Monday, January 24, 2011

"God did so totally not just say that"

Sermon title got a lot of giggles. Here it is on our website... and it's also
podcasted. I love that our church speaks podcast language.

I have to mention, however, the children's sermon. I began with a simple question: "what is a prophet?"
And one little girl said, perfectly confidently, in her high squeaky voice, the words we use in Godly Play:
"A prophet is someone who comes so close to God that they know what God wants them to say and do."
The church gasped and applauded.
We talked a bit about prophets. I asked if they knew any prophets... or if they had ever FELT like a prophet (with something very important they had to say)... and got nothing, so I just finished with "Prophets can be men, or women, or boys, or girls, so.... watch out."

Scripture Lesson: Isaiah 49:1-7 (my modifications on NRSV translation)
Listen to me, O islands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The LORD called me before I was born,
and named me while I was in my mother’s womb.
God made my mouth like a sharp sword,
and hid me in the shadow of God’s hand;
God made me a polished arrow,
and hid me away in God’s quiver.
And God said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
But I said, “I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the LORD,
and my reward with my God.”
And now the LORD says,
who formed me in the womb to be God’s servant,
to bring Jacob back to the Lord,
and that Israel might be gathered to God,
for I am honored in the sight of the LORD,
and my God has become my strength--
The Lord says,
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Thus says the LORD,
the Redeemer of Israel and of the Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
the slave of rulers,
“Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the LORD, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

Full text of the sermon:

OK here’s my topic:
God did so totally not just say that.
Let’s jump into this story. I’m using my imagination a lot, so you’ll have to go with me. I’m imagining the prophet Isaiah having an attitude. Prophets don’t always agree with the message they’re given… so let’s imagine Isaiah is talking back to God, even though there’s not a lot of evidence for that per se.

What there IS evidence for is that it’s hard work being a prophet. You’re unpopular, and in constant danger of being killed. Nobody would really choose to be a prophet, but this prophet didn’t have a choice in the matter. He says “The LORD called me before I was born, and named me while I was in my mother’s womb.”

There IS evidence that the subject of this passage – someone often called “the suffering servant,” was less than thrilled with the work he did. It says that God made him sharp like an arrow – and then hid that arrow in a quiver. God sharpened and prepared this prophet – and then didn’t send him out to USE that weapon. And he says “I have labored in vain.” Prophets can get discouraged.

There IS evidence that this prophet expected to be a bit of a home-town hero. He had been talking about the return to Jerusalem after exile, and how glorious it would be, and he would be out there leading the best journey ever taken. You know, OUR God, saving OUR people, restoring OUR land, bringing US home. What could be greater?

And then. God says this:
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
but I will give you as a light to the Gentiles,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

And if I were that prophet, that’s where I’d say uh-uh, God did so totally not just say that. Why would God’s salvation be going to the end of the earth? We’re all here. So, I’m supposed to be a light to the who? Those god-forsaken Gentile nations don’t need a light. Save US and forget about THEM.
And although I have been using my imagination here, it’s not all imaginary. People who heard this message were surprised. They felt it was a blow to their pride, and some tried to change it. One of the earliest translations of this text, the Septuagint, takes the phrase “it is too light a thing for you to be my servant to restore the survivors of Israel” and unabashedly changes it to “it’s a great thing for you to be my servant to restore the survivors of Israel!” Early interpreters took that line about “salvation reaching to the end of the earth” and spun it a bit, so it meant that the prophet would find all the Jews who were exiled at the ends of the earth, and bring them home to Jerusalem. We always want it to be all about us.

A popular prophet, you know, is the one who prophesies the home team wins, the opponent loses. But this prophet has just been asked to say “forget about the home team – prizes for everyone!” It’s ridiculous. It’s scandalous.

You know, there’s a lot of scandalous stuff in the Bible… and some of it offends more than our pride. Some of it is just offensive. Violence, misogyny, militarism, racism, the list goes on.
One of the biggest scandals is when we discover that a lot of the prophets and kings and heroes of the Bible didn’t appear to believe – as we do – in a God of universal love. You know – Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world? The idea is that God wants everyone to know and receive God’s love. But we don’t find that message everywhere in the Bible. Isaiah is developing the idea of God being UNIVERSAL, and it’s a scandalous new idea.
Everyone knows that Jonah – the backwards prophet – completely missed that message. He got swallowed by a whale because he was running away from what God told him to do – preach to his enemies. But in addition to Jonah, there were others who didn’t get the universal love idea.

Abraham, for example. In his story we have an interesting mix of local loyalty and a little universalism. God says to Abraham, basically, you’re my favorite: “I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:3). This is definitely a partisan God, one who takes sides, but one who is generous to the other families of the earth as well. That’s nice. But it’s not quite universal, and it’s not very fair to the others.

Elijah is another example. The prophet Elijah arranged for a cosmic duel between Yahweh, the Israelite god, and Baal, a Canaanite god. They set up rival altars, (1 kgs 18:20-40), and waited for fire from heaven. And when Yahweh won the showdown, Elijah had his people kill all of Baal’s people. Elijah didn’t believe in a very universal God – just that his god was stronger than their god – and it certainly was not the kind of God who tells you to love your enemies.

There’s another example – even though I hate to tarnish her image – Mary. Mother of Christ. She sings her song, “my soul magnifies the Lord,” a beautiful song about how the rich and the poor will dramatically be reversed, but that song ends with a specific promise to a specific people – to Israel, Abraham, and his descendants. Did she even have a clue that it was so much bigger than that? She probably didn’t, because we’re not even sure if Jesus knew his message would be addressed to non-jewish audiences, far beyond the borders of Israel. Depending on what gospel you look at, Jesus’ attitude toward the Gentiles ranges from begrudging acceptance to outright indifference.

Looking at all these stories, there is an overarching theme of expansion. People who thought that God just cared for their family, find out that God cares for their entire tribe. People in a tribe, with their own god, hostile to all the neighboring tribes, find out that the same God cares for twelve tribes– not just one. It happens again, because those twelve tribes get together but then they split apart, and again they have to be told – it’s about everyone, not just about you. And then twelve tribes find out that they are just the beginning of the story, and that their light is to shine out to the ends of the earth. The story keeps opening – widening – pushing against the boundaries we construct. It’s natural to have a close circle of people around us – our friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors… It’s natural to love them in a special way, and to want to help them more than we would help a stranger. And it might be natural to assume that God would love them more too… but God keeps pushing us to redefine those circles of who is eligible for compassion. God is always surprising us, and daring us to look farther than the circle of “our” people.

And lest we think sacred history ends at the end of this book, let’s look further. The long arc of history keeps bending toward inclusion despite its fits and starts in the other direction. In process right now are women, who are deemed equal to men around much of the world… though not everywhere. We see this as God’s call. We can point to some powerful words written by the apostle Paul, many centuries before the world was able to truly hear them… he wrote the words “there is no more Jew or Greek, there is no more slave or free, there is no more male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Many have heard this call from God, still pushing us toward acknowledging God’s universal love.

Race is under consideration too, although we are SLOW with that in the church. You all have heard the saying that the most segregated hour of the week is 10 AM on a Sunday. Our denomination the Presbyterian Church (USA) is currently voting on whether or not to add the Belhar confession to our book of confessions. This confession was written in South Africa. It systematically strikes down all the rationale for apartheid and affirms our oneness in Christ across the races. And unfortunately, it is controversial. The controversy surrounding the vote proves that race issues are NOT behind us. God is still calling us, urging us, PUSHING us to expand our circle of compassion. We know too well the struggles in our society to have equal rights recognized for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. The boundaries must be expanded.

Robert Wright, in his book The Evolution of God, looks at it as if God were growing. As we move from ideas of “God loves my tribe” to “God loves my nation” to “God loves other nations,” from “God loves everyone like me” to “God loves all kinds of people,” our image of God grows accordingly. And Robert Wright thinks this growth in our consciousness may be a reason to believe that there is a God, or some kind of higher power, drawing all of humanity toward an expanded sense of compassion, and toward a universal sense of moral order.

To get even wider with these circles of compassion – there is a growing sense, now, that it’s not even just about people… that the non-human participants in our global ecosystem should be included in our view. That God has a relationship with the earth itself, and its creatures and plants and minerals, and that we should also widen our view. We could treat the earth as a Thou and not as an It – as a relation, not as a resource to be exploited. We hear that call, and we hear it from God. We find it rooted in the Bible, and we find it growing in our hearts. We can no longer continue to abuse the earth. The boundaries must be expanded.

But the problem is that at each step of the expansion, there’s a harsh surprise. At each stage there is SOMEONE standing with their hands on their hips looking at God and saying uh uh no you didn’t. Jesus comes, and they say “You want us to listen to someone from Galilee?” Jerusalem is the spiritual center of Israel, and Galilee is so far away it’s practically Gentile. Prophets get a message and say, “what? you want us to ‘be a light’ – to our enemies? HEY GOD, WHAT ABOUT THE HOME TEAM?!”

So then we try to rationalize how God could possibly be telling us this very scandalous thing. Isaiah puts it this way, in the very next verse, verse 7: “Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves.”
Really, the only way Isaiah can get his mind around the concept that God could be bothering with other people, is that maybe “salvation” for these other people means that they bow down in submission before the Israelites.
If you don’t get the point about Isaiah’s attitude, let’s jump ahead in the chapter, to verse 22. He says:
I will soon lift up my hand to the nations,
and raise my signal to the peoples;
and they shall bring your sons in their bosom,
and your daughters shall be carried on their shoulders.
With their faces to the ground they shall bow down to you,
and lick the dust of your feet.

Those nations will learn to be respectful. They’ll take their proper place in the order of things. If God really cares for them, then God will make them submit to us, because we’re God’s favorite, and that’s how the story goes.
Unfortunately this is not just an ancient story, it’s a human story. Something in our nature still fights back against actually accepting people who are different from us. We want to put them into our boxes. Well-intentioned missionaries fly all over the world these days, still trying to make “savages” into “civilized Christians,” because they have this idea “God loves you – so God wants you to be more like me.”
It’s hard to stop doing this kind of stuff.
Hard to change our patterns of thinking.
It’s hard to comprehend that God loves other people just as they are.
But this is the scandal. This is the story of God and God’s people: we just don’t get it, and yet God keeps pushing us forward, pushing us to be more and more generous with our tight little circles of compassion. God’s love is for everyone, and God will never be satisfied until ALL people, and ALL of creation, live in love and harmony with one another.

So here we are. All of you, as a church, pay me to stand up here and say God’s love is for everyone – and then everyone says Amen – because it’s true and we know it. God’s love is for everyone. By the way, from my perspective, this is the best job ever. But that message is not just about this pulpit. You say that message with your lives every time you make God’s love tangible to someone else. You can’t put that in a box and say it’s a job for the pastor, or the Christian Ed director, or the youth advisors, or the music director. That is everyone’s work.

So when we say “God’s love is for everyone,” what does it look like? How do we extend and express God’s love to others? Does it look like ME inviting YOU to be part of MY group, at MY house, talking about MY favorite issues – or do I actually want to get to know you on your terms? Are we genuinely curious about one another, or do we just hope that the others will get on our bandwagon? Are we relating, or are we recruiting? It’s so much easier to recruit. You just talk, you never have to listen. Really relating with love takes all we have in us.

Every action we take can support - or distract from - that central message, “God’s love is for everyone.” Little things we never even think about can be a roadblock to other people. If we say that God’s love is for everyone, but it’s announced by email, we’ve blocked out the people who don’t have their own computers and blackberries and iPhones and whatnot. If we say that God’s love is for everyone, and you can hear about it on Tuesdays at 2, we’ve blocked out everyone who goes to school or work on Tuesdays. If we say God’s love is for everyone, and let’s all have dinner tonight at an expensive restaurant that isn’t wheelchair-accessible, that message is not going to make perfect sense to some people. If we choose an affordable and accessible restaurant, however, we send a very different message.
Every little assumption we make can get in the way of someone else hearing that message. Have you ever entered a different culture and seen all the little things that make you feel uncomfortable? People are talking about bands or movies you didn’t see… there’s a unspoken hierarchy of leadership and you accidentally step on the wrong person’s toes… everyone is using a gadget you didn’t even know existed… When we enter a strange place and feel this way, we often feel embarassed and we just leave. And whatever message of love those people may have wanted to convey to us, we missed it. Most of us have had this kind of experience, but we may not ever think about whether other people feel that way in OUR presence. Every little action we take can support - or distract from - that central message, “God’s love is for everyone.”

The good news is it’s not ALL up to us. God is really insistent on loving this whole world, whether God’s prophets are on the right boat or not. It’s not all up to us. But we can participate. Breaking down the walls that divide person from person – and person from God – and person from earth – breaking down these walls is an important part of the sacred story in which we place ourselves, that never-ending love story between God and God’s creation. God is always pulling us, pushing us, calling us, coaxing us, enticing us, to turn away from our brokenness and choose a better way, a way that leads us forward through expanding circles of compassion. Let’s do our best to tear down those walls. Here, and out there, and “in here,” and wherever we may go. May it be so – Amen.

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