Re-Becoming God’s People
Rev. Jennifer L. Adams – January 27, 2013 – Epiphany 3C- Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 1; Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21
Well in terms of readings, we hit the jackpot for Annual Meeting Sunday. A preacher couldn’t ask for better texts to be proclaimed among the people on the day in which we will reflect on what the people have been doing, look forward to where the people are headed, discuss how those people (we) might get there, and discern from among us about who will lead us in this next year of life together as Grace Church. The readings remind us of many things, all of which should be running through our hearts and minds today: they hold up for us the power of Story itself, the love of God that invites us to make it ours, the Spirit of God who is present with prophets and assemblies and was profoundly present with the Christ, and there is even reference to the Body which we become in order to share that power, that love and serve the world in Christ’s name. It’s all here! And I personally am very grateful. So let’s dive into it all together.
First from Nehemiah. Ezra the priest stood on a wooden platform with a whole bunch of other scribes surrounding him in the midst of a very large crowd. He opened the book in the sight of all the people, and the whole crowd stood too. They knew that something holy was happening, something that carried a certain authority and that was vital to their faith was unfolding among them. “The ears of all the people were attentive,” the book says. So there was energy and a certain kind of hunger among them. And when Ezra read from the law of God, and the people and the other scribes and priests began to interpret it together (notice that – they interpreted it together) – something amazing happened. They were no longer just a crowd in the plaza. They cried, and they rejoiced, and Ezra and Nehemiah (who was the governor) said to the people that they should go and feast: “Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and remember to give some to those who have nothing, for this day is holy!” he cried out.
The day was holy because the people were again, profoundly aware of being God’s people – each and every one of them, re-united, re-formed (small “r”), newly re-present to the Story that had been given them. And so the Story itself was more than “just” words – it was salvation – and it was announcing that liberation, and forgiveness and was hope coming to life again in and among these people of God.
What we have in this first reading is actually a powerful vision of liturgy (the language we use for worship) – this was literally “the work of the people” in the presence of the Spirit and a reminder of the power and grace that can happen when all of that comes together.
Sound familiar? It should. It should be very familiar. Because before Grace can reflect on where we’ve been, before we can vision about where we’re headed, before we are a vital, growing community of ministers and ministries, before we are anything we are this:
We are a crowd.
We are a crowd that becomes a people.
We are a crowd that becomes a people in the presence of the Word, through the power of the Spirit.
We are a crowd that become a people in the presence of the Word, through the power of the Spirit and the celebration of the feast.
And then we share those gifts with the world beyond ourselves.
That’s who we are. So thanks, Nehemiah, for that reminder.
Now it’s not a very big leap from that passage to the gospel. There is liturgy again in Luke, but in this passage it was Jesus who read in the synagogue to remind the people of the power present among them. This took place in Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown at the very beginning of his ministry. Now Jesus (being Jesus,) took the whole proclamation thing a step beyond what Ezra was able to do. Jesus read the passage and it sounded like this – you heard it just a few minutes ago:
“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 then Jesus, rather than sending the scribes forth for further conversation and reflection like Ezra did, instead Jesus followed that reading with the shortest, yet most powerful sermon ever, and he was already sitting down when he gave it. ‘This Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Period. Or more appropriately, “Amen.” And there followed a momentary and very deep silence – and next week you’ll hear how that all played out. But for now, we simply need to be aware of what all of that meant because Jesus was doing and saying something incredibly huge.
The passage that Jesus read would have been familiar to everyone in the synagogue because its message contained a central tenet of their faith. “The year of the Lord’s favor” referred to the year of jubilee which according to religious law happened every fifty years; and in that year, as some describe it, “the playing fields were leveled,” the oppressed were set free, all debts were forgiven, and in essence many of the barriers and artificial stratifications that existed among the people of God were removed. Every fifty years jubilee provided a “start over” sort of moment, a cleaning of the slates in order for the community, the society to be able to begin again in a more unified, more faithful sort of place. And so jubilee was obviously an experience which was anticipated even longed for among most of the people. And the law was very clear that it was to happen once every fifty years.
And so what Jesus said in the synagogue that day shook the very foundations not only of religious belief but also of the workings of that society. He announced that jubilee was no longer a year for which the people had to wait. Jubilee was here now in his presence! Forgiveness and healing and basic human equalities were no longer about a “day to come,” Jesus told them. “Salvation is here,” he said, “the Scripture has been fulfilled!” And Jesus’ entire ministry would be about making all of those jubilee-like things happen every day, sometimes in surprising, miraculous sorts of ways.
And so this is us too. While we reflect and elect and strategize and minister and pray. . . as we do all of these things as Grace, it’s critical that we do them always as a people of jubilee. This Scripture is to be fulfilled in our hearing and in our doing all the time. Not as a vision that lives in the future but as a now that lives in here and out there as much as we can possibly make it be so. The gospel tells us today that as Body of Christ we are to be a people among whom welcome is offered, equality is practiced, forgiveness is granted, food is shared, and healing is realized now.
So, as we gather for our Annual Meeting today, as we reflect and look forward and stand faithfully where we are, the foundation has been laid and the tone has been set:
May we be that crowd that desires to be formed into the people of God over and over again. May we be that people of God among whom fulfillment of God’s dreams happens. May we be the Body of Christ who in our very presence shocks the world proclaiming the kinds of possibilities that the Spirit makes into realities! May we be that people who offer release to the captives, sight to those who cannot see, and hope for us all. Every day.