Sunday, July 16, 2023

HOMILY: "This Sacred Conversation"

A Meditation on Isaiah 56 and Zechariah 14
Sunday, July 16, 2023


So it’s early on a Saturday morning, early yesterday morning, and I’m lying in bed with my eyes half open. Hoping it might cool off, just a little. Thinking about everything that needs doing. Including this little homily here. And all kinds of arrangements for our move from Dover to Portsmouth next month. And, to be honest, I’m more than a little anxious about the IKEA bed frame I promised to assemble later in the day for our daughter Claire up in Portland. (Those wacky IKEA directions get me flummoxed every single time!)

So I’m lying in bed, early in the morning, and I’m musing on all that needs doing in my world. Or maybe a better word is “perseverating.” I’m perseverating on all that needs doing in a day. And I’ve slept all night with the windows wide open, all of them, entertaining the ruckus of city life, and the occasional train rumbling through downtown, welcoming any hint at all of a breeze.

And now, just as day breaks, I hear just beyond the closest of those windows, just outside our apartment, a single bird singing. Such a simple, ordinary, planet earth moment. A single bird singing. And I wish I could capture her melody for you now. It is glorious, this song: rich and sweet and holy and fresh with new life. And she sings it once, then pauses; and then she sings again, and pauses again. And this time, this next time, there’s a response. From somewhere maybe a block or two away, there’s a response to her song. Another bird, another branch, another song, just like hers, exactly like hers. And for about five minutes, around 5:30 on a Saturday morning, they sing to one another, and to me. (And I guess, to be fair, for all of downtown Dover.) It’s a hymn of sorts, this melody. An invocation of a kind. A love song to a steamy Saturday.

And I don’t know, maybe I'm just a sucker for songs, but I receive their duet as an invitation to faith, as an invitation to courage, even as an invitation to delight on a busy, humid, IKEA kind of day. There’s no way, just no way now, that that IKEA bed’s going to drag me down.


So there’s really no doubt in my mind, or in my heart, that “God is still speaking.” When a couple of city song birds serenade a cynic on a Saturday morning. God is still speaking. When a young trans friend tells his amazing story of discovery and friendship in church. God is still speaking. When protestors at Standing Rock link arms and hearts and turn away an unnecessary and unholy pipeline. God is still speaking. When the sun sets across the White Mountains, turning those white mountains into a rainbow range of wonder and light. God is still speaking. Right?

And that’s the messaging campaign, of course, that energized our United Church of Christ a decade ago. “God is still speaking.” And I loved it then, and I still love it now. And, if you remember that campaign, and I know many of you do, the language was always coupled with a graphic. A comma. And that delightful Gracie Allen line: “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” Never place a period where God has placed a comma. The idea being, of course, that our God’s commitment to revelation, our God’s intention around justice and mercy, our God’s evolving message of love—is always in motion, and always unfolding, and everywhere to be seen and heard and treasured.

“God is still speaking.” Comma! When your best friend shows up on your worst day. Comma! When Catherine York and David Ervin move us with their own interpretation of a classic. Comma! When a moose crosses your path and stumbles gloriously into the forest. Comma! When the church commits its resources to hospitality and sanctuary for refugees fleeing violence. Comma! Our God is always and everywhere at play in creation. Our God is always and everywhere singing a love song, choreographing a movement of beings that blesses us and unites us and dares us to heal what’s torn and broken. Our God is still speaking.

So why then do we invest such energy—such emotional, intellectual, spiritual energy—in reading the Bible together? In the United Church, even our progressive wing of the Christian movement, we design most every worship service around Biblical texts. And we sketch out the liturgical year—Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter—we sketch out our seasons according to Biblical patterns and insights. Why in the world are we still doing this?

If our God is still speaking, always and everywhere at play in creation, why do we build our ministry and witness around weekly readings out of a tradition that dates back thousands of years to Semitic cultures that stirred and strived and struggled and thrived in lands just east of the Mediterranean Sea, half a world away? Have you ever tried explaining this one to your friends outside the church? It baffles the 21st century mind. It seems odd, can’t we admit, that we look to this ancient collection of poetry, and storytelling, and gospel—for guidance and encouragement in a world that is so drastically, so radically not the one of Ancient Israel, Moses and the Prophets, Pilate, Jesus and the Roman Empire.

So if ‘church’ was the first in our series on things we have a hard time explaining to our friends—‘the Bible’ has to be the second. Next up.


So there’s a way to simplify all of this, release ourselves from any discomfort or doubt—and then justify the Bible once and for all. And that, of course, is to say (as some do) that the Bible is the only true and worthy Word of God, and is a necessary vehicle for the salvation of God’s people. In order to love God, in order to be saved, in order to be faithful to God’s purposes, you’ve got to read it, know it, accept it, and surrender your life to it. Good morning, good evening and good night!

But that’s not our commitment, our practice, our way of reading and listening and discerning God’s movement and spirit and purposes in the world. And in fact, we might go so far as to say that that particular Christian habit has spawned all kinds of Christian triumphalism, religious bigotry and hubris, colonialism and hatred. To say that our way is the only way, to say that our practice is the only practice, to say that our interpretation is the only interpretation is to sow so many seeds of pride, so many seeds of suspicion and distrust, so many seeds of judgment and contempt. And frankly, it doesn’t serve God’s healing, reconciling vision:

+ of peoples across the planet seeking peace, together;

+ of human communities dedicating their energies to justice and mercy;

+ of children growing up in a world where every one of their voices is cherished, where every one of their families is safe, where every one of their dreams is honored.

Instead of this narrow reading, this reading that threatens judgment should we get it wrong and promises protection and salvation only to those who get it right—instead of this way of reading the Bible: I think we want to read the Bible and commit to the Bible as a conversation. And a very particular, indeed a sacred conversation. From the first stories in Genesis through the wild visions of John in Revelation: the Bible is a wide-ranging conversation, with the Spirit of the Living God to be sure, and with communities of friends across cultures and continents, across generations and nations. The conversation is a journey—a shared journey into the mysteries of eternity, into the grace that meets us in human frailty, and into the promise and purpose of life together. And when we commit to it, it’s a journey that opens up, before us, within us, pathways to renewal and rebirth, pathways to blessing and healing, pathways to celebration and community.

Within the context of this conversation, within our sustained practice of discernment and discussion, God speaks to the church as God has been speaking to so many biblical communities over so many generations. And we have to listen. Actively and faithfully. With our minds and hearts. And we have to probe. Bravely and honestly. With our minds and hearts. And then we have to open our community itself to the winds of Spirit, and to the insights of ancestors (yes) and contemporary pilgrims too. The Word of God is revealed—not always as clearly, as unequivocally as we’d like—but it’s revealed in the process of our reading and listening, in the real life work we do in service and ministry together, in the ways we respond to the cries of the oppressed in our midst.


Let’s notice this morning that the Bible is not just one voice, saying the same blessed thing, reiterating the same sacred truth, over and over and over again. Just as the church is not one person, one voice, one truth—insisting on doctrinal agreement or rigid fundamentalism. The Bible is instead a community in conversation. And in the two readings before us this morning we see that the conversation is sometimes riddled with contradiction and disagreement. As just about every human conversation is!

Both of these prophets—Isaiah and Zechariah—are preaching to a people in transition. They may even be contemporaries, or relatively so—preaching to the New Jerusalem gathered again after a couple of generations in exile. Both are speaking to their community’s faith in a God of justice; a God who desires the community’s faithfulness, partnership and devotion. But holy smokes, they come to different positions. And they inspire wildly contrasting futures for God’s people. 

Isaiah articulates a vision of God’s desire that is radically inclusive and joyfully international and universally welcoming. Isaiah’s language is poetry, of course: the genre of God’s imagination in scripture. And it is the kind of poetry (especially this 56th chapter) that recasts God’s dream for the people and the land, and then invites the community’s openminded, openhearted collaboration. This is beautiful, beautiful stuff. Gospel stuff:
“Do not let the foreigner (or the immigrant) joined to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’; and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” (Isaiah 56)
Should foreigners, immigrants, eunuchs be included in the society of God’s people? Or should the people aim for conformity, purity and ethnic and religious homogeneity? Well, of course, Isaiah insists that the society itself would cease to be God’s—would cease to be God’s—if the people turned their backs on the vulnerable, on the misunderstood, on the oppressed. It is in the very nature of God to inspire communities of people in which the vulnerable, the misunderstood and the oppressed occupy privileged space. Again, it is in the very nature of God—not simply that God’s people tolerate the outsider, or show gracious care to the strange, but that God’s people create a new and inspired spirit, an egalitarian spirit, in which all of us are equally blessed and equally honored and equally necessary to the community’s well-being.

And that’s what this Isaiah’s poetry is all about: “For my house”—says the Living God—“shall be a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.” This is a God who does not distinguish or divide—but gathers and welcomes and loves us all.

So I hope it’s obvious enough that Zechariah’s poetry—and this is in the Bible too, right—I hope it’s obvious that Zechariah’s arguing for a much less inclusive, a much less gracious, a much less accommodating faith. Zechariah takes the side of conformity, purity, ethnic and religious homogeneity. So Zechariah’s God seems to be given not to “gathering” and “joining” (those are Isaiah’s verbs) but to “striking” and “fighting.” Setting peoples against one another. Dividing them up. The clean and unclean. The saved and unsaved. Zechariah imagines a God inciting panic among foreigners and even using a plague to shame those with other gods and dreams, and a Godly community waging war against all comers. Needless to say, Zechariah didn’t go to Isaiah’s school of prophetic imagination!


The point is this. There is, in the Bible itself, a kind of “contest of narratives.” This is the observation of the wonderful theologian Walter Brueggemann. There is, in the Bible itself, a kind of “contest of narratives.” And to commit to this text as a spiritual practice, to commit to a Biblical faith as we do in this place and in this space every Sabbath—involves so much more than memorization and doctrinal agreement. I think, in a sense, this is the great insight of the Protestant Reformation and the particular genius of our own Reformed Tradition within it. To commit to a Biblical faith is to join the conversation, to participate actively in this contest of narratives.

Because I read these two texts with all of you, because I read them with Ernie and Marie in my heart, and with Elena and Liang and Sephora in my heart, I am profoundly moved by the vision and spirit of Isaiah. Profoundly moved and inspired. I hear God say “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” and I get it. I feel it. And I believe it to be true and right, and our Christian calling right here, right now. Zechariah’s war has no place in my church. Isaiah’s vision rises like a song in my heart.

Because I read these two texts with all of you, I hear the Spirit of a Living God in Isaiah’s poetry this morning. The Spirit of a Living God inviting us to throw the doors of the church open wide to all God’s children. The Spirit of a Living God insisting we turn from all bigotry and prejudice to actualize a radically Open & Affirming gospel in our midst. I hear only fear, only distrust, only impoverished versions of fundamentalism in Zechariah. I hear the Word of God in Isaiah. Because we read these texts together. Because a Biblical faith is all about conversation and discernment. And because sometimes, like today, we have to make a choice.

So, yes, my friends. You are deeply committed to a tradition that centers the Bible in weekly worship and devotion. But that centering is and always will be a call to conversation and discernment. And that centering is and always will be an invitation to a covenant of curiosity and compassion, and service and study. It’s a conversation that opens our hearts to the cries of the poor, to the needs of our children, to the sweet songs of morning birds. And to the Spirit of a Living God. A God who is, yes, still speaking.

Amen and Ashe.