"Because That's Who God Is" by Kevin Georgas
14:1 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. 2 Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. 3 And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” 4 But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. 5 Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” 6 And they could not reply to this.
7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
12 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the disabled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Friends, it’s such a gift to be with you this morning as we officially begin worship at Jubilee Baptist Church. There are some exciting things that we believe God is calling us to do together. Maybe you’re here this morning because you heard this church plans to practice liberation by paying off people’s debts. Maybe you’re here because this church wants to struggle with the things that make your life hard and so we support workers, we want to help mobilize a renewed labor movement because the problems we face are bigger than individual acts of kindness can undo; we need new structures. Maybe you’re here because this is a place where people of any identity can gather, where LGBTQ+ people can be their full selves without requiring some kind of conversation that gives “room at the table” for destructive theologies negating their existence. We’re excited about all of those things.
There are a lot of reasons to do those things, and you don’t have to be a Christian or religious at all to want to do them. But Jubilee is a place that says that we want to do those things because of who we believe God is, who we believe Jesus is. And so because we’re a church, we start with worship.
Jubilee as Sabbath
In the Bible, the Jubilee is an extension of worship. The year of Jubilee is a command God gives to the people of Israel while they’re wandering in the desert. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “Every seven years, I want you to let your land have a sabbath, a rest. For six years, you work; but on the seventh year, everything rests.” This is an agrarian society, so God’s basically saying, “I want you to sacrifice the whole economy for a year.” Then God commands that every seven times seven years, will be a year of Jubilee. Not only are the people commanded not to work for a whole year, but in the year of Jubilee anyone who has lost their land gets to return to it, anyone who is imprisoned must be freed, any immigrant must be given the status of citizen, and every debt must be canceled. So God commands a total reshuffling of the deck. These structures that we think make the world work, that keep us safe, that generate wealth, shut them down. They’re not necessary.
These commands are not just extra, something on the side of who God’s people are supposed to be. It’s not like dealing with your soul and your eternal destiny are the real thing and then if you have time you do the justice stuff on the side. The Jubilee is an extension of the Sabbath. It’s a time to remember who runs the world. In the mythology that we’ve received, creation exists because God’s love overflows for six days, creating the heavens and the earth, and the skies and the seas and the mountains, and varieties of animals that reproduce and grow and change over time, and God looks on this creation, these amazing environments and people, all beautiful and weird, and God says, “This is very good.” And on the seventh day, God rests. God sets aside the seventh day as a sabbath to remember the goodness of creation; and through the abundance and beauty of creation, we remember God’s love and our own goodness, too.
That’s what the Sabbath is for. That’s what worship is. The purpose of this world God made was so that in its abundance we would all know how much love and care God has for all of us. In worship we set aside time each week to rest, to maybe even be silent for a moment, to contemplate that what God says about us is more true than what anyone else says or sometimes even than what we say to ourselves. The year of Jubilee is intended to make a world where all know that’s true.
The Temptation to Ideology
Maybe you’re thinking, “that’s really nice, but I’ve got a boss who’s gonna email me tonight, and it doesn’t matter that God loves me unconditionally because he needs me to work overtime.” Maybe you grew up in churches with abusive theologies that taught you that instead of being very good you are fundamentally a problem in need of fixing, and so you come to worship and it’s complicated. Maybe you’re thinking, creation might be abundant for some people, but we’re living paycheck to paycheck over here. (You want me to rest, in this economy?) How do we remember that God is love and creation is good in the midst of our struggles and hurts?
This tension is at the heart of Luke 14. In this story, Jesus is with some religious leaders for a meal on the Sabbath when a man who is sick comes to him. Jesus says to the religious leaders, “Do you think I should heal him?” In other words, what’s more important right now, to fulfill the command not to do any work, or to save this person’s life? What’s the relationship between our story of God’s goodness and the suffering right in front of us?
On first glance, this might seem like a story about hypocrisy. The Pharisees are stuffy traditionalists who can’t let go of their rigid religion for five seconds to help this person right in front of them. But I think this situation is more complicated than that. The Sabbath was never just a religious obligation; it was a gift so that the people would be able to rest and contemplate God’s glory. And for this particular Jewish community, who lived under occupation by the Roman Empire, practicing the Sabbath helped them survive their oppression and provided a form of resistance against the grinding work the Empire would have them perform day in and day out to prove they deserved to live. The Sabbath is good, and so instead of hypocrisy, I believe in this story we see dramatized the kind of contradictions that we face living under a global empire that dominates every aspect of your life.
What kind of world do we live in where if a priest or a doctor or a teacher or a social worker takes a day off, people in need are screwed? People should be able to rest and the needy should be able to get help. Both of these are true and yet we live in a world where these two goods have to cannibalize each other. There is no ethical choice that keeps us from being implicated in the world’s suffering. This is the contradiction of living under Empire.
So I don’t think this is a story about hypocrisy, but it could be a story about ideology. Hypocrisy is where you say one thing and then do the opposite. Ideology is where you tell a story that justifies what you’re already doing. The real temptation when we find ourselves pressed upon by the world’s contradictions is to turn the story of God’s goodness into an ideology. We can look at the suffering in our world, at our own struggles and difficulties, and conclude that if God is good, then everything happens for a reason, then everything will work out in the end. Life is always complicated and messy; if we help this guy, a hundred more will show up. There’s nothing we can do about the larger structural problems all around us, these massive movements of famine and disease, it’s easier just to remember that God is in control and for us to focus on being positive in the individual decisions I can control. The story of God’s love can be used to confirm us in a false sense of our own righteousness as we transcend the contradictions in this world while ultimately leaving them in place. In this way, worship can become, dare I say, an opiate; we can use the story of God’s goodness to numb our sensitivity to suffering while ultimately doing nothing about it and even saying it is right that we do nothing about it.
Confess, Hear, Respond
But Jesus doesn’t let worship papier mâché over the contradictions that shape our lives. Instead, Jesus invites us in worship to confess, telling the truth about those contradictions, to hear the possibility of other arrangements, and to respond by loving as if a different world is possible. First of all, if there is a God who made the world and called it good, then it should become obvious when things are not good. Jesus doesn’t ignore the sick man, he points him out. He says “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, you would pull it out on the Sabbath.” The purpose of the Sabbath was always to give life and so if life is being destroyed there already is no rest (this is traditional Jewish teaching). So when you’re sick, when your finances are weighing on you, when the grief is too much, when you’re guilty over how you’ve treated someone else, Jesus wants us to know that the appropriate response in worship is to tell the truth about all of it. If our hope is that this community would reveal God’s love, then we have to be honest about anything that keeps our world and our lives from being more loving.
So every week, when we worship, we’ll confess. Confession doesn’t mean whipping yourself until you come up with something to feel bad about. I find that most people today don’t have a hard time finding things to feel bad about. Confession means that there is no part of your life that you have to check at the door when you come into this place. You don’t have to make yourself look good, even to yourself. When you confess you say “God, this is what’s going on, remind me of your love here.” Whatever it means to say that God is love and creation is good, that story is only loving and good if it becomes material, embracing the gritty details of our lives, our guilt, our finances, our politics, your frustration with your boss, your struggles with your partner, whatever it is that is weighing on you today.
After Jesus heals the sick man, he looks around the room and tells a parable: he says imagine you’re at a wedding. And everybody’s trying to get the best seats because the seating arrangement reflects your class position, your value as a person. And Jesus says, imagine how embarrassing it would be if you fought for a good seat, and then the host says, “You’re in the wrong place, move down.” Instead, Jesus says, those who humble themselves will be exalted and those who exalt themselves will be humbled.
After we confess, Jesus wants us to hear, to hear that there are other possibilities for how we can live. When Jesus says that the humble will be exalted and the exalted will be humbled, he’s saying “listen, the arrangements that harm you so much, where some are always on the top and others are always pressed down, they are not the way God wants the world to be.” After they are faced with the truth of their sick neighbor, Jesus makes sure his friends hear, on the Sabbath, that God wants a world where that whole ladder gets flattened.
And in this parable, Jesus is also describing his own life. He is fully God, but Jesus doesn’t consider exaltation with God a thing to be grasped but instead takes the form of a servant, joining us in the flesh, at the end of the table in all the struggles we confess; but then Jesus rises from death so that all who are pressed down will be exalted with him. That is ultimate reality, the mighty cast down from their thrones and the lowly lifted up, and so even if the things we struggle against are big and immovable from our vantage, they aren’t necessary. Because God is love and creation is good, life doesn’t have to be this way.
In worship we hear. We hear how God always sides with the least of these, we hear that whatever it is you have to confess, whatever it is you’re struggling with, God is in the midst of it with you and your salvation means liberation from those chains.
But that means we can’t leave the world as we find it. And so in worship we also respond. After Jesus tells the story of the wedding banquet, he says to the host of their Sabbath meal,“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors…But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the disabled, the lame, and the blind.” If God is real, if Jesus shows us who God is, then we get to rearrange everything. If the patterns of this world harm so many of us, if God’s own life offers us other patterns, then God invites us to live together in different ways, to experiment in forms of life where everyone is welcome to a full plate (no less, no more).
This is why the year of Jubilee is about worship. Re-ordering unjust structures, making sure that not only is everyone is invited to the banquet but that everyone’s plate is equally full: the Jubilee is worship because it makes it possible for everyone to rest and contemplate God’s goodness. These are the ways we let each other know that we are good and loved and bear God’s image.
And so in worship, we respond. We come to the table for communion, where we practice eating all together. Some weeks, when you’re tired and beat up, that is your whole response, to eat and be nourished and know your presence is a gift. But maybe you also respond by joining in someone else’s struggle or working toward our common liberation. In a couple weeks, when we pay off our first debt together, we’re going to do it in worship, just before we take communion. Because responding means making a place at the table where everyone’s plate is full.
So my friends, as we come to the table, come knowing that God made you and loves you and says you are good; and because of that none of us have to accept the ways in which the world is not good, but together with God’s Spirit in our midst we can love as if a different world is possible, a world of rest, and delight, and abundant beauty. That’s what we’re called to do because that’s who God is. Amen.