Monday, February 4, 2019

The Year of the Lord's Favor

February 3, 2019
Prepared by the Rev. Robert McCarty,
Pastor of Christ Lutheran, Staunton, VA

What an interesting contrast between the love chapter of 1 Corinthians and this gospel lesson. Jesus comes home. The image of home should evoke a feeling of love. But when Jesus speaks about a taboo topic, he nearly gets himself killed. He sort of gets himself run out of town on a rail, except that he walks peacefully through the angry mob.

(If you haven’t already, please take a minute and read the gospel lesson. To fully embrace and understand this message, you need the gospel scripture.)

Maybe things have changed, hopefully, but maybe not. In the 1960s, Janet found herself pregnant and unmarried. Her parents arranged to have Janet go live with family out of state, until her child was born and adopted. Then she returned home and her parents never talked about it. When Janet told her story fifty years later, she does not say why. Her parents did what they thought was best so their daughter could move on with her life, but they never talked about the child. Janet could count on one hand the number of people she told. She got married, changed her name, moved out of state, and lied a thousand times when people asked if she had any children.  Some of you remember those days with homes for unwed mothers. When daughters discreetly moved away for six months to a year, and the polite etiquette was to say nothing.

Another story from 1972, Wayne came out of the closet during his freshman year of college. He decided that going back to his home church was not a safe place for him. Again things you do not talk about at home. In fact for 13 years, he avoids church completely.

Jesus goes home, and we might think, his situation is totally different from Wayne, from Janet. Jesus goes home, and he steps into a position of leadership. He reads the scripture. He is invited to sit down and preach. First, Jesus reads this jubilee passage from Isaiah (part of the gospel passage above). This Old Testament scripture prescribes a Jubilee celebration every fifty years. In the cycle of celebrations, year forty-nine would be a sabbath year and then year fifty would mark the Jubilee. The Israelites would mark the jubilee year by forgiving debts, releasing prisoners, sharing their extra with one another. These sentiments live in the Isaiah text that Jesus reads. “Good news for the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight for the blind.” 

That last one sounds different. It sounds like something special. How might the blind regain their sight? That image suggests miracles. With Jesus jubilee sounds different and will look different and will be miraculous. “The oppressed go free.”  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” and finally Jesus speaks these words “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

What does “the year of the Lord’s favor mean?” This concept anchors what jubilee will look like with Jesus. Jamison and I heard about “the year of the Lord’s favor” at Winter Celebration two weeks ago. “The year of the Lord’s favor” means no more “us” and “them.” I want to emphasize that, no more “us” and “them.”

Jesus spells that out to his hometown friends. Remember how Elijah saved the widow of Zarephath in Sidon. Remember she was a gentile. Other Israelite widows also suffered. They died then for lack of grain, when other Israelites did not share their extra. Remember how Elisha cured Naaman the Syrian, another foreigner. Remember other Israelites had leprosy and none of them was cleansed. Jesus explains what his message means, no more us and them, and his hometown tries to throw him over a cliff.

Here is another way to think about the widow of Zarephath, and Naaman the Syrian, and the year of the Lord’s favor. Friends of Elizabeth and mine, adopted a child from Ethiopia. Their family asked them why they couldn’t adopt a child from the United States? We had friends in common with another couple who adopted two children from Korea. No more “us” and “them” mean an orphan is an orphan. It does not matter where they come from. 

I know you will let me speak to you like a proud papa when I tell you what I value about the church. I guess you could say, why I am proud of the church, what I love about the church.

What I value about the church is how in the last 50 years of our life together as church we have broken down some of these barriers that separate us and them. 

Over the years, decades frankly, we have created a friendlier atmosphere, more tolerant atmosphere, welcoming atmosphere, for the Janet’s and Wayne’s of our community. We have created this Christian atmosphere not necessarily just for our sons and our daughters, but for God’s sons and God’s daughters. The Christian church is full of single mother’s—some because of divorce, some because of widowhood, and some Janet’s of the world who did not give up their children for adoption. The church is here for all single mothers to walk with them as they raise their children in a community of faith. We have long stopped making decision based on how they became single mother’s.

This change, this breaking down of barriers that separate us, it can challenge us. We struggle at times with this. But we struggle together.

Wayne recognized this when he returned to the church Easter Sunday 1985 and the Sundays following. He found a worship home at Alice Millar Chapel. He learned a new hymn “The King of Love My Shepherd Is.” He describes the experience this way. 

I thought the image of straying from the fold and being carried home by the Great Shepherd who seeks the lost ones best described that time in my life. 
But now I know I wasn’t lost. The church had left me as much as I had left the church. I wasn’t returning home. I was being welcomed into a new kind of community. 
I don’t recall hearing much about the Holy Spirit when I was growing up. But now I know the Holy Spirit issued the invitation to return. I heard it in the call to communion: “Come to this table, then, sisters and brothers, as you are. Partake and share.”
(Excerpted from “Return” in The Christian Century, November 21, 2018. Pp 22-7.) 

Janet also experienced the joy of God’s grace when she and her 47 year old son found each other. She tells her story this way.
After much considering, I made the contact that led to a reunion with my 47-year-old son. I’ve had the joy of getting to know him, seeing my blue eyes in his, and knowing that my funny side lives on in him. I’ve spent treasured moments with him, my daughter-in-law, and my five-year-old towheaded grandson, in whom I savor the little boy antics I never knew with my son.
After all the years of shame and secrecy, reuniting with my long-lost child has been for me a sure sign of redemption, resurrection, and a return to wholeness.
(Excerpted from “Return” listed above.) 

Janet chooses the word’s of God’s grace to define her experience: Redemption, Resurrection and wholeness. This is the change the church has experienced in my lifetime, an embracing of the whole experience of us. No more us and them, God embraces us, all of his children in all of our complexity. This is the church of my lifetime, not just my lifetime but our lifetime. Thanks be to God; may we continue to embrace the us and break down the barriers that divide.

From the Episcopal Common Book of Prayer - for Social JusticeGrant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart [and especially the hearts of the people of this land], that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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