The Plumb Line — Sermon for January 27, 2013
For a PDF of Martha’s sermon, click here.
St. Margaret’s Church
Sermon for 3 Epiphany, Year C
January 27 2013
The Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Ps. 19; 1 Cor. 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21
The Plumb Line
In each of the readings today someone is proclaiming the word of God to an assembly. In two of the four readings, Nehemiah and Luke, the proclamations are actually in the context of worship, which is rare for the Bible. In Nehemiah the people call for the reading of the Torah. They are so moved by what they hear that the Governor and all the priests and scribes remind them to be joyful, “for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Joy is abundant in Psalm 19. In the first part of the psalm we hear the witness of the glory of God by creation itself. Psalm 19 is my favorite, especially the translation in the Book of Common Prayer. It is glorious poetry. “One day tells its tale to another, and one night imparts knowledge to another.” Without speech and without words, yet the sound goes out into all lands, and their message to the ends of the world. This psalm might be subtitled that wonderful phrase from the UCC church, “God is still speaking,…” God is still speaking through the majesty of creation, speaking with blessing and judgment.
The Gospel lesson has Jesus reading aloud to an assembly in his home town. Last week we talked about the wedding at Cana as the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of John. Today we have the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus has returned to his home town as an adult, and this is his first public address.
This passage is the Gospel of Luke’s signature story. It has been described as “a keynote to the entire ministry of Jesus.” To put it in a current context, we might understand it as Jesus’ inaugural address. Our readers in our Sunday service are given the texts they are to read. The readers in Jesus’ day would have chosen their own, and Jesus chose these particular words from the book of Isaiah and from Leviticus. The passage Jesus reads from Isaiah says “the Spirit of the Lord… has sent me to proclaim release to the captives …. to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” The captives would refer to those who had been imprisoned for debts. “The year of the Lord’s favor” refers to the Jubilee Year.” In Leviticus the Jubilee year was once every 50 years, the year in which all debts were cancelled and all slaves were set free. After 7 years times 7, all is forgiven. Jesus is saying THIS is the jubilee year.
This text is the central concern, the plumb line of Jesus’ teaching. Luke is inviting his readers to see Jesus’ entire ministry as the fulfilling of these words, the living out of this astonishing claim. We hear these words so regularly it is easy not to hear them, or to gloss over them. “The spirit has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” And he means the poor poor. He means the economically poor. We compare Matthew’s sermon on the mount where Jesus says “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” In the gospel parallel in Luke, the sermon on the plain, Jesus says “blessed are you who are poor.” Sermon on the mount: “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ sake.” Sermon on the plain: “blessed are you who are hungry.” There’s no getting around it. Luke focuses Jesus’ words and Jesus’ ministry on the poor poor. And note too, in the sermon on the plain Jesus addresses the poor directly. “Blessed are you who are poor.”
This is not to be understood as turning poverty into a virtue. It is not a virtue. We can’t buy our way into heaven with poverty any more than we can buy our way into heaven with riches. And It is not to turn wealth per se into a vice. Jesus isn’t saying that either. And the last thing we want to do is glorify poverty. Luke emphasizes that Jesus came to bring good news to the poor. That good news is not about what happens to the poor after they die.
The good news for the poor is about God’s intention of blessing and justice and the fullness of life on earth. It is a reminder that all people are made in God’s image. To confess that human beings are created in the divine image is to affirm that we are created for fellowship: Our existence is realized in coexistence. We exist in relationship with God, each other, and with all creation. God creates a world whose inhabitants are profoundly interdependent. We are created for life together.
Poverty contradicts and undermines God’s decision to create human beings in the divine image, as well as God’s judgment on the goodness of creation. Because we are created for fellowship and mutual dependence, poverty touches all, and not simply those who experience it directly. Poverty prevents human beings from realizing their potential, it creates barriers of inequality between people, and bars people from experiencing the abundance of creation. Poverty inhibits freedom and it affects human dignity. Poverty is isolating, and isolation is not in God’s plan. And because it is isolating, poverty is often invisible, especially if we aren’t looking.
In Jesus’ day, and in many places in the world today, the poor would not expect to hear good news from God. The poor would not consider that God had any special regard for them. In many cultures, economic poverty would be understood as entirely of one’s own making. Or you were born into a social strata where levels of society were seen as immutable, even pre-ordained. An untouchable you are born and an untouchable you will stay. It is part of the ethos of the United States that anyone can move out of poverty with diligence and hard work. And we all have heard stories of people — and many of us know people — who have succeeded and made good lives for themselves against incredible odds. Do we make ourselves too comfortable with this belief, so that takes on the tenor of a religious claim? What about when you start out with the odds stacked against you? or have a run of bad luck? or make one bad decision from which you can’t recover? Most of us know examples of these too.
If bringing good news to the poor is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry, it follows that if we understand ourselves as Christians, it is meant to be at the heart of our mission too. We talked last week about the resolution passed last October that we are to begin each church meeting with the question “how will what we do here (at this meeting) affect people living in poverty?” So far I’ve let myself off the hook by asking that question and then saying “we’ll be talking about that.” But the time has come for me to stop saying we’ll be talking about talking about it,” and start making it a reality. Today’s texts begin with proclamation. That’s helpful and important. It expresses an intention, it starts a conversation, it opens our eyes, which opens our hearts, from which action comes.
The resolution builds on experience in other dioceses. In 1991, Bishop Untener of Saginaw, Michigan, issued a decree that from that day forward, until July 1, 1991, all meetings held under Church auspices, no matter what their purpose, must begin with the agenda item: “How shall what we are doing here affect or involve the poor?” He has penned a very thoughtful reflection on his experience, which I will make available to you. He learned a few things. “Never in my life had I talked about and listened to so much about the poor.” He writes. “On some days I had four or five meetings, and each began with: the poor. I learned a lot, not only about the poor, but also about us, and how we think about (or don’t think about) the poor.” He learned that it took work to talk about the poor poor, and not veer off to easier topics, like the poor in spirit. He was reminded that the poor are often invisible. They don’t come as easily to mind as do, say, the sick. They aren’t in our networks. Reaching them takes initiative and creativity. He learned that when you help the poor, you always receive more than you give̶but it may not seem that way at the time. That food baskets at Thanksgiving, toys at Christmas are good as far as they go̶but they don’t go very far. The hard part — the necessary part — is to also work to address systemic issues that trap people in poverty.
As we have begun here at St. Margaret’s to make a practice of asking ourselves about poverty in our own community, people are talking about what they are seeing. About a family who on these bitterly cold days can’t get heat for their trailer because it isn’t considered a permanent residence, even though it is where they live. Or how many of emergency room visits are people who need teeth pulled because dental care is a luxury they can’t afford. Our newly launched soap closet ministry learns about high school kids who don’t live at home and don’t have a way to wash clothes. As we work with local farmers to get more local, fresh foods into food baskets at the food cupboards and the soup kitchen, we face an obstacle that in our processed, pre-packaged and pre- cooked food culture, new generations of people have no idea how to prepare raw foods for eating. The more we are willing to look, the more we see.
So we ask ourselves: How might Jesus’ proclamation of good news to the poor touch lives here, today? How can St. Margaret’s make Jesus’ proclamation of the good news a reality for our neighbors right here in Belfast? That’s the question we’ll be asking ourselves over the coming months. And we’re not starting from scratch! We have a lot going on right now, work that can deepen and grow.
And, to go back to where I started, we are reminded are not to undertake this ministry with heavy hearts! I know you know this. When it’s our turn at the Food Cupboard, we are joyful. We can witness the pain and suffering in the world honestly and join with God in addressing it, knowing that the joy of the Lord is our strength. For our neighbors and for us, May this be the year of the Lord’s favor. Amen.