Today’s scripture readings:
Last Tuesday evening I spent the night here at church volunteering with Project Home. If you’re new to Gloria Dei or visiting for the first time today, what you need to know is that Project Home is a ministry of Interfaith Action of Greater Saint Paul that works with local congregations to provide emergency shelter and volunteer support for families facing homelessness. Project Home is hosted at two different area faith communities each month and provides around two dozen emergency shelter beds at each host site. For over two decades now, Gloria Dei has hosted the Project Home shelter here in our building during the month of December. This year as the month began we had five families living with us—five single mothers and a total of 16 children. On Tuesday evening I had a chance to spend some time with the families as they decompressed from another long day.
That night there was a spirit of joy and celebration in the air because one of the families—a woman named Tiffany and her three young children—were preparing to move out of the shelter and into their own apartment. That, of course, is the end goal for every family in Project Home—to find a home for themselves and make a smooth and sustainable transition out of homelessness. After five and a half months in Project Home, moving her family each month from one church building to another, Tiffany was ecstatic to finally have a place of her own to call home.
A little later in the evening another woman showed up—someone who was a stranger to me but who all the guests in Project Home knew as “Miss Elaine.” She was carrying a pan of brownies, and as soon as she appeared in the room, all the guests jumped up to give her hugs. It turned out Miss Elaine is a member of an Episcopal congregation here in St. Paul that hosted Project Home a few months ago, and during that time she’d had a chance to bond with all these families. She’d heard Tiffany’s family had found housing and she had come to offer her congratulations. Within a few minutes, she was sitting at a table across from Tiffany with her notepad. “OK,” she said, “let’s talk about what you need. A table? Chairs? Do you have a bed? How about for the kids? Do you drink coffee? Any food allergies?” Elaine was making a plan to help stock Tiffany’s kitchen and furnish her apartment on move-in day. Of course, Tiffany was thrilled to have Miss Elaine’s help. But the thing I remember most is Tiffany saying, “Miss Elaine, I don’t care if I have to sleep on the floor. It’s going to be my floor. I’m going to sleep as long as I want and nobody’s going to tell me when it’s time for me to leave.”
If you ask Tiffany or any of our December guests, they will tell you how grateful they are for Project Home—for the shelter space local churches provide, for the love and support of volunteers like Miss Elaine and the over 150 of us who will volunteer with Project Home over the course of the month, and for the social workers on staff at Interfaith Action who help our guests transition to permanent housing. But you also get the sense that being a homeless guest of Project Home brings with it a sense of exile. You’re never really at home but always a visitor, stripped of your ability to make basic choices for yourself, forced to come and go when you’re told and to eat what someone else sets before you. Living in shelter brings with it a loss of independence and a longing for home, a return from the exile of homelessness.
With the First Sunday of Advent last week we began a new church year, and this is the year when most of our Gospel readings will come from the Gospel of Luke. More than any of the other Gospel writers, Luke seems to think of himself as a historian. I think that explains why Luke begins the passage we read today by naming all the political leaders on the scene. As a historian, he is trying to place the events he describes in the larger political and historical context. We can actually look in other sources to discover exactly when the Emperor Tiberias began his reign and when Herod and Pilate ruled Galilee and Judea. By naming all these leaders, Luke allows us to determine that the events he describes took place right around the year 28-29 CE.
That’s all very interesting, but I don’t think that’s the main reason Luke goes out of his way to name all these political leaders at the beginning of this story. There’s something else going on here. You get a sense of what Luke is up to just by reading that first sentence again—that first, long, run-on sentence. He writes, “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas”—it’s exhausting just reading it. I think that gives us a clue about what Luke is up to. In this opening sentence Luke names no fewer than seven political leaders, all of whom were agents of the Roman Empire who kept the Jewish people under their thumb, who stripped them of their ability to make basic choices for themselves. It’s appropriate that we feel exhausted just reading this first sentence, because the Roman occupation of the Jewish homeland brought great exhaustion to the Jewish people. These Roman leaders dictated the terms of Jewish civic life, extracted the Jewish people’s wealth for their own enrichment, and even corrupted their religious observance. Under Roman occupation, the Jews were made to feel like exiles on their own land.
That explains why, after establishing the historical context with that long first sentence, Luke goes on to tell us about John the Baptist, out in the wilderness, quoting from the prophet Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make [God’s] paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” The Jewish people would have heard John the Baptist saying all this and recognized immediately that he was quoting from Isaiah 40.
Here’s what you need to know about Isaiah 40. It describes a time about 600 years earlier when the Babylonian Empire had risen to power and conquered Jerusalem—completely obliterated the city, destroyed the temple, and driven the Jewish people off into exile in Babylon. In biblical history, this is hands-down the worst catastrophe the Jewish people had ever suffered. Things had never been worse. That’s when the prophet Isaiah appears, speaking to the Jewish people in exile who are feeling completely hopeless about the future. He says to the people, “Prepare the way of the Lord! The valleys will be filled in and the mountains will be leveled; the curves will be straightened and the rough places made smooth. There is going to be a highway through this wilderness to bring you back home, and then you will see the salvation of God.” That was good news for the Jewish people living in exile after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. And now in Luke’s Gospel, when the Jewish people are ruled by Rome, feeling hopeless and experiencing a different kind of exile, John the Baptist shows up in the wilderness with the same message Isaiah had proclaimed 600 years before: Your exile is about to be over; your salvation is at hand. John is pointing to Jesus, who will be the people’s hope in the midst of despair, who will be a light in the darkness, who will bring liberation from oppression.
Exile is an experience that is familiar to many of us. Exile is whenever we feel ourselves displaced or far from home, stripped of our independence, captive to forces beyond our control. All this week I’ve been wondering, how would today’s Gospel lesson read if we had written it about ourselves? Maybe it would go something like this: “In the tenth year of my cancer diagnosis, the year we lost a son to addiction and mental illness, after a failed procedure to address the chronic pain I’d been living with for over three years, when Mom had been in and out of the hospital after multiple falls at home and Dad’s dementia slowly stole him away from us, the year our marriage began to fall apart and reconciliation seemed impossible, the word of God came to us at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church.” The word of God that came to John in the wilderness is the same word that finds each of us in our wilderness today, longing for a return from exile: “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make God’s path straight! Every valley will be filled; every mountain and hill will be leveled. The crooked path will be made straight and the rough places made smooth. Our exile is about to be over. Soon we’ll be on our way back home. Then each one of us shall see the salvation of God.” Thanks be to God.
David J. Lose, “Advent 2C: Audacious Historians,” on …In the Meantime, November 30, 2015, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/11/advent-2-c-audacious-historians/.