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My People, Our God

My People, Our God

Ezekiel 11:14-25

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

19 March 2017

 

 

    The next four weeks I'll be preaching from the book of the prophet Ezekiel. We don't get to Ezekiel very often. One reason is that Ezekiel's prophecies can be very harsh. But contained within this book are valuable insights into covenant, our focus this Lenten season, identified with the theme Ties that Bind.

    By way of introduction to the prophet Ezekiel, listen to what was written about him by Elie Wiesel, Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Peace Prize Winner,

 

No prophet was endowed with such vision—no other vision was as extreme. No man has shed such light on the future, for no other light was as forceful in tearing darkness apart. But, then, no one had ever seen such darkness, the total darkness that precedes the breaking of the dawn. . . .

When he is harsh, he seem pitiless; when he is kind, his graciousness spills over. . . .

It is enough to follow his gaze to be uplifted by the hope it conjures. Look when he orders you to do so, and you will be rewarded by the conviction that hope is forever founded and forever justified. Listen to his words, to his voice, and you will feel strong—stronger than death, more powerful than evil.

 

So, with that incredible introduction, hear now these words from the prophet Ezekiel:

 

Ezekiel 11:14-25

 

Then the word of the Lord came to me:

Mortal, your kinsfolk, your own kin,
your fellow exiles, the whole house of Israel, all of them,
are those of whom the inhabitants of Jerusalem have said,
"They have gone far from the Lord; to us this land is given for a possession."

 

Therefore say:

Thus says the Lord God:

Though I removed them far away among the nations,
and though I scattered them among the countries,
yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a little while
in the countries where they have gone.

 

Therefore say:
Thus says the Lord God:
I will gather you from the peoples,
and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered,
and I will give you the land of Israel.
When they come there,
they will remove from it all its detestable things and all its abominations.
I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them;
I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh,
so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them.
Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God.
But as for those whose heart goes after their detestable things and their abominations,
I will bring their deeds upon their own heads, says the Lord God.

 

Then the cherubim lifted up their wings, with the wheels beside them;
and the glory of the God of Israel was above them.
And the glory of the Lord ascended from the middle of the city,
and stopped on the mountain east of the city.
The spirit lifted me up and brought me in a vision by the spirit of God into Chaldea,
to the exiles.
Then the vision that I had seen left me.
And I told the exiles all the things that the Lord had shown me.

 

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God among us,

For the Word of God within us,

Thanks be to God.

 

 

    When the nation of Judah was defeated by the Babylonian armies of King Nebuchadnezzar and many of the people were taken into exile, their faith was shaken. How could they trust in the promises of God if God had failed them so?

    Have you ever asked that question? I suppose many of you have at some dark point in your life.

    You see, God had made so many promises. To Abraham and Sarah there was the promise that they would become a great nation and that their descendants would live upon the land. When this Promised Land was settled, it was to be an insurance against slavery and occupation, a way for the people to provide for themselves, and to be free, living good lives. The promise had come to David and his descendants that they would occupy the throne in Jerusalem forever, ensuring peace and security to the people.

    And, yet, here they found themselves—defeated, occupied, their land ruined, their people exiled. As the psalm says, they sat by the waters of Babylon and cried. How could they trust in the promises of God if God had failed them so?

    In the midst of this crisis, the prophet Ezekiel spoke a vision he had received from God. He saw strange beasts, driving wheels within wheels, forming a flaming chariot. And on the chariot sat a throne and on the throne a form like a human form but made of fire and light. And everything was bathed in the splendid colors of the rainbow.

This wild and fantastical image conveyed a powerful message—God was on the move. God could not contained by the land of Israel or the Temple in Jerusalem. No, God remained with the people, in the exile, in Babylon where they wept. But, not only was God present with them, God was working on their restoration.

    This was a radically new vision of who God is, which spoke to the current needs of the traumatized people. But the message went further.

    Ezekiel also claimed that God was responsible for all the suffering the people had endured. God had brought the evil upon them as a way of punishing them for their unrighteousness.

    Of course this idea sounds quite harsh to us, for it is. This is not the theory of evil and suffering that Jesus teaches us in the New Testament.

    Ezekiel, you see, was traumatized and part of a traumatized generation.

Last autumn I read Holy Resilience: The Bible's Traumatic Origins by David M. Carr. It's a good book, which explores the Bible through the lens of trauma theory, in particular looking for the ways that post-traumatic stress disorder may have impacted the authors of the text. This is a fascinating idea, and most clearly apparent in the prophet Ezekiel

David Carr explains that by claiming that God was responsible for the suffering of the people, "Ezekiel offered his contemporaries a way to make sense of what had happened to them. It allowed them to interpret Jerusalem's destruction and the exile in a way that left [God] in control, a way that did not assume [God] was powerless or did not care."

    Yet, in the process of making this claim, which we might perceive as harsh, Ezekiel also helped lay the groundwork for a new understanding of God and the covenant to develop. From Ezekiel we hear God speak the powerful words, "You shall be my people, and I will be your God."

    From that insistence upon covenant loyalty and faithful presence, developed the idea of God's compassion, which we encounter in the latter parts of Isaiah in texts like the familiar Advent hymn "Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people."

So, we should understand Ezekiel as part of a long trajectory in which covenant theology ultimately leads to the loving message of Jesus.

 

    When I was a sophomore in college the wife of the pastor emeritus of my home church called me to say that her husband wanted to give me his library. Dr. Weldon Marcum had been my mother's pastor when she was growing up and he only retired when I was a kid. By the time I was in college in the early 1990's, he was suffering from Alzheimer's. According to his wife Elizabeth, before he lost the ability to recollect, he had asked her to give me his library when he could no longer use it. The time had arrived.

    So I went to their house and into his office filled with books and boxed them up. As I did so, Dr. Marcum would linger, watching me. How sad to see this once brilliant man suffering from this dreaded disease. Elizabeth kept assuaging my guilt, as I packed up a lifetime of reading and study and carried it away.

    That incredible gift launched my own pastoral library and enriches my study with old volumes that otherwise might be absent in a current pastor's collection. One such book is The Prophet of Reconstruction written in 1920 by W. F. Lofthouse, a tutor in Hebrew Language and Literature from Handsworth College in Birmingham, England.

    Lofthouse wrote in the wake of the Great War, what we now call the First World War. He wrote of "our bruised and scarred civilisation" and the great new era opening up for humankind. He believed it to be the most decisive moment in human history:

 

The stake was never so great, or so widely realised. To shake ourselves free for ever from the tyranny of war, or to be condemned to the prospect of conflicts growing steadily more savage and destructive till civilisation becomes its own murderer.

 

He concluded that at that moment "Nothing seems too good to be hoped for; nothing too evil to be feared." A frightening sense of possibility, don't you think?

    What could help in this decisive moment? Lofthouse believed the words of the prophet Ezekiel, which offered hope and renewal in the midst of catastrophe, could speak to the devastation and the need to create something new.

 

    But he isn't alone in his use of these ancient words.    

    For Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel, Ezekiel was also the crucial text for interpreting his experience and finding hope. He wrote, "No generation could understand Ezekiel as well—as profoundly—as ours."

    And in the era when AIDS was devastating gay communities, Jim Mitulski, then the pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco who conducted 500 funerals a year, turned repeatedly to Ezekiel in order to learn about "an exiled community moving from devastation to resurrection."

 

    Why does this sometimes harsh text hold such lasting power? Why is it effective in our times of catastrophe?

Because of the words spoken by God through the prophet "You shall be my people, and I will be your God."

These are words to remind us that God is always present with us, no matter where we find ourselves. They remind us that God is working for our deliverance and our salvation. God will be faithful to us and to her promises.

    So, let us trust that God is going to bind us together as a people. No more will we be alienated from God, from other people, from our best selves. God will restore our home. Ours is a lasting hope.

    


For Our Lasting Good

For Our Lasting Good

Deuteronomy 6:20-25

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

5 March 2017

 

 

    Despite having grown up in church, having completed a degree in Bible, and having been ordained just a few years before, by the turn of the millennium I was growing a little disenchanted and disengaged with church and was wondering whether ministry really was in my future. I was living in Shawnee, Oklahoma. Sadly, there is a Confederate flag rally being held in Shawnee this weekend, so you might see it on the national news.

    Part of my disenchantment was a feeling that church was growing less relevant to my life and the issues that concerned me. I delighted in the beautiful worship and close relationships I had in the church I was attending and where I was an active layman—a deacon, college Sunday school teacher, and member of the missions committee. I was longing for something more, but wasn't quite sure what it was.

    Then Tim Youmans arrived as our youth minister. Tim was just a few years older than I, and we quickly connected in our shared generational perspective on music, literature, film, television, and religion. We were both Southern Baptist kids growing more progressive as a result of our education and life experiences. Tim is now an Episcopal priest, and I'm a UCC pastor.

Those trajectories are pretty common among my group of clergy friends. You'll meet Dan Morrow next week, as he's here to preach for the twentieth anniversary of my ordination. Dan was an Oklahoma Baptist University student around this same time and now he's also an Episcopal priest. In fact he's the Canon for the Ordinary in Pennsylvania. Episcopalians have such fun titles. You can ask him next week exactly what a "Canon for the Ordinary" is.

Anyway, back to my story.

As the friendship between Tim and me was growing, and our conversations were wrestling with theological and spiritual issues, he invited me to be a sponsor for the youth retreat over the Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend.

Now, I had never had any interest in youth ministry. What I said to people who asked was "I didn't understand teenagers when I was one, and I definitely don't understand them now."

But Tim persuaded me into grudgingly agreeing to go along.

On a cold Friday evening, I parked my car at the First Baptist Church and carried my luggage, sleeping bag, and pillow onto the church bus where I met a bunch of middle and high school kids who changed my life.

 

I'm standing here as your pastor today because of Will Sims and Matt Little and Adam Shepherd and Tyler Holland and a score of other Shawnee teenagers—well they were teenagers in 2000 but are now mostly thirtysomethings with their own kids. Because it was those kids who drew me back into the vitality of church and clarified my own vocation. It was because of them that I felt called into youth ministry for the first time. It was because of them that I chose to abandon the search for academic employment and life as a tenured professor and instead took a job as an associate pastor in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

How did those kids do it?

They pestered me with their questions.

They were unrelenting. Especially Will. I know what Jesus meant when he talked about fishing for men, because when I walked onto that bus, I was caught in a net I didn't know had been thrown to ensnare me.

Through the sheer force of their personalities, their curiosity about me and what I believed, and their insisting that I become their teacher and friend, the Holy Spirit worked to renew my sense of call.

 

We live in age of individualism, materialism, and consumerism which has ripped apart the social fabric and our sense of the common good. Our corrosive politics is merely a symptom of an underlying disease. I've been trying to grasp what that underlying issue is.

Earlier this year I was reading some essays by R. R. Reno who is the editor of the journal First Things. He is a former Creighton theology professor and a very conservative thinker, with whom I have much disagreement. But in his December 30 post he wrote that "what we need in 2017 is a renewal of covenant."

Back in 2009 my colleague and friend Robin Meyers, the pastor of Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City and a very outspoken liberal, published a book entitled Saving Jesus from the Church (which we studied once during Lent by the way) in which he argued that if our nation wanted to survive we needed "a renewed understanding of the meaning of covenant."

So, here's some common ground. And it is, in fact, the common ground. Covenant is the idea that we are bound together. Robin writes that covenant is "a collective expression of gratitude and mutuality."

 

 

 

When the staff got together months ago to plan Lent we decided to focus on this idea of covenant and chose as our theme "The Ties that Bind." We will be focused on the ways that God saves us from our sins by bonding us together in mission for the world.

At our worship brainstorming party, it was suggested that we begin with the messiness of our lives in order to show how God takes the messiness and weaves it into something beautiful. So, on Ash Wednesday I asked you to consider what the mess is in your life right now. What do you need help with?

Sometime this season, today or another Sunday, I invite you to take one of the ribbons or strings or scraps of material which is in this basket here at the foot of the cross and tie it to the wire or weave it through. Let that scrap represent the thing in your life you need help with. And over the course of this season we'll watch as the messes are woven into something new.

 

 

In our moments of uncertainty and distress, God is with us—working to deliver us, and bring us to safety and abundance.

 

Central to the biblical story is this idea that we are offered a choice. We can follow our own path and accept the consequences. Or we can choose to be part of the covenant community by doing what is right and good. And God promises that that path leads to new life and blessing.

That path is "for our lasting good."

Those Shawnee kids drew me into relationship with them. And through their friendship I better understood myself and what God was calling me to do.

    This Lent, let's allow God to take the messiness of our lives and weave it into a beautiful pattern that binds us together.


Repair

I have felt the last few months that the most important task isn't opposition--as important as that is--but reweaving the moral and social fabric which has deteriorated.  Which means I, in some ways, viewed Trump as a symptom and not the disease, the cause.  This is the motivation behind much of my recent reading, writing, preaching, even the podcast.  How to restore morality, decency, faith, society, and democracy.

Today I watched this sermon which David Brooks delivered at the National Cathedral and it expresses so much of what I've been thinking and feeling.  This sermon gives more shape to my thoughts and encourages me at a point when I was doubting the direction I had chosen.  I encourage you to watch it.

 


Let Your Light Shine

Let Your Light Shine

Matthew 5:13-20

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

23 January 2011

 

 

    One can make a pretty good argument that the phrase "the city on a hill" has been one of the most influential in American life. It has sure been used frequently in our political discourse the last generation. In the 2008 presidential campaign, Governor Sarah Palin used the phrase often, every time quoting Ronald Reagan rather than Jesus, which always amused me.

    Reagan, of course, eloquently used the phrase in his calls for America to look forward with optimism rather than sinking into the malaise which characterizes much of our culture in the 1970's. When Ronald Reagan used the phrase, he was quite clear that he was quoting John Winthrop, the Puritan preacher and twelve-term governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

    Many historians have argued that Winthrop's sermon is one of the most important and influential speeches in our history, having a profound impact upon the American self-image. The sermon was entitled "A Model of Christian Charity" and was about the love which all Christians should share with each other. It was this love which would bind the community and enable it to be what God had called it to be. Winthrop delivered his sermon in 1630. The story handed down about it is that he preached it to his Puritan congregation while they were crossing the Atlantic. The image is of him standing astride the deck of the ship Arbella, the ocean wind blowing the salt spray into his face as he defined God's mission for that adventurous congregation.

    In Winthrop's sermon, the Puritans are the New Israel, called of God to change the world by living out the kingdom of God in this new promised land, an unspoiled Eden. At its best, this image has inspired us Americans to do great things. At its worst this image has led to American exceptionalism and the idea that no matter what we do, we are on a mission from God to do it. This results in triumphalism and imperialism, which is clearly not the original intention of Winthrop, who wanted a community bound together by love.

Nor is American exceptionalism the original intention of Jesus of Nazareth in the Sermon on the Mount. For him the church would be the salt of the earth, the light of the world, the city on a hill, when it lived according to this ethic which would be subversive of the powers-that-be.

 

    More influential on my thinking, was a sermon I heard preached on this passage by one of my childhood pastors, the Rev. Dr. Jerry Field. I, who have heard thousands of sermons in my lifetime, can only recall the details of a very few. But Jerry's sermon on this passage is one of them. He was my pastor at the First Baptist Church of Miami when I was growing up. He was one of my mentors, the first person to invite me to preach, at the age of fourteen. There are a handful of Jerry's images, phrases, and themes that have stuck in my memory. Growing up a Baptist, we carried our bibles with us to most religious events, so in my bible from that period in my life, in the margins next to this passage of scripture are my notes from Jerry's sermon.

    Jerry was from West Texas, where his family had farmed in the difficult conditions of that region. His sermons were often filled with down home images of farm life. So, when he came to this passage "You are the salt of the earth," Jerry turned to pickling to explain the text. I remember him going into great detail in discussing the process of canning and how the salt would turn a cucumber into a pickle.

    There were three points to Jerry's sermon, of course. He preached that salt in the pickling process does three things. It penetrates, preserves, and heals. He then extended the metaphor to encompass our mission as Christians. Just like salt and the cucumber, we are to penetrate the world, work to preserve what is good, and heal what is wrong. It is an evocative, powerful, yet simple image which has stuck with me.

    

    When I was in college I received one of the greatest gifts of my life. Dr. Weldon Marcum who was our pastor emeritus, was suffering with Alzheimer's. It was quite sad to watch this brilliant, eloquent man turn into a confused, quiet person. One day his wife Elizabeth contacted my mother and told her that the next time I was home from college she wanted me to come over to their house because Dr. Marcum wanted me to have his pastoral library. Here I was, still a teenager, in the early years of my ministry, receiving a lifetime collection. I will never be able to measure the worth of that gift.

    Contained within that library were many works on the Sermon on the Mount, commentaries from the early and middle years of the twentieth century.     One that really stands out is the book The Christ of the Mount written in 1931 by E. Stanley Jones. Jones was one of the great missionaries in the history of the church. He was an American sent by the Methodist church to India in 1907, and he remained a powerful voice in worldwide Christianity until his death in 1973. I was particularly struck by this story which Jones tells:

 

Years ago when I asked Mahatma Gandhi what we could do to naturalize Christianity in India so that it would cease to be a foreign thing, among other things he replied: "Practice your religion without adulterating it or toning it down" – and he had in mind the Sermon on the Mount. It is Mahatma Gandhi's literal insistence upon this way of acting in gaining political freedom that has startled and challenged the whole Western world. He has proved that it is possible, and that is power. This fresh discovery, by a Hindu, of a truth long buried beneath the armaments of the fighting West has been one of the most important spiritual discoveries of modern times. . . . With this challenge facing us, of a non-Christian nation acting, on a wide-spread scale, on one of the most profound principles of the Sermon on the Mount we have now no alternative but to be Christian according to this pattern, or cease to be Christians in any effective sense at all. We must now cease to embalm it. We must embody it – or abdicate.

 

    In the same decade Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who was later martyred by the Nazis, wrote The Cost of Discipleship. Written in 1937, the book contains Bonhoeffer's reflections on the Sermon on the Mount. It is a powerful Christian witness and one of the books that continues to deeply influence and convict the church.

    Bonhoeffer who knew a lot about what it meant to live according to the Sermon on the Mount. He experienced first-hand how living the ethics of Jesus could bring one into confrontation with the powers-that-be. At a time when many people kept quiet or hid for their own survival, he wrote with passion about what it meant to be the "light of the world" and a "city on a hill":

 

The followers [of Jesus] are a visible community; their discipleship visible in action which lifts them out of the world – otherwise it would not be discipleship. . . . Flight into the invisible is a denial of the call. A community of Jesus which seeks to hide itself has ceased to follow him.

 

    Here from the 1930's come two challenges to the Christian church. One comes from the Indian independence movement, which was the first major social movement to take its organizing principles from the Sermon on the Mount. That in itself stands as an indictment upon Christian history, as Stanley Jones himself understood. The other challenge is from a Christian pastor who was martyred by his ostensibly Christian nation because he too lived by the Sermon on the Mount.

 

Jesus calls us to live in such a way that we change the world. What does it really mean to be salt and light? How can we live the good life that radiates out, affecting the world around us?

    For one thing, we have to "let is shine." The old spiritual, which we will sing in a moment, encourages us that despite whatever darkness or difficulties we face, and no matter how small or feeble our little light might feel in the moment, we should "let it shine."

    And our little light gains power and influence when it is combined with other little lights, so that together the church might be the shining city on the hill. One of the first great interpreters of the Sermon on the Mount was St. John Chrysostom, who preached on these passages for his urban congregation in Antioch in the fourth century. Chrysostom contended that in the Sermon was a comprehensive vision of human life and society. Here was all that one needed to live the virtuous life, and that that virtuous life would be lived in new Christian republic fashioned upon the teachings of Jesus. For St. John, [note, the rest of this sentence is paraphrased from Margaret M. Mitchell's essay on Chrysostom in The Sermon on the Mount Through the Centuries] Jesus introduced a new politics which called humanity to a new homeland and a "provision for a higher life."

    One recent theologian who often used this passage from the Sermon on the Mount and the images of salt and light is the Anglican John R. W. Stott, who was also one of the founders of the modern evangelical right and its profound influence on politics and culture. Though I have profound disagreements with most everything John Stott has taught, I couldn't help but resonate with some of his teaching on this particular passage.

    Stott claims that what we get here is "Jesus' picture of God's alternative society." Just like Chrysostom argued, we are to form a counter-cultural society. But Stott was also clear that Jesus was teaching that we couldn't withdraw from the wider world, "Christians are not to remain aloof from society," he wrote, "but are to become immersed in its life." But while engaging actively with the world, we are to live differently because we are made different in Christ. In his 1978 book Christian Counter-Culture, Stott wrote:

[If the church accepted Jesus'] standards and values as here set forth, and lived by them, it would be the alternative society he always intended it to be, and would offer to the world an authentic Christian counter-culture.

 

    So, now maybe you realize that I've assembled a chorus of voices speaking to us from different times, different places, even different theological perspectives. The urban pastor in ancient Antioch to a farm boy from West Texas. From the Indian independence movement led by a Jesus-inspired Hindu to the modern evangelical right. From the ships bringing the Puritans to a new world. And from a martyr witnessing against the Nazis. But they are all telling us roughly the same thing.

    Jesus calls us to live in such a way that we change the world. If we live as Jesus taught us to live, then we will fashion a new kind of people. And that new kind of people will be a witness to the world that something different, something wonderful, something marvelous is happening. Let it Shine!


Epic Scale

Epic Scale

Isaiah 49:1-13

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

15 January 2017

 

      

 

    Have you ever been discouraged? Exhausted? Maybe even defeated? Then today's scripture reading is for you! Here the servant of God feels like a failure. "I have labored in vain," the servant complains. How does God respond? Hear now this word from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.

 

Isaiah 49:1-13

 

Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother's womb God named me.
God made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of God's hand I was hidden;
God made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver God hid me away.

 

And God said to me, "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified."
But I said, "I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God."
And now the Lord says,
who formed me in the womb to be the Lord's servant,
to bring Jacob back to God,
and that Israel might be gathered to the Lord,
for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength—
God says,
"It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."

 

Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and her Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers,
"Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you."

 

Thus says the Lord:
In a time of favor I have answered you,
on a day of salvation I have helped you;
I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people,
to establish the land,
to apportion the desolate heritages;
saying to the prisoners, "Come out,"
to those who are in darkness, "Show yourselves."
They shall feed along the ways, on all the bare heights shall be their pasture;
they shall not hunger or thirst,
neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down,
for the One who has pity on them will lead them,
and by springs of water will guide them.
And I will turn all my mountains into a road,
and my highways shall be raised up.
Lo, these shall come from far away,
and lo, these from the north and from the west,
and these from the land of Syene.

 

Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the Lord has comforted the people,
and will have compassion on the suffering ones.

 

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God among us,

For the Word of God within us,

Thanks be to God.

 

 

    Did you hear God's answer to the servant who thinks she is a failure? God says,

 

It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel;

I will give you as a light to the nations,

that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

 

    The servant was supposed to restore Israel and so far had not succeeded. God doesn't, then, take back the call. God expands it. The servant had set her sights too low. She really ought to save the entire world.

    What's going on here? Doesn't sound all that pastoral. Imagine a scenario like this. Someone's new to the church and I ask them to organize a pizza party for the youth. The pizzas all end up burned and half the youth get food poisoning from the salad. The person comes to me feeling like a failure and I tell them I'm nominating them for moderator. Why would God give this servant such anxiety?

    Because God knows we are each powerful and glorious. God knows that because God made us. God knows we are capable of amazing things. Even saving the world.

    Scholar Stephanie Paulsell writes about this passage in Isaiah, "Surely this is the song God sings to each of us: that all of our work, no matter how local, must have the good of the whole world as its aim."

    Whether you are raising your kids, fixing broken pipes, building bridges, curing diseases, teaching adolescents, writing books, defending our country—whatever your vocation, if you are a Christian your true purpose and aim is the good of the entire world.

    Reordering the world is not easy. It is, in fact, quite difficult. This week on Facebook I posed the question, "What is something difficult that you have done?" Here are some of the answers you gave:

 

Calmly discussing a major difference of opinion with a very angry person.

Quit a job before I had a new one.

Try to learn a new language so I can empathize with people moving to a new country

I worked my way through Creighton by working 2 part time jobs and riding the city bus everywhere.

Remained quiet and didn't fight back when an angry student threw me through a door.

Buried our parents & my sister.

Death notifications. At night there was almost always a porch light on for someone who was never coming home. I had to knock on that door and turn someone's world upside down. I didn't have to do it often, but even once is too many times.

Chemo and bone marrow harvest 1986. Doing that again - one year treatment 2012-2013. hardest, happiest thing - climbing Half Dome.

While teaching at UNL, I had to make a choice between standing up for ethics or my department chair. I chose ethics and turned my department chair into affirmative action during a hiring process. Needless to say I didn't stay on much longer at UNL and have never regretted it.

raising a child.....being black while living in America....maintaining my sanity...

Learn to be kind to myself and forgive myself in the process.

 

    Members of this congregation have done amazing things. You've faced dreaded diseases. You've run for public office, which takes great courage I think. You've served in the military. You've sent sons and daughters and husbands and wives off to war and welcomed them home. You've been middle school teachers, which might be a sign of insanity, but also great tenacity and chutzpah. You've battled addiction. You've passed laws. You've raised kids. And you've also done the difficult work of becoming better people, overcoming your own limitations, temptations, and sins, and in the process of changing yourselves, you also help to change the world.

    I believe that God calls us to participate in an epic adventure. We can discover the meaning and the purpose of our lives in the mission of God. We can be part of something much bigger than ourselves.

 

    In the summer of 2015 I was wondering what my next big project was going to be. I had spent much of the previous decade as a local leader here and in Oklahoma in the struggle for LGBT equality and by summer 2015 that great project seemed to have reached its climax. Sure, there was still work to be done, but the most difficult part of the struggle, which is changing people's hearts and minds, we had accomplished. The little old matter of passing all the laws is ultimately less difficult, I believe. I'm proud of the tiny part I played in a global movement for civil rights. Inspired by my religious faith I helped to make the once impossible a reality.

    So, time to do it again.

    That summer the Rev. Becky McNeil took me to lunch to discuss the experiences that Michael and I had while trying to be foster parents. We've never shared publicly all of our experiences, some of which we can't legally, but you who were around know enough to know that we had a really difficult time. And I'm not talking about our foster son. The real struggle wasn't with him, but with the agencies, the bureaucracies, the deeply broken system. Here we were good, caring people with lots to offer and every time we turned a corner we ran into another roadblock. And it wasn't just because we were a same-sex couple, though there was that. I think the bigger flaw in the system is that it is almost impossible for a professional couple with two careers to be foster parents. There are too many meetings, too much paperwork. The system is inefficient and frankly filled with lots of stupid stuff. Inefficiencies and stupidities drive me nuts. And I'm not one to refrain from expressing my opinion.

    But it was more than that even. I reported one agency for what I believed were violations of confidentiality laws. We experienced agencies engaging in territorial bickering that failed to support the welfare of the child. Some people were clearly incompetent. Many, though, were very well intentioned and not receiving the support they needed to do their jobs well.

    So I have lots of opinions about the child welfare system. Becky wanted to hear all of that. Though I think she got more of an earful than she had expected.

    That night, I couldn't sleep. My brain was racing. I began to write down all of my ideas of how the system ought to be better. I began to research best practices of other states on-line. The next morning I was exhausted. That day I had lunch with Tracy Zaiss about another matter, but when we sat down I said, "I think the Holy Spirit is calling me to work on fixing the child welfare system. Can you please convince me otherwise?"

    I called Becky McNeil and we had lunch again and we kept having lunch.

    One thing I knew is that we could start small. I can list a hundred small fixes that would improve the lives of foster parents. Becky had her own list from her years working in the system. We decided to begin with one that is easy for church folk. We'd fix lunch.

    A persistent problems with the child welfare system is that the frontline service providers, the social workers, get burned out. They are often young, idealistic people who leave the profession after only a few short years. Turnover rates are high. Last month UNO received a grant of $15 million to study the problem. We laughed that no one needed a $15 million study. Why not spend the $15 million on increasing pay and benefits and hiring more workers and thus help the problem?

    Becky knew that many social workers experience heartbreaking situations but have no venue to receive care, support, and encouragement. But as pastors we could provide that. So in October we launched Lift! a monthly lunch for frontline social workers in which we express our support for the difficult work they do, offer a devotion, and pray for and with them.

These lunches have become highlights of my month as we listen to the social workers share about their work. The trauma of going through a nasty divorce while still helping needy families. The frustrations with constantly changing rules and regulations that often hinder their ability to do their job well. The frightening middle of the night call during Christmas that one of the children they were helping has run away and is being sex trafficked. One social worker this week said, "I walk through spiritual warfare every day."

Besides support, encouragement, and prayer, we are also listening to see if there are any things that we as faith leaders can help with. So, in November one social worker complained about a difficulty they have when working with a family and getting their utilities turned back on. We wrote a letter to one of the utilities and had a phone call with their President this week in an effort to solve the problem. We have two meetings on the matter scheduled this week. We are hopeful.

During this week's lunch one of the social workers said that what she thinks they need most is simply praise for the work they are doing. Becky and I had an epiphany. Care packages for the workers. So for St. Valentine's Day our church and First Christian are going to prepare baskets of goodies—chocolates and healthy snacks and homemade cookies and cards of appreciation. And they asked specifically for packages of good pens, because they are always losing their good pens. The social workers who come to Lift! next month will then carry those baskets back to their offices to share with their co-workers.

You know how easy and relatively cheap it will be to create a care basket. But when we said we were going to do that, the social workers were so happy. Not because of the stuff, but because it will be a chance for some members of the public to say "Thank you," "Good work," "We honor and appreciate you."

So, I'm asking if you would be willing to help with that? Do you individually want to make a basket? Or get together with a couple of families? Or maybe some groups within the church? Anybody really. We hope to make this a monthly project, so maybe you'll take March or June instead of next month. Oh, and anyone want to help me coordinate this?

 

Stephanie Paulsell again, "Surely this is the song God sings to each of us: that all of our work, no matter how local, must have the good of the whole world as its aim."

God calls each of us to change the world. To live our lives on an epic scale. But we make that change happen by doing our part. The world is saved by actions that seem both big and small. But when the actions that seem small are part of something larger, they aren't small at all. They are in fact epic.

How is God calling you this year? How is your life lived in service to the mission of God?

God has given you to be a light to the nations, so that salvation might reach to the ends of the earth.