25 August 2013

The Dream at 50

Jeremiah 1:4-10 & Luke 13:10-17

14th Sunday after Pentecost/ 25th August 2013

We’ve come a long way since 1963, both as a church and a nation.  This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The actual day of the March was August 28th.  You might remember that day (I was born about seven months later), maybe you were there, or know someone who was there.  Whether you were there or not, remember it or not, we know about it, should know about it because it was a pivotal moment in our history, a turning point really. It was one of the largest rallies for human rights in the history of the United States. It was organized by civil rights groups and labor groups, and, significantly, by religious organizations.  Included among the religious speakers that day was the Rev. Eugene Carson Blake (1906-1985), former president of the National Council of Churches (later president of the World Council of Churches), and, at the time of the March, stated clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the former northern stream of the church. (Although the denomination did not endorse the March.) Between 200,000 and 300,000 were in attendance on that humid August day, 75-85% of the marchers were black.  The March paved the way for the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed major forms of discrimination against racial, ethnic, national and religious minorities, and women, ending, legally, segregation; and it paved the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited discrimination in voting.

            Perhaps the March is most remembered for the speech that came at the end of the program given by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), known today as his “I have a dream…” speech.  Carved into the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, at the exact location of the podium where King spoke to the crowd are these words, “I HAVE A DREAM.” 

            But that speech almost fell flat.[1]   On the night before the March, King asked his aides for advice on what he should say.  The speakers were limited to five minutes each.  As a preacher who tries to write his sermons on Friday afternoons, I was amazed to learn this week that King was still working on his speech the night before! His advisor, Wyatt Walker, told him, “Don’t use the lines about ‘I have a dream,’…It’s trite, it’s cliché.  You’ve used it too many times already.”

            Walker was right.  King had used it a lot. As early as 1960, in an address before the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), entitled “The Negro and the American Dream," King introduced this image. He said to that gathering, “In a real sense America is essentially a dream—a dream yet unfilled.  It is the dream of a land where men of all races, colors and creeds will live together as brothers.  The substance of the dream is expressed in these sublime words: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ This is the dream.  It is a profound, eloquent and unequivocal expression of the dignity and worth of all human personality.”

            On the night before the March in Washington, however, he was urged not to mention the dream.  After listening to his advisers at the Willard Hotel, King said, “I am now going upstairs to my room to counsel with my Lord.  I will see you all tomorrow.”  He worked on the speech throughout the night, producing draft after draft. King gave the final text to his aides and then went to sleep, around 4 a.m.; there was no reference to “I have a dream” in it.

            King was the last to speak that day. By the time King made it to the podium the crowd started to thin. It was hot and it was late. King stayed close to the text. People in the crowd said it was not as powerful as some of his other speeches.  He was wrapping it up with, “Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina,” when Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972) cried out to him, “Tell’em about the dream, Martin.”  King stayed closed to his text, he said “Go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow his situation can and will be changed.”  Again, Jackson yelled, “Tell’em about the dream.”  King then grabbed the podium and set the prepared text to the side.  One observer said, “When [King] was reading from his text, he stood like a lecturer.  But the moment he set that text aside, he took on the stance of a Baptist preacher.”  Clarence Jones, one of King’s aides, turned to the person standing next to him and said: “Those people don’t know it, but they’re about to go to church.” In that moment the podium transformed into a pulpit; the lecturer became the prophet of the Lord proclaiming the Word.  King paused and then said, “So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.” And the rest is history.

            But what happened in that moment?  Something happened. It’s that moment when prophets and preachers are born. That moment when prophets and preachers feel compelled to speak, have to speak, have to say what needs to be said, even if it’s not what people want to hear.  The prophet Jeremiah tried to remain silent, he refused to speak on God’s behalf, but he knew that he couldn’t because, as he said, “within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jer. 20:9).  A prophet, a preacher can’t keep silent. It’s a violation of one’s call, of one’s spirit to do so.  It’s as if at that moment King was touched by fire, the fire of a prophet, seized by something deep, and primal, and electric.  When he was speaking, preaching from that depth the crowd responded, the people woke up; something was constellated in the crowd and the American psyche.  He was tapping into something profound and people knew it.  The African-American community might have known about Martin’s dream, but white America didn’t.  Now they did.

            Most Americans had never really heard King speak or preach before.  Less than two miles away in the White House, President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) was watching the speech on television. Kennedy had never heard an entire King speech before then. When it was over he said, “He’s damned good. Damned good.”  William Sullivan, head of domestic intelligence for the FBI had a different response.  “In the light of King’s powerful demagogic speech yesterday he stands head and shoulders above all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses of Negroes. We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the stand point of communism, the Negro and national security.”

            What’s so dangerous about having a dream? What’s so dangerous about trying to  dream?

            Dr. King’s “dream” speech might be 50, but we have to be honest, both synagogue and church needs to affirm and remember, this dream didn’t belong to Martin, it wasn't his. It was and is actually part of a much older, deeper dream, dreamt by Jeremiah and other prophets, dreamt by Jesus, indeed, dreamt by and hoped by all who know the heart of God and trust in God’s promise.  As God said to Jeremiah when he was called: “Do not be afraid…for I am with you to deliver you,…” (Jer. 1:8). That’s what King was tapping into.  That promise of God, the dream of deliverance, of freedom, of liberation, is situated right at the heart of God.  Deliverance, freedom, liberation—it’s who God is and what God longs for for all God’s children, and because this is true, this is what people of faith in this God are called toward, despite however unpopular or unsettling or even  dangerous it will seem. There’s no stopping this desire within God.  It’s why he sent the Son, the one who embodies God’s deliverance, freedom, and liberation. For everyone weighed down by oppression, like the crippled woman who was bent over and unable to stand up straight, Jesus comes on the Sabbath, breaks the law, heals on the Sabbath, and says, “Woman, you are set free…” (Luke 13:12). The Sabbath was made for liberation, for release, for healing, hope, and, as we Christians claim, for resurrection.  And the Church was formed to extend God’s liberation movement; it exists to participate in God’s great march toward freedom.  These are our marching orders; they always have been and always will be until the Kingdom finally comes.  And the Church can either step in line or get out of the way.

            Indeed, we have to admit and remember, actually confess the sins of the Church that tried to block, hinder, and resist God’s march toward freedom; the Church needs to confess its collusion in racism, working hard to keep the country and the Church, “separate but equal.”  Not the whole Church, of course.  The Civil Rights Movement would not have been as effective as it was if the Church of Jesus Christ had been silent about injustice.  That part of the Church had to be extra loud and forceful because the majority of the Church, both in the North and in the South, remained silent, didn’t want to get involved, preferred that King and others like him would just be quiet and go away.  The 1960s were a divisive time in the Church, especially around the question of race. Baltimore was not the most welcoming place for African-Americans.  It’s troubling to hear the stories about the racism, the remnants of Jim Crow, the segregation, the hatred, which were practiced around here, including Catonsville. In the mid-1960s, the pastor here at the time, Dr. Wayne McCoy, preached a progressive gospel for the time that disturbed a lot of people.  Dr. McCoy put up these words on the Frederick Road sign:  ALL RACES WELCOME HERE.  It caused quite a stir in the church, members were upset, and some actually left the church.  I can tell you my own stories of growing up in the racist north, terrified by the stories of the Newark (NJ) riots in 1967, stories I’m not proud about.

            When we look back to that era. When we hear the stories. When we see the images, it’s easy to say, how did we ever behave like that as a people, as a Church? If you want to see a good portrayal of this period, be sure to see the new movie The Butler I went to see it with an African-American friend. She and I had a long, honest talk about racism in America last Saturday afternoon and then we went to see the movie together. If you can, go and see the movie in Baltimore, downtown, in a mixed-race movie theatre, then watch how you’re feeling, and how others are reacting around you.  When the lights come up, look into the eyes of your brothers and sisters. 

            How? Why?  When we tell our children about what it was like then, they’re stunned.  It sounds so barbaric, but it’s true and not that long ago.

            We’ve come a long way since 1963. We have much to celebrate and to be thankful about. But we’re not where we need to be as a nation and Church.  Sunday morning at 11 o’clock is still the most segregated hour in America each week. Churches still struggle with racial diversity. CPC has become more racially diverse, but we still don’t reflect our community.  Some say because we now have an African-American president that we crossed into a post-racial America.  We dealt with our history.  But that’s a lie.  It’s simply not true.  Just ask a random group of African-Americans if that’s how it feels living in America today.  Race is still an issue for us as a nation, and as a Church, primarily because we don’t really talk about race, we pretend our differences don’t exist; we don’t want to bring up the past, dwell on the pain.  Out of sight is never out of mind. We think we’re not biased or prejudiced, but it’s there, in all of us.  The tension over the George Zimmerman verdict is a case in point.

            We’re still not where we need to be. But the dream is still alive.  It won’t die because it’s fueled by the fire of God’s love.  It’s God’s dream dreaming through us, which means we have to continue to dream the dream forward.

            We’re still not where we need to be, but we’re on the way there, we’re getting there. That spirit is beautifully captured in the musical Hairspray, wrestles in a comical, yet serious, way about what it was like to live in Baltimore in the 1950s.  Hairspray ends, full of biblical images, looking away from the past to a new future

’Cause tomorrow is a brand new day,
 and it don’t know white from black….
‘Cause the world keeps spinning ‘round and ‘round
and my heart’s keeping time to the speed of sound,
I was lost till I heard the drums,
Then I found my way, 
‘Cause you can’t stop the beat.

The beat, the rhythm of change, the march toward justice is inexorable. 

You can try to stop the paradise we’re dreaming.
But you can’t stop the beat

So shine that light
Take my hand
And let's dance into the promised land
Cause . . . I know we've come so far
But we've got so far to go
I know the road seems long
But it won't be long till it's time to go
So, most days we'll take it fast
And some nights we'll take it slow
I know we've come so far but…
We've got so far to go. [2]
                                    
Indeed.                                   




[1]Gary Younge provides a fascinating account of King’s speech in “Martin Luther King:  the story behind his ‘I have a dream’ speech, The Guardian, August 9, 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/09/martin-luther-king-dream-speech-history
[2] Hairspray (2002) music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman.  

18 August 2013

Love the One You're With

Psalm 86 & Romans 13:8-10 

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
18th August 2013

Several Sundays ago I preached on the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10.  Jesus offered this parable in response to the test question posed by the lawyer, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds, “What is written in the law?” The lawyer responds, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).  The focus of the parable is on the neighbor.

            In the response to that sermon several questions emerged.  Love of God, we know something about that, although we’re not very good at it.  Love for neighbor, we know something more about that, although we’re not very good at that either. But what does it mean to love yourself? What does this look like? It’s clear that the ability to love one’s neighbor is inextricably linked to the ability to love one's self.  But how does one love one's self without being or becoming selfish?  And so today’s sermon is an attempt to respond to these questions because they’re critical ones. Our response will shape the way we understand the Christian life. So with apologies to Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, how do you love the one you’re with?  “One” here meaning oneself, this one, this self within, who we are.  How do we love ourselves?

            These aren’t academic questions or abstract curiosities.  Pastors confront these issues all the time in ministry because somehow, somewhere along the way people have come to believe that to love one's self is un-Christian, that the love of and care for one's self is actually a sin.  What is worse—and I’ve seen this a lot in my ministry—there are some who even operate with the twisted assumption that as Christians we are supposed to hate and even loathe ourselves, that we are to remove any trace of the self.  This is due, in part, to a warped hearing of texts like this one, “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24). A misreading of this text has caused considerable damage to the psyche of countless Christians for centuries.

            So what does it mean to love one’s self? The idea of loving one’s self might sound odd.  We know something about what it’s like to love a spouse or partner, child or grandchild, to love our country or love a pet. But love toward self, this might trip us up.  Perhaps using the word love is an obstacle.  So what if we use other words, such as: like, value, forgive, kindness, cherish, honor, acceptance.  What does it mean to like one's self?  Value one's self? Forgive one's self? Cherish and honor on's self? What does it mean to be kind to one's self?  What does it mean to accept one's self? 

            Now we’re getting personal, aren’t we?  Now we’re getting a little too close to home.  We’re hitting some very sensitive areas, I know.  We’re going into the depths of the self. And in the depths are the shadowy parts that we have difficulty facing and acknowledging are there.

You shall like your neighbor as you like yourself.
            But what if you don’t really like yourself very much? What then?
You shall value your neighbor as you value yourself.
            But what if you don’t really value yourself very much?
You shall forgive your neighbor as you forgive yourself. 
            But what if you can’t forgive yourself? 
And what about kindness?  Do you know how to be kind to yourself?
            Can you cherish yourself, honor yourself?
            Honor, not just part of yourself or even most of yourself, but all of yourself. 
You shall accept your neighbor as you accept yourself. 
             But can you accept yourself? 
Not part of yourself.  Not just your put-together-Sunday-self, not just the part you want people to see, but all of yourself. All. Can you?

            We are made up of many parts.  There are parts that see the light of day and parts we place in shadow and lock away from the world and even ourselves. They might be out of sight, but they’re never, ever out of mind. They’re all there.  It’s the parts that we lock away or try to forget, that we don’t want others to see, or can’t acknowledge to ourselves, that we generally have difficulty liking or valuing or honoring or cherishing.  We all have parts of ourselves that we struggle to like or accept, there are parts we even despise and hate.  Years ago I came across this very wise saying that I use a lot:  “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle.” You never know what someone is struggling with. Very often the ones who seem to have it all together, who appear “perfect,” the ones obsessed with perfection and expect perfection from others, are often the ones who are hurting the most inside, but they can’t accept that because that would mean admitting imperfection.  We are divided within and we know it.

            The psalms are remarkable in their ability to speak to the human condition. They’re written from the heart.  When people ask me what they should do when they have difficulty praying, when they can’t find the words to pray, I often suggest that they pray the psalms, allow the psalms to give voice to their hearts.  It’s all there, every aspect of the human condition.  The psalmist understands what it means to live with a divided soul, to be at odds with one's self, alienated from God, neighbor.  You can hear it particularly in Psalm 86:11, in this petition:  “…give me an undivided heart to revere your name.”  It’s a plea from one who knows what it’s like to live divided.

            Yet, the psalmist seeks something more.  He wants wholeheartedness.  For he knows that wholeheartedness helps us to praise and glorify God.  When we’re wholehearted or undivided we’re better situated to perceive God’s love moving toward us and when we know this we’re free to praise.  You see, when we’re divided there’s always a part of us—the unacceptable, the sinful or shameful part—that doesn't feel worthy of God’s love.  This, then, only reinforces the division. This is like living in Sheol.  Sheol is not necessarily hell, but a place where we’re cut off from God, with no personality, no strength, no life, living in shades, in shadow.

            The psalmist, however, wants to worship God with his whole heart.  When the psalmist, undivided, is open to God’s love, then the soul knows that God is gracious. A divided self has difficulty believing, has difficulty trusting, never really experiences the grace, the steadfast love of God, because its harboring a feeling that there is a part that is unlovable, unacceptable, unforgivable.  That’s the part we have difficult accepting. That’s what we focus on. That’s the only part we think God sees. 

            However, over and over again the psalmist affirms, indeed the Bible insists that God is gracious and merciful.  “For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol” (Ps. 86:13). Yet, so many can never really “hear” such good news, have never really experienced this grace.

            The gospel is this:  God’s favor toward us is real, now.  We already have God’s favor. We already dwell in God’s favor. We don’t have to earn it. We don’t have to work toward it.  Yet, there’s something broken or distorted in the human psyche that can’t quite accept or believe it, remains suspicious of it.  In one of Paul Tillich’s (1886-1965) greatest sermons, “You Are Accepted,” he has this piercing insight into the experience of grace.  Grace can and does strike us.  In the midst of our pain, self-alienation, disgust, and self-hatred, in our inability to embrace all of ourselves as God does, a wave of light breaks into our darkness and we begin to hear a voice deep within, deeper than the fearful, negative, critical voice of our egos, a voice of the Holy Spirit that whispers to the depths of our soul: “You are accepted.  You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you….  Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” Tillich writes,  “If that happens to us, we experience grace.  After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed.  In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement.  And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.”[1]  Accept your acceptance.

            The capacity to love one's self, to like, to forgive, to accept one's self is not selfish and it’s not a sin. In fact, to love one's self is critical if we’re really going to love our neighbor, and the stranger, and even God.  The ability to love neighbor and stranger flows through one’s capacity to love and accept one's self, and the ability to love one's self is rooted in God’s love for every part of ourselves.  What’s needed is a relationship with one's self that mirrors God’s own relationship with us, which is rooted and grounded in love.  To see ourselves the way God sees us.  This is what was driving the apostle Paul and his ministry and why he was willing to suffer loss and persecution, because of this truth:  “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8).  Indeed, the law is summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10).

            Before we start trying to love our neighbor, we need to start with the one we’re with, within.  Not in a self-centered, egotistical, narcissistic way, but in a loving way look inward.  If we’re looking inward in a truly loving way we will quite naturally begin to look outward in a loving way.  If we’re not being loving toward ourselves, then don’t be surprised if we have difficulty loving others. 

            This is a real concern within the Christian experience today.  We think of love as only self-giving love, sacrificial, which sets self aside, sets personal concerns aside, concern only for others.  There are a lot of Christians out there doing all kinds of good and necessary things—but their inner lives are wasting away, they’re empty and hollow. It’s surface Christianity. They’re so outward focused they’re not attentive to what’s occurring in their hearts. As a result, there are a lot of tormented Christian souls around who can’t hear the gospel and therefore can’t really share it. Or they’re so bent on making everyone think they’re Christian or doing the Christian “thing” in service, that they’ve never applied Christian love to themselves, extended kindness to themselves, acceptance to themselves.  I think this one of the reasons why Churches can be so dysfunctional and cruel, and why Christians develop a reputation for being a critical, judgmental, nasty group of people.  We do to our neighbors what we do to ourselves.  We need help loving ourselves.

            What do we do? How do we accept ourselves?  Accept God’s acceptance?  It’s through grace, of course. The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961) claimed that, “The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely.”  He’s right.  We don’t want to hear this, but he’s right. That’s why grace is required. This is difficult. We can’t do this alone. We need help, we need grace.  I believe self-acceptance and love to be among the critical issues facing us today; it is one of the most pressing ethical issues facing us as Christians.  If you want to know what burdens my heart as a pastor, it’s this.

            Writing toward the end of his life, Jung argued that the “acceptance of oneself is the essence of the whole moral problem and the epitome of a whole outlook on life.”[2]  Then he addressed his concerns directly at the Church, targeting Christians who pride themselves on their virtuous life and good deeds, yet don’t know how to love themselves. The Church needs to hear this today, Christians need to wrestle with what he said, because I think Jung gets right to the core of what’s wrong within Christianity and what’s wrong with so much of the Church these days, we have yet to fully embrace and embody the implications of the gospel.[3] Jung wrote: 

That I feed the hungry, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ—all these are undoubtedly great virtues. What I do unto the least of my brethren, that I do unto Christ. But what if I should discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all the beggars, the most impudent of all the offenders, the very enemy himself—that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindnessthat I myself am the enemy who must be loved—what then?”[4]  What then?

            This work, this inner-work isn’t easy. But we have a moral obligation to ourselves and to the world—to God—to begin it, to continue it, to deepen that capacity to love one's self.  That’s what grace does, that’s what grace is. We have to start claiming our self-worth, because by grace we are already worthy.  And so for the love of God, please stop raging against yourself and tearing yourself apart, if you’re doing this. Stop. Be kind to yourself. Be compassionate toward yourself. Make peace with yourself. What we do to this “neighbor” within we extend and project out upon the world. 

            I’ll close by offering a gift, a poem by Derek Wolcott (b. 1930), “Love After Love.” I had this taped on my bathroom mirror at home for a time.  You can hear the Eucharistic aspect of what he’s getting at here.  To give yourself back to yourself, to be wholehearted is a holy, sacramental act that we bestow upon ourselves and through us to the world.

The day will come
the time will come 
when with elation
you will greet yourself
arriving at your own door
and each will smile at each others welcome
saying sit here, eat
you will love again the stranger who was yourself
Give wine, give bread
give back your heart to yourself

to the stranger who has loved you all your life
who you ignored for another
who knows you by heart

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes
feel your own image in the mirror, see it
Feast on your life. 


To give yourself back to yourself, to be wholehearted is a holy, sacramental act that we bestow upon ourselves and through us to the world. Then we can really give ourselves to the world, and to God, when we truly love ourselves.




[1] Paul Tillich, “You Are Accepted,” The Shaking of the Foundations (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948), 162. The full text of the sermon may be found here: http://www.religion-online.org/showchapter.asp?title=378&C=84.
[2] Carl G. Jung, "Psychotherapists or the Clergy" (1932), in Psychology and Religion, Vol. II, The Collected Works of C. G. Jung (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1958), paragraph 500.
[3] Carl G. Jung makes this point in “Introduction to the Religious and Psychological Problems of Alchemy,” Psychology and Alchemy (1944),  CW 12, cited in Anthony Storr, ed. The Essential Jung (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1999), 257.
[4]Jung, "Psychotherapists or the Clergy." Emphasis added.

11 August 2013

Divine Generosity

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 & Luke 12:32-40

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost/ 11th August 2013

Isaiah throws us into court.  A trial is about to start.  In the dock is Israel; on the stand, the people of God.  The entire nation is on trial.  Yahweh is both prosecuting attorney and judge.  And the prophet Isaiah is a witness against the people, testifying against Israel.  This is his testimony. 

They are guilty.  What’s their crime?  Stupidity.  What have they done?  Willful stupidity.

            Now, you’re right to think:  It’s not a sin to be stupid.  Being stupid isn’t a crime. It’s not one of the Ten Commandments.

            So what has Israel done that’s so stupid, that’s worthy of God’s judgment?  It’s right there in 1:2:  “Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the LORD has spoken:  I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.  The ox know its owner, the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.”  What don’t they know, what don’t they understand?  That they belong to God.  The ox and the donkey are wiser than Israel because at least they know to whom they belong.  As for Israel, Israel does not know.  They have turned away from God. And as the leading Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann puts is, turning away from God is just plain stupid.  Willful stupidity.[1] Rebellion against God is not only wrong, it’s just plain dumb, it’s not very wise. 

            Israel, aloof and far from God, is suffering. The entire nation is full of iniquity, evil, and corruption, in young and old alike.  Desolation is all around them. The entire body politic is hurting. From head to foot, the wounds are deep; sores are bleeding and festering.  There’s no soundness, no health, no wholeness in the people. Then to drive the point home, Isaiah says Jerusalem, the Holy City of Yahweh’s peace, is no better than the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah—an unimaginable, shocking comparison—cities destroyed because of their faithlessness.  There was no one left who truly welcomed the sovereignty of God, no one left who truly worshipped Yahweh.

            Like Sodom and Gomorrah, Jerusalem’s faith and worship life had become a joke.  And Isaiah has no difficulty locating the source of the trouble: he blames the temple.  And he doesn’t hold back against the temple in Jerusalem, he doesn’t hold back against the priestly activity of the temple, against the empty religiosity of the people.  It’s become a charade, a joke, and an insult to Yahweh.  Yahweh has had enough.  “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?...I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats” (Isaiah 1:11).  Yahweh effectively says, “Don’t bother coming to my sanctuaries any more” (Is. 1:12).  “[B]ringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me” (Is. 1:13). Your feast days and rituals and festivals and liturgies “have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them” (Is. 1:14). They’re tiresome. And your prayers—your prayers are hollow because there’s blood on your hands (Is. 1:15). You think you worship me, God says, but my people suffer and die because you refuse to help.

            Remember, God authorized the building of the temple, required the sacrifices of rams and bulls and lambs and goats, sanctioned the festivals and liturgies for the Sabbath, and welcomed prayers.  God wants nothing to do with them now.

            Yahweh doesn’t welcomed them. Why?  Because religion can become toxic. Their liturgies and their pieties and priestly functions have failed them.  Why?  Because their worship didn’t lead them into a deeper relationship with God. They went through the rituals, Sabbath after Sabbath, but failed to help their neighbors, failed to ease their burdens.  Their worship was false, their offering dishonest, because their worship didn’t deepen the connection with God.  How do we know that?  Because one’s relationship with God yields a life whose actions are congruent with who God is and what God desires for all God’s people.  You become what you worship.  Jesus said, “By their fruit you shall know them” (Matthew 7:16).  Yahweh now rejects Israel.  You’re on your own now.  There’s the door. 

            Yahweh is angry here, full of rage toward Israel.  But before we get too comfortable in Christian self-righteousness here, we need to remember that the early Church saw itself as an extension of Israel.  The Church is an ever-expanding community called the people of God.  The indictments leveled against Israel can easily be leveled against the Church at any time in its history, including the present time, for precisely the same reasons Isaiah is furious with Israel: for the stupidity, the willful stupidity of the Church that tries to go it alone, that forgets it’s dependence upon God, that forgets that the Church doesn’t belong to itself, it belongs to God, when its pieties and liturgies and offerings are dishonest and empty because worship is not connecting us with God, when worship is having no tangible effect upon the way Christians live their lives, no bearing upon the way it cares for all God’s people, cares for its neighbors, eases their burdens. I wonder, does God ever reject the Church and say, “You’re on your own, I’m outta here”?

            It might feel this way at times.  What we’re left with is a God full of judgment. And there is a lot of judgment here—with good reason.  Just look at the mess the world is in. This is a spectacularly beautiful world, but look at the mess we’re in.  Just look at the mess of the Church today—with it’s idolatrous obsession with self-preservation at the expense of doing the gospel.  

            It’s easy to get depressed—you’re probably already depressed by all of this. This is a burdensome message—and we’re only looking at ten verses in the first chapter of Isaiah; just keep reading!  Isaiah is relentless.  No one ever welcomes the voice of the prophet.  And the Church is often uneasy with prophetic preaching because no one comes out looking good or feeling good. In fact, in twenty-three years of preaching no one has ever said to me, “Ken, give us more prophetic sermons.”  Israel has a long history of killing the prophets, as does the church.  Who wants to hear all this judgment?  Who can bear this?

            We don’t want to hear this because deep down we know it’s true.  We know we’re guilty.  That guilt informs the way we hear scripture, even verses like this.  Guilt informs the way we imagine God as essentially an angry judge.  We’re kind of pulled toward that image of God as judge because at some level we know we’re guilty or think we should feel guilty about something.   Unfortunately, our guilt hinders us from hearing and seeing the other thing going on here.

            The great Reformed theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) insisted that theologically, biblically speaking we need to hold judgment and mercy in tension. In our society we tend to want to separate them, either judgment or mercy.  However, Barth observed that judgment and mercy are the opposite sides of the same coin, as it were.  There’s judgment in God. But God’s judgment and anger are never ends in themselves. (This can’t be stressed enough!) The intent of God’s judgment is not to destroy or annihilate.  If “God is love” (1 John 4:16b), as the Bible affirms, if in the face of Jesus Christ we know that God is love, then we need to ask: what does judgment from a loving God look like? God’s judgment is upon the things that hinder God’s will for creation.  It is judgment that judges sin (not people) in order clear away everything that hinders God’s desire for the world, for God’s ultimate desire is to redeem, to restore, to heal, to make whole.  It’s the kind of judgment that embodies what the Bible understands as restorative justice.  Yes, there’s plenty of judgment here to go around, but the judgment is never the last word.  The last word is always mercy, grace.

            And that mercy, that grace, arrives as a kind of whiplash, it’s not what we expect; it catches us by surprise, catches us off-guard.  It breaks in and undoes what we expect. It breaks the cycle of violence and death.  We expect the judgment to just keep on coming, of God giving up on his people.  And then the great reversal comes:  “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the orphan.  …Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Is. 1:16-17, 18b).

            You see that’s what God really wants for God’s people.  Not judgment, but mercy.  And that’s what God really wants to give and is giving God’s people, if only we remember who we are, that we belong not to ourselves, but to God. 

            The Revised Common Lectionary for today links this Isaiah text with Luke 12.  We’ve been walking through Luke this summer, looking at the parables of the kingdom.  As we’ve seen, the kingdom is not “up there;” God’s kingdom is here and now and on the way.  “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).  Good pleasure.  It’s directly related to the angels’ message to the shepherds in Luke 2, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born a Savior…. Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (2:10-11,14). On earth peace.  And the coming of the kingdom of God means we can trust in God’s providential care over the earth, which means we don’t have to worry (as we saw last week) or hoard things.  We can open our tight fists and give; there’s no need to grasp. True security is found in God.

            Then, Jesus says, we can “be dressed for action.”  Be ready for vigorous activity. For the kingdom is coming.  And the lord of the kingdom is on his way.  So be ready. And he’s not only coming to judge, so relax.  The master is coming and when he arrives, something remarkable and unexpected will happen, be on your guard or else you’ll miss it, for it will shock and surprise you.  What will happen?  Jesus says, [T]ruly I tell you, [the master] will fasten his belt and have his servants sit down to eat [at this table], and he will come and serve them.” The servant becomes the master. The master comes to serve. The master invites the servant to sit down.  He will serve the servant. For in the kingdom of God roles are reversed.  The kingdom is all about reversal.  “The first will discover they are last and the last will be given the place of honor. The mighty come down, and the lowly find themselves exalted.  The rich go hungry, while the poor are filled with delights.  Priests and temple functionaries pass by victims, while hated Samaritans demonstrate the meaning of faithfulness [and grace].  Sinners attain justification, while the prayers of the righteous rebound against the floors of heaven (Luke 18:11-14).”[2]

            Luke’s entire gospel, from beginning to end, establishes a larger context of God’s kingdom and the kingdom is an extension of God’s good pleasure.  That’s what Jesus wants his people to know, to claim for their lives, and then from that knowledge he wants us to go out and preach the kingdom, serve the kingdom, live the kingdom, receive the kingdom, discover it.  This becomes the foundation for Christian discipleship, the Christian life.  Greg Carey, New Testament scholar at Lancaster Theological Seminary, is right when he says, “Discipleship emerges not from fearsome demands but from the outpouring of God’ love. Divine generosity sets the tone for all of God’s expectations.”

            It’s the same divine generosity pouring through the prophetic judgments of Isaiah, because, he too, knows that Yahweh is merciful and faithful and seeks our welfare.  He, too, knows God’s expectations for us. Isaiah, too, envisioned the kingdom of God. 

            God’s generosity, an awareness of God’s generosity, shapes who we are as a people and then it informs how we live in the body politic, out in the community.  We discover God’s generosity in our worship and devotional life, in prayer, in the depths of our relationship with God. And from that relationship, we act.

            For Isaiah (and for Jesus) right worship leads to right neighbor practices, which is how the Bible defines social justice.  This is what the Bible means by righteousness.[3]  Right worship will lead us away from evil toward the good.  Right worship will lead you into the cause of God’s justice.  Right worship spills over into social relationships and personal relationships and the responsibilities that come with them.  In the worship of Yahweh, you and I discover that we have an obligation to rescue the oppressed.  We have a responsibility toward the orphans and the widows. In other words, our focus and concern must be for the weakest members of society, the most vulnerable in our society, the ones without an advocate or friend, those subject to political exclusion and economic exploitation.  This is not debatable.  Walter Brueggemann, again, is pretty blunt:  “An appeal to the authority of the Bible, in all its literalness, is phony if these issues [of social justice] are not front and center.”[4]  In other words, you can’t say that the Bible has authority for you and ignore these issues.

            Our faith is a charade if worship doesn’t make us ready for action, to follow where Jesus leads, leading us into the kingdom that is here and on the way, knowing that it is God’s good pleasure to give the kingdom. 

            What difference will having been at worship today make in your week?  Or, how about this, name an orphan or widow you know.  Right now, think of someone you know who is vulnerable, alone, scared, terrified, weak.  Now, what are you going to do about it?

            For it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. We are called to action. Called to serve the one who came not to be served, but to serve.




[1]Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 13.
[2]Greg Carey, “The Social Shape of Divine Generosity (Luke 12:32-40), http://www.odysseynetworks.org/news/2013/08/02/the-social-shape-of-divine-generosity-luke-1232-40.
[3] Brueggemann, 19.
[4] Brueggemann, 19.