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Jubilee

by Pastor Kevin Georgas

*This sermon was preached on January 20th, the day that the church voted to move forward with replanting.*

Luke 4:14-21 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

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. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

*****

I want to return to an image that I shared with you all a couple months ago. There was a ship in Ancient Greece called the Argo. Over the years, the planks on the Argo’s deck rotted, the ropes frayed, and the sails tore, and each had to be replaced until, at some point none of the actual parts of the ship were original. This lead people to ask, “Is that still the Argo?” Some said “No. The ship is made up of its parts. Different parts, different ship. End of story.” But others said “Yes. The ship is more than the sum of its parts. The parts are different but it’s the same shape, it has the same purpose. We recognize it as the Argo. Even though it’s been unmade and remade, even though it’s traveled in time and been changed, it shares an identity with its past and with its future.”

We become ourselves over time, again and again, and in order to be who we are, we are unmade and remade all over again. In some ways, we are very different than those other versions of ourselves: I look at pictures of myself from ten years ago, before I met Caitlin, before there was an Agnes or a James or an Ephesus in my life, and I know I’m not the person I was then. I’m still myself, but whatever “myself” is, it has to be remade again and again over the course of a life.

This morning, as we make a big decision about our future together as a church, I would like for us to meditate on identity, what it means to be who we are, and how an identity travels through time. And as we meditate on our identity as a church, which includes all of our individual stories, this story from the Gospel of Luke might be a helpful guide. It’s also about an identity becoming concrete and real in a particular moment and yet traveling through time to become concrete and real in other contexts. In this story, that identity belongs to Jesus.

Here, Jesus tells us who he is. This passage marks the beginning of his public ministry. To this point we’ve heard the miracle of his birth and how he’s been baptized by John and tempted in the desert by the Accuser, but now, for the first time, he stands up and speaks for himself. He goes into the synagogue where he’d learned the Scriptures as a child and he reads aloud and says this is who I am. This is what God has sent me to do. Everything that follows in the rest of the story follows from what Jesus says here:

“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.”

When Jesus wants us to know who he is, this is what he tells us. First of all, Jesus says that he’s here in the Spirit of the LORD, he is identified with God, his own life reveals who God is. When we say the word “God,” we know what that word means in reference to the life of this Galilean peasant. When we say “God” we don’t think of a wizened king upon his throne showering the world with lightening bolts, we don’t think of presidents and executives managing assets to extract the most wealth out of them, we don’t just take our world’s hierarchies and project them onto the scale of heaven and earth. When Jesus claims identity with God, he challenges all of that. In the story Christians tell, “God” means Jesus, who comes in the Spirit of the Lord to bring good news to the poor, forgiveness to debtors, sight to the blind, freedom to all who are oppressed. Jesus wants us to know that’s who he is, that’s who God is. God is for anyone in the world brought low by men, by kings or bosses or bankers or insurance companies or collections agencies or any other power that divides this world up into hierarchies that benefit a few at the expense of many.

In Jesus, we say that this is who God is, and Jesus life makes that message concrete, it’s embodied in him. But it’s also important to recognize this is who God has always been. Jesus gives this message in the synagogue, where he’d gone every Saturday his whole life. He doesn’t reject where he's come from. He preaches from the book of Isaiah, words first given at a moment in the people’s history when they’ve returned home from exile, and instead of a promised land they find a land in shambles. Jerusalem and the Temple are in ruins; their home is still occupied by the Empire that took them into exile in the first place. And in that time Isaiah hears a word from the Lord, a word that a day is coming, the day of the Lord’s favor, when God is going to reshuffle the deck. Their debts will be paid, which means they get to live without oppression. They will be free, they will get back what was taken from them, they are the poor but they will hear Good News.

So when Jesus wants to talk about who he is, what he’s doing, who God is, what God’s doing, Jesus looks back to Isaiah and how God was there for the people in that time. But what’s really interesting is that Isaiah is doing the same thing. In his time, just returned from exile, Isaiah looks back to the book of Leviticus, to God’s command to the people, a command that is also a promise, that every 49 years (seven times seven), will be a year of Jubilee. And in the year of Jubilee, creditors are commanded to forgive all their debtors, masters are commanded to free their slaves, and anyone who has taken land through gentrification or imminent domain is commanded to return the land to the families who lost it.

When Jesus wants to tell us who he is, who God is, he remembers Isaiah remembering the Jubilee. This is who God has always been, but the circumstances change. The people find themselves in different lands, faced with different struggles, navigating different patterns of inequality and injustice, but God’s call travels through history, calling them to become who they are all over again. Speak God’s Word, welcome the strangers, care for the orphan and the widow, do not hoard up wealth for yourself while your neighbor starves, follow these commands and you shall be holy like I the Lord your God am holy in your time. This is who God has always been, this is who Jesus declares himself to be. Jubilee is God’s identity made flesh in history. These words have been fulfilled this day when Jesus speaks them about himself.

And because this is who God is and this is who Jesus is, this is also who the church is called to be, as Jesus’ body. In the book of Acts, in the earliest description of the gathered church, we read that the people “devoted themselves to the Apostles teaching and the breaking of bread, and they held all things in common, each giving all they possessed so that everyone had what they needed.” Good news to the poor, freedom to the debtor, liberation to the oppressed. Jubilee. That’s what it means to be identified with God in Jesus, to be Christ’s Body.

Every body is itself an Argo. The cells in our bodies reproduce themselves about every seven years, and we only keep on living so long as this process of remaking, of becoming, continues. The moment a body says, these are the only cells I have, I’m done becoming, letting myself be remade, it dies. And so as Jesus’ body, instead of Argo, we say “Jubilee.” We’re called to continue becoming in whatever form allows us to proclaim God’s favor, good news to the poor and the oppressed in our time. There have been moments in the last 2,000 years when the church has really done this (even if there have been plenty when we haven’t). We’ve created the first hospitals, welcomed refugees, provided sanctuary to those running for their lives; the church has been an incubator of dissent and reform and movements of liberation; we’ve been a place of creativity and beauty and imagination. And all because Christians have been moved by the Spirit to say that we want to identify with Jesus and Jesus identifies with the “least of these” so those the powers call least need to be our people, too. Ephesus has at times been that kind of church too: this church has welcomed people from all over the world, has always welcomed people with disabilities; Ephesus wrapped its arms around members with HIV/AIDS at a time when people with that disease were utterly stigmatized by our society. We have been, at moments, a people of Jubilee.

And we can be that again. The world has changed. Our church, like so many others, grew and prospered during a time when people could count on a steady union job with fair income, when many people settled down with families and bought houses, when debt was minimal and progress was a given. Church fit within that larger package. That world doesn’t exist anymore. We’ve already found that church is not a given in such a world. But even if it’s not a given, the church can still be a gift. We can take this moment of uncertainty as a call and become who we are all over again. We can look upon our time and ask “How can we tell people that God favors them, how can we tell the poor and the worker and the indebted and chastised and the stigmatized and all who are oppressed (often by Christians) that God is for them and wants them to have a better world, a loving community, everything they need?” How can we share good news in our time?

We can become that people all over again. We can pull up the boards that have rotted, replace our main sails so that they catch wind again, and we can set out on a new voyage. We will be different for it, just as none of us are the people we were thirty years ago, but so long as we proclaim God’s favor, good news to the oppressed, we continue to become who we are. Amen.

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