Sunday, August 06, 2017

Sermon, "Women of the Bible: Vashti and Esther," Esther 1:1-2:4, Esther 4

Sermon 7/23/17
Esther 1:1-2:4, 4

Women of the Bible: Vashti and Esther

            Today we’re looking at the story of two women, two queens, Vashti and Esther. The book of Esther is a fairly short book, set in the time of exile. Remember, Israel had been conquered by foreign rulers, and many Israelites had been sent away from Israel to live in foreign lands. Some Jews find themselves living in the kingdom of Persia, under the rule of a man named King Ahasuerus, who is known elsewhere as King Xerxes. Persia is in the region we know today as Iran.
Esther is unique in being one of only two books of the Bible named for women – we read from the other, the book of Ruth, two weeks ago – but it is also one of only two book of the Bible that doesn’t explicitly mention God anywhere. (The other is Song of Songs.) So why is this book part of the scriptures you might wonder, if God isn’t mentioned? Today we’ll talk about this story of Esther, and see if we can see God woven throughout this text, even when God isn’t explicitly named.
Ahasuerus gives a banquet for the leaders of his government, including military figures and nobles of the region. The display of his wealth and splendor and pomp goes on for 6 straight months. And at the end of that lavish party, he gives another party, this one 7 days long, for all of the people present in the citadel – higher ups and regular folk. The scripture describes the extravagant decorations, food, and festivities in detail. We read that drinking was “without restraint,” and that the king ordered everyone to do just as they desired. At the same time, Vashti was giving a party for the women of the palace.
On the last day of festivities, Ahasuerus orders his servants to bring Queen Vashti before him and his guests, wearing her crown, so his officials can see her beauty. And Vashti refuses to come. We’re not told why. In fact, we never hear Vashti speak a word. Readers of the Bible have imagined a variety of possible reasons over the millennia for her refusal, including everything from her being ill, to being modest, to being unhappy with her appearance that day, to being simply stubborn. But to me, it seems pretty obvious why she doesn’t want to appear. She’s being ordered to present herself to be stared at by a large group of very drunk men. It feels like a demeaning command, and one that would leave her vulnerable. So she refuses. The king is enraged, and he seeks to impose the harshest punishment possible. For a woman in her time and context, her actions are actually illegal. She’s not allowed to refuse the king this way! And her bold refusal might stir up other women to question the commands of their husbands! So, Vashti is permanently banished from the king’s presence, and letters go out from the king declaring that “every man should be master in his own house.” And then, a group of young women are collected together to undergo beauty treatments, so one of them can be chosen as a new queen for Ahasuerus. Although we never hear Vashti speak, I can’t help but admire whatever led her to refuse the king. It seems it was the only power she had at her disposal, and she used it.
Her banishment paves the way for a young Jewish woman named Esther to be chosen as queen instead. Esther has been raised by her cousin, a man named Mordechai, because Esther was an orphan. She was raised as Mordechai’s own daughter. When Esther is made queen, Mordechai tells her not to reveal her Jewish identity, and she obeys. She is loved and admired by the king and his court, and showered with gifts. Mordechai somehow also uncovers a plot to kill the king, and through Esther, the king is warned, further putting Esther in the king’s good graces.
Eventually, though, Haman, a high-ranking official promoted by the king, is insulted by Mordechai, who fails to bow when Haman enters the city gates. Haman isn’t satisfied just to punish Mordecai though, so he decides that he will try to have all Jews in the whole kingdom put to death. He suggests to the king that it’s not right to have these people, these Jews, scattered through the kingdom who have different laws and practices than everyone else. “It is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them,” he says. Haman offers to pay a lot of money to the king for the right to have them all put to death, and the king agrees. A date for the execution of all the Jews, men, women, young and old is set.
When Mordechai hears what is happening, he puts on sackcloth and ashes, a sign of mourning. All the Jewish people fast and weep and lament. And Mordechai appeals to Esther to beg the king for mercy. But Esther is scared. No one goes to the king without being summoned. And look what happened to Vashti! She can’t risk it. She could be put to death! Mordechai speaks to her bluntly: “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Finally, she agrees to go. She asks Mordechai to fast on her behalf. And she says, “I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” Fortunately, she finds favor with the king, receives an audience, and saves her people from death.
            The book of Esther is about this moment of truth: when crisis comes our way, when conflict comes, what will we do? What is safe, or what is right? What is comfortable, or what is hard, but just? What protects ourselves, or what will serve God and serve others? It isn’t an easy question to answer. But we have to ask it of ourselves, again and again.
            Some of you may know the famous poem penned by Protestant pastor Martin Niemöller during World War II. He has a compelling story of transformation, and over time, he became more opposed to and more outspoken about Hitler and Nazism. He wrote about our tendency to not speak up for others as long as we ourselves are safe. He wrote, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
            I was thinking about Niemöller’s poem as I thought of Esther. It was so tempting to stay silent, even as her own people were being set up for slaughter, because speaking up might mean forfeiting her own life. What does it take for us to be moved to speak on behalf of someone else who is being wronged, hurt, threatened, mistreated? What does it take for us to speak up for what we believe is right, when doing so would put ourselves at risk? When by staying silent, we might be able to remain comfortable and safe? Esther could have stayed quiet and played it safe. I think perhaps a large part of her wanted to stay quiet. I know that would have been my impulse. Who could blame someone for wanting to protect their own life? Mordechai helps Esther see things differently. Perhaps Esther – a Jewish woman who somehow ended up as Queen of Persia – perhaps Esther is where she is when she is for just such a time as this, for just such a purpose as this – standing up for a whole people.  
            Remember earlier this summer, when we talked about Sarah and her long-awaited child, and about kairos, God’s right time for action? God’s right time, kairos time, is all over this story. Esther is in just the right place at just the right time to act for God, for others. So where has God placed you? Where are you now, in the right time and the right place to serve God? Who are you in just the right place at just the right time to serve?
            Is God explicitly mentioned in Esther? No. But God is all over Esther’s story, and working so clearly in Esther’s life. Is God’s work in our life so clear? Can we see God written all over the stories of our lives? Sometimes I hear Christians lamenting a diminishing of Christianity in the public sphere. People might mentioned prayer in public schools, or the separation of church and state, or settings becoming more secular that once seemed more steeped in religious language and practice. But I have to tell you, I’m not too worried about these things. Because I think that our lives can have God written all over them, like Esther’s life eventually does, when our actions are steeped in following God’s call. You might work and live and move in a “secular” setting, but your discipleship and faithfulness and openness to God’s call can be seen in all that you do. Your voice, speaking up for those who are in desperate need, is a voice of faith, a sign of God at work in the world, and at work in you.
            Who knows, friends, but that God has called you for just this time, and just this place? How will you answer that call? Amen. 

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Sermon, "Women of the Bible: Ruth and Naomi," Ruth 1:1-18, 3:1-5, 4:13-17

Sermon 7/23/17
Ruth 1:1-18, Ruth 3:1-5, Ruth 4:13-17

Women of the Bible: Ruth and Naomi

            The most common passage people ask me to read at their weddings is 1 Corinthians 13: Love is patient, love is kind … love never ends. For obvious reasons, it makes a good text for folks starting out in marriage together, as the apostle Paul calls us to love in a way that puts the other before the self, always. Of course, I remind folks when I’m talking to them about this text that Paul wasn’t talking about love in a way that was meant only for married couples to share. Paul actually wants us to love everyone in this selfless way, not just spouses!
            One of the next most-popular verses for weddings comes from our text for today. “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” Often, when I’m sharing with couples possible verses for their wedding, I’ll read this passage, and the couple will say, “Yes, that’s the one, that’s the passage we want.” And then I have to explain that again, this text isn’t about love between spouses. This text describes the relationship between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. It’s unusual, certainly. Still, though, most couples I meet with recognize that this kind of devotion and commitment is indeed something they want to find in their married life together.
            So what is the story of Ruth and Naomi? The opening verses tell us that Ruth’s story is set in the time of the judges, the time period we talked about last Sunday, between the Israelites coming into the Promised Land and the time when they were ruled by earthly kings. During this time, there is a famine in the land, and a man from Bethlehem – yes, that Bethlehem – leaves Judah to go live in Moab. Bethlehem literally means “house of bread,” and biblical authors were not blind to irony, certainly. There’s a famine in the House of Bread. So this man Elimelech from Bethlehem leaves to live in Moab with his wife, Naomi and his two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. Mahlon and Chilion’s names mean literally “diseased” and “dying.” Yes, this is biblical foreshadowing! Mahlon and Chilion marry women from among the Moabite people. The Moabites haves a common heritage with the Israelites, but they are a different nation, with different religious traditions. They worship different gods than the Israelites. The Moabite women are named Ruth and Orpah (not Oprah!) But after about 10 years in Moab, Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion all die. Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah are all left widows.
            Naomi, an Israelite, hears that at last there is food in her homeland again – the famine has ended, and people are saying that “God has considered” the people and their plight. She sets out with her daughters-in-law to head back to where she was living before she left home with her husband. She, Ruth, and Orpah are vulnerable, at risk as widows in a patriarchal society. They have little to no social standing as they are, no one to provide for them, few legal protections. And as Naomi thinks on that, she encourages Ruth and Orpah to return to their families in Moab, to find security in the home of a new husband. “Go back each of you to your mother’s house,” she says, “May God deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.” They weep together, and both women say they will stay with Naomi. But Naomi insists she cannot provide for them. If Naomi were to remarry and have more sons – could her daughters-in-law wait until they were grown to marry them? Of course not. It would be foolish for them to not remarry. Naomi feels like God has turned against her. Her husband and sons have died. In a culture where a family line means so much, Naomi feels bitter, like a failure. In fact she will eventually adopt the name Mara for herself, which means bitter. Orpah decides to go back to Moab. But Ruth still chooses to remain with Naomi. And that’s when she says the words that are a vow, a commitment: I will follow you. I’m going where you’re going. I’m making my home where you’re making your home. I’m making your people my people. I’m choosing your God as my God. And if I don’t honor this vow, let God do to me what God will!
Ruth honors her vow, and she and Naomi return to Naomi’s home, where Naomi works hard to secure a good life for Ruth, and where Ruth remains focused on making sure Naomi is cared for too. Naomi helps Ruth connect to a kinsman, Boaz, who fulfills his role as “redeemer,” for the family line, marrying Ruth. And when Ruth gives birth to a child, Obed, Naomi serves as wet nurse. The women of Naomi’s community say to her: “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin … He shall be to you a restorer of life … for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne [a son].” They say of the baby Obed, “A son has been born to Naomi.” Our reading closes with the author letting us know that Obed becomes the father of Jesse, father to David, most beloved of the kings of Israel.
The Book of Ruth is a favorite book of many Bible readers. After all, compared with the violence of war and Jael and her tent peg we read about last week, Ruth’s story has a lot to recommend it. No wars. A bit of romance. A story of devotion and commitment. A young woman, devoted to her mother-in-law. A man willing to step up and protect those who are vulnerable. But even though the story is drastically different than last week’s, our driving question still is the same: what’s the good news in the Book of Ruth? Some biblical scholars think Ruth was written to counter books of the Bible like Ezra and Nehemiah, which include serious statements against intermarriage, a marriage between Israelites and people of other faith traditions. Here is Ruth, a non-Israelite, who nonetheless commits her life to following the God of Israel, who becomes the great-grandmother of King David. And certainly, I think there’s something to the hopefully-now-unsurprising fact that God works through the story of an unexpected figure like Ruth. We talked last week about God using unexpected people to accomplish God’s work. Here, we find a Moabite, a foreign woman, a refugee, a widow, and her commitment Naomi leads to her being the right person at God’s right time to continue God’s covenant for generations to come. Phyllis Trible (1) notes that Ruth’s story is a bit like Abraham’s story in the degree of their radical life-changing decisions. Both leave home and country to go to a completely new place. Abraham has an explicit call from God to do so. Ruth doesn’t have an explicit call from God. But throughout the text, Naomi and Boaz both note that Ruth behaves with loving-kindness. The word has a sense of practicing loving-kindness toward someone even when they have no rightful claim on your compassion. The call on Ruth’s life that drives her to a new place is the call of loving-kindness, of compassion, and it changes her life as much as God’s more direct call changes Abraham’s.
But I am most moved by Ruth and Naomi’s move forward in spite of what can only feel like utter disaster and failure in their lives. For Naomi, everything is lost. Where once she had a whole family, now she will have no descendants at all. For Ruth, though, there’s an escape plan. She can leave. This wouldn’t do anything for Naomi, but for Ruth, how easy would it be to just go back home and start over again? I don’t mean to malign Orpah’s decision. It was certainly a sensible choice, and Naomi didn’t seem to begrudge her path. But what on earth motivates Ruth to persevere and stay with Naomi despite what seems like a dead end?
Samuel Wells preached on this passage at a Baccalaureate service at Duke several years ago (2), and it struck me as an odd choice of text at first. But Wells in his message speaks to the students about failure that will inevitably be part of their lives. He writes, “I’m thinking right now of young man who left college 10 years ago. He went into consulting work on the East Coast. He spent a bit of time on Wall Street, and … [three] or four years ago he and a couple of others set up their own company. It was tough at first but soon it became quite a success … That company was his life, his identity, his pride, his joy.
“January just past it all went wrong. The company slid into bankruptcy like a sandcastle engulfed by the incoming tide. The young man saw his dream disappear and his security, prestige, and self-esteem melt away with it. Four months later, to my knowledge, his mother and sister have yet to find a way even gently to refer to the subject with him. His life is shrouded in silence and dominated by the f-word: failure.”
Wells continues, saying that in our culture, where we judge and are judged constantly, there are “a thousand ways to fail. We come to fear earthly failure in the same way we fear death -- in fact failure becomes a kind of equivalent of death -- which is why the young man’s mother and sister found they couldn’t even mention the subject to him. Our earthly successes become our quest for immortality, and if we fail, it’s like a double dose of death.”
But Ruth, in the face of “poverty and possible death says that, for her, there’s something that means more than self-preservation and survival. That something is loyalty and love. In showing such steadfast love against all expectations, she shows us the face of God in a way we might never have seen it if she’d been lucky and successful.” It’s the same perseverance that we find in Christ’s death, and the ultimate victory of life over death. Who would continue to have hope after the seeming failure of Jesus’ death on the cross?
            While Wells was spending time in Northern Ireland, he spoke with a priest there who had dedicated his life to working for peace after decades of strife and violence. The priest had experienced failure after failure. But he persisted, dedicated to his work. He told Wells, “It’s better to fail in a cause that will finally succeed than to succeed in a cause that will finally fail.”
            Ruth and Naomi experience utter devastation. But they bind themselves to each other, and to a path with God’s people that will last them beyond the hopelessness of their present circumstances. I can only imagine that when Ruth makes her decision to stay with Naomi, she makes her choice not only out of loving-kindness, but also with her eyes set on the horizon, into a future longer than her immediate suffering, into a plan and path that is grander than she can see in that moment.
            What about us? What is God’s call to us in the midst our failures, in the midst of our suffering? Without a doubt, we will encounter times in our lives, seasons when it feels like we have come to a dead end, and the only thing we can do is go back to the beginning and start all over. When we find ourselves in such a place, what will we do? Like Ruth, maybe we can turn our pain into compassion, into loving-kindness that keeps us thinking of others instead of ourselves, even in our pain. And like Ruth, we can remember that we have committed our lives to serving God’s cause, and even when we are failing, God’s cause is the one that finally succeeds. Let’s stick with that path, even if we can’t see that far down the road just yet.
            Remember, I told you that Naomi asked to be called Mara, which means bitter? No one ever calls her that. Because the bitterness is for a season. The toughest season of her life. But Naomi means pleasure. And through Ruth’s loving-kindness, Naomi holds a child in her arms that brings her joy beyond the future she could see. Thanks be to God. Amen.  

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Sermon, "Women of the Bible: Deborah and Jael," Judges 4:4-5:3

Sermon 7/16/17
Judges 4:4-5:3

Women of the Bible: Deborah and Jael

Today we’re turning our attention to the book of Judges as we continue to explore the stories of some of the women of the Bible. This book represents the story of Israel between the time in which the Israelites moved into the Promised Land after the death of Moses, and the time when Israel began to be ruled by earthly kings, as other nations were. In the interim period, somewhere around the 12th or 11th century BC, they were ruled by judges. They served two functions: the first was like the role of judges today. These leaders settled legal disputes for the Israelites. But the biblical judges also served as military leaders. They were commanders-in-chief of Israel’s army.
The Book of Judges provides us with glimpses of the leadership of these judges and into the hearts of the Israelites. According to the author, the people and their leaders seem to go through these repeated cycles where they are “do[ing] evil in the sight of the Lord.” Over and over, the people seem to make the same mistakes, seem to turn away from their faithful God, seem to do the very things that they know have always resulted in pain and heartbreak in the past. If you know any stories from the book of Judges, it might be the story of Samson and Delilah. Samson was one of the judges of Israel. But I’m guessing that the story of Deborah and Barak and Jael is new or unfamiliar to many of you.
Deborah, the fourth of the twelve judges in this time period, follows one of these time periods of wandering away from God. The opening verses of chapter 4 tell us that the Israelites were doing what was evil in God’s eyes, and their actions resulted in their being sold into the hand of King Jabin. The commander of Jabin’s army is a man named Sisera, who commands a fierce army of nine-hundred chariots of iron. For twenty years, King Jabin oppresses the Israelites. We don’t know exactly what this oppression looks like, but it’s a long enough time to be feeling pretty desperate and downtrodden. Twenty years of cruelty.
Into this setting, Deborah rises as judge of Israel. She is called a prophet, a title not given to the other judges, and a title only given to a handful of women in the scriptures – a little study project for you to track down other women prophets in the scripture! A prophet hears God’s voice and speaks God’s message to the people. When our scene opens, Deborah summons Barak, a military commander, and tells him: God commands you to take 10,000 soldiers from the tribes of Israel to fight against Sisera and his army, and God will give them into your hand. Barak responds saying to Deborah, “If you go with me, I will go. If you will not go with me, I will not go.” It’s unclear why he responds this way. You could think of his words as flattering – he wants Deborah’s wisdom and leadership there with him in the battle. Or you can think of him as skeptical, doubting Deborah’s words, or God’s words, or fearful, unwilling to step up and lead on his own. Deborah agrees to go with him, but perhaps because of his reluctance to just lead as God had called him to, she tells him that the glory of the journey, the victory will not fall to Barak, but to a woman.
As the battle unfolds, Deborah sends Barak out saying, “The Lord is indeed going out before you.” Sisera’s chariot are thrown into a panic – later in Judges we find that storm has caused all the chariot wheels to get stuck in mud, rendering them useless. And the army of King Jabin is being steadily conquered. When Sisera, the commander, sees this, he runs away. He flees and seeks safety in the tent of Jael, the wife of a man named Heber. Heber is part of a clan of people called Kenites, and they are allies with both King Jabin and Israel. Sisera expects welcome, and indeed, Jael tells him, “Have no fear.” She covers him with a rug, and gives the thirsty man a drink of milk. He asks her to guard the entrance of the tent and to turn away anyone who approaches. And then he fall asleep. And Jael takes a tent-peg and hammer and drives the tent-peg through his skull, killing him as he sleeps. Barak shows up at her tent, only to find his foe already defeated – by the woman Jael.
After the battle, Deborah and Barak raise their voices in a song Deborah composes, saying, “Hear, give your ear, I will sing to the Lord, I will make a melody to God.” The song that they sing is thought to be some of the oldest material in the entire Bible, and recounts in dramatic fashion all the events that have unfolded, naming Deborah a Mother of Israel.
So, what do we make of this intense, crazy story? Weeks ago, I was seeking advice from colleagues about what hymns might be suitable to go along with this scripture text. And of my colleagues responded saying that it depended on what the “good news” was that I planned to share from this passage. That was such a helpful focusing question because my first response was to think, “Wait, where is the good news in this story?” I’ve wanted to share with you some of the stories of women in the Bible, since their stories are often overlooked. But is there any good news in this vividly gory story?
Perhaps the good news is in the victory: the Israelites were freed from their oppression through Deborah’s leadership, Barak’s military action, and Jael’s, well, decisive actions. After these events, Israel experiences a peace under Deborah’s judgeship that lasts for forty years, a meaningful duration of time in the scriptures. Is that enough good news for this story? One of the struggles I often hear folks express when reading through the Hebrew Bible, the stories in the Old Testament is about the level of violence that takes place that gets attached to God’s name. I’m glad people are so uncomfortable with it. I’m glad we don’t read story after story of war and violence and wonder if that could really be God’s plan. It would be worse if we didn’t raise such ethical questions. They are contemporary questions after all: Is there such a thing as just war? Does God choose “sides” in a war? Is God with one side and not the other? We can think of the religious crusades of history, of action and inaction during World War II, of turmoil over our role in Vietnam to more contemporary questions: What is the right response to genocide, like in Rwanda in the 90s? How do we respond to war and destruction in Syria? Rev. Alex Joyner writes that there’s a monster in the story of Deborah and Jael. It’s not Jael, not Sisera, but the monster of violence. He says, “But there's still that monster, isn't there? The monster that stalks our streets and our homes and our relationships even today. There's still that monster. The monster of violence can never have the last word -- not on a hill called Calvary and not here." (1) Can we give thanks for freedom from oppression, even while we lament the violent means that brought about this new peace for Israel? I think, at least, it is good news when we faithfully wrestle with texts like this, because we’re paying attention, we’re searching, and seeking God’s wisdom and clarity, and realizing how contemporary this ancient story is, how God’s word is a living word.
Perhaps we find some good news in the fact that this story is yet another testament to the fact that God surprises us, uses unexpected people, works in unexpected, mysterious ways. There are very few one-dimensional “hero” figures in the scriptures, even if we thoughtfully like to gloss over the less savory parts of the stories of biblical figures. At our animate faith study this spring, we talked about a phrase reformer Martin Luther used – “simultaneously sinners and saints.” Sometimes we think of God’s followers in the Bible as a bunch of saints. And they are that, but they’re sinners too, struggling and sometimes failing to do what God desires. Deborah, in her victory song, gloats, taunting Sisera’s mother, saying she’ll watch for her son who is never coming home. Jael – she helped deliver Israel – but she had to take some questionable actions to do it, certainly disregarding concepts of hospitality and sanctuary. I’m thankful for these women, these complex women, who aren’t painted as perfect by any stretch. But God doesn’t look for perfect. God perfects us as we learn to love and serve God over our lifetime. And so God can use people as complicated as Deborah and Barak and Jael, and draw good out of the messes we make, when our motives and actions are less than God desires for us.

And we find good news in this: God is faithful, offering us redemption again and again, offering us paths to freedom even when our captivity was a result of our own destructive choices, present with us even when we doubt God’s plan, surprising us even when we sure we’ve got it all figure out, giving us grace even, perhaps especially when it is undeserved. Deborah and Jael and Barak are part of a compellingly strange story, but it is one story of many in this long cycle of judges, and one story of many in our long story of turning away from God who never turns away from us, and one story of many where we fail to see God’s constancy through victory and failure. Thank God for unsettling stories, and God’s consistent grace within and throughout them. Amen. 

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Sermon, "Women of the Bible: Sarah and Hagar," Genesis 18:1-15, Genesis 21:9-20

Sermon 7/2/17
Genesis 18:1-15, 21:9-20

Women of the Bible: Sarah & Hagar

            Time is such a funny thing. It rules our lives in so many ways. We’re governed by time, appointments to get to, schedules to be kept, not enough time to do what we want, time wasted. Time that seems to drag too slowly for us, and time that rushes by. Today is my one-year anniversary of being the pastor here, and people sometimes ask me, “Does it seem like a long time?” In some ways, I can hardly believe it has been a year already. I can vividly remember my first day as pastor here last year, which was the last day of Vacation Bible School that year. It was really hot – as was most of the summer. And I got a flat tire that day. I can tell you what I was wearing, and I can remember some of the people I met at VBS, and I remember struggling to learn all the new names and faces I was encountering. It seems like just a moment ago. But it also seems like a long time, too. I don’t feel like your “new” pastor. I feel like we’ve been in ministry together for a long time, like we’ve been working together on this following Jesus thing for a long time now.
In my first religion class in undergrad, I learned what is still one of my favorite theological concepts: Kairos. There are two common words for time in the scripture: Chronos and Kairos. Chronos is the Greek word for our regular, ordinary, everyday time. Our human time. The seconds, the minutes, the hours, the days moving just as they do. But kairos – kairos is time in a different way. Kairos is God’s time – specifically, “God’s right time for action.” Usually the word “chronos” is used in Greek texts to talk about time. But in the gospels, for example, this “kairos” – God’s right time for action – is used more often than chronos – regular time. And that makes sense, because the scriptures are full of stories about God’s right time for things to happen. Kairos. God’s right time for action.
            Can you think of a promise someone made you that took a really long time to come to fruition? Or plans that you made that were in the far-distant future, and you had to wait, and wait, and wait for the day to arrive when your plans would become reality? Today, as we start our summer series of looking at some of the stories of the women of the Bible, we encounter Sarah and Abraham. Sarah and Abraham started out as Sarai and Abram, but God gave them new names, a sign of the covenant God was making with them. When Abram was seventy-five years old, and Sarai was in her mid-sixties, God spoke to Abram, told him to leave his home and travel to a new land that God would point out, and there promised Abram that God would bless him, make of him and his descendants a great nation. Today, we read about the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and Sarah when Sarah learns that she will give birth to a son. By the time Sarah delivers her child, Isaac, Abraham is one hundred, and she is ninety-one years old. Twenty-five years pass between God making a promise to them and when the promise is fulfilled. Twenty-five years for it to be “God’s right time.”
            Today’s first text opens with God appearing to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre, where Abraham’s tent is. This is a holy place – it is at this place where Abraham earlier built an altar when God renewed the covenant with Abraham and Sarah and gave them their new names. God appears in the form of three men, messengers of God. And Abraham, seeing them, immediately makes arrangements for their welcome. He has their feet washed, invites them to rest, brings them water, and has Sarah make them cakes from choice flour. Often, in fact, this passage is cited as a text that leads us to think about hospitality and how we welcome strangers into our midst. But today, I’m more interested in the message these men bring.     
            “Where is Sarah?” they ask. “Sarah is in the tent,” Abraham answers. Nearly twenty-five years ago, Sarah and Abraham had been told by God that Abraham would be blessed with descendants more numerous than the stars. After more than ten years of waiting on God’s promise, Sarah took matters into her own hands. She told Abraham to have a child by Sarah’s slave, a young woman named Hagar, so that at least Abraham’s line would continue, even if not through Sarah. This is the best way Sarah can figure out how to make God’s promise come true. And indeed, Hagar has a son by Abraham named Ishmael. We’ll come back to that in a bit. Then, another decade and a half pass until we reach today’s scene. “In due season,” one of the men says, “Sarah will have a son.” Sarah is listening from the tent, and she laughs when she hears this news. She’s not laughing happy, joyful laughter. She’s laughing her disbelief, her skepticism, her disappointment. She is ninety years old. She is in menopause. She has already secured a son for Abraham. She has waited two and half decades on God’s promises. “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” she wonders. She thinks that God, in the form of these three visitors, has lost it.
            God says to Abraham, “Why did she laugh?” Why did she express doubt? “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? This is going to happen.” Suddenly, Sarah wants to deny laughing, fearful of God’s response, and in my favorite line, God responds, “Oh yes, you did laugh!” It’s like two children arguing: “Nuh-uh.” “Yuh-huh.” Beyond today’s passage, we find that indeed, God “deals with Sarah” as said, and God does for Sarah what has been promised, at God’s right time, twenty-five years later. Sarah’s son is named Isaac, which comes from the word “to laugh,” for, Sarah says, “God has brought laughter for me, and everyone who hears will laugh with me.” Her laughter, once the laughter of bitter doubt and disappointment, has been transformed into joyous laughter at last.
            Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? Throughout the scriptures, we hear similar sentiments. With God, all things are possible. Nothing is impossible with God. Do we believe it? Sarah tried to fulfill God’s promises by her own actions, in her own way, in her own time, and the results were not so good, which we’ll hear more about. Have you ever found yourself trying to force God’s plan into your own plan? Into your own sense of timing?
I remember while I was on sabbatical a few years ago, I was trying to make some decisions about my next steps in ministry. I was trying to listen to God’s voice, but I was impatient. Every year, pastors and churches have to fill out paperwork expressing their hopes about ministry appointments in the coming year. When I asked friends to pray for me, to pray for clarity for me, I would ask them, “Please tell God to give me an answer by November 1st. That’s when my paperwork is due!” Last year, when I was appointed to come here to Gouverneur, it was most definitely not my timing. I wasn’t ready to move. I wasn’t looking to move. And I can’t say that Gouverneur was one of the places I had imagined myself serving as pastor. And yet, here I have found blessing upon blessing, because it seems that this has been God’s plan for us. Is anything too wonderful for God? Of course not. We can say it with our lips. But frustrated by God’s strange sense of timing, by God’s strange sense of humor, by God’s dreams that seem impossible, we end up getting in the way of the truly wonderful that God wants to reveal to us at God’s just-right time. God is faithful, and God’s promises to us are always, always fulfilled. Let that knowledge fill our hearts with the laughter of deep joy.


            There is another woman in the story of God’s promises to make Abraham into a father of nations. As I mentioned, when Sarah was not conceiving a child, she decided to take things into her own hands. She gave her slave Hagar to Abraham, and Hagar gave birth to a son named Ishmael. This isn’t a part of the story that often gets a lot of attention, because it is all pretty uncomfortable, isn’t it? Hagar is a slave, and she has no choice in what is happening to her, no option to give or withhold her consent.
            What is unusual, a blessing in its own way, is that we get to hear some of Hagar’s story, even though she is a woman, even though she is a slave woman. We’ve been talking about God’s special care for the most vulnerable, and Hagar qualifies on more than one account. Some chapters before we encounter Hagar in Chapter 21, when Hagar became pregnant, the text tells us that Hagar “looked with contempt on Sarah.” We don’t know exactly why this is, whether she feels proud that she has been able to conceive, whether she’s hopeful that bearing Abraham’s child will mean her freedom, whether she’s angry that she has to be a parent on terms that were not her own. But because of Hagar’s contempt, Sarah, with Abraham’s blessing, begins to treat Hagar harshly. Hagar runs away. One of God’s messengers finds her in the wilderness, and tells her to return to Abraham and Sarah, promising her, just as she has promised Abraham and Sarah, that her offspring will be numerous, her descendants numbering more than a multitude. The messenger tells her to name her child Ishmael, which means, “God hears.” Hagar returns to Abraham and Sarah, and her child is born, and for a while, everything seems ok.
            Until Isaac, Sarah’s son is born. Sarah sees Isaac and Ishmael playing together, and something seems to snap. She tells Abraham to send Hagar and her son away. “The son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” Abraham is reluctant, but God says essentially that in both Isaac and Ishmael God’s promises will be fulfilled. So, with some food and water, Hagar is sent away, and again, she finds herself in the wilderness, this time with her son. God’s messenger finds her again, when she is at her most desperate, believing that she is going to have to watch her child starve to death. “Do not be afraid,” the messenger says, “God has heard the voice of the boy. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast, for I will make a great nation of him.” God opens her eyes to see a well of water, a sign of life and hope. We read that Ishmael grows up in the wilderness, becoming an expert with the bow, and God is with him. Yes, God fulfilled the promises made to Abraham and Sarah, but God had promises for Hagar too, and was as faithful to those promises as the ones that drive the “main” story of the scripture.
            Uncle Bill has told me that when he and my Aunt Shari were expecting my cousin Ben, their second oldest child, Uncle Bill was filled with anxiety, sure that he would never be able to love Ben as much as he loved his firstborn Bekah. But, with my grandfather reassuring him, Uncle Bill discovered that his love would grow, would stretch, would multiply, rather than be divided among his children.
            Even though Sarah had just experienced the fulfillment of her wildest dreams, her deepest joy, come true, it somehow still wasn’t enough. She let herself be ruled by fear. It was as though she were afraid that someone else having joy meant there would be less joy less for Sarah, that God’s promises being fulfilled in Hagar would mean that promises to Sarah would somehow be lost or ruined. Even though I believe we know better, somehow, when it comes to God, God’s gifts for us, God’s promises to us, God’s love and grace in our lives, we end up afraid that blessings for someone else leaves less for us, as if God’s love needs to be divided among us, portioned out. Sarah has gotten all that she could barely even hope to receive, and somehow, she lets her blessings, her promises received seem like a meager portion. God, though, is faithful, the God of Isaac and Ishmael, the God of Sarah and Hagar.
            When have you been Sarah, trying to make God’s promises fit your own plans? When have you been Hagar, needing a reminder that God will see you, hear you, be faithful to you, even when you feel hopeless, lost in the wilderness? When have you been like Sarah to a Hagar, worried that God has less left for you, because of the blessings another receives? Nothing is too wonderful for our God to bring about, in God’s right time, in God’s right way, in fulfillment of God’s faithful promises to us. Let us open our hearts and lives to the wondrous ways that God wants to work in all of us. Amen. 

Monday, June 26, 2017

Sermon, "From Charity to Justice: Seeking Justice," Micah 6:1-8

Sermon 6/25/17
Micah 6:1-8

From Charity to Justice: Seeking Justice

            Imagine that you were walking alongside a river one day, and you saw someone in the water, clearly in distress, struggling, and needing help. What would you do? Well, of course, I imagine that you would jump into the water and help the person out, or at least call on someone else to help. Of course, that’s what you would do. But what if, as you were helping the first person out of the water, more people appeared, coming down the river, all appearing to be in distress? What would you do? At first, you might think to quickly gather a group of people – together, with a team, maybe you could start to get all of the people out of water and to safety. But I think, eventually, if this problem persisted, you would choose to send at least one person to travel along the river, looking for the source of the problem. Why is it that so many people are in the water, struggling for their lives? Was there an accident upstream? Did a boat sink? Did a bridge collapse? Has there been some disaster? Is someone or some group trying to harm these people, throwing them into the water? Once these questions can be answered, you can begin to think about a plan of action. You still need, of course, to get the people out of the water who are in distress, with their lives in immediate danger. But in the long run, more people will be saved if you figure out how they’re ending up in the water to begin with.
            I told you when we started this series two weeks ago that the focus of my doctoral work was studying how to help congregations move from a charity-based focus in their outreach work to a broader justice-grounded focus. This river scenario I just shared is one of the ways I help folks start to think about the differences between charity and justice. There is certainly a place for, a need for charitable action. We see this particularly in times of crisis, perhaps as a response to a natural disaster or a tragic event. Charitable actions focus on the immediate response, meeting immediate needs. It can be very individually-focused, as in “we need to help this person who has fallen into the water.” Charitable action focuses on fixing what we might call the results of oppression and injustice. If we’re thinking about poverty and hunger, charitable actions would focus on feeding a person who is hungry, providing material needs or cash assistance for a person struggling with poverty.
            But there are some problems with charitable actions when they move from being the initial response in a time of crisis to being the primary response of people of faith to injustice over time. First, charitable action doesn’t address the causes of injustice, since it aims simply to alleviate the results. Charitable action can feed hungry people, but without asking why people are hungry, and working to address and change the causes of hunger, there will be no end to hunger. Our charitable actions are optional actions, based on generosity and desire. We can give or we can choose not to give. Charitable actions are often come with huge power differentials between the person who gives and the person who receives. Remember, we talked about justice and righteousness being grounded in right relationships between God and one another. If our only relationship with some people is through acts of charity, where we are always giving and the other is always receiving, there is no chance for mutual relationship. The work of justice focuses on ministry with people instead of ministry for people. The work of justice is long-term work, and focuses on changing whole systems and structures. And finally, the work of justice is what God requires. It isn’t optional, something that God calls us to do if we feel like it, if we have enough extra to share, if we’re feeling generous. Throughout the scriptures, the work of justice is work that God builds into the very laws that form the covenant between God and God’s people. The poor and vulnerable are protected by law, and failure to act with justice towards those whom God protects is a failure of justice, a violation of law, a sign of brokenness in the covenant. God takes it seriously when we fail to work for justice.
            Part of how we get “off track” with charity is because the concept of charity has changed over time. In the scriptures, the word that can loosely translate into something like our word charity means “to give alms,” to give money to those in need. It appears in two or three places in the Bible, describing a practice of giving to the poor that was considered generous, but was also part of the law, an expectation for faithful Jews. As our PowerPoint title slide says, charity gives. We need charitable actions, we need to respond to the immediate crises of people in pain, people suffering. We can do good and needed charitable work. But, it’s a word that doesn’t really communicate what we want it to, and it perhaps doesn’t encourage us toward the mutual, set right relationships in the way we want it to, and it doesn’t change things beyond the immediate for the people who so need to experience the freedom and good news and release we read about in Isaiah last week. We are called to something more. Last week, when we shared in our Companion Litany to our Social Creed, we used the phrase “God celebrates when justice and mercy embrace.” Considering acts of mercy serves us better than acts of charity. The concept of mercy is grounded in our biblical witness, and speaks of God’s loving action towards us. To be merciful is to have compassion for others. You might remember me sharing with you last summer that the word compassion, often used to describe the way Jesus looks at us, means literally to have your stomach twisted in knots with concern for others. What if we acted with mercy and justice in the face of the world’s brokenness, and our need to build right relationships with God and one another?
            We find both mercy and justice in our scripture text this morning. Today we turn our attention to the book of Micah. Micah is another of the prophets, and he writes around the same time as does the prophet Isaiah, and you can find a lot of similar themes in their work. When we pick up our reading in chapter 6, Micah is reporting that God is declaring to the hills and mountains that God has a controversy, a case to bring against Israel. Basically, God is accusing Israel of failing to uphold the covenant between God and God’s people. God has promised to be the God of Israel, and the people were in turn meant to be faithful to God and God’s law, but they’ve failed to uphold their end of the promise. God, though, is ever-faithful. Still, God is demanding an accounting, and when God brings the case against Israel, God starts by reminding the Israelites of all that God has done for them, of all the ways that God has been a guide, their leader, their strength. “Remember how I brought you out of Egypt and slavery?” God reminds. “Remember how I gave you leaders in Moses, Aaron, and Miriam?” “Remember how I saved you from the enemies that wanted to keep you from reaching the promised land?”
            Micah then speaks on behalf of the Israelites, imagining their response to God’s claim against them. He imagines that the Israelites will offer anything – burnt-offerings, and offerings of livestock – extravagant riches – a thousand rams, ten thousand rivers of oil, even their firstborn children – in order to be justified, to be set in right relationship with God again. The pictures Micah paints are of extreme hyperbole, suggesting we’d promise anything to be on good terms with God again.
            But, Micah says God has already told us what is good, and what is required. We already know what God wants – we just don’t seem to want to do it. What does God require? That we “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with [our] God.” God doesn’t want our extravagant gifts when they don’t come with our heart and soul attached. God wants our hearts, our compassion, our commitment to justice for all of God’s people, and our humble discipleship, following in the footsteps of Jesus. Both less costly than all of our treasures, and more costly, because God wants everything, heart and soul and whole lives as an offering.
            What God wants, as always, is for us to make God’s ways our ways, for us to make God’s values our values. That happens when we seek righteousness – right relationships with God and one another. And God reminds us that God has always treated us with justice and mercy. Remember, remember, remember how I have loved you, how I have treated you, how I have worked for fullness of life for you. And let your remembering spur you to work for the same for others. Remember – you already know what I require – justice, mercy, and humble discipleship.
            So, how will we do this work here, in this congregation and in this community? What can we do here that will help us make God’s values our values, set us right with God and neighbor? How will we love mercy here, and seek justice here? I think we can work to build on the things that we already care about as a community. Our church serves many families each fall with our We’ve Got Your Back to School program. There’s a vital ministry that can lead us to ask justice-seeking questions. How can our faith communities better support our schools, our children, and our educators? How can we be advocates, working to get the resources our schoolchildren need? How can we be in relationship with families with schoolchildren who feel overburdened and stretched thin? How can we support teachers and administrators and staff who can have such a profound impact on young lives? We have a thriving Friday Lunch program that brings meals to countless people in our community – so many people touched by this program. What do we know about what resources are available to the elderly in our community? How do we build meaningful relationships with folks that are often neglected and overlooked by a society that values eternal youth? We’re beginning to think and plan and dream about how we support people and families who are walking the road of recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. Already, we’ve been talking about being advocates for mental health resources, educating ourselves and our community, encouraging hospitality and breaking down stereotypes. There is no one right way to seek justice, grounded in mercy. There are so many ways to answer God’s call. What stirs your spirit? What way is God calling you? Where does your compassion meet God’s vision of justice and wholeness for the world?
            God wants nothing more and nothing less than our hearts and souls. And God tells us just how we can make such an offering. Not with jewels and riches and without what God really wants. Requires in fact. God has told us what is good. Let us do justice. Let us love mercy and kindness. And let us walk, walk this journey as disciples, walk humbly in the company of God. Amen.


Monday, June 19, 2017

Sermon, "From Charity to Justice: United Methodists and the Work of Justice," Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Sermon 6/18/17
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

From Charity to Justice: United Methodists and the Work of Justice

            Last Sunday, we learned about the words righteousness and justice, words sown all throughout the scriptures. We listened to words from the prophet Isaiah, as we heard about God’s desire for us to work for justice, to be repairers of the breach and restorers of the street. We learned about rectifying justice, the work of “giving people their due, whether protection, or punishment, or care,” (1) and we learned about God’s vision for what we call primary justice, righteousness, when all people are set in right relationship with God and one another. Our right relationship with God and one another is God’s vision of wholeness for the world, and the work of justice to which we are called is to act in ways and work for change that will bring us closer to that vision. Next week, we’ll spend more time thinking about how we do the work of justice, and what that might look like in our lives, in the life of our congregation and community. How do we begin? How do we build on what we have? But today, we’re going to spend a bit more time grounding ourselves, taking a good look at our call to justice, and our particular place as people called United Methodists in the work of justice.
            John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, was a priest in the Church of England active in the 1700s. He didn’t set out to form a new denomination. Rather, he was interested in the renewal of the church. He believed that we were called to a more active faith and discipleship than he saw in the church around him. And for Wesley, this deep and active faith must be expressed in the context of community. You can’t be a disciple on your own. You can’t be faithful by yourself. Only in the context of loving and serving one another can you serve God. Wesley wrote, “[Solitary religion is] directly opposite to … the gospel of Christ … ‘Holy solitaries’ [that is being holy on our own] is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.” (2) In other words, we can’t truly draw closer to God unless we are also drawing closer to one another.
            John Wesley was deeply disturbed by the extreme poverty and gap between rich and poor he saw around him in England, especially knowing that he lived in a country of abundance. He wrote, “Why are thousands of people starving, perishing for want, in every part of the nation? … Such is the case at this day of multitudes of people, in a land flowing, as it were, with milk and honey! Abounding with all the necessaries, the conveniences, the superfluities of life!” (3) Wesley was known for doing his part to practice what he preached. Wesley gave away as much of his income as he could, keeping his budget fixed and giving away the rest no matter how much he earned; indeed, Wesley was known to say “if I leave behind me ten pounds [when I die] … you and all mankind bear witness against me, that I lived and died a thief and a robber.” (4) In my own experience, I’ve let my “expenses” and “necessities” grow right along with my income, and I marvel at Wesley’s faithful discipline.
Still, he went beyond charity to working for systemic change, working for justice, in both teaching and practice. For example, Wesley opposed the use of liquor, but although he had moral concerns about alcohol, his primary concern was for the economic injustice involved in the sale of liquor. Half of the wheat produced in Britain was going to the distilling industry which made wheat expensive and in turn made bread expensive and beyond the means of the very poor. High prices for meat were caused by gentlemen farmers finding it more profitable to breed horses for export to France and to meet the increasing demand for horse carriages than in producing food for local use.  Pork, poultry and eggs were so expensive because owners of large estates were earning more from cash crops than from leasing land to small local farmers. (5) Wesley called on the government to intercede in these economic situations that resulted in injustice and oppression of the poor. He called for the creation of employment opportunities, tax increases, and debt cancelation. He argued with those who called the poor “idle” and lazy, calling their claims “wickedly, devilishly false.” (6)  Wesley also became a fierce critic of slavery, writing, “There must still remain an essential difference between justice and injustice, cruelty and mercy … Where is the justice of inflicting the severest evils on those that have done us no wrong? … I absolutely deny all slave-holding to be consistent with any degree of natural justice.” (7)
Wesley’s commitment to justice carried into the denomination that formed from his movement. In 1908, the Methodist Episcopal Church developed a Social Creed. In this statement of faith, Methodists called for equality across economic classes, for the rights of workers to organize and seek better working conditions, for the abolition of child labor, for the suppression of the “sweating system,” what we would call “sweat shops” today, for a fair work week, and for a just living wage. Some of those justice issues seem very contemporary, but United Methodists have been working for these causes for more than a hundred years now! The Companion Litany we shared today was adopted in 2008 to accompany our currently Social Creed.
Last week we heard about the mission of The United Methodist Church: “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world by proclaiming the good news of God’s grace and by exemplifying Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor, thus seeking the fulfillment of God’s reign and realm in the world.” We work to fulfill this mission in part through the work of justice. And to help us in this work, we have a document called the Social Principles, and a resource called The Book of Resolutions that helps us figure out how we might work for justice when it comes to the environment, the political world, our global community, economics, and more. I’d love to share more about it with you if you’re interested. In the User’s Guide to The Book of Resolutions are these words:
Our church's public witness is first and foremost to be judged by God by whether it supports justice, love, and mercy, particularly for the poor and powerless ... Most importantly, The United Methodist Church believes God's love for the world is an active and engaged love, a love seeking justice and liberty. We cannot just be observers. So we care enough about people's lives to risk interpreting God's love, to take a stand, to call each of us into a response, no matter how controversial or complex. The church helps us think and act out of a faith perspective, not just respond to all the other “mind-makers-up” that exist in our society.

“We care enough about people’s lives to risk interpreting God’s love, to take a stand, to call each of us into a response, no matter how controversial or complex.” I love that statement, and I hope it is a true one: we care enough about all of God’s children to stand for justice, even when it is hard, even when it is confusing, even when it gets complicated. To me, that’s what it means to be a United Methodist working for justice, a disciple of Jesus seeking righteousness. 
            When we shared in our Companion Litany today, the words were based on Isaiah 61, our scripture reading today. Like last week’s text, this passage come from the third part of the book of Isaiah, representing a hopeful time for Israel, a time when the Israelites had returned home, and were thinking about the future that God wanted for them. Isaiah writes, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” God’s people will be oaks of righteousness. “I love justice,” says God, “I hate robbery and wrongdoing.” Just like new life springs up in the garden, God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up in our midst. These hopeful words are words of life and promise, a vision of God’s reign and realm fulfilled. This is the very scripture text that Jesus reads after he has started his preaching and teaching ministry. It’s kind of like the text for his first sermon. When he finishes reading it, he says to the people gathered: “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It’s a kind of mission statement, one that Jesus claims as his own, one that describes his purpose in the world: good news for the oppressed, healing for the brokenhearted, freedom for those who are captive, God’s favor, comfort and joy from God who loves justice and righteousness. Let’s be people who risk interpreting God’s love for God’s brokenhearted people. Let’s be people who are ready to stand up for justice, proclaiming freedom and release, good news instead that breaks systems of oppression. Together, we can work through the complexities, the details – when and how and in what ways we will live out the work of justice. But we know why: God loves justice. And we love God. So we seek to make God’s ways our ways. The spirit of God is on us too, even today. Let’s get to work, announcing the good news. Amen.             

(1) Tim Keller,
(2) John Wesley, Preface, Hymns and Sacred Poems, 1739.
(3) John Wesley, “Thoughts Upon the Present Scarcity of Provisions,” in The Works of the Rev. John Wesley, Volume 11, edited by Thomas Jackson, 53-59. London: Wesleyan Conference Office, 1872, 53-54.
(4) John Wesley, An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, in Albert C. Outler, John Wesley, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964,) 422.
(5) Johnston McMaster, “Wesley on Social Holiness,” The Methodist Church in Britain, January, 2002,, accessed March 18, 2014.
(6) Ibid.
(7) John Wesley, “Thoughts Upon Slavery,” IV.2, 1774, in Global Ministries,, accessed March 19, 2014.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Sermon, "From Charity to Justice: What Is Justice?" Isaiah 58:1-12

Sermon 6/11/17
Isaiah 58:1-12

From Charity to Justice: What Is Justice?

            Last week, we gathered in the evening to hear from some of our church family who had been involved in mission and outreach trips over the past several months. Don and Glenda shared about their trip to Cambodia on a medical mission. We looked at pictures from the group that traveled for an overnight to Syracuse to serve lunches to people on the street, and we heard from Marthalyn Sweet, who went on a trip with some other young adults in our Conference to visit the General Board of Church and Society and learn about poverty issues.
The General Board of Church and Society holds a special place in my heart. It is one of our denominations General Agencies, and this one focuses on public policy advocacy and education. It is located in Washington, DC, right on Capitol Hill. When I was starting seminary, I was elected to serve on the board of directors for Church and Society. I didn’t really know much about what the agency did before I was elected, to be honest, and I quickly learned a lot as part of my role on the board. The work of Church and Society is to educate, advocate, and help implement our Social Principles, our denomination’s statement of beliefs about a number of social issues. I’ll be talking a little bit more about that next week. But at the core of this work of Church and Society is a general aim: to help people of faith connect mercy with justice. During my time with Church and Society, I grew passionate about working for a more just world.
I struggled, though, once I became a pastor, with how to help my congregations be part of working for justice. I found that many congregations’ outreach work was mostly focused on mercy ministries, charitable giving projects like gathering supplies to send to people in need, collecting food for the local pantry, raising funds to respond to a natural disaster. Being merciful is certainly a biblical call and a desirable, compassionate quality. But I wanted us to think about questions of justice too: why are people hungry and poor, and what can we do to change the system, addresses the causes of poverty, instead of just addressing the results? Eventually, this very question turned into the driving question of my doctoral work and the follow up research I completed: How can a congregation shift its focus from doing charity to working for justice? This is the question we’ll be thinking about together in worship for the next few weeks.
I believe that the work of justice is actually part of our very mission as followers of Jesus Christ. Our mission is our purpose, our reason for existing. As United Methodists, our purpose is actually laid out in the Book of Discipline, which is our rule book, our organizational guide. In the Discipline, we find this statement of purpose: “The mission of The United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world by proclaiming the good news of God’s grace and by exemplifying Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor, thus seeking the fulfillment of God’s reign and realm in the world. The fulfillment of God’s reign and realm in the world is the vision Scripture holds before us.” The statement continues to say that our mission is carried out by “send[ing] persons into the world to live lovingly and justly as servants of Christ by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for the stranger, freeing the oppressed, being and becoming a compassionate, caring presence, and working to develop social structures that are consistent with the gospel.” Phew! Our mission is to be and make disciples, to change the world, to share the good news, and to love God and neighbor believing that when we do so, we’ll experience the reign of God, God’s kin-dom, right here, right now, on earth as in heaven! That probably sounds like a big mission – and it is! But I hope it also sounds like a mission that is worth our heart and soul.
So how does the work of justice fit in to this mission we have? Our scripture focus today from Isaiah is from the third part of the book, which biblical scholars think was written after the Israelites returned home from exile. The Israelites had been through a long, tumultuous period of war and upheaval that resulted in many being forced to live in exile in Babylon, but finally, they’re allowed to come home. The last chapters of Isaiah reflect this period of homecoming. Despite the blessings of coming home, God is still calling the people to accountability.
            Our passage opens with God commanding Isaiah to announce the sin of the house of Jacob, the Israelites. God says that the Israelites have been behaving as if they practiced righteousness and followed God’s ordinances, God’s commands. They’ve been calling on God, saying, “God, we are fasting and humbling ourselves – don’t you see how good and holy we’re being?” But, God says, “you serve your own interest … and oppress all your workers.” You quarrel and fight. Fasting and acting holy, putting on sackcloth and ashes and acting devout on the Sabbath is not going to make me hear your voice.
            Instead, says God, “Is this not that fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice … to let the oppressed go free…? 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?” When we devote ourselves to God in that way, fasting from injustice and oppression, then says God, then our light will shine, we experience healing, God will be with us, God will hear us when we cry for help and answer “Here I am.” When we “remove the yoke” of oppression we place on others and start serving the hungry and afflicted, then our light will conquer the darkness. Then Israel, broken and brought low for so long, will be rebuilt. We will be “repairers of the breach” and “restorers of streets.” I love those images – they seem so timely to me. In a world that is so broken, imagine if we lived out our call to be repairers of the breach, repairers of the brokenness of the world!
            But what exactly does Isaiah mean when he talks about justice and righteousness? Pastor and Old Testament scholar Tim Keller writes, “The Hebrew word for “justice,” mishpat, [in] its most basic meaning is to treat people equitably … Mishpat … is giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care.” Throughout the scriptures, we find certain groups of people being lifted up again and again as needing particular care, and being a particular focus of God’s loving attention: widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor.” These groups have sometimes been called together “the quartet of the vulnerable,” which we’ve talked about before. These groups of people – widows, orphans, immigrants, and poor people, would have had very little power in ancient times, and have been incredibly susceptible to mistreatment by others. These people would have been one catastrophe, one famine, one war, one crisis away from death most of the time. And again and again, the law, the writings of the prophets, and the words of God in the scriptures call for justice, for mishpat, for these groups of people. These are the “oppressed” of whom God speaks in our reading from Isaiah – the hungry, the homeless, the naked, the poor. Are these still the most vulnerable groups in our society today? I suspect that with some adjustments, we’d find that this quartet still represents some of the most at-risk people in our communities. “The mishpat, or justness, of a society, according to the Bible,” Keller writes, “is evaluated by how it treats [the quartet of the vulnerable.]” If that’s the case, how are we doing as a society? How just are we as a people? A nation? A community? A congregation?
A second word in the Bible is often translated as righteousness, which might have even less personal meaning for us than the word justice. After all, we’re most likely to use the phrase “self-righteous,” by which we mean that someone is pretty boastful about themselves, patting themselves on the back. We don’t mean it as a compliment. So what does it mean to be righteous? The Hebrew word is tzadeqah, meaning justice or righteousness. Mishpat, which we’ve talked about already, is sometimes called “rectifying justice.” That means it is justice that works to right wrongs. But tzadeqah, righteousness, is actually primary justice. Righteousness is when we are in right relationship with God and one another. In fact, if we were all righteous, if we all were living in right relationship with God and one another, we wouldn’t need rectifying justice, because everything would be right already. Primary justice, righteousness, tzadeqah, when we are in right relationship with God and one another is God’s hope and vision for the world. And, it is part of what we talk about as the very purpose of The United Methodist Church. Remember, we said that the mission of the church was to making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world as our way of “seeking the fulfillment of God’s reign and realm in the world,” loving God and neighbor. That’s a vision of righteousness, of primary justice realized in the world. The work of justice and carrying out our very purpose as disciples of Jesus are inseparable. To fulfill our purpose, we must be seek justice and righteousness.
So how do we do it? How will we seek after justice and righteousness? How will we be repairers of the breach and restorers of the street? I hope that we, as a congregation, and in our own lives, can think very concretely about those questions. They aren’t rhetorical; they are calls to action! What will we do? I believe that our work begins by imagining how we might restore right relationships with God and neighbor. Here’s the thing though: to be in a right relationship with someone you have to have a relationship with them to begin with. Too often, I think that I make it too easy for myself to feel “right” in my relationships by overlooking some people altogether. I spend so much of my time with people who are already part of this community of faith, or people who are in my family, or are also pastors, people who are in my same socio-economic class, people who already share my values. How hard is it to be in right relationship with people just like me? One of our tasks it to challenge ourselves to build relationships – real relationships, where we really know, care about, and share in the lives of all of our neighbors.

So, we work on building our relationships. And we also look out for those places where we need to rectify harm, repair the breach, restore the streets. I’m sure most of us could point out places where our community is hurting. But what will we do about it? What will we do that moves beyond acts of mercy to the work of justice? Since moving to Gouverneur, I’ve talked to so many families who are struggling with the impact of drug and alcohol addiction on their lives. This week, a few of us will meet for an initial conversation about what we can do, how we can be a small part of repairing the breach. If that’s a ministry in which you’re interested, please let me know. But there may be something else that God has put in your heart, something else crying out for justice. I want to hear about that too. I think we together, we can learn to do the holy, worshipful work of justice. Of all the ways we could honor God, God asks us for justice and righteousness. Friends, as we take up this work, may our light break forth like the dawn, as God goes before us and behind us, reminding us: Here I Am. Amen.