Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Under construction

Isaiah 40: 1-11
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
December 10, 2017

         “Console my people, give them comfort,” says your God (or “Console yourselves,
Change your minds
O change your minds, my people.”) “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem’s heart, and tell it that its time of service has ended, that its iniquity is atoned for, that it has received from the Lord’s hand double punishment for all its sins.”

         Once again, Isaiah has me with the first words: console, comfort. We who wear our emotions on the outside, we whose nerves are brittle, bare branches, our thoughts sliding into stinking thinking at the first sign gray skies and bad news, and yes, compassion fatigue is a thing, maybe we long for those days so long ago when all we had to do was cry and someone would hold us until we felt better. Even if we don’t wear our hearts on our sleeve, some reassurance would sound good right about now.

One of the hardest things to learn as we grow up is how to console ourselves, to forgive the world around us when it doesn’t show up when we need it, because it can’t always do that. We want someone to speak tenderly to our hearts, and tell us that our time of service and our sorrow are over, that amends have been made for everything we’ve done and left undone when it comes to the world’s misery, that we’ve suffered enough.

         But as I read this passage again, I remembered: though I need comfort and am worthy of it, I am not a captive like those exiled from their home. If I am captive to anything, it is to a system that oppresses. If I am an exile, it is my sin, my privilege and my lack of nerve that separates me from others. If I long for comfort, for peace, it cannot be only for myself or for those I love and care for. God’s dream of peace is one of shalom, completion, wholeness, and there is no private shalom in God’s dream. Peace is only true peace when it is for everyone. We on the other hand often make peace with what does not give peace.

         Those words are from a prayer of confession by retired Methodist minister Ted Loder in his book Guerrillas of Grace: “O Lord, grant us your peace, for we have made peace with what does not give peace, and we are afraid.” Those words were published in 1984, at the height of the Cold War, when our fears of nuclear annihilation were acute and profound. These words come back to haunt us now in our president’s unilateral decision to declare Jerusalem as Israel’s capitol, in our own complicity with empire, how we’ve traded our birthright for some pottage, for safety and security. Advent is more than preparing for a baby’s birth. It’s a time to turn the prophetic eye upon our own lives, our communities, our nation; to seek out justice that is for all; to use our imagination, to see a different future than the fearful one that looms in front of us. It’s about clearing the way so that everyone, all humankind, can see God’s glory, that is, God’s abundance.

         A voice cries out,
“Clear a path through the wilderness for the Lord! Make a straight road through the desert for our God! Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill be laid low; let every cliff become a plain, and the ridges become a valley! Then the glory, the abundance of God will be revealed, and all humankind will see it: The mouth of the Lord has spoken!”

         God wants all the exiles to come home, not just the fit or the good runners or the ones with stamina. It’s a homecoming, not the Great Race. But we opt for short cuts to God’s glory, God’s abundance. We bulldoze and steamroll, strip mine and frack our way to the quick buck, the easy profit, and we turn it into a competition. We cry out in protest of these sins against the earth and the ways we destroy connection with the earth and with each other.

         A voice commands, “Cry out!" and I answer, “What will I say?” – “All flesh is grass, and its beauty (chesed), its kindness and goodness, is like the wildflowers:
the grass withers and the flower wilts when the breath of God blows on them. How the people are like grass! Our kindness withers, and our good deeds wilt, but the promise of our God will stand forever.” The promise of shalom, of completion and wholeness, which is true peace, stands forever. But how do we get there?

         Earlier this week I posted a question: “What fear is left when there is no fear of God or authority? What then stands between humanity and abject evil?” Every day in the news there are accounts of individuals and even whole nations who have no respect for religion, who flout the law, and whose moral fiber seems non-existent. I begin to lose my imagination for shalom in the face of such moral turpitude.

          Then one friend, a dear person who has lived through the fire more than she cares to count, saved me from my fear and despair: “Connection is a better way to resist evil than fear. If people find connection in a gang or in an extremist group, or whatever they've been missing, that's a strong motivator. Ensuring every human [being] has loving healthy connections would solve so many of the world’s problems.”

         A research professor in social work and author BrenĂ© Brown defines connection this way: “…the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” When so much of our connection takes place on the internet, we can forget we share a common humanity, our fear can take over in that vacuum, and we indulge our fears by hunkering down in our tribes, protecting our territory, shielding ourselves from pain. And if we are not connecting on the internet, we hear about the outcome of these conflicts and disputes and witness the disintegration of families and communities and countries, and our fear is charged as well.

         In these days of monetizing human beings it just seems way too easy to forget that we ALL matter, that every one of us is a work in progress, that we’re interconnected, that we’re all made out of the same stuff as the trees and stars and the air we breathe.
"Comforting Embrace" - Koro Arandia
If there’s one thing I need help with, it’s my faith in humanity. And that’s why I need church. That definition of connection—that’s Church: “…the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” You see me, I see you, our flaws and all, without judgment, with forgiveness, under construction, and we make it easier for all of us to see God’s glory, God’s abundance woven into each one of us and in our life together. And this gives us the courage to do the same with every human being, that there is nothing that can be done to sever this connection. That’s what unconditional love is.

         Which brings us back to what is true consolation and comfort, and so perhaps a modern paraphrase would be this: “Console my people, give them comfort by reminding them of their unbreakable, unshakeable connection to each other,” says your God. “Speak tenderly to one another’s heart, and tell one another that your blame-and-shame game has ended, that your disconnection is atoned for, that you have endured and inflicted enough suffering and the time of compassion has come.”

Go up on a high mountain, you who bring good news to humankind! Shout with a loud voice, you who bring good news to all the earth! Shout fearlessly, and say to every community “Here is love, compassion, and connection!” God in community, holy in one, all that is good, holy, and true, you come with power, and govern with strength! You bring your reward with you, and your reparation comes before you. Like a shepherd you feed your flock, gathering the vulnerable, the open-hearted, the lonely and afraid, and holding them close, and leading with gentleness those who seek the peace that brings the fullness of life. 


Tuesday, December 5, 2017

What are we waiting for?

Isaiah 64: 1-9*
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
December 3, 2017


         Isaiah had me at “If only you would tear open the heavens and come down”. O God, if only you would tear open the heavens and come down into this hot mess of a tax bill. Isaiah had something to say about it in chapter 10: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people.” If only you would tear open the heavens and come down into workplaces and school yards and town halls and faith communities and all the marginal places, that every person no matter their gender or sexuality or religion or skin color or age or ability would be treated with respect and dignity. If only you would tear open the heavens and come down into one of the richest nations in the world so that 41 million of its people would be lifted out of poverty and the rich sent away empty. If only you would tear open our hearts and come down and knock some sense and compassion into not just our elected leaders but all of us who put them there.

         How would you finish it? If only you would tear open the heavens and come down… (Put your answer in the comments.)

         When it comes to power struggles, and we are in the midst of a knock-down-drag-out power struggle, Isaiah knows it full well. Israel had been sacked by the Babylonian empire and taken some of Israel’s people as spoils of war. In its weakened state, the rest of Israel was taken over by Persia. Now the exiles are returning home. Those who had been left behind had made their own way under Persian occupation. Can you see the conflict coming? It’s nothing short of the backstory of the prodigal son and his older brother, but each side thinks they are the righteous older brother. And so Isaiah calls on God: if only you would tear open the heavens and come down and settle this. Show your stuff like you used to. Let us know who’s the boss. Make the nations shake in their boots. If only.


         Like many peoples of the Iron Age, if things were going badly, it was believed to be punishment from the heavens for humanity’s wicked behavior. While we think we are so far from such thinking, we still believe in a “you get what you deserve, you made your bed—now lie in it” kind of karma-ordered universe. And even though our rational minds tell us that a supernatural, interventionist divine being makes no logical sense, those are exactly the kind of prayers we make when life is hitting the deep skids. “If only you would tear open the heavens and come down!” If only.

         And those are the telling words of this passage. If only. Isaiah knows that God is not going to tear open the heavens and come down. Nor is this about God tearing open the heavens with angels singing or Mary conceiving or Joseph dreaming. This is a passage about waiting and about hope. About waiting with hope. Hopeful that the mystery that created us is still shaping us—each and every one of us. Hopeful that no matter what we do to each other, we can’t hold onto each other’s wrongs forever. Hopeful that we are still one people, no matter what we’ve allowed to separate us from one another. Hopeful that when we acknowledge we are powerless against much in this universe, we are set free.

         The wonderful irony about hope is that it asks us to surrender: surrender our individual expectations and our fear of change, surrender our striving so hard to be good and righteous and enlightened and better than, surrender our notions about how and when the holy should break into the daily, surrender our dread, our desperation, our despair.

         Hope is what led to the civil rights movement, to marriage equality, to the end of apartheid, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Hope was and is the main course at this Table: hope that death and violence and injustice do not have the last word. What are we waiting for? The hope that one day we will rise yet again. Amen.

*verse 6: "We have all become like the unclean;
    all our righteous deeds are like a menstrual rag."

was changed in the bulletin to read:
 "We have all become like the unclean;
    all our righteous deeds are like a discarded rag."

No need to carry on the patriarchal, misogynist 
view of menstruation to get the point across.