Ted Grimsrud

(04) To Turn from the Abyss

Ted Grimsrud—Shalom Mennonite Congregation—Feb. 21, 2010

Exod 23:10-13; Isaiah 61:1-11; Revelation 15:2-4; Luke 4:16-21

There is a saying, attributed to 18th-century British writer Samuel Johnson, that nothing so concentrates the mind as the prospect of the gallows.  I also find that for me, nothing so concentrates the mind as the Saturday night before a sermon. Even more so, though, I find that nothing so concentrates my mind quite like having grandchildren.  Learning to know Elias, and with the prospect of his younger sibling joining us next month, the future becomes less abstract.  The question of where we are going becomes more intense.

As the folksinger Jim Page asks, “Whose world is this?  What kind of world will our children receive, after all is said and done?  What kind of creed have we come to believe, that they may never receive one?  What kind of creed are we to believe, if they are to receive one?” Indeed.

In this series of sermons I ask the question:  Why do we pay attention to Jesus?  I don’t think we can hope (or should hope) to find just one answer.  Lots of us have lots of reasons.  One reason, maybe, for paying attention to Jesus is that in him we find hope, we find a “creed,” a belief, that might guide our future so that our children and their children might have a world.  I want to reflect on our bases for hope—or, as my sermon title puts it, to reflect on “turning from the abyss.”

I’d like to start by hearing a little bit of your reflections.  As I read parts of several scripture texts, think, what is your hope?  What’s it based on?  What kind of “creed” do we need to believe in to have a “world”?

Exodus 23:10-13—For six years you shall sow your land and gather its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat.  You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.  Six days you shall do your work, but in the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn servant and the alien may be refreshed.  Be attentive to all that I have said to you.  Do not invoke the names of other gods; do not let them be heard on your lips.

Isaiah 61:1-11—The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, who has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. For I the Lord love justice and hate wrongdoing.  Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples.  For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden cause what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

Revelation 15:2-4—I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands.  And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb: “Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty!  Just and true are your ways, King of the nations!  Lord, who will not fear and glorify your name?  For you alone are holy.  All nations will come and worship before you, for your judgments have been revealed!”

Luke 4:16-21—Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day.  He stood up to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah: “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.”  He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.  The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  Then he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Discouraged with the world

I often find that the more I learn about the world the more discouraged I feel. I read an article about this crazy guy who goes around the world confronting whalers and tries to raise awareness about how we are destroying our oceans and their inhabitants with pollution and the incredible violence of the whaling industry.  It’s inspiring to read of someone trying to stop this, but it seems that his efforts are morally ambiguous, edging across the line toward violence, and they are only a drop in the bucket at best.

Or I reflect on the first year of the Obama administration—and realize that military spending goes up and American soldiers “surge” into Afghanistan, that West Virginia mountain top removals increase, that governmental assistance still goes much more to Wall Street and the big bankers than to helping the people at the bottom of the economic ladder, and so on.  And, of course, it seems that the entire leadership of the Republican Party is way more focused on causing Obama’s presidency to fail than on actually helping our country and the world move toward solving our huge problems.

Or I talk with my friend Earl Zimmerman, Mennonite Central Committee staffer in Calcutta, about the tribulations of the Indian subcontinent, and realize that to a large extent Gandhi’s dream seems to be dead and buried.

I confess at times feeling glad that my life is now on its downhill slope.  I’ve had a decent run and may with luck exit the scene before the fan truly hits the ceiling.  But then I think of Jim Page’s song—“What kind of world will our children receive—what kind of creed must we believe for them to receive one?”

Paying attention to Jesus

That thought pushes me to pay attention to Jesus.  And paying attention to Jesus points us right to Luke 4 and the beginning of his ministry.  Here is where he lays out his program.  What might we learn from Jesus’ words in his hometown synagogue?

Luke tells us about Jesus’ birth, portrayed by his mother as an act of God.  In this act, God scatters the proud, brings down the powerful from their thrones, lifts up the lowly, and fills the hungry with good things.  We read of Jesus’ growth into adulthood, his baptism and time in the wilderness that solidifies his self-awareness as God’s Son—the one chosen by God to embody God’s will and lead the nations to blessing.

Ready to take on his calling, now Jesus returns from the wilderness, joins his family and friends in worship at his hometown synagogue.  This is the moment for which he has prepared.  He stands in the synagogue and proclaims the beginning of something big, something hopeful, something that will turn the world upside-down.

First of all, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.”  The very Spirit that moved across the waters when the world was made, the very Spirit of life breathed into the first human beings, the very Spirit that moved in Mary at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel—now this Spirit is present in Jesus.  That is, God is present, God is invested, God’s will is being done on earth as in heaven.  So pay attention.

Fulfilling Scripture

Jesus concludes his brief message by linking his present message with Israel’s traditions.  It is scripture that his words and deeds fulfill.  Jesus’ message comes straight from the Old Testament.  He simply restates what stands at the heart of Torah, the heart of Israel’s faith.  The core revelation of God’s will for humanity may be seen in the call to Sabbath.  The call to Sabbath is a call to liberation, a call to healing, a call to shalom—for all people in the community.  The call to Sabbath is a call to jubilee, a call to generosity.  God blesses you, so go bless others.

I still remember a Sabbath moment Kathleen and I experienced now just over thirty years ago.  We moved from Oregon to Indiana to study at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary.  We were young, foolish, naïve—and just about broke.  Somehow the Seminary learned that we had few resources.  We hadn’t thought to apply for financial aid since we weren’t Mennonites.  We were just happy they would let us study there.

But sometime early in our first semester we got called in to an administrator’s office.  He told that us of course they would give us financial aid.  And they did—a big break in our tuition and the possibility for work study.  I don’t know if we would have made it through the year without that generosity.  I don’t know if the seminary realized what they were getting the Mennonite church into by offering us such a welcome—but they did help us find a faith community that became our home.

It is this kind of generosity that the Exodus 23 Sabbath legislation calls for.  The meaning of the seventh year of rest is not so much about worship or taking time for your families.  The seventh year is for those in need.  You don’t harvest your fields, vineyards or olive orchards; “so then the poor of your people may eat”—and notice this, a lovely touch, “what they leave the wild animals may eat.”  And also the meaning of the seventh day—“that your homeborn servant and the resident alien may be refreshed.”

Let’s remember what lay behind the Sabbath laws—the Hebrews had been slaves in Egypt with nary a time of rest, living in a ruthless environment where the vulnerable (including surely the “wild beasts”) were ground down, exploited, simply seen as commodities.  The Sabbath laws overturn such heartlessness—that’s why the Sabbath always remains at the heart of authentic worship of the God of Israel.  And that’s why the Sabbath stands at the center of Jesus’ message.

Isaiah 61 spells it out even more, referring to the Sabbath laws.  The “year of the Lord’s favor” is the year of Jubilee, the final part of the Sabbath laws where every fifty years the land returns to its original owners so that Israel will have no landless masses, no generations of a vulnerable and poverty-stricken underclass.  Well, this year of Jubilee was long forgotten by the time of Isaiah 61.  So the prophet here speaks of a renewal of God’s call to generosity and social health for all in the community.

Isaiah 61 makes a direct connection between three things that Jubilee points toward: liberation for the oppressed, the Lord’s love for justice, and healing for all the nations.  Isaiah calls his readers to hope—God will bring liberation, justice, and healing, so get ready and live toward that right now.

Our Revelation 15 passage reiterates this point about the nations.  Salvation finds voice in a powerful song, the song of Moses and the Lamb, the song of Torah and gospel, the song of Exodus 23 and Luke 4.  Joining this song: worship from all the nations, healing for all the families of the earth.

Jesus’ agenda according to Luke 4

We see Jesus’ agenda in Luke 4: good news to the poor, release to captives, sight to the blind, freedom for oppressed.  Wholeness for the poverty-stricken. Humanity for criminals. Awareness for the oblivious. Maybe we are not poor or in prison. Jesus still brings liberation for us—insofar as we are oblivious, blind to the true nature of social reality, Jesus can help us see.  Think of Jesus’ story about the poor man Lazarus and the unnamed rich man elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel.  The rich man was blind to Lazarus’ suffering.  This story is a powerful parable for our culture—we simply don’t see the brokenness and injustice around us. Jesus’ agenda is to wake us up, to give us sight.

Two weeks ago, Kathleen and I were out in Portland, Oregon, and I spoke in the Portland Mennonite Church as part of a “conversation on homosexuality.”  And it just so happened that while we were in Portland we stayed with a close friend we’ve known for over thirty years and her partner.  Our friendship with Jan was something that opened my eyes to the experience of gay and lesbian people in our society, something I simply had no awareness of for the first nearly 30 years of my life. I truly was oblivious to a major expression of disrespect, even violent hostility that occurred right around me.

So, Jesus’ agenda may be summarized in this way—God’s message to Israel is worship God alone, the giver of life, the liberator from slavery, the lover of the poor and the widow.  God shows generosity toward you; be generous toward others.  Give care, compassion, and respect to vulnerable people, to all who need the same kind of liberation God has given you.

The message is for now

And now we come to the most important part—and the most challenging part.  Jesus states flatly, this message is for now.  This scripture promising healing and liberation “is fulfilled in your hearing.”  But….In what sense was Jesus’ agenda fulfilled?  I think this is one of the biggest theological questions we face.  What in the world did Jesus mean?  What evidence do we have that his message was for the present world?

The legacy of Christendom has been to push off the fulfillment as something for the next world.  As a consequence, many (or is it most?  Or is it just about all?) Christians have thought that Jesus’ agenda was to get us out of this world, to deliver our individual souls to eternal life in heaven.

Let’s go back to the question: why do we pay attention to Jesus?  For many, we pay attention to Jesus because he helps us escape all our problems.  Back in the heat of the Cold War, I visited my hometown and saw one of the members of my old church.  We talked about accelerated arms race with the Russians—then she smiled and said, yes the Big One is probably near but we won’t be here when it happens.  We’ll be raptured first.  I was kind of speechless and just nodded my head—I realized my theology had changed a lot.  I now found what she was saying to be horrifying.

I have become convinced that indeed Jesus did mean his message to be for this world.  Jesus did mean for his teachings to be followed.  Jesus did mean that the message of Exodus and Isaiah indeed was fulfilled in his ministry.  But how so? Obviously we still have poor people and prisoners—and most of us remain oblivious!

Well, I think the great poet Wendell Berry captures Jesus’ main message in a phrase: “What we need is here.”  Jesus’ is a message of the presence of jubilee.  He expected his followers in the first century—and his followers today—to embrace the presence of jubilee and live it out.  In history.  It can be done, and it must be done.

And Jesus spells out in words and deeds what jubilee looks like.  It’s about liberation, compassion, resistance—generosity.  And, in line with Torah and Isaiah, generosity for those in need, for vulnerable ones, for people who aren’t respectable.  It’s abundance, not scarcity.  But is this possible?  Well, like John Lennon sang, “war is over, if you want it.”  The scripture is fulfilled in the present for those who embrace its message and live it out.

Part of the legacy of the turn from Jesus’ message as present may be seen in the paralyzing doctrine of total depravity.  This doctrine has insisted that we simply can’t be faithful, we can’t act on Jesus’ message.  We are too sinful, too depraved, too corrupted.  So, let’s accept Jesus into our hearts and wait for heaven.  But what if that doctrine and its assumption of human depravity is a lie?  What if the main hindrance to following Jesus’ message is simply our blindness to its possibility?

Jubilee in disasters

I’m reading an eye-opening book that challenges the idea that jubilee living is not for this world.  Written by Rebecca Solnit, a San Francisco journalist, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, tells a bracing story.

Solnit tells the story of five immense disasters in the past 100 years in North America—the San Francisco earthquake, the terrible 1917 explosion in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the devastating earthquake in Mexico City in 1985, the September 11 devastation in New York City, and Hurricane Katrina.

In each case we see an amazing phenomenon.  Most people respond to disaster by becoming amazingly caring, generous, and compassionate.  And, remarkably, people almost instinctively find ways to organize themselves for rescue, for emergency care, to join together to help however they can—with extraordinary effectiveness.

Contrary to popular myths, in face of these disasters rarely do common people panic.  Solnit tells instead of what she calls “elite panic,” how people in power sense that their dominance is threatened by these decentralized, bottom up, spontaneous outpourings of power and self-determination.  So, often the people in power work to squelch the work of the grassroots and reassert their dominance.

Part of the delight on this book is how Solnit unearths surprising bits of information.  Just one example.  She tells how both William James, near the end of his life, and Dorothy Day, near the beginning of her life, were both in San Francisco in 1906.  Both experienced the earthquake and its aftermath as a remarkable outpouring of what someone called “good fellowship.”  Indeed, much later, Dorothy Day stated that her experience of such fellowship shaped her profoundly.  Her life with the Catholic Worker and its houses of hospitality came directly from her desire to recreate such a fellowship.

Solnit takes on a bigger agenda in this book beyond simply telling a bunch of great stories.  She argues that her evidence supports quite a positive view of human nature.  When civilization is stripped away and we are pushed to our most basic human instincts—we end up being kind, generous, courageous, and creative people.

So (and now this is my argument), we can see that Jesus’ message of jubilee for now is not so far-fetched.  But we have to see it, we have to embrace it, we have to choose to live in it.  Jesus talks about something that is part of our humanity—we are inclined to be generous.  His message isn’t otherworldly or just for heaven up in the sky.  We should pay attention to Jesus right now.  Jesus shows us how to turn from abyss.  The “creed” we need for our children and for their children is here for us.

Say no to systems of domination that dehumanize and encourage us to be oblivious to the needs and suffering around us.  Gather together with others who also say no—and then learn how to say yes together, yes to generosity, yes to “good fellowship.”  Accept that caring and compassion are our nature.  Turn from the ways of domination and death.  Turn toward jubilee.

Now, what we don’t know is whether such turning will in fact prevent the abyss from engulfing us.  I think we misread the Bible if we read it as a message of the certainty of happy endings.  But we read the Bible right when we recognize that it tells us of the only way that we will find a happy ending.  If we are to have a world—it will only be by following the path of jubilee.  That’s why we pay attention to Jesus.

  1. The call to live Jubilee is very moving, and necessary. Thank you.

    This reminds me of the Michael Card Jubilee (youtube).

  2. Thanks, Al. I didn’t know this song. I’m happy to be linked with it!

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