FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
Prayer of the Day: Almighty and ever-living God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and love; and that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,
‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.’” Jeremiah 1:9-10.
In this Sunday’s gospel lesson Jesus is given a hometown hero’s welcome. He has been preaching, teaching and healing throughout Galilee and that has given him some notoriety thereby placing Nazareth on the map. You may recall from last week that, upon entering the synagogue of Nazareth, Jesus was handed the scroll from the prophet Isaiah, opened it up and read the following passage:
‘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.’ Luke 4:18-19.
So far so good. What’s not to like about good news, freedom, healing and liberation? But then Jesus begins to speak about the scope of that good news. Turns out that the reign of God extends beyond the boundaries of the “chosen.” In fact, it crosses borders into hostile territory. It embraces outsiders who don’t seem to belong. Jesus is getting political and his congregation isn’t liking it.
I’m not sure what counts as politics anymore or what it means to be liberal, conservative, progressive or radical. I think we have reached the point at which those words have lost whatever inherent meaning they may once have had. About the only linguistic purpose they continue to serve is that of dividing “us” from “them.” They identify members of my tribe and flag those outside as “the enemy.” So when somebody says to me, “Pastor, you are getting political here,” it usually means I am being perceived as giving aid, comfort or moral support to somebody outside of the tribe. That, it seems, is what nearly got Jesus lynched. After all, what gives Jesus the right to say we ought to squander Israel’s covenant blessings upon widows who aren’t even citizens! Israel first! We need to take care of our own. How dare Jesus suggest that God would bless an enemy of the state! Where is his patriotism?
The word of the Lord is inescapably political as anyone who reads our lesson from Jeremiah cannot fail to recognize. The word stands over and against “nations and kingdoms” to “pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” In Matthew 25 Jesus makes clear that the nations of the world will be judged in terms of how they treat the poor, the naked, the hungry, the prisoner and the sick. So you can’t be neutral when it comes to state action and legislation that affects nutrition, health care, shelter, sustenance and justice for these most vulnerable folks among us-regardless whether they live within our borders or whether they are documented. If that offends your politics, you had better get yourself another politics or find yourself a different savior.
That said, one needs to keep in mind the dual function of God’s word. As we learn from the Lord’s call to Jeremiah, one aspect of preaching is to “break down.” At our baptisms we were called upon to denounce the devil, sin and all the forces that oppose God. That means calling for the undoing of structural racism, patriarchy and privilege that perpetuate poverty, injustice and oppression. But that’s only half the job and not even the better half. Jeremiah is called upon also to “build up and to plant.” So, too, Jesus’ message to his hometown is finally good news-or will be when the people of Nazareth are finally able to see past their tribal insecurities.
I think that the breaking down, destroying and plucking up parts of preaching come naturally to most of us. It’s easy simply to be critical. My own church, the Evangelical Church in America, has produced some fine statements addressing systemic racism and the need to dismantle it. Yet we remain one of the most segregated churches in the United States. Though, on the one hand, our church has denounced gun violence, many of our congregations are considering implementation of armed security forces to protect worshipers against possible shootings. Thus, while we worship the Prince of Peace who taught us to put up the sword, we often seem ready to buy into the NRA mantra that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. At some point, we need to model the prophetic vision of God’s just and gentle reign. Otherwise, God’s kingdom remains an abstraction and our public witness amounts to nothing more than preachy-screechy finger wagging.
What sort of preaching is capable of inspiring us to follow Jesus into the thicket of systemic injustice? What kind of preaching will plant in our imaginations the seeds of alternative ways of living and interacting with one another? What kind of sermons are capable of building up the fledgling work of faith communities intentionally seeking to become a church that transcends the walls that divide us and does the hard work of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation? What words can we use to illuminate the new thing God is planting and building beyond the ruins of the old order? As important as the content of such preaching is the shape of the church from whence it comes. If we are going to preach the kingdom credibly, we must become in some measure what Koinonia Farm founder Clarence Jordan called “a demonstration plot” for that kingdom. We need to begin practicing as well as preaching “the politics of Jesus.”
Here is poem by Muriel Rukeyser arising from the lived experience of faith communities. It is a “song of the way in” to authentic prophecy and preaching.
THE WAY OUT
The night is covered with signs. The body and face of man,
with signs, and his journeys.
Where the rock is split
and speaks to the water;
the flame speaks to the cloud;
the red splatter, abstraction, on the door
speaks to the angel and the constellations.
The grains of sand on the sea-floor speak at last to the noon.
And the loud hammering of the land behind
speaks ringing up the bones of our thighs, the hoofs,
we hear the hoofs over the seethe of the sea.
All night down the centuries, have heard, music of passage.
Music of one child carried into the desert;
firstborn forbidden by law of the pyramid.
Drawn through the water with the water-drawn people
led by the water-drawn man to the smoke mountain.
The voice of the world speaking, the world covered by signs,
the burning, the loving, the speaking, the opening.
Strong throat of sound from the smoking mountain.
Still flame, the spoken singing of a young child.
The meaning beginning to move, which is the song.
Music of those who have walked out of slavery.
Into that journey where all things speak to all things
refusing to accept the curse, and taking
for signs the signs of all things, the world, the body
which is part of the soul, and speaks to the world,
all creation being created in one image, creation.
This is not the past walking into the future,
the walk is painful, into the present, the dance
not visible as dance until much later.
These dancers are discoverers of God.
We knew we had all crossed over when we heard the song.
Out of a life of building lack on lack:
the slaves refusing slavery, escaping into faith:
an army who came to the ocean: the walkers
who walked through the opposites, from I to opened Thou,
city and cleave of the sea. Those at flaming Nauvoo,
the ice on the great river: the escaping Negroes,
swamp and wild city: the shivering children of Paris
and the glass black hearses; those on the Long March:
all those who together are the frontier, forehead of man.
Where the wilderness enters, the world, the song of the world.
Akiba rescued, secretly, in the clothes of death
by his disciples carried from Jerusalem
in blackness journeying to find his journey
to whatever he was loving with his life.
The wilderness journey through which we move
under the whirlwind truth into the new,
the only accurate. A cluster of lights at night:
faces before the pillar of fire. A child watching
while the sea breaks open. This night. The way in.
Barbarian music, a new song.
Acknowledging opened water, possibility:
open like a woman to this meaning.
In a time of building statues of the stars,
valuing certain partial ferocious skills
while past us the chill and immense wilderness
spreads its one-color wings until we know
rock, water, flame, cloud, or the floor of the sea,
the world is a sign, a way of speaking. To find.
What shall we find? Energies, rhythms, journey.
Ways to discover. The song of the way in.
Source: The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, (c. 2006 by Muriel Rukeyser, pub. by the University of Pittsburgh Press). Muriel Rukeyser (1913–1980) was an American poet and political activist. She attended the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a private school in The Bronx, then Vassar College in Poughkeepsie. From 1930-1932, she attended Columbia University. Rukeyser’s literary career began in 1935 when her book of poetry, Theory of Flight, was published in the Yale Younger Poets Series. Her poems reflect the themes of equality, feminism, social justice and Judaism. Her poem “To be a Jew in the Twentieth Century” (1944) was adopted by the American Reform and Reconstructionist movements for their prayer books. You can learn more about Muriel Rukeyser and sample more of her poems at the Poetry Foundation website.