December 14, 2014

Advent IIIB, Isaiah 61:1-11

Preached by Rev. Todd Weir

I am a pessimistic optimist. This means if someone asks me whether a glass is half empty or half full, my first answer is usually, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.” I need to ponder for awhile. First, I want to know the context. What was the glass before this moment? Was it full and the water has evaporated? Or did someone spill it? Then it would be half empty. If the glass is sitting outdoors, and it rained last night, then I might conclude the glass is half full. History and context matter in important decisions. Then I would do my exegesis of scripture, and read Psalm 23, “My cup runneth over!” it proclaims with joy. Then in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus says, “Take this cup from me.” Then at the Last Supper Jesus lifts the cup, and speaks of betrayal and death, and says, “Drink this in remembrance of me.” I conclude from my research that the Bible once again presents truth as paradox, that the cup of spilled blood is also the cup of blessing. Therefore when Thursday rolls around and I still have to write a sermon about the cup of water and finally answer the original question, I will say, “The glass is half empty, but I believe by the grace of God that we can fill it.” This is how I think.


I did not come up with the term pessimist-optimist on my own. Reinhold Niebuhr, the great Christian ethicist of the mid 20th century, coined the term. He said that he inclined towards pessimism because human beings are a selfish, prideful species, prone to over-reach or failures at empathy. And yet as a Christian, Niebuhr believed that we must ultimately be optimists, even if we have a dim view of human failings, because the God revealed in Jesus pours out love and blessings, and is a strong force bending the world towards justice.


I truly felt like a pessimistic optimist this week, trying to keep up with the news cycle. We have been preparing for Advent for weeks, finding beautiful hymns and liturgy, weaving greens, lighting candles for peace, hope and today for joy. There is choir practice, bell practice, and family celebrations to prepare. We are moving towards a Christmas pageant next week, and the Christmas Eve candlelight service and all of this fills me with optimism and hope. This is our big season.


But in the midst of it we get – #BlackLivesMatter, #CIAtortured. While we are lighting candles the streets are burning. There are more than chestnuts roasting on the open fire. If you go to the mall to shop you might find yourself in the middle of a “die-in.” This happened at Medical Schools across the country, Congressional staffers walked off the job in solidarity with protestors, students blocked the streets as people tried to get home from Smith Vespers last week. The streets of New York City were filled yesterday, like most holiday seasons, but it was not so see the Macy’s window, but to call the nation to look in the window of its own soul.


What do we do with our careful planning, our joyful and cherished traditions? On Twitter, one denominational leader suggested we not light the candle of joy this year since there is so much for which to weep. Another article said we should all wear black this Sunday. (I do every Sunday!) Many of the historic black churches have called for a Black Church Sunday this week for all of us to attend the closest black church in solidarity. Someone called the closest black churches to us, and they hadn’t heard of this, so would we be crashing their party?

We are far enough along in our service that you can see my liturgical choices, and now I want to tell you why. This is where our texts from Isaiah 61 and John’s Gospel enter the picture. In November, at our Peace and Justice Committee meeting, Rev. Joanne Graves led us in Bible study, so we could be mindful of our foundation as we work to create some priorities for the new year among the overwhelming number of options. We read Isaiah 61 and it has been on my mind ever since, knowing I would preach the text today.

These words of good news for the poor, forgiveness of debt and the liberation of the captive actually occur several times in scripture. This freedom of captives and a favorable year of the Lord go back to the idea of Jubilee in the Leviticus codes written over 3000 years ago. Yes, those are the same arcane Levitical codes that proscribed against eating shellfish and animals with hooves, and two verses are often used by some (falsely) against homosexuality. That Leviticus. Buried in there is a notion that every seven years any land that has been sold or taken in foreclosure should go back to the original owner. In an agrarian society land is what makes you a free person. If you cannot produce food you are not free. Land matters, and there are always misfortunes and people who will take advantage and take more land for themselves.


And after 7 cycles of seven years, their was to be a great Jubilee on the 50th year where slaves were set free, debts forgiven and special dispensations of grace were to flow the hand of God. To our best historical knowledge, this never fully happened. You could conclude that it was an idealistic failure proposed by Moses, like the 10 commandments, who did not want to see anyone enslaved again after freeing people from Egypt. But Isaiah comes along some 700 years later a re-purposes the Jubilee to proclaim the end of exile after the fall of Jerusalem, and announces this great outpouring of good news for the poor, and adds to the original message of land redistribution and debt forgiveness, a healing of the brokenhearted and comfort to those who mourn and a promise that Jerusalem would be rebuilt and restored. And you can make a case that Third Isaiah, the prophet of hope, gave just enough inspiration, lighting a candle in Jerusalem’s midnight, to rebuild and become a great city once again.


By the time Jesus shows up on the scene 500 years after Isaiah, Jerusalem has become great enough to be a place of oppression once again, the center of Roman rule for Palestine. And in Luke’s gospel Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah 61 in his hometown of Nazareth, to announce the beginning of his ministry. He rolls up the scroll and announces that the Jubilee is again fulfilled, and his old high school classmates want to throw him off the cliff. They wanted to spiritualize the text, and make it non-political.


This is what happened in 1300, the first time a Pope announced the year of Jubilee, and it was all about forgiveness of our individual sins so we could be right with God, but nothing was said about challenging the status quo of a sinful order, certainly not redistributing the large landholdings of the monasteries. Listen, it is indeed a great Jubilee when we experience God’s forgiveness, and know grace for ourselves. This personal experience is one of our core convictions that make us Christian. But the Jubilee was always meant to be a social reset button.


These words from Leviticus from 3000 years ago keep getting re-purposed from Moses to Isaiah to Jesus, to Popes. In the year 2000, numerous Christian mission groups and Non-governmental organization pulled together and proclaimed a Jubilee for debt forgiveness, because Third World countries were being crushed by imposed budget austerity programs that stopped needed social spending for drinking water and education.


Here’s my takeaway from exploring the ongoing resonance of Jubilee. There are times when God anoints leaders and prophets to proclaim Jubilee, because enough is enough. There may indeed be 50 year cycles where there needs to be a great outpouring of both individual and social change. If we think back 50 years from today, it was 1964 and the Voting Rights Act was signed. We are probably due. I see God’s spirit pouring out into the streets, and a new generation is leading the way. The older Civil Rights activists are chasing behind, shocked that all their work did not permanently alter the landscape. The millenials are leading the way, armed with Twitter feeds and Facebook invites, and most of us still really don’t get what a hash tag is for. The face of God’s anointing today is that of young black women. Look at the pictures and video of who is out there carrying signs and speaking out, and I see an abundance of young black women. Perhaps it is because so many black men are in jail or already dead. But these women are out ahead of us, and we are not going to catch up or be in charge of it all.


But we are not irrelevant either and have a role to play. I believe we still need to light our Advent wreath candles, perhaps more candles than ever. Pageants and carols should still be sung and families still need to celebrate the Holidays. But while we do this, we must be mindful of the innkeepers of the world that had no room for Mary and Joseph. We need to make sure there is some room for the Jubilee, room for good news for the poor, freedom for the captive.   Because this baby is going to get born, and this child belongs to us all.