Do, Love, Walk | 4th after Epiphany

Micah 6:1-8

1 Hear what the LORD is saying:

Arise, lay out the lawsuit before the mountains; let the hills hear your voice!

2 Hear, mountains, the lawsuit of the LORD! Hear, eternal foundations of the earth!

The LORD has a lawsuit against his people; with Israel he will argue.

3 “My people, what did I ever do to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me!

4 I brought you up out of the land of Egypt; I redeemed you from the house of slavery. I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam before you.

5 My people, remember what Moab’s King Balak had planned, and how Balaam, Beor’s son, answered him! Remember everything from Shittim to Gilgal, that you might learn to recognize the righteous acts of the LORD!”

 

6 With what should I approach the LORD and bow down before God on high? Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings, with year-old calves?

7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with many torrents of oil?

Should I give my oldest child for my crime; the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit?

 

8 He has told you, human one, what is good and what the LORD requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God. (CEB)

Do, Love, Walk

Sometimes people of faith ask questions about what God really wants from us. How good is good enough? If I have my checklist of religious things that I do, how many of them do I need to check off before I can say I’m saved? One of our human tendencies is to answer those questions with what we think or what we want rather than listening to what God has already told us. We like to congratulate—even justify—ourselves by pointing out all of our religious activities. We’re doing the right things. We show up for worship. We dot our “i”s and cross our “t”s.

Truth be told, we are not wrong to think that our presence in worship matters, that being an active part of our religious community is important, because it is. Our worship and religious rituals do matter. At the same time, God expects to see our religion result in something. True worship extends into how we live and behave every day. True worship extends into how we treat others, how we live with others, how we give of ourselves for others. Our everyday ethics matter to God more than anything else.

Our worship is not about self-interest, but self-offering. But, as a pastor who organizes and leads worship, I’ve heard people complain more times than I can count about how they didn’t get anything out of it. As if they only came to worship so they could get something for themselves. One of my seminary professors, Will Willimon, was Dean of Duke Chapel, and he had someone say that to him: that he didn’t get anything out of the sermon or the worship. Will responded by asking the man what he brought to it.

We call worship a “service” because it’s our service to God. We offer our worship to God by offering ourselves. And we do get something out of that. We do receive grace, which is God’s presence with us. But if receiving is our primary reason for worship, as if God or the pastor owes us some good feelings, then we have disordered priorities. And, if our worship fails to result in the ethics that God expects of us, then we haven’t listened to what God wants.

If that’s us—and we ought not rush to discount that it might be us—then we’re in good company. The people of Israel and Judah had similar listening problems.

The prophet Micah, who lived in the late 8th century B.C., presents a covenant lawsuit that is brought by God against the people of Israel. Back in 1996, God got into a small argument with me about calling me to ministry, and I didn’t win. But this is a lawsuit, and God calls the mountains, hills, and foundations of the earth forth as witnesses to the proceedings. “Hear, mountains, the lawsuit of the LORD! Hear, eternal foundations of the earth! The LORD has a lawsuit against his people; with Israel he will argue” (Micah 6:2 CEB).

There is some mild wordplay going on in this verse, with Israel he will argue, or will contend. You might recall that, when Jacob received the name Israel he was told, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with men and won” (Genesis 32:28 CEB). The name Israel literally means fight against God. Now, in this lawsuit, God is the one who will contend. God will argue. God will strive. The name Israel can also mean God fights.

God begins the argument by asking the people what God has done to them, how God has wearied them. Then, the savings acts of God on behalf of the people are recounted: The Exodus from slavery in Egypt where God sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to lead them; the attempt of King Balak to get the prophet Balaam to curse the people but thrice spoke a blessing instead (c.f. Numbers 22-24); all the events from Shittim (which was east of the Jordan where Joshua had the people camp before crossing over) to Gilgal (which was west of the Jordan, where Joshua had the people camp after God parted the Jordan’s waters so the people could cross into the Promised Land) (c.f. Joshua 3-5).

The people seem to have forgotten their story and, in forgetting their story, they have forgotten the saving acts of their God. In forgetting who they are and the covenant faithfulness that God has shown to them by always remembering them, they have fallen out of a right relationship with God and with each other.

You see, earlier in Micah, we find that God has already laid out the charges against Israel. The powerful “covet fields and seize them, houses and take them away. They oppress a householder and those in his house, a man and his estate” (Micah 2:2 CEB).

They’re the ones who “hate good and love evil, who tear the skin off them, and the flesh off their bones, who devour the flesh of my people, tear off their skin, break their bones in pieces, and spread them out as if in a pot, like meat in a kettle” (Micah 3:2-3 CEB). They proclaim “Peace!” when they have plenty to eat, but at the same time they stir up violence against the poor and starving (c.f. Micah 3:5). The officials of Jerusalem, “give justice for a bribe, and her priests teach for hire. Her prophets offer divination for silver” (Micah 3:11 CEB).

It’s dangerous to forget our story. When we forget, or when we only remember certain parts, then we lose something about ourselves. The adage that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it rings true yet again. This is one of the reasons why we hear the account of the Great Thanksgiving each Sunday, because it reminds us of our story and recounts the mighty acts of God on our behalf from creation to the future yet to come.

Here, God calls the people to remember their story once again, and not merely part, but the whole of their story. They were slaves, and God let them to freedom. They were homeless, wandering refugees, and God guided them to a home. They were led by God’s hand all along and, as part of the covenant God made with them, God has expectations for their behavior toward other people. To remember their story serves as starting point for a return to right relationship.

Then, in verse 6, the defendant, Israel, responds with a series of questions. Essentially, Israel is asking God, What more do you want? How much more religious do we need to be to make you happy? Do you want burnt offerings and calves a year old? Will you be happy with thousands of rams, or rivers of oil? Do I need to sacrifice my oldest child to receive your forgiveness? What more does the Lord God want? It’s as if Israel thinks that God could actually be pleased with excess, and they’re trying to figure out exactly how far they need to go with it.

That’s when Micah re-enters the conversation by reminding Israel that God has already told them—and uswhat is good and what the LORD God requires of us: “to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 CEB).

The first thing God requires is justice, but what does that mean, exactly? Justice is part of God’s nature. Isaiah tells us that the Lord is a God of justice. (c.f. Isaiah 30:18). Justice is concerned with community by finding a balance between personal good and the common good.

There is the kind of justice that focuses on the relationships between people in a community—including those who might be considered outsiders to a community. Under God’s Law, there is no person among us who is outside of our community or whom we can treat as less than a full member of our community (c.f. Leviticus 19:34).

There is the kind of justice that focuses on the equitable distribution of goods, necessities, wealth, and burdens of a community.

And there is the kind of justice that focuses on the social order that is necessary within the community to accomplish the first two. Justice is about our ethics. It’s about how well we live, relate, and share together.

Next, Micah tells us that God requires us to embrace faithful love. Some English translations render this: to love kindness or to love mercy. Like justice, to embrace faithful love is about our ethics. It’s about how we treat others with kindness, dignity, love, grace, peace, encouragement. It’s about how we bear with others in the midst of joy or sorrow, famine or plenty. It’s about how we look past a person’s circumstances and consequences-of-birth to see the person: beloved of God, made in the image of God, redeemed by God, and commended into our personal and communal care by God.

To walk humbly with God implies an openness to the idea that, despite what we think in our frail certainties, we really might not have all the right answers. To walk humbly with God means that we recognize our faults before we start to pull specks out of other peoples’ eyes with our divine tweezers. We might see faults and sins in others but, instead of passing judgment on them, we remind ourselves that we’re guilty of sin, too.

The holiness that God expects of us is not that we separate ourselves from those whom we deem as not holy as us. In light of the petitions up for vote at General Conference in May, it’s my hope—my prayer—that United Methodists everywhere would remember that. Only when we learn to walk humbly with God can we learn and understand how to do justice and embrace faithful love.

Through Micah, God reminded the people that religious activity and ritual adherence do nothing for us—and do nothing but disappoint and anger God—when our when our ethics fall short of what God requires. Yes, religious activity is important. It is. It’s important to worship and tithe and receive communion and sing and eat. We definitely like to eat.

Jesus spoke to the importance of religious observance when he told the Scribes and Pharisees, “How terrible for you Pharisees! You give a tenth of your mint, rue, and garden herbs of all kinds, while neglecting justice and love for God. These you ought to have done without neglecting the others” (Luke 11:42 CEB; c.f. also Matthew 23:23). They gave every 10th leaf of their herb plants because they wanted to make sure they gave a full tithe which, honestly, is probably better than some of us do. But they also failed to do justice. Jesus notes that they cheated widows—who were among the most vulnerable members of the community—out of their homes (c.f. Luke 20:46).

We are invited to religious practice and ritual observance because they help us remember our story. Faithfulness is going through the motions of our religion and meaning it. And, faithfulness is remembering that our worship of God doesn’t stop at the sanctuary exit. Our worship of God extends into the world, and God is more concerned about how we love others—or fail to love others—than just about anything else. There is no room for misogyny, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, or any other personal fear or form of discrimination that prevents us from loving others fully. Our relationship with God is only right when our relationship with each other—especially the least and different among us—is right, too.

We’ve been told what the Lord requires. The question is, are we courageous enough to live it?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

 

A Great Light | 3rd after Epiphany

Isaiah 9:1-4

1 Nonetheless, those who were in distress won’t be exhausted. At an earlier time, God cursed the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but later he glorified the way of the sea, the far side of the Jordan, and the Galilee of the nations.

2 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned.

3 You have made the nation great; you have increased its joy.

They rejoiced before you as with joy at the harvest, as those who divide plunder rejoice.

4 As on the day of Midian, you’ve shattered the yoke that burdened them, the staff on their shoulders, and the rod of their oppressor. (CEB)

A Great Light

This text might sound familiar to you. Some of you might recall that we read Isaiah 9 verses 2-7 on Christmas Eve. Those are the verses that state, “Because every boot of the thundering warriors, and every garment rolled in blood will be burned, fuel for the fire. A child is born to us, a son is given to us, and authority will be on his shoulder. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:5-6 CEB).

We might ask, why we’re reading this again so soon. One reason might be that the Gospel according to Matthew, which we heard earlier in the service, uses part of Isaiah 9:1 and the whole of 9:2 to announce the beginning of Jesus ministry (c.f. Matthew 4:12-17). This text from Isaiah shines a spotlight on Jesus and his ministry, while Jesus and his ministry opens a window for us to see the vision of Isaiah in a new way; a broader way.

The fullest meaning of the gospel is to liberate the oppressed from bondage. That’s why Jesus came. That’s why God came down from heaven and became incarnate as a human being. When John the Baptizer was imprisoned, he sent his disciples to ask Jesus if he was really the one who is to come, or should they look for another. Jesus told John’s disciples, “Go, report to John what you hear and see. Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. The poor have good news proclaimed to them” (Matthew 11:4-5 CEB).

In Luke, we’re told that Jesus began his ministry after visiting his hometown synagogue where he quoted Isaiah 61:1-2 and Isaiah 42:7, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19 CEB). Every kind of bondage and oppression is reversed in the vision Isaiah presents, and those reversals are exactly what Jesus came to inaugurate on earth.

Isaiah 9 turns our eyes to examine the world and see the deep darkness that we, ourselves, or others languish beneath. The opening verse reminds us of a time when the people of Judah lived under a cloud of gloom because of their distress. For Isaiah this was the recent past and present.

There is a significant translation problem in verse 1. I know Hebrew grammar lessons in a sermon are super boring. I promise to spare you the technical intricacies, but this is significant enough that I think it should be mentioned. Most popular English versions of the Bible translate the Hebrew in a way that doesn’t follow the rules of Hebrew grammar. Adjectives and nouns are supposed to agree. Wouldn’t it be nice if people agreed as readily as our adjectives and nouns?

There are also two past tense Hebrew verbs, but the major English translations render one in the future tense. The verb will make glorious should be past tense.

Lastly, the English translations miss the sense of the Hebrew for will make glorious. The verb essentially means to make heavy. That can lend toward something weighty and profound, like glory, or something that weighs down like oppression. And, like I said, it’s supposed to be past tense.

I hope I haven’t put  you to sleep yet.

A more accurate translation would be: “Surely there will be no gloom on her for whom there has been distress, like the time the former [ruler] treated contemptibly {as insignificant} the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali and the [ruler] who followed treated harshly {weighed heavily upon} the Way of the Sea, Beyond the Jordan, and Galilee of the Nations” (Isaiah 9:1 my translation).

Nothing in this verse points to glory. Rather, it all points to oppression: specifically to the oppression of Israel’s northern lands by two successive rulers who were likely Syrian kings.

While verse 1 is about oppression and suffering, hope (in the form of release from oppression) is injected into Isaiah’s vision. Even as Isaiah points to the cause of his people’s suffering and oppression, he rejoices in a prayer-song about God’s light invading his people’s darkness. God has made a way for the people of Judah when no way was visible. God shined a light, a ray of hope, a rising of the sun so the people could find their way out of the gloom and anguish.

That brings up another point that’s important for us to remember. Isaiah didn’t speak this oracle as an outsider who was watching from the sidelines. Isaiah spoke as an insider who was experiencing this oppression with his people. There is something significant about solidarity. That’s why the church talks about ministry with people rather than ministry to or for people. Our call to ministry doesn’t invite us to be outside actors, but rather, in the trenches. Our call to ministry isn’t an invitation to point and nod at problems from a distance, it’s a call to walk through the mud alongside people who are oppressed and hurting. It’s a call to love boldly, powerfully, meaningfully, even self-sacrificially.

In verses 3 and 4, Isaiah bends our sight to events of the past when his people had experienced oppression. Judges 6 recounts how the Midianites and other peoples oppressed the Israelites. “Whenever the Israelites planted seeds, the Midianites, Amalekites, and other easterners would invade. They would set up camp against the Israelites and destroy the land’s crops as far as Gaza, leaving nothing to keep Israel alive, not even sheep, oxen, or donkeys” (Judges 6:3-4 CEB).

So, God raised up Gideon and led him to defeat the Midianites and other oppressors. The day of Midian is the day the Israelites prevailed. The yoke that burdened them was shattered, the staff over their shoulders and the rod of their oppressors was broken. On the day of Midian, the Israelites divided the plunder of the enemies who had come against them like a swarm of locusts. Then, in their newfound release from oppression, they were able to plant and reap their harvest where there had been no harvest. The nation was emboldened by their victory and, because of this liberation, there was joy among the people again.

This was God’s act of liberation for the Israelites, and the fact that it’s God’s act is driven home in Judges 7 by the fact that Israel began the day with 32,000 warriors. But God didn’t want the Israelites to think they had saved themselves. So, God told Gideon, you have too many people. God dismissed the Israelite warriors until there were only 300 left. Three-hundred warriors against an army that was described as a swarm of locusts. The day of Midian was the day the Lord, the God of Israel, liberated the Israelites from bondage and oppression.

In the Christian Faith, we understand liberation in two ways. The first is a spiritual kind of liberation in that we are liberated from our bondage to sin. Jesus came to release us from the hold that sin has over every aspect of our lives: our actions, our inactions, our speech, our thoughts, even our deeply-held-yet-sinful beliefs and self-interested politics. We are set free to see God’s glorious and infinite reality beyond our own limited and impoverished one. We’re set free in this way because when we believe in Jesus Christ, it’s then that Christ lives in us (c.f. Galatians 2:20). We experience a transformative, spiritual renewal that makes us new creations. But we’re new creations that still need to grow.

The second is that liberation of peoples from oppression, like that which the Israelites experienced under the Egyptians and Midianites is something God continues to do. And we who follow Jesus Christ are called to partner with God in that work of liberation. We are liberated to respond to God’s good news which most definitely includes liberation from racial, social, gender, and economic divisions of human society.

Not only are we enabled to respond to God’s good news, we’re empowered to go forth and become co-operators with God to work against the very real physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual oppression and bondage of the world’s vulnerable people. We’re empowered to become justice-bringers and heralds of the very good news that freed us, and in which we continue to grow. We are empowered and enabled to see and experience a foretaste of God’s coming rule and reign, live—fully—the values of God’s design for the human family, and roll up our sleeves to work for it in the here and now.

As new creations in Jesus the Christ, we are given a new yoke. “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30 CEB). The yoke of Jesus is love. The burden of Christ our God is love.

The continuing work of God is liberation. The meaning of the good news—as described by Isaiah and interpreted by Jesus—is liberation. And liberation has that duel sense: both spiritual and practical. Liberation, in both senses is a kind of divine enabling. We are enabled by God to become children of God, to be followers of Jesus Christ, to have our sins forgiven, to participate in the saving work of our God that leads to eternal life.

And we are enabled to serve and love as Jesus Christ served and loves us: to work so that others within our human family, who are even now under the rod of oppression and injustice, might be liberated from their gloom and anguish so that they, too, may experience joy as on the day of Midian, when harvests are gathered in and the plunder from our oppressors is divided and shared with equity, when peace and security are the rule of the day.

Our God is, has always been, and always will be a liberating God who sides with the oppressed, the downtrodden, the impoverished, and the suffering. It only follows that those who believe in this God should share in God’s continuing work of liberation. This is our task as those who have seen the brightness of God’s light shine into our own dark places to illumine a way for us that we could not see without the grace of God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Rev. Christopher Millay

My Servant | Baptism of the Lord

Isaiah 42:1-9

1 But here is my servant, the one I uphold; my chosen, who brings me delight.

I’ve put my spirit upon him; he will bring justice to the nations.

2 He won’t cry out or shout aloud or make his voice heard in public.

3 He won’t break a bruised reed; he won’t extinguish a faint wick, but he will surely bring justice.

4 He won’t be extinguished or broken until he has established justice in the land.

The coastlands await his teaching.

 

5 God the LORD says—the one who created the heavens, the one who stretched them out, the one who spread out the earth and its offspring, the one who gave breath to its people and life to those who walk on it—

6 I, the LORD, have called you for a good reason. I will grasp your hand and guard you, and give you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations, 7 to open blind eyes, to lead the prisoners from prison, and those who sit in darkness from the dungeon.

8 I am the LORD; that is my name; I don’t hand out my glory to others or my praise to idols.

9 The things announced in the past—look—they’ve already happened, but I’m declaring new things. Before they even appear, I tell you about them. (CEB)

My Servant

For those who study Isaiah, the “servant” has been a particularly difficult theme, at least, when it comes to the matter of the servant’s identity. There’s no certain historical indication of the servant as an individual who lived during the years of exile in Babylon. The tone of the poem seems to be Messianic but, originally, the servant might have referred to all of Israel. Yet, even that’s a difficult identification because Israel was in exile when this was written. It begs the question, how can a servant in exile serve its master? How can the servant perform their duties if they’re trapped in a foreign land?

It’s a strange and somewhat remarkable theme for Israel to be reminded of its role as a servant with duties to perform and obligations to fulfill while they are in the midst of exile, but perhaps that’s part of the point. During the exile, Israel tended to be more self-focused, self-absorbed with their own destiny, and who wouldn’t be? The main concern of many Jews in Babylonian exile were likely the questions, What about us? When the heck are we getting out of here? What about God’s promises of a kingdom that will last? Some of the people surely despaired in self-pity as their time in exile stretched into decades.

But, with the words from Isaiah, God changes the subject and summons a grieving people to look beyond their own self-concern to other work.

Another idea that we Christians tend to hold is to identify the servant with Jesus Christ, the gentle savior. It is Jesus who reveals the Good News to the world. It’s Jesus who does God’s work in the world. It’s Jesus who reveals God to us, and who has given us God’s teaching. The identification with the work and person of Jesus is why we read this text on this Sunday, which is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Jesus was identified at his baptism as God’s Son.

It is a curious work to which the servant is called. The servant’s purpose, according to Isaiah, is just… weird. The servant is empowered by God’s spirit or wind. The Hebrew word has both meanings. And the spirit or wind of God equips the servant to do what the rest of the world thinks is impossible. The impossible new thing that the servant is to do is to bring justice, and to make equitable, trusting, life-giving relationships available to the world.

It seems impossible because bringing justice to the nations is not something that is without risk. The list of justice-bringers, Christian or not, is filled with the names of martyrs: Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna of Russia, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero.

And it’s the way Isaiah describes how the servant works that is interesting. “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:2-3, NRSV). God’s justice is brought forth gently, carefully, caringly, quietly. The servant is gentle enough to respect the bruised and abused, and careful enough to respect those wicks that are barely burning with any kind of life left to them. The servant of God has respect for people who are weak, fragile, and in jeopardy.

The way the servant brings justice is as important as the fact that justice is being brought. Justice isn’t forced, but the goal of justice being brought forth into the world and the means by which it occurs are in harmony. The means serve the end. The servant practices vulnerability while being attentive to the way others are vulnerable. The servant’s ways are quite different from the ways of Babylon and—and every other worldly power—which prefer to snuff out vulnerable wicks and break vulnerable reeds.

The servant also perseveres and is able to accomplish the purpose God has given. In verses 3 and 4, the Hebrew suggests that the “bruised reed” and “dimly burning wick” of verse three highlight the metaphors of verse 4. So, the servant will not burn dimly [or be extinguished] or be bruised [or broken] until the work of establishing justice on the earth is accomplished. The servant will honor the weak, but the servant will also be strong enough to do the work that has been assigned.

The second part of the poem, verses 5-9, turns to the voice of God who has sent this servant. The God who intervenes in human affairs is the God who founded the earth and gave breath to everything in creation, who breathed into us the very breath of life. It’s the power of God that is at work in the mission of this servant.

The purpose of the servant is one and the same with the purpose of God. The servant enacts in the earth the purpose that has been intended from all eternity. God intends that human society should be re-ordered against every form of oppression. God now asserts power to enact that transformation and make it a reality in the world—a reality among the nations of the earth. The Creator intends that the creation should be rehabilitated and restored to its full, fruitful function.

The servant does God’s work and is empowered by God. God says of the servant, “I have given you as a… light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isaiah 42: 6b-7 NRSV). That’s powerful stuff. For some of us, that’s scary stuff. That isn’t how the world works. Yet, this is God’s work.

Everything about the servant in verses 6-8 is bracketed by the words, “I am the Lord.” The servant is identified by the self-announcement of God’s intention and sovereignty. It is the Lord, not the servant alone, who desires this transformation of creation and empowers the servant to bring it forth. No other voice proposes the transformation. No other person devises a way to accomplish it. No other person gets credit for it. This is, first and last, the Lord, the God of creation, exodus, and homecoming who works and wills the transformation of the world.

The question still remains, Who is the servant? Is it Israel? Is it Jesus? Or is it us?

I lean toward thinking that it’s all three. Have you ever thought of yourself as God’s servant? Have you ever thought that when God looks at you God says, “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights” (Isaiah 42:1a NRSV). The Christian Church exists as a missional body. If you’re part of the church—and I don’t mean, if your name is on the First Church membership roll—I mean, if you have been baptized or if you believe in Jesus Christ, then you are a member of the church. If you’ve been baptized, then you are a missionary. If you’ve been baptized, then you are God’s servant, and you are called to serve in a particular way: a way the world can’t imagine because the world operates differently.

God’s servants are to be the justice-bringers of the world, but not the way the world usually thinks of justice. The world tends to think of justice-bringers as gun-slinging vigilantes who wield power in order bring others to justice, to use force as a means of bringing justice upon the stereotypical bad guys. That’s why superhero movies are so popular. But worldly powers break bruised reeds and snuffs out dimly burning wicks. Worldly powers breathe threats and cry out in attempts to justify their violent words and actions which, ironically, often lead directly to injustice and atrocity.

As servants of God, we are called by God to operate very differently from that model. We are not to lift up our voices to scream in hatred, nor should we breathe threats. We’re to care for bruised reeds and protect dimly burning wicks.

God’s servant brings justice into the world by loving others—especially the most vulnerable, by caring for the needs of others, by building equitable, trusting, life-giving relationships with everyone we encounter, by working to re-order social life and social power so that the weak, the vulnerable, the powerless, the abused, the poor, the lost, the prisoners, the strangers, the orphans, the widows, the refugees, and the displaced may all live a life of dignity, security, and well-being.

And it isn’t we the servants doing this by ourselves or by our own power. God empowers us with the Holy Spirit, which blows in strange and unpredictable directions. The grace of God empowers our lives and enlivens our souls. God enables us to do God’s work.

Right now, we are a people who are facing tough times. We might wonder if anyone in our government has a brain. The violence taking place here and across the world every day is frightening.

We’re nowhere near the state of despair that Israel found itself in during the exile, but we are in troubled times. And in the midst of these troubled times—when we tend to focus more on ourselves, to be self-preoccupied—God reminds us that we are servants. God summons those of us who are concerned and worried about our own future to look beyond our self-concern to other work: to servant work.

The servant who does this work of God—who gently and caringly brings forth justice to the nations—will not burn dimly or be bruised. God is the source of this work of justice-bringing, and we are told that the coastlands wait for the teaching of the servant.

What emerges when the spirit-filled servant does the work of God is newness. It’s a newness, a vision, an act of transformation, that we’re sometimes too bruised and dimmed to imagine. Nevertheless, we are invited by God back into a powerful hope that is rooted in God’s purpose. We are invited back into God’s servanthood. The world needs servants, and each of us has already been called. We’ve been called whether we recognize it yet or not. How will we answer our summons to the ministry of a servant?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Saved | 2nd after Christmas

Jeremiah 31:7-14

7 The LORD proclaims:

Sing joyfully for the people of Jacob; shout for the leading nation.

Raise your voices with praise and call out: “The LORD has saved his people, the remaining few in Israel!”

8 I’m going to bring them back from the north; I will gather them from the ends of the earth.

Among them will be the blind and the disabled, expectant mothers and those in labor; a great throng will return here.

9 With tears of joy they will come; while they pray, I will bring them back.

I will lead them by quiet streams and on smooth paths so they don’t stumble.

I will be Israel’s father, Ephraim will be my oldest child.

 

10 Listen to the LORD’s word, you nations, and announce it to the distant islands:

The one who scattered Israel will gather them and keep them safe, as a shepherd his flock.

11 The LORD will rescue the people of Jacob and deliver them from the power of those stronger than they are.

12 They will come shouting for joy on the hills of Zion, jubilant over the LORD’s gifts: grain, wine, oil, flocks, and herds.

Their lives will be like a lush garden; they will grieve no more.

13 Then the young women will dance for joy; the young and old men will join in.

I will turn their mourning into laughter and their sadness into joy; I will comfort them.

14 I will lavish the priests with abundance and shower my people with my gifts, declares the LORD. (CEB)

Saved

We don’t often get to hear the Scripture readings for the second Sunday after Christmas Day. Usually, we move the readings for the Epiphany, which is fixed on January 06, to this Sunday. We do that, often, because Epiphany is an important holy day for the church. We celebrate the moment when Christ was first revealed to the Gentile peoples on Epiphany. That’s us, by the way. Anyone who is not Jewish is a Gentile. Epiphany is when we celebrate the Magi arriving to meet the child Jesus and presenting the Son of God with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Epiphany celebrates that these Gentiles recognized the Son of God for who he was: a similar recognition, by the way, to that of Simeon and the prophet Anna (Luke 2:25-38). At the temple, when Jesus was a mere 8 days old, Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms and proclaimed, “…my eyes have seen your salvation. You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples. It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel” (Luke 2:30-32 CEB). The prophet Anna praised God and began to speak about Jesus to everyone in the temple who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

Epiphany is one of my favorite holy days. Not because it marks the end of Christmas, but because it happens to be my wife’s birthday. But officially, as of today, Christmas is not over yet. That’s why the Christmas tree is still up, the sanctuary is still decked out in Christmas greens, and the Nativity scene is still front and center. Technically speaking, the Magi should still be on their horses because we don’t celebrate their arrival at Jesus’ house until tomorrow. (Yes, horses. We don’t know what they rode, but Persians were horse people. The Magi might have ridden elephants for all we know).

Yet, before we get to Epiphany and the Magi tomorrow, we have more Christmas to celebrate today. The text from Jeremiah points to why Jesus came into the world. It reminds us of God’s promise to redeem and restore in the midst of brokenness, homelessness, exile, and suffering. With the birth of Jesus the Christ, a new age began: an age of grace and God’s mercy that are with the human race in a new way (c.f. Hebrews 1:1-2). The manger of Emmanuel in Bethlehem points to the cross in Jerusalem on which the redemption of the whole world was accomplished.

When you think about the situation at hand, Jeremiah must have sounded like a nutcase when he preached these words. The northern kingdom of Israel had been carried off into exile by Assyria long ago, and now Babylon was in the middle of its program of conquering and carrying off the people of Judah into another exile. Jeremiah either spoke these words right before or during the exile of Judah. The Judean world at this moment was one of abandonment, dispersion, defeat, and exile, and here was Jeremiah preaching about God’s care, redemption, restoration, and homecoming.

Anyone might ask how or why Jeremiah was able to do that. The Judean kingdom was ending—the kingdom and nation of people God said belonged to God; the kingdom that was supposed to be under God’s divine protection. How could this prophet speak of singing and dancing, which were expressions of joy? When the Israelites escaped from Egypt through the sea, Miriam and the women of Israel took up tambourines and danced in jubilation (c.f. Exodus 15:20). When David took the Ark of the Covenant up to Jerusalem, he danced before the Ark with all his strength. But exile is not a time for dancing.

When the Babylonians destroyed the temple and carried off its holy utensils and treasury, the dancing stopped. The book of Lamentations tells us, “Elders have left the city gate; young people stop their music. Joy has left our heart; our dancing has changed into lamentation” (Lamentations 5:14-15 CEB).

Psalm 137 recounts how the captive Judeans could not even sing because of their distress. “Alongside Babylon’s streams, there we sat down, crying because we remembered Zion. We hung our lyres up in the trees there because that’s where our captors asked us to sing; our tormentors requested songs of joy: ‘Sing us a song about Zion!’ they said. But how could we possibly sing the LORD’s song on foreign soil?” (Psalm 137:1-4 CEB). How can anyone sing songs of joy when there is no joy? How can anyone dance when there is nothing to celebrate?

The kingdom was being torn down around them. All sense of security for themselves, their families, their people as a whole, was demolished. You really have to read Lamentations to get a sense of the horrors that the people went through. In addition to the terrors of being conquered and ravaged by invaders, they were being carried off into a foreign land as captives of a conquering empire whose hand was too strong for Judah to withstand. How can Jeremiah call people to sing, let alone to sing joyfully?

Jeremiah’s message was one of intense hope. It definitely wasn’t about what was reality at the time he spoke, but about what was possible through God. And not only what was possible, but what would yet be! It begins with a call to worship, which is an invitation given by God. Sing joyfully… Shout… Raise your voices with praise… call out, “The Lord has saved his people, the remaining few in Israel!” (Jeremiah 31:7 CEB).

The prophet declares that God will bring the people back from all parts of the Earth. The Lord will rescue the people of Jacob. That hand, which was too strong for the people, is powerless to withstand the Lord. The assembled masses include the most vulnerable members of a community who would embark on any journey: the blind, the disabled, expectant mothers, and those in labor. These are the people who would require some assistance along the way.

God will sustain the whole needy delegation of people by leading them on easy paths, smoothed so the people don’t stumble, and alongside quiet streams. It’s a scene of homecoming filled with peace and serenity. God will keep the people safe as a shepherd watches over their flock. And when the people get home, God will sustain them with abundance. The gifts of grain, wine, oil, flocks, and herds are images of richness and well-being in the Scriptures. So is the image of a lush garden.

Under God’s care, the life of the exiles will be like a well-watered garden that never wilts. It’s a return to a garden like Eden, where people flourish, and where crops and livestock thrive. Joy and gladness supplant grief and sorrow, and there is dancing again. There is a newfound joy that can only find expression in dance. “The young women will dance for joy; the young and old men will join in. I will turn their mourning into laughter and their sadness into joy; I will comfort them” (Jeremiah 31:13 CEB).

The Hebrew of verse 14 suggests the priests’ lives or, possibly, appetites will be saturated with fat and the people will be satisfied with good things. As everyone knows, saturated fats taste the best, and recent medical studies have shown that they might not be as bad for you as previously thought. And, if the studies turns out to be wrong, there’s always Lipitor.

(Don’t take medical advice from a pastor).

Two verbs, in particular, require some attention because they’re rich in theological and covenantal meaning in the Bible. The Common English Bible translates verse 11 by saying, “The LORD will rescue the people of Jacob and deliver them from the power of those stronger than they are” (CEB). The New Revised Standard Version, however, uses the more familiar religious-ish terms ransomed and redeemed, and puts the verse in the present tense: “For the LORD has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him” (NRSV).

Ransom or rescue conveys a sense of liberation. God ransomed the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt (c.f. Deuteronomy 7:8, 9:26, 15:15). When Saul’s son, Johnathan, unknowingly broke his father’s solemn pledge, the soldiers of Israel ransomed his life when his father intended to put him to death (c.f. 1 Samuel 14).

Redeem or deliver includes a sense of a person’s obligation to members of their family. Boaz redeemed Ruth along with the field of Elimelech by purchasing the field from Naomi (c.f. Ruth 4). Jeremiah redeemed a field in Anathoth by purchasing it from his cousin Hanamel (c.f. Jeremiah 32:8).

Both of the words, ransom and redeem, are used to describe the liberating acts of God. Here, the words are used to describe another kind of Exodus: a glorious and joyful homecoming from exile and oppression in another foreign land.

There is something incredibly persistent about God. Even tenacious. One thing God says over and over in the Scriptures, in one way or another, is: “I will be your God, and you will be my people” (c.f. Genesis 17:7, 17:8; Exodus 6:7; Leviticus 26:12; Psalm 50:7; Jeremiah 7:23, 11:4, 24:7, 30:22, 31:1 31:33; Ezekiel 11:20, 14:11, 36:28, 37:27; Hosea 2:23 [compare 1:9]; Joel 2:27; Zechariah 8:8, 13:9; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Revelation 21:3, 21:7). I found that phrase six times in Jeremiah alone, and twenty-two times from Genesis to Revelation. And that was just a quick search.

God’s grace is coming for us because God intends to save us. No matter how we’ve sinned. No matter what we’ve done. No matter how we’ve squandered the gift of grace or misused the abundant life with which God has drenched us. God loves us, and the word of Jeremiah reminds us that God refuses to give up on us.

God is our hope. God is our help. God is our present. God is our future. God is our home. Through Jesus Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit, God is with us. And God will never let us go. Even when we feel like our lives are little more than failure, fatigue, deficiency, and hopelessness, God is with us, and God will not let us go.

The story of Christmas—this coming of a child born in Bethlehem—is the story of our God’s tenacious love that will not quit on us no matter what, and our God’s absolute determination to be our God. We will be saved because God has declared that we will be God’s people. That, my friends, is reason enough for a song and a dance and a shout for joy.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Hope | 2nd of Advent

Isaiah 11:1-10

1 A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout from his roots.

2 The LORD’s spirit will rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of planning and strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the LORD.

3 He will delight in fearing the LORD.

He won’t judge by appearances, nor decide by hearsay.

4 He will judge the needy with righteousness, and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land.

He will strike the violent with the rod of his mouth; by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.

5 Righteousness will be the belt around his hips, and faithfulness the belt around his waist.

6 The wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat; the calf and the young lion will feed together, and a little child will lead them.

7 The cow and the bear will graze. Their young will lie down together, and a lion will eat straw like an ox.

8 A nursing child will play over the snake’s hole; toddlers will reach right over the serpent’s den.

9 They won’t harm or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain. The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the LORD, just as the water covers the sea.

10 On that day, the root of Jesse will stand as a signal to the peoples. The nations will seek him out, and his dwelling will be glorious. (CEB)

Hope

Joy loves Japanese Maple trees. When we lived in Durham, North Carolina, our neighborhood had several beautiful Japanese Maples. As we walked the broken sidewalks of the old streets we’d admire each one we saw. Joy had wanted a Japanese Maple since, at least, the beginning of our marriage, but we never bought one because we kept moving. My wife didn’t want to buy a beautiful tree only to leave it behind.

Still, back in 2013 when we lived in Fort Wayne, we bought a Japanese Maple after a lot of searching to find just the right one. Apparently, we’re weird about plants because we felt our tree needed a name. So, we named the tree Mariko in honor of a character from James Clavell’s novel Shogun. We found an ideal place for Mariko at the corner of our house. The only problem was that a huge, overgrown bush was already taking up the space.

I fixed that by cutting it all the way down to the nub. Then, I put weed killer on the stumps of the exposed cuts. Once that was done, we planted Mariko the Japanese Maple in front of the dead stump. The space was perfect with no other large plants nearby. Mariko had all the room it needed to grow and thrive, and we were sure our tree would stand out beautifully with a few years of growth.

But wouldn’t you know it, after a few weeks, that darn formerly overgrown bush started sending up shoots of new growth. As much as I hacked and slashed, it keept growing. The shoots were coming up all over the place, not just from the stump. I was pretty sure I’d killed the thing a few times over, but it refused to stay dead. For all I know, it’s still growing at the corner of the house on Candlewick Drive. For the record, we brought Mariko with us to Mount Vernon.

Isaiah describes for us a family tree, of sorts. It’s a family tree that eventually gets cut down to the stump as larger and more powerful empires gobbled up the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. After 587 B.C. only the remnants of a ravaged nation were scattered throughout the world, and there were no more kings of David’s line. Yet, Isaiah declares that the line of Jesse, King David’s father, will see a shoot grow from its seemingly deadened stump. But this new growth from Jesse’s roots—this new king of David’s line—wasn’t ordinary. This was to be something God-breathed and Spirit-imbued. We’re told, “The spirit of the Lord will rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of planning and strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the LORD.”

The reign of this future king will be marked by righteousness, justice, and a peace so pervasive that even the most ancient of enemies live in peace alongside one another. This king won’t judge by appearances. He won’t make decisions based on hearsay. He’ll care for those who are exploited by the powerful, and put down those who are violent with a word from his mouth.

We Christians hear Isaiah’s words and connect them to the Messianic reign of Jesus Christ. The reason this text is read during Advent is because it anticipates the full reign of Christ and the kingdom of heaven. It’s the coming inauguration of this kingdom that we’re waiting for in Advent, when all of God’s promises to the human race are finally and completely come to fruition.

The reign of Christ will be a complete restoration of the created order, and everyone is invited to be a part of it. The guest list seems to be all inclusive, as Isaiah gives us this powerful image of the peaceable kingdom where even nature’s most ancient enemies lie down together: wolf and lamb, leopard and goat, lion and calf, bear and cow. We even have the image of both infants and toddlers playing over the den of venomous snakes, which is a reversal of relationship between the oldest of Biblical enemies: the serpent and the children of Eve. After Adam and Eve ate of the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, God told the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers. They will strike your head, but you will strike at their heels” (Gen. 3:15).

In one sense, these images speak to the complete restoration and reordering of nature, which fell into decay in the Fall. Adam and Eve’s job was to tend the Garden of Eden by governing creation. They were the pinnacle of the created order and its stewards. When the stewards of creation fell away from God, the created order, itself, fell into ruinous disarray.

Salvation is a cosmic event. We, and all of creation with us, await the fullness of God’s salvation in which the coming of God’s kingdom ushers in a new reality. Predators eat straw like their former prey. At first glance, this image looks like it is only the strong and fearsome predators that have been redeemed and turned into peaceful creatures. But I think it’s more than that. I think salvation is all-encompassing; that, just as lions have learned to eat straw and no longer feed on other, weaker creatures, those weaker creatures have, perhaps, been made strong.

What if this redemption means that oxen have learned to roar like lions, and lambs have been made as formidable as wolves? The justice of salvation tells us that the weak and lowly have been lifted up and the powerful have been put down from their thrones, that the hungry have been filled with good things, and the rich have been sent away empty-handed (c.f. Lk. 1:52-53). The powerful are converted, yes, but so too are the weak.

In another sense, the animals—predators and prey—are symbolic for the human race. They are all of us. The drama of human history shows us that the powerful tend to exploit the powerless for their own gain. Our own culture teaches us that the world is us against them. We have to beat the competition. Success means winning no matter the cost to ourselves or others. Putting other businesses out of business is justified as a means of self-preservation.

Our culture teaches us to think in terms of scarcity: that there’s not enough to go around, so we need to get ours before someone else beats us to the punch. If we manage to lop off a few heads so that we can breathe easier, that’s ok because it’s all about us. It’s a deathly life that we live in a death-filled world. Yet, we do see glimpses of the kingdom here and there, where the predator and prey attitudes are laid aside for cooperation and mutual benefit.

The vision of the messianic kingdom presents a vastly different place where the strong and the weak, the powerful and the powerless, the rich and the poor, the exploiters and the exploited all experience conversion, renewal, a complete reordering, and live together in the harmony of God’s justice. The lion and lamb image is used in Jeremiah, not Isaiah, but I mention it because Revelation presents Jesus Christ as the Lion of the tribe of Judah, and the Lamb of God standing as if it had been slaughtered. Jesus, too, is the all-encompassing vision of God’s kingdom where lasting peace is made.

Then Isaiah makes three references to children. Why is a little child leading this petting zoo of converted creatures? In one way, I think, it’s because in the restored order of God’s kingdom, creation itself, desires a human presence to care for it just as Adam and Eve were supposed to have done in the beginning. This picture points us again back to Genesis and the Garden of Eden when human beings cared for and nurtured the rest of creation.

In another way, perhaps our attention is being directed to the coming child who was born in Bethlehem. The world waited for this child to be born. And now we wait for his return.

Some scholars suggest that the children in Isaiah’s vision convey a sense of innocence. I almost laughed out loud when I read that. I’m not sure innocence is the right image. Anyone who thinks children are innocent has either never had children, or they’ve completely forgotten what having children was actually like. If you don’t believe in original sin, get married and have a child. Parenthood will quickly adjust your theological disposition.

No, the children here don’t represent innocence. Instead, I think they represent vulnerability. There is hardly anything more vulnerable than a child, whether it’s a nursing infant or a toddler. A young child playing over a serpent’s den would be a disaster in our world. But in the messianic kingdom there’s no danger. Isaiah says, “They won’t hurt or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain. The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the LORD just as the water covers the sea.”

Finally, Isaiah points once more to the root of Jesse and declares that he will stand as a signal to all the peoples and the nations will seek him out. We’re told that his dwelling will be glorious. The guest list for the kingdom of God is already made up, and all of our names are on it. We’re all invited. We only need to present ourselves before the Coming King and allow ourselves to be converted and renewed, whether we’re the predator or the prey. God’s kingdom will be a place of peace, where old grievances are forgotten, and all enmity is put aside.

The vision of Isaiah is our hope during Advent. We are a people who live between two times: we celebrate the coming of the root of Jesse in Jesus Christ; a shoot which has already grown and brought the Kingdom near, and we look forward to the promises of God being fulfilled in the final consummation of God’s peaceable kingdom yet-to-come when the Root of Jesse comes into our world again. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Rev. Christopher Millay

The Potter | Proper 18

Jeremiah 18:1-11

1 Jeremiah received the LORD’s word: 2 Go down to the potter’s house, and I’ll give you instructions about what to do there. 3 So I went down to the potter’s house; he was working on the potter’s wheel. 4 But the piece he was making was flawed while still in his hands, so the potter started on another, as seemed best to him. 5 Then the LORD’s word came to me: 6 House of Israel, can’t I deal with you like this potter, declares the LORD? Like clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in mine, house of Israel! 7 At any time I may announce that I will dig up, pull down, and destroy a nation or kingdom; 8 but if that nation I warned turns from its evil, then I’ll relent and not carry out the harm I intended for it. 9 At the same time, I may announce that I will build and plant a nation or kingdom; 10 but if that nation displeases and disobeys me, then I’ll relent and not carry out the good I intended for it. 11 Now say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem: This is what the LORD says: I am a potter preparing a disaster for you; I’m working out a plan against you. So each one of you, turn from your evil ways; reform your ways and your actions. (CEB)

The Potter

My only experience with doing pottery was in shop class at Oak Hill Middle School where I made this dreadful blue blob. I think I tried to make a lid for it, but it didn’t work out at all. I mean, my dreadful blob works to hold stuff, but it’s not exactly a work of art. It’s not pretty. And, it’s only useful if you can stand the dreadful sight of it on your nightstand or coffee table. Yet, it does have one remarkable property. It’s so dreadful and blobby that, as a candy jar, it will actually keep kids out of your stash.

IMG_20190908_114412

Sometimes, the word of the Lord needs to be seen in order to understand it properly. Jeremiah does what many other prophets have done before him. God tells him to go somewhere, so he obediently goes. What Jeremiah sees is a potter bent over his potter’s wheel working a lump of clay. But something went wrong with the piece while the potter worked it. So, the potter lumped it together and started over on a new piece.

What Jeremiah sees becomes an illustration for the Lord’s word. House of Israel, can’t I deal with you like this potter, declares the LORD? Like clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in mine, house of Israel!” (Jeremiah 18:6 CEB).

As much as we might like the song, Change My Heart, O God, where we sing, “You are the potter. I am the clay. Mold me and make me. This is what I pray,” God’s word to Jeremiah is about the community of faith. Yet, while God’s word is focused on the community, it’s fair to say that any word about a community is also a word about the individuals who make up that community. In fact, when God calls for repentance, God says, “So each one of you, turn from your evil ways; reform your ways and your actions” (Jeremiah 18:11 CEB).

This is, very clearly, a call for the community of faith to repent. The context behind the oracle Jeremiah speaks is the covenant between God and the people of Judah and the faithfulness of the nation to that covenant. The political leadership of Judah knew there was the potential for trouble. Egypt and Babylon were the rising powers in the region. King Jehoiakim switched his allegiance back and forth between Egypt and Babylon. He killed the prophet Uriah and burned the scroll Jeremiah had written that contained the oracles of God.

While the king, the court, and the people were arguing politics, Jeremiah and the prophets reminded the people that a king still reigned. The allegiance of the people should be to God, Israel’s King, rather than other nations. By flirting with political alliances instead of choosing faithfulness to the covenant, Judah was not following through with their end of the covenant.

God warns the people, through Jeremiah, that disaster looms just over the horizon. The Babylonians are out there. And if Judah doesn’t shape up, they’ll come, the people will be taken captive, and Jerusalem will be destroyed. Maybe the leaders of the community were convinced that the blessing of God upon them was their entitlement rather than a gift. Maybe the leaders didn’t believe religious nonsense would do any good in the real world. Whatever their reasons for ignoring Jeremiah and the other prophets, the nation of Judah would learn a hard lesson through disastrous defeat and exile.

The people of Judah later understood their exile as a consequence of their own sin. They believed that the destruction of their nation happened because they didn’t abide by the covenant. In one sense, that’s kind of refreshing. When people admit they were wrong and, as a consequence of their past failures, determine to do what’s right. That’s refreshing. To some extent, it could be viewed as a sign of spiritual maturity.

There are people in the world—we all know someone—who are never wrong, who never make mistakes, and are never at fault. At least, according to them. They’ll never admit a mistake (even when the National Weather Service says they were wrong).

It’s easy for us to sit in judgment of Judah and think, Well, why didn’t they just choose faithfulness to God? But we do this, too. We Americans are often guilty of the very same activity. We might even feel that our blessing by God as a nation is an entitlement. Whether we identify as a Republican, a Democrat, a Libertarian, or something else, some of us are guilty of putting more faith in our political parties than in adhering to God’s requirements.

In fact, what American Christians often do is substitute one or the other political party’s agendas for God’s requirements. We think that our party of choice is the so-called “Christian vote” while voting for the other party is patently “unchristian.” Somehow, we get our religious and our political values crossed and—somehow—we begin to think they’re the same thing.

Let me be clear. No vote for any political party or any individual representing a political party is the so-called “Christian vote.” We should each vote our conscience, yes, but we don’t get to compare our vote to a vote for Jesus. The politics of Jesus are beyond the ability—let alone the will—of any current political party to meet. The values of Jesus and the dominion of God are in direct conflict with some parts of every political party’s values and policies. Belong to a political party if you want to. There’s probably nothing wrong with that. Vote for your party of choice. There’s nothing wrong with that. But there is something wrong when we walk away from whatever vote we cast feeling morally superior. When we do that, we have supplanted God’s values with the bent values of human politics. And they aren’t the same thing.

You’ll hear me preach against policies and policy makers of both major political parties. And, I know that some people don’t like that. I’ve even been told by a member of our congregation that pastors should stay out of politics. If anyone can find a Biblical precedent for it, I’ll be glad to stop. But Jeremiah and the other prophets were preaching against the King and the King’s policies, as did prophets throughout the Old and New Testaments (i.e. John the Baptist).

Jeremiah wanted the nation of Judah to stop worrying about politics, about which alliance to make with which nation, and just be faithful to God. Focus on what’s truly important. What if the people of the church in America were to do the same? What if, at the beginning and at the end of every day, we simply got to the business of living faithfully to God by living out the very things God requires of us?

God requires a lot. Not just a small part, but everything. Faithfulness requires our whole selves. The reason Jesus says his yoke is easy and his burden is light is because his yoke and burden are love. But love isn’t some small thing. It takes all that we have and all that we are to really love, and to love well. I believe I’ve said in a previous sermon that some political policies might be perfectly legal, but they aren’t loving. If they aren’t loving, then those policies are out of alignment with God’s values and should be opposed even by members of the political party that put it forth. Standing up for what is right, and standing against what is wrong regardless of political affiliation: that’s Christian faithfulness.

Jeremiah’s oracle of the potter is loaded with Deuteronomic thought, which states that when we sin, we suffer, and when we suffer, it’s because we’ve sinned. Judah has failed to keep the covenant, so Judah will experience disaster.

Yet, there are other voices in the Scriptures that sing to a beat counter to Deuteronomic thought. Job was blameless, yet he suffered unimaginable loss. The Hebrew people became slaves in Egypt, not because of their sin, but because a new Pharaoh forgot Joseph and feared the Hebrews’ numbers. God delivered the Israelites from slavery not because the people were righteous, but because God is righteous.

The refugees from Syria and central American nations aren’t suffering because they’re “Bad hombres” or because they deserve it. Veterans of American wars don’t become homeless because they deserve it.

Bad things happen in the world because the world is fallen and evil reigns. The Scriptures describe “the god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4 CEB) and “the prince of this world” (John 12:31 KJV) as Satan, the one who opposes God. Our call as Christian people is to resist the evil that reigns, to align ourselves with God and God’s values, to live love in our every day, and to rely upon God’s grace to give us strength to do so.

Throughout the Old and the New Testaments, we have example after example that show us how God gives us what we need rather than what we deserve. God’s grace abounds even when we fail at faithfulness. We even state in our Communion liturgy that “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. That proves God’s love for us.”

There is something beautiful about this analogy with the clay. When we don’t turn out quite the way God wants, God can gracefully reshape us into the vessel we’re supposed to be. Yet, questions we might ask ourselves are, are we still malleable enough to repent? Are we still soft clay, or have we hardened our hearts? If you read further into Jeremiah 19, the once soft clay is hardened into a clay pot that Jeremiah smashes as a sign of God’s judgment. Will we allow God to lovingly reshape us in the image of Divine love?

The message that John the Baptist preached during his ministry was, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” (Matthew 3:2 CEB). The message which Jesus preached at the beginning of his ministry was, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” (Matthew 4:17 CEB).

Even with the word of the disaster preached and proclaimed by God’s prophet, Jeremiah, there is a thread of hope for the people of Judah. As much as God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, it turns out that God’s plans are not fixed, determined, and unchangeable. God can change God’s mind. Human actions of either sin or repentance from sin can influence God. God takes all things into account.

God’s people are called to repent, and we have the opportunity to do so every day. God gives us grace. In the New Testament, Jesus calls us to repent because God’s realm and dominion is near. The full reign of God is near.

In what ways do we need to repent so that the reign of God might show forth in us? Through repentance, God can reshape dreadful blobs into useful vessels.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

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Seek, Help, Defend, Plead | Proper 14

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

1 The vision about Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah, Amoz’s son, saw in the days of Judah’s kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah.

10 Hear the LORD’s word, you leaders of Sodom. Listen to our God’s teaching, people of Gomorrah!

11 What should I think about all your sacrifices? says the LORD.

I’m fed up with entirely burned offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts. I don’t want the blood of bulls, lambs, and goats.

12 When you come to appear before me, who asked this from you, this trampling of my temple’s courts?

13 Stop bringing worthless offerings. Your incense repulses me.

New moon, sabbath, and the calling of an assembly—I can’t stand wickedness with celebration!

14 I hate your new moons and your festivals. They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing.

15 When you extend your hands, I’ll hide my eyes from you.

Even when you pray for a long time, I won’t listen.

Your hands are stained with blood.

16 Wash! Be clean!

Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil; 17 learn to do good.

Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.

18 Come now, and let’s settle this, says the LORD.

Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be white as snow.

If they are red as crimson, they will become like wool.

19 If you agree and obey, you will eat the best food of the land.

20 But if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.

The LORD has said this. (CEB)

Seek, Help, Defend, Plead

There is some irony in reading a text that describes how God hates our worship while we’re among worshipers in the middle of a worship service. Isaiah spoke these words from outside the sanctuary, but we read them from inside the sanctuary. It’s almost a little embarrassing. But maybe that’s an appropriate response.

To put it mildly, this is not an easy text. Whenever Sodom and Gomorrah are mentioned, you know judgment is right around the corner. So, when we read, “Hear the LORD’s word, you leaders of Sodom. Listen to our God’s teaching, people of Gomorrah!” we know it’s bad news, (Isaiah 1:10 CEB). This is not an easy text for me to expound in a sermon, and it’s not an easy text for you to hear.

Yet, “Hear” is exactly what Isaiah encourages us to do. It would be a shame if the accusatory tone and difficulty of this text were to cause us to turn our attention elsewhere so we don’t hear the Lord’s word.

First, I should say that the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah is probably not what you think. I know one part of our culture has turned Sodom into an anti-gay rallying cry, and they use demonizing words like Sodomite, but the true crimes of Sodom and Gomorrah—the real wickedness—were greed and injustice. The prophet Ezekiel, when writing to the people of Judah about their own wickedness and how they had outstripped Sodom in it, wrote: “This is the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were proud, had plenty to eat, and enjoyed peace and prosperity; but she didn’t help the poor and the needy,” (Ezekiel 16:49 CEB).

“She didn’t help the poor and needy.” That was the sin of Sodom, and that was the sin of both Israel and of Judah.

Israel, and Judah failed to make the connection between their worship inside the sanctuary and their life outside the sanctuary walls. If we examine ourselves honestly, how well do we make the connection, ourselves?

Our congregation is doing and has done some really good things to care for poor and needy people recently. We support Thrive in order to support and care for kids who need help with their education. We made hundreds upon hundreds of lunches to feed kids through the summer so they wouldn’t go hungry. We’ve prepared meals for needy people during the holidays so they could have something a little more special than their everyday fare. We have an amazing nursery school program to give kids a start on their education. We have a fair trade store on campus. I know some members of our congregation volunteer at the Mission here in town. We’ve raised and donated thousands of dollars for relief and recovery efforts after natural disasters. We do, and we have done, some good things to meet immediate needs. At the same time, we could probably do more.

If we were to examine our complicity in systemic practices that negatively affect the poor and needy, however, we might not do so well on our grade card. Do we buy certified fairly traded goods, or do we get whatever’s cheapest regardless of how the poor might have been swindled or exploited so we could have inexpensive goods?

Do we shop at companies that pay their employees a fair and livable wage, or do we go to Walmart because what we want is cheaper there? A 2014 study showed that, because Walmart doesn’t pay their employees a livable wage, Walmart employees cost taxpayers 6.2 billion dollars in public assistance each year. This is America’s biggest employer, and it’s owned by America’s richest family. One Walmart in Ohio was found to be receiving donations of food for its employees because their employees couldn’t afford a Thanksgiving meal.

There are other systemic issues, too, regarding healthcare for the poor, education for the poor, incarceration rates for the poor, burdensome immigration processes for refugees and asylum-seekers, mistreatment of undocumented immigrants, and the list would go on.

We’re in the first chapter of the first book of the Prophets, and the first order of business is a blistering assault on our worship as it relates to everything outside of the sanctuary walls. It turns out that the first and most furious critic of religion is God.

I want us to hear what God is saying through Isaiah. There is a disconnect when any people worship a God who states over and over and over how deeply God cares for the most vulnerable people in society when we, ourselves, are complicit or outright neglectful in showing care for those Vulnerable-Beloved-of-God. God declares that it’s not merely a disconnect, it actually turns our worship into an abomination. Our worship, itself, becomes false. Worship that is not concerned with justice and mercy for the vulnerable of our society is obscene and perverse.

Part of the disconnect might actually be worship, itself. When we come to this place to worship, what do we expect? What do we want? If we worship so we can get something out of it, or so we can feel good, or like some kind of catharsis has occurred now that the benediction has been offered, we might need to reevaluate. If, after worship, we feel like we’ve accomplished something, like we’ve met an obligation, or satisfied a commitment, we might need to reevaluate. Even if we discuss matters of justice and God’s love for everyone, if we feel a sense of closure at the end of worship, we may need to reevaluate.

We’re probably here in this sanctuary because we recognize that worship is essential for us. How else can we have a serious engagement with God that gives us life, that transforms our community, that changes the world? We need to give God our worship. We need to experience God’s transformative love through worship. We need the strength of God’s grace, which we receive in worship, so that we can go outside these walls and serve the world. We know that we need worship.

It might also be ironic that worship is what allowed us to hear this text.

So, the idea that God hates our worship… well… verses 10 through 14 are pretty tough to hear. They’re a withering indictment of our worship. The intent of our worship is many-fold, but its primary purpose is not self-serving. We don’t worship God so that we can feel good about ourselves. In worship, we bring to God all that we have and all that we are, and we offer the whole of it to God for God’s purposes alone.

The prayer after communion, which we pray every Sundaym is a plea to God to send us into the word in the strength of the Holy Spirit so that we can give ourselves to others. Do we really want to give ourselves for others? Do we really want to serve God and work for God’s dominion by living out and fighting for the values of God’s dominion? Do we really want to represent that?

As bad as those verse are, it actually gets worse. “When you extend your hands, I’ll hide my eyes from you. Even when you pray for a long time, I won’t listen. Your hands are stained with blood” (Isaiah 1:15 CEB). When there is a disconnect between what happens inside the sanctuary and what happens outside the sanctuary, God will not even listen to our pleas. We shouldn’t expect our confessions and prayers in the sanctuary to cover our willful neglect of justice. Repentance actually requires us to change.

On Sunday mornings, we worship a poor, wandering, homeless, brown-skinned, Middle Eastern, Jewish, asylum-seeking refugee named Jesus, who was birthed by an unwed mother. How, then, can we think or speak negatively about any person in any of those categories Monday through Saturday? How can we speak about denying basic necessities, God-given human dignity and value, or a chance at a better life to any person in any of these categories?

[[Or, do we even wait beyond Sunday afternoon?]]

“Wash! Be clean! Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil; learn to do good. Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow. Come now, and let’s settle this, says the LORD. Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be white as snow. If they are red as crimson, they will become like wool” (Isaiah 1:16-18 CEB).

True worship—authentic worship—is how we live our lives before God. What we do in this or any other sanctuary is only a start to the worship we do on the outside. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the orphan. Plead for the widow.

I really don’t have a way to give any of you, or even myself, closure at the end of this sermon. There will be differences in how this looks for each of us. So, maybe a loose end is what we need. In fact, this sermon is a little shorter than what I usually preach. Maybe that’s not a bad thing either.

This part of God’s word might not be pleasing to our ears, our heart, or any of our sensibilities, but this is a word we need to keep chewing on. This is a word we need to hear in the sanctuary, and a word we need to consider while we’re outside of it.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay