Sunday, June 21, 2009

Do You Still Have No Faith?

Sheepscott Community Church June 21, 2009

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1 Samuel 17: 1a, 4-11, 20-23, 32-49
2 Cor. 6: 1-13
Mark 4: 35-41

Do You Still Have No Faith?

As implied in the title, this morning I will talk about faith, the kind of faith that can sustain one in a little boat on a big sea, can meet the enemy nine feet tall with five small stones in our bag. The characters in my message this morning are all characters we have read and heard about before: Jesus and his apostles––oh, those weak in faith––and David and Goliath, two names that go together as surely as milk and cookies, mom and apple pie, firecrackers and the Fourth of July.

When this gospel comes around, I like to tell the story of my last meaningfully long sail with Jon on Penobscot Bay. On a fair day, with a following wind that enabled us to do an unbelievable 7 knots down Penobscot Bay from Rockland to Castine, Jon and I happily sailed, grabbing a mooring for the night in Castine harbor. I had an obligation the next day that meant we had to return, even though Jon was reluctant considering the overcast skies and the early fog. We left the mooring at about 10, and our trip down the bay began uneventfully and with the help of the motor because the wind had not yet risen.

As we approached the end of Islesboro, there was a sudden dramatic change in the weather and the sea, not unlike how one writer has described storms on the Sea of Galilee, which we heard about in today’s gospel. On that small sea or lake, notorious for its storms that seem to come out of nowhere with shattering force, the unnamed writer says, “It is not unusual to see terrible squalls hurl themselves, even when the sky is perfectly clear, upon these waters which are ordinarily so calm. The numerous ravines at the upper part of the lake operate as narrow gorges in which the winds from the heights are caught and compressed in such a way that rushing with tremendous force through a narrow space and then being suddenly released, they agitate the lake in the most frightful fashion.

Fast forward to Penobscot Bay. We watched the clouds suddenly building up overhead, in the most frightful fashion, if I may borrow that term. The water began to churn and the waves built, likewise in a most frightful fashion. Within minutes, the motor was rendered useless as it was lifted out of the water, its blades turning in air, as the boat pitched and rose, pitched and rose. Jon was reefing the sails and I was attempting to steer our 19-foot Cape Dory Typhoon through the 8-foot waves. Eight feet might not sound very high, but in a little boat like that, eight feet is very high. Shades of Sebastian Junger’s Perfect Storm, where the fishing boat, the Andrea Gail, was confronted with 100-foot waves, monstrous to imagine.

I was scared, and doubly so when Jon, braced against the seawater pouring over the bow with each dip and rise, turned and told me to get below. Yes, sir. Below I began to pray, thinking immediately of Jesus calming the wind and the waves with a word. Okay, I thought, and then spoke aloud, “In the name of Jesus be still! Settle down! Be quiet!” No change. I’ll try it again. “In the name of Jesus, be quiet!”

The wind and the waves did not quiet, but Jon did manage to continue down the bay and somehow angle us off into a little notch of a harbor on North Haven. Amazingly, the sun came out and we hung our clothes over the boom to dry. After catching our breath and decompressing, Jon thought we could try to cross the bay to Rockland in order to get me to my commitment, and so we pulled anchor and started off. We were barely back out into the bay when the same roiling clouds and turbulent waters drove us back. We were able to sail into Pulpit Harbor––appropriate, yes?––where we spent the night.

So what went wrong? Why didn’t those winds and waters settle down when I spoke to them in the name of Jesus? Was it my quavery voice that betrayed my little faith? Did the winds and waters have a mind of their own that was only amused by this pretender to the name and powers of Jesus? Incidentally, Jesus uses the same language to address the winds and waters, viz., “Be quiet! Be still!” as he uses when he addresses the demon in the possessed man recorded in Mark 1: 25: “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. I’m not going to elaborate on that coincidental language at this time, but I point it out as a matter of interest.

So, as I say, what went wrong with my command? After all, in John 14: 12, Jesus is quoted as saying, “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name and I will do it.” Well, I repeat, what happened?

We can agree that Jon and I, thanks to his sailing skills, are here with you today, and that on that day, apparently that was how God chose to hear and answer that prayer. In praying for the winds and waters to be calm, I was really praying for safety, and that’s exactly what we got, My intention was honored, and w e made it safely to port, but on more natural rather than supernatural terms. Do you suppose that’s the way it is most of the time? Some of us tend to look for those moments that we will never forget instead of seeing God in Jesus folding the laundry and smoothing out the wrinkles right in front of us, which is to say, acting through and in the most ordinary actions and circumstances of our lives.

But, I am not ready to let go of this. I return to the quotation from Jesus in John about us who have faith in Jesus doing what he has done and doing even greater works than these because he has only recently in our liturgical calendar returned to the Father from whence he has sent his Spirit, a mere three weeks ago on Pentecost. And because of that Spirit, we are not just predisposed to imitate but to embody the Spirit and thereby the Christ himself. Why would we settle for less? Either he meant what he said or he did not?

I exhort you, I exhort us, with the concluding words of Paul in the reading from Second Corinthians this morning, “Open wide your hearts also.” Not just a crack to see what’s out there and evaluate it for weeks, months, years, a lifelong before allowing it entrance or not. Open wide your hearts also, to allow the Spirit of the living God in full force. We ask. God comes. But I think it may take years to fully believe that we deserve to have what we ask for, and that is why our prayers in faith have less effect than we would like them to have. And of course, we don’t deserve anything, except in Jesus. It’s all for God and out of God’s mercy that we have or don’t have. So let us pray to God to increase our faith––if we dare.

Think of the faith of David in this morning’s reading from First Samuel. Here’s this teenager with a slingshot and five stones he has picked up––but I would guess they were perfect stones for his purposes; in the smallest things, expertise out of practice counts––so here’s this teeneager and his stones and slingshot standing at the battleline ready to encounter Goliath the Philistine champion, all nine feet of him with bronze helmet on his head, with bronze armor on his body and legs, and a bronze javelin on his back. Whether or not Goliath the Philistine was truly nine feet tall, we do know that he was the tallest and biggest and strongest among all the Philistines and that is why he was their champion. The Philistines had placed their faith in the strength of a man, and that faith had been rewarded, at least up until now.

Enter David, and what does he say to Goliath? “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel whom you have defied. This day the Lord will hand you over to me, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. Today I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and the whole world will know that there is a god in Israel. All those gathered here will know it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”

Now that’s big talk for a little guy. Its purpose was to put fear into the opponent, the way wrestlers grunt and grimace at each other or baseball players chatter on the diamond. Talk, talk, talk. But David’s talk also was of his champion, the champion of the Israelite people on whose behalf he would fight, full of confidence in the outcome because he was full of confidence in God and full of faith that shaped that confidence.
This was the god for whom he had composed music on his harp and to whom he had sung while tending his sheep. He loved God and he believed God’s love for him. He had no idea of what lay before him, that he would become the greatest king that Israel had ever known and that from his line would come the Messiah, Jesus, the Christ. All of that lay in the future. What stood in front of him now was a man big enough to block the sun. If David had any fear, he didn’t show it in the scriptural account, but he did have chutzpah that was built on his faith, and he pushed it to the limit.

David was in the moment, fully in the moment believing in God, not in this hulking mass of flesh that obscured the sun. His eye was on the prize, the love of God for his people being victorious. That’s what he believed in.

My faith on Penboscot Bay was nowhere near that level. I did see the towering water and waves, and I did believe as much as I could. And Jesus could use even that faith as part of bringing about a good end for me and Jon. I feel sure of that. That makes me think of David’s five small stones––not much to work with, but enough to give God the edge that was honed by faith. And those small stones in turn make me think of the apostles, with their little faith. Jesus, in spite of his frustration with them––”Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”––despite his frustration, he was able to make lemonade from those lemons, to make a silk purse from the sow’s ear they were because of the Spirit whom he sent on Pentecost.

David was filled with that Spirit of God, and King Saul, in an alternative reading for today from the Hebrew Bible, knew that and was jealous of it, largely because he knew the Spirit had departed from him. His own jealousy of David’s accomplishments had brought this about. I want to depart a bit further from our reading in First Samuel and read a section that those who choose the lectionary readings did not include in today’s reading. It is so reminiscent of last week’s gospel, when Jesus’ family had come to bring him home because they thought he was out of his mind. That gospel concludes with Jesus asking, “Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does God’s will is my mother and sister and brother.” When David first comes into the Israelites’ camp to bring his brothers some food, in obedience to his father Jesse, his oldest brother Eliab “burns with anger” the scripture says, and he asks, Why have you come down here? ... I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is. You came down only to watch the battle. What about those sheep you left in the field?

“Now what have I done?” said David. “Can’t I even speak?” This sounds so much like family of our time, a family of Jesus’ time. Some things don’t change. As Jesus said, a prophet is never known in his own household and one’s enemies and foes are the members of one’s own household. In David’s case, his brothers were jealous of him, for they had been passed over by the prophet Samuel for the anointing, and they would make David pay for that in every way they could. But he was not undone. More important that he should be faithful to listen to God who knew his heart, and not to the voices of those around him who presumed to know him but were actaully speaking out of the judgments in their own small hearts, their own jealous and ungenerous minds.

David’s faith and acquiesence to God’s will made possible not only the defeat of the Goliath that infamous day but also the establishment of the kingdom of Judah over which King David ruled for many, many years of prosperity. Although he sinned in those years––we all know the story of Uriah the Hittite and Bathsheba––he also always repented, remembering who he was before God, a good example for us.

I think David never lost his childlike faith and that enabled a greatness that glorified God. We can be inspired by his faith and accept the words of Jesus that greater works will we do than Jesus himself––yes, even calming the waters of Penobscot Bay––because he has given us his Spirit. Again, I exhort us with Paul, to “open wide our hearts also” that that Spirit might come in, might show us and tell us through our lives who we are in God. That we might be the small stones in the sling of David, apostles for this dispensation to bring about change, to move the world, yes, the world, in the direction of peace through our own mutual forgiveness and through our choice to love one another. Amen

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Who Is My Mother? Who Are My Brothers?

Sheepscott Community Church June 14, 2009

1 Samuel 8: 4-20; 11: 14-15
Mark 3: 20-35

Who Is My Mother? Who Are My Brothers?

A few weeks ago friends were visiting us from out-of-state. At a point well into the evening, when the candles were burning low, the wife alluded to the couple’s children, saying somewhat wistfully that neither of their children––one of whom is about 40 and the other approaching 40––was practicing the religion in which they had been raised. Although she herself is not religious, she understood the value of a religious upbringing for establishing a sense of moral foundation and supported her husband’s raising their children in his faith. She was concerned about the next generation in a world that was not as solidly religiously based as the one we might have known.

“And what about your kids?” she asked me. “Are they practicing their religion?”I had to say no. Like our friends, we had raised our children in the Christian faith. They were baptized and confirmed Catholics and continued at church until their teen years. At, and after that time, they began to follow their own way, which is to say, not attending church on a regular basis.

How did I feel about that, she asked. My first answer was that I had never lost any sleep about them in that area because I knew them to be good and loving people––most of the time. I almost thought then and still do think and feel that they themselves are responsible before God for their actions. We trained them p in the way we thought they should go, and now it’s up to them.

When I read this morning’s reading from Samuel, however, in preparation for this message, I was thinking more about the undefined line between parental guidance in the area of another’s faith and when that becomes unwelcome interference, a kind of evangelization that does not honor the separateness of the other person before God––yes, even our own children as separate persons––and the inviolability of that sacred space between them and God. But is that just an excuse? Taking the easy way out?

What caught my attention in the reading from Samuel was verse 4, the elders of Israel saying to Samuel, “You are old and your sons do not walk in your ways.” These elders did not trust Samuel’s sons, whom he had appointed as judges in Israel to lead them after his death, and they wanted a king to lead them. The concern of the elders was well-placed, for as the scripture points out, Samuel’s sons “turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice.”

In Samuel’s story, God does not seem to hold the prophet responsible for his sons’ actions, unlike the sons of Eli, who was the high priest when Samuel was first called by the Lord. In fact the first prophesy Samuel received when the Lord woke him from sleep focused on an indictment of Eli’s sons, who, as helpers in the temple, had been illegitimately taking the choice parts of the sacrifices away from God. As a result, God spoke this word of prophesy through Samuel to Eli, that the priesthood would pass away from Eli’s house, that God would judge Eli’s family forever because Eli’s sons had made themselves contemptible, and Eli did nothing to restrain them.

The only differentiation that I can distinguish between the two cases is that while Samuel’s sons also were guilty of sin, they were sinning in human matters of business and gain, whereas the sons of Eli were cheating God of his, God’s portion. In any case, the Samuel situation reminded me of the Eli situation because of the common denominator of wayward children, regardless of age, and how God might view culpability for that waywardness.

These questions bring us to Jesus’s question in this morning’s gospel, of those assembled in a house where he had gathered with his disciples. After he was told that his mother and brothers were outside and looking for him, he looked around at those seated there and asked, “Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” That was a very radical statement in that part of the world where family and tribal identification was everything. Think of Eli’s house, his family, descendants of Aaron, who had been named to the priesthood forever, before that privilege was withdrawn by God because of their abuse of the privilege. Their whole identification was with Aaron and the priesthood. Here in the West family and tribal identification is also very important, witness only one sit-down Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma’s house. You get a clear picture of the connections and disconnections at such an event, but it’s all family. However, I believe that family in the Near East has different kinds and levels of political and social meaning from family in the West.

If we tolerate a few misguided Democrats in our Republican families or a few misguided Republicans in our predominantly Democratic families, in the Near East that tolerance of stepping away from the family tribe is probably considerably less, as we can observe in the enmity between the Shiites and the Sunnis in Iraq. We get a sense of the competitiveness between these two pillars of Islam, acted out in family rivalries that translate into governing structures. Family loyalty to the point of death, and defending the family’s honor are everything. I only want to suggest to you why what Jesus is saying would be considered radical in that part of the world.

Let’s tease this apart a little bit more. Jesus doesn’t make that statement about mothers and brothers until the end of today’s gospel, which opens with the scene of a house so crowded with people who have come to see Jesus that he and the disciples can’t even eat some bread. When Jesus’s family hears about this, they go out to take charge of him, the gospel says, because “He is out of his mind.”

Why would they say that? Recall that the writer of Matthew has Jesus say, “A man’s foes, or enemies will be those of his own household,“ which is a quotation from the prophet Micah, chapter 7, verse 6. Two questions arise: Why would they think he was crazy? And what kind of an alternative model of family or kinship might Jesus be suggesting?

To answer the first question, they thought he was out of his mind because he had left home and family and probably a successful carpentry business in Nazareth for the life on the road of a wandering preacher. As William Barclay suggests in his commentary on the Gospel of Mark, “No sensible man... would throw up a business where the money came in every week to become a vagrant who had no place to lay his head.”

His family also knew that Jesus was provoking the religiously powerful men of his day, the scribes and pharisees, the experts in the law. Because of the power wielded by these men to make or break a person in the community, most people, if they had any common sense would try to stay on their good side. Not Jesus. He consistently called these men on their positions, challenging them by his inspired questions and deft arguing to really look at what they were saying and to consider the people whom their statements and judgments were affecting in their everyday lives. More than once he laid bare the hypocrisy that underlay their religious leadership.

So, he gave up a good job for life on the road, he was the antagonistic provocateur of the religiously and so, politically powerful men of his day, and, the third reason for his family thinking he had taken leave of his senses was that he had started hanging out with a really questionable crowd: some ignorant fishermen, a reformed tax collector for Rome and an ultra-nationalist fanatic were among them. You can’t really blame his family for wondering whether he was hitting on all cylinders.

However, from the point of view of a man bent on carrying out the will of God in his life as he discerned it through years of listening and sensing, of prayer and worship, it was clear that what most people used as the yardstick for judging a life meant little or nothing to Jesus. He had thrown away security when he left his job in Nazareth. He had also thrown away safety, choosing to follow a course of action that involved risk. And last, and possibly the most annoying to his family, was that he had shown himself indifferent to the verdict of society about him or his lifestyle, and how that might reflect on his family. He knew who he was––remember those days in the desert in preparation for his ministry. He had met himself in the forms of his particular temptations and he had resisted those temptations. He knew himself. He didn’t need his family or the neighbors to tell him who he was. If they made judgments about him, the judgments were on their own heads.

There’s a lovely story about the 17th-century Christian writer and preacher John Bunyan in prison. The author of The Pilgrim’s Progress was afraid that that imprisonment might end at the gallows and did not like the idea of being hanged. Who would? One day he felt ashamed of being afraid. To quote him: “Methought I was ashamed to die with a pale face and tottering knees for such a cause as this.” He came to a conclusion as he pictured himself climbing up the stairs to the scaffold. “Wherefore, thought I, I am for going on and venturing my eternal state with Christ whether I have comfort here or no; if God doth not come in, thought I, I will leap off the ladder even blindfold into eternity, sink or swim, come heaven, come hell; Lord Jesus, if thou wilt catch me, do: if not, I will venture for thy name.” That is precisely what Jesus was willing to do. He ventured for God’s name. That was the essence of the life of Jesus, and that––not safety and security or reputation––should be the center of every Christian life.

What is Jesus is saying here about family in the context of his early public life? If his mother and brothers did not constitute his family in his new way of thinking, what is he suggesting could constitute a family?

The basis of true kinship can rest on several grounds other than blood. Common experience is one, especially if it is an experience where two or more people have really come through things together. I think of the choir in this church, very much like a family within a family. I think of all people in NYC, who experienced 9-11 as no one else in the country did, and the families of those who died at that time––they are another kind of family with a terrible and deep bond. As are those families who mourn for their loved ones lost on the Air France airbus from Rio to Paris two weeks ago. Support groups who meet to help each other stay sober, or stay away from any and all addictive substances––these are real kinship bonds, necessary to establish as a kind of family in such a mobile society where we are often far away or estranged from our families of origin.

Those examples overlap with the idea of common interest joining people in a kinship-like relationship. Christians can recognize that kind of kinship because they have a common interest in knowing, learning and experiencing more about Jesus, the basis for all denominational expressions of Christian religion.

Kinship can also derive from a shared common obedience, as in a platoon of soldiers from many different backgrounds who have the common bond of obedience to the commanding officer and beyond that to the Commander-in-Chief. They are part of a group that will stand for each other, and beyond their own interests, for a common goal, which is another characteristic of a kinship group.

Common experience, common interest, common obedience and common goal––only four ways of experiencing kinship that are not of the ordinary or expected family model, and Jesus with his troop of followers did choose a new model. If his family cared to come along for the ride––and who really knows how that all played out––I feel sure Jesus would have welcomed the company. Would have loved the company.

To arc back to the beginning of this message, what about our kids? In later life what can we do but love these members of our families and set the best example we can by being faithful to the principles we have lived by through life, modifying them when we see or understand something more clearly than we did before. It might help to make a few signs in our own minds that we hold up for reading when the occasion demands, such as: Bite your tongue: No unsolicited advice, please.

I remember when the kids were small and having to step outside the door from time to time to keep it together. It’s a good idea to do that, at least mentally, when we feel like we are going to lose it. So many doors slam shut permanently because of words spoken in anger or judgment that can not be taken back. There are some who will forgive such words, but there are others who will not, and when conversation ceases, so do opportunities for growth in relationship and expressions of love and concern.
opportunities for growth in relationship and expressions of love and concern.

Even with all that, I say clearly that when we see something that is egregiously wrong, where someone is in harm’s way verbally or physically or indeed spiritually, and whether that wrong is being acted out by our own children, by an acquaintance or friend, or by a stranger, we need to speak out and take the same risks that Jesus took. The tipping point, the telling point is whether our personal pride is involved or any sense of asserting our perceived power, that is where you, where we can tell if we are acting in God’s will, as part of that universal family of the divine parent.

If we have consecrated ourselves to God, which is to say surrendered our lives as best we can, we can count on the impetus, the push-to-shove from the Spirit of God that moves and leads us to speak out in such a case.

So, I’m telling you two things: Speak the truth as you best discern it when the occasion demands, whether it’s to your own kids or someone else. Do not speak when the urgency is based on anger or in a sense of the importance of your own point of view, the rightness of your position. Check in with God in such a case before wrongfully ruining a relationship in order to say what we might think is true––and may be––but doing that without the love of God informing what we say. Amen.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

How Do You See God?

Sheepscott Community Church June 7, 2009

Isaiah 6: 1-8
John 3: 1-17

How Do You See God?

Most of us have to visualize God in some way in order to feel a relationship with the Creator. If we asked the prophet Isaiah how he saw God, he would probably get that faraway look in his eyes and tell us the story of his calling to the role of prophet in the year King Uzziah died. He would tell how he, a man of “unclean lips,” as he termed himself as a sinner, saw the Lord in his glory. It really is a magnificent scene that we heard Ted read this morning. Isaiah described it––the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filling the temple, with seraphs above him, who were calling to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

“At the sound of their voices,” the vision narrative continued, “the door posts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.”

That’s when Isaiah exclaims about being a man of unclean lips being in the presence of the King, the Lord Almighty, figuring he was ruined because he was so out of place, so not where he deserved to be. But a seraph saves the day, touching his mouth with a hot coal from the altar, saying, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” It is God who has called, and so it is God who makes provision by way of the live coal for his sinfulness. It is God who cleanses for his purposes.

Isaiah saw God as a a royal figure on a throne, with the train of his robe filling the temple. That sounds very kingly, does it not? If Isaiah was not in fact a priest at the temple––and he may have been––scholars at least agree that he was a member of the privileged class of noble families, who seem to have had direct access to King Uzziah at the time preceding Isaiah’s call to the prophetic life. He was a man of the city, which accounts for his urban metaphors, and the city of his heart was Jerusalem, the seat of the Temple and of David’s throne. In fact the Temple was sometimes called the King’s chapel because it was right next door to the palace.

We can begin to see why Isaiah beheld God in vision in that context because it was his context, and one he would understand. And God knew that. The aspect of the majesty of God was very accessible to him because of the parallel earth-bound majesty of the King and his court, and the Temple and its priests, which may be said to mirror the divine court, and which parallels he had probably frequently beheld.

By contrast the prophet Micah was nurtured not in the court theology but in the Exodus tradition, which was kept alive in the rural areas of Judah. He is like the prophet Amos, in that sense, who describes himself as “... not a prophet/ Nor one of the sons of prophets; rather, I am a herdsman,/ and a dresser of sycamore trees./ However, Yahweh took me from behind the flock,/ and Yahweh said to me: Go! Prophesy to my people Israel. ”[7: 14, 15].

Amos’s agricultural references in his writings are unmistakable: “I will crush you as a cart crushes when loaded with grain” [2:13]; “the farmers will be summoned to weep and the mourners to wail./ There will be wailing in all the vineyards,/ for I will pass through your midst,’ says the Lord.” [5: 16b, 17]; ‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when the reaper will be overtaken by the plowman/ and the planter by the one treading grapes... ‘I will plant Israel in their own land/ never again to be uprooted/ from the land I have given them,’ says the Lord God.” [9: 13, 15]

The contrast between the contexts of the oracles of the three prophets is notable: Amos the shepherd, taken from tending his flocks, grounds his messages in agricultural metaphors. He understands the God of the countryside. Likewise Micah, the country prophet, who spoke for the poor farmers suffering at the hands of the powerful landlords. Isaiah by contrast, our prophet of today’s reading, understands the God of the city of Jerusalem, the God of the privileged ones, and it is from that base of understanding about the majestic God that he delivers his prophecies between the years from 740 until at least 700 BCE.

One way that Isaiah’s prophetic imagination can be expressed is in terms of concentric circles of institutional structure that had unified the diverse spheres of the royal court, the priesthood and commerce, all of which were ruptured by the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, the first wave of captivity of the Israelite people in Babylon.

What happened when that structure of kingship and Temple, and consequently commerce, fell apart, as it did? What Second Isaiah promised, prophesied to the people in captivity in Babylon answers that question, not only for the Israelite people then but for us now, who are looking at the collapse of General Motors; of Chrysler already gone through bankruptcy; at a still-polarized electorate, evidenced in the recent murder of Dr. Tiller, an abortion provider; of an emotionally charged debate only just beginning about the suitability of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court.

What did Isaiah say about what happens when the established structure falls apart? The answer can be discovered only in relation to the Center, that is, the God who was present with the people before the introduction of either Temple or kingship, before the introduction of the presidency of any country, of any founding document, of any religious institution with its creeds or doctrines. Isaiah presents God as a dynamic, destiny-shaping presence in the midst of human history. All that exists in heaven and on earth, planets and humans, finds its being and purpose in relation to that Center.

In Paul Hanson’s words from his book Interpretation, Isaiah 40-66, “Once faith is sure of its grounding in the one true God, it is able to address every aspect of life boldly, freshly and courageously.” The exiles in Babylon learned that they could continue without a central sanctuary. They gathered together, which is the meaning of the word “synagogue,” remembered their tradition and their homeland, and they prayed.

We too, who have come to this other of our churches for the summer season, the other border of our homeland, and who are grounded in the one true God, we, like the exiles, know that although we are fond of and care for our sanctuaries, we could survive without them. We are the worshipping community, wherever we gather, and our annual migration, reminiscent of exile, is a useful reminder of that. We are the synagogue, the people gathered. This is really part of our epic as a community, this migration, isn’t it? It’s like an annual pilgrimage, that breaks us away from any complacency and heightens our awareness of God’s presence in our present situation, guided and enriched by our recognition of what our living Center is, of who our living Center is: No less than God himself, the God whom Isaiah beheld in vision in the Temple, and yet the God of Micah and Amos out in the countryside, among the farmers, plowing and harrowing, harvesting and gathering into barns.

I am reminded of the late Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit priest from India, who was a spiritual guide for many. He believed that Christian doctrines per se were simply a finger pointing to the moon; they were misunderstood if they became the final object of our attention. The Gospel, for de Mello, points us to the truth that lies behind words, concepts and images, to the God beyond the constructed god. He believed that Christ was not so much concerned with imparting doctrines to his listeners as in awakening them to new life and the offer of salvation that was in their midst.

All of these are different visions of God from different prophets of God. I started off with the question, How do you see God? However that is, you can be sure that it is in that way that God will probably speak to you, in you and through you to your family, to your worshipping community and to the world. As I noted, God speaks to us in our individual contexts, and can accommodate endless expressions of who that One is, myriad, and diverse, and yet absolutely One as God is.

My favorite attribute of this church is the glass windows. The message that God is more than what happens with us here in the sanctuary, and that the sanctuary is more than the building where we worship is abundantly clear in this space because of those windows. They will keep out the rain, but they do not keep out the light or prevent the view of trees, whichever way we look. We see that God is in Nature, perhaps is Nature. This being our communion Sunday, we will know once again the homely and sweetly available presence of God in this communion we share, in this nourishing form of matter Jesus chose to remind us of his ongoing presence in his church. Which presence was revitalized by the coming of the holy Spirit, whom we celebrated last Sunday on Pentecost.

Aren’t we lucky? Aren’t we blessed to have all of these avenues available to us to know God? Thank you God for being the dynamic, destiny-shaping presence you are in our midst.

Perhaps the most obvious way we know the presence of God is in each other. We can
also recognize the activity of God in the spawning of the alewives I spoke about last week, in all babies––who can forget William Skiff in the manger last Christmas––in Donna’s dog Spirit and in what he has done for her, and in all our animals whom we love. It’s not difficult to see God in all these manifestations. What may be more difficult for us as individuals is seeing God in our selves, believing that possible. May we love each other to life in that way, truly functioning thereby as a community, recognizing the Christ in each other when we share the bread and the cup in the communion this morning and calling each other forth into our fullest selves.

Why does God go to all this trouble with us? Why doesn’t God just sit back on that throne or in a tractor with a cab and a view out on the hillside and leave us to our own devices? The answer is in Isaiah 43, v.3: “Because you are precious in my sight,/ and honored, and I love you.” Amen.