Tag Archive | Isaiah

11th Sunday after Pentecost, 2017

11th Sunday after Pentecost, year A, preached 8/20/17

first reading:  Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

Psalm 67

second reading:  Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

gospel reading:  Matthew 15:10-28


There have been very few times since I began preaching that I have felt compelled to speak directly to current events.  But the events of the past week, starting just over a week ago in Charlottesville, have been disturbing.  Shocking to some, but not to others.

I don’t want to talk about politics, but I DO want to talk about Jesus.

The most disgusting picture and comment I saw this past week came from a woman, who describes herself as a Christian.

She posted a picture of the protesters from last Friday night, the protesters who were carrying torches, and yelling things like, “Jews will not replace us,” “blood and soil,” and “one people, one nation, end immigration,” and the caption she added to this picture was, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

If that sounds familiar to you, they are Jesus’ words from Matthew 5:16 – part of our baptismal liturgy.

I saw this and was left speechless, and quite frankly sick to my stomach.

So I want to talk about Jesus.  I want to talk about Jesus, and the prophet Isaiah, and St. Paul.

And I want to begin by thanking whatever move of the Holy Spirit was at work in creating the lectionary, and for these readings before us today, that seem giftwrapped for a “time such as this.” (Esther 4:14)

A time when people feel free to openly speak hate about other religions, ethnic groups and races.  A time when some say we should just stay out of it.

The word of the Lord from the prophet Isaiah, St. Paul, and Jesus himself will have none of this.

“Thus says the Lord:  Maintain justice, and do what is right.”

The Hebrew word translated “maintain” also means to “keep” or “guard.”  Keep it, tend it – guard justice – do what is right.  And by “right” the Lord doesn’t mean just what’s right for me – the Lord means do what IS RIGHT.  That means we are called to see beyond our individual interests, beyond our small circle, to do what is best, or right, for everyone.

And then what comes next.  The Lord certainly must have surprised not only Isaiah, but all of Israel.  God tells them they will not be the only ones gathered into God’s presence.

“The foreigners who join themselves to the LORD… I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for ALL peoples…  I will gather others… besides those already gathered.”

Oh wow.  You mean it’s possible for God to love people outside our little circle?  People who don’t look like us or act like us, or come from where we’re from?

God’s answer – YES.  Which is a very good things for you and me.

In our gospel reading Jesus is confronted by a Canaanite woman.  Some people have twisted Jesus’ words to mean that calling her a “dog” meant condemning those who don’t believe in him.  He gives harsh treatment to this woman. Problem for the “twisters” is that he’s treating her harshly because she isn’t Jewish.

So if we were to place ourselves in this interchange – along with every other person who wasn’t born a Jew – WE are the dogs.

Jesus was a Jew – born of a Jewish mother, circumcised as a Jew, raised as  Jew, was condemned a Jew, died a Jew, and was buried according to Jewish law and ritual.

WE – all of us who were not born Jews and not part of the “irrevocable” promise GOD made to Abraham and his descendants – are the outsiders.

As St. Paul writes, “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.  The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”  God does not break promises – not to the Jewish people, and not to you or me in our baptism.  People may break covenants, but God does NOT.

We are outsiders, only brought into God’s presence – God’s holy mountain – through the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ.

So how could a Christian speak hatred, not just at Jews, or blacks or Muslims, or immigrants, but to ANYONE?  It should be completely out of character.

As Jesus says in our gospel reading:  “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and THIS is what defiles.  For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness and slander.  These are what defile a person…”

A person who has evil intentions towards another – who harbors or speaks hatred – which is a form of false witness and slander – is a defiled person.

So let’s talk about Jesus, let’s talk about Isaiah and St. Paul.  Let’s look at our readings for today and say clearly and without reservation that the belief of white supremacy or racial purity and all that it entails:  racism, anti-Semitism, hatred and discrimination of other religions and ethnicities, intolerance of other cultures – is SIN.  Plain and simple.

These things have no place in a religion whose Lord and Savior commands us to “love your neighbor,”(John 13:34) and even to “love your enemies”(Matt. 5:44).

We may not be overtly hateful like that woman who posted that picture.  But it IS part of our bondage to sin to divide ourselves at times into “us” and “them,” uncomfortable as it is to acknowledge.

So when we recognize these darker parts of ourselves, which we all have, it is our calling to confess and try again.

In the words we know so well from 1 John 1:9:  “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Or in the words of Maya Angelou:  “Do the best you can until you know better.  Then when you know better, do better.”

Or, “Thus says the Lord… do what is right.”

My manuscript says, “Amen” here, but I feel the need to add something.  I hope that my words today not only help us to examine ourselves, but also give us something to say when we’re confronted with hate around us.  So many times we get caught tongue-tied when surprised with a shocking comment or behavior.

I hope that we leave here a little more confident and prepared to meet hate and respond to it as people of faith, who follow Jesus, the Lord of love, as we sang in our opening hymn, “The King of LOVE, my shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never…”

Now I’ll say – AMEN.

 

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5th Sunday after the Epiphany, 2017

5th Sunday after the Epiphany, year A (preached 2/5/17)

first reading:  Isaiah 58:1-12

Psalm 112:1-9

second reading:  1 Corinthians 2:1-16

gospel reading:  Matthew 5:13-20


Sometimes preachers look at the readings for the coming Sunday and pray, “Oh God, what am I going to say?”  Other weeks we look at the readings and pray, “You’re speaking to me in a million ways Lord.  Help me choose!”  This is one of THOSE weeks.

Each of our readings today are wonderful – challenging to be sure, but also filled with amazing imagery, and profound truths.  This week I have been especially drawn to the prophet Isaiah.

In our reading from Isaiah today the people have been through a tremendous ordeal.  They have been oppressed and conquered.  They’ve been in exile, are “home” now – physically restored.  But something is still not right.

“Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways… they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.”

They are fasting as the Lord requires, they’re doing all the “right” things, but they’re not seeing any “results” from their fasting.  Why?  Something is missing.

“Why do we fast, but you do not see?  Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”  Through Isaiah, God tells them.  God tells them that their relationship with God is made up of more than just their individual actions towards God.  Through Isaiah, God tells the people that they can’t have blinders on, only looking to heaven, and be faithful.

And as the prophets often are when speaking for God – Isaiah is blunt – not so kind.

I read part of verse 2 a moment ago, but let me read the whole verse:  “Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, AS IF they were a nation the practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God…”  OUCH.

And there’s more.  The people ask plainly, “Why do we fast, but you do not see?  Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

I think we have all asked these questions at times in OUR lives.  I know I have.  Times when we pray and plead for God to help us or to give us a sign that we haven’t been abandoned.  Times when we feel like we’re doing all the right things but we’re still not getting anywhere.

I’m not saying that God’s answer to us in every time of OUR questioning is the same answer that God gives here, but I believe it’s worth looking at.  Because when the people pose these questions, Isaiah DOES give them an answer, and perhaps it’s not the one they wanted to hear.

“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.”

God tells the people that they may be following the rule that tells them to fast, but they’re going about it all wrong.  God tells them to look in a mirror and watch themselves – to see that as long as they perform this outward action to God, but mistreat one another, the action isn’t faithful.

Simply bowing one’s head and putting on sackcloth and ashes aren’t enough.  Going to church and praying on Sunday then going to work and being unkind on Monday isn’t going to cut it.  It’s not that God didn’t see their fast – God DID see how they were treating each other, so the fast meant nothing.

What’s the saying?  “Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.”  In powerful words God then tells them what a FAITHFUL fast looks like.  It’s a powerful litany.

THIS is the fast:

  • “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…
  • remove the yoke from among you,
  • the pointing of the finger,
  • the speaking of evil…
  • offer your food to the hungry and
  • satisfy the needs of the afflicted…”

It’s not that God didn’t see their fast.  God also saw how they were treating each other, and mistreating each other, but also ignoring each other’s needs.

Last week, I preached about how in the Beatitudes Jesus blesses us for who we are and what we do.  That who we are is reflected in what we do, and what we do is a reflection of who we are.  This is what God through Isaiah is saying to the people here too.  Our faith is more that just coming to church and praying, or saying our prayers at night before we go to sleep.

As Lutherans sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that because we don’t have to earn our salvation, because Jesus has gone SO over the top in loving and rescuing us, we can be lazy in loving our neighbor.  Isaiah – and Jesus, especially in today’s gospel – tell us that our actions towards our neighbors, near and far, DO matter to God.

The fast that God wants from us, the fast that God sees and loves – is the giving of ourselves, in God’s name, in serving one another.

Then there are wonderful promises.  The images that Isaiah paints are profound and beautiful.

  • “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and
  • your healing shall spring up quickly…
  • you shall call and the LORD will answer…
  • Your light shall rise in the darkness and
  • your gloom be like the noonday.  
  • The LORD will… 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.”

I’ve got nothing to add to that.

AMEN.

 

2nd Sunday of Advent, 2016

2nd Sunday of Advent, year A, preached 12/4/16

first reading:  Isaiah 11:1-10

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

second reading:  Romans 15:4-13

gospel reading:  Matthew 3:1-12


Way back when I was in seminary, my dear friend, Violet, preached a sermon whose main point has stayed with me for over 20 years now.

She began her sermon by talking about “four letter words,” and their power.  She got a few chuckles, including from me, because Lord knows there have been times in my life when nothing else seems to fit a situation except a four letter word or two.

But then Violet shocked all of us, when she said the four letter word she was think of – the four letter word that hold such great power is… HOPE.  HOPE wasn’t even in the top ten list of four letter words I was thinking of!

What Violet was illustrating is exactly what our readings today also show us – that in the midst of very trying, practically impossible circumstances, HOPE is the power that gets us through.

hope1In our first reading we have a vision of hope despite a bleak reality.  The prophet imagines the shoot coming out of the dead stump of Jesse – King David’s line will be restored, and what a wonderful time that will be.  The peaceable kingdom as it’s popularly called.  The wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion, the cow and the bear, all living together; little children playing with snakes – no more pain or destruction.

Our psalm is a prayer of hope for an earthly king who will bring justice, who shall “defend the needy” and “rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.”  A prayer that under this king “the righteous flourish” and “there shall be abundance of peace.”

Our second reading from Romans speaks it plainly.  St. Paul even uses hope as a blessing:  “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

He wrote these words to a community with struggles from within and without.  The Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians were having a hard time accepting one another.  It wouldn’t be the first time a church has suffered from factions within.

Yet, in the midst of their division, Paul reminds them that the scriptures were given to us so that “we might have hope,” and that our God is a “God of hope.”  His wish for those in the Roman church, is that these competing factions “welcome one another” and “abound in hope.”

The hope in the gospel is less clear.  When we look at the surface of it we see a lot of judgment.  John the Baptist calling the religious leaders poisonous snakes, and warnings about the wheat and the chaff.  I see hope here in John’s warning for the big shots not to be presumptuous.  We are ALL called to repentance.  No one is better than another.

You and I have as much right (or NO right) to God as the richest tycoon or the holiest saint.  I don’t know about you, but that gives me a LOT of hope.  Through faith, through repentance, through our baptism into Jesus, I, a poor penitent sinner receive grace and mercy.  Our pedigree or social station has no bearing on whether we are “good enough” or NOT “good enough” for the kingdom of heaven.

When confronted with the times, it would have been easy for our biblical writers and prophets to despair.  And certainly in the Bible there are those moments – and sometimes the moments last for DECADES.  But despair does NOT prevail.

HOPE is a four letter word in the face of despair.  Instead of capitulating or simple cursing our circumstances, hope speaks a TRUTH to those circumstances.  Hope looks at reality and says, “Yes, I acknowledge you, but I will not give IN to you.”  THIS is the power that hope has – the power to carry us.

hope3

When seen this way, hope is one of the ultimate acts of defiance.  Hope is resistance.  Hope gives us strength to carry on and to ACT.  This is what we mean when we say hope is a four letter word.

We look at the growing darkness around us.  Winter is fast approaching.  The solstice is in a few weeks, when we will experience the “shortest” or “darkest” day of the whole year.  Into this darkness comes the child of hope.  The one of whom John the Baptist spoke – more powerful than him, or any one of us.

This hope is THE light that shines in the darkness, THE light the darkness cannot overcome.

THIS hope, gives US hope.  This hope lifts us up when we are weak and breathes in us the power of the Holy Spirit. This hope gives us hope even when we know we will fail.  This hope gives us the strength to even work for a thing that we know we will never see.  This hope has given people through the centuries courage to stand up against all odds – martyrs, prophets, teachers – all regular believers who had hope.

It’s so easy to find that perfect four letter word to curse.  But for God, the perfect four letter word is word that actually brings energy and passion and a vision for justice and righteousness – the peaceable kingdom, the righteous king, the ability to “with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

How could the people in the prophet Isaiah’s time have imagined a new king from the dead line of David?  How could the psalmist dare imagine a king who would defend the poor and needy?  How could Paul possibly think the Jewish and Gentile Christians would find a way to live together?

How can we, you and I, find a way to make it through all the challenges that come OUR way from within and without?

We see the coming baby in the manger, the savior on the cross, the risen Lord for US – and we have HOPE.

AMEN.

2nd Sunday after Epiphany, 2016

2nd Sunday after Epiphany, year C, 2016 (preached 1/17/16)

first reading:  Isaiah 62:1-5

Psalm 36:5-10

second reading:  1 Corinthians 12:1-11

gospel reading:  John 2:1-11


Today the lectionary presents us with weddings.  The institution of it and the joy of it.

Marriage is an important part of our culture.  Perhaps not as much as it used to be – more people are choosing to remain single, and others don’t feel the need for the state or Church to legalize their relationships.  But, in general, we have a culture that values marriage.

Things were quite different in the time of Isaiah and when Jesus walked the earth.  Marriage was EVERYTHING.  For a woman it offered protection and security.  For a man it was the way to provide legitimate heirs.  How much love played into it depended on the individuals, but to be married was the goal for everyone.  To be alone was culturally “second rate.”

This is why Isaiah uses marriage to describe Judah’s future.  They will go from “forsaken” and “desolate” to delightfully married, and God will rejoice.  The same attitudes of marriage were present in the time when Jesus was born and lived among us.  Weddings brought two individuals together, brought two families together, brought the whole community together, and were a sign of hope for the future.

Weddings are wonderful and special.  In Jesus’ day they could last up to a week!  In our day we have a party, we take pictures, we remember the day every year.  And yet, at the same time, weddings are pretty ordinary.  I mean, people get married all the time.

Over 2.1 million couples got married in 2014 in the United States.  That’s almost 6,000 weddings a DAY.

Isaiah’s vision of a nation restored, legitimized and filled with joy,  and the setting for Jesus’ first miracle in the gospel of John, tell us something wonderful about how God operates.

Many times we think that for something to be holy it has to be unique, ULTRA special, EXTRA ordinary – something set apart.  And while it’s true that holy things are things set apart, what makes them holy is the function they serve.  No thing is inherently holy.  It’s what we DO with a thing that makes it holy.

Over 6,000 marriages a day, nothing special about that.  But God gives us a message through using this example in Isaiah and John.  And the message is this – that God can and does take what is everyday and ordinary and make it holy.

Through the marriage imagery in Isaiah, and Jesus’ attendance and first miracle at a marriage banquet, we learn the God wants to take things familiar to us and use them to help us experience the divine.

A wedding may be commonplace, and even if it takes place at city hall, invoking God’s name and blessing makes it a holy thing.  Our meeting here together this morning in and of itself is not a holy thing.  People meet together all the time:  at the grocery store, a concert, the doctor’s office, at restaurants, the senior center.  But when we meet and call on God’s name, to praise God and hear God’s Word, then it becomes worship, and worship is holy.

IMG_0879I drank a glass of water this morning.  Thank goodness that for most of us here, water is an everyday ordinary thing.  We turn on the faucet and it’s there like magic.  My glass of water was not holy.  But God decided that the act by which you and I would become God’s children would involve simple everyday water.

Again, God using an ordinary everyday thing to make a holy connection to us – a holy covenant.  Because when God’s Word is spoken over everyday water, it becomes in the words of Martin Luther, “a divine, heavenly, holy, and blessed water.” (Book of Concord, Tappert ed, Large Catechism, p. 438)

We eat and drink every day.  It’s one of the first things we do as a newborn, and one of the last things we will do before we die.  Once again God chooses one of our most ordinary activities to make holy.

11173340_1208991342450171_5284530707964794726_nIn the Old Testament God instituted the Passover – in the New Testament Jesus gives us the new covenant through the eating and drinking of holy communion.  Everyday substances of bread and wine, that when joined with God’s Word, become for us a sacrament of forgiveness.  Jesus took the bread, took the cup, blessed them and made them holy.

Over and over again, God takes the things we KNOW – the things we experience in our daily lives – and uses them to form and keep a relationship with us, and to strengthen our relationships to one another.  Because God knows we are both spiritual AND earthly people.

We cannot disconnect from our human senses, and so God USES those senses – sight, touch, taste, hearing and even smell – to connect with us.

Indeed God loved us SO much, want to be so intimately involved with our lives and way of living, that God chose to be among us.  God chose to be born and live with us, to experience the joy of a wedding, the relaxation of eating with friends, the death of a loved one, and even death itself – all out of love for you and me.

It’s an amazing thing – that God stoops so low, indeed Jesus BECAME an ordinary person, to meet us in love.

Because Jesus lived among us, God understands first hand our humanity and how it works.  It’s wonderful, and I’m so grateful, that God uses the things we find familiar, in order to form and keep us in faith.

We don’t have to travel to some far off place to find what is holy, we don’t have to conjure up complicated potions, we don’t have to perform great athletic feats, we don’t have to be perfect people to find the holy.

God comes to us in Jesus – with water, with bread and wine, saying, “where two or three are gathered together in my name.”

May we recognize him in these moments, in these things, and give thanks.

AMEN.

 

2nd Sunday of Advent, 2015

2nd Sunday of Advent, year C, 2015 (preached 12/6/15)

first reading:  Malachi 3:1-4

Psalmody – Luke 1:68-79

second reading:  Philippians 1:3-11

gospel reading:  Luke 3:1-6


Today is John the Baptist’s day.  Every reading except Philippians points us right to him.

Assumption Cathedral of the Ryazan Kremlin. XVI century

Assumption Cathedral of the Ryazan Kremlin. 16th century

As Christians we immediately think of John when we read from Malachi about the messenger who will come to prepare the way.  Our normal psalm from the book of psalms is replaced today by Zechariah’s song – a song he sang about his newborn son John.  And of course, the gospel reading is ALL about John, placing him in a particular time and place of human history.  It’s practically a history lesson.

Of course it’s appropriate for us to spend a bit of time with John in Advent.  He preached about the one who was coming, and we wait for the celebration of that coming on Christmas Day.

Except today we don’t hear John preach his message.  We hear about the message, but not the message itself – we mostly read a description of John.  And it’s not even the graphic description of his looks we’re so familiar with – this is a description that Luke pulled out of Isaiah chapter 40.

After reading these passages I’m left wanting more – more MEAT, if you will.  Preach to us.  Give us something to do.  Rebuke us, forgive us – anything!

But these readings won’t do that for us, and maybe that’s the point.  Maybe it’s the point to leave us hanging a little.  To leave us thinking, “Now what?”

Faith often does that.  We experience it all the time in life – wondering or worrying about what comes next.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been doing probably more wondering and worrying than usual lately. Our world and our country has seen more than its usual dose of violence in the last month.  It’s left me with anxiety about the future, wondering what kind of world we are leaving for our children and our children’s children.

And unlike some people who might point the finger “out there” and blame others for the course of events, I tend to look at myself and ask, “How have I contributed to this mess, either by my action or inaction?”

I certainly don’t have the power or voice to speak to or act towards a global audience, say, like the Presiding Bishop or the Pope, or the President – but I DO have the power and voice to speak and act LOCALLY – to do and say what I can, that will either speak the love Christ – or “something else” – to those around me.

So I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on myself.  This fits in perfectly with the preaching of John the Baptist, and with the season of Advent.

John the Baptist calls us to repent.  To look at our lives, to face clearly where we have fallen short – that we are always falling short.

John the Baptist says – stop pointing your finger out, and start pointing it IN.  Ouch.  That hurts.

But no one promised that a life of faith would be easy.  Even Luke’s referencing of Isaiah to speak of John isn’t easy.  Luke’s and Isaiah’s words describe John’s ministry AND OUR LIVES as constantly being remolded, remodeled, reshaped and changed.

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight, Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.”

This is a rich picture placed before us.  It’s some serious roadwork.  Hard physical labor – and dirty – when you look at it from a purely literal point of view.

But of course, Luke and Isaiah aren’t literally talking about highways and byways; the paths and valleys and mountains and crooked and rough ways are metaphors for our LIVES, as individuals and as a community.

OUR paths need to be made straight.  OUR holes need to be filled in, and our mountains need to be made low.  What is crooked in US needs to be straightened out, and OUR rough spots need to be made smooth.

The truth is that none of us are perfect, and there are parts of ourselves that need work.  And even when we get one part of it “made smooth,” there’s still more to do.  And sometimes in making one part straight, other parts get crooked, so we’ve got to work on them then!

Right about now, when I’m doing all this self-reflection and realizing just how “not perfect” I am, I get the urge to say, “Bring on the baby already!  Why all this John the Baptist uncomfortable self-reflection stuff?  Let’s just skip to Christmas!”

But reflecting is a part of the Advent season.  Waiting is certainly a theme, and is probably more popular because it’s easier – but so are reflection and repentance.

If you think about it, what better way can there be to prepare ourselves to receive the Christ child than to confront how very much we NEED him.

Jesus came to be with us – Emmanuel – not as a statement of cuteness or cordiality, but because we need a SAVIOR.  Jesus came to be with us because we have crooked part of our souls that WE can NEVER make straight – rough ways WE can NEVER smooth out.  We cannot do it.

As much as we can do little things, as much as we can do some work on the roads of our souls, they’ll never be pothole free.  We need a savior.

We need God to come to us and save us from ourselves.

We NEED that baby, because that baby will go to the cross to make sure we see the “salvation of God.”

John the Baptist preached repentance because we need it, as uncomfortable as it is for us to admit that.

In order to come CLOSE to appreciating who Christ is, and the gift of Christmas, we need to stop making excuses – and confront in ourselves how much we need him.

If we do only that this Advent, then we have done it well.

AMEN.

2nd Sunday of Advent, 2014

2nd Sunday of Advent, year B, 2014 (preached December 7, 2014)

first reading:  Isaiah 40:1-11

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

second reading:  2 Peter 3:8-15a

gospel reading:  Mark 1:1-8


In our gospel reading this morning we hear, “I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way.”  St. Mark tells us that this messenger is John the Baptizer.

Through his preaching and baptizing, he made people ready to receive the One who would come after him, about whom he says, “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.”  John is the baptizer, the announcer, the preparer – sent by God to make the way for Jesus the Christ.

The word “Advent” means arrival.  This reading tells us about Advent in the past tense – how John prepared the people for the arrival and ministry of Jesus.  But how can this reading apply to Advent in the present?

What does it say to us, who in this season of meditation and anticipation, are trying to find new ways of inviting the Lord into our life today?

Scholar Reginald Fuller states, “The Church must allow John the Baptist to perform his distinctive ministry of forerunner in its midst today.  How is he to do this?  By the preaching of repentance.  Unless people are first convicted of sin, they cannot know the need for a Savior.” (Preaching the Lectionary, 2006. p. 208)

Have we been convicted of our sin?  Have we come to the realization that we are far from perfect creatures, and NOT the Creator?

As Christians we need to be constantly aware of our sinfulness and brokenness.  That was the calling of John the Baptist.  He held up a mirror for each person to look at to see their true selves – the kind of mirror that strips away all the makeup, all the images we put on to make ourselves look better on the outside.

And what needed to be done 2,000 years ago still needs to be done today.

In some churches there is little talk of sin.  But how can God’s grace mean anything to us unless we recognize how much we are utterly dependent upon that grace?

Confronting our sin is not popular, it doesn’t make us feel good.  It strips us of all “holier than thou” pretenses, all notions that we’re better than anyone else.

This is so necessary for a life of faith, this is why confession is SO important, to strip ourselves bare before God, who sees us naked anyway, so that we can experience the freedom that comes with forgiveness.

Because we’re called to repentance, not so God can lord it over us, hold our sins against us and keep us down.  John the Baptist called the people to repentance for the FORGIVENESS OF SINS.

We need to confront and confess our sinfulness, come to repentance, so that we can experience in a profound way, the love and forgiveness that God offers to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

This is the good news – not our sinfulness, but God’s boundless, all-encompassing love for you and me.

In our Old Testament reading we have a wonderful image of God – and the last two verses are quite meaningful.  Isaiah gives us an image of God’s awesome power and how it’s used.

“See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.”  God sounds like a real tough guy.  Watch out for this God – he means business.

But that’s not the end.  In the very next verse Isaiah explains how God uses this power – the power of his arm.  We read, “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”

God has the power to crush us – but loves us in spite of all the mistakes we have made and will make in the future.  God is loving, forgiving, merciful, kind and gentle to all the sheep.  This can give us comfort and strength as we examine ourselves, as we realize our sin and how much we need the grace of God.

I’d probably be negligent if I didn’t mention the unrest and protests that have occurred across the country in light of the events in Missouri and New York.  Hard to look at God’s model of power and NOT think of it.

God uses God’s power, not to crush, but to bring love – this is the ultimate example of the use of power for us – whether we are in law enforcement, involved in protest, or watching and wondering how to respond.

I think if all sides could come together and acknowledge their mutual sinfulness, both institutional and individual – if WE could each examine OUR hearts and how we treat one another – it would go a long way toward bringing real peace and justice to all our communities.

When John the Baptist says, “The One who is more powerful than I is coming,” he means the One who uses his power for love.

When John the Baptist says, “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals,” he is talking about the One who stooped down and untied the disciples’ sandals, and even washed their feet.  God’s love for you and me knows no bounds, it goes the extra mile and beyond our greatest expectations – and this isn’t just good news, it’s the best news of all.

But how will people know this best of all news?  How will the ministry of John the Baptist be carried out today?  How can people come to confession and repentance so that they can know how far God has gone to love them?

Through you and me.  WE are the Church.  WE have the mission to carry on where John left off.

But not to talk about sin so that we can beat people down.  Not to talk about sin so that we can pass judgement.

But to talk about sin, to acknowledge it, so that we can experience the awesome forgiveness of God that is waiting for each one of us, to make us free.

AMEN.

10th Sunday after Pentecost, 2014

10th Sunday after Pentecost, year A, 2014 (preached August 17, 2014)

first reading:  Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

Psalm67

second reading:  Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

gospel reading:  Matthew 15:10-20, 21-28


Today we have a very interesting gospel reading.

Initially it seems like there are two different unconnected parts.  First Jesus talks about that which defiles a person – it’s what come OUT of us, not what goes IN.  Then we have Jesus’ encounter with a Canaanite woman desperate to have help for her daughter.

While they appear unrelated at first, the two incidents in our gospel, and our reading from Isaiah especially, have a profound message – they all answer the question – “WHO’S IN, AND WHO’S OUT?”

Isaiah starts us off.  We read, “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord… these I will bring to my holy mountain… my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.  I will gather others besides those already gathered.”

The prophet tells the Israelites that it’s not a matter of race or nationality that defines who’s in and who’s out – it’s faith.  If you join, or commit yourself to the Lord, the Lord will commit to you.  This is what Jesus was illustrating in our gospel.

The Pharisees were overly concerned with keeping the Law.  They were more concerned about keeping the letter of it than the spirit of it.  A big part of that was what could and could not be eaten, it still is for many of the Jewish faith – in other words, what you put IN.  And if you couldn’t or didn’t follow the rules as they interpreted them, you were OUT.

But Jesus turns the whole thing upside down and backwards.  He redefines who’s IN and who’s OUT, not by the outward following of dozens or hundreds of rules, but by what rules our HEARTS.

By his definition, it’s not eating certain kinds of foods, or eating with unwashed hands that defile.  For Jesus, the things that defile a person are attitudes and actions that harm our neighbors:  evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness and slander.

THEN he uses his interaction with the Canaanite woman to drive home the point to his disciples.  Some have taken issue with Jesus’ harsh treatment of this woman, and on the surface I agree.  But I have to believe that Jesus knew the Canaanite woman would persist, and in the end use her to put the disciples in their place.

Isaiah spoke of foreigners being brought IN and Jesus uses his interaction with this woman to illustrate just that.  To the disciples this woman was definitely OUT.  Outside the family of Israel, outside of righteousness, and certainly outside of their group.  The disciples were even urging Jesus to sen her away.  Tell her to get lost – we don’t want to deal with her.

In the end, not only does Jesus heal her daughter, he praises HER FAITH.  He announces that she’s IN.  This foreign woman, with two strikes against her – the fact that she was Canaanite and the fact she was a woman in that society – was welcomed IN.  Not only does she get crumbs, she gets a place AT THE TABLE.

Because she recognized what the disciples and the Pharisees could not.  That in the end, we’re all beggars at the table of the Lord.

Our righteousness doesn’t earn us a place, the accident of our birth doesn’t earn us a place, and certainly any sense of entitlement or perceived privilege does NOT earn us a place at the table, or as Isaiah describes it, on God’s “holy mountain.”

The Pharisees had it all wrong, Jesus even called them “blind guides.”  And the disciples had it all wrong.  It was the foreign woman, who presumed to have NO place, who Jesus lifted up and praised.

Jesus writes a whole new set of rules about who’s IN and who’s OUT of the kingdom.  Or rather he hearkens back to the proclamation of Isaiah in our first reading.

This was HUGELY upsetting to those in power around him.  Utterly offensive to the Pharisees, and extremely confusing to the disciples.  So confusing that Jesus remarks in the first part of the gospel reading, “Are you STILL without understanding?”

Sometimes I think I can hear Jesus say that even now.

It’s a sad part of human nature that we try to separate people into IN and OUT groups.  I remember my great Aunt Helen telling me that when she was growing up in the 1910’s and 20’s, there were people who wouldn’t speak to her because she was of German descent.  Even though she was born HERE, an American by birth – she was OUT.

I know how impossible it can feel for kids in school, when for reasons they may not even know, they’re marked as OUT.  The situation in Missouri right now stems from a whole race of people who believe they’ve been marked as OUT not just now, but for centuries.

Jesus tells us that all of our outward ways of distinguishing who’s IN and who’s OUT are just plain wrong.

Whether it’s the color of our skin, our ethnic heritage, the kind of clothes we wear, the car we drive, the size of our house or if we’re homeless… if we have a “checkered” past, if we’re sick, if we’re perceived as a burden because of physical limitations, or perceive ourselves as a burden for whatever reason…  Our Lord says none of those reasons are valid in judging who’s IN and who’s OUT.

Through our baptism, through our faith, Jesus says we’re IN.  Period.  Praise God!

And Jesus calls each one of us who follow him, who call ourselves his disciples, to proclaim that message, to welcome all who seek to know his love, so that in the words of the prophet Isaiah, we all may be “joyful in [God’s] house of prayer…”  and that THIS house in which we gather, and ALL places of worship “shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

AMEN.