Holy Moly Wholly

sermon on Isaiah6:1-8

“Here I am; send me!” It’s an obvious phrase on a day for making our pledges to contribute to God’s work in this place.

Our focus through this stewardship season has been on Jubilee. Jubilee jumped out as a 50-year debt release celebration pairing with the 50th anniversary for Hope. But not just 50 years. Even more, for proclamation of liberation.

At the MCC, we cherish liberty and justice for all, not with pompous flag-waving, but in a way that honestly seeks to respect all life and to do our part in making it better, rather than infringing on or confining it. That’s the mission we understand from God, and we want to be the kind of people joining in that.

You’ve been preparing to turn in pledges, thinking how you accentuate and assist that mission, to respond, “Here I am!” It’s in the hours you share of time and talents here. It is how you take this mission into the rest of life. And it is in offering your financial devotion.

Besides the great ongoing work here and the 15₡ of every dollar shared as mission support for the larger church and other places joining our liberating labors, I’d like you to know that a basic baseline for next year’s tentative budget involves an increase of 3%. That’s just to keep up with higher water bills and some landscaping and website updates and health care costs and cost of living for your staff, not even to raise in gratitude for their enormous part in carrying this mission.

I’d further like to remind you as you look at your forms that there’s a check box for learning about the Endowment, for estate planning in your will or other gifts. That kind of giving supported the Big Read by purchasing 100 copies of the book so everyone could join in “changing the way the church views racism.”

For one more, a stretch goal we hope to accomplish that will require a bigger growth in giving, I want to tell you about bathrooms. (I don’t usually get to talk about bathrooms in sermons.) We’re looking to redo the downstairs bathrooms, to make them into separate individual gender-neutral facilities.

I want to offer you a story about why. Recently someone was telling me how going to church has often been scary. One particular difficulty is not knowing which bathroom to use. Whether choosing a men’s room or women’s, this person might get strange looks or even comments about being in the wrong place. That’s not a comfortable conversation, I’d think, especially without knowing how to respond about gender identity. So this person’s Sunday morning solution for years has been to look down into a cereal bowl and realize the milk that has held the frosted mini wheats is the only amount of safe liquid to have that morning, including serving to swallow prescriptions. Certainly a cup of coffee would have to wait.

Avoiding coffee is far from the reality of how most of us need to prepare for church (and I lost track of how much I’ve had so far today). But I can hold that reality and use it in my own preparations for church. It was on my mind as Acacia and I stretched the increase of our financial pledge for 2019. It is part of how we can respond as community to have this be a place of proclaiming God’s liberation, a liberation that can be so simple as to mean that a person can come here and not need to be afraid of something so common and mundane as being able to go to the bathroom.

Now, it would be convenient if I could tell you that God is calling you to do this, calling you contribute as prophetic liberators, standing against oppressive and fearful culture, that God wants you to open your hearts and open your minds and open your wallets for this work, and that since you are faithful, you will respond, “Here I am! Send me!”

But, as usual, it’s not so convenient as that. A nice phrase is that God doesn’t call the equipped but equips the called. But this isn’t even really that.

Last week, Jonah was repeatedly told to go to Nineveh, an equivalent of being sent to Nazi Berlin to proclaim God’s love. But in this Bible passage, God doesn’t choose Isaiah. God doesn’t direct his mission. God doesn’t call him especially. There’s nothing that would say Isaiah was special or particularly qualified. He identifies himself as a sinner among sinners, one of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips.

The divine response is to purify him. That is what makes him ready. Then, though uncalled, he responds. This is apparently almost accidental, prophetic vocation and righteousness by association, by proximity, coincidence.

For this stewardship Sunday, I can’t tell you the right thing to do is to give more, that God is expecting it of you. All I can do is proclaim again the word of purity, touching your lips with the hot coal that may provoke your response, announcing to you that all your sins are forgiven and your guilt is removed.

Fortunately, that is also why you may be here. It’s not quite a smoke-filled temple, not quite the intimidation of majesty with a mere drape of a robe overflowing the space. You’re met only by a scruffy bespectacled pastor, not the terrifying angels flitting about. (Sidenote: biblical angels are more scary than pretty. These six-winged beasts called seraphim’s name means “burning.” It’s the same word for poisonous serpents. These are fiery sneaky snaky obscure angels.) For all the difference of trepidation in the story versus sacrilegious me, of a holy, holy, holy vision versus unadorned familiarity of the Blessing Room, you may still come for interaction with divine presence.

And encountering that presence, you may have Isaiah’s realization that you fall short, that you aren’t very holy, holy, holy, that you don’t do all that well, so there could be reasons to fear. Plus you’re stuck living in a culture breathing threats with lies and hatred. Being amid a people of unclean lips may even sadly be church culture of gossip in small circles, or meetings where we get worked up and fail to speak as kindly or hopefully as we should.

The reading is similarly situated amid a specific religious and political landscape, in Jerusalem at a transition of power, from King Uzziah. It’s not a time when things are going all that well. God’s people are a mess, rebelling against what God would want. The book of Isaiah begins, “Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who are utterly estranged!” (1:4) Not the best heart-warming description.

Facing such rotten times, there may be a reaction of wanting to hunker down, just to find a pleasant diversion, to try to forget about it all, certainly to hide from the danger, much less to be wary of divine parental discipline. But in those ancient hard times, when rulers could be no good and culture was corrupt, something inspired God’s prophets to step forward. God’s work needed to be done, was begging to be done. And some unusual suspects got swept up into it.

So like Isaiah, here you are, amid a surprising encounter with the divine, transforming you and your place in culture. As you look to our world, to what still needs to be improved, to the work to come, your lips are touched, are cleansed, unsealed—not so you can tout your own plans or accomplishments, not to turn to celebrating the victories of our side, but to proclaim God’s glory of liberation, from a God who fills creation, a God more mighty than we can possibly envision, but who abounds in steadfast love and loves to hang out with sinners and failures, in a vulgar culture and here in unholy hypocritical religious circles, and coming into your daily regular unspecial life.

So I can’t tell you that this God expects you to take another look at your pledge sheets, to reconsider, to leap up with a grand “Here I am” readiness to do more of your part. In fact, this God probably has reason to expect the opposite. But the work needs to be done, if nothing else so that everyone can safely and comfortably go to the bathroom. That’s part of God’s mission.

Even if you don’t have some eagerness or special thing to contribute, if you just happen to be in this holy place around this holy conversation, still God loves you and reaches out to forgive you and purify you. You are made holy, not because you deserve it, whether you ask for it or not, and even though you may not know what to do with it. Simply since here God’s word proclaims liberation.


Isaiah: A Child is Born

sermon on Isaiah 9:1-7


“Unto us a child is born.” If I asked you who this is talking about, you would say…? The occasion of remembering this event, then,  is the holiday of…? That sounded like a resoundingly unanimous “Jesus” and “Christmas!”

It’s almost like that standard church joke that the answer to every question must be Jesus. I’d say I’m really into Jesus and can hardly stop talking about the guy, but this does create an interesting conundrum. In this section of Isaiah, there are three spots that reference a little child: in chapter 7, here in chapter 9, and again in chapter 11.

Chapter 7 is used about Jesus. That’s where we pick up the term Immanuel, which means “God-with-us,” and which we reiterate in our creed today. I believe that’s exactly what Jesus came to embody, the sense that God is with us from birth to death, to know your joys and laughter and feasting celebrations, and is with you in sickness and weeping and when you’re left out and suffering injustice. All that about Jesus is quickly summarized by that term Immanuel.

So that Isaiah passage on Immanuel is referenced in Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew really likes citations of Old Testament passages. He especially gives us the sense that old writings are fulfilled in Jesus, though again and again we reiterate that these weren’t only waiting for Jesus to be true. He may be a special embodiment of these writings, but we’ll also notice the validity they have apart from him.

At any rate, Matthew picks up Isaiah 7:14 and says, “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.’” Now, we’re not going to delve today into discussions of how “virgin” might be a mistranslation of what simply was “young woman,” and what that means about Mary and about the birth of Jesus.

Instead, we’ll move on to Isaiah 11, the third of the passages referring to a child. This one isn’t directly connected to Jesus anyplace in our Bibles, even though it’s nice imagery. It includes what’s typically called the Peaceable Kingdom: the wolf shall live with the lamb, the cow and the bear shall graze, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and a little child shall lead them. I may be predisposed to like that one, since all the carnivores convert to become vegetarian, but it is also so beautiful as harmony among creation, that this vision of what God intends isn’t only about humans being nice to each other, much less something that happens up on a heavenly cloud, but involves all God’s creatures.

With one child passage, then, used for Jesus and one not, that brings us back to our own reading. This one is also directly applied by the Gospel of Matthew to Jesus, though probably not in the way you’d expect. It isn’t related to his birth. It has nothing to do with Jesus as the child who is born or naming him as the prince of peace.

The verse of our reading that is picked up actually just locates the start of Jesus’ ministry around the lake of Galilee, an explanation from Matthew for why something important would happen in a Podunk place, and it’s even phrased as if Jesus would go there just because he knew the Bible verse from Isaiah. Plus, it’s not so much that the verse is fulfilled from Jesus as that it is fulfilled for the people who happened to live around him, that they are the people who have sat in darkness and the region and shadow of death. They have been hurting and oppressed and left out, and the message is that God was mindful in saving them.

We’ll return to the importance of that, but let’s also pause with the sense of that “unto us a child is born” as a Christmas message in our minds and hearts and as a shape of our faith. That’s not a bad thing, by any means. It can be right and proper to perceive Jesus here. But it wasn’t what Isaiah intended. He wasn’t picturing Jesus, much less shepherds and oxen and a manger. Not that those don’t fit. That’s entirely correlated with the same God, and Jesus was an ideal (or the ideal?) embodiment of Isaiah’s words.

But Isaiah meant a different baby. It may have been Hezekiah, a future king and son of Ahaz. Maybe Isaiah was envisioning that Hezekiah would eventually be a good ruler and would bring different leadership to the nation. But it may just have been Isaiah was trying to turn faith away from military and human decisions and deficiencies and back to God, back to hope.

The war imagery in this reading is first about that. See, the Assyrian Empire were the baddest dudes around and the most ruthless conquerors of antiquity (Heschel, The Prophets p207). The newborn’s father, King Ahaz, was trying to strategize allegiances to avoid brutal defeat. But instead of the force of armed alliances, Isaiah says hope is in God. That is what will end the reign of terror, what will mean the burdensome yoke of submission and oppressive rod of intimidation will be broken, the stomping boots and bloody clothes destroyed and forgotten.

The shape of this hope is portrayed in the little phrase “as on the day of Midian,” referring to a story from the book of Judges (ch6-7). Midian had troops too many to count plundering the crops and impoverishing the people. The prophetic reminder then was that God is a God of liberation, from Exodus to that day and onward. Just as for Isaiah, that message restricts hope to the work of God, as thousands from the Israelite army were sent home and a small crew of 300 soldiers was all that remained, but they scared off the Midianites simply with trumpets and torches.

Isaiah ups the ante by not even having 300 soldiers left, but merely a baby. How will the Assyrian Empire, the most fearsome army ever, be overcome? Well, unto us a child is born! As the foremost author on the prophets, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, tells us:

A gulf was separating prophet and king in their thinking and understanding. What seemed to be a terror to Ahaz was a trifle in Isaiah’s eyes. The king, seeking to come to terms with the greatest power in the world, was ready to abandon religious principles in order to court the emperor’s favor. The prophet who saw history as the stage for God’s work, where kingdoms and empires rise for a time and vanish, perceived a design beyond the mists and shadows of the moment. (p83)

We, of course, proclaim something similar in the birth of Jesus. Just as those titles in Isaiah—wonderful counselor, mighty God, prince of peace—were titles stolen away from foreign rulers, so also when an angel announced “to you is born this day a savior,” it was stealing the title from Caesar Augustus in Rome, who called himself lord and savior and bringer of peace. But no longer could the domineering commander of the largest empire be the one seen to control the fate of the world. Our wellbeing, our hope comes from God alone.

That returns us to today. We’ve said the words of the prophets were first for their own time, secondly applied to Jesus, and, third, continue to be alive for us. We, too, are the people who have walked in darkness and dwelt in the shadow of death. We know tramping warriors and roaring F-16s and nuclear threats. We know the rod of oppressors’ yokes that are debts holding us captive. We know garments that are threadbare with hunger and torn from crawling through barbed wire seeking refuge and bloodied from lack of healthcare, and life is never right with much too much sadness. If you don’t know those things, if you’re not seeing them around you, if you identify with the empire, then you’re ignoring the reality of your siblings, and Isaiah won’t stand for that, either. Our lives, our hurting world, the marginalized and imprisoned and outcast, all nations, the vastness of creation needs release from the terrible oppressive might that would seem to be undefeatable.

We need the hope of God who comes not to destroy the destroyer and cause larger fear, but comes persistently, everlastingly, for peace and joy and love. A God who will be made known and change the world even in the finite fragility of a birth.

Yes, of course, we proclaim that in Jesus. We proclaim that the heart of God, the soul of God, the very identity and image of God’s presence in our world was found in a manger, far from fortress might, homeless and surrounded by stink. That hope proved a different path for peace on earth, and even the threatening injustice that tried to execute and bury that hope could not prevail. Death lost its sting.

But we don’t only look back to Jesus. We continue to see that presence of Jesus and the with-us God now. This passage resonates not only for baby prince Hezekiah or newborn Jesus in a barn. With every birth, Isaiah’s message again and again is true. With the miracle of new life, with precious and tender beauty, within your own families, a child born is the hope that prevails beyond any catastrophe of violence. As the cliché reminds us, having a baby changes everything, including your worldview and sense of the future.

And that sacrament of God’s blessing for us in the vision of youth is with us this morning, as we are reminded the very children here in our midst are a sign of hope, surprising us by continuing to proclaim simply in their existence that death and violence are not what is important or definitive or ultimate, because our light and our exultation, liberation and unstoppable life itself come from God. That’s not just a Christmas message. That’s good news we need any day. So thank you, children, for proclaiming it for us today. Amen



An Offensive Highway

sermon for 3rd Sunday of Advent

Isaiah35:1-10; Matthew11:2-11


With the unexpected expectations we’re encountering during Advent, the twists and turns and surprises to heighten our hope, today we find ourselves on an offensive highway.

Recall slippy or blocked roads you traversed to get here on this snowy day. Or picture that Beltline with a traffic jam, lanes closed for construction and then you see flashing lights around an accident because a deer ran out. Yet even as those agitate your nerves, they aren’t the offensive highways. Remarkably, that comes with Isaiah envisioning the opposite of those stretches of road, though it will take us another moment to get to why it’s offensive.

Isaiah’s vision of a lovely highway starts with a roadside beautification project, a barren area brought to bloom, a sunbaked desert expanse turned to a lush oasis of crocus flowers, and what had seemed drably lifeless instead filled with abundant joy. Already that scenic highway is a different picture than the monotony of some long car trip on an interstate.

Still, it’s no byway in Isaiah’s vision, not just for those looking for the pleasant diversion of a side trip. No, this road is for everyone. Since we’re accustomed to hopping into a car to take us most anywhere, it has lost some shock, but for ancient people who traveled only by foot, it’s astonishing that the blind would be able to find their way and the lame would have strength for the journey.

For a sense of that promise, I read these verses in the surgical prep room before Dorothea Torstenson’s knee surgery, and you’d better believe she heard this as good news: “make firm the feeble knees, be strong, do not fear! Here is your God who will come to save you. Then the lame shall leap like a deer.” Sure, Dorothea had still been able to get around, but this sense of mobility that might enable her to get back onto a bike and to visit museums and even to stand around to chat after worship, this is exactly the promise she yearned for. She even joked about dancing like a deer in worship today to illustrate it!

That’s a sense of Isaiah’s envisioned highway. To go a step further, he says you don’t need GPS on this trip or even how to read a map. In another of my favorite Bible verses, Isaiah proclaims “no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.” There’s no way to get lost, no risk of falling off this route, even fools.

In Isaiah’s time that was extraordinarily good news for a people who had felt abandoned, with no way home for generations. These people had suffered first under the Assyrian Empire until 300 years later in 587 BC they were defeated, destroyed, carried away, and held captive by the Babylonians, with no way to return home, to their temple and their cultural practices and the life that they so longed to have. Dreaming of home wasn’t the good ol’ days but ancient history, receding ever further into the past.

Home. An extraordinarily good word. A release from what imprisons and a return to life. We might have sense of that longing for college students far away and returning for winter break and getting to be back amid familiar and comfortable places. You may long for bygone traditions of a family that has fractured and found other ways of celebrating, wishing for restoration and resuming what you miss. Or it’s in the song “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams,” written from the perspective of soldiers stationed overseas during World War II.

But from that bittersweet tune crooned by Bing Crosby, it’s still a long way to offense, so we need to turn from Isaiah’s proclamation of abundant homecoming, a celebration so joyful that the land itself will excitedly welcome exiles home and so insistent for all that none will miss out on the journey or even need roadside assistance, from there we turn to the offense of the Gospel reading.

John the Baptist had sent messengers to ask about Jesus. Jesus replies his mission has been what Isaiah envisioned: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

But there’s a distinction, as Jesus concludes: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Isn’t this extraordinarily good stuff? Who would take offense? Well, John the Baptist for starters. Last week we heard John’s proclamation in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord, making paths straight for the coming Anointed One. He was setting expectations that the Christ would come with a raging fire, burning the chaff, clearing the threshing floor, chopping trees out of the way. Instead Jesus came not to consume and clear but to heal and share freeing good news, for the sick and hurting and poor and outcast. That subverted John’s expectations and maybe caused offense. That wasn’t the Messiah he made way for or the kind of Lord for whom he was preparing.

Jesus then rubs in the offense with a pretty heavy backhanded compliment: “no one is greater than the John the Baptist; yet (!) the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than” John. What does that mean? Well, Jesus started his first sermon with these words: “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3). So much for John’s greatness; even if you are spiritually inept and lacking in any holiness or one of those fools who would tend to lose the highway, still the kingdom is yours and (ipso facto) you’re greater than John the Baptist.

Jesus ends that first bit of preaching in the Beatitudes reiterating: “blessed are those who are persecuted, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:10). An obvious fact is that if you’re being persecuted it means someone’s against you, trying to claim you’re undeserving, and certainly not great or holy or blessed by God. So when Jesus stands on behalf of the persecuted, the poor in spirit, or (maybe slightly less apparent to our perspective) the sick and hurting, he is offending the offender. He rejects the persecutor. He upends our expectations.

As Jesus stands on your behalf, in spite of your poverty of spirit, he is causing offense to those who have been striving to enrich their spirits and were feeling proud of their piety. In bringing good news to the poor, he contradicts those who claim that wealth is a blessing from God. In curing disease and healing Dorothea and all who need health care, Jesus stands against those who write us off in our disabilities and our aging or who would claim we need to earn our own strength and wellbeing or say that our weak flesh is corrupt and cursed by God.

As we go with Jesus on this way toward home, toward the will of God, down a beautiful highway lined with celebration and accompanied by those who need the work of seeing, hearing, cleansing, freeing, life out from death and good news amid poverty, this way is bound to offend. That this is God’s highway is offensive to those who don’t want God to do these things, who want it to be their way on the highway. But, as Isaiah saw, God’s promise is uninterruptable.

Now, we may find ourselves on both sides of that message, occasionally resistant to the bounty of blessing, and occasionally overflowing in joyful gratitude that we are the fools who won’t be left lost or manage to go astray from God’s extraordinary goodness.

Two closing examples for that split, that dichotomous pairing where God’s highway goes right through our society: UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank was the keynote speaker at the Wis. Council of Churches annual meeting this week. Amid adverse state budgets, she talked of defending the university and advocating for the faculty, when being hired for “thinking is not always an appreciated activity.” If that seems sadly laughable, she also noted that for every $1 the public invests through taxes, the university returns $24 to the economy of our state. It should be a no-brainer, the obvious way to go, and yet some still find education offensive.

Second example: in preparation for that meeting, I was reading a book by Chancellor Blank. She’s a committed member of the UCC and describes how important her faith is as a framework amid difficult decisions. She helped write the denominational statement on economics back in the 1980’s and the book I’m reading is called Do Justice: Linking Christian Faith and Modern Economic Life. In it she presents another of these offensive conundrums for us, with the words of Mary we’re singing during this Advent season. She writes, “Those who have worked hard to achieve economic security respond very differently to the news that God feeds the hungry without charge and sends the rich away empty (Luke 1:53) than do those who are struggling with unemployment or discrimination” (17).

This is God’s broad highway, inviting us all along to make the world more beautiful and filled with celebration. It’s an invitation for when we need it, and also for when we’re part of society’s foolish resistance, which maybe means we need it even more.