Today is Here
A guest essay by Sara Miles (http://www.saramiles.net/). Sara is Director of Ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco (http://www.saintgregorys.org/) and the author of Take This Bread. Her new book is Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead (Jossey-Bass, February, 2010).
For Sunday January 24, 2010
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)
Nehemiah 8:1–3, 5–6, 8–10
1 Corinthians 12:12–31a
"Today the Scriptures are fulfilled in your hearing."
And so Jesus emerges from his forty days in the wilderness, armed with the power of the Spirit. He walks into his hometown synagogue, among his own people. He opens the scroll, reads the words of the prophet Isaiah, and Jesus’ very first word out of the desert is: Today.
This is not religion as we know it. Not nostalgia for the past, nor a fantasy of the future. It’s not centered in memory or anticipation: next year I’ll do this; in the old days we did that, someday God will set things right.
Jesus just proclaims, today. Which is exactly what God means whenever she speaks her unspeakable name: I AM. And the power of that name always pulls back the curtain to reveal the eternal present, where God lives.
This reading from Luke cuts off rather abruptly, so that we don’t hear what happens next: the outrage of the people and their rejection of Jesus. We don’t see the scandalized lynch mob gathering, though the passage is clearly meant both to echo the prophets and prefigure the crucifixion. Jesus pulls together Isaiah’s words with hints of his own coming glorification — that is, his own torture and death at the hands of people very much like his listeners in the synagogue of Nazareth. Yet when he sits down to preach he simply says to them: Today. Today in your very hearing this text is fulfilled. I AM.
What does it mean if God in Christ is here, today? At the very least, it means good news for the poor, release for prisoners, sight to the blind, broken victims healed: a challenging enough proposition for those doing just fine in the world as it is. More disturbing still is what Jesus has been teaching through his actions around Galilee: God actually loves the Gentile, the cripple, the unclean foreigner as much as anyone else. I AM is filling all humanity, without exception, with God’s life.
This is, of course, the good news that will get Jesus killed, sooner rather than later, and continues to get people killed — today, in your hearing.
Because Jesus’ immediacy and explicitness continue to bother the faithful. Plenty of Christians willing to comb Leviticus to find a Scriptural justification to hang their entire anti-gay political program on, eager to find little scraps of St. Paul to shut me up with, are hesitant to take this rather literal-minded text literally. . . to believe that Jesus really means it.
Releasing prisoners? Actual ones? Those dumb guys who got caught breaking into your car last week? The wicked murderers in San Quentin? And forgiving the debts of the poor, isn’t that just a metaphor? That’s not for real, right? Could God intend such blessing for everyone?
Well, yes. Jesus is proclaiming that God, right now, today, is turning the world upside down. God, right now, is saving and freeing and healing and forgiving.
And Jesus is inviting us into that work. It is the literal work of siding with the oppressed and undeserving. It is the frequently uncomfortable work of telling the truth everywhere, to enemies and friends. It is the spiritual work of seeing that God IS: right now, right here, all things are being brought to their perfection, by him through whom all things were made.
This work does not belong to the church or its ministers. When my daughter was three, she would “help” me make dinner. She dropped eggs and broke plates and fussed; she misunderstood my directions, got in my way and made a big mess. It was ten times harder to cook with her than to do it alone.
But I didn’t give my child a job at dinnertime in order to be efficient. It was a way of bringing someone I loved into a sense of herself as a human being sharing in human work, side by side with others. And that’s how I think God must look at us, maybe especially at the church. We can’t be the most efficient way for God — who, after all, created earth and sky — to get things done. We feel proud of our good deeds, our spilled milk and burned cake, but God is rolling her eyes at the mess we make, cleaning up after us. And patiently showing us how to be human beings, by inviting us to share, with Jesus, in the work that makes us God’s children.
We can’t do this work to earn salvation: salvation is already here. We can’t obey out of ritual correctness: our best guesses about religion are no better than those of the people in the synagogue in Nazareth. We can only be drawn to Jesus the way a three-year old is drawn to her mother: yearning to get closer, imitating, picking up a plate and feeding others. Come and see, Jesus says to everyone, as he unrolls the scroll. Behold God’s reconciling work.
To behold God we have to act. What’s the point of dreaming about the rapture if you’re unable to forgive your friend this morning? What’s the point of imagining a future kingdom if you’re unwilling to give money to a stranger tonight? Why do I think I’ll wait to pray until I have enough time? Can’t I cross the room during the Peace to kiss the person who makes me most uncomfortable? Can’t I just go down to the county jail this afternoon: take Jesus’ hint, pull back the curtain, and behold the eternal I AM?
Revealed or hidden, prophesied or remembered, God is always at work. Join in, come closer, lend a hand, and you will enter the perpetual present tense of Emmanuel, God-with-us. Of holiness in mortal flesh, God alive despite our poverty and blindness, filling our clumsy, broken lives, making everything new. Today. I AM. The scriptures are fulfilled, in your hearing, today.
For further reflection:
See Sara Miles' newest book, Jesus Freak, due out in February by Jossey-Bass.
Image credits: (1) "Emmanuel" icon by Betsy Porter, photo by Richard Anderson; (2) NASA; and (3) Association for a More Just Society.