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Rejoice in Joy

Today’s title is brought to you by the Redundancy Department of Redundancy.

Isaiah sets up some heavy expectations in our lesson today. A servant of God is on the way. This one will bring justice and righteousness, and will do so with gentleness, meekness, silence, even. The blind will see, the prisoners will go free. What we have known is gone; something brand new is happening!

Our text today was likely written when the ancient Israelites were in captivity in Babylon. They mourned what they lost when the Babylonian Empire conquered them, stormed Jerusalem, leveled the temple to the ground, and carried them east. And now, there seems to be a hint of the Persians rising even further east, led by King Cyrus. Could it be that he could topple Babylon and send the captives home?

When we read this text during Advent, it sets us up for hearing it in a certain way. The servant Isaiah describes is Jesus – he is the gentle one who will bring these grand concepts into being, things like justice and righteousness. He is the one who will be crushed. He is the one whose birth we await, whose ministry we follow, whose dying and rising again are our cause for hope.

And yet, whatever the Spirit may have intended for the understanding of this text, what was likely heard, initially, was God’s promise to the ancient Israelites that they would be that servant. As a people, they would act as a collective light to the world, a gentle people whose own way of being would exemplify justice and righteousness the way they ought to be.

Echoing Isaiah, I’ve been throwing these terms around: justice, righteousness; but what do they actually mean? I have talked before about how we tend to associate “righteousness” with the individual, living rightly and piously and correctly; and that we tend to associate “justice” with communities, creating a society that is fair and equitable, where wrong is punished and good is rewarded.

That said, in the Biblical languages, there is actually very little to distinguish them from each other. They are so overlapped and intertwined that it seems almost silly to have two separate words at all. In any case, there they are, our goal posts: righteousness and justice.

So in light of these words, given the call of God’s people to be agents of justice and righteousness, how are we doing?

It seems like an important conversation for us to have. Horrific words like “torture” and “racism” are emblazoned across our headlines, far cries from concepts like “justice” and “righteousness”.

Before I say anything else, though, I want to say this: I have no idea what I’m supposed to say about any of this today. The past two Sundays, I have talked about the grand jury verdicts of Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, and about the Department of Justice’s report on the Cleveland Police Department. I know that to speak about these things again today risks going too far for some of you.

It’s not that I have a problem with making us uncomfortable; after all, if the purpose of preaching is to speak to the gospel, then we should all, including the preacher, be at least a little bit uncomfortable. That’s not the issue for me. It’s a little more complicated.

Sermons are monologues, not conversations. And if my preaching is marked by what some would call “ambulance chasing”, following issue after issue, week after week, then we risk becoming superficial, losing interest as soon as the news cycle does. We also risk becoming a church that only talks about the issues that the pastor cares about. And that’s a problem, too. More than that, I think we can do better. I think we can go deeper and wider in all of this.

When we look at the world around us, we should be able to see beyond liberal and conservative, democrat and republican. We should be able to examine these things as matters of faith, discerning where it is that grace and sin are at work, where it is that we are called to minister, and how it is that we are to act as God’s agents, Christ’s hands and feet.

And then I look back at our history as a congregation. Hanging out in the hallway is a framed reprint of the front page of the Atlanta Journal from 1957. 80 pastors, including our own, signed an open letter calling on Atlanta schools to follow the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

In 1960, the leadership of Oglethorpe took a stand on the role of race in worship, by affirming that they would “continue the present policy of seating anyone presenting themselves for worship.” The subtext is rich here. At the time, churches were becoming not only informally segregated, but formally so. African-American Christians were testing that resolve, arriving to worship in so-called “white” churches. In many cases, they were turned away, sometimes conveniently labeled as “agitators”. I am proud to say we made a very different decision, saying that all are welcome to worship here.

At our twenty-fifth anniversary celebration, we invited Ambassador Andrew Young as our guest preacher. It’s hard to believe now, but in 1974, some considered inviting an African-American into the pulpit a step too far.

This is our legacy, of taking stands that spoke out for justice and righteousness as we saw them. None of these, of course, happened without controversy, but they did happen. And, I can’t help but notice, they all happened decades ago.

Look: I honestly don’t know what our next step should be. As I’ve said the last two Sundays, the issue of the treatment of young black men at the hands of police is not going away. What began as individual protests has now been galvanized into a movement. If the Christ child, whose birth we await again, was truly Emmanuel, God with us, then surely the church must be enfleshed in justice and righteousness in this broken world. I don’t know what the church is called to do, but I do know that we are not called just to sit by and watch.

Fifteen years ago, I was working in Wilmette, a Chicago north shore suburb. That summer, a young white supremacist from Wilmette went on a shooting spree. He ended up killing himself, but not before killing and wounding several others. One of his victims was Ricky Byrdsong, the African-American coach of Northwestern University’s basketball team.

While our church had no connection to the young gunman, the fact that he was from our town was a bit of a wake-up call. Out of that tragedy, our senior pastor and Coach Byrdsong’s pastor struck up a friendship. That friendship grew to include the leadership circles of both churches, and then eventually broader partnerships between the two congregations. This all happened in the year prior to my ordination, and so I cherish the memory of Byrdsong’s church being a part of that service.

As vivid as that was, the moment that stands out more than any other was the first time our leadership circles got together at our church in Wilmette for conversation and coffee. They shared with us what it was like to be black and drive into Wilmette from Evanston, and how they often took a deep breath before doing so, especially at night. We were stunned! We had no idea. In short, it was a glimpse of our own sleepy little town through their eyes.

This is what justice and righteousness do: bring sight to the blind, wisdom to fools, freedom to the prisoner. And when those moments happen, they are causes for joy.

Where have you seen where you once were blind? Where have you heard where you once were deaf? Where have you been freed where you once were captive? Where have you been enriched where you once were poor?

When the world seems hopeless, our causes for celebration remind us that God is not finished with us yet.

Amen.

Rejoice in Love

XerxesWhat do people of faith do when they find themselves at a critical turning point?

The story of Esther is full of all kinds of intrigue and amazing characters. It takes place in the ancient Persian capital of Susa, which is modern-day Iran. The Persian Empire had defeated the Babylonians, essentially freeing the Jews from their captivity there. King Cyrus had permitted Jews to return to Judah and rebuild a temple in Jerusalem, but other Jews had stayed within the Persian Empire where they had found uneasy peace as a religious minority.

The story of Esther reveals that peace coming apart at the seams. King Xerxes is on the throne. Esther, a Jew, is his queen. Her uncle Mordechai, who had taken the orphaned girl in and raised her, is her voice on the outside. Haman is the scheming courtier looking to eliminate the Jewish minority once and for all, which is when our lesson intersects with the story.

Esther is torn; she wants to help her people, but she wonders if there is much she can actually do, since for her to approach the King unbidden is essentially a death sentence. She seeks her uncle’s wisdom.

There is one character, however, who is notably absent from the story: God. God is the central character throughout the Bible. God is the star of everything from Creation to Revelation. And yet, no version of the divinity makes any appearance in the story of Esther at all. Many have tried to find or justify where God is by doing detailed word studies, but the truth is this: the word God or Yahweh or Lord never appears. Not even once.

I don’t know about you, but this sounds awfully familiar. It’s not that I that God isn’t there. It’s that I haven’t witnessed first hand any of those bush-burning, sea-parting, curtain-tearing, grave-opening moments where something clearly haunting and holy is happening. Even so, God is at work.

The same is true in our lesson this morning. When Esther demurs from stepping forward on behalf of her people, Mordechai offers the closest thing to a theological statement in the whole book: “Esther, we are going to be saved. If you don’t speak, someone else will. But isn’t it just possible that you have been put in this place at this time for this very reason?”

In other words, “Whether you say anything or not, God is going to fix it. And if you decide not to step up, God will find someone else. That’s how God works. Consider this: maybe you’re the one that God has chosen. Maybe that’s why you have been taken out of poverty and into the court of the Empire, so that you might just find the courage to save your people.”

What do people of faith do when they find themselves at a critical turning point?

This is the question we ought to ask ourselves. What do we do when we find ourselves at a critical turning point? For Esther, the moment is a huge one: she could very well prevent the genocide of her people. We might never be in that kind of position, but there is no doubt we are in situations all of the time when we might just make a difference.

It could be when a friend makes a casual remark that seems counter to everything you know. You could let it slide; after all, they’re your friend…but can’t friendships weather truth? Or maybe you witness a complete stranger being mistreated. “It’s none of my business,” you might think…or is it? Or perhaps there’s a story on the news that churns your heart and mind. It’s quite natural to be wearied by compassion fatigue: after all, the news cycle will find something else to manufacture outrage about in the next few days. But who knows? Maybe your soul has been stirred for such a time as this…

Last week, I spent part of my sermon reflecting on the grand jury ruling from Ferguson, Missouri. Since then, we have had a grand jury ruling from Staten Island and a scathing Department of Justice report on the Cleveland Police Department. These have come together as a harsh crucible, sparking incredible conversations with friends from around the country. As I said last week, the light that has been shed on what it means to be young, black, and male in America, is not going away. I personally feel compelled to continue these conversations and share them as much as I can, so that I can move beyond my little cultural silo and out into challenging and uplifting relationships that look a little bit more like the kingdom of God. And I may be wrong, but I think we are at a critical moment as a civil society. Who knows? Maybe we have been called to this place for such a time as this…

I want to make space for those of us who want to continue these conversations to do so, and to find a way to respond as faithful people whose hearts break for the things that break the heart of God. If you feel particularly moved by any of this, just let me know by dropping a comment below or reaching out to me.

Maybe none of this grabs you, but surely there is something that does. Perhaps it’s the situation that Christians and other religious minorities find themselves facing under the fearsome rule of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Or maybe it’s more personal, closer to home: the neighbor who is going through a time of transition or grief; the family member who needs a word of encouragement or of tough love; the colleague whom you value but have somehow never managed to tell.

Whatever strikes you, my point is this: just as Esther found herself in a place to share a word and save her people, we find ourselves in places all the time where we can make a difference by sharing the very thing that is so central to our faith: love.

Love ought to undergird all that we do. I’m not talking about a wishy-washy, feel-good kind of love, but a love that seeks after truth, a love that knows we can do better, a love that lives in hope of a world that can look more and more like the world God desires.

And that’s the point here: we ourselves are not the source of love. We are, however, made to be vessels of that love that we see in the one who gathers us here today. God loved, and so God created. God loved, and so God redeemed. God loves, and so God sustains.

Let me put it this way: what if each of us were to find affect one person every month with a healthy dose of love? What if that was our goal, that over the course of a year, we would have an impact on twelve people, being those vessels of holy, healing love out into a hurting world? What if, by the end of December, you thought of one person whose life you could impact for the better? For such a time as this…

When Mordechai challenges his niece to examine her conscience, she does, indeed, step up. And in doing so, she offers her own challenge, that Jews throughout the Persian capital would pray and fast for Esther. She knows she can’t do it alone. She knows she needs the strength and encouragement of the whole community behind her. She knows she needs to enlist God to her side, even if the holy name is never uttered.

I don’t know; maybe you hear all of this and think, “What can one person do?” It’s a fair question. When we’re talking about world-shattering concepts like war and death and racism, what, indeed, can one person do? To that, I say, consider this: Esther may have been a queen, but she was still a woman at a time when that was not much to be. More than that, she was a Jew among Persians. And even further, she managed to speak up to the all-powerful Xerxes when doing so was strictly forbidden. And in doing so, she managed to stop a genocide.

What is it that you are called to, in such a time as this?

Amen.

Engaging Ferguson

In my previous post, I mentioned the email conversations I’ve been having since Sunday’s sermon. Here is another I wanted to share. It comes from another friend. As you’ll see from the reflection, she is in a multi-racial relationship with an African-American man (whose name I have changed). They recently got celebrated their engagement.


At least from my limited experience of being 1/2 of an interracial couple in a state that, within our parents’ lifetimes, had miscegenation laws, a lot of what you said resonated with me. Jim is from the inner-city, from a neighborhood that with the recession became increasingly impoverished and dominated by drug trafficking and gang violence. He intentionally wears glasses most of the time when he’s in middle class white America to look intellectual and “safe” and also smiles a lot, while in the “hood” (his term, not mine) he wears contacts and scowls. His parents taught him early on how to interact with police officers. Where we live now, he’s cautious not to walk behind white women at night, especially not with a hoodie on. And the fact that he and I are together makes things more complicated. While being with Jim usually only earns me a few nasty looks and a couple of very confused pizza delivery guys, there are real risks associated for Jim. When Jim and I are together anytime, and especially after dark, it needs to be clear in every interaction that I’m there by choice and Jim isn’t hurting me.

Jim and I are hoping to have children within the first few years of marriage. When we have children, our society will never see them as white–the “one drop” rule still persists, de facto. I hope and pray that I have sons who are like Jim in the important ways. I’m scared that one day, lighter-skinned though they may be, they’ll find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time. As a (future) parent, I want to prepare my children to face that possibility in a way that’s realistic and yet neither quashes their sense of the imago dei within themselves nor their hope for humanity’s fulfillment of God’s designs for it. Lucky thing I have some time to work on that. ;)

But at no moment of our relationship, from deciding to date to deciding to get married, have our races been a major factor. The challenges of being an interracial couple have always seemed secondary to what God is doing in giving us this love for each other. It’s an odd moment, I’ve found, going through this engagement process in the midst of everything happening in Ferguson and elsewhere. While my newsfeed on Facebook is full of people more informed than I am posting articles and expressing opinions about Ferguson and other instances of racialized violence, I’m busy posting engagement announcements and pictures. In a way, that’s perhaps my own internalization of the narcissism of our age, but in another way, it makes me think about our calling to live as hopeful people in this season of Advent. Yes, Ferguson is real, and ugly, and heartbreaking, and it’s part of a system of racial oppression we’re called to dismantle. But I hope and pray that in some small way, Jim and my relationship–and family–can embody the reconciliation God has already accomplished in Christ, the reconciliation that I believe is even now breaking in as the Kingdom of God comes closer at hand to us. It’s hard to see that hope right now in the world, but the love inside me tells me that it isn’t misplaced. (Or maybe that’s more narcissism.)

Ferguson And Beyond

This past Sunday, I touched on Ferguson as part of my sermon. More than most of my recent sermons, this topic has touched a raw nerve. Several other friends shared their own blog posts with me, which I will link here and also here.

I have also had an ongoing email correspondence with a friend who has given me permission to share his response to the sermon along with his own thoughts about Ferguson. He also happens to be something I am not, namely a young African-American man. Here it is.


At the end of the day a young man tragically lost his life a lot earlier than he should have. So regardless of the point of view, I think it’s important to try to see the world through the eyes of the marginalized, and at the end of it all return to God. I especially liked the story of Habakkuk, specifically the fact that God challenged him to change was he saw as unjust. When I read that, it made me smile.

The social implications of the Ferguson case frustrate me. I believe there is somewhat of a schism in America when it comes to the issues of race and racism. I have a feeling that many people believe that racism in America is dead and that we have finally reached the equality in America envisioned in the Constitution. In my opinion, we are far from that promise, and the Ferguson case along with the Trayvon Martin case prove that.

We, as a society, have moved on to subtle forms of racism that are a lot harder to explain, because the bigoted, overt forms of racism are no longer socially acceptable. One example is the St. Louis Rams players’ “hands up don’t shoot” gesture. On one side you have the players who believe in a cause and are standing in solidarity with the family of Mike Brown and society at large. One the other side you have the Ferguson/St. Louis PD who feel like they’ve been unduly scrutinized. The act itself was non-violent, and honestly I didn’t think it was meant to further scrutinize the Ferguson/St. Louis PD. I thought the act was meant as a show of solidarity reminiscent of the 1968 Olympic game’s “black fist” gesture.

I have done some limited reading of the evidence that was released following the decision, and one of the things that strikes me the most is Darren Wilson’s testimony, in which he refers to Mike Brown as a demon (or looking like a demon). I understand that the use of language could be deemed trivial in a case like this, but to me it is a huge point in the testimony. By equating Mike Brown to a demon, Wilson was able to rationalize and even, in a way, warrant Mike Brown’s death. His testimony, to me, reads like something out of a novel where the rampant beast needs to be put down or else the entire town will be in danger.

I’m not at all trying to argue the finer points in the case. Only Mike Brown and Darren Wilson know what actually happened. From Wilson’s testimony it does appear like he was in danger. I’m not sure if that danger warranted the use of deadly force, but he was in danger nonetheless.

The point I want to make is that time and time again with these cases a similar script is played out, in which (it seems to me), a young, black man is killed for acting exactly how America thinks we are supposed to act. We are seen as the thuggish, thieving “other” and that in itself warrants the use of deadly force. And still it seems like a majority of America does not care. I’m all for allowing the judicial system to work, but sometimes I believe it doesn’t work out to be as fair as it is intended to be. Maybe this case wasn’t the perfect avenue for catapulting the issues of race into the public spotlight, but I think it serves as a good measuring stick for where we stand in America today. If we want to even begin to heal these scars, we need to start having meaningful conversations about race and racism in America. Until we do, the divide in America will only continue to grow.

Rejoice in Hope

Hope is faithful rebellion.

Habakkuk is one of those mysterious Biblical characters about whom we know next to nothing. Most of the prophets, at least we know their place of birth; or perhaps their name might tell us something about them. All we really know about Habakkuk is the content of his prophecies, which help us place him some time around the Babylonian Exile. His name is even unrecognizable – possibly related to the word “embrace”, but unclear.

What stands out about this prophet is his willingness to openly question God. Most of the prophets have their questions for God, but usually about their own worthiness to be God’s vessel. Jeremiah is too young. Sarah is too old. Moses stutters. Elijah tenders his resignation. Habbakuk, however, laments the current state of affairs. He knows God to be a God of what is just, what is right, what is true. But what he sees around him is injustice, wrong, and falsehood. He even has the audacity to suggest that the Law of Moses itself is broken. If it weren’t, then God’s people would be living out God’s desires, right?

How does that sit with us? For some, the very idea of questioning God seems downright arrogant. And I can see that. Author Madeleine L’Engle put it this way:

“I have a point of view. You have a point of view. God has view.”

Who are we to question God from our narrow experiences? We may not comprehend for the moment, but surely God has a plan that is beyond anything we can imagine. It may not be clear for the moment, but clarity will surely come.

That said, we would do well to read the rest of L’Engle’s quote:

“When we really come to grips with that, our prayers become less like demands and more like conversations.”

In other words, our limited perspective should never keep us from crying out to God’s limitless mercy. The Hebrews, captive in Israel, call out to God for freedom. The Lamentations of Jeremiah are full of sorrow and distress. The psalms have litany after litany of agony and questions. Jesus himself quotes Psalm 22 from the cross: “Why, O God, have you forgotten me?” Intimacy with God is honesty with God. And if God is really God, then God can handle our questions, our frustrations, our observations, our anger and disappointment and distress. And if we can’t be honest with God, where can we let our hair down?

These are the kinds of questions and concerns people of faith out to have foremost in our minds. Why does the world seem to be so unfair? With all of our advances, why does it seem like we’re constantly moving backwards? If we know what justice looks like, why is injustice rampant?

These were the kinds of questions on my mind this past week as protests raged in the wake of the Ferguson Grand Jury decision. I’m not particularly inclined to focus on the decision itself; no one except Michael Brown and Darren Wilson knows exactly what happened that fateful night. And regardless of whether Darren Wilson exercised his best possible judgment, young Michael’s life ended far too short, and surely we can all grieve that.

For many, though, Ferguson has become a touchstone, a reminder of what it still feels like to be young, black, and male in America. I can’t, for a moment, pretend to walk a mile in those shoes. Ahmir Thompson, better known as Questlove, can.

If you don’t know who I’m talking about, Questlove is the drummer for the Roots, the house band on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. He is six foot two, 300 pounds, with, in his own words, “an uncivilized Afro.”

By virtue of being famous, he often finds himself in places, he says, “where people who look like me aren’t supposed to be.” He talks about hating parking lots and elevators, “not because they are places that danger could occur, but it’s a prime place in which someone of my size can be seen as a dangerous element. I wait and wait in cars until I feel it’s safe for me to make people feel safe.”

He writes that this “is a crazy way to live. Seriously, imagine a life in which you think of other people’s safety and comfort first, before your own. You’re programmed and taught that from the gate. It’s like the opposite of entitlement.”

I don’t expect us to feel sorry for a celebrity. I don’t expect us to be of one mind about Ferguson or race in America. And I don’t expect you to agree with me or my point of view. What I do expect is that we would be willing to see life through the eyes and experiences of others, to get a glimpse of what it feels like to be them. In times of anger, compassion is in rare supply.

What I hope, more than anything else, is that we would see moments like these as times to return to God and to the things that make for faithful living. The outcry from Ferguson isn’t going away any time soon. The question is what we do about it.

One thing I am sure we can all agree on is the very thing that Habakkuk cries out: the world we live in is a far cry from what God desires for God’s own creation. If it was, then we wouldn’t be involved in ministries like Journey Night Shelter and the Food Pantry and Habitat for Humanity. As long as there is poverty and homelessness and warfare and exclusion, there is surely heartbreak in the heart of God. And wherever God’s heart breaks, that’s where God’s people ought to be. After all, intimacy with God

When Habakkuk points all of this out to God, God does not silence him, or put him in his place. Instead, he challenges him to do something about it.

“You say the Law has failed? Then simplify it. Write it bigger. Make it so clear that someone who just catches it out of the corner of their eye will get it. You don’t like the world the way it is? Don’t just tell me. Do something about it.”

And as he does, the prophet is brought to this amazing insight: the world is unfair; but God is still God, and there is still reason to rejoice. The world may be upside down. We may not understand why. And yet, God is still to be praised – for deliverance, for strength, for the opportunity to make a difference in the world.

Each year we begin the season of Advent by waiting for the return of the Christmas miracle, the birth of the Christ child. And in that miracle, we are reminded that God has not given up on this world, not by a long shot. God has great hope for us yet.

At Oglethorpe Presbyterian, we are installing two Advent prayer wreaths. Along with the prophet Habakkuk, we are invited to add our reasons for rejoicing, whether great or small. We will add them week after week to our wreaths, so that they might become symbols of our hope in Christ, a reminder of God who still believes in us enough to love and cherish us.

My personal hope is that these wreaths with these prayers would be our own small act of prayerful rebellion in a broken world. The time will come when no one frets an empty stomach or worries over a roofless night or fears making others afraid. If it delays, wait for it. It is coming. And until then, may these moments of rejoicing be our hopeful sign that God is still at work within us, within this world.

Friends, rejoice in hope. It is our most faithful act.

Amen.

Rejoice in Christ

A society is judged by how it treats those at the margins.

The prophet Jeremiah comes along at an interesting time in the history of Judah, the southern kingdom. King Josiah sits on the throne in power. Judah, which had become a vassal nation to mighty Assyria, now finds itself somewhat free as Assyria falls to Babylon. By right of conquest, Babylon now controls the Assyrian Empire; but many nations are rebelling with their newfound taste of freedom. Judah is one of those nations.

At the same time, King Josiah has sparked a sort of religious renaissance. It’s a mixed blessing of sorts. On the one hand, there has been a kind of revival taking place as people return to the faith. On the other hand, Josiah has managed to cement his power by connecting his authority to God’s authority. True and right worship must now take place in the temple in Jerusalem, which just happens to be the capital of ancient Judah.

And Jeremiah, the reluctant prophet Jeremiah, comes to prophesy on behalf of God in the midst of all of this.

Our lesson today touches on his call, where he resists the idea that someone so insignificant could be God’s mouthpiece. And, as usual, God is having none of that. And it also features one of his fiery temple sermons, where he rails against this newly-minted royal-divine alliance. And the central message of his sermon is this: our nation will be judged by how it treats those at the margins.

Once again, we find ourselves at this amazing crossroads within the Hebrew Bible. On the one hand, the temple is central to Jewish worship and practice. If there was any doubt of that, just look at the headlines coming out of Jerusalem these days. On the other hand, here is Jeremiah railing against the role that the temple has taken, moving aside the crucial teachings of the Ten Commandments and the covenant forged at Mount Sinai. In other words, there is no single coherent voice of faith coming out of the tradition. Instead, it is a healthy conversation, a discernment process that finds itself moved and shaped not by the will of the people or by the decree of words, but by the desires of God.

For Jeremiah, who is God’s messenger, remember, the temple is unimportant. What matters is worship of God – just God, no one else. It is about treating one other with justice. And that includes those who typically had no rights in the ancient world: the widow, the orphan, the foreigner. Apparently, they are doing none of those things, but instead coming to the sacred halls of the temple to praise the God of Judah with sacrifices and burnt offerings. They treat it as a sort of national relic while forgetting the very thing that gives it its sanctity in the first place. Housed within its inner sanctum, in the Holy of Holies, is the Ark of the Covenant, the very vessel that contains the tablets of the law. And those tablets contain the essence of true faith: right relationship with God and right relationship with neighbor.

I have to admit that I can’t help but see the parallels with this text and our national conversations taking place around immigration. I’m not about to launch into a political sermon here – I don’t think that’s the point. At least, it’s not to me. Especially speaking in the echoes of Jeremiah this morning, who detested any kind of nationalized, symbolic faith, for me to turn around and make policy statements just seems wrong. I also think that’s where we, as people of faith, get in trouble. When we confuse policies with statements of faith, we give far too much power to those who craft these policies.

At the same time, Jeremiah’s message is clear: treat all with justice: the widow, the orphan, and, yes, the foreigner. You’ll notice what Jeremiah doesn’t say: he doesn’t say whether or not just treatment includes a path to citizenship. Nor does he say which branch of government has the authority to address the issue of undocumented workers. The point, for people of faith, is this: ignore the vulnerable – the widow, the orphan, the foreigner – to your own peril.

A society will be judged by how it treats those at the margins.

There was a story I came across this week that brought this all home to me. Jason Brown was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in 2005. In 2009, he was signed to the St. Louis Rams to a five year, $37.5 million dollar contract, making him the highest paid center in the NFL. In 2012, he was released by the Rams and entered free agency. That was when he made an intriguing decision. He decided to walk away from football.

At age 29, he and his wife bought a 1000-acre farm in Louisburg, North Carolina. He was not a farmer by trade – he learned how to farm by watching videos on YouTube. At the center of his farming is charity. In two years, he had given away 46,000 pounds of sweet potatoes and 10,000 pounds of cucumbers to local food banks.

For Brown, the decision was clear. “It was God’s plan,” he says.

Here was this young man, living what our society considers a dream. He was wealthy, healthy, and famous. Despite all of the knocks the NFL has gotten lately, it is still a juggernaut. It might be pushing it, but I do think there’s an element of national faith at work in our weekend rituals of college and professional football.

So Jason Brown, at the moment that free agency came knocking, answered a different door. And what does he do? He takes care of those on the margins by giving them something to eat.

You see, this is the essence of what we say every time we gather around this table. This table is, itself, a sign of the justice that God desires for the world. This table transcends national boundaries. It defies any restrictions we might want to place on it. It is a holy table, God’s table, where we are fed so that we might feed.

The prophet Jeremiah was distressed by what he saw as the Jerusalem temple became a national landmark. And so, he called the people back to a broader vision of faith, one that rests in God and God alone. That’s what we proclaim today, as we rejoice in the reign of Christ.

God in Christ takes all of this in and makes it whole. God in Christ reminds us that we deserve to be at the margins, but Jesus takes us in anyway and feeds us. God in Christ gives us richer nourishment than we could ever imagine.

During worship last week, I invited those in attendance to fill out pieces of paper with a simple commitment to God for the week. Most of them did, too. And my commitment was to read through them and pray for them. And doing so was a truly moving moment for me. The cards more or less fell into three different categories:

  • One was prayer: wanting to establish a regular routine of prayer and devotion.
  • A second one was personal acts of kindness: reaching out to a neighbor or friend or family member or colleague who was lonely, hurting, in need.
  • And the third was ministries of this congregation: seeing something that you do here as serving God and loving the world.

Friends, that is what Jeremiah’s preaching was all about. That is what Jason Brown’s decision to become a farmer was all about. That is what this table is all about: connecting with God, serving the world and loving those who are on the margins, so that we might demonstrate God’s love for this hungry and thirsty world! May it be so at this and all tables.

Amen.

Together in Faith

No matter how desperate things get, God is always at work.

As we delve deeper into our lesson from the prophet Isaiah, let’s first set the historical stage. Starting back 150 years, in 824 B.C., the Assyrian Empire spread from modern-day Turkey eastward through Syria and Iraq, all the way into Western Iran. By the time we reach today’s lesson, they have been on a course of rapid expansion, moving westward into Egypt and southward into the Arabian Peninsula. The mighty Assyrian Empire, under the rule of King Sennacherib, now encompasses much of the region, with the exception of Judah.

The Assyrian army has laid siege to Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, and is calling for the citizens to surrender peacefully. They know that, if they do, their fate will be like that of so many others who have fallen to Assyria: carried off and repopulated into other parts of the Assyrian Empire. King Hezekiah is brought so low and so fearful that he sends his advisors to the prophet Isaiah for a word from God.

The situation is, in a word, desperate. And yet, Isaiah remains calm in the eye of the storm. What it must be like to have that kind of peace when the world is raging all around you…

Have you ever felt that kind of desperation? Have you ever been in the midst of a situation that feels utterly hopeless, unsure where to turn? Our faith is supposed to be one that provides hope. After all, our story culminates with a crucified Messiah rising from the dead. No matter how desperate the world seems, we are supposed to be a people of hope, a people of faith, a people of promise, right?

When Elizabeth and I moved to Atlanta a little over nine years ago, we did not own a TV. We made the decision not to purchase one, either. Don’t get me wrong: we’ve got subscriptions to Netflix and Amazon prime. I watch mind-numbing shows on Hulu and sift through cat videos on YouTube.

But there is a difference between doing this and having an infinite number of channels right in my living room. I notice it when I’m out – the car is in the shop, I’m early for my flight, the restaurant has been wallpapered in televisions – and I’ll catch myself sucked into the 24-hour news cycle. Even when it’s on mute, there’s the persistent scroll at the bottom. And no matter what channel it is, suddenly my worldview darkens. My pulse rate quickens. My heart climbs into my throat. And I’m convinced that the end is nigh.

It’s not that I don’t follow the news otherwise. I will listen to current events on the radio. I will catch up with podcasts or read articles online from various sources. But when I am face-to-face with the breathless, relentless pace of CNN/Fox/MSNBC, I find myself feeling like the little kingdom of Judah, besieged by a hostile army ready to storm the gates.

There is plenty in our world to give cause for concern. The two wars our nation set out upon at the turn of the century seem to have made for little lasting change in those regions. While we have at least scaled back our military deployment, we have now embarked on a new conflict. Climate change has gotten to the point that the Pentagon is making plans for the political and military conflict that will come as a result of the chaos; meanwhile, we have no energy policy that recognizes we are living on borrowed time. We are now fifty years on from Dr. King’s dream, and in the wake of the killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, race continues to be our society’s primary lens through which we continue to see the world.

To say that things are “desperate” may be underselling it a bit. Assyria is at the gates demanding our surrender. And Isaiah…remains as cool as a cucumber. “Don’t worry,” he says. “God will take care of all of that. Assyria will leave, and Sennacherib will die as he lived: by the sword.”

And this, indeed, is what happens. Assyria retreats. Sennacherib ends up getting murdered by his two sons. And little Judah remains independent for another century or so. No matter how desperate things might get, God is always at work.

As a pastor, I find myself invited into intimate moments with many at times when things seem most desperate. You have honored me by welcoming me into those moments of birth and death and everything in between. And what I have learned about us as a community in those moments is that I am rarely the only person in this congregation to connect with you, to be with you or reach out to you and let you know that we are together in this faith thing.

On this Stewardship Dedication Sunday, when we ask members and friends of our church family to make financial commitments and commitments of time and gifts for the coming year, this is the thing I want to share with you today. Among the many things that our commitments do is make it possible for me – not just me, of course, though I can speak most authoritatively about myself – to bring this reminder of God’s abiding presence into even the most desperate of times.

What has been remarkable about all of this for me is not only the intimate moments into which members of Oglethorpe Presbyterian have invited me. In some ways, you expect those, even though you never quite get over the power of those moments. The surprise has come when I have been invited into those moments in the community that stretches far beyond our doors. When a beloved student at Oglethorpe University died in a terrible accident a few years ago, we opened our doors to the community for prayer and support. When a young man at Chamblee High School tragically killed himself, I was invited to lead a prayer vigil, and many of you came out in support. Through personal connections, you have invited me to connect with those whom you love who are hurting. And because of the fact that I wear this robe and can represent this congregation, others have reached out to me at times when they are hurting, too.

This past Spring, I got a call from the Brookhaven Chief of Police. Our paths had crossed at various community gatherings, and had talked about their desire to set up a chaplaincy program. They had been called to a house where a grown son had gone to check on his mom, only to find her unresponsive on the floor. He called 911. The police came, but there was nothing to be done except to call for a chaplain. That’s where I came in.

I spent the better part of two hours with this man, as family members arrived and took in the reality of what had happened. We prayed together and worked through the details of what to do next. And I did all of this…because of you and the faith we share, a faith that reminds us that no matter how desperate things might get, God is always at work.

You see, that’s the thing about our faith, about our lesson from Scripture this morning. It’s not the empty promises of a “happily ever after” fairy tale. In fact, Judah may remain safe for the time being, but soon, the kings that follow forget about God and God’s faithfulness. In a few generations, Babylon comes calling, levels the Temple, and takes the people into exile. And even then, in the most utterly desperate of times, despite the faithlessness of the people and their leaders, God is still at work!

And so, as our reading in Isaiah moved around from one part to the next, it ended with the promise that starts Isaiah’s prophecy: that the destruction and hopelessness and desperation of war will be replaced with growth and promise of hope and faith. It will happen. It is already happening, if we turn off the relentlessness for a moment and recognize that God has always been at work in unexpected, surprising, gracious, merciful, glorious ways. And our calling is to recognize these places and line ourselves up with God’s desires!

Friends, whatever the case, no matter how desperate the times may seem, no matter how besieged you might be, God is still there. God is still at work. And God still has much more to do with you, with us.

Amen.

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