So, what’d you think of that Billy Collins’ poem this morning? About the perfect spring day…with its warm intermittent breezes, its reference to throwing open all the windows in the house, its image of the sunlit garden bursting with peonies… Did it feel a bit mocking on an icy, cold January morning such as this? Did it stir in you a terrible longing for melting ice, for warm earth, for bicycle rides and walks around the lake? Did it make you want to board an airplane to Mexico, right now? I’m so sorry!
“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”. Today. Really? Today, as we remain shackled by our reliance on fossil fuels, as evidenced by support for the Keystone pipeline, and for the extraction of toxic, dirty oil from Canada’s tar sands. Today, as citizens legally purchase AK 47s. Today, as 37.2 percent of black Minnesotans live in poverty— as compared to the overall poverty rate of 11.6 percent. (Statistics reported by the American Community Survey at: http://minnesotabudgetbites.org/2011/09/22/racial-disparities-grow-in-minnesota-as-poverty-increases-household-income-declines/#.UQQC6YnjkWE) Today, as our loved ones suffer from cancer and alzheimers and grief and depression. Really? Isaiah’s lofty ancient words about freedom are true today?
“‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God 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 favour.’” Today, Jesus, insists, this scripture is fulfilled in our hearing. Today. “The year of the Lord’s favor”…is another way of referencing the concept of the jubilee year, described in Leviticus 25. Every fifty years, after seven times seven years of small weekly Sabbaths, the great Sabbath year was to be observed. On the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, the trumpet would blow. And for a whole year, the land would lie fallow and rest. All slaves were to be liberated and all debts cancelled. The land would return to its original owners.
“Today”, says Jesus, “Today is the jubilee” Not one year in fifty, but from now on, an age of jubilee. Jubilee is the new reality. It’s Jesus’ mission, and his reason for being. Jubilee is God’s message to humanity; it is the interpretive key for the whole of scripture, the whole of history and time. From the very beginning, God spoke jubilee in creation with the gift of the Sabbath – one day in seven, we are to rest and remember that we are free. God declared jubilee through Moses to Pharoah. God thundered jubilee with the cries of the prophets. It’s a wonder to imagine the staying power of those ancient fragments of promise, like that page on our bulletin cover, from Isaiah. Torn and tattered, damaged with water and sun, its archaic language shrouded in mystery, but still it speaks to us. “God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives” Still it stirs us, like word of Spring on a wintry day. And God’s most definitive word of jubilee comes in the flesh and the heart and the voice of Jesus. Jesus, who will not be silent about God’s deepest desires for creation.
Jesus reclaimed and reinterpreted jubilee for his own time and ours: The earth is free from human pillaging and poisoning, free to live out its own wisdom: its cycles of birth and death, its chains of predator and prey, its seasons of heat and cold. Slavery is over, once and for all. Legal slavery, Jim Crow slavery, economic slavery, slavery to our own fears. Debts are canceled. Credit cards with exorbitant interest rates and fraudulent mortgages no longer crush the poor. The land, and all earth’s resources, –owned by just a few, proportionately will be redistributed fairly among all in need. And those who are indigenous to the land will receive compensation for what was stolen from them.
The proclamation of jubilee did not end with Jesus. It has sung its down the ages on the tongues and through the lives of God’s messengers in every generation. I heard jubilee spirit in President Obama’s inauguration speech; indeed, in his whole framing of American history as a journey toward the fulfillment of freedom’s promise. “Today, he declared, “we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of [the words of the declaration of independence] with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by [God’s] people here on Earth… We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.” (http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/la-pn-transcript-obama-inauguration-speech-20130121,0,6751334.story?page=1)
And yet, on that same inauguration day, another voice of jubilee strained to make itself heard. The Global Voices Blog reported: “Ironically while the crowd was cheering [Obama’s] inauguration line “A decade of war is now ending”, more than three drone strikes hit Yemen” (http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/01/22/on-inaugration-day-us-drones-strike-yemen/) And the Blog of Legal Times wrote: “Just outside an exit gate … a group of protesters laid across a street on Capitol Hill to protest President Barack Obama’s controversial use of drone strikes abroad. About ten people covered themselves in white sheets with red paint splattered like blood, and pretended to be dead…. They had cutout photos of drone victims next to them.” (http://legaltimes.typepad.com/blt/2013/01/outside-inauguration-group-protests-drone-strikes.html)
President Obama’s speech was beautiful and prophetic. I found myself greatly moved by his commitment to address global warming, to reform immigration practices, to bring about marriage equality, and equality of pay for men and women, and to work for the education and safety of our children. And yet, we are all – especially those who govern with power in any arena of life, still bound by the shackles of oppression, and mired in the ways of violence. The President acknowledged much unfinished work in the pursuit of liberty; let us hope he was preaching to himself and his administration as well as to the rest of us. Let us call him, call ourselves, and call our nation, to be true to our highest ideals.
This week, I attended a retreat with our group of Lilly residents and supervisors. One colleague led the group in centering prayer, a way of praying that emphasizes being with God, resting in God’s presence. The person praying chooses a sacred word, which is gently repeated whenever thoughts distract. I’ve encountered and tried this method of prayer before, and always found it somewhat mystifying. How do I empty my mind and rest in God without thinking? Our session did not provide a stunning revelation, but I did experience a gentle insight. For a few moments, I had a sensation of going down, further and further inside myself. And what I felt as this happened was that I was settling into a flowing current of God’s Spirit. And I understood that all the stuff that continued to distract me– the thoughts swirling through my mind, and the activity of world around me– is grounded in that river, rests in that river.
God’s Spirit-river of freedom is what is real, today, and always, Jesus says. If we settle into its currents, it will guide us waking, sleeping, working and playing. There are other realities, but they are like ice that melts in the sun. Today, God rips the door from the canary’s cage. Today, God shatters the paperweight prisons. Today, God throws open the windows of the house. Today, God’s garden bursts with peonies etched in sunlight. Today. Amen.