Sunday, September 6, 2020

HOMILY: "Our Faith is Gospel"

Sunday, September 6, 2020

First Sunday in Early Advent




So we’re embracing our exile this fall.  We’re trusting that there are lessons to be learned in this exile—that God is preparing us for new modes of service and new opportunities in ministry and new challenges.  It’s a hard year, and it’s been a hard year; and we’ve got losses to grieve and broken communities to heal.  But we’re looking now to our ancestors for encouragement and inspiration: that even in exile, maybe especially in exile, God stirs in God’s people to awaken a deeper love, to encourage a deeper commitment, to see God’s face in the ordinary and the extraordinary moments and relationships of our lives.


O come, O come Emmanuel / And ransom captive Israel,

That mourns in lonely exile here / Until the Son of God appear,

Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel / Shall come to Thee of Israel.


So we’re playing a bit with the liturgical seasons this fall.  Rather than simply following the script, we’re improvising and experimenting and trusting in the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.  This month, for example, we’ll lean into an Early Advent.  An Early Advent.  What does it mean to live in expectation?   What does it mean to be a people waiting for freedom, a people preparing for liberation, a people on the lookout for the Son of God?  Rather than waiting for December, we’ll jump right in this month: exploring some of the themes and stories we often read just before Christmas.  We’ll read Isaiah today, and later in the month a couple of the Mary stories that invite reflection and courage in our season of waiting, our season of expectation.  What does it mean to live in expectation?


I’ll be forming a couple of small groups this fall – one or two online, and maybe one or two outdoors here at the church.  And I hope these small groups will turn to the themes of this Early Advent, and to the other seasons we meet this fall.  I trust there’ll be lively conversation about faith and spirituality, yes, and how faith meets the challenge of racial injustice, the challenge of disorientation and despair, the challenge of democratic engagement in a season of suspicion.  I think these small groups will be a great companion to the worship we’ll do online and otherwise this fall.  So watch for the sign up instructions in this week’s enews, and next week’s service too.



587 is the big date in the Hebrew Bible.  Most of the Hebrew Bible spins around and reflects on the exile of Jerusalem’s leaders in 587 bce.  From the east, Babylon had designs on trade routes and supply routes to the Mediterranean.  In their own territory, they needed cheap labor for canal projects and building programs.  So the Babylonian take-over of Jerusalem, in 587, was somewhat predictable; but nonetheless devastating and spiritually demoralizing for the People of God.  If God is Love, what do you make of the destruction of the holy city, the great temple, their way of life?  If God is Justice, what do you make of exile, deportation, the removal of priests and artists and teachers and leaders to a foreign land?  587.


As always, among Jews and peoples of faith, there were a variety of responses.  Even competing prophetic responses.  For some prophets, the exile unleashed a wave of shame and blame.  Somebody must have done something wrong.  God’s people must have really fallen (hard) from grace.  This is undoubtedly a strand of thinking and preaching we find in scripture.  This wave of shame and blame.  If things go so terribly wrong, if God’s people have suffered so unimaginably, somebody (or somebodies) must have done something sinfully and woefully wrong.  Perverted the cause of justice.  Gotten lax and loose with worship.  Something to explain the exile.


And this is where Isaiah (or as this morning’s prophet is often called Deutero or Second Isaiah) comes in.  Isaiah has a different idea, a different approach to the exilic situation, to the exiled community.  “Comfort, O comfort my people,” says your God.  “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term.”  Comfort my people.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.  In the context of the prophetic debate, in the spiritual environment of the exile, this kind of poetry is really quite stunning and beautiful. 


Isaiah’s saying: The time for shaming and blaming is well past.  The time for castigating the people and berating the people is long gone.  God’s prophet hears a word of comfort.  God’s prophet hears a word of encouragement.  God’s prophet hears a word that renews and inspires and excites the people of God.  No more shame.  No more blame.  In exile, the time has come for God’s people to speak tenderly, to speak of hope and purpose and possibility and grace.  “Comfort, O comfort my people,” says your God.  “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term.” 


And I think this is a clarion call for the church, for our church, this fall.  It’s so easy – this year, of all years – it’s so easy to fall into the blaming and shaming cycle.  All those folks who dismiss science.  All those folks who refuse to wear masks.  All those folks who insist on going to bars or beaches or crowded parties or churches.  Somebody’s got to be to blame.  How could they be so callous?  Or the fools who continue to support an unhinged government.  Or the Chinese or the Russians or socialists or the moderates.  Somebody’s got to be to blame.  How could they be so foolish?  And the criticism often has merit.  It’s not that there’s no reason to speak up.  But the blaming, and the shaming really gets us nowhere.  The blaming and shaming stokes the fires of cynicism and distrust and division.


So Isaiah says, scripture says: The people of God preach gospel.  The people of God offer good news.  The people of God bless and anoint, we don’t blame and shame.  We speak tenderly to the brokenhearted.  We speak tenderly to the grieving and frightened.  We speak tenderly (and honestly) to one another.  That’s our calling.  In exile. 


We’ve got a big year ahead of us.  We’ve got an intense fall season before us now.  I want you to join me in claiming this vocation.  I want you to join me in owning calling.  We will take on the urgent call to racial justice.  And we will be brave in addressing systemic racism and entrenched racism; and we will dream big and act bold.  But we will speak graciously to our community, and tenderly to the people.  And we will resist every urge to judge and demean.  We will resist every urge to blame and shame.


And we will courageously engage in the political process.  Please engage in the political process.  Vote on Tuesday.  Work for a candidate or a cause that inspires you.  Democracy is a nonviolent project, my friends, and the nonviolent church celebrates it and lifts it up.  But we will engage in that process graciously, and we will speak tenderly to our adversaries.  And we will resist every urge to blame and shame.


And by God, we will continue to pray for healing, we will continue to practice good public health, we will persist in following scientific guidance and truths.  We will encourage our neighbors to do the same.  We will continue to be a light, a source of hope, as our state, as our nation, as our world moves through this terrible pandemic—which has cost so many life and love and deep distress.  But we will not give in to cynicism and despair; we will not give in to meanspiritedness and rage.  We will not blame and we will not shame.


“Comfort, O comfort my people,” says your God.  “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term.” 


Our faith, after all, is gospel.  Our covenant draws its life and energies from good news.  God’s love is alive and on the move.  Even in exile.  Especially in exile.  God’s love for you and for me.  God’s love for our neighbors and, yes, for our adversaries and enemies.  God’s love for every sparrow in the trees, and for every chameleon in the forest, and for every child of every parent everywhere.  Somewhere, in your heart, in your soul, that love is rising.  Somehow, in your heart, in your soul, that love is calling. 


Let’s lean in.  Let’s accept the call.  Let’s be the people of God that speaks tenderly to Jerusalem.  Let’s preach good news together.  Because our God is on the move.  And that’s always good news.