Hope in our bones

This sermon was prepared for St. John’s United Church, Marathon on Sunday, January 12th, 2020. A video version was posted online for use by the United-in-Worship project for Year A Epiphany 2 (Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:13-17).

At a time when we’re disillusioned and disappointed by our leaders, the Prophet’s words offer us something different. There’s that tingling feeling in your bones of hope.

And we need hope…

Migrant detention Paso del Norte by Ivan Pierre Aguirre
Children inside a temporary migrant holding area set up by Customs and Border Protection under the Paso del Norte International Port of Entry. Photo: Ivan Pierre Aguirre

In a world where children and parents are kept apart by cages.

For an earth increasingly devastated by fires, famines and floods.

For a generation where (on average) every two-and-a-half days a woman or girl is killed in our country, a statistic that disproportionally effects indigenous women and girls.

This year has got to be better. It’s got to, because there are real problems in our world. What’s more is we’ve been twiddling our thumbs, debating whether they’re problems at all, and all-the-while they’ve just gotten worse.

Or, we’ve tried to solve them the old way, and things haven’t gotten better.

***

Israel had problems, too.

Israel was a conquered and humiliated people.
Israel was exiled from its home and longed to return and re-establish.
Israel was looking for hope, for a future for its children and its grandchildren.

They lived with the same dreams and anxieties modern-day asylum-seeker have—fear for their own lives and the lives of their families, and a determination to dream of something better for their children.

In many ways that dream was realized, in the form of the King of Persia. Cyrus the Great brought justice to the children of the Exile, they were restored to their lands, and hope for a new and stronger Israel was born.

Now, the Prophet does an interesting thing here in the text. At first we see Isaiah speaking about Cyrus the Great, but suddenly the text seems to be referring to someone else. Someone God’s spirit is upon, yes, but someone who looks wholly unlike Cyrus does.

There is this distinction between Cyrus, who represents the old way of doing things,[i] and this new figure who won’t shout in the street, or bruise a reed, or even extinguish a smoldering wick.

The prophet’s voice is proclaiming a new way of doing things, it shows us glimpses of God at work, and it looks nothing like the old way….

Where the King is concerned with conquest, the Servant is concerned with righteousness.

Where the King is celebrated and magnified, the Servant is persecuted and despised.

Where the King is mightiness enthroned, the Servant is the embodiment of gentleness.

The justice of the King is force and power, while the justice of the Servant is meek and humble.

These are not the same people.

And, how often do we mistake the Cyrus version of justice for God’s? We’re hurt or offended, we get so angry that we want to get even.

Israel was like that too. Beaten down in war, driven from their home, the children of the Exile wanted their enemies to be crushed, to feel the pain that they had felt. They wanted a King, like Cyrus, to destroy their enemies.

The disciples too, seemed to hope that Jesus was that same way. They lived under the reign of Rome, who oppressed the Judeans much like Babylon oppressed their ancestors. The disciples’ image of a messiah aligned more with the vision of the conquering king than the one Jesus offered. They seem to continually get it wrong as Jesus tried to explained that the Son of Manwas called to something else.

It’s crazy to think that this new way of doing thing this is still new, even today.

If we’re on the “left” we want the “right” to be humiliated. If we’re on the “right” we want the “left” to get what’s coming to them. We applaud when we see just-desserts doled out online, or instant karma in the parking lot.

We cry a chorus of “Serves them right!”

***

Cyrus was used for Yahweh’s plans and purposes, but the Servant offers more to his Master. Jesus, our greatest example, embodies this path of service.

I often think about how, as a young boy, Jesus would have been taught these texts, listening to them read aloud from the scroll at worship gatherings. And I wonder how the words of Isaiah shaped his heart and his ministry? [***]

Because…

A Choice by Laura Wright Pittman
A Choice by Laura Wright Pittman

Where Cyrus is concerned with conquest, Jesus cared about God’s kin-dom.

Where Cyrus is celebrated and magnified, Jesus is betrayed, condemned and killed.

Where Cyrus is mightiness enthroned, Jesus reaches out tenderly to the last, the least and the littlest.

The justice of Cyrus is force and power, while the justice of Jesus is characterized by mercy and faithfulness.[ii]

So, too, Jesus calls his followers to these things, in his parables and in his Sermon on the Mount. And we, as the readers of the Gospel of Matthew, are so called.

***

In Montreal I knew a man who worked at a shelter. He was young, and kind, and he had terrible road rage. He was a very ordinary person.

He did the kind of work other people would look at and say, “You are such a good person,” or “how brave of you!” And, he would shrug, responding, “I’m just doing my job”.

But sometimes he was brave. Sometimes his work was scary. He would tell me stories about how fearful he felt when someone was angry and acting irrationally, when they would lash out in their pain and hit him or threaten him.

We would sit, and he would tell me these stories, then he would say: “They are so kind when they’re having a good day,” or “I just sat with them on the floor so they could cry, because they were hurting.”

When I think of that person who won’t shout in the street, or bruise a reed, or even extinguish a smouldering wick, that is the person I think of. Someone focused on justice, who finds a well of compassion for the person who lashes out at them, someone who says there is a different way of doing things in this world—someone who sees those glimpses and holds onto them.

I wonder: who you think of when you hear Isaiah’s description of the “Servant”? Who comes to mind for you?

***

Today we remember the Baptism of Jesus, of how the Holy Spirit filled him in his ministry, and how God’s identity and authority rested on him. We remember our baptismal vows: to follow Jesus, and to seek justice and resist evil. We remember how we have been invited into his ministry, to share his work and his struggles.

We’re called to look critically at the old way of doing things, that used power and force for its own sense of justice. And we’re invited to imagine what the world would look like if we embraced the call of the Servant, a call to righteousness, light and life.

The Gospel of Matthew tells us what kind of life Jesus lead, and what kind of life his followers would lead. It tells stories of rejection, persecution, and condemnation.

The new way of doing things comes with a price, so thank goodness our call to ministry is not a solo mission, it is in community, as even Jesus’ own was.

Let’s be reassurance in the knowledge that we are not alone. We are walking this path of service in the company of our creator, our brother-Jesus, the spirit, and a whole host of ordinary saints.

***

There are real problems in our world, and they can feel overwhelming. Insurmountable, even. But these real problems have real solutions.

Now, I can hear one skeptical eyebrow being raised somewhere in the pews, so don’t worry. I’m not saying these problems have easy or obvious solutions. If we’re truly called to a vision for the world like the one Isaiah offers—a world where wolves lay down with lambs and children can play by the den of snakes[iii]—then the response we’re called to is going to look wholly unlike what we’ve seen before.

We need bold and imaginative responses that are grounded in our time and place; little acts of resistance that together shape a new way of doing things in our world.

And it might look weird. Really weird. As weird as offering your other cheek to the person who strikes you… as weird as insisting you carry a soldier’s pack another mile after he’s forced you to walk one… as weird as forgiving our enemies, or putting the last, the least, and the littlest first in our vision for a new world.

This way of doing thing, doesn’t make any sense, at least to the old way of doing things. It’s counterintuitive; it was strange in 1st century Palestine and it’s strange still today.

But we’ve seen glimpses of what our world could become, glimpses of the kin-dom of God here and now. Glimpses in Marathon: Where have you seen them?

I’ve seen them…at the foodbank and thrift store, in the generosity of the people who live here, in the little movements toward sustainability, in the passion for the landscape….

***

Friends, let’s hold on to that tingling feeling of hope in our bones, let it be the guiding gut-feeling for this year. Let it wake us up in our daily lives to see this new way at work, and to prod us to live differently because of it.

And, on days when the path feels extra challenging, and we lose sight of those glimpses, lets gather in community to reassure one another that we are not alone, we walk this path together.

Amen.
[i] Isaiah 40:2
[ii] Matthew 23:23
[iii] Isaiah 11:6-9

From the Mouth of Babes

This sermon was prepped for Wesley United Church, Montreal’s Sunday morning service on June 3rd, (Pentecost 2), based on 1 Samuel 3:1–20, and Psalm 139:1–6, 13–18.

In those days the word of the LORD was rare, and there were not many visions.

Eli, the High Priest in charge at the Temple of the LORD, his eyes were growing weak.

One night Eli, whose eyes had become so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place in the Temple. There were shadows cast onto the stone walls because the lamp of God had not yet gone out. Samuel, Eli’s young helper, was lying down in the house of the LORD, where the ark of God—the presence of the LORD, was. Then… the LORD called to Samuel.

Though our text doesn’t tell us so, it becomes clear that Eli has grown both blind and deaf to God’s word. “Samuel” the voice calls, stirring the boy awake. But, Eli can’t hear the voice—and Samuel has never heard it before—so both are confused.

Eli, the one whose job it is to intercede on behalf of Israel with God, as the High Priest, can no longer do his work properly. He no longer sees visions. He no longer hears the voice of God.

This is both about vocation—about young Samuel’s call—but it is also a story about Eli. It is a story about the changing of the guard.

The second portion of the reading today, verses 11-20 are optional. We can choose to just end at verse 10, with the declaration:

The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”

Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

But if we stopped there, we’d never heard what God has to say.

So, we forge on to the hard stuff. We hear God say, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle.”

Samuel sees and hears God—he responds when he is called to, even though he’s confused. And, then God tells him that God is breaking open a new period in Israel’s history. The visions are coming back and the people will once again hear—so much so that their ears will tingle!

I tried to see if there was some deep theological meaning to ear tingling but alas not many biblical scholars have staked their academic claim there….

Then God tells Samuel about how the established powers, that have grown corrupt, will be dismantled. God speaks of culpability that is both active and passive.

Eli’s sons have boldly disregarded the Law and sinned against God; Eli did nothing to stop them. All parties are guilty.

This is a difficult message to hear, but an even harder one to deliver. You see, Samuel was raised in the Temple by Eli and the other priests. His mother, Hannah, dedicated her only son to God after a long struggle with infertility—so though his biological family visited him at the Temple annually, it was Eli who parented him.

Samuel lay down until morning and then opened the doors of the house of the LORD. He was afraid to tell Eli the vision, but Eli called him and said, “Samuel, my son.”

Samuel answered, “Here I am.”

The work of justice can be incredibly hard. … I’m reminded of a good quote from a silly movie:

In “Evan Almighty” God is talking to a character about prayer and says, “Let me ask you something. If someone prays for patience, you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient? If he prayed for courage, does God give him courage, or does he give him opportunities to be courageous?”

God gives Samuel the opportunity to be courageous, and share the message he was given. God gives Eli the opportunity to be gracious, and upon hearing it Eli replies, “He is the LORD; let him do what is good in his eyes.”

Samuel was called to do a hard job—a risky job for a young man. He could have been rejected by his parent, thrown out of the only home he’d really known, lose his place in the Temple—his social standing and connection. But, he risked rejection and spoke.

The prophet Joel tells us of a time when God will pour out Spirit on all people. That our sons and daughters will prophesy, our old men will dream dreams, our young men will see visions. (Joel 2:28)

This is the same text the Apostle Peter cites in his sermon on the streets of Jerusalem after receiving the Spirit in the Book of Acts. And, as we are still in the Season of Pentecost it is on the forefront of our minds.

But, that is not a far-off time for us—because God is speaking through God’s children now. God is calling young people today just like he called Samuel then.

I think of the young people who survived incidents of mass shootings, of domestic terrorism, in the United States, who are speaking out for better gun regulation. People like … Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, Sam Zeif, Julia Cordover, Cameron Kasky, Jaclyn Corin, Kyle Kashuv, Ariana Klein, Alfonso Calderon, Lorenzo Prado, and Lane Murdock.

I also think of young women like Malala Yousafzai who advocated for girl’s education in Pakistan despite being targeted by violence.

But we also have brave young people speaking out here at home.

There’s Tina Yeonju Oh, a Climate change activist from Sackville, N.B.

Or, Sarah Jama, the Ontario director for the National Association of Disabled Students and an anti-racism Community Organizer from Hamilton.

Or, 13-yearold Autumn Peltier, an indigenous activist from Wikwemikong First Nation whose fighting for water protection and conversation.

Young people across Canada are also making their voices heard concerning the Kinder Morgan Pipeline, demanding the government begin investing now in renewable energies instead of propping up old systems.

God is calling young people across Canada, and our world to speak and they responding saying, “Here I am”!

From the mouth of babes, God will speak.

What a risky phrase: “Here I am”. Because God doesn’t tell Samuel what the plan is before God calls him.

And what does God ask him to do? God asks him to have a personal conversation with someone he loves, someone he respects. That can often be the riskiest thing we’re called to—the hardest piece of justice work.

And, it is the first step on a long path for Samuel—who will become a prophet who speaks to crowds, who anoints and condemns kings.

I often hear people quote the Apostle Paul out of context saying, “God will never give you more than you can handle!”

But, God gives us really hard things—hard opportunities.

1 Corinthians 10:13 reads: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”

Samuel’s call teaches us that we are all called—to both big and small acts of justice. We’re given people to help us discern our calls like Eli does with Samuel. And, we’re given challenging but achievable tasks. But sometimes, it takes community to achieve them, sometimes it takes the Spirit, we cannot always rely on our own strength.

In our prayers today we will reflect on the God of the Sabbath, who tells us the work of justice cannot be done without rest.

So, breathe deeply, friends, and gather your courage, because a risky but good God is calling you—yes even you!—to courageous acts.