Thoughts Between Sundays

Some of what crosses my mind between Sundays


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Sermon: “Repairers of the Breach”

Isaiah 58:9-14

9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;

you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,

the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

10 if you offer your food to the hungry

and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,

then your light shall rise in the darkness

and your gloom be like the noonday.

11 The Lord will guide you continually,

and satisfy your needs in parched places,

and make your bones strong;

and you shall be like a watered garden,

like a spring of water,

whose waters never fail.

12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;

you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;

you shall be called the repairer of the breach,

the restorer of streets to live in.

 

13 If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,

from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;

if you call the sabbath a delight

and the holy day of the Lord honourable;

if you honour it, not going your own ways,

serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;*

14 then you shall take delight in the Lord,

and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;

I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,

for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

 

 

 

“Repairers of the Breach”

 

            In ancient Jewish traditions they tell the story of the creation of the universe, and of the world.  It goes like this:

            No one really knows how the universe was created.

One idea is that before our world was created there was only G-d.
G-d’s light filled everything.
In order to make room for the Creation G-d had to contract, to pull back, some of the Divine light. That light was stored in containers, in vessels.

Somehow, some way and for some reason, the vessels broke. And with that breaking, the pieces of the vessels and the sparks of Divine light that were stored in them were scattered throughout the Creation.

Since that time people have been living with the sparks of light and the broken vessels, trying to sort them out.

The Jewish people, so this story goes, have a particular job. That job is to gather the sparks of G-d’s light and do the work of tikun olam, repairing the world.[i]

            Our passage for today speaks directly to this idea – repairing the world.  Only, in Isaiah, we are called to be repairers of the breach, the restorer of the streets to live in.  This call went out to the post-exilic community that was trying to make a new life in Jerusalem, and it goes out to us today.  The Israelites who had been held captive in Babylon were returning home, and the rebuilding of the temple had begun.  This rebuilding was not the easiest of construction projects, and building had stalled.  The leaders of the church were at odds with each other, and there was division not only about the physical construction, but also around the re-building of a culture and people. For 70 years the people of the temple had been scattered in Babylon and held in slavery.  Some married “foreigners” while they were away, and so the society was becoming diverse.  When they returned and began to rebuild the temple, there were drought and food shortages.  Not only were building materials scarce, but the necessities for survival were scarce as well.  The identity of the community was threatened by social and economic inequity.  Homelessness, hunger, lack of clothing, and food were common.[ii]

 

            The beginning of Isaiah 58 sets the context for where our reading for today picks up.  This is the portion that discusses “the fast that I choose”.  Many of you may recognize it from the readings during Ash Wednesday as we focus on preparing ourselves spiritually through Lent for Easter.  There was a disconnect between worship and justice, between worship and the work of the church.  Fasting was a common religious practice at the time – giving up food to devote oneself to prayer  – for those who had enough food to give it up.  That’s the twist with fasting – the poor fast by necessity, not by choice.  The pious were praying and fasting in the temple and then ignoring those who were starving outside the doors.  I think about the folks who come to Friendship Table each week asking for boxes to take meals home.  For some, that is their food for the next day, and without it, they fast, but not by choice.  Those who stand in parking lots with signs asking for food are possibly fasting, but not by choice.  Contrast that to us giving up Starbucks, alcohol, chocolate, or TV for 40 days.  We will not starve, but the poor might.

            This portion of Isaiah is directed at those who were in the temple fasting, and then not doing anything out in the world to alleviate the suffering around them.  Isaiah writes, speaking for the Lord, “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”  The yoke to be removed symbolizes the injustices and oppression in the world.  If we are able to remove ourselves from those processes and offer food to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted, we will still have enough — even if we share.

Did you know, that according to the World Hunger Education Source, “The world produces enough food to feed everyone.”  World agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 percent population increase. This is enough to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,720 [calories] per person per day.”[iii]  The average recommended caloric intake is 2,000 a day.  The message for the Israelites is the same for us today – there is enough.  We need to use what we need and let the rest go to others.  God will provide.

            That is a good news message for us, as well as a hard word to hear.  It is easy to fast with a full pantry and freezer.  The challenge is to give away what is in our pantries to those who have no choice.  And, I’m not talking about giving the expired stuff to the food pantry – they can’t use it.  I’m talking about the good stuff.  The stuff you want and need.  For me, that’s the staples that I use to bake with, my fancy spices and sauces, olive oil.  “The challenge, the call is to empty your cupboards to meet the needs of others, and then trust that God will satisfy you in the parched places”, and provide what you need[iv].  In other words, offer the stability we have to others who don’t have it.

            I had the privilege of taking three of our high-schoolers to Triennium this summer.  This event is a Presbyterian youth conference held every three years at Purdue University, and there were over 5000 youth in attendance this summer.  I think the temperature had cooled down to a chilly 99 degrees the day we did our mission project – packing meals for Stop Hunger Now.  The National Guard armory had been transformed into a packaging facility.  This massive space had row after row of stations set up, and each small group packed meals for about 30 minutes in the un-air-conditioned building.  Using a funnel that looked like a caning funnel, a plastic bag was filled with a vitamin packet, dried vegetables – like what is in ramen noodles, a soy protein, and rice.  It was weighed and sealed – if it weighed to much some of the rice was removed.  If it weighed too little, rice was added.  Each bag held three cups of ingredients – 6 half cup servings.  The triennium conference packaged around 150,000 meals.  As we left, there were university employees passing out samples of what we had just made so we could taste it.  I’ll be honest – I took a bite and did not want anymore – it was mushy, bland, and as one youth said “gross.”  Looking at the almost overflowing trash cans, it seemed many of the youth had the same opinion, and all I could think was “wow – how many people are desperate to eat what we just threw away.”  If you live in a poverty stricken area of the world, if you are one who is in one of those parched places, this small bag of food could literally save your life.  It was easy to turn away from it knowing we were going to have lunch in a fancy dining hall.  But if you live in Africa, this may be all you get. 

 

            The theme of Triennium was “I am”.  What I hope our youth left with was the sense that they are capable of doing things to change our world – to repair the breach and practice tikun olam – restoring the world.  “We are all connected” was one of the other themes.  What we do can make an impact, and small actions can change the world.  It’s like the saying that the ocean is filled one drop of water at a time.  While the theme we are all connected is great for community building, it creates a stark reality when we realize that all means all.  I am connected to the homeless woman living in her car because there is no room for her at the shelter to stay with her kids.  I’m connected to the drug addict that wants to get clean.  We are connected to the people living behind K-mart.  We are connected to the family in the parking lot with a sign asking for food.  We are connected to the parents in the desert who mourn the loss of their child because there was no clean water.  We are connected to these we don’t like and can’t imagine loving.  We are connected through Christ and called to do what we can to repair the cracks in the world – cracks created by poverty, injustice, and oppression.  Our connection calls us to action – through Christ we are to not only co-exist, but work for one another.

            You see the brokenness here in Cartersville, every day.  We live in an area with inadequate public health facilities – I learned from a colleague recently that there is no place in Bartow County to send someone who is in need of detox.  If an individual does not have health insurance, affordable medical is almost impossible to find.  Bartow Health Access does what they can, but it is a drop in the bucket compared to needs.  This week, the Deacon’s fund paid for a woman to go to the doctor and have a test to see why she has been in pain for months – she was not able to find help anywhere else.  Every day we have individuals at the doors of the church needing help.  Despite the hard work of a lot of people in our community, the streets are still broken, the systems don’t exist or don’t work, and we are called to do more.

            Did you know that one child dies of hunger somewhere in the world with every breath we take?  Poverty and powerlessness are the chief causes of world hunger.  Thirty-five million people in the US are hungry or don’t know where their next meal is coming from.  13 million of them are children.  In 2010, 17.3 million people lived in households that were considered “food insecure” – they did not know where their next meal would come from.  This was up from 11.9 million in 2007, and 8.5 million in 2000. 

If you remove the yoke from among you,

the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

10 if you offer your food to the hungry

and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,

then your light shall rise in the darkness

and your gloom be like the noonday.

11 The Lord will guide you continually,

and satisfy your needs in parched places,

and make your bones strong;

and you shall be like a watered garden,

like a spring of water,

whose waters never fail.

12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;

you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;

you shall be called the repairer of the breach,

the restorer of streets to live in.

 

We are called to raise up the foundations of the next generations.  We are called to restore the breach, repair the world, and offer water to parched places.  We do a lot as a church – we have ministries that feed the hungry and provide education for children.  But what do we do outside these doors to repair the breach?  Just as the Israelites fasted in the church and then ignored the hungry outside their doors, we can individually be guilty of the same thing.  I’m a Pinterest user, and this week, I saw a graphic that hit home.  It said, “Oh, honey.  You must be confused.  You are supposed to live out Bible verses, not just get them tattooed and hope that does the trick.”  Yes, it is loaded with sarcasm, but it also rings true –whether you are tattooed or not.  The living out the Gospel is the important part.  And while we are called to be repairers of the breach, we don’t have to fix the whole thing by ourselves.  Mother Teresa said, “if you can’t feed a hundred people, then just feed one.”   We are all connected, and called to work to repair the breach.  Where will you participate?

Rev. Julie Jensen
            First Presbyterian Church, Cartersville, GA
            8/25/13

 

           

 

 

 

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Sermon for January 9th “Here is My Servant”

Here is My Servant

Isaiah 42:1-9

Matthew 3:13-17

When you hear the word “baptism” what comes to mind…?  Do you see a baby dressed in white, smiling parents gathered around a font while a minister pours water over the child?  Do you think of it as a peaceful event?  One filled with joy and excitement as someone is introduced as a child of God, and claimed as part of God’s family?  Do you remember the day you stood or knelt felt the water on your head, or watched the water poured over the head of your child as you heard the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit….”

The sacrament of Baptism – no matter where or when, no matter how old the individual, there are elements that are always the same – water, the reading of scripture and prayer; the promises of God and the congregation; the Holy Spirit; the remembering and retelling of our salvation story and who we are called to be.  We are claimed and marked by God in our identity as God’s beloved children.  We wonder how God will be at work in the life of the one who is baptized – how God will call this person to serve God throughout his or her life, and we imagine what that will look like.

What was Jesus’ baptism like?  There was no sanctuary, no font, no minister dressed in a black robe, no congregation – unless some of the Pharisees and Sadducees who were there to hear John preach earlier were still there.  Yet, there were familiar elements in Jesus’ baptism.  There is the telling of the story, as Jesus tells John why he needs to be baptized.  There is the element of water, and there is the voice of God, speaking directly to Jesus, calling him beloved and saying that God is well pleased with him.  As Jesus entered the river, as the waters covered his head, did he too consider what kind of ministry God was calling him to, what kind of servant God was calling him to be in the world?

It is possible that in those words, “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased” Jesus heard echoes of another passage of scripture.  A passage he would have known well.  A passage from Isaiah in which the prophet describes the kind of servant God will send to lead God’s people. Our reading from Isaiah today begins with the words, “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights;” The passage ends with the words, “See the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare before they spring forth, I tell you of them.”  Professor at Harvard Divinity School Stephanie A. Paulsell writes, “when Jesus rises up, newly baptized, from the waters of the Jordan, he enters into a ministry saturated with the vision Isaiah bequeathed to him and to us, a vision of leadership guided by mercy and a hunger for justice.  Jesus’ whole life was a passionate response to God’s call for this new way of living.”[1]

In the 4 Servant Songs from Isaiah that Ted and I will be looking at and preaching on over the next few weeks, a servant of the Lord is either spoken about, is spoken to, or speaks on his own.  In today’s reading from Isaiah, God says, “Here is my servant…”  What kind of servant was God talking about? The passage appears in the portion of the book of Isaiah called Second Isaiah, written during a time when the Jewish community was living in exile just prior to the capture of the city of Babylon by Cyrus of Persia.  Some scholars think the servant is Cyrus who returned the people from exile and allowed the rebuilding of the temple.  Others think the author of Isaiah was referring to Israel, which is what happens in Isaiah 49.  The author of the Gospel of Matthew makes it clear in 12:17-19 that he believes Jesus is in fact the servant about which Isaiah writes, quoting the beginning of today’s passage almost word for word.  When Isaiah 42:1-9, today’s reading, was written, the people felt defeated – -they had been overtaken by a foreign power, and were asking some of the eternal questions – where is God in the midst of this?  Where is our hope?  And God says to them, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations…”

It is not as important for us this day as to the exact identity of who the servant is, as to how the servant is.  In fact, in our reading for today, the question of who is never answered.  Our answer is not who serves, but how do they serve– what kind of servant did God send to God’s people?  What kind of leadership should we expect of one called by God, and then in turn expect of ourselves as we follow that example?

The servant Isaiah describes is not one you might expect when thinking about one who is sent to bring justice to the nations, to set captives free, to open the eyes of the blind. A servant is defined as someone working in the service of another.  That may be what we think of when we think of maids and butlers serving lords and ladies in country manor homes in the time of Jane Austin, or those working in service of a king or queen even farther back in time.  We do not think today in terms of “servants” but in terms of hired help – our CPA’s, nannies and assistants are not called servants, yet they do work in our service.  But the kind of servant God was talking about was different.  God was not sending someone to clean the house, deliver party invitations, or care for our children.  God was sending a person with the heart of someone who does not put themselves first, but rather puts the one they serve first. “Here is my servant,” says the Lord.  Here is the person working in my service, working on my behalf.  Here is the one speaking for, ministering for me.  Reading today’s passage in Isaiah, we get an idea of what kind of person God calls into service to work on God’s behalf.  Listen again to verse 3:  “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”  If you are a people in exile, how does this sound to you?  If you feel like your wick is burning dimly, like you are the bruised reed, how do these words sound – these promises that the servant of God will not break you, will not quench your flame. The servant God sends into the world is tender and faithful.  God’s servant does not extract justice by force or might or by breaking others down.  Instead, God’s servant, Paulsell writes, “protects what is weak until it is strong enough to stand, and keeps gentle hands cupped around a weak flame until it can burn on its own.”[2]

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”  These are the words that Jesus said to his followers later in Matthew – -see, I was sent to do this.  I am the servant of God.  This servant was sent to lead God’s people in a new way.  The Servant Song from Isaiah ends with the words, “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.”  Jesus has been called to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out prisoners form the dungeon.  If you look at his entire ministry through the lens of this passage, you see it all here.  Jesus did indeed care for the bruised and those whose wick was dim – he cared for the sick of body, mind and spirit.  He did not crush or extinguish them, but stayed with them until they were strong and burning bright again.  He called for justice and equality, sitting at table with the outsiders who were not welcomed by anyone else – ministering to the overlooked, outcast and unclean.  He cared for the brokenhearted and unwelcome.  He brought justice for those who needed it.  And yet he did it all without raising a sword or entering into battle.

We are reminded that it is the God of creation – the God “who created the heavens and stretched them out; who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it “– it is God who called Jesus to be God’s servant and do a new thing.  In Jesus’ baptism he was at the beginning of a new way of being.  No one had ever existed like him before, and no one ever would again.  At his Baptism, Jesus is identified as God’s beloved and as God’s servant.  And this is where the real work begins for him.

And so it is for us as well.  In our baptisms, we too begin our work as children of God, we begin our ministries, and begin to live out our callings as servant leaders.  God does a new thing in our lives at that moment, but it is not the last new thing God will do in our lives.  Next weekend the Strategic Planning leadership Team begins their work of listening for the new things God is doing in our lives as a church, for listening to the new ways in which God is saying to us “you are my servants and I am not finished with you yet.”  Please be in prayer for the servants who are leading this process, and for our congregation as we move through it.

Baptism is not the end of hearing God say to us “you are my beloved,” nor is it the end of hearing God say to us “here is my servant.”  It is the beginning of a lifelong hearing those words said to us.  Sometimes they are whispered quietly in the night, sometimes they are shouted from rooftops.  Jesus ministry did not end when those words from Isaiah echoed through his head and he emerged from the waters, rather it was just beginning.  For us, as this new year begins, as we settle back into routines and catch our breath after the busy-ness of December, I encourage each of us to ask how we are called to be servants of God.  Not how we are called to serve God – that looks a lot like a to do list.  How are we called to truly be servants.  Have we been causing deeper bruises to those already bruised as we have gone about our work?  Have we been extinguishing wicks that burn dimly rather than sheltering them from the wind and helping the flames grow stronger?  The God who created the heavens and the earth called us to be God’s servants – and gave us the model to follow in Jesus Christ.  As we consider all of the things that come with a new year, all of the resolutions and things that come with it, I encourage you to think about this:  God said “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” What kind of servant will you be this year?


[1] (Paulsell 2010)

[2] (Paulsell 2010)