Sunday, October 9, 2011

"In the fullness of time..."

My sermon from this morning, on Isaiah 25:1-9 and Matthew 22:1-14

Let’s spend some time with Isaiah this morning. Welcome to the Ancient Near East, and I want to give a little historical and theological context. In the eighth century before Christ, what we think of today as Israel was divided into two Jewish kingdoms: the northern part, encompassing 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel, was known as the kingdom of Israel and the southern part, centering around Jerusalem, was known as the kingdom of Judah. And in the 8th century BC, the Empire of Assyria conquered the kingdom of Israel. The kingdom of Judah paid tribute to Assyria to maintain its independence. This lead to spiritual and economic conflict, and is the context for the Isaiah reading today, because the tribute to Assyria—at least in how it’s remembered in the biblical account—came not from the wealthy residents of Judah but off the backs of the poor. For 150 years, Judah bounced back and forth between political independence and subservience, between spiritual fidelity to Yahweh and worshiping other Gods, and between following the law and caring for the widow and orphan and vulnerable and oppressing and cheating them. A series of prophets—including Isaiah, but also Micah and Jeremiah—warned the leaders of Judah repeatedly that not being faithful toYahweh would result in the destruction of Jerusalem itself—at least for a while. Faithfulness to Yahweh was defined in two ways: one is faithful temple worship and the other which is sort of the outward and visible sign of faithfulness to the law is justice and care of the poor. Eventually the warnings come true: Babylon gobbles up the Assyrian Empire, and finally conquers Jerusalem in 587BC, sending the Jews into exile in Babylon for 70 years… until the Persian Empire gobbled up the Babylonian Empire and liberated the Jews and bankrolled their return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the temple. Which held up until the Greeks took over… and on and on the rise and fall of empires go. 

But each time, the biblical theological understanding is that the invading army—when they are successful—is acting on behalf of God and as a corrective to the linked fundamental sins of the society: not faithfully worshiping Yahweh by their failure to follow the law and consequently oppressing the poor. 

Today’s passage from Isaiah is a poem celebrating the destruction of a city… but which city? One commentary I read this week suggested that it is deliberately vague so that it could be interpreted as either about Jerusalem or about Babylon. In one case the chosen people of God are the oppressors; in the other they are the oppressed. In either case, the city is turned into a “heap” because of its oppression of the poor, and the promise that follows the destruction is of the restoration of the poor to fullness via a heavenly feast, and the transformation of suffering and death into joy and life. It’s important to remember that God doesn’t just destroy, God also feeds, nurtures, and builds up, always in favor of those who are in need.

But systemically, the renewed vigor never lasts. Rereading the history this week I was struck by how again and again there was this renewed hope that finally Judah and Israel were on the right path—a new king, a renewed interest in scripture, a spiritual and political reformation that brings the people closer to God… but it never lasts. Greed always comes back, and for every King Josiah who rediscovered the book of Deuteronomy and renewed Temple worship, there is another king who lines his pockets with bribes and worships Baal at the high places. Which almost makes me want to despair. But the flip side of that is that the oppression never lasts either. Whether through divine intervention, compassion on the part of leaders, or self-interest, the pendulum always swings back in scripture to liberation of the poor. 

10 days ago I was at my final week at the Clergy Leadership Project up in Connecticut, and one of our speakers was Josh Ruxin, who does development work in Rwanda and occasionally blogs for the NY Times. One of the resources he introduced us to was www.gapminder.org which is an amazing online resource where you can look at animated graphs depicting the advance—and decline in some cases—of per capita income and life expectancy by nation over the last 200 years. I highly recommend checking it out. There are a lot of variables to look at—child mortality, age at first marriage, number of children per family, HIV rates—it’s fascinating to see the trends by nation and continent. You see the effects of wars, epidemics, vaccines so clearly—and you also see, so clearly, the “gap” of the title of the project: all the nations at the bottom of life expectancy are in sub-Saharan Africa except one and that one is Afghanistan. There’s Sub-Saharan Africa at the bottom, and then a gap, and then everywhere else in the world. 

 But like the saga of empires surrounding Isaiah’s prophecy, the statistics don’t only show bad news. Since we’re talking about Carpenter’s Kids today, I looked specifically at Tanzania’s track on the wealth vs. health graph. Like most African countries, life expectancy increased dramatically after World War II, and then in the 1990s declined significantly as the HIV epidemic took hold. But from 1999 to 2009, life expectancy in Tanzania surged up from 50 to 56 years on average, putting it in the upper tier of Sub Saharan life expectancy, even though was a significant drought in the country during the last two years recorded. It’s still five years below the lowest life expectancy of anywhere else in the world except Afghanistan: next lowest in the world is before-the-earthquake Haiti at 61 years. But it’s better than it was. Life expectancy in the US is 79, for comparison—pretty good, although 79 is also life expectancy in Costa Rica and Cuba, so we don’t exactly tower over the rest of the developed world. There was Good News in Liberia, too from the Gapminder stats—since Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became President in 2006, life expectancy and incomes have risen steadily—they’re up to 59. Peace, education, food and access to health care make life better and longer. 

Here at home, we are finally seeing headlines about poverty more frequently, and I hope you’re reading them and learning about the gap here, so I don’t want to over play it, but just as an example, at our homeless feeding program, which usually sees about 100 people, and for us 120 is a “big” night, 10 days ago we had 152 people show up to eat on a Wednesday, and for the first time, we weren’t able to feed everyone because 10 people left before we could get them down to eat in shifts, so we only actually fed 142. Which is still a record.  

That’s what the Kingdom of this world looks like. The gospel parable today is about the Kingdom of Heaven. But the two are not separated by much. Roman Catholic liberation theology speaks of God’s “preferential option for the poor.” The idea is that because Jesus and the prophets repeatedly speak up on behalf of the poor, culminating in Jesus’command that “what you did for the least of these, you did unto me,” that is the ultimate standard by which any individual and any society are to be judged. That is certainly evident in the Isaiah passage, and it comes through again in today’s gospel reading when those who have been invited to the wedding banquet—the people of power—reject the invitation, and it is literally the people who are on “the streets” who are invited in their stead. The word that is translated “streets” in the Gospel, is the Greek word hodos, which is usually translated “way.” As in “I am the Way, the truth, and the life” or the word that early Christians used to describe themselves: they were “followers of the way”. The people who are brought in to the wedding banquet are both good and bad; rather like people anywhere.

 Our Stewardship theme this year, chosen by John Oudens and Susan Keith (and not by me!), is “In the fullness of time…” It’s a phrase from Eucharistic Prayer B: “In the fullness of time, bring all things in subjection under your Christ, and bring us to that heavenly country where, with all your saints, we may enter the everlasting heritage of your sons and daughters.” It’s the phrase that, the first time I ever celebrated the Eucharist, the day after my ordination to the priesthood, brought me to tears because saying the words made me realize—as if for the first time—that I believed it. As a Stewardship theme, my first thought was that it might be too abstract, but the more I thought about, it, the more perfect it sounded. The fullness of time, the kingdom of heaven is not now—obviously, the wedding banquet is not going on right now, the poor are still poor, both at home and even worse, overseas. Death has not been swallowed up in our earthly lives—people suffer and die needlessly every day. And yet the fullness of time is now: there is no time other than the present moment when we are not just to pray, “thy kingdom come” but to act as if the kingdom is now here so that we may glimpse it and so that the world might believe. Now is the fullness of time when the Church of the Epiphany is showing to the world that it cares for the poor. Now is the fullness of time when we are called to be generous, for those of us who have been given wealth to share it, for those of us who have been given power to use it wisely and compassionately, and for those who are in need to receive with gratitude rather than shame. Now is our fullness of time to act together, with the wisdom and passion and integrity of Josh Ruxin, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the other Nobel prize winners, to care for God’s poor and hungry so that we can say with Isaiah:

It will be said on that day, 

Lo, this is our God;
we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the LORD for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

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