Church


“Go wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.”

“Seriously?”  Says Naaman.  “That’s what it’s gonna take?”

Naaman expects this to be a big deal; after all, Naaman is a big deal.  Naaman is a well-respected military commander in the army of the king of Aram.  Naaman is a celebrated hero, yet he is also a tragic figure, as he suffers from leprosy.  It’s important to point out here that any number of skin diseases at the time fell under the category of “leprosy,” and in many cases the ailment bore little resemblance what we now know as Hansen’s disease.  However, what remains clear is that Naaman has suffered deeply, so much so, that he is willing to travel to Israel, and to consult with a prophet who he only found out about because his wife’s Hebrew servant told him.[1]

Naaman expects more from a great prophet like Elisha.  He’s already been surprised to find that this powerful prophet isn’t squarely situated in the center of power near the king.  He thought for sure it would take a lot of money and gifts to incur the favor of this prophet.  So, Naaman expects a big production, in which the prophet comes out and waves his hands over the area calling upon [quote-unquote,] “his” God to effect this healing.  Instead, Naaman never lays eyes on Elisha.  Elisha sends a messenger with the simple instructions to go wash seven times in the Jordan.

Naaman is furious.  “This is all you want me to do?  Go wash in your muddy Israelite river?[2]  The rivers where I come from are better than your river!  I should have stayed at home.”  And then, his servants help him to put things into perspective.  “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?  How much more when all he said to was, ’Wash, and be clean’?”  “Maybe just give it a shot?”

Naaman expects a grand ceremony, or at least some feats of strength to overcome his disease.  Except that his stature and his abilities are not what will heal him and cleanse him.  God will.  Elisha doesn’t need to come do a big production, waving his hands over the area because he’s not the one doing the healing.  In fact, Naaman doesn’t know it yet, but the narrator has told us that even Newman’s success hasn’t come from his own efforts, but because God gave victory to Aram.  It is all God.  Elisha doesn’t need to give Naaman a difficult journey of cleansing.  God will do the cleansing.  He just has to respond, to go to the waters and wash seven times, a number of completion, a number of perfection, and let God take care of the rest.

Water.  Simple water.  Today is Scout Sunday, and one of the things I reflected on as I read this passage is the way water can be your friend or enemy.  It can be the thing that gets through your hike when you’re thirsty, yet it can also be the thin that ruins your camping trip as it soaks your socks.  I recalled a time when I tried to dry my socks by the fire, and they caught on fire!  But water.  Naaman is aggravated because water is so mundane!  So normal!  This is going cure my leprosy?  And yet, God chooses to cleanse Naaman through the mundane waters of the Jordan.  And when we think of water, we are naturally drawn to think about baptism.  That God offers us grace through something as mundane and yet as vital as water!  Simple water.

What happens to Naaman is not baptism.  Yet, what we see in Naaman’s cleansing is a prefiguring of one of aspects of the waters of baptism:  washing and cleansing.  We tend to think only in terms of cleansing from sin, which seems somehow different than Naaman’s skin disease.  Yet, isn’t that what sin is?  A disease.  A disease that finds us as people who are sick not just mentally, but physically, emotionally, and relationally.   Just like Naaman, it is not a disease that we can perform our way out of with great feats of righteousness.  Rather, it is a cleansing that is a gift to cure a disease that we can’t cure ourselves.  It is forgiveness and new life that is offered to us, with the only condition being that, with the help of grace, accept it.  It is learning, as we have seen over the past few weeks, how to perform into what Jesus did because we are in him and he is in us.

It is when we accept that forgiveness and new life that is offered to us, that we begin to live as disciples of Jesus Christ.  And yet we know that we will experience times of difficultly even after baptism.  Times when we stop listening.  Times when we might walk away.  Times when we turn our back on the love offered  to us by God.  Times we reject God’s invitation to be a part of God’s life.  Times when we as members of the church do not offer that same love and forgiveness to those in our midst.  Times, when lose sight of the effect that the grace offered to us in the waters of baptism has had on us, in drawing us into Christ’s body and to doing the things that Christ did as members of his body.

When that happens, and we find ourselves far away from God, far away from church family, that we begin to create great barriers for ourselves to return.  This is reasonable because when we begin to recognize God calling us back, we are aware of what we have forfeited.  And, like Naaman, we begin to expect that great feats will be necessary for us to be cleansed and return back to the community.

Yet, what is simply required is to dive back into the waters.  I don’t mean to be re-baptized.  What I mean is that after we are baptized, we spend our lives swimming in those waters, learning what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and we are helped to live in him and let him live in us through the grace regularly offered to us by God.  That includes even those times when we have walked away from God and the community.  It doesn’t mean coming back into the community will always be easy.  There are consequences for our actions, there are relationships that may have to be mended, but isn’t that what the community of the baptized is supposed to be?  The primary location of where such relationships with God and one another are healed.  It’s why we confess our sins and pass the peace before we share Holy Communion with one another.  Just as Naaman must dip into the river seven times, our lives as Christians is the story of us being shaped, formed, changed, healed, and brought back to Christ by the waters of our baptism.

The scene that keeps running through my head as I consider Naaman’s cleansing and our baptism comes from The Apostle starting Robert Duvall.[3]  Duvall’s character, “Sonny” Dewey is on the run.  He is a preacher who has had what many might consider a successful ministry at a Pentecostal Holiness Church in Texas.  However, things are now out of control.  His wife has decided to leave him for another man, a younger minister in the church.  In an angry drunken rage Sonny takes the life of this man at his kids’ little league game, where this other man is a coach.  Sonny flees town, eventually ending up in Louisiana.  He ditches his car in a lake, and begins walking, trying to figure out what to do next.  As he is walking along the river, he runs into an old man fishing, and he asks if he can hang around the man’s property.  Sonny begins to search his soul as begins to fast and lay in a small pup tent that the man lets him borrow.

As Sonny lies down in this tent, he reflects on his life, his ministry, his family, and his call.  When he emerges from this tent, we find Sonny in the river, praying:

With great humility, I ask permission to be accepted as an Apostle of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ of Nazareth, and with your gracious permission, I wish to be baptized as an Apostle of our Lord.  I therefore, without witnesses, baptize myself in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and in the name of Jesus.[4]

I watched this movie for first time during seminary for a class, and this scene was a topic of great discussion.  It doesn’t take a seminary student to see that what Sonny does is rife with problems.  First and foremost is that Sonny re-baptizes himself. As I’ve already alluded to, while some traditions permit and may even call for re-baptism as a sign of commitment and membership, we as United Methodists believe that we only require one baptism.  We accept the baptism of other churches as valid as long as water is used and God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is invoked because we understand Baptism as God’s act of claiming us even as we understand the need for a human response to the grace offered.   Even more peculiarly, Sonny baptizes himself.  Even Jesus had someone else baptize him!  Not to mention this baptism occurs outside of the context of a faith community.  Finally, what in the world does it mean for this new baptism to confer on Sonny the title of “Apostle”??

There are plenty of problems with what Sonny does, and yet, it is a profound moment of transformation for both Sonny and the viewer.  We don’t recognize it at first.  As the “Apostle, E.F.” as Sonny calls himself now, emerges from the waters, and he begins to do his “preacher thing” again.  We don’t trust him.  It seems he has used his religion to don an alias to hide his identity while he is on the run.  He is just a murderer who now sets about doing the only thing he knows how to do, creating a ministry, not out of sincere faith, but because he needs to create some income.   The Apostle, E.F., begins to establish this ministry, first on the radio station where he gets a job as a janitor, and then as he begins to gather a congregation around him and work to renovate an old church.  We want to view Sonny as a charlatan, a cheap huckster of a false gospel.  Seriously?  He baptized himself?  Who baptizes himself an apostle?

The only thing is, that as the movie proceeds, we find that, even with all the problems with what Sonny as done lives begin to change in his midst.  We begin to root for Sonny, even though, as viewers, we know for certain that he will eventually have to suffer the consequences of what he did.  What becomes clear is that Sonny’s transformation, while there may be some self-confirmation and self-deception in that self-baptism his action is actually a function of him knowing nothing else than the practices and beliefs of Christ’s Church.  In his own weird way, he knows he needs to repent, and he knows that baptism, repentance, and cleansing are related, and so he makes his way to the waters.

His new ministry, as much as at it may be an effort to start a life somewhere else after his crimes, comes because he knows nothing else than preaching the Gospel in such a way that people are compelled to have their lives changed by the power of the Holy Spirit.  It doesn’t excuse what Sonny did, and even Sonny knows this.  However, Sonny’s problematic baptism in that river turns out to be also a turning point in his life as a Christian.  It unfolds complete with the Biblical drama of receiving a new name.  His time in that pup tent turns out to be a tomb, and his emergence from it a time of resurrection culminating in his return to the waters.  Sonny, who has been preaching since he is 12 years old, is returning the beliefs and practices that have shaped him as a Christian.  In his problematic baptism, we find Sonny returning to the waters for another dip, in his own weird way.

The preacher and theologian in me doesn’t like what Sonny did.  It is, after all, my responsibility to teach rightly about our beliefs, especially with regard to the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion.  Yet, as a disciple of Jesus Christ, I am compelled by Sonny’s character.  As a disciple I am reminded that the Spirit may work outside the normal channels.  I am compelled by Sonny’s character because Sonny isn’t all good, and Sonny isn’t all bad.  He isn’t all righteous, nor is he all evil.  He’s somewhere in the middle.  He is, I think, a lot like you and me.  Sonny recognizes this himself.  As he walks along after his re-baptism, he prays and talks with God:

“Thank ya Lord. I’m your Apostle from now to the end of eternity.  Ever since you rung my bell when I was 12 years you’ve been with ya.  Sometimes I zig-zagged off course, more zaggin’ than ziggin’, but I’m on’ tell ya I’m with ya now on a straight line forever!”[5]

More zaggin’ than ziggin’.  How many of us have done more zaggin’ than ziggin’? Sonny doesn’t need to re-baptize himsel, yet the transformation that comes from his odd activity looks and sounds someone who Jesus has got a hold of.  He still suffers the consequences of his actions at the end of the movie, yet we root for him, I think, because we want to believe that, like Sonny, even though we’ve done more zaggin’ than ziggin’, there is still redemption for him and for us.

Naaman expects a big production with a powerful healer-prophet, but what he finds is healing and cleansing from the mundane waters of the Jordan and God’s touch in the Jordan.  It is the same cleansing that beggar experiences from Jesus’ touch in our Gospel lesson.  It is the same cleansing that we experienced in our baptism, and that continues to happen in our lives and in our church as we come the table of Holy Communion over and over again.  We spill out into the world to invite others to the cleansing, not because we are so clean, but because we’re somewhere in the middle, and we know that we find cleansing at the waters of the font.   It is a cleansing that comes because God’s invitation to us never ceases.  It never expires.  It comes because God knows us each and everyone of us by name.

One of my favorite phrases in the Apostle comes as Sonny performs a healing:  “I always call you Jesus; you call me Sonny.  Now heal this broken heart!”[6]  That, I think, sums up what we as church experience, and are called to offer to others, even though we’ve done more zaggin’ than ziggin’.

“I always call you Jesus, you call me by my name.  Now heal this broken heart!”


[1] William J. Carl III, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008), p. 339.

[2] Carl, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008), p. 341.

[3] The Apostle.  DVD. Directed by Robert Duvall. 1997; Universal City, CA: Universal Home Video, 2003.

[4] The Apostle.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

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Exile can dim the memory.  It is difficult to remember our identity when exile happens.  There is pressure to assimilate into the foreign culture, both from persecution as well as simple peer pressure to fit in.  Further, exile seems to place us on the losing end of things.  When exile happens, those other gods and false idols start to seem appealing.[1]  The doubts begin to creep in.  “Maybe they are stronger than our God?  Maybe we were wrong?  If God loved us more, wouldn’t our God have prevented this from happening?”  It is hard for the Israelites, and us, to remember who we are in when we are in exile.

The Israelites suffered this failure of memory regularly during their exile.  And who can blame them?  Plucked up their home, disconnected from their land, their people, and many of the practices that made them who they were, it is no wonder that they struggled to remember.  Think of the words of the Psalmist: “How can we sing the songs of the LORD in a strange land? (Psalm 137.4).”  In our Isaiah passage today, we hear the Israelites say, “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God.”  It is hard to remember who we are in exile.

“Have you not known?” Isaiah interjects.  “Have you not heard?” Isaiah cries.  “Has it not been told you from the beginning?” Isaiah shouts.  “Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?”  Isaiah exclaims.   Through Isaiah, God challenges them to remember.  Their God, isn’t just any god.  Their God isn’t just the kind of god who can be judged and evaluated based simply on whether things happen to be going well for them right now.  Their God is the God

who, sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

All of the rulers of the earth can be made as nothing because of the greatness of their God.  God is above these things.  God is in control.  Isaiah reminds the Israelites of the temporary nature of these rulers over and against God’s eternity:

Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

Isaiah brings back to their memory who their God is:

To whom then will you compare me,
or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength,
mighty in power,
not one is missing.

Their memory has failed.  Their resolve has begun to buckle.  But Isaiah will not let them forget.  These false gods, these new rulers who seem to have won the victory are incomparable to the God of Israel.  Who created even those who seem to be winning?  The God of their ancestors.  The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Remember who you are Isaiah says.  And the way to remember that is to remember who God is.

After he repeats the complaint of the Israelites, Isaiah keeps pushing.  God is the Creator, and there is no end to God.  They might lose faith, they might feel powerless, even the young may fall exhausted, but God is everlasting.  God’s understanding is unsearchable.  When we lose sight of this, when our memory fails, we lose resolve.  But the strength of the Israelites, and our own strength is renewed by waiting for the Lord.  God outlasts exile.  But God doesn’t outlast exile and suffering from some distant place.  God outlasts all because God is everlasting, but God extends the invitation to us to join him in God’s everlasting-ness (yes that’s a new word I invented).  When we are caught up in the stream of God’s everlasting-ness, we are mounted up with eagles’ wings.  We can run and not be weary.  We can walk and not faint.  The Israelites have lost their vision.  The Israelites have experienced amnesia about their God.  Because of this, they also begin to forget who they are.

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.  Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once.  He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up.  Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

 “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  Has it not been told you from the beginning?  Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? … He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless…Have you not known?  Have you not heard? … Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is caught up into God’s everlasting-ness.  The same God about whom Isaiah cried out to the Israelites.  The God who is over all things.  The God who gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.  The God who renews strength has renewed her strength.  God’s Word has assumed flesh and begun to walk among God’s people.  In doing this, Jesus Christ initiated the most decisive way for us to be caught up into God’s everlasting-ness.  “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?…The fever left her, and she began to serve them.”  Her experience of Christ, the renewal of strength she experiences immediately moves her to service.

“That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.  And the whole city was gathered around the door.”  “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?”  “And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.”  Even the demons know who Jesus is because the God who “sits above the circle of the earth,” is the God who is even Lord over them. We hear the words of Isaiah echo: “Lift up your eyes on high and see:  who created these?”   Jesus is bringing to fruition the cries of Isaiah.  He does this, as we saw last week, first by assuming flesh and initiating our healing.  Then he begins to move from place to place raising up signs of this healing by performing healings on those who are afflicted, sick, and possessed.  And in the midst of this, the disciples and we, are being trained to do the same to bring healing to others.

The kind of healing we talked about last week finds us caught up in God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Through Jesus Christ we are invited into God’s life.  God’s life is everlasting.  Our healing finds us caught up in God’s everlasting-ness.  It is not a far off everlasting-ness, left to a distant heaven.  It is an everlasting-ness that begins now, as we are shaped, formed, nourished, and sent out into the world to reveal glimpses of God’s everlasting-ness to the world.  Eternal life begins now, and it is not something to be hoarded our boasted about.  It is something to be offered.  The very shape of eternal life, the everlasting-ness that God offers us, is that it grows when it is offered and shared.

When Jesus goes to the desert place to recover and pray, the disciples “hunt” him down.  They tell him, “Everyone is searching for you.”  Everyone is searching for you.   Think about the depth of those words.  Everyone is searching for you.  I don’t want to read too much into these words, but the Wesleyan in me wants to her Prevenient Grace here.  I want to hear that God’s grace that comes before we have any idea is always wooing us into relationship or back into relationship with God.  I want to hear that when people begin to encounter the everlasting-ness of God in Jesus Christ, they want to come closer.  They want to respond to the grace.

As people encounter Jesus, they begin to crowd around him.  Though Jesus has moved away by himself to pray, when he hears “everyone is searching for you” he says, ‘Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’”  He doesn’t stay to revel in his new celebrity, he is spurred on to proclaim his message in a new place, to allow more people to encounter face-to-face God’s everlasting-ness, God’s life, and God’s love into which we are all invited.

Jesus moves about Galilee.  Emmanuel, God with us, goes about, and as he does those who encounter him encounter God’s everlasting-ness.  He moves about, giving power to the weakened and strength to the powerless.  He lives out what Isaiah was trying to so hard to bring to the memory of the Israelites, what they seemed to have forgotten in exile.  Here’s the thing.  In many ways, we could argue that we are experiencing our own exile.  If there was ever such a thing as America being a Christian nation, it’s not true any more.  And there are a couple of ways we can respond to this.  We can lament for days gone by.  We can try to grab hold of power politically.  Or we can recognize that exile may not be the worst thing.  While it can be scary, it is not the worst thing in the world for our faith to cost us something.

When there is little cost to our discipleship, there is little real commitment required.  The times when martyrdom was a reality were more convincing to the world of who Christ was than times when the governments have implicitly or explicitly claimed the Church as its own.  When the lines are blurred, whatever the state does may appear to be the same as the Church, which is a dangerous reality.  The power of the state will almost always coerce the Church.  The Church has always flourished in the times when it takes actual commitment to follow Christ.  It is that commitment, that often goes against the grain, which demonstrates to the world that we are shaped differently than the world around us.

Yet, as we saw from the Isaiah passage, exile can dim the memory.  How are we to remember?  We might find a new prophet among us saying the words regularly, “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  Have you forgotten who Jesus is and the things he did?  Have you forgotten that it is who graciously invites you into God’s everlasting-ness?  Have you forgotten hat you are trained to do this same, to proclaim the message with your life?”  How are we to remember?  This week, during our Holy Communion study the issue of memory arose in our conversation.  One of the most important facets of Holy Communion is memory.  Yet, often we short-change what it means to remember in the Lord’s Supper.

When we think of memory, we tend to think only of looking back to a different time.  We can turn Holy Communion into a memorial service for something that happened 2,000 ago.  We may look upon it with gratitude.  We may bring it into our mind.  But it mainly affects us by Christ’s example, by looking back on this particular act.  When we only look back on it as an action in the past, we don’t remember that this table also involves God’s action NOW in the church community!

“Have you not known?  Have you not heard?”

The word that we translate remember is the Greek word anamnesis.  To remember in the way this word suggests means more than just looking back.  The conception of remembering inherent in this Greek word is that the past event is brought into the present.  To remember at this table means not just that we look back.  Rather, it means that the Lord’s Supper is made present among us.  Christ, through the Holy Spirit, is present at the table when we share the bread and the cup together at the table.  God’s grace that forgives our sins is in this sacrament because Christ who forgives our sins is present.  God’s grace that makes us one in the one body of Christ is present in this sacrament because his body and blood are present through the power of the Holy Spirit.

What all this means is that when we come to this table, we not only remember what happened in the past, but we, ourselves, are re-membered.  As a friend of mine, Andrew Thompson pointed out in a United Methodist Reporter article, to re-member something is “to put something back together that has been taken apart.  We “literally…‘re-member’ that thing, so that the various “members” that made up the “whole” are put back into a unity.”[2]  This is Holy Communion.

“Have you not known?  Have you not heard?”

Coming together at the Lord’s table is the ultimate antidote for our amnesia.  When we come together to receive Holy Communion we are reminded of who we are because we are literally “re-membered” by Jesus.  Jesus puts us back together.  When we begin to forget who we are, we meet Christ, God’s everlasting-ness, face to face at the table.  We experience God’s everlasting-ness with taste and touch.  This reminder is more than just a pointing to an act 2,000 years ago.  It is an invitation into God’s everlasting-ness.  It is an invitation into God’s life.  It is an invitation to have our identity re-shaped as we share Christ’s body and blood.

It is the ultimate encounter with the one who brings healing to us by sharing our flesh because through the power of the Holy Spirit we receive the flesh that heals us.  When we encounter this reality, like Simon’s mother we begin to serve.  When we encounter this reality, like the disciples we begin to move with Jesus, proclaiming his message.  We remember because Christ re-members us to serve and proclaim his message in the world in which, whether they know it or not, “Everyone is searching for him.”


[1] Richard A. Puckett, “Exegetical Perspective, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008), p. 315.

[2] Andrew Thompson, “Rethinking the Church Involves Remembering,” http://www.umportal.org/article.asp?id=7183, cited Oct. 1, 2010.

The books of Samuel are the beginning of a time of great transition in the life of Israel.  Most crucially it is a time of transition from Judges to a King.  We remember the Judges like Deborah and Samson.  These Judges arose as charismatic, divinely appointed leaders that rise up in response to trouble in the life of the Israelites, which is normally caused by their turning away from God. Yet, we see in the books of Samuel that God’s people are no longer satisfied with the Judges.[1]  The people want a king.  They want to be like the other nations (1Sam. 8).  Even though this leads us into some of the great figures of the Old Testament, such as David and Solomon, it is clear that the author is mistrustful of the monarchy.  After all, if the Israelites have God, why do they need a king?  Further, it is always a sign of trouble when God’s people seek to be like the other nations.  God’s people are called to be distinct, to live differently.  When we start wanting to fit in with everything around us, problems and idolatry are not far away.

In addition to a transition in leadership from Judges to Kings, there is also a priestly transition.  It is the transition of the lineage of Eli to the lineage of Samuel.  Eli’s family has squandered their role as God’s priests because his sons are as corrupt as can be.  They would come by while people were offering sacrifices, and they would thrust their fork into the container, and pull out as much as they could.  It wasn’t that they weren’t supposed to have any at all.  It was customary for them to receive a portion of the sacrifice, they were abusing their power and responsibility.  Even worse, they would take advantage of the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting.  In our era, where we see pastors regularly abusing their power and position, we can identify with the deep violations committed by Eli’s family.

Eli tries to reason with them, but they don’t care.  Not long after this, a “man of God” delivers the bad news to the Eli.  Even though God chose Eli’s family to be God’s priests, now as God looks at the abuses of Eli’s his sons, the sentence is that Eli’s sons will both die on the same day, and the rest of Eli’s family will die by the sword.  God promises to raise up a new “faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in [God’s] heart and [God’s] mind.” (1 Sam. 2.12-36).  This faithful priest will be Samuel.

Our Old Testament lesson today is that familiar story of Samuel’s call.  It is one we know well.  Because God granted her a son in Samuel, Hannah has turned over Samuel to be trained by Eli.  God calls out to Samuel in the night, “Samuel!” which literally means, “God has heard.”  Samuel mistakes God’s call for Eli.  Eli tells Samuel it wasn’t him and sends Samuel back to bed.  It happens again.  Then Samuel turns up again.  The third time, Eli, this priest who has lived a life of service to God, full of experience, though his eyesight is dimming, perceives that it may be God calling out to Samuel.  He tells Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.’”  When Samuel does this, God reveals to Samuel what will happen to Eli’s lineage.  I love that the author describes Samuel lying there until morning.  I don’t imagine it is easy to sleep after hearing such a Word?  And imagine what Samuel must have felt when Eli wants to know what God has said. Yet, Samuel trusts Eli, and Eli knows what his sons have done, and Eli knows and is known by God well.  Eli still trusts in God, even though Samuel has bad news for him.

This story of Samuel has a lot to teach us.  Yes, it is a story about calling.  Yet, the character of this story about calling is different than the ones we usually hear.  Samuel isn’t like Isaiah being caught up in a blazing flash of heavenly worship and given a specific charge.  Isaiah’s call is unmistakable.  Samuel, on the other hand, doesn’t even recognize that God is even speaking to him at first.  He thinks it is Eli.  In fact, it takes the suggestion of Eli, with Eli’s “knowledge of the Lord, and his experience of the revelation of God’s word” to alert Samuel that the voice he hears is God’s.[2]  The young Samuel needs the experience of the one who has gone before him to help him see that he is being called.

The other thing that is striking about Samuel’s call story is that it is not instantaneous like many of the ones we hear.   There is no blazing bush calling out to Samuel here.  Instead, Samuel’s call emerges over time.  Samuel is in Eli’s care, and Eli helps him to grow, to learn the ways of God, and to learn how to serve God. He grows up in the Lord.  Even after the call, Samuel’s trajectory doesn’t change a great deal.  Instead, he continues to grow in the role to which God has called him as one of the last judges over Israel, bringing God’s word to the people.  All of this comes with Eli’s guidance and support.  Eli is incredible here.  How many of us would keep going when we heard that bad news from Samuel?  We spend our whole lives as a priest of God, and suddenly we hear that it is all going to be taken away?  Not only that, but it isn’t because of anything we did.  Rather it comes as a result of what our children have done?  Yet Eli remains in his role of priest.  Just as importantly, Eli remains in his role as Samuel’s mentor.  He assists Samuel in hearing God’s call, and when Samuel hears God call, Eli helps him live into the role to which God is calling him.

What we see in the relationship of Eli and Samuel is a model of who we are called to be as a community of baptized persons.  We noted last week the promises that we make when someone is baptized.  We promise to embody a community of love and forgiveness with the guidance and support of the Holy Spirit.  We promise to pray for one another that we might be found faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.  In essence, we are promising to be a community where older priests help younger disciples pay attention to and hear God’s call in their lives.  We are promising to be a community where younger disciples find themselves apprenticed to older priests, so that as they grow up, they will be able to rely on the knowledge and experience of God of the older priests.

Why priests?  As I pointed out last week and at other times, baptism is the ordination of all Christians into the priesthood of all believers.  We are all called. We are all holy priests. Though we as priests may not share Eli’s curse, it is true is that none of us will always be here.  It is true that one day our lineage will run out.  The lineage that God creates comes not through flesh, but through water and the Spirit.  There will be a new generation that God will call to be priests when we are God.  The older priests are called to be Elis for the Samuels among us.  The older folks are responsible for helping take care of, guide, and mentor the younger ones among us.  I’m not going to tell you who the older priests and younger disciples are because at one time or another, all of us have, still do, and will fall into both categories.  We’ve all been younger disciples, and we’ve all been older priests.  God calls each and every one of us to be older priests to those younger disciples no matter our age.  It points to God’s call on all of us as younger disciples to rely on the wisdom of those who have come before us.

In a time of radical change, where the Word of the Lord is rare, the older priests must be willing to mentor those who will maintain the faith and traditions of the Church.  To do this doesn’t mean that older folks hold on to the church and give to the young when they are finished with it.  It means that we are called to look for, to listen for, and to help younger folks to recognize when God might be calling out to them.  It is our responsibility to be present with disciples who are younger than us to help them hear God’s voice.  They might not know it is God.  It might sound like just a friend.  Or it might sound like just a teacher.  Surprisingly, it might even sound like just a parent!  But it could be God.

If Samuel’s story tells us anything, it is that younger disciples might not recognize God’s voice.  It might take an older priest asking the question, “What if that deep passion you feel, that deep inclination towards this or that vocation…what if that is what God wants for you?  What if in your baptism, God’s grace is drawing you towards this?”  A younger disciple might not realize that what is going on deep in their heart and keeping them up at night is God’s voice until they have that holy conversation with an older priest.

When it comes down to it, how do we know when it is God, and when we might just be talking to ourselves?[3]  We hear lots of pastors, politicians, and other people suggesting that God is telling them things.  That God is speaking directly to them?  How do we know when it is God and how do we know when it is just us trying to make God want what we want?  How do we know? Some of us lamented this difficultly during the youth lectionary bible study.  One youth wanted to know why there aren’t burning bushes anymore.  Yet the reality is that Samuel and Eli shows us that God still speaks, but we need ears to hear.  We need older priests who have heard God longer to help our younger disciples to perceive when it is God and when it isn’t.

The younger disciples in turn will also find themselves sharing their visions and dreams with us.

We need each other.  We need the community of the baptized to help us realize when it is God talking and when we are just talking to ourselves.  It takes the faithful, experienced, Elis of the church being willing to take the time to listen to the stories, the desires, and experiences of the Samuels among us.  That might mean you are a senior adult, and you are called to be an Eli to a youth.  It might mean you are a youth and you are called to be an Eli to child.  And though I have broken it down by ages, there may even be times when younger persons are called to be priests to older persons.  After all, once Samuel perceives that it is God, he shares that Word with Eli. The fact is, each of us are Elis called to help Samuels hear God’s voice, so that as they mature and develop they might connect their deepest to desires to the needs of the world, the needs that God is calling them to meet.

We are, as Peter says, “ a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2.9).  We are called to show that goodness to our younger disciples, so that all of us might able to show God’s light to a world full of darkness.  And to be clear, this need not just be a male model.  We see it throughout the Scriptures the same mentoring relationships developing between holy women as well.  Consider that the bridge between Judges and 1 Samuel is Ruth, who bound herself to Naomi in a holy friendship.  You can even argue that we see in Ruth and Naomi and Eli and Samuel a holy adoption, created by bonds God created, not the bonds of flesh.  We know our own holy adoption because God adopts us in baptism, and we adopt one another.  We become God’s children, and we adopt one another.

This is an incredible responsibility.  Yet, it is also an unimaginable gift.  And when we open ourselves up to that responsibility God is able now, just as God was able in Samuel’s time, to do something that will make “the ears of anyone who hears of it tingle” (1 Sam. 3.10).

Are your ears tingling yet?

The Title for this Sermon came from a comment from Richard Boyce in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008)  p. 247.


[1] Richard Boyce, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008)  p. 243.

[2] Boyce, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting, p. 245.

[3] Unvirtuous Abbey, “Do You Hear what I Hear?” on The Hardest Question, Online:  http://thehardestquestion.org/yearb/epiphany2ot-2/, cited January 14, 2012.

There is a new video that has been floating around facebook and twitter this week. I have seen countless friends and colleagues approvingly posting and commenting on the video. Yet, I find myself troubled that we are sinking into the usual false and (fruitless) dichotomy between “spirituality” and “religion” or “Jesus by himself” and “religion.” I’ll admit that this guy can rap well, but I believe several of his arguments might be ill communication (Hey that’s like rap, right!?) I realize by using ill to mean “whack,” I leave myself open for the same criticism as Will Shortz.

It is unclear what this guy means by the “religion” that Jesus came to abolish. He doesn’t mean the Law, does he? Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Law. This is certain by Jesus’ own admission (Matt. 5.17). What does he mean by religion? Does he mean that all religion is in the realm of pretending? It’s just not clear to me.

It’s true that Jesus did receive opposition from religious people, but it doesn’t mean he didn’t practice his religion. He was a faithful Jewish man who participated in Synagogue and observed the holy days of his community. I don’t this guy is making that distinction. As a friend of mine points out: St. Augustine tells us that the word religion comes from the word “ligare” (“connection”/”ligament”). He points out that “Religion is being reconnected with or re-bound to God.” As the same friend says, through Jesus, we are “religioned” to God. And I would add we are “religioned” to each other through our baptism.

It doesn’t work to make Jesus a vigilante superhero out on his own in the name of individuals being saved. Jesus grew up as a part of a community, living into the practices of that community, and when he began his ministry he began to assemble a community around him made up of people who were both part of his community who were Jews, while extending the community to Gentiles. This rapper/poet has divorced Jesus from his community, to those people with whom he practiced his faith.

After making some comments about Christians not needing to be Republicans (no argument there, though I would add nor do they need to be Democrats), he goes on to send up of a volley of the usual indictments of “religion.” Starting wars. Building up infrastructures while people who go hungry. Casting out those people whom Jesus would likely want to be his bosom friends.

This is all true, but it doesn’t mean that people who are “spiritual” or who “just like Jesus” don’t do this either. Rather, he fails to understand the church as the place where sinners come to get sanctified. It should be no surprise that in a motely crew such as this that some trouble might be stirred up. Yet, that is our story. That is who we have been all along, and the good news is that God is always calling us back. But God doesn’t call us back on our own. God calls us back together so that we might experience reconciliation.

The rapper/poets’s next comment really gets my gander. He claims that God calls “religious” people “whores.” While it is true that God does accuse Israel of playing the whore, it isn’t clear that this is because they are “religious.” Rather, God is typically speaking about the worship of other gods or the failure of the Israel to care for the orphan and widow, the most vulnerable among them. On the first count, they are “religioning” themselves to other Gods (Hosea 9.1). On the second, they are failing to “religion” themselves to vulnerable persons (Amos 5.21). But they aren’t whores just because they are part of a worshiping community who follows the Law.

He accuses religious people of failing to fix their problems and masking them. I wasn’t aware that any of us were able to fix our problems on our own. This is why the church was created to be a community. We were created to live in a community of love and forgiveness, where the Holy Spirit and one another can help each other grow in love of God and neighbor. It may be very clever to say that religion is like spraying perfume on a casket, assuming that those who practice the same thing regularly are faking it.

I would argue instead that there are times when we all have trouble holding ourselves up, and it is at that very moment when we need our brothers and sisters the most. We need them to say the words of the creed for us when we can’t say them ourselves. Sometimes, it is all we can do to come and say the words, lay ourselves before God, and let his body and blood enter into us as he draws us into him over and over again.

He criticizes religion for being only “behavior modification.” I don’t think that this is entirely wrong, but I’m not clear about why it is a bad thing. If our beliefs and our actions are intimately tied together, then religion properly practiced finds us living out our faith practically. This seems to be what this guy wants, yet he is bashing it here. What is the “core” he speaks about? Is it just believing the right thing? If it is, he might want to check himself before he wrecks himself because he’s contradicting himself (See that was like Ice Cube).

Seriously. I wouldn't mess with Ice Cube.

He then claims “not to be judgin’,” but then of course he does just that with his “just sayin’.” You are “judgin’” rapper dude. You are doing the same thing that you accuse “religious” people of doing. You are creating insiders and outsiders based on your own set of criteria, rather than the Scripture and Tradition of the Church passed down from the apostles. If I can’t rap and I like the regularity of the liturgy for the changing of my life, I don’t fit your mold.

No real argument with him that the church should be a “hospital for the broken.” Yet, he seems to often equate “religion” with being part of the “church.” He confesses he is one of those who was fake in the church, and acted like a different person each week. Yet, is that part and parcel of being religious? I would argue that “spiritual” people like being spiritual because it doesn’t require them to make any concrete changes in their lives. It sounds like the rapper/poet has been “religioned” to God in a new way. Good for him. But I’m still not sure that means that Jesus doesn’t like religion or the church (which, I’m not sure how or if these equate for this guy). I just don’t think Jesus likes fakers. Nor does the rapper/poet. On this, we agree, but it sounds like we are defining religion differently.

He next returns to the age-old suggestion that before Jesus came, all those poor Jewish people just followed rules all the time and life was terrible for them. Then, Thank God, Jesus came and got rid of all the rules. Except, that as I said, Jesus didn’t come to do away with the Law, he came to fulfill it. He didn’t come to do away with the rules, he came to make it possible for us to follow them. It is nearly anti-Semitic to suggest that all those Jews were miserable rule-followers before Jesus. If that is true, then how does Psalm 119 exist? Over a hundred verses about the beauty of the gift that is God’s Law.

Further, Jesus didn’t get rid of the commands. He made them more demanding. Has this guy read the Sermon on the Mount? Yet, as John Wesley said, Jesus’ commands are covered promises. Whatever Jesus asks us to do, he provides grace sufficient for it to happen. But it is an historical and theological error to suggest that the Jewish faith was a dead faith full of empty rules. Jesus practices a Jewish faith. He did call out some of the practices that had gone awry, but he didn’t get rid of all of them.

The rapper/poet seems to equate “religion” with “hypocrisy.” It is true that Jesus didn’t stand for this. Rapper/poet guy says he loves the church, but it isn’t clear to me that he’s doing a lot to get people to come near the church and be the leaven within. It seems like he’s giving a lot of reasons for folks never even to come in (that rhymed, just saying.)

How is it that religion is a man-made invention? Are the practices of the church what the invention is? He says, “Religion says do,” “Jesus says, done.” It appears that we feel here the eschatological pinch between the “already,” and the “not yet.” Rather than the “either/or” of the rapper/poet, the reality is that we experience it as “both/and.” Jesus says both “do” and “done.” Jesus has won the victory, yet we are responsible for living as he commanded us to through his grace in the mean time. That’s what all those parables are for, like the parable of the talents, the wedding banquet, etc.

He also says religion makes us “slaves” while Jesus sets us “free.” I think Scripture would affirm that actually what happens is that we find out that we were serving the wrong master. That’s why Paul calls himself a slave to Jesus all the time. We aren’t freed to do whatever we want, we’re freed to do the right thing because we are serving him instead of false gods.

“Religion is man searching for God. Christianity is God searching for man.” First of all, what about women, dude? Second, this is a nice contrast, but what exactly does it mean? Where does it come from? It appears religion for this guy has something to do with works righteousness trying to get to God, whereas Christianity is salvation by grace. I’m not sure where his definitions come from, though I think I have heard it expressed this way before (references welcome). However, I don’t think that religion has to mean works righteousness. I prefer to think of grace drawing us in, so that we want to understand and seek after what we believe. St. Anselm called this “Faith seeking Understanding.”

I guess what it comes down to is that this guy did a pretty clever video with a decent rhyme. The only issue is that he falls into his own trap. He spends a lot of time talking about how bad a certain group of people are, the “religious” folk. The problem is that he’s bringing down the same judgment on them that he criticizes them for bringing on others. He also doesn’t seem to have a very good understanding of what religion actually means. Again, it seems to have something to do with works righteousness and hypocrisy, but that doesn’t have to be what religion means. It might just mean practicing what we preach, which rapper/poet guy is all about.

The Church is not perfect, but the Holy Spirit created it and upholds it. Jesus is often painted as a lone ranger destroying a dead Jewish faith, but that is not who he was. He was a faithful Jew, and God’s covenant with the Jews isn’t abolished either. Since this guy likes quoting Romans at the end of his video, he might want to consider flipping to chapter 11.

The last thing I can’t abide by is the smugness. People who hate on what they want to call “religion” always do it in a way that makes them seem better, more insightful, and more faithful that “religious” people. That’s self-righteousness, dude. “Not to be judgin’,” but I’m pretty sure you just rapped something about that being a problem.

God has assembled the divine council with words to speak to God’s people.[1]  “Comfort, comfort my people” God says.  We don’t normally think about God having a divine council, but in Isaiah’s time their conception of God was often formed by their images of a king, and kings hold court.  This happens in various places throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.  In fact, it happens much earlier in Isaiah.  Back in Isaiah 6, we remember Isaiah’s call story.  In Isaiah we encounter a vision of what this environment looked like to Isaiah:

I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivotson the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.

God asks “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” and it is Isaiah who responds to the question.  Isaiah thus received his first commission from God:

Go and say to this people:
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.”
1Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.’

Isaiah is to speak judgment on Israel for their idolatry, for not caring for the orphan and the widow, for the many ways they have turned away from God.  Isaiah asks, “How long, O Lord?”  The Lord responds:

Until cities lie waste
without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
until the Lord sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
Even if a tenth part remains in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.’
The holy seed is its stump.

God is speaking here of the exile that Israel will soon experience.  The prophets understood even the Assyrians as actors in God’s interaction with them, in this case as instruments of judgment.

In Isaiah 40, Isaiah seems to be receiving another glimpse of the meeting of the council.  Yet, here God says to those assembled, “Comfort, comfort my people.”  It is clear that God is not just speaking to Isaiah because the imperative for “comfort” here is plural in Hebrew.  Something is happening here.  Something has changed.  Suddenly, the call is to:

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

Isaiah, it appears is receiving a “reapplication” of his call. His first commission is finished because Babylon did indeed destroy Jerusalem in 587.[2]  Isaiah is to speak a new word.  A word of consolation.  A word of hope.  It’s over.  Something new is happening.

Then, we hear a voice, presumably one of the members of God’s divine council.  This voice delivers Isaiah’s charge:

A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’

Something new is happening.  The people have been in exile.  They have been far from home.  Yet, now a highway is opening up.  The very earth is being reshaped, valleys lifted up, hills made low, ground leveling out, and rough places smoothed out in order to prepare the way of the Lord, which will lead them back to their land![3]  What a word!

Another voice speaks, and tells Isaiah to “cry out!”  Isaiah knows the commission, now he needs to know what to say, so he asks, “What shall I cry?”  Well, perhaps that is what he asks…When I was looking into this scripture for this week, I ran into a fascinating suggestion.  What if the translation in most of the versions we use end the quotation marks too early?[4]  There are no quotation marks in Hebrew, so the ending of the sentence is really at the discretion of the translators.  If you have a bible in front of you, I encourage you to keep them open and look with me at verse 6.  What if, instead of Isaiah just asking what to say, he is actually objecting to this new commission?  This would not be unusual.  After all, he does this in his original commission, noting his guilt as one who has unclean lips and is a from a people of unclean lips.  What if Isaiah is saying,

What shall I cry?
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.

Isaiah has been speaking judgment for a long time.  He has seen that judgment carried out by the Assyrians.  He has seen exile, brokenness and hopelessness.  It isn’t a stretch to think that perhaps the idea of speaking about the dawning of a new day of salvation might feel far-fetched to Isaiah.  He has seen that that people truly are like grass that withers and flowers that fades.  The breath of the Lord has blown on the people in an unfavorable way.  Essentially, Isaiah asks, “Seriously?  You want me to say this now after all the devastation I have seen?”

This is, I think, how we feel when we truly lament.  When we take a real look at the world around us, at the brokenness, the injustice, and the manifold ways that we have turned our back on God and one another, it washes over us and we feel so powerless.  Even though lament is the beginning of hope, we feel hopeless when we are honest about the world in which we live.  I think extending the quotation marks for Isaiah makes more sense not just because it works better contextually, but also because it honors what seems to more likely be Isaiah’s and our own experience.  To speak tenderly, to announce something new, into such brokenness seems to feel just a bit naïve.  The grass withers, the flower fades.  Violence continues.  Hunger continues.  Oppression continues.  Death continues.  The grass withers, the flower fades. (pause)

Isaiah, receives an answer to his question.  “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”  In the midst of temporariness, in the midst of ephemerality, in the midst of upheaval and change, it is God’s word that is constant.  Isaiah is likely being reminded that even in the midst of the judgment he spoke, he also always spoke of a remnant and a coming day of salvation.[5]  The word he spoke still stand, and now is the time for the salvation he pointed towards to come to a reality.  Isaiah may not even believe it, but the time has come to speak a new word!  In reality, though we say we do, we may not believe it either.

I will confess that as much as I hem and haw about the need for us to proclaim Good News in the midst of a world of bad news, sometimes it is a difficult on which to follow through.  There is so much bad news, and there is so much to complain about, and I am really good at complaining.  It is important for me to be honest in saying that when I say that, I am preaching to myself as much as anyone else.  Yet, as Peter Bohler told John Wesley when Wesley was concerned that he did not truly have faith, “Preach faith till you have it.  And then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”[6]

This is why we need Advent.  We need Advent because we need to keep reminding ourselves not only about how deep our lament must be, but also because we need to remind ourselves how incredible the good news is that we have been given to share.  We pick up the discipline of waiting during Advent because it means taking the time to focus ourselves on the hope we are anticipating.  People want to use Christmas for a lot of things, and we are likely to get co-opted by those alternative agendas unless we regain that focus.  We are easily pulled back into the bad news of the world unless we regain our focus.

Isaiah has a hard time speaking this new word, and I think we have a hard time speaking this good news in the midst of a world so full of bad news.  In our deepest darkest places we may have some doubts about whether it’s real.  That’s okay.  Advent is a time to be honest about that, and to be strengthened by the Holy Spirit as we anticipate the coming of Jesus.  It is true that we are like grass that withers.  It is true that we are like flowers that fade.  Yet, the word of our God stands forever.  We know this because the Word of our God took on flesh and became like us.  That is what we are anticipating in Advent.  The new day of salvation that dawned on that Holy night.

And Mark, when he began his Gospel, when he thought about John in the wilderness, when he reflected one who Jesus was, he looked back on that Isaiah passage about this voice in the wilderness, and he said, “That’s it!  Isaiah was talking about the exile, but the new day of salvation is really decisively present in Jesus Christ!”  I think that is why Mark begins his Gospel with the verbless sentence, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”[7]  God’s Word stands forever.  God’s Word that we hear proclaimed.  God’s Word that we ingest at the table.  God’s Word that we are baptized into because we are baptized into the body of the Word of God who assumed flesh.

To be honest about that and to say that out loud is scary because it seems naïve, something that is too good to be true, like some kind of fairy tales to many of the ears listening.  It is scary.  Notice in the text that as this glory is being revealed to all people, as they are asked to go the top of a mountain and to proclaim this good news, there is the injunction, “Do not fear.”  Why is good news so scary?  I think it feels scary to say good things into the midst of an environment that feels so bad.[8]  It seems like naiveté.

I think it could have been scary for John to say those things and for Mark to say them as well.  The world Jesus came into was a mess.  The Jews were occupied by Rome.  In fact, they had just lost a war of revolt against the Romans.  Everything seemed hopeless, yet that Gospel begins with “The Good News.”  John the Baptist looked like a fool to many who wanted to be “real” about the way the world worked.

Yet, God tells Isaiah to say, “Do not fear.”  And then we return to that intimate language about God as the shepherd who will feed his flock, gather the lambs in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.  It is true that as we lament, as we are honest about the world.  It feels hopeless, but we are assured that the word of our God stands forever.


[1] My interpretation of this passage is heavily dependent on Brevard Childs, The Old Testament Library Commentary on Isaiah, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), pp. 293-303.

[2] Childs, Isaiah, p. 295.

[3] Ibid., p. 299.

[4] Ibid., p. 300.

[5] Child’s example is Isaiah 28:5-6, On that day the Lord of hosts will be a garland of glory,/and a diadem of beauty, to the remnant of his people;/and a spirit of justice to the one who sits in judgement,/and strength to those who turn back the battle at the gate.” Ibid.

[6] John Wesley, Journal and Diaries, ed. By Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater, vol. 18 in The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley (Nashville:  Abingdon, 1988-), p. 226.

[7] Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Go Ahead, Judge a Book by its Title,” The Hardest Question, http://thehardestquestion.org/yearb/advent2gospel-2/, cited Dec. 4, 2011.

[8] Kathleen M. O’Connor, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011) p. 31.

You may or may not be aware of a large conversation swirling around The United Methodist Church these days.  It’s no secret that The United Methodist Church, like many of the other mainline Protestant denominations, is declining.

Well, at least in the United States it is declining.

For years and years now, the conversation about what is wrong and what can be done has gone on and on.  The most recent effort to deal with this issue has been the Call to Action Steering Team, organized by Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table of the United Methodist Church.  This task force has looked across the connection, and they have tried to zero in on signs of “vital congregations” in order to help other churches perhaps figure out why they may or may not be doing well.

Not surprisingly, much of the conversation has revolved around numbers.  Now, it isn’t that numbers aren’t important.  We keep track of the number of folks who attend here each week.  If we notice a dip or an increase, we try to analyze that data.  However, many who are watching the conversation in our beloved United Methodist Church are beginning to wonder not whether we should measure.  They are wondering whether we are measuring the right things.  As a pastor, I have been trying to keep up with this conversation closely because it will have real effects on the life of local churches.  That is why I was particularly interested to see an article in the United Methodist Reporter from Bishop Joe Pennel, who was our previous Bishop here in VA.

Bishop Pennel is the first Bishop I remember as “my bishop.”  He was the bishop who prayed with me when I confirmed my call to ordained ministry at the end of the Ordination service at Annual Conference.  I found him to be a wise and generous bishop.  In short, when he speaks, I make sure I listen.  The title of his article was “Better ways to measure churches.”[1] I excitedly read through his article, and the thing that struck me more than anything was his last paragraph:

I am now 72 years old and I have been a pastor since 1959. As I look back over my years as a pastor I find myself wishing that I had organized my congregations around worship, searching the Scriptures, more Holy Communion, deeds of mercy and kindness, prayer, meditation and Christian fellowship. I now see that these are the most important means of Grace.[2]

The confessional nature of his article bowled me over.  This man, this pastor, this Bishop, was basically saying that he was as caught up as anyone else in “numerical growth and institutional maintenance,” but as he reflects on his ministry, he wonders if that was always the best thing.  Instead, he finds himself suggesting there might be other things worth measuring in local congregations.  Worship.  Reading Scripture together and individually.   Taking Holy Communion more frequently than once a month.  More deeds of mercy and kindness.  More prayer and meditation.  More Christian fellowship.  This is radically different than much of the numbers-focused discussion around our church.

What gives?  The church is declining in the US, and we are going to find ourselves in big trouble.  How is taking Holy Communion more often going to do us any good?  How is meditation going to take us to the next level?  Deeds of mercy and kindness sound well and good, but what are we going to do about all this decline?  Are we just going to stick our heads in the sand and let the church fall to pieces?  I don’t think Bishop Pennel is suddenly suggesting that numbers don’t matter.   Rather, Bishop Pennel is gesturing towards the church’s difference.  The church is different than any other organization, business, or civic group.

To put it another way, I think that Bishop Pennel is gesturing towards the church’s existence as both vineyard and wedding banquet.

For the last two weeks, Jesus has been in conversation with the chief priests and elders.  For these last two weeks, Jesus tells them parables including vineyards.  The conversation has been amping up.  In each case, Jesus pronounces judgment on the chief priests and elders because they have failed to work in the vineyard.  In the first case, the tax collectors and the prostitutes will go into the kingdom of God ahead of them because they were to sons who said they would work in the vineyard, but then changed their minds.  The insiders find themselves behind the presumed outsiders.

In the second case, Jesus describes the way that the vineyard will be taken from them and given to people who produce fruits of the kingdom.  In fact, the chief priests find themselves held accountable “for Israel’s history of rejecting the prophetic bears of [God’s] invitations” to begin bearing fruit in the vineyard.[3]  The vineyard will be taken away from the insiders and given to the outsiders because the insiders aren’t producing fruit.  There has been a lot of talk of fruit these last two weeks.

This is often the word we use in the church for accountability:  fruit.  And this is not incorrect.  We should be bearing fruit.  It is clear that Jesus expects us to bear fruit.  There is no question about this.  So at first, we might think, “The Call to Action is right on.  We need to get to work in the vineyard.”  And that aspect of the Call to Action makes a lot of sense.  I don’t want to sound like I am completely bashing the Call to Action, and I don’t think Bishop Pennel is either. United Methodists have ridden the wave of cultural familiarity and cultural accommodation for long enough.  It is, indeed, time to get to work on some things.

Then all of a sudden Jesus changes the image to a wedding banquet.

How do you move from a vineyard to wedding banquet?  How do you go from work to partying?  Parties don’t produce a lot of fruit.  They don’t get much accomplished.  They seem sort of like a waste of time when there is good work to do out in those vineyards, right?  Yet, Jesus finishes his debate with the Pharisees comparing the kingdom of heaven to a wedding banquet.  This wedding banquet parable rehearses familiar themes from the last two weeks, amplifying them to a fever pitch.

A king throws a wedding banquet for his son.  He sends out slaves to invite guests to the banquet.  The guests won’t come.  He tries again.  Some ignore the invite.  Some go work on their farms or businesses.  Some invitees even get openly hostile and kill the slaves who are inviting them to this banquet.  Jesus is again rehearsing the history of the prophets and Israel’s rejection of the prophets.  The king then sends more slaves, this time to “invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet (Matthew 22.9).”   The slaves invite everyone they find, the good and the bad, and so the wedding hall is filled with guests.

Again, the presumed outsiders, the good and the bad, are now found to be occupying the space of the insiders.  What is the criteria in the banquet?  What is the measure of who gets in and who doesn’t?  Where is the fruit of those the slaves gather on the street?  They are folks who simply respond to the invitation of the king’s servants.  They are both the good and the bad.  The only criteria, it seems, is a willingness to respond to the King’s call to come to the wedding banquet of his son.  The distinction is between those who rejected the invitation, and those who accepted it.  No fruit is mentioned.

The next piece of the parable is even more confusing.  The king comes in and noticed someone isn’t wearing a wedding robe.  In response, the king promptly throws this guest into the outer darkness?  What?!  Wait a second, so this person, who would have had no way to prepare for the banquet, is suddenly thrown out because he or she isn’t dressed right?  Even if we interpret the gown to be righteousness or the new life we put on in baptism, it still strikes me as strange.[4]  How would they have been prepared?  Yet, somehow they aren’t found to be appropriate to the gathering.  How do we measure that?

The key is the many are called, but few are chosen.  Lots of people will show up to this banquet, but not everyone is chosen.  Yet even that feels confusing, doesn’t it?  All of these people who didn’t expect to be called to this banquet show up, yet there is still some element of chosenness?  Which is it?  Do they respond to the invitation?  Or are they chosen?  If this distinction is between those who rejected the invitation and those accepted it, why is chosenness still a factor?  What is the measure here?

The wedding banquet suggests that there is simply more than just measuring fruit at play.  It is simply more than what we do or do not do.  The wedding banquet is what theologians call an eschatological image.  You get one gold star today for learning the word “eschatological.”  You get two if you learn how to say it!  “Eschatological” means the “final things.”  The wedding banquet is an image of the banquet that we will enjoy forever with Christ and the communion of saints.  Jesus has moved the conversation from the past and pulled back the view to look across all of history.  And in this view, the work of the kingdom is crucial, but there is an element even more crucial than work.  It is grace.  The tension, especially the tension that we sense in this one person who isn’t dressed right for the banquet is a tension that has existed across the history of the church.  The tension is between being called and responding to the call.

Some elements of the church focus on the call.  God is sovereign, and so God knows and chooses those who will be part of God’s covenant community.  The response to this image is that when we recognize ourselves as one of those people is obedience.[5]  Then, on the other side of the spectrum there are those traditions that focus on the response.  We must accept the call for it be effective.  Our free will and agency is crucial to our decision.  Think of the hymn, “I have decided to follow Jesus!  No turning back!”  We march around the sanctuary singing, “I have decided to follow Jesus!”  So which is it?  The reason this tension cannot be resolved is that the answer is both.  It is two sides of the same coin.  It is iridescent grace.

Iridescence is the property of certain surfaces to change color when looked at from different angles or when the illumination of the surface is changed.  This is popular on some cars.  When you look at the car from one direction, it looks green.  When you look at the car from another direction it is blue.  Which is it?  Blue or green?  This is the tension we feel in this passage.  Did God choose me as a follower?  Yes!  Did I use my free will to freely accept that invitation?  Yes!  John Wesley fiercely held to the notion that “is free in all, and free for all.”[6]   Wesley accounted for the tension we are feeling through his description of “prevenient grace,” the grace that comes before.

Prevenient grace is that grace that God offers us, it is that grace that works in us even before we even recognizing it. [7]  Without that grace, we wouldn’t even know how much trouble we are in.  Yet, we must respond to that grace, even as we understand that the grace is what frees us to respond in the first place! Does your head hurt yet?  Put different, when we look at it from one angle, we see God’s sovereign choice in calling us.  When we look at it from another angle, we see that way in which God wants us to respond to that invitation.  It is iridescent grace.  It depends on the angle at which you look at it!

The wedding banquet image is a vision and glimpse of the banquet that we will enjoy when there is a new heaven and new earth.  In it we see God at work in ways we cannot imagine, ways that God invites us and through grace enables our free response to God’s invitation.  The banquet is for the bridegroom, who is Christ to whom the church, to whom we as members of the church, are bound.  Were we chosen?  Yes.  Did we freely respond to the invitation?  Yes.  Further, the good and the bad in the parable remind us that we can’t judge or know precisely now what is each other’s hearts.  It is only the one who gives the banquet who knows this, and it is only through grace that we are even at the banquet in the first place.  It reminds us that even as we measure fruit, we recognize that our measurements are not eternal judgments.

Where does this leave us with Bishop Pennel’s article?  Is the Call to Action all wrong?  Should we resist all of it?  Is it not of God?  I don’t think Bishop Pennel thinks that.  I don’t think that.  Fruit is important.  Fruit is necessary.  There are valuable elements of the Call to Action.  There are times when it is appropriate to measure our work.  Yet, the banquet is a remind that at the end of the day is not squarely on our shoulders.  Rather it is on the shoulders of the one who bore a cross for us.  It is on the shoulders of the body we find ourselves in through our baptisms.  It is on the shoulders of Jesus Christ, who is ultimately the head of the church.  Our work, our participation, our fruit only comes through the often surprisingly, subversive, and wild nature of God’s grace.

When we focus only on our numerical growth, perhaps we find ourselves in danger of making numerical growth our idol to which we sacrifice all of who we are as church in the name of growth.  We turn our churches into competing McDonald’s franchises rather than glimpses of the heavenly banquet.  We get so focused on the work, on best practices, on being effective, on fruit, on keeping up with other churches that we forget that the church doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to God because we are invited, shaped, and formed into the body of Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit.  The prevalence of the Call to Action’s work, the fact that it seems to be where a large share of he church is throwing its weight is what is unnerving because it places all that weight on us in a way that forgets the unmerited gifted nature of our membership in this body.

The unmerited, gifted, nature of our membership in this body is different than any other membership we encounter.  It is what makes it different than governments, civic clubs, country clubs, or any other associations we find ourselves.  What Bishop Pennel is describing is a fuller vision of the church that focuses more deeply on the banquet nature of the church, which we only see in glimpses in the here and now.  He is describing the practices of the church where those glimpses have been found throughout the life of God’s people.  In worship, prayer, and Scripture.  Most especially Holy Communion, which is actually a participation in the future banquet we will enjoy with the communion of saints and Jesus.  When we come to the table, we dine with whole church, just not the church we can see.  When we come to the table, we learn not to depend only on what we can do because it is in the normal elements of wine and bread that we receive grace.  Grace we don’t deserve.  Yet grace nonetheless.

For Bishop Pennel to wish that he had organized his congregations around more Holy Communion is powerful because it is to suggest that it matters.  It matters even though it is a gift we receive.  It is radical because he is suggesting that if we want to see revival in the church, then we need to avail ourselves of the means of grace, of which John Wesley called Holy Communion the “grand channel.”[8]  When we find ourselves focused on other things and forgetting about worship, scripture, praying, and the sacraments, we are in danger of running aground.

What about fruit?  Fruit is important.  Notice that Bishop Pennel mentions deeds of kindness and mercy.  He is naming that when the church organizes itself around the grace offered in the banquet, we are nourished to get back to work in the vineyard.  That vineyard work is crucial.  There are fruits of the kingdom to be borne.  Yet, it isn’t all vineyards.  It is, principally, first, and foremost, and party.  A banquet.  A celebration.  And it is one we didn’t expect to find ourselves invited to.

Yet, here we are, in this sanctuary.  Celebrating coming back into our space of worship.  Our place of party.  Our place of celebration.  Our place of the Holy Feast where it is truly Christ who meets us in the table of Holy Communion.  And when you go to a good celebration, and good party, a good banquet, we don’t do a lot of measuring.  Rather, we tell stories about our experience.  It is qualitative rather than quantitative information that we share when we go out into the world.  When you describe our service today and the excitement we have shared, you will likely tell it as a story, rather than as raw numerical data!

What I think Bishop Pennel is suggesting is that when we take care of our spiritual practices, the numbers take care of themselves.  When we avail ourselves of all the means of grace at the banquet, the vineyard work pours out uncontrollably.  But we actually have to take care of it.  We actually have to focus on the practices and not pretend that they are important to us simply, so that we don’t have to change or do anything new.  It doesn’t mean that we don’t need to measure anything.  Rather, we may just need to also keep track of some other things.  Like how often we are taking communion.  How many hours we spend reading scripture.  How much time and money we spend in mission and ministry in our community and in our world.

Were we chosen for this banquet?  Yes.  Did we freely decide to come to this banquet?  Yes.  It is iridescent.  It depends on how you look at it. Yet, no matter which we way look at it, we are thankful for the party.  We are thankful for the celebration.  It is a celebration where we feast on the Word as it is read, proclaimed at the lectern and pulpit, and we eat and drink it at the table.  And then we find ourselves in the streets, inviting more people who don’t think they belong to the feast, whether they are good or bad.  What would the numbers look like if that really happened?


[1] Bishop Joe E. Pennel, “Better Ways to Measure Churches,” in United Methodist Reporter, http://www.umportal.org/article.asp?id=8245, cited October 9, 2011.

[2] Pennel, “Better Ways,” cited October 9, 2011.

[3] Richard E. Spalding, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011) p. 164.

[4] Susan Eastman, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting, p. 167.

[5] Andrew Purves, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting, p. 164.

[6] John Wesley, “Free Grace,” §2, in John Wesley’s Sermons:  An Anthology, ed. By Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater, (Nashville:  Abingdon, 1991),  p. 50.  Also available online.

[7] “[A]ll the ‘drawings’ of ‘the Father’, the desires after God, which if we yield to them, increase more and more; all that ‘light’ wherewith the Son of God ‘enlighteneth everyone that cometh into the world,’ showing every [person] ‘to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with [his or her] God.” John Wesley, “The Scripture Way of Salvation” §I.2, in John Wesley’s Sermons:  An Anthology, ed. By Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater, (Nashville:  Abingdon, 1991),  p. 373.  Also available online.

[8] John Wesley, “Sermon on the Mount VI,” III.11 in John Wesley’s Sermons:  An Anthology, ed. By Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater, (Nashville:  Abingdon, 1991),  p. 232.  Also available online.

Jesus goes to the vineyard again in his parable this week.  Jesus describes a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower.  This landowner puts some tenants in charge of the vineyard.  At some point, this landowner decides it is time to collect his produce.  He sends two different envoys of servants, with each envoy having members beaten, killed, or stoned by the tenants who wish to keep the harvest for themselves.  The landowner finally decides to send his son to collect the harvest, thinking that perhaps the tenants will respect his son more than his servants.  Just the opposite happens.  The tenants recognize the son as the heir of the landowner, and so they kill him to try to get his inheritance.

What is at first most surprising to me about this parable is the seemingly faulty logic on the part of the landowner.  Take the landowner for instance.  He has sent two different sets of servants to collect his harvest, and in case they have been viciously brutalized.  Why would the landowner then potentially subject his son to the same treatment?  Why send two by all appearances peaceful envoys of servants and finally send your son?  Why not send some armed thugs to take care of business?  What is this landowner up to?

This vineyard is clearly a favorite image of Jesus, considering this is the third week we have run into a vineyard parable.  However, Jesus did not just use the image because it would have been a familiar landscape to his listeners.  The vineyard also would have been a familiar scriptural theme.  In this next parable, this scriptural theme comes most clearly into focus.  By using the image of the vineyard, Jesus is recalling imagery from the fifth chapter of Isaiah[1]:

1Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
2 He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.

3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
4 What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?

5 And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
6 I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.

People as educated as the chief priests and elders would have picked up on this vineyard imagery quickly.  The image is an image of judgment.  Notice the way imagery of planting, fencing in, digging a wine press, and building a watchtower resonate with what Jesus says.  In Isaiah’s context, the failure of Judah the vineyard to produce good grapes results in Assyria becoming an instrument of God’s judgment as they invade and exile the Judean elite. Yet, as Jesus re-presents this imagery, he does something new with it.  Jesus “intensifies the meaning…by combining it with the traditional Jewish motif of the rejection of the prophets.”[2]

The envoys of servants Jesus describes represent the prophets.  And what were the prophets concerned with?  Most often the prophets are concerned justice for the oppressed.  We often think of prophets as something like fortune-tellers predicting the future, but if you read through the words of the prophets, they routinely speak truth to power.  They routinely draw attention to the failures of those in power to care for the most vulnerable among them, the poor, the hungry, the widows, and the orphans.  The judgment that the prophet Isaiah speaks comes as a result of this kind of failure:

7 For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
righteousness,
but heard a cry!

The history Jesus rehearses in this parable is the history of God sending prophet after prophet after prophet to Israel.  These prophets tried to remind God’s people of who they were called to be, but those in power wanted to maintain their power, so the prophets were routinely rejected and even killed, or as Jesus puts in the parable, they “beat one, killed, one, and stoned another.”  Not only has the vineyard yielded wild grapes, but those who have come to help restore proper order to the vineyard, those who have spoken for justice for the oppressed have been rejected.

Jesus’ description of the landowner sending his very own son is then a foreshadowing of events to come.  Jesus is God’s decisive answer to our tendency to yield wild grapes.  Yet, here Jesus is already anticipating his own rejection, just as those who God sent before him.  He has come into town on the back of a donkey to much acclaim, yet even those who shouted, “Hosanna!” will soon by crying out, “Crucify him!”  In these verses Jesus is part of a long pattern of those sent by God to speak on behalf of those who could speak for themselves.  He is part of a long pattern of those who challenged those in power because of their failure to care for the least of these.  And, as we know, he will also be part of a long pattern of those who will be rejected.

When Jesus has finished the parable, he asks the elders and priests what they think will happen to the wicked tenants of that vineyard.  They reply, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”  These words, like some of the words we heard last week often give rise to conversation about the Church replacing Israel, that the vineyard has been turned over to the Church.  This again, could not be farther from the truth.

What is important to remember here is that the words we just heard were spoken not by Jesus, but by the chief priests and elders themselves.

They are the ones here who speak of death.  They are the ones who suggest that the vineyard will be taken away.  They are the ones who are suggesting that the answer to this problem is violence.  Yet, if we look at the pattern established in the parable, violence is not the order of the day.  God sends prophet after prophet, and the prophets are the ones who suffer violence.  Jesus is the one who will suffer violence.  Those in power are the ones who will move first towards violence as a solution.  The landowner seems only too ready to ask again and again for the harvest.

Jesus doesn’t say to chief priest and elders, “Yes, you are correct.”  Rather, he answers them with more scripture, this time from a Psalm:  “The stone that the builders rejected/has become the cornerstone;/his was the Lord’s doing,/and it is amazing in our eyes!” (Psalm 118:22-23)  Jesus does end up saying that this vineyard will be taken away and given to those who will care for it properly, but this is not about the vineyard being taken from Israel and being given to the Church.  As we pointed out last week, just because Jesus says the tax collectors and the prostitutes will go into the kingdom of God ahead of chief priests and elders, it doesn’t mean that the latter won’t go in.  This is true again this morning.  This doesn’t mean the complete, utter, and final rejection because Paul makes it clear that the covenant with Israel still stands.  Rather, this scripture is about rejection and vindication.  This scripture is about the rejected stone becoming the cornerstone.  This is about Jesus’ rejection and coming vindication.  This is about restoration.

The image of the stone looks at first like a violent image.  Yet, if we go back to Isaiah, and we look on to chapter 8, we see God speaking about God’s self as a stone, a stumbling block (Isaiah 8:14).[3]  The LORD becomes the stumbling block for the people, and Assyria becomes God’s instrument of judgment in exiling Israel.  Listen to the words of judgment Isaiah speaks in chapter eight:

The Lord spoke to me again: 6Because this people has refused the waters of Shiloah that flow gently, and melt in fear before* Rezin and the son of Remaliah; 7therefore, the Lord is bringing up against it the mighty flood waters of the River, the king of Assyria and all his glory; it will rise above all its channels and overflow all its banks; 8it will sweep on into Judah as a flood, and, pouring over, it will reach up to the neck; and its outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel.

9 Band together, you peoples, and be dismayed;
listen, all you far countries;
gird yourselves and be dismayed;
gird yourselves and be dismayed!
10 Take counsel together, but it shall be brought to naught;
speak a word, but it will not stand,
for God is with us.

Isaiah speaks of the coming of Assyria.  God speaks soon of God’s self as a stumbling block.  Jesus speaks of himself as this stone that will crush.  When we hear this, it feels like God is just about to smite us.  God is gonna get us!  God is gonna punish us and take the vineyard away!  Yet, what God is saying through Isaiah, what Jesus is saying here is that this stone, though it is an instrument of judgment, it is an instrument primarily to turn our hearts.  Its purpose is to reform us into a different kind of people.  Let’s be clear.  God does not stop being God for Israel, even when the Assyrians invade.  Even when they are exiled, God is still the God of Israel.  Israel understood the exile as God’s judgment on them to bring them back into relationship with God.  Notice the last verse of the passage I just read, “Take counsel together, but it shall be brought to naught;/speak a word, but it will not stand,/for God is with us.

The reason that injustice cannot stand, the reason that the hungry, the poor, the widow and the orphan must not be oppressed is not because God is absent, but it comes by virtue of the fact that God is truly with us.  That kind of injustice cannot stand in God’s presence.  This stone that will crush, does not crush us into bits that can’t be put back together.  Rather, it crushes us, so that we can be put back together into a different kind of people.  So that we can be made into a mosaic that looks like the body of Christ.  Something beautiful comes out of the bits that are left.  This kind of injustice cannot stand in God’s presence.  Because God is with us, we are move towards being instruments of change that challenge the brokenness we see in our society.

We are being reformed.  We United Methodists like to call this process sanctification.  All the stuff in us that is keeping us from God and from one another is being cleaned out by the Holy Spirit.  We are being reformed into people who are people of justice.

Notice what Jesus says  “It will be given to people who produce the fruits of the kingdom.”  What are the fruits of the kingdom?  There are many, but it is clear that they included justice for the oppressed.  Right worship of God and not our idols.  The stone crushes us to make it possible for us to be who we are supposed to be.  We don’t really talk like this much anymore, but is at least one common way that we still say things like this.  Have you ever heard someone ask God to “break our hearts” for something?

We sang “Here I am Lord” last week, where we sing about God breaking our “hearts of stone,” and giving us “hearts for love alone.”  The stone that makes us stumble, and even crushes us, breaks our heart.  It breaks our heart for the people with whom we are supposed to be in love.  Jesus is not just a prophet who speaks of the kingdom, but he is himself the kingdom.  Wherever he is, the kingdom is located there.  And he located himself with those tax collectors and those prostitutes and those widows and those orphans.  Jesus is breaking our hearts for them.

As we gather together this day on World Communion Sunday, as we think of all those around the world who celebrate at the Lord’s table with us this day, the way that we are connected to one another, our hearts are broken for the oppressed, precisely because God is with us in this meal.  Injustice cannot stand in our midst because God is with us! Thanks be to God!


[1] Susan Eastman, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting, Year A, vol. 4, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011), p. 143.

[2] Eastman, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting, p. 143.

[3] Eastman, Feasting, p. 143.

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