Sunday, February 3, 2019

Living in Jubilee: sermon for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany C

What a difference a few verses make in our understanding of the gospel story of Luke chapter 4. Last week we heard Jesus demonstrate his knowledge not just of scripture but of prophecy. Contrary to some people’s modern claims, Luke depicts Jesus as not just able to read, but able to preach, teach, and interpret. Last week’s reading ended with everyone smiling on Jesus as they heard his gracious words—local boy made good.

Jesus’ reading of the scroll of the prophet Isaiah (which we heard last week) and his claim to be the fulfillment of prophecy shows, once again, that Luke emphasizes that Jesus is a figure who fulfills Old Testament hopes—that he is a good and righteous son of the Torah— habitually observing the Sabbath, both reading and interpreting the Scriptures, and attending synagogue—as well as being the longed-for Messiah.

Here, at the start of his ministry, Jesus publicly claims his place as the Messiah, and although his friends and neighbors speak well of him, they also seem to take Jesus for granted and have the impulse to define him very narrowly as a simple carpenter’s son. They do not see that Jesus is the Son of God. He then challenges his listeners, and speaks of deeds of healing that he has accomplished elsewhere (in Capernaum, which in this gospel actually get recounted right after this—the chronology is very odd). The point is, it is outsiders who are willing to accept Jesus as Messiah, and they receive the blessing of that faith in receiving healing.

Prophets are an important touchstone in Luke, and Jesus specifically identifies himself with prophets. He points out that prophets are often rejected by those who know them best—familiarity breeds contempt. But in a broader sense, prophets aren’t running popularity contests. They say uncomfortable things, they blame you for your own failures instead of conveniently pointing the finger of blame somewhere else, they sometimes even do weird things like lay for over a year on just one side (Ezekiel) or claim to have (perhaps metaphorically) married prostitutes (Hosea) to demonstrate Israel's infidelity to God. 

Just like people everywhere, even now in our time, Israel has a long history of reacting to prophets with disdain, because it’s easier to view prophets as irritants and foretellers of doom than to accept their correction and see it as God’s correcting love in action. Remember, Martin Luther King was largely reviled during his lifetime, and he paid with his life.

Why does what he says infuriate his neighbors? We have to remember to connect this week’s words with last week’s words:

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
"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 rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. 

But then in this week, we get the rest of the story. As his interpretation sinks in, he continues with predicting that they will not truly accept his message. And man, does that make them angry! Because in each of the instances he cites, outsiders—sinners, enemies—received the blessing from the prophet, while those in Israel were not healed or helped due to their intransigence. Jesus points the finger of blame—like all prophets do—and those getting pointed at, once they get it, don’t like it, not one bit.

Especially in the ancient world, where one’s birth was generally one’s life-long status, people are unsettled by the thought that someone so great could come from such humble origins. Jesus completely pushes them-- and us-- out of the comfort zone with words of challenge rather than words that seek to soothe. Even Elijah did not heal among his own people. Elisha only cleaned an outsider of leprosy.

It’s important that we overcome the challenges of the weather and single services and time and remember the context of this week’s gospel. What we haven’t heard yet in our readings but has already happened in the gospel story is that Jesus has returned triumphant from being tested in the wilderness. He returns to his hometown. He is known in the synagogue there. Maybe too well known. But when he reads from the prophet Isaiah he reads promises of God’s justice. So the ultimate context should be joy—proclaiming the year of Jubilee.

Jesus says that he has been specially set aside (anointed) to do five things, and they are all based upon restoring justice—God’s justice, based on mercy and restoration, which is often at odds with human justice based on punishment. Jesus proclaims that he is the prophet who has been sent to
1 bring good news to the poor,
2 announce freedom to captives,
3 give sight to those who cannot see (literally as well as figuratively),
4 free people from oppression, and
5 proclaim the year of God’s favor (a Jubilee year).

This "Jubilee" was also promised in Isaiah 49 and in Leviticus 25. I don’t know if you remember this concept. After 49 years, there is set aside a Jubilee year- a sacred time of freedom and of celebration when everyone will receive back their original property, and slaves will be freed to return home. It was a time for the restoration of justice and forgiveness of debts, a time of restoration of that which makes you feel secure and therefore a time of rejoicing. In Hebrew, the word for this year was yovel—“a trumpet blast of liberty.” It is a year of favor that is unearned. Another word for this is “grace.” 

Like grace, Jubilee is such a powerful concept. Once in 50 years—after seven cycles of seven years, a Sabbath of all Sabbaths—all things would rest and be at ease. If you had sold away your patrimony, it would have to be returned. If you had sold yourself into slavery over debts, you would be freed. It was revolutionary. No wonder we have no record that the year of jubilee was ever actually enacted. Yet here Jesus aligns the year of Jubilee with God’s kingdom values. No wonder it scares many who hear of it –especially those who are already comfortable or powerful.

Yet it’s also such a powerful concept that even secular songs are written about it. In Mary Chapin Carpenter’s description in her song “Jubilee,” she portrays Jubilee also as a way to free ourselves from the pains, the doubts, and the fears that hold each of us back. She claims Jubilee not for “them,” but for US, for all of us.

Now, no matter if this is a country/folk Americana song, that’s good theology. She sings:

I can tell by the way you're walking
You don't want company
I'll let you alone and I'll let you walk on
And in your own good time you'll be 

Back where the sun can find you
Under the wise wishing tree
And with all of them made, we'll lie under the shade
And call it a Jubilee.

And I can tell by the way you're talking
That the past isn't letting you go
But there's only so long you can take it all on
And then the wrong's gotta be on its own.

And when you're ready to leave it behind you
You'll look back and all that you'll see
Is the wreckage and rust that you left in the dust
On your way to the Jubilee.

And I can tell by the way you're listening
That you're still expecting to hear
Your name being called like a summons to all
Who have failed to account for their doubts and their fears.

They can't add up to much without you
And so if it were up to me,
I'd take hold of your hand, saying, “Come hear the band!
Play your song at the Jubilee!”

I can tell by the way you're searching
For something you can't even name
That you haven't been able to come to the table
We’re simply glad that you came.

When you feel like this try to imagine
That we're all like frail boats on the sea
Just scanning the night for that great guiding light
Announcing the Jubilee. 

And I can tell by the way you're standing
With your eyes filling with tears
That it's habit alone that keeps you turning for home
Even though your home is right here

Where the people who love you are gathered
Under the wise wishing tree
May we all be considered, then straight on delivered
Down to the Jubilee.

Because the people who love you are waiting
And they'll wait just as long as need be-- 
When we look back and say, “Those were halcyon days,”
We're talking about Jubilee!

The Jubilee is love and freedom—true freedom-- in action. The Jubilee is a time of peace for everyone, because in truth, even the powerful often cling to power because they are afraid, because they instinctively are aware that injustice and oppression make them vulnerable even as they profit from those systems. Jubilee encourages us to break that cycle, for everyone’s good, for everyone’s joy, for everyone’s freedom.

And this is where our reading from 1 Corinthians comes in: we can do all kinds of things in the name of God, but if we do not do them out of love, they amount to nothing. And that’s a message for us today, too. Especially today, when some people use the name of Christian to help them maintain their privilege and look down on others for being what they’ve decided are outsiders, or sinners, in their determination. Who hold that the poor and oppressed deserve their status.

When I was a kid growing up, there were lots of those kinds of people hanging around there in the Bible belt. People who were angry, bitter, who referred to this life as a trial only meant to be endured until Jesus’s return or until they got to heaven, people who believed that they followed every minute law in scripture (which is impossible, by the way)—except the biggest one: the law of love. The law of mercy rather than self-righteousness. The one of forgiveness and kindness and shalom.

Jesus speaks words of correction to his listeners—and remember, that’s who we are too. That correction is love—love in action. How do we proclaim good news to the poor, freedom to captives, restoration to those whose physical difficulties isolate them, or freedom to the oppressed, except through love put into action—real, concrete action?

Paul’s meditation on love includes what love looks like not as a feeling but as action. Love never rejoices in the pain or oppression or misfortune of others. Instead listen to the heart of the reading:
Love is patient; love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

These same things align with Jesus’s kingdom values listed in the scroll he reads. Kingdom values we, as Jesus’s followers, are called to enact. Love that leads to the joy of Jubilee- not off in the future but here and now.

May we hear Jesus’s proclamation and let it convict us to do the same: bring good news to the poor, to announce freedom to captives, to provide insight about the Way of Love to those who cannot see it, to free people from oppression, and to proclaim the time of God’s favor --a Jubilee-- by living with joy and abundance in all we do. By putting love in action. For in doing so, we bring freedom and justice and hope to ourselves as well.

That is our sacred calling. To speak and act from love —all as a reflection of our love of God and love of each person created in the image of God. That’s how we claim ultimate joy, ultimate freedom, ultimate witness to the gospel of Jesus--

the gospel of love, mercy, and forgiveness that calls us to Jubilee!


Preached at the 505 on February 2, and at 8:00 and 10:15 am on February 3, 2019, at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville.

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-6
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 4:21-30

Mary Chapin Carpenter's song "Jubilee" is the tenth track on her superb Stones in the Road album from 1994. I encourage you to listen to this song and indeed this album, and hope that you will even buy it and her other work if you are so inclined. We must support working musicians and poets, and Mary Chapin Carpenter is a treasure.

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