Here's today's sermon, reading Isaiah 61:1-4 in light of the tough economic times we're going through here in Stockton, CA. Have a good Thanksgiving, all, even and especially now!
Living with the Texts:
“The Year of the Lord’s Favor”
The Rev. Laura Horton-Ludwig, Minister
First Unitarian Universalist Church of Stockton
November 21, 2010
Thousands of years ago, half a world away,
the people of Israel returned from exile
to rebuild the city of Jerusalem,
a city that had been devastated by war and decades of neglect.
The Babylonian conquerors had destroyed the Temple,
razed the city,
forced its inhabitants into exile.
Now, some fifty years later,
the Persians had conquered the Babylonians in their turn,
and the Persian emperor Cyrus allowed the Israelites
to come home and rebuild their city at last.
This is the background for the text at the heart of today’s service,
the third in our monthly series of engaging with sacred texts
both from the Bible and from other world scriptures.
This text is one that I know will be familiar to anyone
who’s been around this congregation for a while—
the passage from the Book of Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible
that has inspired our beloved hymn “We’ll Build a Land.”
For those who don’t know this one,
we’re going to sing it together at the end of the service,
so you’ll get to know it.
Singing this hymn with you, I hear how much it means to you,
and I’ve often thought of this hymn
as the theme song of our congregation.
It captures so beautifully the spirit of this church.
And so, today, I want to invite you to come with me
on a walk through the text that inspired it,
in the spirit of lectio divina or sacred reading.
There’s no trick to this, no secret,
you just take your time with the text
and ask yourself what it has to say to you today.
And today I’m hearing this text in a new way.
The prophet Isaiah says to the Israelites:
The Lord...has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted… (Isaiah 61:1)
or as the beautiful translation from the Jewish Publication Society
has it: “to bind up the wounded of heart.”
Often in the past I’ve heard this text as being about other people—
people who are in need, vulnerable, oppressed,
people somewhere else.
But today I look around our community, our city,
and I see a people that has been wounded of heart,
drooping in spirit,
struggling under the burden of debt, unemployment, insecurity,
and fear of the future.
We haven’t been literally forced into exile like the Israelites.
But we sure do know people
who are having to move away to find work,
some in this very congregation.
Some of us have had good friends move away;
some of us may be considering moving ourselves.
In a very real sense our congregation is going through
the experience of becoming a diaspora.
We are coming to understand ourselves at least in part
as a community encompassing those who are able to stay home
and those who have been forced to leave.
This is not easy on the spirit.
Our city has not been razed to the ground as Jerusalem was.
But we sure do know what it’s like to see friends, family members,
maybe we ourselves, physically displaced from our homes.
Just a few short years ago, it looked like the real estate market
was going up and up.
We were in the Promised Land
of ever-escalating property values and equity—
at least, those of us who had managed to buy homes
while they were still affordable.
Then came the crash, and we got foreclosed.
Tens of thousands of us have lost our homes in Stockton alone.
Many more of us are stuck owing far more on our mortgages
than our homes are worth today.
One study I came across estimates that two-thirds
of mortgage-holders in Stockton are underwater on their mortgages.
This is a community that has learned what it feels like to be displaced.
So I think we can relate to the folks who first heard
these words of Isaiah, this struggling people,
who in this moment are beginning come back from exile
and rebuild their community,
and now they’re hearing this promise of
good news to the oppressed,...
liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners.... (Isaiah 61:1)
Now, Isaiah says something very specific here
that is very relevant to our situation. He says he has been called
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.... (Isaiah 61:1)
This phrase, “the year of the Lord’s favor,”
has a very particular meaning. This is basically a code word
for something called the Jubilee Year
which was a tradition in Israelite society
going back many, many years.
The Jubilee Year happens once every fifty years,
and it’s a way of trying to sort out inequality
and make sure everyone has at least some kind of baseline
of economic support.
The Israelites were mostly farmers, and like farmers today,
sometimes the Israelite farmers got into debt
and had to sell off their land to survive,
and some of them even had to sell themselves
into a kind of voluntary slavery.
This was the reality for forty-nine years out of fifty,
seven times seven years.
But in the fiftieth year, Israelite law said
everybody who had lost their land would get it back.
All debts would be erased.
Everybody got their homes back,
everyone got to start over with a clean slate,
no debt, no hard feelings.
This is the Jubilee Year, “the year of the Lord’s favor.”
It’s like everyone agreed, for forty-nine years out of fifty,
we accept economic inequality.
We accept that some people are going to lose their land, their homes,
everything they have.
But once every fifty years we as a society
are going to do right by the people who are hurting the most.
We are going to give them back a place to live,
a way to make a living,
because that is the kind of society we want to live in.
And can I just say,
how incredible would it be to have a tradition like that
in this society?
Are we not ready for a Jubilee Year here in Stockton?
Are we not ready for a community-wide, a nationwide effort
to ensure everybody has a home
and everybody who wants to work has a way to make a living?
We are ready for a Jubilee Year like this, ready and past ready!
Speaking for myself, there are times
when I really want someone to make this happen for us.
I get tired sometimes
and I don’t want to have to do the work of justice-making.
I so sympathize with those brothers in our story
who longed to find a shortcut to what they wanted,
that buried treasure that promised them riches without effort.
I don’t want us to have to work so hard to fix things.
I wish we lived in a society
that took better care of those of us who are in trouble.
I want it to be that way now, without having to work for it.
And yet we are called to work with what is.
There really isn’t any other way.
We are the ones who can make justice real,
we and everyone else who cares about this community.
And I want to tell you something that has helped
to give me strength in these rough days we’re going through.
I told you about this phrase “the year of the Lord’s favor,”
another way of talking about the Jubilee Year.
This phrase of course is one translation of the original Hebrew;
it’s from the New Revised Standard Version,
which most of the time is what I use,
but the King James Version gives us a different translation
that I think is just marvelous:
“the acceptable year of the Lord.”
You know how sometimes someone says something
that strikes you in just the right way
and completely changes your outlook on a situation?
This is what happened to me.
I heard this phrase, “the acceptable year of the Lord,”
and I thought, wow, here we are in the most miserable time economically
that we have experienced for decades,
so much is hard,
so much is uncertain,
and yet, here we are, and this is the time we are given,
this is the life we are given,
and yet even in this very difficult moment,
even though the pain and the struggles are real,
there is another reality which permeates all that
and is deeper than the struggling,
there is a way we can experience this reality
as deeply, profoundly acceptable in spite of everything.
This is an acceptable year. This is what we’ve been given
and we have to find ways of working with it
that will bring joy into the world.
This is a tricky thing to explain. I don’t want you to misunderstand.
Maybe it will make sense if I say it this way.
I know that I need to feel that my life is meaningful and beautiful.
I think we all need that.
At times when our life is going well,
the economy’s humming along,
we have work that is congenial to our spirit,
we are happy in our relationships,
it’s easy to feel that sense that our life is meaningful and beautiful.
When things are not so easy,
in these times of economic disruption and devastation,
that need to experience our life as meaningful doesn’t go away,
and we have to work to take care of it.
We have to attend to it,
we have to go looking for beauty,
we have to look deeply at the stories we’re telling ourselves,
challenge ourselves to look below the surface of the news headlines
that blare out alarming economic statistics so continuously.
We have to remind ourselves that we are still part of a community
where people care about each other and want to help.
This is so important.
Those of us who live in Stockton know
there’s a very destructive culture here
of low morale, looking down on ourselves,
disparaging our city,
making fun of anyone who dares to suggest
this is a good place,
a place where people can thrive and be happy.
And in this sense I have to say, personally,
this is the hardest place I have ever lived.
I have found it hard to hang on to joy here
in the midst of so much negativity,
which runs way deeper than our current troubles.
Yet in some ways, this is also the easiest place I have ever lived.
I come from a cold climate, where winters are long and cold.
Here, the softness of the land is so beautiful to me.
Now, with the rains coming, it’s all so lush,
everything grows so richly, it’s such a soft place.
Living here, it’s so easy to see
that the world around us is just stunningly beautiful,
if we can just stop and pay attention.
Every sunset that washes across the sky,
every tomato plant that blossoms and bears fruit
and smells so good on our hands,
every crane and hawk and hummingbird
that deigns to share this earth with us
reminds us that we are a part of something amazing.
We are alive—
here we are, miraculously, on this little planet
in this unthinkably enormous universe
full of strangeness and wonder, and it this not a blessed miracle?
My hope for you all
is that you will be able to accept what is right now,
you will be able to say, yes, right here and right now,
my life is acceptable, I am glad to be living it.
And to do this we need to help ourselves, and help each other,
get back in touch with the beauty and the glory of this world
of which we are a part.
I truly believe this is what is going to help us
restore our communities.
This is what gives us strength and hope and courage.
Many years ago, Isaiah called out to the Israelites
and reminded them that they had it within themselves
oaks of righteousness,
[to] build up the ancient ruins,
[to] raise up the former devastations;
[to] repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations. (Isaiah 61:3–4)
And is this not what we are called to do here in this place?
To repair the devastated cities,
to restore our communities to health?
This is not going to happen overnight.
It takes time.
We can’t do it alone.
But I believe this place,
this beautiful, tough, gentle, hurting city
can begin to thrive again.
Marge Piercy tells us, don’t lose heart.
Change happens slowly.
You cannot always tell by looking what is happening.
But keep weaving the fabric of community,
keep building, keep digging,
keep reaching out, keep bringing in.
This is how we are going to live for a long time [she tells us]: not always,
For every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting, after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.
(Marge Piercy, “The Seven of Pentacles,” Singing the Living Tradition #568.)
So, with our work and our care and our commitment,
with our hanging in and our faith,
we build that land we love;
we make it real.
May it be so.