fancy terms, Greek translations, Hebrew words, names of Church Fathers and theologians and philosophers from Aristotle to Augustine, from Anslem to Abelard. (Why do they all start with A?) You will learn all of it, and then you will want to use it when you preach. And what they said at seminary was, use it. Once. 

Use it the first sermon you preach when you go home to your home congregation. Prove to them that you have received the great education that they sent you to get, prove to them that their investment in you was worth it. And then never drop another name again. 

Do not, under any circumstances, try to preach any other sermon in your life, on the topic of the metaphysical juxtaposition of ontology and anthropology in the writings of Athanasius (another A). 

But this first time, this first trip home, the people of Nazareth won’t mind if he sprinkles some fancy words and drops a few names in his sermon. Heck, it’ll reflect well on them that they’ve got such a big-shot affiliated with their town. 

And if he keeps on growing in wisdom and in years, in divine and human favor, the way that Luke says, then, hey, the people of Nazareth stand to benefit! So they’re pretty pleased with him. Check it out, he doesn’t even need to read from the scroll, he doesn’t even need really to speak. 

As far as they’re concerned, the super short sermon he has just preached is the proof that this guy gets them! Home in time for the Super Bowl! That’s our boy! All he has to do is show up, demonstrate that Nazareth is still his hometown, demonstrate that these are his people, and they’ll be happy. 

Because if it turns out that this guy is the Messiah, Nazareth is bound to get the best of the Messiah’s reign. Maybe he’ll set up court here, bring in money, jobs, new sources of wealth, not to mention the favor of God! No wonder the people are thrilled when he picks up the scroll of Isaiah, and reads this very passage, from Isaiah 61.

As we heard last week, Jesus reads this passage 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.” 

And he stops there. And the people are riveted. 

This is exactly what they had been waiting to hear! The year of the Lord’s favor! That’s what Nazareth has been longing for, waiting for, yearning for, ever since the Romans came, ever since the Babylonians came, ever since the Assyrians came, hundreds if not thousands of years of longing for a year of favor!

Because let’s face it, it is a hard-knocked life in Nazareth. The town sits above the Sea of Galilee, on the top of a very steep cliff, where it’s easier to defend. Below Nazareth stretches the Jordan valley, which turns from lush green to scrub desert within a matter of miles, dropping quickly down to the harsh salt flats of the Dead Sea. In a good year, there is plenty, but it does not take much to upset the delicate balance, and shift the desert northward, to put the tang of salt in your nostrils and the taste of dust on your tongue. Add to that invasion after invasion, out here at the edge of civilization. 

From the top of that cliff today, you can see the Golan Heights. In Jesus’ day you would have seen the hills of Nineveh, the mountains of Babylon, the lands of the Philistines, of Zarepheth of Sidon. In other words, then as now, you could see the invaders coming from all sides, and you knew before even the people of Jerusalem that war was upon you, and that no one was coming to your aid. Nazareth was, is, a hard place to live. 

So when Jesus proclaims the words of Isaiah, “the year of the Lord’s favor,” and then sits there and tells their eager, excited faces, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” these people are thinking, “finally! Some justice for us! some relief for us! some favor. For us!” And they forget the rest of the story, the stories of Elijah and the widow of Zarapheth, and of Elisha and the leper Naaman. 

So Jesus reminds them. The bad news of the good news. Good news: this is the year of our Lord’s favor. Bad news: it’s not just for you. God’s grace is not yours alone.

Jesus is bringing the change that Isaiah spoke of, turning the world upside down, as Hannah and Zechariah and Mary sang. But that change doesn’t just affect those who know Jesus intimately, it doesn’t just affect those who raised him, those who changed his nappies, those who sent him off to seminary. The change that Jesus brings, it’s not just for those who have accepted him as their personal savior. It’s not just for those who show up in church every Sunday. It’s not just for those of us who think we have this God-business figured out.

It is change for the whole world. And for the people of Nazareth, maybe for us, that feels like bad news.

This is why my pastor in Seattle so often said that he believed it might not be possible both to preach the gospel and to grow the church at the same time. Because if the good news comes to our enemies, too, is it really good news? If I have to share God’s favor with everyone, if I don’t get to choose whom God rewards, and whom God punishes do I want God’s favor? The people of Nazareth answer honestly, if nothing else. They don’t want it.

Jesus has reminded them of what they already know, really. God is not only the God of Nazareth. God is not only the God of Galilee. God is not even only the God of Israel. God is the God of all nations, and this good news is not going to be contained. This good news is not going to be used to lift one up over the other. This good news is not going to draw lines, to reinforce boundaries, to separate people from one another because of class or race or gender or age or disability or sexuality or denomination or religion or any other thing that we care to come up with. This good news is going to tear down all those walls and cross all those lines and break all those boundaries, and it is going to freak us right out. 

That’s what it did to the people of Nazareth, it scared them and it made them angry, so angry that they were blinded by fear, blinded by rage, ready to throw their own kin right off the top of that cliff. So blinded by their fear and their rage that they could not even see Jesus moving through the midst of them, as he walked away.

Change is scary. There’s no question. The world has changed. The Church has changed. The culture has changed. Our community has changed. Our families have changed. You’ve changed. I’ve changed. 

Change happens. And we can lament and mourn about that change. We can be scared and angry, that’s fine. But the last thing we should do is to get so scared, so blind with rage, that we forget the most important thing. That Jesus is right here in our midst. And that has not changed. And that today, today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in our hearing. 

Yes, things are changing, and you may not like the way they look afterwards. You may find yourself sitting next to a widow from Zarapheth, or an Assyrian leper; You may discover that God’s table includes those you would never expect, maybe even those you never wanted to find there. Catholics, Baptists, or even Buddhists. You may find that God’s table is far bigger than you had ever imagined, and that you are not entirely comfortable with the other people you find there, and you would rather pick and choose who gets to sit at this table. 

But that is exactly the point. God’s table is huge, and that has never changed. God’s table includes all, and that has never changed. God’s table is rooted in the love of God for you. And that has never changed. What has changed is our perception of that table. What has changed is our ability to see that table. 

Change is scary. But the most important thing that Jesus told the people of Nazareth, though they were too afraid to hear it, too angry to see it; the most important thing that he tells us, if we have ears to hear; the most important thing is that God is here. God is here, among you, working in and through this change. 

God has chosen to become one of you, to walk among you, to be in your midst, to walk through this changing world, and to walk with you as you change, too. When you look past your fear and your rage, you will see that God is here. And when you can see that, the change is not so scary. 

It might even be a blessing. 

It might even be the year of the Lord’s favor.

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Jubilee

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”C_ThirdSundayafterEpiphany-large It’s maybe the shortest sermon ever. And unfortunately, maybe the most misunderstood ever, judging by what the people do afterward, in the part of the story that we will hear next week. Jesus, right at the beginning of his ministry, fresh from his 40 days of temptation in the desert, comes back to his home synagogue in Nazareth to step in as the guest preacher, and preaches the shortest sermon ever, maybe assuming that these guys will get what he’s saying, because after all they know him. But when they figure out what he is saying, they try to throw him off a cliff. No wonder the rest of Jesus’ sermons were longer! But we’ll get to that part of the story next week. For now, we’ll look at this part – the sermon itself. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The mashup of Isaiah that Jesus has just read is a selection of verses from Isaiah 61 and 58. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, Jesus says. He has anointed me. In Greek, exrisen me, he has ‘christed’ me. God has made me to be the Christ, Jesus says, quoting from Isaiah, so that the poor would receive good news, so that the captives would be released, so that the blind would see, so that the oppressed would go free. God has made me to be Christ, Jesus says, because the year of the Lord’s favor has come. The Jubilee year, it is sometimes called. 

In the Hebrew Torah, the law provides for a sabbath every seventh day, and a year of sabbath every seventh year. Every seventh day, the people are to rest, including all the slaves and servants, and even the animals. Every seventh year, the land is to rest. No crops are to be planted. The people, the servants and slaves, the livestock, are to live off of their stores, and what the land provides. And God promises that there will be enough. After doing this 7 times, there is to be a year of Jubilee in the 50th year. It is to be a year of rest for all, as the other seventh years are. But more than that, it is a time of homecoming, of renewal, or restoration. Debts are forgiven, slaves are set free, and land is returned to its proper owners. If land has been sold to pay a debt, or taken by force, it is to be returned. The year of Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor, is a time for redemption and liberation, for all of creation.

Now, whether this was ever actually enacted in ancient Israel is doubtful. It is hard to imagine how any human society would ever successfully pull this off. But it was what God asked of the people as they were brought up out of slavery. It was what God held up as the ideal. 

And now, Jesus says, this has been fulfilled. Today. In your hearing. What does this mean for the people of Nazareth? Well, we’ll look at that more next week. But for now, we might ask what does this mean for us?

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians gives us an answer. Because Paul tells us, we are the Body of Christ. One body. Not just within the walls of this building, but the whole church in the world. We are the Body of Christ, and the Spirit of the Lord is upon us. We have been anointed, some of you were anointed right here in this room, baptized in this font, anointed with oil and sealed by the Holy Spirit to be a member of the Body of Christ. Anointed to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed. This is the mission statement, not just for Jesus of Nazareth, but for the Body of Christ in every time and every place.

And this is where it gets hard. Because mostly we are comfortable with people that are like us. We would prefer, if we are the feet of the body, to hang out with other feet, and maybe an ankle or toe. But definitely not hands. And really definitely not noses or belly buttons or other less savory parts. There are, you know, limits. But the thing is, a bunch of feet are not really all that helpful if they are not connected to the rest of the body, and even the most unsavory parts of the body have a function, and are necessary to the whole. And when any part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers.

Here in Washington, there is a growing population of individuals who are living in homelessness. Many of these people are just fallen on hard times, and they want to find a way to change their situation. Many of them just need a hand – some funds, some training, some support, some life skills – to make the shift to a permanent home and a more stable life. But some of them are not going to make that shift. There are a few, not most, not even a lot, but a few, whose disease state has progressed to the point that they may not be help-able. Not the way we want them to be. Their addictions and mental illnesses are such that they are not going to be able to sustain any kind of work, or learn how to stick to a budget, or meet any of the requirements for shelters or other programs. And when they suffer, we all suffer, though it’s often because they are making us uncomfortable, being noisy or smelly or sleeping in a chair in the teen section of the library. But they are still a part of us. They are still part of our community, part of the Body – they belong to us. And we may not turn our backs on them. We don’t help them because we expect them to satisfy our expectations. We help them because they are ours to help. Because we have been sent to proclaim good news, even to these members of the Body whom we would rather ignore.

Over the last year, we here at Peace have taken a sabbath. We had four months in which I was away, and during that time, we rested. We spent extra time in prayer, extra time in fellowship, extra time in conversation and study. We listened to new voices, and we learned some things about what we value and hold dear. And through it all, we continued to serve our community and proclaim good news for all the members of the Body. 

Just a few examples:

  • We went to the City Council to ask for recognition of the marginalized voices in our community, including the homeless, people of color, and the LGBT community.
  • We opened our building to community groups who needed space to meet, including grief support, Narcotics Anonymous, and a local advocacy group.
  • We provided Crisis Fund assistance to members of our community in need, and kept our Little Free Pantry stocked throughout the year.
  • We hosted Vacation Culture School, an opportunity for the minority groups in our community to be heard and share their stories.
  • Individuals in our congregation used their gifts to support other local ministries such as Grace’s Place, the Pregnancy Assistance Center, the Human Rights and Homelessness Task Forces, Mercy Hospital’s spiritual care program, Loving Hearts, and so many other places, it’s hard to count.

We are not perfect. We are still learning and we are always in discernment about how we can better serve our community. But day in and day out, we are seeking ways to live out this call, to be the Body of Christ for this world, and to fulfill the words of Isaiah. This is not our doing. It is the work of Christ in us, the work of the Holy Spirit that has joined us together through our baptisms, named us and claimed us and called us to this community and this work.

Today is our annual meeting. We will gather for conversation and celebration. And fried chicken. As a congregation Bound by Christ, to Break Boundaries, we’ll share our successes of the past year, and then we will set the tone for the coming year. The budget that we will vote on will support that work, but it will not be all of it. Because the work that we do together as the Body of Christ is not our work. It is the work of the Holy Spirit through us. It is the messy and muddled attempts of a bundle of body parts trying to work together toward a goal that is not our own, toward the fulfillment of a mission statement that was put into motion thousands of years ago, and yet is fulfilled today in our hearing. This means moving our individual egos out of the way, setting our individual agendas aside, and listening, sometimes with ears that are not our own, to voices that are foreign and difficult to understand, about sufferings that we cannot comprehend and directions that we cannot fathom. This means welcoming people that make us uncomfortable, that push our buttons, that downright annoy us. This means sitting together in our discomfort, and listening for the voice of God, rather than to our own natural desires for control, for attention, for return on our investment, for clear outcomes on our own terms. It means entering into deep processes of discernment that often will lead us to unexpected ends. It means, in other words, doing the hard work of community, and trusting that even when our plans are not followed, that God is at work in this Body, fulfilling through this messy, muddled work, the proclamation of the Good News for all of God’s people in this time and place.

At Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat center in the Cascade mountains, people spend time, as we have this year, in rest, fellowship, and study, before returning to the outside world and their daily lives, hopefully renewed and refreshed for their work of ministry. As they leave, they are always offered this blessing, which I now offer to you, to us, to the Body of Christ at Peace Lutheran in 2019. 

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.