January 27, 2019

Third Sunday after Epiphany, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling

Luke 4:14-21 + Epiphany 3 + January 27, 2010 + Gloria Dei Lutheran Church

 [This background paragraph to be given before the first reading.]

Let me give you some background before we read the first reading.  We hear the story of a book being read in the temple in Jerusalem. The book that’s being read, that causes such a reaction of joy and sorrow, is a book of Moses that had been lost for more than a generation.  It was discovered while Nehemiah and Ezra were restoring the Jerusalem temple after seventy years of being away in exile.  The people had long felt that they were far away from their nation’s story. They had lost everything.  They were broken.  The God of Moses had receded into the past.  But the discovery of this book, the words of Moses himself, connected them once again to who they really were.  In the reading of the scroll, they were reconstituted as God’s chosen people.  They had crossed the Red Sea.  They had been given the law.  They had entered the promised land and given Jerusalem.  Notice that Nehemiah tells us that this reading happened on Day 1. Note also that the people’s response to this new word was to share a meal and care for the hungry.]

Sermon follows gospel reading:

I have a series of books that were displayed in a book case in my grandparent’s living room. When my grandfather died, I inherited them.  Now they’re displayed in a glass case in my own living room.  Most of them were in great condition when I received them.  In fact, it seems that most of them were never opened.  Except for one.  “Kazan,” by James Oliver Curwood, the story of a dog who was part wolf.  He escaped from a family that mistreated him and learned to trust humans again through the kindness of another family.  The spine of the book is broken.  The cover is ready to fall off, and all the title pages are missing.  It literally begins with page 1.

My grandfather read the story when he was an adolescent.  So did my father.  Both my sister and I read it when we were kids.  Several years ago, I sent it to my nieces.  Last week, I asked to get it back so I can send it to my six-year-old nephew, Leo. It’s his turn to enter the story.  Now, I’m not exactly sure which story he enters:  Kazan’s or ours.

At Gloria Dei, we always give our children a new bible, all wrapped up in paper, which they truly receive as a present.  They’re so excited.  However, I wonder if we should give them one with the cover falling off, with pages dog-eared, passages underlined, notes scribbled in the margins—a book that says “This is your family’s story.  We’ve been reading it for generations.  We’ve added our voices.  And now it’s your turn.”

This is, of course, what is happening in our first reading.  The people were overwhelmed by it, not because they had recovered some lost historical artifact, but because they were being constituted once again as a people among whom God was at work.  The past became “today” in their hearing.

When Jesus stood to read the scroll from Isaiah, he saw the whole history of God’s promise being once again constituted for the present.  He experienced himself in solidarity with God’s plan. He could imagine himself announcing good news for those who didn’t think there could be any good news. He trusted the power of his own words to open the lives of people who were captive to their past sins or who were stuck in the culture’s judgment.  He saw that God could open people’s eyes to see a world that they thought would never be for them.

He was reviving the ancient idea of a Jubilee Year, the year after the 49thyear (7×7, perfect numbers).  The fiftieth year when society was supposed to be reset. Debts were to be forgiven. Land was to be returned to those who had lost it because they had fallen into debt.  Families were to be reconciled; the outcast brought back home.  Grudges were to be put to rest. The resources of the nation were to be redistributed so that it could be equalized once again. In God’s economy, there is no place for the One percent or the destitute.  Both signify that something is radically wrong.  The Jubilee was to remind the nation that everything belongs to God so wealth and status or privilege must finally be used to serve compassion, justice and equality, especially as it relates to the poor, to the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner.

Most scholars say that the Jerusalem elite never allowed the Jubilee to be practiced. Instead, it was spiritualized or placed far into the future.  The messiah will bring it some day. But, in the spirit of the prophets, the dream of a Jubilee did not die.  And to those with sharp eyes, they caught the Jubilee already happening, despite the attempt to stop it.

The Jubilee was God’s dream, written down first in that old book of Leviticus that probably no one reads, but picked up by Isaiah, and on that morning in the synagogue, picked up again by Jesus.

Jesus is the embodiment of the Jubilee Year.  Forgiving. Healing.  Welcoming the Stranger.  Widening the circle. Redistributing what is available to feed everyone.  Tending to the weak.  Putting the smug in their place.  A heart radically open to the outcast and the different. He put on God’s dream as if it were his own life story.

He is channeling Isaiah, who was channeling Leviticus, which is the record of Moses vision after being with God.  He wasn’t trying to put himself above the people in that congregation, being the Son of God in a way that wasn’t possible for anyone else.  He was demonstrating what authentic, true, inspired human life looks like. He was showing what we can become when we enter the flow of God’s dream.

Today, it’s fulfilled again in our hearing.  The spirit of Jesus is being channeled in the church.  When it forgives.  When it welcomes.  When it speaks for justice.  When it shares its resources.  When it opens its heart to the outcast and the sinner.

Which is always a bit of a shock if you know what the church is really like.  So often self-centered, afraid about the future, stingy in its generosity, critical of difference, and a bit out of touch.

It’s where the metaphor of the tattered and worn and broken book helps.  The story, the dream, gets passed on not so much by saviors who are pristine and white, unblemished and pure, all wrapped up like a shiny new package, but in those of us can’t quite believe that we’ve been chosen.  Who are surprised to discover that we are part of the family story.  A little incredulous that God is depending on us. The story continuing in those of us who struggle to believe its all true.

I wish we had a baptism today.  I’d want to finish it be holding up the child to say, “Today, this has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  One more channeling  of the Spirit; one more body raised up as a sign.  Or maybe we need a funeral when we lay our hands on the urn to say, “Today, it has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Death and disease, suicide, addiction, or just the march of time, did not carry the day.

Or maybe we say it when we’re standing at the door, the lectionary book closed for the day, the stories remembered, told, and interpreted too long in the sermon by the pastor, all of us looking out the door, ready to go home, to get out before the snow.  Today, is Page 1.  Day 1.

The story begins…again.