Sermon January 23 2022

While I have never been one to follow the ritual, I have been curious of late as to how the giving of traditional anniversary gifts was established. For example, why is crystal given for the 15th year or silver for the 25th? Some of the gifts for the years are really very strange. The traditional gift for the 10th year is tin or aluminium, for the 16th year it’s coffee or tea, for the 35th it’s coral?!  While gift giving itself should be no surprise and likely dates back to ancient Rome, the established traditional gifts for wedding anniversaries did not appear until the 19th century in Victorian England. Historians believe this is in part because up until then marriages were not usually based on love but on arrangements and convenience, so  not exactly something you would celebrate. It was in the 1880s when the whole idea of specific gifts like paper, silver, or tea for specific years was established and the company Hallmark took it to a whole new level in 1920 when it included an exhaustive list for every year of marriage. So like many things the tradition started as a commercial tactic.  In an article from 1886 it says that the reason one should give a gift for a wedding anniversary is not only, “in congratulation of the good fortune that had prolonged the lives of the couple so many years,” but also, “in recognition of the fact that the pair must have known a fairly harmonious existence to make it so far and that in agreement with the old idea that the harmony of the household depended mainly upon the wife that she be the one to  receive the reward.”

All silliness aside it does take a fairly harmonious existence to make it in this world. Today we celebrate Comox Valley Presbyterian Church’s anniversary as a congregation, a good 27 years. Which by the way, the traditional gift for 27 years is music. And while there have been challenges, grief,  disagreements and changes along the way, I would argue that for most of us it has been a fairly harmonious existence- even over the past two years of pandemic life! This is in part due to the hard work of those who have gone before us, those who literally laid the foundation for this church-some who are with us today! This is in part due to the harmonious effort of the leadership within session and committees. But I also suspect it has a lot to do with the Holy Spirit-to the leading, guiding, pushing, and pulling that the Spirit has done and continues to do within this church.

You know, of all the Gospels, the Holy Spirit appears most in Luke. It’s been a month, but perhaps you can recall that in the beginning of Luke, it is the Spirit who fills Elizabeth as she greets Mary. It is the Spirit that fills Zechariah as he prophesies upon the day of his son’s birth. It is the Spirit who guides Simeon in the temple. It is the Spirit that descends upon Jesus at his baptism and then leads him into the wilderness.  Now, as Jesus returns to his hometown and reads in his home synagogue, Jesus is filled with the Spirit as he reads from Isaiah.

Something important to note that might surprise you is that, in Luke,  the words Jesus reads from Isaiah in the synagogue are Jesus’ very first recorded words in public. Yes, we hear Jesus speak to his Mom when he’s lost in Jerusalem, yes, Jesus and the devil have a conversation in the wilderness, the wilderness into which the Spirit led Jesus. But the reading from Isaiah is the first recorded words of Jesus’ public ministry in the Gospel according to Luke. And it’s all thanks to the fact that Jesus is filled with the power of the Spirit.

In all likelihood what Jesus read was a much larger portion from Isaiah because what we have in our passage is a merger of two sections from Isaiah, chapters 61 and 58. You might recall last week that we heard from Isaiah 62 which is right after the passages Jesus reads and that the whole section of Isaiah 60-62 is about restoration following years of living in exile. While the people have not been living in exile, in Jesus’ day they certainly did not live with autonomy or freedom. They lived as oppressed people in their own land. So Isaiah’s words of restoration, regrowth and renewal still resonated with them. Jesus’ first words in public ministry are very intentional because they set up what Jesus’ ministry and mission will be about- particularly from Luke’s point of view.

Theologian Elisabeth Johnson points out, “Right here, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus tells us clearly what his mission is about. He boldly claims to fulfil the words of Isaiah, who speaks of the Spirit anointing him, sending him, compelling him, to bring good news to every one of God’s children who is bound up, pressed down, broken in spirit, impoverished, imprisoned, and desperately hungry for good news.” Perhaps as privileged people it is hard to understand just how liberating these words would have been, particularly as Jesus follows them up with, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” But there is a part of me who can appreciate how much we need to hear good news in these times. How much we need to hear that Jesus proclaims release from captivity and freedom and recovery. We are not captives or oppressed, most of us can not claim to be poor. Yet, we are in need of good news.

The Greek word for poor used in this passage is ptochoi which did indeed relate to economics but also to status and all the factors that could influence one’s lack of status in society, including race, gender, education, occupation, disability and even degree of religious purity. So when Jesus quotes Isaiah stating good news to the poor this really is a powerful statement of who Jesus is and whom Jesus has come to save. But this news would not have sat well with those who held power. Even for us, it can force us to come face to face with some uncomfortable truths. We are the powerful today. This can affect our harmonious existence because the Spirit stirs us with the realization that we may need to give up being comfortable. What are ways in which we can celebrate our anniversary in this community? Sure, we can congratulate our selves and remain insular in our thinking or do we hear these words of fulfilment from Jesus and ask ourselves how does Jesus want us to celebrate? For some this may be an abstract or spiritual question but Jesus demonstrated concrete examples of how to bring and be good news to the poor. Jesus healed, welcomed, liberated, many who others deemed to be on the fringes. Jesus turned tables- literally.

Back to this point about harmonious existence being something worth celebrating. You see, next week we will find out that Jesus’ words made a lot of people, particularly in his hometown, very uncomfortable. Quickly they go from transfixed and amazed to anger and violence. Jesus’ words do not fit in with their own idea of harmonious existence- even if they are living under Roman oppression. A reminder that we are still in the season of Epiphany. We tend to think that epiphany only represents the story of the visit of the Magi. We forget that there are many epiphanies recorded in the Gospels and today in the people hearing Jesus’ words, the epiphany is both enlightening and disturbing. Jesus sheds light on Isaiah and tells the people that this ancient prophet’s words to a post-exilic people have finally been fulfilled in Jesus.

This is our anniversary Sunday service- when we celebrate the gifts we have been given as a church in the Comox Valley. We can indeed celebrate with joy, and so we should, how far we have come and who we as a congregation have become. We can celebrate the harmonious existence we have had over the last 27 years. BUT I also wonder, how do we see our fulfilment in the Comox Valley? In our harmonious existence do we run the risk of becoming complacent. Where is the Spirit pushing and pulling us, filling us today? Happy Anniversary CVPC! Amen