Sermon preached at St. Francis House, January 24, 2016. Read the scriptures appointed for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany here. Listen here! Read last Sunday's sermon here.
A group of St. Francis House folks had just finished a Taizé service with several hundred others at a large church in Austin, over Spring Break. It was the first of two days we would spend together in prayer, small groups, and friendship, all on the heels of the week prior, spent alongside organizations locally addressing challenges of homelessness, immigration, and incarceration in South Texas. The theme that week was reconciliation. The service was beautiful; we were all glad to have finally arrived, and with the first service behind us, people were now mingling in the way of lost friends rediscovered.
Unexpectedly, I found myself in conversation with one of the brothers, Emile. He vaguely remembered our group from the year before at Pine Ridge, but that we had traveled down from the tundra of Wisconsin this year, to Texas, clearly left an impression. Later, our pilgrim crew would cash in our newfound celebrity status for unlimited selfies with the brothers. But just then, with this unexpected one on one time, I chose instead to ask Emile about the large cross icon that inevitably appears on retreats with the Taizé community, both at their home in France and when they make pilgrimage elsewhere. Always on Fridays, they drag it out. Always with the invitation to break from the usual service, each of us in our turn having the opportunity to kneel with others and kiss, touch, or simply rest our heads on the cross. What was the point, the intention? I asked. How did this beautiful practice come to be?
“Well,” Emile said, “some Russian Christians, friends of our community, were facing persecution. They sent us this icon and asked us to remember them in our prayers on Fridays. Truthfully, the whole thing felt a little clumsy at first; we weren’t at all sure how visitors would receive it or that it was even a good idea. But we wanted to honor our friends, at least once. We did it on a Friday and it worked, and we still remember our sisters and brothers on Fridays.”
“Wow,” I said. “That’s beautiful. But y’all never say that. I would never have guessed. In fact, my own guesses were nowhere close to the truth, mostly because the people it turns out it’s about are never in the room. That’s amazing.”
Brother Emile was unimpressed by my amazement. He shrugged, then nodded in simple agreement. “Sometimes, it’s good to know," he said.
Tonight, I’ve got a little something for you to file under, “Sometimes, it’s good to know.” It’s something that came up at Bible Study on Wednesday: it has to do with this strange phrase at the center of the scroll Jesus unrolls in the gospel lesson tonight. Jesus is reading and preaching for the first time in his hometown, and his sermon is short. In fact, the whole of his sermon is to point to the passage he’s just finished reading and say, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” That is, “I, in my speaking, make this complete. The end.”(1) And the strange phrase at the center of the thing Jesus says he’s completing is that he’s proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor.” But what is that? Where did it come from? Or is it just a fancy way of using words to express a general sense of kindness?
The thing it’s good to know is that the year of the Lord’s favor is a phrase with a history for the people of Israel. The phrase refers to the year of Jubilee. The Jubilee was the year in Hebrew Scripture, occurring after seven sets of seven years - every fifty years - in which debts were forgiven, slaves freed, and property rights reset. Physical forgiveness of debts. If you had lost your future to a string of bad decisions, today it would be returned to you. If you had cost someone you loved their livelihood by the choices you’d made, today they would be restored. If you had cheated your neighbor and not gotten caught, this day of Jubilee would come as a reminder and judgment that illicit gains could only take you so far.
It’s important to note that scholars aren’t at all sure Israel ever actually observed the Jubilee; only that Scripture records God telling Israel to observe the Jubilee. So Jubilee isn’t so much an insight into Israel as an insight into the God of Israel. Jubilee reveals God’s heart and desire for God’s people and their common life together. In God’s desire, there is forgiveness of heavy debts. In God’s desire, there is mercy for stupid choices and bad luck alike. In God’s desire, there is an open-handed posture to which God’s people are invited, one that models that all things come from God and that these things are not our own. In God’s desire, most of all, there is a deep trust of God. Because the people trust God, the people can give back even the things the law says they’d won. Because God’s people belong to God, they learn that they belong to one another. It is into this celebration, this self-revelation of God — bizarre to us and to them - that Jesus enters and self-identifies. Jesus is perpetual, embodied Jubilee. “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Sometimes, it’s good to know.
There are lots of places in the Christian life where love of God and love of neighbor connect, overlap, and intersect; this is an important one of those times. Jesus shows us how relative categories like status, success, possessions, and positions make it hard to remember to trust; make it hard to be honest about our need of God and our neighbors. But to forget our need of God and our neighbor is to forget what it is to be made in the image of God; it is to forget both who we are and the abundant life to which God calls us. It is easy to forget. We gather to remember. And we bind our other days throughout the week with daily prayer to heal our memory and make it holy. In Jubilee, God keeps resetting the score because God wants each of us to reimagine the game we are living as one of being held by, rooted in, and made to share the love God makes known to us in Jesus.
All of this means that when we hear Jesus say he is bringing good news to the poor, we know that we will be called to do likewise, to go out and proclaim, but also that we are being called to give back those things we have taken at the expense of our sisters and brothers in order to keep from trusting God. After all, we worship, we follow, the God who gives us new bread each day, but just enough for the day, who invites us, each morning, to trust God all over again. Likewise, we may join Jesus in proclaiming release to the captives on Monday and by Tuesday discover and confess that the captives he freed were our captives. Somedays we will proclaim sight to the blind; on other days, it will be our own blindness that he touches and heals. However humbling, this healing and trust is Good News; it's part of Jubilee, too.
On Tuesday, February 9th, St. Francis House will be one of eighteen faith-based student organizations at UW coming together to talk openly about race and faith. As we gather, we will be remembering our need of God and one another. That day will certainly touch blind parts of us. I pray it will also be a day for renewing trusts and the beginning of healing. I hope you will come. The next day, Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of the holy season of Lent, and we’ll gather that night at St. Francis House for prayer, joined by sisters and brothers from other traditions. As we consider our relationship to God and our neighbors that night, we will be asking God to show us more of what Jubilee requires of us.
Jubilee that is humbling, healing, and involves our self-emptying can be scary (remember, Israel may or may not have ever done it), but Jesus calls himself the Jubilee, and so we know this is where we’ll go. We remember that, in Jubilee, God resets the score because God wants each of us to reimagine the game we are living as one of being held by, rooted in, and made to share the love God has made known to us in Jesus.
As a prayer then, to end, I want to share these words from a favorite hymn (2):
There's a wideness in God's mercy
like the wideness of the sea;
there's a kindness in his justice,
which is more than liberty.
There is welcome for the sinner,
and more graces for the good;
there is mercy with the Savior;
there is healing in his blood.
(1) In truth, the text leads us to believe Jesus went on to say other things - that his sermon wasn't this short - but it makes Episcopalians happy to believe that short sermons are biblical, and we don't get any hints in the text as to what the unabridged version might have been.
(2) Hymn text by Frederick Willian Faber, 1814-1863, appearing in The Hymnal 1982, hymns 469 and 470. I like 469 better. Calvin Hampton forever!