Epiphany 3C (January 24, 2016)

Welcome. Welcome to all you members of the Body. (Whether or not you are members of Trinity, you are members of the Body.) You are, of course, welcome. Any congregation will tell you that. Well, I don’t know. There probably is a congregation somewhere that tells you “You’re not welcome, here!” But almost any congregation insists that it is welcoming you, even if its actions clearly communicate to you that they’ve got an idea about where you can go, if not where you can stick it. To borrow St. Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians, maybe they say, “We’re all ears!” but really mean, “No eyes wanted.” Or “Feet Welcome” on the assumption that you’re looking to be converted into a hand. Or maybe they speak openly of those members considered less honorable but it’s always with a clear sense of relief that they, themselves, are not so dishonorable.

But I’m starting to rant.

Welcome! Welcome to the Releasing of the Captives Ceremony. That is what we are: Captives and Captors. You’re forgiven if you don’t notice that: we’ve done a good job of concealing it. Like all societies, we’ve told ourselves stories about the rules and roles in our world, and we’ve used these stories to conceal captivity. We’ve done it so successfully that we don’t even realize we’re doing it, much less realize what we’re concealing with them. Our eyes are wide open but if we look at our gathering today we do not see Captives and Captors; we see, well, something like what’s described in Nehemiah 8. People gather. There’s a big book, and a group of leaders. Someone reads Scripture. Someone explains it. The people are moved. The preacher tells them to rejoice. They eat a meal, and they go home. It could pass for a rudimentary description of our worship.

Of course that barely scratches the surface of what happens. Let’s look closer at the whole reading and explaining bit, the bit Jesus does. Jesus reads Isaiah. Sort of. He has carefully altered the text to focus on release to the captives and letting the oppressed go free, centering these two on that line “recovery of sight to the blind,” and casting the whole thing on “the year of the Lord’s favor.” In effect, he’s said: “The Year of the Lord’s Favor is all about opening our eyes to Captives and Captors.” That requires explanation.

The year of the Lord’s favor, or Jubilee, is kind of a big deal. According to Leviticus 25, every fifty years everything reverts to what it was. Land is returned to previous owners, slaves are freed, debts are forgiven. Between Jubilees, any sale of property is supposed to account for Jubilees. If you buy a field, you only pay for however many harvests are left before you have to give it back. It is a whole economic restructuring. We are to live acknowledging that the rules and roles we’ve imposed on life are temporary, and periodically we are to wipe them out. If you’ve never heard of this, apparently neither had anybody in Israel; there’s no record of it being done.

But Isaiah has heard of it, and now that Jesus has read Isaiah to us, Jesus is here to open our eyes to how the rules and roles we impose on the world make captives and captors of us. When I was in eighth grade, some of the popular boys decided to create a consensus rating system for the attractiveness of the popular girls in the class. They called it the L L A P T scale. You can guess what each of the letters stood for. The boys took turns rating each girl in each category on a scale of one to ten. This sheet of paper made the rounds. One by one the popular boys completed the ratings, while the popular girls watched and waited. Teachers knew about it and did nothing. I was outraged. You wanna know why I was outraged? I wasn’t popular enough to be asked to give my answers. I was one of the loser boys. I wish I could give a better accounting of myself. I also wish I had some dramatic “Aha moment” I could share to explain how I saw that this was not just a stupid and mean thing that people did. A lot has happened to me in the intervening 23 years and God has been at work in me over that time.

Looking back at it, now, I realize that my silence, my not condemning these actions, was endorsement of them. I realize that women faced this sort of thing every day. I realize that society was set up such that while in middle school I might not have scored the hottest date (or any date) I was never in my life going to face institutional sexism from a place of weakness. I hear Jesus say he is going to restore my sight, and my eyes are open to our captivity: The way teachers allowed it to happen rather than cause a fuss and then have to deal with the fuss. The way the girls played along with it like it was okay. The way the loser boys like me allowed it to reinforce our not being in the cool strata of the boys. Everyone was embedded in this sexist system we’d collectively made up. Because of who I was in society, I held parts of my world captive, and was held captive by other parts. I was expected to look, act, and feel a certain way, and I expected others to act, look, and feel certain ways. We were all captives to this world in which we participated.

Jesus barges in to this world, and says “everyone take a good look around…now, CHANGE PLACES!” On account of Jesus, I’m not one of the loser boys, anymore because there are no loser boys anymore. The girls don’t play along with the oppressive game because there is no more game. The teachers aren’t afraid of causing a fuss because those who would have fussed no longer have any power. The rules and roles we’ve imposed on this world are gone, and we start fresh. And there’s no way to conceal who is really in charge because he is a beat up, rough looking guy with holes in his wrists and feet and what I swear looks like a spear wound in his side. He’s also stuck to a cross, and appears to be dead (even though he is alive). He’s got a lot of problems, all right? He’s the guy that, when you say “All are welcome” you’re really hoping that he doesn’t show up.

He is, to use St. Paul’s language, “the inferior member.” Paul writes, “God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member….” Now yeah, I know, Paul’s talking about a particular piece of the anatomy, here. All right? I get that. I get that when we read “member” from the Bible, there’s that part of us that is giggling: he said “member.” Paul is talking about that and he’s talking about Jesus. Paul goes there, all right? Paul picks the part we don’t think is necessarily best to discuss in public, the part that is about as personal as you can get, parts we might be most sensitive or insecure about, and says “That’s what Jesus being in charge is like.”

Jesus is the Great Inferior Member of this assembly. We will never say or hear “We’re all ears” and mean “No eyes wanted,” because the Great Inferior Member is way grosser than any eye, and he wants both eyes and ears in his assembly. We never say or hear “Feet Welcome” on the assumption that feet will be converted into hands, because the Inferior Member is way worse than any hand or foot, and wants both hands and feet in his body. We never say or hear the less honorable lifted up with an unspoken clear sense of relief that we’re not dishonorable, because the least honorable of us all is in charge. And there is nothing about who you are that can disqualify you from God’s love.

So welcome! Welcome to the Releasing of the Captives Ceremony. Welcome to Baptism, that Bath which drowns us and changes our name, so that the person raised from the water is freed from the rules and roles of this world. Welcome to Communion, that Meal which is not anywhere near enough food and thereby reveals how incomplete and temporary our world is without Christ. Welcome to the Book, which may move us to tears but which ultimately promises our union with the creator. Welcome to the presence of the Presider, the Host, the Freer of Captives, the Embodiment of the Jubilee that we easily forget: not the guy in the odd clothes, but the guy who he prays is using him, the Inferior Member, the one all beat up and stabbed and poked, yet very much alive.