Third Sunday after Epiphany

Sermon for Third Sunday after Epiphany, Sunday, January 27 2019, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6,8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

I talked last week about how Jesus first manifests his identity to the public in the different gospels, with John’s story of the wedding at Cana being, typically for John, the most allusive and symbolic. It is perhaps unsurprising that Luke, who starts his gospel by explaining that he’s going to give us an orderly and organized account—unlike, by implication, those disorganized others—is alone in having Jesus launch his public ministry with what amounts to a mission statement, cribbed from a few passages in Third Isaiah. He has come back from the wilderness for this, to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, to let the oppressed go free. It is the mission of all of the prophets before him, the voice crying for justice, the voice speaking for the poor and the suffering and the disregarded. Interestingly, and surely deliberately, he omits a line in which Isaiah speaks of God’s vengeance, and reads only of the year of God’s favour, the jubilee year, the time when debts are forgiven and debt slaves, at least sometimes, freed. But, as well as leaving out vengeance, he adds something else, the statement that the scripture has, in that moment, been fulfilled.

There are a number of ways you could take this, but it appears to be an identity statement of some kind on Jesus’ part, or at least Luke clearly frames it that way. As an identity statement, iIt could mean that he is the one definitively chosen by God to speak this message, or, more radically, that somehow this human person Jesus is, in himself, the good news for the poor, the freedom for the oppressed. That more radical reading is, I think, potentially more important, and but also easier to misuse.

The church has often tended to fall back on the problematic idea that if the poor and the oppressed just have Jesus in their lives, this is pretty much all the good news and freedom they should need. Precisely, in fact, the attitude condemned in the epistle of James, sending the cold and hungry away with cheerful words and no action. On the other hand, it is obviously true that Jesus did not, in fact, set free all the oppressed, not even all the oppressed in his own community, much less all those suffering through the centuries and now; indeed, that’s something which he himself is just about to stress to the people of Nazareth, as we’ll hear next week.

In an attempt to unpack just what Jesus does mean, we can perhaps find some images to guide us in our first two readings. Nehemiah is, of course, another account of reading a text, although in this case it is not a text at the prophetic edge, but about the restoration of order. The people of Israel have recently returned from exile in Babylon, and the governor Nehemiah and the priest-scribe Ezra have, conveniently, just “discovered” a new book of laws—what would come to be called the Book of Deuteronomy—and the people are summoned to a public reading “with interpretation”, with experts standing by to explain, section by section, what it actually means so that the people can follow it.

In Luke, of course, the interpretation consists of one inscrutable sentence—and at least part of the unpacking of that sentence is that Jesus is himself the interpretation, is himself the exegesis of the text, the embodiment of what it means to bring good news to the poor and to let the oppressed go free. That the text which is read is explained by the story which follows—the story of God in human flesh laying aside all power and privilege, laying aside everything which has just been offered to him in the wilderness, wealth and domination and self-reliance, and walking small and helpless and vulnerable on the roads of a poor country, dependent on others, touching the untouchable, eating with the unclean. This, insofar as any of us has power or privilege, is what we are called to do with it—to cast it aside. To open our hands.

Good news for the poor is not, at least in the immediate prospect, particularly good news for the rich, and at least ambiguous news for the averagely comfortable. But it is good news, finally, for all of us, because it is the one way in which we can all become human, can all become truly alive and free. A higher income tax rate for the wealthy, while a good thing, is only the smallest start on what is asked and needed. To lay down our privileges in the manner of the creator God entering creation as a woundable, killable, tired and struggling body is a thing we can only ever begin, never complete, and it is a stringent training of the soul and the heart and the imagination.

And a part of that retraining is the knowledge of that body, and of the way it relates to the metaphor Paul lays out for us here in his first letter to the Corinthians. For we are that body, and we are all that body, and that body is not complete without every one of us. What we are called to do, the impossible task of dismantling all power and privilege, of filling the place of death with life, of becoming the bread in the desert, we can only do together—and not, finally, together in the sense of a small band against the world, though it may be that in a provisional way, but together in the sense that no one is left out, that everyone, every single bad and bleeding soul, is brought in. And there is no vengeance but only forgiveness—even for the rich, in the end, if they will lay down individual power and join the body too.

The radical equality of the body, as Paul explains, is precisely the equality of difference. The body’s articulation not only does not make every part the same, it depends precisely on every part being distinct and other, having specific and particular gifts and weaknesses; it lives only in the interdependence of diversity. The fear of the other, the resentment and jealousy, the idea that someone different from you is getting stuff which should be yours, the idea that life and love are scarce commodities over which we must compete, that the eye and the hand must fight for possession of limited goods—these are the things which maim the body. I am not going to get into the details of what happened with those Covington students in Washington, but yes, I have watched the videos, and what I saw more than anything else was young men with privilege, young men trained to privilege, competing frantically for dominance in the screens of the omnipresent cellphones, terrified by difference and determined to crush it. This is how almost all of us have learned to behave, in one way or another; and this is exactly what must be forsaken. It is this from which God’s great jubilee offers us the chance to escape. Living in our difference, overcoming the fear and hate in which our society has trained us, this is the only thing which will be the body’s health and survival.

But it is not only about becoming the body; for Christ did not only exist as a body, he existed as a body which went out, which acted, which healed and touched and struggled and loved, which fed and feared and died, a body which even now becomes our food. And all of this, too, is what we must do, if we are to speak the good news, if we are to embody that freedom for all whom power has broken. To go out, to feed, to heal, to speak against the powers of the day, to bring in those who have been rejected. To walk defenceless in the angry world. To die for this, sometimes, if we must; to die anyway, because we will one way or another, and let that death be a gate into life.

We are the body, and this is the time; for we have no other bodies, and no other times. This is the year of God’s favour, because we have no other year. This is the place of fulfillment, because we have no other place. It is not a good time or a good place, but it never has been. And we are not equipped to be the body, but we never have been, and it does not change the fact. It is good news, despite it all.