From the The Rev. Joseph H. Hensley, Jr., Rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | Epiphany III Year C, Jan. 24, 2016
A notable Sunday in that a near-blizzard dumped at least 14″ of snow on Fredericksburg
Jesus opens the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and reads these words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” Good news. If you made it to church this morning in the snow, you’re probably hoping to hear some good news too. The preaching of good news is one of the most important callings we have as a church.
Jesus reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 61, verse 1: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” To the poor. To the humble and meek, the afflicted. The poor to whom Isaiah refers are God’s exiled children, God’s children who had been conquered by foreign powers and made to leave their home. The sons and daughters of Israel who had seen the humiliation of God’s people. The prophet is speaking of an anointed one who will bring good news of a return home and a rebuilding of ancient ruins. In the Gospel, Jesus unrolls the scroll and takes this text as his own. He is the one come to fulfill the scripture, to bring the good news that God’s people can go home again.
As we will hear in next week’s Gospel reading, God’s people, at least the ones listening to Jesus in his hometown of Nazareth, are sometimes not interested in going home again. Instead of embracing the good news Jesus brings, they get angry with him. I don’t want to spoil anything for next week. I just want us to remember that sometimes God’s people have trouble receiving the good news God is bringing.
In the passage we heard from Nehemiah this morning, God’s people have difficulty receiving the good news. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are the story of God’s exiled people who have finally returned to Jerusalem, their ancestral home. They rebuild the wall of the city which had been broken down by foreign conquerors. And in the reading that we heard today, the people have gathered to hear the word of God, the law, the books of God’s best ways to live. And when they hear the words, they begin to weep and mourn. Maybe it didn’t sound like good news. Maybe when they heard it they remembered the disobedience of their forebears. Maybe they remembered their own lack of faith. For whatever reason, they wept and mourned. But the leaders encourage the people: do not mourn. Eat and drink in celebration and share with those who do not have anything to celebrate with. Do not let the word of God be bad news. God has given to God’s people words to live by, not words to die by. God has given a law that is for life and wholeness and peace. So celebrate and make sure that others can too!
Jesus comes to fulfill and complete that law. Jesus comes to fulfill the prophecy of restoration for everyone. Jesus comes to make whole the promise of God to be with us forever. But sometimes we have trouble receiving that good news. Why is that? Is it because we are like the people in Jesus’ hometown who are too full of pride? Is it because we are like the people in Nehemiah’s time who are too full of shame? Is it because the good news of God has too often been delivered to us in a way to make us feel like it’s a punishment instead of a gift? Maybe it’s all these things depending on the time of our life. Here’s another thought. Jesus quotes Isaiah who has come to preach good news to the poor. The poor. Maybe the reason why sometimes we have trouble receiving the good news is because we forget that we are poor.
When we hear the word “poor,” many of us here will think of others: people who are worse off than we are. Some of us here will remember a time in our life when we were poor. Some of us are actually facing material poverty right now, at least in the terms that our society measures. But when Jesus quotes Isaiah and says he has fulfilled the prophecy to bring good news to the poor, he is not just talking about the homeless, the hungry, or the destitute. He is talking about all of us. We are all poor. So often we divide ourselves into categories of poor and not poor, haves and have nots. We separate ourselves into superior and inferior groups of society, superior and inferior members, even of the Body of Christ. And when we find ourselves thinking that we are in the category with the haves and the superiors, we sometimes forget just how much we need God. We sometimes have trouble receiving the Good News of God’s grace, because we fool ourselves into thinking that we have what we need, we are relatively well off, life is good. And we sure don’t need God’s grace as much as the person who doesn’t have a home or enough food. But that’s not how God sees us. In God’s eyes, we are all needy. In God’s eyes, we are all impoverished. We are all exiles looking for a way home again. And when we realize that truth, then I think our human-made distinctions of have’s and have-nots make less sense.
The apostle Paul wrote a letter to the church in Corinth and gave them some instruction about this. There were people in that church with more than enough wealth and those in the church with very little. They would get together and the rich folks would eat while the others had nothing. And they were constantly comparing themselves to each other, who had the greater spiritual gifts. So Paul writes and tells them they are all parts of the same body. And in fact, the inferior members deserve greater respect and honor. In fact, members of the body that seem less honorable should actually be clothed with greater honor, so that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together. If one member celebrates, then all should be able to celebrate. That’s what Paul wrote to the Corinthians, but he could have written it to us. It is tempting sometimes to think that we don’t need each other, or that we would be fine without some member of the body. But the good news, the best news, brothers and sisters, is that God has made us this one body with all these members, and we need each other. The good news is that all suffer together, all rejoice together, all are honored and blessed together. Because we are all poor in God’s eyes. This church is God’s feeding program for our souls, and we are all in the line to receive assistance.
Now this doesn’t mean that the categories of rich and poor go away. This doesn’t mean that we stop fighting material poverty in our society and around the world. The good news just puts that fight into perspective. The good news puts our categories to shame because our categories often shame people. We are one body, and no part of the body is shameful. If one member suffers all suffer together. That’s what the word “compassion” means, to suffer “with.” As we seek to become a more compassionate community (as our upcoming weekend with Natalie Finstad will be all about), a community of God’s beloved children, we look at the ways in which we label ourselves as poor and rich, as inferior and superior, and we remember that we all suffer together. Thanks be to God that there were not widespread power outages with this snow storm. But there is nothing like a power outage to remind us that we need each other. Years ago when my eldest daughter was just a couple of months old an ice storm took out power for about 10 days. We tried to make it on our own but eventually we moved in for a few days with another family and some friends of theirs who were also without power. We crammed in and made it work, and even though was a little uncomfortable, we actually had a wonderful time. That sharing was good news to us during a temporary shortage. My brothers and sisters we come to this church each and every week with temporary shortages in our lives. We come seeking shelter and nourishment and comradery. We come for some good news when our power is out. We come for some good news when the world seems dark. We come for some good news when we feel like we have been conquered. We come for some good news when we are not sure if we can really succeed. We come for some good news whether we are inferior, superior or unsure. We come for some good news, and our savior Jesus Christ promises to give it to us. It may not be easy to hear. It may be difficult to believe sometimes. But he has come to suffer with us so that we all might be honored and all might join in the celebration. Jesus Christ the good news has come, and today, as we gather together, as we gather week by week by week, the scripture is being fulfilled in our hearing.