Saskatchewan, Petulant Toddlers, and Abe’s Hill

Today’s story of Jesus teaching in the synagogue, and then people trying to throw him off a cliff, is one of my favourite stories in the Bible.  But in order to understand what’s going on, we need to understand Isaiah chapter 61.  And to understand Isaiah 61, we need to understand Leviticus 25.

Let’s go.

Leviticus 25 – Deep within quite possibly one of the most boring books of the Bible, there is this life-altering society-changing passage about something called the Year of Jubilee.  Basically, every 50 years, the Israelites were supposed to hit a giant “reset” button.  All debts were cancelled. All slaves were set free.  All land was returned to its original owner.  They were not allowed to take interest on any debts (which might throw a dent in the long term plans of their local credit union).  The Year of Jubilee was a mechanism created to ensure that nobody was ever really, really poor, nobody was ever really, really rich, and that every family would be given an equal chance in life to prosper.   It was basically a great redistribution of wealth.

And, historians have given us their best estimate of how often the Year of Jubilee actually happened.

Zero.

They just simply didn’t do it.  Why some people just don’t follow what the Bible clearly says is beyond me <smile>.

Isaiah 61 – Now, in order to understand Isaiah 61, we need a map.

Old Testament times.  Israel was one kingdom under King David.  And then eventually they were two kingdom, the Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom. And then they all a whole series of kings and queens, some of them good, but most of them bad.  And then eventually the big bad Assyrians came and destroyed the Northern Kingdom, basically wiping them off the map.  And then the big bad Babylonians came and not only beat the Assyrians AND the Southern Kingdom, but they took the Jewish people as captives back to Babylon.  After living in exile for 70 years, then the Persians came and beat the Babylonians and let the Jewish people return home.

Now here’s where Isaiah 61 fits into here.  Some scholars tell us that the book of Isaiah that is currently found in our Bibles wasn’t written by one dude named Isaiah, but rather was written by three different prophets, and chapters 55-66 are compiled by someone named Trito-Isaiah (so exciting, I know), and generally speaking, his words can be attributed to the time when the exiles were returning home.

They were going home!  After spending 70 years in a foreign land, they were going home.

Imagine coming home with all your family, your friends, your people, after 70 years… These words take on a whole different level of meaning.

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
    and the day of vengeance of our God… Isaiah 61:1-2

As the Israelites returned home to rebuild their lives and their community, Isaiah was using language from the Year of Jubilee to describe it.  Freedom for the captives.   Good news to the poor. Release from darkness.   Year of the Lord’s favour.

By invoking the words of the Jubilee, Isaiah was calling for nothing less than the radical undertaking of re-ordering the human community (Sharon Ringe). (and we complain when our hydro rates go up).

It was Isaiah’s rallying call:  This is how we’re going to live!  Good news for the poor!  Freedom for the oppressed!  Release from darkness for the prisoners!  Day of vengeance of our God!

We are free, and we are going to build a good life.  God is on our side, God has rescued us and God’s gonna stick it to those evil Babylonians.

This all makes sense when we think about what 70 years as prisoners in a foreign land will do to one’s psyche.  (Can you imagine what we would say if Manitobans were held as prisoners in Saskatchewan for 70 years?)

Enter Jesus.

Jesus shows up at the temple and opens the scroll of Isaiah, and he starts reading.

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. – Luke 4:18-19

He rolled up the scroll and sat down.  Luke explicitly mentions that Jesus was done.  It was like a modern day mic drop.

But do see what Jesus did there?

He left out the line about the day of vengeance of our God.

And then he goes on to say: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

He goes and places the Year of Jubilee… upon himself.  He takes the triumphalistic rally cry of the returning exiles found in Isaiah 61, this radical re-ordering of the human community…. And places it on himself.

But he leaves out the call for vengeance, the call for revenge, the call for God to smite our enemies.

It’s kind of like Jesus is rebooting Scripture…. If Leviticus was Jubilee version 1.0, and Isaiah was Jubilee version 1.1, these words of Jesus is like Jubilee version 2.0.

It’s this giant leap in how Jesus read Scripture that cannot be overstated.   It’s the beginning of a whole series of how Jesus quoted Scripture. “Jesus consistently ignored or even denied exclusionary, punitive, and triumphalistic texts in his own inspired Hebrew Bible in favor of passages that emphasized inclusion, mercy, and honesty.”  (Richard Rohr)

The Bible isn’t a flat text.  It’s moving somewhere.  Luke knows this.  So he quotes Jesus quoting Isaiah, but as part of a movement from here to there.

Jesus is taking a text about judgement and turning it into a text about mercy.

It’s like Jesus saying:  We used to be okay with calling for God’s vengeance on others, but now we’re not.  We’re moving somewhere.  Get on board.  Because “if the gospel isn’t good news for everybody, then it isn’t good news for anybody.” (Rob Bell).

And how do you think the people in the synagogue reacted to Jesus selectively quoting their sacred scripture, and turning their text of judgement into a text of mercy?

Oh… no big deal.  They just tried to throw him off a cliff.

2012_03_abes_hill

Abe’s Hill, Steinbach

Let’s bring this closer to home, and talk about mature and immature faith, healthy and unhealthy religion, and tie it into human development.  And then at the end hopefully you won’t throw me off a cliff. Or, since we’re in Steinbach, roll me down Abe’s Hill’s.

One way of looking at healthy human development is this (I got this from Ken Wilber):

We move being ego-centrism to ethno-centrism to world-centrism.

Let me explain.

Here at the ego-centrism stage, we are primarily concerned about ourselves.  Life revolves around us, and when we think it doesn’t, we get really upset.  This is the stage of petulant toddlers who have just learned to say ‘no’.  It’s my way or the high way, and I’m going to throw a hissy fit if I don’t get what I want.  Selfishness and narcissism rule the day here.

Thankfully, most of us grow out of this stage.

And then we move into the enthno-centrism stage.  This is where we realize that life doesn’t only involve us, but also others.  I sometimes use the word “tribe.”   My family, my friends, my church, my gender, my skin colour, my religion, my country.  However we define the various tribes that we belong to, there is usually a clear and defining definition of who’s in and who’s out.  And then we base all our thinking and acting out of concern for our tribe.

On one hand, this is a huge, massive, important leap in maturity because we now know that our world is bigger than us, and this will hopefully stop us from acting like a bunch of children throwing temper tantrums and taking everyone’s toys.  But on the other hand, if we stop here, we can end up with racism, sexism, family feuds, treating others like they don’t belong, owning slaves, and wars between countries.

And then the next movement is to the world-centrism stage.

This is where we understand that and in anything we do, we know that there are both intended and unintended consequences, and we care about how it affects others. All the others.

This is the realm of what we call the common good.  

This is the realm of Bomber fan saving the life of a Rider fan who is choking on a hot dog.

This is the realm where Christian churches and Jewish synagogues sponsor Muslim refugees in Canada.  Historically, this is a pretty big movement.

This is the realm where Muslims on a bus in Kenya protect the Christians sitting beside them from gunmen.

This is the realm of Nelson Mandela inviting his prison guards to his inauguration.

This is the realm where churches feed people with no strings attached.

The is the realm of the civil rights movement in the States, where protesters proclaimed that their ability to endure suffering and still love is greater than the energy of those causing the suffering.

This is the realm of non-violence, because how can you care about someone you’re dropping a bomb on?

This is the realm where a pizzeria threatens to not bake pizzas for a gay wedding, and then the pizzeria gets tons of bad publicity and threats and is forced to close down, and then the pizzeria starts an online fundraising campaign, and amid the furor a lesbian couple gives the pizzeria twenty bucks and write:  “As a member of the gay community, I would like to apologize for the mean spirited attacks on you and your business… We are outraged at the level of hate and intolerance that has been directed at you and I sincerely hope that you are able to rebuild.”

But when we make this move, when we go against the rules of our tribes to seek the welfare of others, even if they are different than us, even if they are “opposed” to our tribe, we run the risk of our own people wanting to throw us off a cliff.

Healthy human development will move us from ego-centrism to ethno-centrism to world-centrism.  But there probably will be a cost to it. And that cost will probably come from our own tribe.

Now, healthy and mature religion should move us along this path from ego-centrism to ethno-centrism to world-centrism as well.  I believe this is the exact same movement that Jesus was doing here in Luke 4.  They had their Isaiah 61 text, about good news for the poor and freedom for the captives and the day of God’s vengeance for others.  That was a very ethnocentric understanding of faith.  God is with us, and will rescue us, but is not with “them.”

But then Jesus comes and pulls them into a new understanding of God, and faith, and salvation, and it involves EVERYONE.  Throughout the gospel of Luke, from the angels talking to shepherds, proclaiming good news to everyone, to Jesus forgiving the thief on the cross, Luke keeps making this gospel about everyone.  It’s a world-centric understanding of faith.

Isaiah 61 promises material benefits for the believing community.  Jesus shifts the text from “Here is what you will receive” into “Here is what you are expected to give.” “I am the anointed one of God,” says Jesus, “and to follow me you must engage in proclamation, justice advocacy and compassion.” This shift irritates the congregation who are still focused on what they will receive if he is the Messiah. (Kenneth Bailey)

It’s not about what you’re going to get.  It’s about what you’re going to give.

A quick word about world-centrism and advocating for justice.  And I am speaking to my own tribe here.  If we are not actively seeking the welfare of everyone, even those we disagree with… if we are participating in Pride marches to stick it to conservative churches, if we are participating in protests to stick it to the racists and the sexists and to the people who voted differently than us, if we are unable to at the very least offer kindness to everyone, then while our causes might be good,  and our causes might be right, we’re probably acting out of an egocentric place and hiding it with world-centrism language.   We can’t hate the haters, because if we hate the haters, we have become what we hate.

If we don’t transcend beyond our ethnocentrism, I think we’re missing the big picture that Jesus is inviting us to.  And if we don’t transcend beyond our ego-centrism and our desire to “stick” it to people, even those whom we disagree with, I think we’re missing the big picture that Jesus is inviting us to.

How then, in a world full of injustices and oppression and inequality, how do we genuinely move from ego-centrism to world-centrism?

I don’t really have a great answer right now.

But my best answer is that in all of our attitudes, in all of our actions, in all our conversations, in all of relationships, everything we do, can we pray the following prayer with integrity?

As the morning casts off the darkness, Lord, help us to cast aside any feelings of ill will we might harbour against those who have hurt us.  Soften our hearts to work toward their conversion and ours.  Amen.

If we can pray this prayer, I think we’re on the road with Jesus to a more healthy and more mature expression of Christian spirituality, which I think that our world so desperately needs.

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Baby Sleep Patterns, Hockey Night in Canada, and Participation Trophies

A sermon based on Luke 2:21-38, Jesus being presented at the temple.

Jesus is taken to the temple as a boy, and Simeon and Anna are there, and when they see baby Jesus, wow, do they ever nail it.

When they were holding Jesus, they used words like salvation, redemption of Israel, a light of revelation to the Gentiles, the glory of your people, and I can now die in peace.

 My youngest child is 5 months old, and the most used words Ash and I use around him are us fighting about whose turn it is to change his diaper or put him back to bed.  “It’s your turn.”  “No it’s your turn.”   “I have to work tomorrow.”  “I gave birth to him.” I somehow always seem to lose this one.  His sleep patterns are more likely to cause the ruin of one of us than the salvation of God’s people.

We’ll be reading through the gospel of Luke for the next few months, and there are two things worth pointing out at this point (shout out to Sheila Klassen-Wiebe at Canadian Mennonite University for these).

The first is that Luke sees the story of Jesus as a fulfilling of God’s larger plans and purposes as read in the Old Testament.

We often make the mistake of assuming that our stories have a definitive starting point.
As Mennonites, we sometimes forget that there is 1500 years of church history before the Protestant Reformation and then Menno Simons.

As Canadians, we forget that the history of this land didn’t start in 1867, or didn’t start when white people showed up in the 16th century, but that there’s this history involving First Nations of people that goes thousands of years back.

So when we read the gospel of Luke, the author works really hard to show his readers that this story of Jesus is part of a much larger plan that didn’t start when Jesus was born, and didn’t end with Jesus ascended into heaven.  It’s a really important piece, and for those of us who identify as Anabaptist we can say it’s the most important part, but it’s not the only part of the story.  So when Luke tells us of Jesus being brought to the temple, of Jewish priests and prophets saying great things about him, when Jesus is described as the glory of Israel and redemption of Israel, Luke is reminding his readers that Jesus is part of God’s ongoing work in our world, that Jesus is God’s fulfillment.

The other piece that we need to know about Luke as we go forward is that he keeps using the word “Salvation.”  Of all the gospels, Luke uses this word the most.

But when we read the word salvation, he’s not talking about us getting tickets to go to heaven when we die.  Rather, the word is so much bigger and deeper and better that that.  Salvation is about how we live now and into the future, about how we right any part of our life that is not as God intends it to be.  This can include physical, spiritual, emotional, intellectual, social… Salvation is about all of it.  It’s about how we participate in the Reign of God.  It’s about how we live, and how we live together.

And so when the righteous and devout Simeon sees Jesus and says that he has now seen God’s salvation, Luke is telling his readers: “Hey!  Pay attention to this Jesus kid!  He’s going to show you how to live!”  And when the Jewish prophet Anna says that this child is going to be the redemption of Jerusalem, Luke is telling his readers:  “Hey! Pay attention to this Jesus kid!  He’s going to how you how to live!”

As I was pondering the story of Simeon and Anna praising Jesus as the salvation of not only the Jewish people, but all peoples, I kept coming back to one word.

Open.

Anna and Simeon were open.

Anna and Simeon were open to God.  To salvation.  To new ways of looking at faith and life.

Simeon and Anna were open to Jesus.  To redemption. To being part of God’s big story.

Anna and Simeon were open to the Spirit.  To God’s glory. To something out of the ordinary showing up.

Kind of like us on January 1st, where we look ahead to the new year with a sense of hope for the best, with openness to what the year will bring, wondering how we’re going to be part of God’s big story, pondering what salvation means for us and our world.

Okay, connecting the story of Anna and Simeon to New Years might be a bit of a stretch, but I keep coming back to the word Open, wondering if we’re open to God… wondering how we’re open to God’s salvation this year.

I’m going to offer three ways that I think we can make ourselves more open to God’s salvation, or something out of the ordinary showing up.   And all three of them involve us showing up.

Show up to PlacesMy first observation is that Anna and Simeon weren’t at home watching Hockey Night in Canada (I know that criticizing Canada’s second religion is dangerous, but I just want to be sure to name that while I like HNIC, realistically the only enlightenment we should expect from HNIC is how inconsistent the Jets are).   They showed up and met Jesus at the temple.  Especially Anna, who apparently never left the temple but worshiped day and night.  Which is pretty intense.

But to be open to God breaking into our world, to be open to seeing God in new ways, to be open to seeing a different aspect of God’s salvation, I’m going to venture to say that showing up to places is part of the journey.  I know I’m preaching to the choir as we’re the ones who are here on New Year’s Day, but when we live and work and play in different places, we are apt to have little less sense of control, and be a bit more open to the unexpected.

To quote Cheryl Strayed from the book and movie Wild, “There’s a sunrise and a sunset every day, and you can choose  to be there for it.   You can put yourself in the way of beauty.”

Show up to People – Secondly, Anna and Simeon showed up and were present to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, even though they were strangers.  They left their comfort zones, invested in the people around them, and were able to speak  words of hope and reality and truth.

Now, on the introvert/extrovert scale, I’m on the extreme end of extrovert, so talking to new people is as easy to me as tying my shoe.  But I know that’s not all of us.  But no matter where we find ourselves on that spectrum, we can still ask ourselves “How do we add value to those around us?”  So maybe part of us showing up and being present to the people around us means saying “Hi” to the person we don’t know sitting beside on Sundays.  Or maybe it means during coffee breaks at work to intentionally ask co-workers how they’re week was, and maybe even ask some follow up questions.  Or maybe it means sending a card to someone thanking them for something.  Are we open to adding value to people’s lives?

I that that when we’re open to the people around us, we might be a bit more open to the unexpected.

Show up to Prayer

Luke made sure to write down how righteous and devout and prayerful Anna and Simeon were… That they’re lives were filled with and shaped by their praying.

I came back from Sabbatical with a deeper appreciation for prayer, specifically contemplative prayer, and its necessity for some form of sanity in my life and in my faith and in our world.

I also came back from Sabbatical with a deeper appreciation for how hard contemplative prayer can, how it’s sometimes hard to understand, how hard it is to carve out time, how frustrating it can be.

When I say contemplative prayer, I simply mean prayer practices that include some sort of silence, stillness, or solitude.   Some people call it mediation, some people call it mindfulness. I like calling it contemplative prayer, because those of us who find ourselves in a faith tradition have been praying for thousands of years.   But contemplative prayer isn’t us praying to God asking for things, but rather us learning to wait, to listen, to ponder, and to let go as we seek union with God.

So I truly believe that if we want to be open to what God is doing in our lives, we need to carve our space and time for contemplative prayer.   When I was on sabbatical with almost nothing to do but change diapers and read books and build a canoe, I was amazed at how if I didn’t intentionally create time for contemplation, it simply didn’t happen.  At least when I go to church once a week I know that I’ll have some time to pray there, but when I didn’t go for 3 months… I would be lying to you if I said that praying was easy.

But the good news for us today is that I’m not just going to tell you to go and pray more. We’ve already done it!

We’ve already had some contemplative prayer time this morning through Lectio Divina, and we will be doing Lectio for the month of January.   And if you’re interested in praying at home, there are nice little prayer cards from the Gravity Center that we put out in the foyer for you to take home.

If we want to be open to God’s salvation and being a part of God’s reconciling work in this world, I am becoming more and more convinced that that showing up for prayer is a necessity.

And, some more good news for us this morning:  “A rule in contemplative prayer is that everyone who shows up gets an A+” (Ian Morgon Cron).  It’s like participation trophies for everyone!

If we want to be open to God’s salvation both for us and for the world, and do our best to love God and love our neighbours, then we should do our best to show up to places, show up to people, and show up to prayer.

Amen.