Sunday, September 9, 2018

9-9-18 "Sacred Creative Vocation"

   And so it is here, with these words, “I’m here, send me,” or in other translations, “Here I am, Lord, send me,” that the lectionary reading ends. And so many pastors, probably myself included, have used this passage to elicit that sense of call within all of us in order to recruit people to serve as VBS volunteers, Sunday school teachers, or what have you. And that’s all well and good - serving is it’s an important part of our discipleship journey. 
   But when we stop the reading there, we don’t get the full context of what’s happening; we don’t see the complete picture of what the prophet tells us is going on here. We see Isaiah answering God’s call, but a call to do what?  As one commentary put it, “The church tradition that selected the lectionary lost its nerve when it came to the contents of the prophet’s commission, what he was told to say and do.” So, rather than stopping where we stopped earlier, with the end of the lectionary reading, let’s continue to hear exactly what the prophet was told. Continuing then, after we hear Isaiah’s response, “I’m here, send me,” the passage continues in verse 9,
God said, “Go and say to this people:
Listen intently, but don’t understand;
    look carefully, but don’t comprehend.
Make the minds of this people dull.
    Make their ears deaf and their eyes blind,
    so they can’t see with their eyes
    or hear with their ears,
    or understand with their minds,
    and turn, and be healed.”
11 I said, “How long, Lord?”
And God said, “Until cities lie ruined with no one living in them, until there are houses without people and the land is left devastated.” 12 The Lord will send the people far away, and the land will be completely abandoned. 13 Even if one-tenth remain there, they will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, which when it is cut down leaves a stump. Its stump is a holy seed.

   So the prophet Isaiah is to go the people and tell them what is about to happen to them, but in a way that will prevent them from changing their ways and repenting. Hmm. That seems problematic for us doesn’t it? Let’s step back for a moment.

   Remember the movie a “Christmas Story,” where the main character Ralphie wishes more than anything for a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas? What does his mother repeatedly warn him about regarding that BB gun? “You’ll shoot your eye out!” Well, Ralphie does get the BB gun for Christmas. He goes outside, shoots it, and a ricocheting BB hits him in the eye, breaking his glasses. He nearly does shoot his eye out, despite the warnings he’s received. That’s similar to what we encounter in this passage from Isaiah.

   The people have been warned, and warned, and warned by God through many other prophets before Isaiah, that if they didn’t change their evil ways, if they didn’t repent and turn back to being the people of God, then something bad was going to happen, that is, “they were going to shoot their eye out!” It’s not at all unlike a parent telling their child, “if you don’t stop doing that, you’re going to get hurt.” You can only tell them so many times, you can only protect them so far, before they have to face the consequences of their actions, right? That’s where these “people of unclean lips,” as Isaiah refers to them, are when we hear about them in this passage. God is going to let the chips fall where they may, then pick up the pieces afterwards, not unlike when the people of Israel protested so mightily during the Exodus under Moses, that God kept them in the wilderness for 40 years, until nobody from the generation that left Egypt remained to go into the Promised Land, including Moses himself. 

   Sometimes, serving God, is not easy work. Sometimes, the things we’re asked to do, the way we’re asked to be, as a disciple of Jesus Christ, is difficult. Sometimes, the conflicts we face in trying to live Christ-like lives in an increasingly post-Christian world are challenging, and we may want to ask, as did Isaiah, “How long, O Lord?”

   Last week I shared with you the fourfold path of Creation Spirituality: the Via Positiva, the Via Negative, the Via Creativa, and the Via Transformativa. And hopefully you remember that that means, as the structure of our worship service as laid out in the worship folder shows us, that we begin in the positive way, with awe and praise of God, then move into a time of acknowledging and letting go of the negatives. 
Then, as creatures made in the image of the Creator God, we move towards exploring how we are called to be co-creators with God so that finally, the world and its people might be transformed. That is the path of our worship - that is the path of our calling in life - that is the path of our reading today. And one of the core principles of Creation Spirituality is that everyone of us is a prophet, and that our prophetic work is to interfere with all forms of injustice and that which interrupts authentic life. That is, as Marcia McFee phrased it,  “made in the image of the Creator, every one of us carries within us the capacity to be a mystic, to be creative, to be visionary, and to be an agent for positive change.”

   It is our responsibility, as disciples, as the called, as the modern-day prophets of God, to respond "here I am, send me" and to cultivate our capacity to benefit the earth and all it’s creatures. And in doing so we should ask ourselves, “What are we creating in this world that will cause positive ripples into the future?”


   So, the music we’ve sung and heard so far today begins to touch on what and how it is that we’re called to be as the people of God, as disciples of Jesus Christ. 
Let’s sing again, just the refrain from “Here I Am, Lord.”

 “Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? 
I have heard you calling in the night. 
I will go, Lord, if you lead me. 
I will hold your people in my heart.”

   And then Jenny brought us “We Are Called.” 
And we’ve sung this song before. It’s in our Faith We Sing Songbook. Verse one says,

“Come! Live in the light! 
Shine with the joy and the love of the Lord! 
We are called to be light for the kingdom, 
to live in the freedom of the city of God! 
We are called to act with justice, 
we are called to love tenderly, 
we are called to serve one another, 
to walk humbly with God.” 
  Those words are taken from another prophet, Micah. And that verse sounds so joyful, so hope filled, doesn’t it? Let’s look at and sing together verse 2 of that song:

“Come! Open your heart! 
Show your mercy to all those in fear! 
We are called to be hope for the hopeless 
so all hatred and blindness will be no more! 
We are called to act with justice, 
we are called to love tenderly, 
we are called to serve one another, 
to walk humbly with God.”

   Our call as prophets of God become more specific in this verse. “Open you heart!” it commands us. 
“Show mercy,” be “hope for the hopeless so all hatred and blindness will be no more!” That’s what we sign on to when we sing, “Here I am, Lord.” That’s what we agree to when we pray together, “They kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The lyrics in our music speak to our beliefs, our theology, our calling.

   The depression era singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie’s most famous song is one we’ll sing at the end of our worship time today. As Nick Spitzer of NPR reported about Guthrie:

   “Growing up in small-town Oklahoma, Guthrie heard church hymns, outlaw ballads, blues, fiddle tunes and popular music. The Guthries had been fairly prosperous — Woody's father was a small-time politician and businessman — but the family unraveled in the topsy-turvy oil economy of the '20s and '30s. The Guthrie family relocated to Texas after Woody's mother was committed to a mental institution for a mysterious nervous condition. That's when Woody took to the road…”
   “A man happier on the road than at home, he'd walked, hitched and ridden the rails all over the country. 
He went first to the Gulf Coast, then west to California, where he joined the half-million so-called Okies and Arkies — Dust Bowl refugees migrating in search of better lives. Although Guthrie purposefully threw himself into these travels partly to escape family troubles and his disintegrating first marriage, what he saw and experienced as he criss-crossed the country contributed to his emergence as a social commentator.
   “He was irritated by Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," sung by Kate Smith, which seemed to be endlessly playing on the radio in the late 1930s. So irritated, in fact, that he wrote a song as a retort, at first sarcastically calling it "God Blessed America for Me" before renaming it "This Land Is Your Land." 
Guthrie's original words to the song included this verse:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.
The sign was painted, said 'Private Property.'
But on the backside, it didn't say nothing. 
This land was made for you and me.

   “Guthrie's folk-singing son, Arlo Guthrie, and [folk singer] Pete Seeger have both made a point of singing the more radical verses to "This Land Is Your Land," also reviving another verse that Guthrie wrote but never officially recorded. This verse was scribbled on a sheet of loose-leaf paper now in the possession of daughter Nora's Woody Guthrie Archives.

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,
by the relief office I saw my people. 
As they stood hungry, 
I stood there wondering if God blessed America for me.

   These two verses are not usually attached to the more sanitized versions of the song we learn in elementary school, but they reflect some of the questions and ideas that are posed in the hymns we’ve looked at already. Where is God in the midst of suffering? Where are the people of God in the midst of suffering? How do we as a so-called Christian nation, allow our own people, as well as the people of the world, to go hungry when there is more than enough for everyone? How do we enact policies, or support leaders who enact policies, that allow a few to grow obscenely wealthy while others sleep on the streets or barely get by? Those are among the questions with which we are faced when we hear God’s call in our lives as well, and that are reflected in these prophetic songs in our hymnals.  

   Just a few pages after “We Are Called,” in the Faith We Sing Songbook, is a two-page spread of three songs that speaks to this very same idea. I invite you to grab one of these songbooks from the pew and open to page 2180, where you’ll find the song “Why Stand So Far Away, My God?” Let’s sing this first verse:
“Why stand so far away, my God? 
Why hide in time of need? 
The proud, unbridled, chase the poor, 
and curse you in their greed.” 

   Think about those lines. The songwriter suggests, in the midst of all that is going on, that it appears as though God is far away, that God is hiding. That is what we often think is the case. I daresay, that is often what some hope is the case. The song continues,

“Why do you hide when, full of lies, 
they murder and betray? 
They wait to pounce upon the weak, 
as lions stalk their pray.”

“The weak are crushed and fall to earth; 
the wicked strut and preen. 
Why in these cruel, chaotic times 
cannot your face be seen?”

   That’s a haunting question, isn’t it? “Why, in these cruel, chaotic times, cannot your face be seen?” 
For the church, it’s a damning question. 

“In ages past you heard the voice 
of those the proud oppress. 
Remember those who suffer now, 
who cry in deep distress.”

   Liberation theology speaks of God’s “preferential option for the poor.” That doesn’t suggest that God loves the poor more than God loves those who are not poor, but rather, that God recognizes their situation, their lot in life, and understands that their need is greater. In Luke chapter 4, Jesus basically announces his mission statement when he says he came to bring good news to the poor. God hears the voices of those whom the proud oppress.
Let’s sing the fifth and final verse together:

“Arise, O God, and lift your hand; 
bring justice to the poor. 
Come, help us stop the flow of blood! 
Let terror reign no more.!”

   “Come help US stop the flow of blood!” Notice, we don’t sing for God to stop the flow of blood, we implore God to help US do that! That is OUR calling. When we implore God to lift God’s hand, it is OUR hand that is to be lifted - we are God’s hands in this world.

“Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? 
I have heard you calling in the night. 
I will go, Lord, if you lead me. 
I will hold your people in my heart.”

   Across the page from this song, asking rhetorically why God stands so far away, is a song that tells us exactly where God is. 

“Here am I, where underneath the bridges 
in our winter cities homeless people sleep. 
Here am I, where in decaying houses 
little children shiver, crying at the cold. Where are you?”

“Here am I, with people in the lineup, 
anxious for a handout, aching for a job. 
Here am I, when pensioners and strikers 
sing and march together, wanting something new. 
Where are you?”

   Pensioners and strikers - the workers, the laborers, sing and march together - organizing and protesting - wanting something new. This hearkens back to the previous song on the opposite page about how the weak are crushed while the wicked strut and preen. God is with them as they march and protest for better, safer working conditions or for a living wage that lifts them and their families out of poverty. When our leaders suggest that labor organizing should be outlawed, that protest should be banned, they’re saying that their ideas and ideals can’t hold up to the scrutiny of being questioned - that they don’t stand up before the will of God. 

Let’s sing together, the final verse of this song:
“Here am I, where two or three are gathered, 
ready to be altered, sharing wine and bread. 
Here am I, where those who hear the preaching 
change their way of living,
 find the way to life. Where are you?”

   The immanent God, the God who is here with us, in us, among us, is not only out there among the poor, the oppressed, the least, the last, the lost, but also is here.  God is here among those of us who gather in Christ’s name, ready to be altered - ready to be transformed by God’s word preached and God’s call heard - and ready to change their way of living and in doing so finding new life.
   Tucked into those two pages in the Faith We Sing, between the two songs we looked at, is a little song from the Taize’ worship community. The words are from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, adapted into song in the 9th century. 

“Ubi caritas - live in charity and steadfast love, 
live in charity, God will dwell in you.”
   When I hear these words, when I sing these hymns, I begin to consider the words of Woody Guthrie as being inspired words, as though it were God speaking to us in his song. “This land is your land, this land is my land,” could be heard as God’s call in the Creation stories to care for the land, to tend to the gardens that God created and provided for all of us. The fourth verse of the song goes,

When the sun comes shining, (and you can spell that 
S-U-N or S-O-N) then I was strolling
In the wheat fields waving and dust clouds rolling
The voice was chanting as the fog was lifting
This land was made for you and me

   Each one of us is called as a prophet of God, in this land, in this time. And the message from God that we are called to deliver is not that of Isaiah, not one of doom and gloom, but is the message of the Good News of Jesus Christ! But more than merely proclaiming the Good News, we are called to live it, to be it, to model it, to create a positive force for good that will ripple into the future. As the song said, we are called to:
“Come! Open your heart! 
Show your mercy to all those in fear! 
We are called to be hope for the hopeless 
so all hatred and blindness will be no more! 
We are called to act with justice, 
we are called to love tenderly, 
we are called to serve one another, 
to walk humbly with God.”

Let us begin again that walk today! Amen.

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