Magnifying our Advent Jubilee

Third Sunday of Advent – December 13, 2020 – Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Canticle 15; John 1:6-8, 19-28 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

Today’s portion of Isaiah 61 might sound familiar to you. If it does, it may not necessarily be because you’ve heard it directly from Isaiah.

You might also recognize it as the text for Jesus’ “first sermon” as it appears in Luke’s Gospel account. Remember that story of Jesus, just as he is beginning his ministry? At the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth he unrolls the scroll and reads, “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.”

This text puts us in mind of something else you may have heard of, the “Year of Jubilee.” According to the Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 25: 8-13, to be exact), every fiftieth year, debts were to be forgiven, slaves freed, and property reverted to its original owner. This was a practice meant to manifest the benevolent mercy of God, a way to act out (at least as best anybody on Earth can) the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Today’s tech gurus might call it a “hard reset.” It was a chance to wipe the slate clean, to start once again from a place of purity, unfettered by money owed and shackles bound. 

The important, some might even say miraculous, thing about the concept of Jubilee is that it was prescribed for everyone—no exceptions. It was meant to squelch that dreadful “me-first” notion that seems to have plagued each one of us since birth. We could think of it as a societal depiction of what we all learn—or are supposed to learn—in kindergarten: that sharing is caring, forgiveness is important, and selfishness does not lead to true success.

It’s no wonder Jesus chose this text for his first sermon. Not only is it a very real way to begin to enact God’s heavenly vision on earth, but it sets the stage for Jesus’ entire ministry by unveiling an extremely counter-cultural message, one that asks its hearers to confront some fairly uncomfortable scenarios. Having your debts forgiven may be one thing, but can you imagine forgiving the debts owed to you? The very notion upsets our concept of fairness. Jesus is going to be doing a lot more of that! Just think of the parables we’ve heard in the past several weeks about the talents or the laborers in the vineyard.

Today, in the middle of this season of preparation, it is especially important to remember that Jesus didn’t just make up all the counter-cultural stuff he preaches. His words are firmly rooted in God’s ancient law, and they were even echoed by others before him.

Jesus may be the “reason for the season,” but he isn’t the first person in the Gospel to give voice to this Jubilee prophesy. He wasn’t even the first person in his family to do so. That honor goes to his mother, Mary, whose song we sang this morning. 

“My soul proclaims he greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” We often call this important passage by its Latin name, the Magnificat. Perhaps the most famous translation of the first line goes like this: “My soul doth magnify the Lord.”

Magnify. During Tuesday’s Bible study, Amy brought to our attention the powerful images this word might generate for us. I found myself shot suddenly into a past where I stood in my grandmother’s kitchen, in front of the drawer where she kept her calendar, playing with the magnifying glass laying at its side.

What does it mean for one’s soul to magnify the Lord? Surely it’s more than holding an old magnifying glass up to your heart, enlarging the logo above your shirt pocket. I think it more likely has something to do with living your life in a way that draws attention to God’s vision for the world.

Mary magnifies this vision by reveling in the joy of a God who magnified her. “For he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed.”

God’s selection of Mary, a pitiable young girl by many standards, becomes for her—and for us—a kind of Advent Jubilee, a sign that something new is indeed coming to pass. The slate will be wiped clean, not only in the coming of Jesus our redeemer, but in the manner in which he comes—by a poor virgin’s womb.

God’s selection of Mary is a reminder for us that God often works in the ways we least expect, ways that tend to scandalize the so-called “natural order of things.” Perhaps God’s surprising methods are themselves something that we should by now have come to expect, for God has employed them over and over again.

God’s unconventional methods stretch all the way back to God’s covenant with Abraham, back to ninety-year-old Sarah’s pregnancy. (Joyful news to be sure, but no laughing matter.) And they stretch back to that Levitical prescription for the Year of Jubilee, and back to Isaiah’s proclamation of good news for the oppressed. Yes, this news that Mary’s son will soon share is news that God has been sharing for a long, long time, and it is news that takes center stage in her own familiar song.

A virgin, pregnant. The proud, scattered. The mighty cast down with the mountains. The lowly, like the valleys lifted up. The hungry, filled. The rich, sent to bed without dinner for a change.

And then there is, of course, a person I haven’t mentioned yet—John. The Baptizer, like Isaiah and Mary, knows what’s on the way. He knows that Jesus is coming to tell us God’s Good News like we’ve never heard it before. And so he joins the chorus of those crying out God’s favor, telling us that rough places will soon be made like a plain.

Yes, in their own way, I’d say that all of these folks pretty much sum up God’s vision for the world. A dear friend of mine puts it this way: the way things always have been need not be the way they always will be.

This is a vision that you and I know, too. It’s a vision of God’s mercy, a vision revealed at Christmas and confirmed on Easter—Death doesn’t get the last word! Your sins are forgiven! Salvation is at hand! It’s a vision that truly magnifies God’s presence among us. And it’s a vision that we must share—especially right now.

There’s no use repeating the laundry list of despairs that many of us have felt this year. I’m certainly not suggesting that we deny them. It’s just that it’s so often our habit to focus on them instead of God’s vision for us.

I know we’re still about two weeks from Christmas, but things are certainly ramping up. So I’d say it’s high time we took some time away from despair and started with a clean slate. I’d say we ought to magnify the Lord. Yes, I’d say we might as well revel like Mary in the joy of the One who comes, at least a little bit, until we hear the angels sing.

The work God has given you to do

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost – August 11, 2019 – Isaiah 1:1,10-20 – Trinity, Winchester

As Christians, we say that the Bible is the inspired word of God, but it’s not always clear exactly what that means.

There are many answers. For instance, scripture is a record of God’s interaction with God’s people over time. Through scripture we come to know God and who we are in relationship with God. Not only do we believe that its human authors were inspired by God to write what they wrote when they wrote it, we also believe that God inspires our hearing of it today. 

One of the specific reasons that I’m convinced scripture is inspired is because of its lasting relevance. Across time and culture, God’s word continues to inform our life together. For example, hear God’s words to us this morning from the mouth of the prophet Isaiah. (And, yes, I’m paraphrasing here…) 

“I’m tired of your sacrifices. I have had enough of your burnt offerings. I do not delight in the blood of your bulls. Your incense is an abomination. Your solemn assemblies make me sick. 

“I find your festivals burdensome. From now on when you pray I’m not even going to listen. Your hands are full of blood! Wash yourselves! Start doing some good for a change.” 

In other words, God says, “I’ve had it *up to here!* Get yourselves under control!”

These words are hard to hear. For that reason we might be tempted to write them off as water under the bridge, a travelogue of an ancient people dealing with ancient problems. 

However, Isaiah’s prophecy is as relevant today as it ever was. Our hands are still full of blood. Not the blood of bulls but the blood of school children and innocent bystanders. 

We’ve tried to wash them, but rather than searching for the cleansing rivers of God’s grace, we opted for the tears of blameless immigrant children. 

Much like the ancient Israelites, our nation is at a breaking point. The question is, what are we as Christians going to do about it? As Isaiah says, the answer is much more than simply, “Go to Church.” We must also speak out—and act—in the name of God.

Mainline Protestants and Catholics in America often shy away from claiming the authority of God. We are nervous about the prophetic role of our faith. Our reticence to don a prophet’s mantel is not without reason.

Some people who call themselves Christians spend so much time damning people to hell that the rest of us have become conditioned to think that claiming God’s authority is a bad thing. In an attempt to seem relevant, the Church has forfeited its prophetic witness to fear-mongers and imposters. 

Perhaps the reason that many contemporary Christians are uneasy about claiming God’s authority is because they perceive themselves to be inadequate. They don’t want to presume to know the mind of God, only to find out they’ve confused their own desires with God’s will. 

This instinct is admirable—no one should mistake themself for God! However, you must remember that God created you, God called you good, and God entrusted you as a steward of his creation and his word. 

So, while you don’t have to call yourself a prophet, you at least ought to act like you’ve read them, and you must share their message with the world. 

Today that message is this: God is fed up with our sacrifices, our empty thoughts and prayers, our vapid rituals and festivals. Before you go preaching and teaching this message, understand that God does not criticize liturgical practices because they are bad in and of themselves. God criticizes them when they are unaccompanied by acts of justice and mercy. 

Valuing liturgics is fine, but valuing liturgics over people is not. 

Praying is a wonderful tactic for change, as long as you understand that true prayer is a way of life, one that informs the way you act in the world. 

By all means, please, come back next week to participate in the prayer book rites that so richly inform our faith, but remember: while keeping the liturgical calendar is important, it is not more important than how we treat the least of God’s people. Our participation in these liturgies rings hollow unless we also “rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow.”

Today is not about bad-mouthing liturgy. It’s about realizing that, no matter how we worship, when we ignore the urgent needs of those around us, we sin, plain and simple. The good news is that God offers us forgiveness anyway. Although our sins are like scarlet now, they will become like snow. 

“If you are willing and obedient,” God says, “you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword.” 

We are tempted to hear this as though our own actions will determine whether or not we are forgiven by God. Such is not the case. We can never do anything to earn or to forfeit the marvelous grace of God. 

In these words God is not giving us an ultimatum, i.e. “Do this or else be damned for all time.” Rather, in these words God is assuring us that with a little help from the almighty, we do indeed have the power to make things better. 

Through Isaiah, God offers us a clear, honest, warning. If you do what I recommend, then your communities will flourish. Everyone will have the food, water, shelter, and love that they deserve as children of God.

If you do not live like I recommend, then your dire situation will persist. You will continue to live with the evil of inequality, fear, and guilt.

Today, and everyday, God invites you to repent and to commit ourself to what is good and just and merciful. You have the power to do what is right, not on your own accord, but because God works in and through you. 

I know that you already know this. You know it because you know Jesus. In Jesus, God showed us that our humanity matters. God makes divine use of even our frail flesh. What a blessed thing. 

I’m not exactly sure what I can urge you to do without risking tax-exempt status, so for now let’s just make it simple. What I’m saying is this: hear what God’s prophets are saying to God’s people, take advantage of God’s grace, and for God’s sake, do the work God has given you to do.

The hard work of the Gospel

Commemoration of Thomas Bray – February 15, 2019 – Isaiah 52:7-10; Luke 10:1-9 – Chapel of the Apostles, Sewanee

It is always a joy to have the opportunity to preach to a seminary community, even if, or perhaps especially when, the subject matter is a bit tricky. 

When I first noticed that we were commemorating Thomas Bray today, it took me a minute. Then it came to me, “Oh, right, the SPCK guy.” That is, the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. You know, like the “book depot” down in Cowan. 

It turns out, Bray’s story is bigger than a book store. In 1696 he was invited by the Bishop of London to oversee the Church of England’s work in Maryland. Though Bray was only in America briefly, he founded 39 lending libraries and numerous schools, recruited priests to work in local parishes, advocated for the ordination of a bishop for the American church, and championed the need for educated clergy and laity. This is to say nothing of his work for English prison reform and the abolitionist movement.

But that’s not all. In 1701 Bray founded yet another society–this time the SPG, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. Among its goals: to promote Christianity abroad and to bring Christianity to the non-Christian races of the world. If that language creeps you out, good. It should. 

Reading Holy Women Holy Men gives one the sense that Bray was a simple country parson who happened to have a deep concern for and understanding of “Native Americans and Blacks.” That language should make you uncomfortable, too.

Once you understand the baggage associated with evangelizing slaves and saving the souls of native peoples, the feet of those messengers Isaiah mentions don’t seem quite as beautiful. 

Unfortunately, Christianity has long been a vehicle for enforcing Western ideals on people who already have their own traditions, values, and norms. No person or culture is a “blank slate” waiting for a missionary to come write down the name of Jesus. 

Pausing to commemorate Thomas Bray gives us the opportunity to be honest about the somewhat sordid history of Christian mission. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel owned slaves, mutilated their bodies, and exploited their labor. 

To ignore past exploits like these is to deceive ourselves. Worse than viewing our history through rose-tinted glasses is forgetting to take those glasses off. Soon they become blinders that keep us from seeing our own sins.

We’re not in this business to ignore hard truths, past or present. We’re in this business to do the hard, complicated, often ambiguous, but powerful work of the Gospel. God has given us the Gospel of Jesus, and God has called you to proclaim it. Our past sins don’t excuse you from doing that. In fact, they make it all the more necessary. 

It’s hard to be a Christian. If it were easy, we wouldn’t have to evangelize! Yet, here we are, ready to go out in the midst of wolves, even from house to house, proclaiming the peace of the Lord. Some folks think we’re crazy, but I like to think of it more as being faithful to a God who is faithful to us. 

So get up, and go out to do the work that God has given you to do. When you fail, be honest about it, come back, present yourself at the Holy Table, and receive the grace of God.