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Led Home to a World of Jubilee
1/6/2008
 

A Sermon by Alexander D. Baumgarten[1]

College Lutheran Church, San Diego

 

January 6, 2008

The Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ

 

Isaiah 60: 1-9

Psalm 72

Ephesians 3: 1-12

Matthew 2: 1-12

 

 

 

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

At the outset, allow me to express my deep thanks to your Pastor for the invitation to spend time with you, a Jubilee congregation, on this great feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  My name is Alex Baumgarten, and I serve on the Board of Jubilee USA as well as on the staff of the Episcopal Church, where I am responsible for foreign-policy lobbying to the U.S. government in Washington.  Jubilee debt cancellation is one of the policy issues on which I work most closely, and it’s a great joy to be with you today.

 

 

I

 

Rather than simply talking about Jubilee from the standpoint of government policy, though, I’d like to speak a little this morning about the Scriptural roots of Jubilee, particularly as we see those foundations in the Epiphany readings we have just heard, and how those roots inspire the changes in today’s world that Jubilee congregations like yours are seeking to achieve.

 

As I was preparing for this time together and reviewing the readings appointed for Epiphany Day, I was put in mind of a visit, number of years back, to the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Cologne, Germany.  In the Cathedral, behind and above the high altar, are three golden sarcophagi that – according to tradition – hold bones said to belong to the Wise Men.   The most interesting thing to me about the three sarcophagi was that each is shaped like an elaborate golden house.   Curious, I asked one of the Cathedral priests nearby why the tombs were shaped like houses and he responded that, while no one really knows, he likes to believe it’s because the story of the Magi is, at its roots, a story about the world coming home to God.  The Wise Men had to leave the comforts of the place they believed to be home, he explained, and travel a great distance, only to discover that their true home was in the Child of Bethlehem, the tiny baby in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”

 

Church tradition tells us that this coming home was, for the Magi, a transformational moment.    At the end of the Gospel reading we have just heard, Matthew tells us that “the Wise Men, having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, departed to their own country by another road.”  While these words – “by another road” – on one hand, refer to a different physical road home – Christians long have seen in them a deeper meaning.   The Wise Men, having knelt before the One is the Source of all life, are transformed and reborn completely into something new, and from that day forward, their journey through life is fundamentally different. 

 

The Anglican poet T.S. Elliot imagines this transformation in his poem “The Journey of the Magi.”  Though the Wise Men returned to their “own places, their own kingdoms,” he write, they were “no longer at ease [there] in the old dispensation.”  They were no longer at ease, at comfort, with their world and its brokenness because, in the arms of Mary, they had seen the beginnings of a new world being reborn before their eyes.

 

The Epiphany – God’s revelation of himself to the whole world in Christ –is ultimately about this transformation of the world: the coming home of a broken creation to the loving purposes of God who becomes Incarnate in order to dwell in the midst of the world’s sufferings and afflictions.  God, who proclaimed creation good at the dawn of time, is – in the Child of Bethlehem – calling the world to come home to that goodness and righteousness.

 

Coming home.   The Old Testament word for this is Jubilee: the periodic return and recreation of the people of God and the world in which they live, a season in which God’s justice and righteousness is given new birth in our lives.  

 

In the Jubilee Year commanded by God in the Book of Leviticus, the ancient Israelites were to set prisoners free, forgive all manners of debts, and rest for an extended period of time so that God’s unfolding may begin anew in their lives.   The Jubilee Year was a season of earthly holiness, the “Year of the Lord’s Favor.”

 

To Christians, Christ’s birth into the world and his revelation of himself to the world that we commemorate at Epiphany, are a sign that Jubilee – the Year of the Lord’s favor – is now intended by God to be permanent identity of the New Creation that springs forth from Bethlehem.   The Gospel of Luke tells us that after Jesus Baptism (which is, by the way, the event celebrated on Epiphany Day in the Eastern church), Jesus’ first act was to return home to the synagogue in Nazareth, presumably the house of worship where he was raised, and proclaim not just any scripture, but the Jubilee scripture from Isaiah:

 

                The Spirit of the LORD is upon me because the Lord GOD has anointed me;

                He has sent me to proclaim good news to the poor,

                To bind up the brokenhearted;

                To bring liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners;

                To proclaim the Year of the LORD’s Favor.

 

“Today,” he tells the astonished congregation as he rolls up the scroll, “this Scripture is fulfilled in your midst.”  Today, the Year of the Lord’s Favor becomes your enduring reality, as they new creation is being born in me. All the facets of Jubilee are commands for this New Creation, this Kingdom of God: equity for the poor, healing for the sick, release to those imprisoned unfairly by the world, and forgiveness of the debts of others.

 

The Incarnation – the journey that begins at the side of the manger in Bethlehem and leads to the foot of the Cross at Calvary – is about Jubilee.  It is about coming home to God and God’s will for the world.  And, in coming home, we are, like the Wise Men, transformed.

 

II

 

What does all of this mean for our world today?  What does it mean to allow Jubilee to break into our lives, for the Incarnation of Christ to take root in us and transform us?

 

The answer to that question could take days to flesh out, but – as a Jubilee congregation – I think many of you know that one of the chief signs of the brokenness of our world today is the more than one billion people around the world who live in extreme poverty.   Global poverty is responsible for killing one of God’s people every three seconds of every day, be it as a result of starvation, HIV/AIDS, malaria, water-born illness, or child malnutrition.  So widespread is the suffering and the death that entire nations become destabilized at their very roots because communities live every day in basic need. 

 

In recent years, as more people in the United States and other countries have become aware of the scale of the problem and its consequences, government spending in the rich world to alleviate poverty in the poor world has risen dramatically.   But, in a cruel irony, the countries that receive this money very often pay it right back to the rich world in compensation for old national debts, many of which accrued decades ago because of corrupt governments that have long-since reformed.

 

Africa spends more each year repaying debts than it receives in foreign aid from the entire rich world. Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere – barely an hour from our own nation’s shores – spends more each year on debt repayments than on health, education, clean water, and childhood vaccinations, combined.

 

Remedying this terrible injustice is why Jubilee USA exist, and why Jubilee congregations like yours are making a difference.   Many of you know that the Jubilee 2000 campaign – a worldwide movement in the years leading up to the new Millennium – achieved some significant commitments from the U.S. and other rich-country governments to cancel poor-country debts.   This debt cancellation has resulted in countless lives saved as millions of children have been vaccinated and sent to school, millions of families have received clean drinking water, and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment services have come to millions more of the world’s people.

 

In spite of this modest progress, however, more than 65 countries today need complete and immediate cancellation of their debts in order to gain traction in fighting the deadly poverty in their midst.  The Millennium Development Goals – the series of international targets for the cutting in half of extreme global poverty by 2015 – can not be met without debt cancellation for these 65+ countries.

 

In order to respond to this need, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in both houses of Congress has introduced the Jubilee Act for Responsible Lending and Debt Cancellation.  It would bring relief to these countries, ensure that the funds are used to fight poverty, and transform the way we do business in the future so that poor countries do not enter a whole new round of borrowing that cripples their livelihood.

 

In the Adult forum between services today, we’ll talk more about the legislation and what we can do to make it a reality.  Over the past six months, citizen advocacy from people across the United States – most often in Jubilee congregations such as your own – has led to a doubling of lawmakers in the House who have volunteered to cosponsor the Jubilee Act and the introduction of a strong companion bill by several key United States Senators.   Your advocacy has led to a hearing on the Jubilee Act in the House Committee that will ultimately decide its fate, and a promise from that Committee’s chairman to push the bill through to passage.

 

To those of you who may be new to the Jubilee movement or new to advocacy, all of this is evidence that actions such as the “Cancel Debt Fast” – observed in your congregation this past fall – make a tremendous difference in leading our nation and our world toward transformation.  

 

III

 

In spite of these signs of success, there should be no doubt that the pathway to passage of the Jubilee Act is an uphill road.   Congress plans to work just 55 days in 2008, and many of those days will be consumed with work that focuses on national security, funding the operations of the federal government, and – unfortunately – issues that one party or another believes will resonate in the fall elections.   We have a very small window in which to pass the Jubilee Act, and it will take a great degree of continued advocacy and hard work.  The journey will be difficult, but it can be made.

 

I think it’s comforting to remember, on this Epiphany Day, how difficult the journey of the Wise Men must have been.   On the long road to Bethlehem – following a star, of all things – there must have been a great many days when they questioned their own sanity and longed for the comforts of their old lives: their books and astrological charts, their communities of learning, the securities of what they believed to be their home.   But, by leaving home, they discovered that the place they left was not home at all.  Home was to be found at the foot of the manger.

 

T.S. Elliot imagines, in his poem, that the Wise Men, saw in the Child of Bethlehem both birth and death:

 

                                Were we led all that way for Birth or Death?

                                There was Birth, certainly, but…                              

                                …this Birth was hard and bitter agony for us,

                                like Death: our Death.

 

What was this death that they beheld?  I imagine it to be the same death to the world’s sin, brokenness, and disorder that each of us experiences in Baptism.   It is only through this death, St. Francis of Assisi reminds us, that we can rise with Christ to life.   And so, in dying to the world and the ways of their “old dispensation,” the Wise Men were able to become life-givers, architects of Jubilee, and builders of the reign of God in the world.   They were able to return home to purpose God had intended for them all along.

 

This morning, on this great Feast, I pray that we will see – in our own Baptisms and membership in the Body of Christ – the same spirit of death to the certainties of our world, that together we may be born anew into the same journey home as the Magi: the journey to a new world of Jubilee reshaped in the image of God.

 

“Glory to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” Amen.

 

 



[1] Alex Baumgarten is International Policy Analyst in the Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations.



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