So, at what point do we politely ask Canada to run the United States? I tried to find a cartoon or a joke about the government shutdown, but frankly, it just wasn’t funny. The only thing I saw that made me laugh was a photo of a furloughed IRS employee protesting by the side of a road in Kentucky. He was holding up a sign that said, “Honk if U want your refund.”
The longest shutdown in US history ended Friday. For now. As the shutdown entered its fifth week, the waves of havoc it created crashed ever further outward, threatening essential government functions and introducing unexpected hardships in the lives of millions of Americans. Crucial climate change monitoring and research was halted. Unpaid Coast Guard personnel had to turn to food banks to feed their families. Corrections officers couldn’t buy gas to get to work. Some federal employees had to tap into their retirement plans. Our national parks filled with garbage and human waste, air traffic controllers were worried our flights were unsafe, and food inspections were cut back. It’s unanimous that things won’t fall back into place overnight. I read a story about a family trying to buy a house. They were supposed to close in January and move into the house on February 1st, so they gave notice to their current landlord, who quickly found a new tenant. But they were told there was no way they could close in January because their home loan is supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It’s likely they’ll still have to find someplace to move – them and all their stuff – for a few days or weeks. Ordinary folks, not connected to the government, whose lives are disrupted.
Here’s the thing: The people who had the power to end the government shutdown aren’t hurt by it. So what could the rest of us do? The continued stalemate caused a deepening sense of powerlessness in our nation. I don’t doubt that each of you cared – cares – deeply about this crisis. I don’t doubt that, when you hear Jesus read the Isaiah scroll in the synagogue as he did in this morning’s passage in Luke, you know he’s talking not only about his mission statement, but our mission statement, as well. I don’t doubt that you understand that we, the Church in the world, are the Body of Christ, as Paul puts it, and that Christ’s work is our work. But how on earth are we supposed to do it? It’s easy to feel as though there’s little we can do to change one intractable political crisis after another.
The Luke passage itself contains a glimmer of hope for us. When Jesus has finishes reading from the Torah, rolls it up, and sits down to preach, he doesn’t just say, “The Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” or “The Scripture will be fulfilled in your hearing.” He says, “Today, the Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Today. What does he mean? Because that day, right there in the synagogue, it probably didn’t look to anyone as though the things Isaiah described had happened, any more than it looks that way to us now. Maybe Jesus is announcing that it is in his very person that Isaiah’s message to share God’s word of liberty, grace and healing is made manifest. Or maybe “today” isn’t a fixed, unmoving term, but instead, it’s dynamic, active, as in “today is just the beginning.” And as it just so happens, in the Greek, the verb tense in “the Scripture has been fulfilled” isn’t the once and done present tense or past tense. It’s the ongoing, even repetitive, and definitely recurring perfect tense. Here’s an example of what the perfect tense sounds like in English: “She has lived here all her life.” See? Ongoing. Not complete. Still happening. So Jesus is saying, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled, and continues to be fulfilled, and will keep being fulfilled, and therefore will keep needing to be fulfilled in your presence.”
That’s important for us, today. Jesus’ words are a declaration and a promise – in Jesus, God acts on behalf of those in need and God will continue to take the side of the vulnerable. But his words are also an invitation. God’s fulfillment of these promises is ongoing, and we are invited to be part of it. Today. Tomorrow. And the next day.
We are invited to be part of God’s fulfillment of God’s promises. Today. Tomorrow. And the next day. A part. Not the whole. Just a part, and which part depends on your gifts, as Paul emphasized in his first letter to the Corinthians.
It was in response to this invitation that four of us attended the Marin Organizing Committee’s delegates’ convention last Wednesday evening. The delegates’ convention is the January meeting at which the churches and organizations that are part of the Marin Organizing Committee, or MOC, gather to plan ahead for the year. We met at First Presbyterian Church of San Rafael, and the sanctuary was packed with folks from other Marin churches, synagogues and social services organizations. We heard stories from people who are worried they’ll have to move because of rising rents, from people who hold multiple jobs to keep their kids in Marin public schools, and from people who were celebrating that, because of MOC, Marin County town councils are paying attention to rent hikes and deplorable living conditions. MOC meetings often feel a lot like a perpetual pep rally, and that’s not really my thing – perhaps not my gift – but that’s okay. We need to hear these stories, and our congregation belongs at this table, at the MOC table. Along with all the other institutions there, the four of us from our congregation gathered to prepare our short report to the whole body. Then Royce Truex sat down with the crowd, but I was happy to hang out at the back of the room with Gina Guillamette, who was bouncing baby Everett in what we used to call a Snugli, and Joy Snyder, who protects her fragile back by remaining standing.
The new pastor of the Unitarian Universalist church closed the meeting with a benediction. He’s a Goliath of a young man with multiple tattoos and large earrings, his name is Marcus, and he is Henry Kuizenga’s grandson. I’m not kidding. For those of you who haven’t been around for a million years, Henry Kuizenga was the pastor of this church in the 1960’s. Marcus talked about the fact that some cultures teach about the web of existence, how we’re all connected; teach “Ubuntu,” the Shona word that means, “I am, because you are.” The way the apostle Paul put it in verses from Chapter 12 we didn’t read this morning is, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”
Marcus continued, saying that in our culture, however, we’re taught that we’re individuals, rugged individuals, even, who are supposed to make it on our own, and as long as I can make it, I don’t need to think about you. This is broken. We are people of the covenant, said Marcus, and we’ve broken the covenant, the covenant in which God claims us all as God’s own, and calls us to care for each other and for God’s Creation. But the good news is that in Scripture, God never gives up on us. In Scripture, we see how people keep figuring things out, returning to God, and mending the covenant. And we can do that, too.
I said a bit ago, “The people who had the power to end the government shutdown aren’t hurt by it.” Within the context of our faith, there is no such thing. There is no such thing as remaining “unhurt” if others around us are hurting. And so we are invited to be part of God’s fulfillment of God’s promises. Today. Tomorrow. And the next day.
You might be thinking, “Me, us, really? Have you been paying attention? The problems are so huge!” But this invitation can also be empowering: “Me, us, really? We can make a difference? You mean the small things we do matter? You mean that God is at work in our lives and relationships for the sake of the world?”
Yes. In big ways and smaller ways. In you; in me, in ways that fit our gifts. Today. Tomorrow. And the next day. We saw this happening in the nightly news, lately filled with stories of how food banks, soup kitchens, restaurants, and a range of businesses and nonprofit organizations opened their doors and redoubled their efforts to serve and support furloughed and unpaid government workers and contractors. Countless churches also stepped up to stand in the gap for those who were shoved to the side by the shutdown. The churches in the Washington, D.C. area were particularly well-mobilized, but other parts of the country responded, too. Here in Marin, the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank responded to the needs of Coast Guard families, the one branch of the military that was asked to work without pay. Here in our own congregation, we are part of God’s fulfillment of God’s promises in too many ways to list, in big efforts, in small efforts, and in very personal efforts.
Let me be quick to point out that the churches’ outpouring of generosity and compassion may be an important stopgap, but it isn’t a substitute or sustainable solution to any government shutdown. Bread for the World reinforced this point when it reported during the 2018 budget debate, that each of the country’s religious congregations would have to add $714,000 to their annual budgets each year for the next decade to make up for the drastic cuts that were proposed by the administration.
I usually bring out the poem on your bulletin covers, Howard Thurman’s, “The Work of Christmas,” a little closer to Christmas. Here we are at the end of January. The stores are full of Valentines displays. Although, there is a house down the street from my house that still has Christmas lights up. Maybe they left them up on purpose, as a reminder that this is the season, these weeks after Christmas, when we ponder the implications of God’s entering humanity through the Word made flesh. Or maybe they just forgot to take them down. But today seemed like a good day, a good time, for Thurman’s challenging, empowering and even joyful invitation to see God at work, in Jesus and through us, today. Tomorrow. And the next day.
May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2019 all rights reserved.
 Tom McCarthy, “Outside the Washington circus, shutdown havoc spreads,” January 20, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/jan/20/government-shutdown-outside-washington-circus-havoc. Photo caption: “Will Kohler, an IRS tax examiner, holds a protest sign as union members and other federal employees rally to call for an end to the partial shutdown outside the IRS site, in Covington, Kentucky. Photograph: John Minchillo/AP.”
 McCarthy, ibid.
 David Lose, “Epiphany 3C: Declaration, Promise and Invitation,” http://www.davidlose.net/2019/01/epiphany-3-c-declaration-promise-and-invitation/.
 Lose, ibid.
 Lose, ibid.
 Caleb Pershan, “Food Bank Hosts Massive Mobile Pantry for Unpaid Coast Guard Workers,” January 18, 2019, https://sf.eater.com/2019/1/18/18188486/sf-marin-food-bank-government-shutdown-novato-coast-guard.
 Adam Taylor, “The Shutdown Is Revealing Our National Character,” January 24, 2019, https://sojo.net/articles/shutdown-revealing-our-national-character.
 Howard Thurman, “The Work of Christmas,” in Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations (1973, repr., Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 2011), 28:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.