Walk in the Light

Sermon for November 27th – Mary Shaima

Texts:  Matthew 24:36-44; Isaiah 2:1-5

 

Grace, peace, and light to you from the God for whom we watch and wait, and who is always with us.  Amen.

One of the things you have so graciously taught me over the last few months is that I have a tendency to make assumptions.  Not all the time, of course – but sometimes.  So I thought it would be helpful this morning to give you some basic  background as to our lessons, and not assume that this is common knowledge.

The ELCA is one of 48 Christian churches who use the Revised Common Lectionary in worship every Sunday.  “Lectionary” comes from the root word lectio, which means “word.”  The lectionary is the set of readings for all the days of the church year, consisting of a gospel reading, a Psalm, and lessons from the Old and/or New Testament.  “Common” of course because we all hold it in common.  “Revised” because the international and ecumenical group of scholars that prepared the initial lectionary later expanded it to a three-year cycle from just one.

Starting with the First Sunday in Advent, we read for twelve months from one of the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  “Synoptic” means they follow roughly the same chronological timeline.  John’s gospel sits outside that timeline, so it is read at various points throughout all three years.  Today we begin Year A, and we begin reading from the gospel of Matthew.

And as is so frequently the case in the season of Advent, we also begin reading from the writings of the prophet Isaiah.  Many of Isaiah’s texts are considered foretellings of Jesus, and so they are paired with the fulfillment accounts in the gospels.

Sounds good.

Well, you may have noticed that today’s lessons don’t seem to fit this mold AT ALL.

What does the first lesson from Isaiah – a beautiful, poetic text about not learning war any more – have to do with the gospel lesson from Matthew, where it sounds like the worst lottery game ever?

Actually – more than a cursory glance will reveal.

In our gospel today, a cursory glance seems more like a replay of that 60s song, “I’m in with the In Crowd.”  If I know what the in crowd knows, I’ll be fine.  (So how do I find out what the in crowd knows?)

It also seems tailor-made for the insomniac.  Keep awake – stay alert.

But such literal readings only lead us down a series of rabbit holes that divert our attention from what I believe God is actually calling us to in these lessons.

The author of this gospel is believed by many to be the Matthew in the gospels – the tax collector.  The character Matthew was a Jew.  So it is important to think about this text in light of the Jewish understanding of apocalypse or end times – which is that all things are renewed, not destroyed.

And that is where the Isaiah reading begins to make a little more sense.

If all things are renewed, if God makes all things new, then perhaps this so-called “apocalypse” looks a lot like the scene Isaiah describes.  The word that Isaiah saw.

Isaiah is speaking to the people of Israel when they are quite literally between a rock and a hard place – Assyria and Egypt.  They have messed up mightily.  They have managed to turn all that God has given them into idols, and forgotten that it is God whom they are to worship.  In the first chapter of the book of Isaiah, the prophet graphically reminds them of all they’ve done wrong.

But here in Chapter 2, the prophet reminds them that God’s promises are for all time – and for all people.

“In days to come,” says Isaiah, “the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills, and all nations shall stream to it.”

The text then makes an interesting point: there is work to be done both by God AND by God’s people.

God does the arbitrating, and the people engage in active peacemaking.

The word that Isaiah saw.

As I read this from my perspective of 20 years in the law, I was drawn in: God judges and arbitrates.  And we expect to hear that a judge will judge between nations.

But look at the next verse: he shall arbitrate for many peoples.  This is truly the arbitrator’s role: to act as the impartial third party, with a desire to achieve the best possible outcome for ALL parties, not just one or the other.

And we see what that outcome is, too.  A day when war is no more.  When conflict is no more, and division, and hatred, and all the -isms and phobias that are the hallmark of our living in fear.

The word that Isaiah saw.

That word was not limited to the action of God.  No, it included the action of people.

Because it is the people who are reversing the implements of war.  The people are a part of the transformation from a war economy – which is always transactional, in an eye-for-an-eye fashion – to an economy of grace and peace.

This is what I think Matthew’s gospel is talking about when we read words like “stay awake” and “keep alert.”

To see those words – might just be the kind of transformation and action Isaiah describes.

They shall beat their swords into plowshares.

And their spears into pruning hooks.

Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.

Neither shall they learn war any more.

This vision of weapons of war turned into agricultural tools – images of death-dealing turned into food-producing – this is a promise for “the days to come.”  But biblical visions in both the Old and New Testament come to us from the future, from the heart of our loving God, longing to shape the days in which WE are living.

swords-into-plowshares

If you have been to the United Nations Centre in New York City, you have seen this sculpture.  You have seen Isaiah’s words.

It was a gift to the UN from the Soviet Union in 1959, to represent the human wish to end all wars and turn from making implements of destruction to making implements of production.  Production of food for all.

It is entitled “Let Us Beat Swords Into Plowshares” and is installed near the entry to the UN campus.

On a wall across the street from the UN, the words I just read from Isaiah are engraved.  So the delegates to the UN pass by those words every day as they go to their important work.

The United Nations is, of course, a human institution and is therefore flawed.  But its intent and hope is deeply rooted in the horror the world felt at the end of World War II, amid the realization that we had harnessed the kind of power that might destroy the planet.

This, too, is the response I believe God asks of us to the darkness that surrounds us.

Instead of succumbing to the darkness – instead of throwing in the towel and sitting afraid in the dark, God calls us to walk in the light.

Walking in the light means that we claim our Lutheran identity, forged and formed in the waters of baptism, as a named and claimed child of God who is saved by God’s grace and freed to make a difference in the world.

Freed to serve the neighbor, and freed to broadly define who my neighbor is.

Freed to hear these words of Isaiah as a call to shape the days in which we are living.

Brothers and sisters, this is what I believe Jesus means when he speaks of being ready.  For if we are to lean into the coming peaceable realm of God, then by practicing our call from the prophet Isaiah AND the prophet Micah we indeed are ready.  We re-form the swords of our lives into plowshares.  We practice doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.  And every now and then, we catch a glimpse of that peaceable realm.

We catch a glimpse when we see Christian and Muslim women in Liberia, dressed in white, pressuring the government by non-violent resistance to enter peace talks.  And finally the decades-old war ends.  A glimpse of the peaceable realm.

We catch a glimpse in Cambodia, where land mines used to make it impossible for anyone to farm the rice paddies.  A petition from Lutheran World Relief to remove the land mines has brought their number from 4300 in 1986 – to NONE today.  The fields are again producing rice, and the farmers are able to make a living.  A glimpse of the peaceable realm.

We catch a glimpse in Los Angeles, where the non-profit Homeboy Industries works transformation in the lives of gang members and ex-cons through a range of social enterprises and job opportunities.  They provide critical services to over 15,000 people who come to them every year seeking a better life.  A glimpse of the peaceable realm.

I believe that we all have a story we can tell about catching that glimpse.

And yet, in our broken and hurting world, there are so many days when we ask ourselves if this makes any sense.  If this really makes any difference.

I would gently remind us that we drop into the continuum of time for the very briefest of moments.

That brief moment is for us to contribute what we can, in partnership with God in the establishing of that peaceable realm.

We are very much a results and success-oriented people.  We want to know that our hunch was right, that we guessed correctly.

Sometimes, though, we cannot see what the future holds for the efforts we contribute now.  How shall we see any word, with such obscured vision?

Some years ago, I came across a poem that was written by the late Bishop Kenneth Untener of the Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan in tribute to Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador.  I think it captures so well the idea that we wait not passively, but actively.

A Step Along the Way: Archbishop Romero’s Prayer

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

 

Dear friends, may it be so for us.  Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.  Amen.

(No) Advance Preparation

This past week has pretty much contained All Of It.  And it has been very difficult for a lot of people.  For others, it has been the opposite.  I knew that I would be speaking to both in my congregation, because we welcome ALL in my congregation.  I knew I needed to speak to the space between.

A verse in today’s gospel text has stood out to me since I began pondering this lesson 2 weeks ago, but the Spirit waited until yesterday to speak to me in the space between as to exactly what I would say.  This was without a doubt the most difficult sermon I have ever had to write or preach.  I hope it can serve as food for thought.  God’s blessings to you.

 

Sermon for November 13, 2016

Luke 21:5-19

5When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6“As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

7They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. 9“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”

10Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

12“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.

16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

 

I feel quite certain that this is NOT the job I signed up for.

When I entered candidacy nearly four years ago, I don’t remember hearing ANYTHING about this.

Can I get a do-over?

No.  Actually, I can’t.

And this text is part of the reason why.  This sliver of the story after Jesus has come into Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna!” reminds us that this life to which you and I have been called is sometimes difficult, and challenging, and painful – if not risky to the end.  But I don’t think it’s a template for how to calculate the end times.

One of the things that is important to understand about this passage is WHEN Luke’s gospel was written, which was about 80-90 CE.

This destruction of the temple Jesus is talking about – has already happened.  The siege and destruction of Jerusalem was in the year 70 AD.

Luke’s audience is desperate to hear a word of hope.  They are living in the aftermath of the siege and destruction.  Life has gotten measurably worse in the 50 or so years since Jesus’ death and resurrection.

I feel sure Luke’s audience wants all this to make some kind of sense, somehow.

And I don’t think Jesus is predicting the future so much as he’s reading the signs around him.  He’s looking at the powerhouse that is Rome, and he’s looking at the tensions that surround everyone in Jerusalem.  He’s looking at the divisions within Judaism itself.  He’s spoken of this tension and division before.

But Jesus is not concerned with accurate predictions here.  Jesus is concerned about the community.

It’s no secret that the gospel Jesus preaches, the good news, is understood to be just this side of insurrection by the dominant power structure.  You may recall some time ago in this lectionary year, when the stories are of the early part of Jesus’ ministry, he goes to his home town of Nazareth and reads, in the synagogue, from the prophet Isaiah: the spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor…..and so on.

And for his efforts, he is basically run out of town on a rail.

That reality is one that has been a part of human history from the very beginning.  If you tell the truth – if you stand up for the oppressed – if you call out corruption in high places – look out.

What Jesus lays out here, however, is not a battle plan.  It’s not an algebraic equation into which you plug values, like certain events and the years they occur, in order to calculate when Jesus will return.

It’s a reality check.

To stand up for what is right, no matter how you arrived at the determination of what is right, is risky business.

And in the middle of the description of just how bad things can get, Jesus reminds the disciples that if they follow him, at some point the powers-that-be will come after THEM.

And here is the part of the text that I think is pivotal. Everything, I think, rests on this verse:

“So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance…..”

Now this goes against everything I’ve ever been taught as a paralegal,  not to mention a singer.  Not prepare in advance?  What are you, nuts?

But this…..this is our problem.  We prepare our defense in advance.

I’m just as guilty as the next person.

I turn off the radio station I don’t like.  I switch the TV away from the news channel I don’t agree with.  I unfriend people on Facebook with whose views I don’t align.

I prepare my defense in advance.  And in that preparation, I lose the ability to listen.

I lose the ability to listen to the person who is LGBTQ, or a person of color, who is genuinely afraid for their life.

I lose the ability to listen to the veteran who is sick and tired of the levels of corruption in the government he or she fought to defend.

I lose the ability to listen to my sister or brother, whose pain and frustration is real.

I lose the opportunity to make some room so that God might speak.

Do not prepare your defense in advance.

God will give you the words…..when they are needed.

But first – we MUST LISTEN.

We must sit with one another and listen to each other.  Not simply wait until there’s a break in THEIR narrative, so that we can insert OUR narrative.  No, I need to listen:

What does my brother long for?  Once I’ve heard it, can I articulate it?

What is my sister afraid of?  Once I’ve heard it, can I put it into words?

I don’t have to agree with them.  But can I hear them?

Dear brothers and sisters, if there is one thing I have discovered over many years on this earth, it is that it is more important to be in relationship, than it is to be right.

I have known many of you for years.  Some of you, I have known for most of my life.  And I know we do not agree on everything.

But what I do know is that you are good people.  Caring people.  Who just want to help make the world a better place.

I also know that you are faithful people, who gather whenever you can around this table, this font, this Word, at the foot of this cross – to share in the love and grace of God as poured out in Jesus the Christ.  Who are sent from this place, eager to serve the neighbor.

And if I believe what I preach – if WE believe this gospel, this good news – we will claim the truth that unites us and that stretches across time:  Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

In the light of those words, even when faced with the hard and painful work that is surely ahead of us, we don’t need to be afraid. As the eyes of the disciples were opened at the table in Emmaus, so our eyes are opened when walking the gospel road.

Psalm 98 is appointed for today.  The only other days in the church year we hear it are Christmas and the Easter Vigil.  At each of those times, we are concluding a time of wondering whether God is for real.  The Psalm interrupts that wondering by offering another way to reflect on our present reality.

We are invited to break out of spaces where thinking is limited, and life is regarded as something lived independent of other living things – or of God. I think the writer insisted on pushing people to see the unseen that was right in front of them.

And once they could begin to make out the outlines and contours of the activity of God, then it was time to shout, burst into song, and make music. What else can really happen once you’ve discerned the previously un-discernable?

Church, in order to make music together, to discern the un-discernable, we must listen to one another.

We must break out of the limiting spaces.

Because OUR identity is in the cleansing, renewing waters of our baptism.  Not in a political party, or an ideology, or a candidate – but in the water and the Word.

And that Word became flesh, and dwelt among us; full of grace and truth.

Believe this gospel, dear brothers and sisters.  It is all we have.

And the best part: it is all we need.

Thanks be to God.

 

Two Days in Denver

Hello friends,

I’ve spent the last few weeks finishing two massive papers that were due last Monday, as part of the last phase of my candidacy for ministry.  They are done!  And turned in!  Yippee!

In early October, I was in Denver for a two-day worship conference.  The Executive for Worship of the ELCA, the Rev. Kevin Strickland, asked me to write a short blog post about it for inclusion on the ELCA website.  Here is a link:

ELCA Worship Blogs – “Two Days in Denver”

This was a great honor and the event itself was a lot of fun. Enjoy!