Sermon January 24 “Fulfilled Today” For many different reasons I’m glad I don’t live in Iowa or New Hampshire. I cannot imagine the barrage of phone calls, tv and radio ads, let alone door-to-door canvassers that have invaded these two states as the first Presidential primaries draw near. I remind myself, as tired as I am of the daily stream of reports from the campaign trail, that this is nothing compared with what the people of Iowa and New Hampshire are going through, let alone the reporters assigned to each of the campaigns, listening to the same stump speeches over and over each day.
Considering the consequences of this process, it’s alarming to realize what a circus it can sometimes resemble. I don’t know that any nation has a better system for choosing their leaders–some are far worse– but given the fact that the winner of this contest will be arguably the most powerful person in the world, I do wonder every now and then if we know what we’re doing.
Listen to this translation of an ancient hymn describing those who can be trusted with
power. It’s Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Psalm 15–
Who Can Be Trusted?
Lord, who can be trusted with power,
and who may act in your place?
Those with a passion for justice,
who speak the truth from their hearts;
who have let go of selfish interests
and grown beyond their own lives;
who see the wretched as their family
and the poor as their flesh and blood.
They alone are impartial
and worthy of the people’s trust.
Their compassion lights up the whole earth,
and their kindness endures forever. Stephen Mitchell, Source: A Book of Psalms
Do any of the current candidates come to mind?
Now listen to the platform, or inaugural address, of Jesus as he returned fresh from the wilderness and was asked to read and interpret scripture in his home synagogue in Nazareth–
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.” ….Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Some who were present would have noticed that he left out the last part of that final verse–”to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God.” With all the injustice and humiliation we have to endure, many first century Jews thought, isn’t it time for God to demand vengeance? With our perceived loss of power to control world events, with so many people still unable to find work that allows them to live as they’d like, with so many immigrants and non-whites quickly becoming a majority, isn’t it time for someone like us to take charge, demands the Tea Party and others?
To the poorest of the poor, however, like many of those who lived in Nazareth, this passage from the prophet Isaiah would be music to their ears. Here was a reminder of the Jubilee year–which was supposed to take place every 50 years, though it’s unclear whether it ever actually did–Jubilee, when all debts would be forgiven, when land would be returned to the people, all slaves would be freed–a clear reminder that nobody owned the land, that it was a gift from God, that they were bound together with one another. The promise of Jubilee was also seen as a corrective for the way that human beings get things out of whack, as Kate Huey says, (sermonseeds, 1/24/16), so that before you know it, somebody has too much while others don’t have enough. Kinda like the way things are right now.
The Jubilee year and its corrective, as well as all the ways described for living justly and peaceably together and with God, would have been contained in the reading of the law which Ezra read to the people for the first time since they had returned from exile. The people wept when they heard it, realizing how far they had wandered from the way God had set for them, and knowing the consequences of all that, but Ezra tells them not to grieve, “for the joy of the Lord is your strength,” he tells them. God has given you this way to live so that you might know joy, so receive it, live it.
The question might surely be asked of us, “Have we lost our way from the course Jesus set in [his] inaugural address?” [Huey]: “good news for the poor, sight to the blind, release for the captives, freedom for the oppressed”? As we’ll see in the reading that follows for next week, Jesus’ neighbors at first received his teaching and message with astonishment– “Today this has been fulfilled in your hearing.” “Doesn’t he speak well?” Then denial–”Isn’t this just Joseph’s boy?”–and then offense.
Perhaps, suggests Anna Shirey, they had become used to the lack of fulfillment of the prophets’ promises and visions and had made peace with who they were. Perhaps they had become used to the way things were, living so long under Roman occupation, having no power over their land or livelihood or lives. “All they have to do,” she writes, “is receive the message, release their old ideas of who they are, and live into God’s dream for them,” but they can’t do it. Receiving, releasing, and living in trust are easy to say, hard to do. As we’ll see, his neighbors actually turn on Jesus.
I wonder if there isn’t something of that going on for us. Haven’t we come to assume that the visions of the prophets were just that–visions? Mirages? Dreams? When was the last time you saw a lion and a lamb lying down together, with the lamb lasting through dinner? Or in our own government, how often do Republicans and Democrats even sit down to lunch together? What good news has there been lately for the poor? Ask an African American male in our country about the captives going free. What liberation, other than death, is in store for the oppressed living in Syria?
Or what of our own dreams for our church as we gather today to take stock of where we are. How close are we to following Jesus’ platform? Can we make the bold claim that Isaiah’s dream, that Jesus’ dream, have been fulfilled in our hearing? Wouldn’t that take a miracle, or a savior, like a smart, young, new pastor maybe?
Diana Butler Bass says that “today”–as in, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”–”is the most radical thing Jesus ever said.” [Day1.org, 1/24/16] He didn’t say to his neighbors in Nazareth, “Just as our ancestors waited, so we wait for the day of the Lord…” He didn’t say, “Once you/we have repented, God will usher in the kingdom.” He doesn’t say to us, “Once you get that new structure working, once you get rid of that deficit, once you get some more young families in here,” you’ll be a successful church. A recent survey by the Public Religion Research group found that church-goers express high levels of nostalgia and anxiety– nostalgia being the shadow side of looking to the past and anxiety being the shadow side of looking only to the future. It’s too easy to lose today. Today this scripture–about good news for the poor, release for the captives, sight to the blind, the year of the Lord’s favor–Today this scripture is fulfilled. “‘Today’ places us in the midst of the sacred drama,” Bass says, “remind-ing us that we are actors and agents in God’s desire for the world…It is a call to see more deeply, past the immediate sin, injustice, trials, and evils of human life to the profound reality of love and compassion upon which everything else truly rests: the love of God and neighbor.”
Can we receive this message of good news? Can we really take it in? Can any of us receive that good news for ourselves–that those places within us where we perceive only poverty and lack and failure are already places where God is present with abundance? That our blindness–our short-sightedness–our bias–can be restored to sight? That we can be set free to be the full human beings God intends?
And, “What a stunning vocation for the church,” Walter Brueggemann exclaims, ” to stand free and hope-filled in a world gone fearful–and to think, imagine, dream, vision a future that God will yet enact.” [cited by Huey, op cit.] Can we be filled with hope that is more than wishful thinking? “Old hopes are often domesticated hopes,” Richard Swanson warns, and so we must careful not to limit our hopes to things like a full Sunday school and a balanced budget. “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Dare we believe that, or will we let all those reasons why it couldn’t possibly be fulfilled–statistics about declining membership rolls or deficit budgets and how non-religious Vermont is, our own fears of rocking the boat, our world-weariness that is resigned to the way things always have been and probably always will be, our own brokenness and uncertainty about what real healing and empowerment might look like for us as individuals, let alone the church–will we let all those things prevent us from embracing the good news and instead, like Jesus’ neighbors, become fearful and angry?
What if we brought all those reasons why today couldn’t possibly be a day of fulfilment into the light of day, maybe dared to share them with each other around our tables and see not only what fears we shared but also what hope and encouragement we might offer one another, what if we then offered them up in prayer and let God transform them? “The Spirit of the Lord is upon us,” not waiting for someone else to come along, no other candidate, no new pastor, no savior to come along and save us. We are the ones we have been waiting for. Today this Scripture has been fulfilled. The kingdom of God is coming and now is. May it be so.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark