Monday, September 24, 2018

9-23-18 “Healing Relationship”

9-23-18  “Healing Relationship”

   So today we conclude our series exploring Creation Spirituality. And we do so with a scripture that we looked at back in July in our summer series on the epistle 1 John - 1 John 4:7-21 - the “God is love” passage. I didn’t really plan it that way, that’s just how it worked out. God is good…

   And each week of this series we have explored different aspects of Creation Spirituality, both within the order of the worship services themselves through the four-fold path of Via Positiva, Via Negative, Via Creative, and Via Transformative, but also in the various messages: Creation as Blessing, God’s Spirit of Compassion, The Paths of Life, Sacred Creative Vocations, in celebrating God’s Glorious Diversity, and finally today, on Healing Relationship. 
And it is with the healing of relationship - a portion of that fourth path of Transformativa, or transformation - that we conclude our series. 
   As we have made our way through the four-fold journey of awe and delight over the fact the God has declared us good and very good we have also felt God’s compassion as we considered our own times of suffering alongside the suffering of the world. We have had opportunity some weeks to explore the creativity with which God has gifted us as individuals but also as a congregation located within a community that needs God’s presence shared with them in creative ways by God’s church. It is only then, when God’s desire for justice is made real in God’s people, that we begin to see the effects of God’s healing on the world. And that healing comes through us, as the hands and feet of God, but the source of the healing is the God who is love. There is no greater healing power in all the world than the love of God embodied in the actions of God’s people. And while God gifts and empowers bodily healing through the skills and work of medical professionals, to be certain, God also empowers each of us for healing as well. And here’s what I mean by that.

   Creation Spirituality is all about reconnecting with who God is through what God has done and what God calls us to do, more so than through what we think or have been told to believe about God. Before there was ever a doctrine written about God, there was Creation. Before anything was ever written about the nature of God, there was Creation’s relationship with God. God is revealed to us in Scripture, for sure, but God’s first revelation to us was in the act of creation itself. It is in the beauty of nature, in the intricacies of events as large as the Big Bang to things as small as a strand of DNA, in the majesty of a majestic mountain range to the might of a vast and powerful ocean, that we first experience the God who created all things, who created us, in God’s very image and likeness - and called it all good. Wherever we look, whether at the expanse of the universe as seen through the most precise telescopes or at the most minute subatomic particle as viewed through a powerful electron microscope, God is there - God’s handiwork engraved into everything like initials carved into a tree. 

   And while I embrace the science of how all of this came to be, I don’t for a minute believe it to be just some cosmic accident. No, this creation, this experience we call life, is not some cosmic roll of the dice that came up lucky for us. Creation is an act of love from the God who IS love. All that God created was done so out of love, it was done so out of a desire for relationship between the Creator and the Created. So, when we the created put other things above God, God’s call, and our relationship with God - things like greed, accumulation, materialism, money and profit, power, among others - those things begin to damage or bring destruction to both the creation and our relationship with God. And God then seeks to bring about healing, to restore right relationship between God and all things. It is the true nature of the God of love. 

   Several of us recently attended a workshop where the facilitator reminded us that the two things Jesus did most often in his ministry was to take meals with people and to heal people. Those two things, eating and healing, were the primary activities of Jesus’ ministry. It was while sitting around the table with various people - saint and sinner alike - that he demonstrated the love of God by building relationships. And it was in providing healing of all sorts that he demonstrated the loving power of God given for all people. Jesus’ sacred vocation, to phrase it in terms of Creation Spirituality, was to bring healing salvation to people who had become estranged from God’s plan.

   Our opening hymn today, “For the Healing of the Nations,” speaks of how the healing we receive as individuals is to play out on the larger scale:

You, Creator God, have written your great name on human kind;
for our growing in your likeness bring the life of Christ to mind,
that by our response and service earth its destiny may find.

All that kills abundant living, let it from the earth be banned;
pride of status, race, or schooling, dogmas that obscure your plan.
In our common quest for justice may we hallow life’s brief span.

   Our closing song today is the familiar “Stand By Me,” by Ben E. King. And the second verse of that song says,
If the sky that we look upon
Should tumble and fall
and the mountains should crumble into the sea
I won't cry, I won't cry, no I won't shed a tear
Just as long as you stand, stand by me

   This secular song reflects the same desire as does 
the sacred, a desire for relationship, for healing. 
Heard through a different lens,  if you will, this song could just as easily be a plea to God, a statement of faith even, to the God who, even when things seem to be falling apart all around us, provides comfort and healing when we are in relationship with the God who is love.
   But healing among nations begins with healing among people. There will never be peace among nations as a result of the violence of war. There may be an end to fighting, but that is not peace. Peace, true peace, is more than the absence of war or violence. Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you…MY peace I give to you.” Jesus’ peace was not merely an absence of war, or violence, or hate, it was the presence of, the awareness of, the embracing of God’s healing love, given first to his disciples then to all peoples everywhere. That is how true peace begins and spreads. 
   Our world will never be at peace until you, and I, are at peace with our neighbor. God’s peace will never overcome the world until God’s peace overcomes each of us, as shown through individual acts of love and faith shown to another - over and over again. That is why God the Creator’s fullest revelation to us came in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, who modeled God’s love to the world through relationship building around the table, and through healing.  

   God’s peace in our world begins with the healing we bring about between and among one another. When we love the other, when we love our neighbor as God commanded us to do, we bring healing into our relationship with the other. And when we continue to do so, and when that love is continually paid forward, then the love and peace of God multiplies exponentially. Our tendency as cynical humans, often times, is that when we do something nice for someone, or a few someones, we then stand back and look at the world thinking, “that didn’t really make any difference at all.” When in fact, it’s in the changing of our attitudes and beliefs about what a difference it makes, that the difference, the healing, actually occurs. 

   You’ll remember a couple of weeks ago I shared with you a study that found that 2/3 of church-going Christians come to church each week with no expectation that they will encounter God while they’re there - that that preconception becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe you won’t experience God, then you most likely won’t, because you’re heart is not open to experiencing God’s presence, which often comes to us in the still, small voice. When all we come expecting is to be entertained, or annoyed, or we decide we don’t like this music or that act or whatever, or that God only speaks when this, that, or the other happens, then we’ve already closed ourselves to experiencing the presence of God. In the words of one of the books we read in our summer book club this year, we come with a “heart at war” rather than a “heart at peace.”

   If you went the Emergency Room in the midst of a heart attack, you wouldn’t refuse care from the ER staff because their hospital scrubs were green and your favorite TV doctor’s scrubs were blue would you? When you’re lying on an ER bed and the doctor is preparing to shock your heart back into rhythm, does it really matter whether he or she went to Ohio State or Michigan? Thought of that way it seems pretty silly doesn’t it? But that’s what some of us do when we limit our expectations about how God might come to us to offer us healing in our relationship with God and with others to just those things, those places, those songs or whatever that we’re comfortable with.
   God’s peaceable kingdom is found in and by those who come knowing and expecting that God might show up anywhere: for some in this song, for others in that ritual, and for others in the smile and kind word that was shared by the person down the pew. For some, God’s healing comes in seeing the smiling faces of children banging drums at the beginning of worship, while for others it comes in the memory that is recalled when we sing, not a hymn built on some religious doctrine, but in the song we heard on the radio the first time we danced with the love of our lives and then heard it again in a totally new way in church. For some, the presence of God is most closely felt in the caring for or serving of another who needs help or in visiting with one who feels lost. While for others it comes in placing a tithe into the offering plate, understanding that God’s healing presence and extravagantly generous abundance is what led them through many difficulties in life to be at the point where their faith is strong enough to tithe. God’s presence is made known to different people in different ways, but the constant in all of those people is an openness to, and expectation of, God’s loving presence being available in and to all God’s people in any circumstance. 

   All of us need healing of one kind or another. Today, we’re all about healing relationship - our relationship with God, our relationship with one another, our relationship with our neighbor, our relationship with the community. The offertory today is a blend of a popular classic R&B song, “Lean on Me,” with a favorite traditional hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” There is no divide between the secular and the sacred - God is present in, is the creator of, all things - there are only secular and sacred uses of our God-given gifts, talents, and skills. This song can be heard as God’s invitation to place our lives, place our worries, in the arms of God - that when our life is in a difficult place, we can lean on God, be healed through God. 
   The song I told you we’ll end with today, another R&B classic, “Stand By Me,” on the other hand, can be heard as our invitation to Christ to come alongside us, to be in relationship, even “when the night has come, the land is dark, and the moon is the only light we see.” And the song, almost in a confessional way declares, “I won’t be afraid,  just as long as you stand by me.” 
   It’s all about relationship - healing relationship - loving relationship. The God who is love invites you, today and every day, to bring healing love into all your relationships, so that that love, paid forward, will bring healing to the world. 

  God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God, and God remains in them. This is how love has been perfected in us, so that we can have confidence… because we are exactly the same as God is in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love. We love because God first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates another, they are a liar, because the person who doesn’t love another who can be seen can’t love God, who can’t be seen. This commandment we have from [Jesus]: Those who claim to love God are to love others as well.


Sunday, September 16, 2018

9-16-18 “Glorious Diversity”

9-16-18  “Glorious Diversity”

   So our reading today takes place in the years following the great flood story. Many, if not most, ancient civilizations had their own myths and legends related to a great flood that covered the entire earth - the causes, characters, and heroes in those stories vary from culture to culture. But what that tells us is that, regardless of how we understand or what we believe about the story, 
a massive flood of some kind surely did in fact take place that impacted ancient civilizations in different ways.
   And this story, as it has been carried forward in Judeo-Christian contexts, is a story of how God, after destroying all of creation with a flood, sent this one surviving family to repopulate the earth - that they were to “be fertile, multiply, and fill the earth.” So the family of Noah got down to business, as it were, and soon we read about the descendants of this second, first family. 
And we learn that Noah’s grandson Cush fathered a man named Nimrod, who is described in Genesis 10 as both a great hunter and the first great warrior. And it tells us that Nimrod became the builder of and ruler over five great cities, one of which is Babel, in the valley of Shinar. And as Nimrod and his people built and settled Babel, they lost site of God’s mission, “to be fertile, multiply, and fill the earth.” Instead, they declared, 
 “Come, let’s build for ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and let’s make a name for ourselves so that we won’t be dispersed over all the earth.”

   So, rather than fulfilling the mission that God had called them to, they decided to make a name for themselves, and build a great city and great tower, so that they wouldn’t be dispersed all over the earth. Now, a tower can be viewed in various ways. A tower might be considered a monument - like the Washington Monument in our nation’s capital - in this case a monument to them and to their newfound technology of brick and mortar. A tower could serve as a rallying point that identifies or defines a community in a specific place, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Or a tower could serve a security purpose, as a lookout post that enabled them to see if other nations were advancing on them, so that they might be prepared for war. Nowhere, as is commonly suggested in this passage, does it say that they in any way were seeking to build a tower to heaven in order to be like God. This was all about doing their own thing, about hubris, and not the God thing that they were called to.

   Now, as you can imagine, many theologians and biblical scholars have written about this story. There are as many opinions about this piece as there 
are writers who tackle the subject. Let me offer this perspective to you through the lens of Creation Spirituality that we’re exploring in this series. We have talked in earlier weeks about the fact that Creation Spirituality holds that God is both immanent and transcendent, that it, God is both here and everywhere at once. God didn’t just create and walk away - God is no absentee landlord - but God is present here. 
And it also holds that in creating all that is, God declared it, and us, good and very good. That is, God’s plan for creation, God’s desire for creation is good as God is good. And that creation is a diverse creation. From the multitude of flora and fauna we see in the natural world, we know that God values diversity in all of creation. And the fact that scripture tells us that we are made in the image of God, and that we as humans are also very diverse, indicates that God loves and images us as diverse as well. In fact, one of the key principles of Creation Spirituality is that diversity is the nature of Creation. It is the DNA of creation.
   So, when the people of Babel, under the leadership of Nimrod, decide to build a city and a tower and to remain right where they are, they are in fact, rejecting God’s desired diversity in the world. They are seeking to halt the expansion where it is. They are attempting to stop their growth right there. They are hoping to “make a name for themselves” rather than honoring the name and the will of the God.
   But while we honor and celebrate diversity, we are told that we are one; that in God we are one people. Some might wonder, how can we be one and be diverse? How can we celebrate diversity and yet claim to be one? Let’s look at that. Being one does not mean being the same, right? I mean, not all people are the same. Not all men are unwilling to ask for directions when they’re lost. Not all blonds are dingy airheads, nor do all blonds have more fun, as the old hair color ads used to suggest. Not all tall people are good basketball players, not all short people make good jockeys. Peoples and groups of peoples, regardless of how they are categorized, are not monolithic blocs or automatons who just think, move, or act with a hive mentality. That’s one of the dangers we expose when our thinking moves into “us versus them” territory. 
   Yet, as the song says, “we are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.” Our closing song today talks of “One love! One heart! Let’s get together and feel all right.” Theologian Steve Goodier, in talking about oneness and diversity, poses the question of how are we to find peace with others, peace with ourselves, when both the ideas of “oneness” and “diversity” are at the core of division for some people?
   “Where is true peace to be found?” he asks. Then he offers that, “Archbishop Desmond Tutu might say it can be found in the African concept of ‘ubuntu.’
   “Tutu says, "Ubuntu is a concept that we have in our Bantu languages at home. Ubuntu is the essence of being a person. It means that we are people through other people. We cannot be fully human alone. 
We are made for interdependence, we are made for family. When you have ubuntu, you embrace others. You are generous, compassionate.”

   “He also says that if the world had more ubuntu, there would be no war. The powerful would help the weak. That is where peace is to be found.
   “A story from World War II shines a spotlight on ubuntu. In 1942, the American consul ordered citizens home from the Persian Gulf, for fear they might get caught in the spreading conflict. Travel was difficult, 
and some civilians secured passage on the troop ship Mauritania. Passengers included thousands of Allied soldiers, 500 German prisoners of war and 25 civilian women and children.
   “The ship traveled slowly and cautiously, constantly in danger from hostile submarines patrolling the ocean depths. It was Christmas Eve and they had traveled for a full two months. They had only made it as far as the coastal waters of New Zealand and all on board were homesick, anxious and frightened. 
   “Someone came up with the idea of asking the captain for permission to sing Christmas carols for the German prisoners, who were surely as homesick and lonely as the passengers. Permission was granted and a small choral group made its way to the quarters where the unsuspecting prisoners were held. They decided to sing ‘Silent Night’ first, as it was written in Germany by Joseph Mohr and was equally well known by the prisoners.
   “Within seconds of beginning the carol,” Goodier continues, “a deafening clatter shook the floor. Hundreds of German soldiers sprang up and crowded 
the tiny windows in order to better see and hear the choristers. Tears streamed unashamedly down their faces. At that moment, everyone on both sides of the wall experienced the universal truth – that at the core of our being, all people everywhere are one. They experienced ubuntu. Hope and love broke down the barriers between warring nations and, for that moment at least, all were one family.”

[Note - 2018 is the 200th anniversary of the song, “Silent Night,” and our Advent Worship will celebrate that this year.]

  And as Goodier concludes, “We are meant to be one. And only after we realize that amazing truth can we find what we need – true peace.” 
   The overwhelming lesson of this story of the tower 
is that it reveals in a graphic fashion humanity’s sinful nature and why we act the way we do. They rejected God's will. It is obvious from the garden onward that God's intention for humankind was to scatter and have dominion over the earth.
  But Noah's descendants rejected that plan, and determined they would stay together. That decision was unanimous, but it was an empty unanimity. Here at the start of the story we see in humankind a solidarity we can only imagine in our current world! It’s a very prosaic lesson in the fact that a group can be unified in the wrong direction and around the wrong goals. Nazi leadership in WWII were unified. Osama bin Laden’s terrorist group Al Qaeda were unified. Simple unity is not enough.
   The people of Babel were filled with a humanistic pride. Humanism is defined in all sorts of ways these days, but in the sense that humanism makes human beings the measure of all things and self-sufficient, then the folks who built the tower were filled with a proud humanism. This tower was a monument to their illusion that they could do without God. Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, says Nimrod built the tower to defy God and escape any further flood. 
The whole project was human-centered from the start; verse 3 makes a point of the fact that they did not use natural building materials but manmade bricks instead. Even their technology was moving away from God.
   Theologian Helmut Thielicke puts his finger on the heart of the story when he says “the people had displaced God from the center of their lives, and thus unbalanced, the spiritual centrifugal forces flung them into the darkness of the world. When they put God out of their lives, life, like some old unbalanced [washing machine], began whirling faster and faster, thumping and shaking and flinging itself to pieces into the darkness.”
   God’s desire for the world, then and now, is a celebration of diversity. And diversity within the world, within creation, is reflected both in the diversity found within Christianity, as well as the diversity found in the many streams of religion and faith found in the Deep Ecumenism of the sacred faiths around the world. 
   Creation Spirituality unleashes vitality, creativity and a sense of playfulness. It is generous, mutually affirming of diversity, and non-competitive. Unlike fall and redemption spiritualities, it doesn’t set up competitive dualisms between male/female, heterosexual/homosexual, white/black, Christian/non-Christian, us and them. It’s egalitarian and pluralistic, rejoicing in the manyness of beings that interconnect in a rich cosmic community. It allows us to lay aside our defenses, our needs to control, dominate and destroy the other. It is the spirituality that is needed for an ecologically sensitive, peacemaking, and just world community. It’s a spirituality that is needed to celebrate the One love, one heart of God that celebrates, not the babel of a divisive unity, but the beautiful diversity of God’s creation. Amen.

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.