Light-Bearers

(sermon 2/9/20)

 

Isaiah 58:1-12

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.

“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

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Just last week, we heard that well-known passage from Micah, with its memorable final summary sentence – what does God require of us, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. It’s a beautiful example of an Old Testament declaration of what’s at the core of the gospel, that the transcendent, eternal God of the universe knows us, and loves us, and wants love for all of us.

But it doesn’t take more than a few seconds after we hear Micah’s beautiful words before we start wondering what it really means. I mean, they’re really pretty vague. What do those words look like in the real world, to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God?

Today’s text from Isaiah is a tailor-made answer to that question. Here, the prophet lays out a detailed shopping list of things that God considers pleasing – the truest “fast,” as it’s put here, and the truest kind of worship: undoing injustices. Freeing the oppressed. Feeding the hungry. Sheltering the homeless; helping the afflicted.

It would be easy at this point to make this another sermon banging the drum to do more, more, more to help others, and it can become frustrating, and frankly annoying, to get a message that no matter what we do, apparently it doesn’t seem to ever be enough, because here’s this preacher beating us over the head, telling us again that we still need to do more, and making us feel guilty  because we aren’t.

Well, there no doubt are times for a sermon that calls us to consider our lives of faith, and ask ourselves whether we’re doing all we should, in terms of that list of things that Isaiah lays out. Maybe that’s another sermon for another day; maybe next month, or the month after that; I don’t know. But today, I want to go in another direction, because just as there are times to wonder about doing more, there are also times to recognize the good that we are accomplishing in Christ’s name. It’s important to do that, we have to do that, because even though we are doing many good things, and we are really trying to do them with all the sincerity of our hearts, some days, some weeks, months, it just doesn’t seem to make any difference. The injustice, the oppression, the selfishness and lies, the abuses – the darkness – just keeps coming and what we’re doing doesn’t seem to make a dent in the seeming black hole of evil that fills parts of our world. It can feel like we’re banging our heads against a wall, that it’s all a big exercise in futility, and we’re tempted to just throw up our hands and say forget it, I’m not even trying anymore; I quit.

To be sure, and just as with the Micah passage from last week, this passage from Isaiah begins with God criticizing the people for not doing these things. But both that passage and this one concludes  with hope, and this one goes even farther and offers a promise –  and it’s that promise that I want to focus on today.

In the second half of today’s passage, God tells the people that if they did those things, if they lived that way and worked toward those things, their “light shall break forth like the dawn.” Their work isn’t ever in vain, no matter how futile it might seem in the moment. That God would satisfy them in the “parched places” of their lives, and they would be like a “watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail.”

Have you ever been swimming somewhere on a hot day – maybe you had a favorite swimming hole when you were younger, or maybe even now; maybe some pond nestled in the woods? Maybe the pond where a little waterfall that pours down into it, and you can get under the waterfall and just let the water flow, just cascade down all over you? Even if you never have, you can probably imagine how refreshing it would be; how in that moment, all your cares washed away and you felt renewed in your very soul. That’s the kind of feeling that God is describing here, promising that our efforts to do those things  would not be in vain. God would notice, and the good that we’d sought – our light – would radiate outward from us and would bring light into the world, into places and people we might never know.

So let’s do that today. Yes, we know that there’s plenty wrong with our world. And yes, we know that we need to continue to work to right injustices, and end oppression, to feed and shelter the needy, to end affliction. But right now, let’s just consider what good we actually are accomplishing. I’d like you to take a moment now. Relax; get comfortable in your seats. Close your eyes, or at least bow your heads; don’t look at me. Take a few deep breaths. … Now I want you to think about the good that you are doing as an expression of your faith in God, your devotion to Christ. Think about the things that you do personally…. or your family does… or that we do as a congregation… … Think about the refugees and immigrants that have been helped… think about the homes that have been built…. think about the at-risk children whose needs have been met, the Christmas presents received…. the food that has been put on countless unknown tables….  the people who have been warmed by clothing and blankets…. the grieving who have been comforted…. the sick who have received medical help…. Realize, and accept, that it isn’t an exaggeration to say that because of you, actual lives have been saved…. ……

…. Now as you think of those things, let yourself feel God’s compassion …. feel God’s love flowing down over you like the waterfall flowing into the pond and bathing you, cleansing you, renewing you…. know that what you’re doing, what we’re doing, is making a difference in ways seen and unseen…. know that God knows, and is pleased with those efforts….. your work is not in vain…. you, and the love that you show, are precious in God’s sight…. feel that this morning…… Let yourself accept the love that God is surrounding you with…. let yourself accept that your light is breaking forth…

OK, you can open your eyes. Of course, nothing’s changed since you closed them. There are still a lot of things wrong in the world, still lots of work to do. But there’s also a lot that has been accomplished in Christ’s name, too. Christ’s light is breaking into the world in countless ways and to countless people – and you are a part of that. You are light-bearers – and God calls that very good.

Thanks be to God.

 

The Trial of the Century

(sermon 2/2/20)

My_Trusty_Gavel
Photo: Brian Turner [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

Micah 6:1-8

Hear what the Lord says:

Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

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It’s always important to understand the context of any Lectionary text, but maybe it’s even more important when we come around to such a well-known passage as this one from Micah. Its words are familiar, but what exactly was the underlying situation that brought it about? In this case, the mock trial imagery of this passage is the culmination of the first five chapters of the book. There, the prophet Micah is laying out a criticism of Judah and Israel – the two kingdoms that once made up the single, unified kingdom ruled by kings Saul, David, and Solomon, before splitting as a result of squabbles within the royal family and underlying political, social, and religious divisions between the north and south. Micah himself was from the southern kingdom, but he laid out his criticism on both the north and south kingdoms, and their capitals, Jerusalem and Samaria, with equal measure. He takes the leaders and the powerful in both kingdoms to task because they treat the people unjustly. According to Micah, they mistreat women and children. Their greed makes them take away other people’s homes, property, ability to make a living, for their own enrichment. They come up with all kinds of schemes to feather their own nests, and they carry the schemes out with impunity because they have all the power, and there’s no one who has sufficient power or courage to stop them. It’s all about money and power to them. Judges are bribed to render decisions that favor the powerful over the powerless. Religious leaders pervert religion, interpreting it in ways that give approval, and supposedly God’s own sanction and blessing, to the rich and powerful, who give them power and wealth in return. Then, after enriching and empowering themselves at others’ expense, they surround themselves with walls to keep others away, and, as Micah puts it, they call out for “Peace” when their own mouths are full, against those who have nothing to eat.

After laying out these charges against them, Micah warns the kingdoms that they have earned God’s wrath, and that both of them will be brought down; both their capital cities will be destroyed and turned to rubble.

All of that, then, sets up today’s text – this dramatic scene of the “trial of the century,” as it were. Now that Micah has spelled out the charges, God steps in and adds icing on the cake. God asks what is was that God had ever done to them to make them act so horribly. God reminds them of a number times in their history when they were saved by God’s hand, and when God was faithful and fulfilled the covenant made between them.

Despite this, the defendant in the trial – the “mortal”, the person in power who’s being called out – just doesn’t get it. Maybe reinforced in their cluelessness by those religious leaders who twisted religious principles to give them cover for their actions, the mortal is actually indignant at having their actions criticized. They’re the leaders of the people, supposedly God’s chosen ones, so how can what they’re doing be wrong? They deserve to be enriched, because whatever is in their own best interest is in the kingdom’s best interest; what’s good for them is what’s good for the kingdom. As far as God is concerned, all they have to do is meet their weekly religious obligation – take an hour or so each week, make your sacrifice, your offering to appease, to buy off, God, and then get back to business the rest of the week.

And then the mortal falls back on what they’re comfortable with. They see everything as transactional; everything boils down to a simple business deal where everyone, and everything, has its price. So all right, I think you’re being unreasonable, the mortal says to God, but come on, we’re all adults here, we know how this works. What do you want? Thousands of rams, rivers of oil, are you so unreasonable that you’d want me to even give up my own child? Of course not; let’s be reasonable. What do you really want?

You can imagine Micah shaking his head at how clueless the mortal is, and he blurts out, are you an idiot? You just heard what God wants. It really isn’t any kind of sacrifice, large or small, that just gives you cover to continue hurting the people to feed your own greed and selfishness. What does God want? It’s simple: Do justice. Love kindness. Get off your “we’re the greatest” high horse and walk humbly with God.

It’s important to recognize here that Micah is calling out the kings, the rulers of these kingdoms that were kings by virtue of royal bloodline or military force; they were chosen by the people. God is calling these two kingdoms, nations, into judgment – just as we see in Jesus’ depiction of the final judgment in Matthew 25, the “judgment of the nations.” I don’t know how that works, but apparently, in some way we are accountable both as individuals as well as collectively  as nations, and how the nations have acted.

Through Micah, God was passing judgment on kings. But we aren’t ruled by a king. We have a say in who governs over us. We have a say in how the rich and powerful are regulated to prevent abuses; how the government will provide for the needs of the poor, the sick, the foreigner; and how our society will provide social equity and justice for all of its people. So we have an obligation, as an integral part of our faith, to always work in ways that call our government to accountability, to act in ways of justice and kindness and compassion for all people, in ways that the kingdoms of Judah and Israel hadn’t.

At the core of the failures of those two kingdoms, according to God, is that they allowed their own self-centeredness and greed to cause them to forget God’s faithfulness – God’s continuing to provide for them and care for them, as part of the covenant God had made, and never broken, with them. As one example, God reminds of them of what happened when they had crossed “from Shittim to Gilgal.” This is a reference to the Hebrews completing their forty years of wandering in the wilderness, and finally crossing over into the promised land – Shittim was the last place they were before crossing over the Jordan River into the promised land on its western shore, at Gilgal. That crossing wasn’t just a physical movement; it was the culmination, the fulfillment of God’s promise; it was the evidence that God was being faithful to the covenant between them. This morning, we’ll celebrate the Lord’s Supper, among other things a remembrance and a recognition that we’re in God’s covenant, too. We can, and do, sometimes forget that, and we don’t always live our lives in ways that recognize and honor that covenant. We recognize that even though God was condemning two kingdoms, two nations, for not acting with compassion and equity for all of God’s people, that same charge from God applies to us all as individuals, too. And as a part of our partaking of this meal, this sacrament, we’re recommitting ourselves to be true to that covenant that we’re living within. So this morning, eat the bread. Drink the wine. Recommit to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. And demand a society that does the same.

Thanks be to God.