Rev. Dr. John Judson
December 21, 2014
Isaiah 11:1-10, Luke 1:26-38
I have a confession to make this morning. It is not something I have ever admitted in public, but here goes. I miss some of the political advertisements. There I have said it and I feel better for it. Now let me be clear I do not miss the attack ads; those that tried to imply that whoever the candidate’s opponent was regularly had lunch with Satan. No, the ads that I miss are those that were so absurd that they ended up being, well, silly. To be sure you know what I am talking about let me give you a couple of examples, from both sides of the isle. In all of these please notice the “I”, what I will do. “I will make congress quit fighting and get back to work.” “I will secure our borders.” “I will balance the national budget” “I will put Michiganders back to work.” I will restore the cuts made to education, remove the tax on retirees and make Michigan work again.” If you and I were to take a deep breath and actually think about these statements rather than tuning them out we would see just how silly they were, and are. No one person, not even Jesus, could accomplish these things. And, just as a final observation, no first term congressperson or governor could do them either.
So why do I miss them? I miss them because they are reminders of humanity’s desperate need for hope. How so? They demonstrate this need because regardless of how silly these promises are, we still turn out and vote. That’s right we get up on the First Tuesday in November, stand in line and cast our ballots for people who have made silly promises; yet in the end promises we hope they can keep. My guess is that we hope that there is someone out there who can get congress to quit fighting, act like grownups and do what is best for the nation. And I believe that is so because hope, the hope for a better today and tomorrow, is hard wired into the human psyche. It is often said that when we have our health we have everything. I’m not sure that is correct. I would argue that as long as we have our hope we have everything. I say that because as long as we have hope we can endure almost anything. The flip side is that whenever people abandon hope, it is as if death has arrived. They slip away one piece at a time. So we human beings need and long for hope.
Hope is something that God understands. I say this because this book (the Bible) is a story of hope. Throughout it, when God’s people have found themselves in tight places; places from which there appears to be no escape, God offers a word of hope. These words of hope are at the heart of both of our stories this morning. The first, from Isaiah, concerns a moment in time when it appeared that all was lost for the nation. The nation was rotting from the inside and was under siege from the outside. On the inside the powerful had used their money and power to gain control over the people in such a way that for the ordinary citizen there was no justice and no future. From the outside the great nation of Assyria was literally at the gates planning on the total destruction of Judah and Jerusalem. Yet the Prophet Isaiah brings a word of hope. He tells the people that God will send a king who will change all of this. This king will bring justice and usher in a new age in which people will not only live peacefully with one another but with creation itself. It is one of the most profound statements of hope in all of the scriptures.
Our second story arises in the midst of a time which, though not quite as dire, was also one in which the ordinary citizen was oppressed and helpless. As we have talked about on other occasions, the time in which Jesus is born into the world is one in which Rome and her minions exercised great control over virtually every aspect of everyday life. Now, to be fair, the Jews had more freedom than virtually any other religious group within the Empire. Nonetheless, Rome heavily taxed the people by taking both money and crops, encouraged the creation of larger and larger landholdings in order to maximize production, and projected not only their military might, but their cultural values on a Jewish nation who found them abhorrent. In a sense hopeless was on the horizon. So into this situation an angel appears to a young peasant woman in Galilee. The angel has an amazing message for her. She will bear a son, name him Jesus and he will reign over a kingdom that will have no end.” This was the sign. This was the one who come from the stump of Jessie (remember Isaiah?) and bring about justice and equity on the earth. This was the word of hope for which not only Mary, but all of Judea, had been waiting to hear.
The only problem with these promises was that they appeared to be as silly as those made by the politicians for whom we vote. What kind of a promise tells the people that the Assyrians who have demolished cities and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people could be turned away by Jerusalem’s walls or Judah’s decimated army. What kind of a promise tells a young, peasant woman living in the back-water burg of Nazareth that she would be the mother of a king who would rule an eternal empire and bring justice to the world? These are the kind of promises that make people not vote; that make people not want to believe. Yet the people believed. The people of Judah chose not to surrender even in the face of almost certain death. Mary believed the angel. Mary believed enough to say to the angel, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” In a sense, these people believed enough to vote; to vote for God’s radical, absurd, impossible words of hope. They voted for them not at the ballot box, but with their lives. They voted by acting upon the promises trusting that they were true. And they were true. The Assyrians, returned home, leaving Jerusalem intact. Mary gave birth to the messiah of the world, who continues to usher in a new world order of justice and compassion.
The question before us this morning then is are we ready to vote for the word of hope that comes down to us? Are we willing to believe that God is still at work in the world in such a way that our future can be better than our present and our past? We are living in a moment of great pessimism. Following the last election 48% of Americans said that life would be worse for future generations than it is today. Only 22% said that it would be better. It is easy to see what people feel this way; a transforming economy, the loss of low-skilled well-paying jobs, the crisis in pension funds, the massive debt held by cities and states. The list goes on. It would be easy for us, as the church, to throw up our hands and give up all hope. Yet that is not the task to which we have been called. We have been called to be a people of hope. We are the inheritors of the promises to Isaiah and Mary. We are those who follow the one who has initiated a kingdom in which love, compassion and justice are not merely dreams but possibilities. We are those who follow the one who gave his life that we might be new people capable of carrying out his hopeful promises. We are the followers of the one who called us to be those who make hope our aim.
On this last Sunday of Advent, we are called to be people of hope. So here is my question for you, “How am I voting for hope with my words, my deeds and my beliefs?”
Rev. Amy Morgan
December 14, 2014
Isaiah 61:1-11, John 1:6-8, 19-28
In poverty and oppression, you are a number. 1.4 billion people worldwide are living in extreme poverty. More than 45 million people in the United States live in poverty. 27 million people are enslaved around the world today.
In prison, you are a number. Les Miserable fans will surely remember prisoner 24601, a man without a name, a man with the permanent mark of imprisonment. And while we don’t permanently engrave numbers onto our prisoners in this time and place, we do still assign inmate numbers, and the emotional and social imprint of those numbers, that label of “prisoner,” can be every bit as long-lasting and devastating as it was for Jean Valjean.
Even in mourning, you are a number. There are over three million Syrian refugees who have fled to surrounding countries, leaving behind their homes and possessions and their dead loved ones. Nearly 200,000 survivors of the Holocaust still mourn what and who they lost during that great human atrocity.
They say in the non-profit world that numbers speak. But they don’t, really. Numbers can be manipulated to tell whatever story you want people to hear. Numbers like the ones I mentioned can overwhelm us, and they can provide apathetic distance. Numbers are cold and silent, and they don’t tell the real story.
Numbers also refuse to name those who are afflicted, which serves to augment the pain of those who suffer invisibly.
Numbers do not speak. They do not give a voice to the voiceless – to tell their story, to describe their oppression, to cry out for freedom, to prophetically call us to a new and more just way of living.
Numbers do not speak, but we use numbers anyway – in the media, in government reports, in non-profit fundraising. And so the poor, the oppressed, the prisoner, and the grief-stricken remain unidentified and voiceless – just another statistic.
In the gospel of John, we encounter a man with a name and a voice.
In the Matthew’s gospel, he is the Baptist. In Mark, he is the Baptizer. In Luke, he is the son of Zechariah. But here, in the symbolism-obsessed gospel of John, he is the Voice. “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord.'"
John is quoting the prophet Isaiah who, like many of the prophets of Israel, had a special concern for those nameless and voiceless people. In the prophesy we read this morning, Isaiah shares with the people a vision of hope – an “anointed one,” a Messiah, who will “bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners,” who will “proclaim the year of the LORD's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God,” and who will “comfort all who mourn”
The gospel of Luke tells us that at the outset of his earthly ministry, Jesus takes up this text as his mission statement, declaring to the religious leaders and teachers that this prophesy has been fulfilled in him.
Now, Jesus does many amazing and miraculous things in his earthly ministry. But as a Jewish rabbi once explained, Jews don’t believe Jesus was the Messiah because those things the Messiah was supposed to change have not changed. People are still oppressed, brokenhearted, captive, imprisoned, and mourning. I have to admit, the rabbi had a point.
So what’s wrong with us Christians? Are we crazy to believe Jesus was the Messiah? Possibly. Should we still be waiting for the Messiah to come? Perhaps. But I think we would be waiting a very long time.
Jesus wasn’t joking around or inflating his ego when he said Isaiah’s prophesy had been fulfilled. He understood what the prophesy was really about. Isaiah does not say that the Messiah, the anointed one, will eliminate suffering and oppression. Instead, he will inaugurate a new social order. In bringing good news to the oppressed, the Messiah will assure them that they are known and cherished by God, that they are not just a number – God knows their name. In binding up the broken hearted, the Messiah will offer comfort and healing and hope. In proclaiming liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, the Messiah will show the way to true freedom, despite whatever bondage may try to hold us. They are not a number – they have a name and a voice, and God hears their cries.
The “year of the Lord” referred to in this passage is the Jubilee year, the time when, every 50 years, all debts are forgiven, all slaves are released, and everyone celebrates and rests, even the land rests and lies fallow. In the Jubilee year, the people are freed from slavery to debt, to other people, even to their own wealth. The Jubilee year is a great equalizer, reminding everyone that we are not numbers. We are not what we own or who owns us. We have a name, and a voice, and a place in our collective story.
Freedom is more than basic rights, having your basic needs met, not being imprisoned. It is more than happiness and comfort. Freedom is a name, a voice, a place in the story. This is the freedom prophesied by Isaiah. This is the freedom fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
John was a man who knew that freedom. He not only had a name, he had an origin and a purpose. He was sent by God as a witness to testify to the light. He turned down all the false names the religious leaders tried to pin on him – Messiah, Elijah, the prophet, meaning the reincarnated Moses. He accepted nothing more and nothing less than the truth about himself.
John was the voice. The voice of one crying out in the wilderness. If there is any truth in the words of Janis Joplin, that freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, then John was indeed very free. He was living in the wilderness, eating honey and locusts. He had no home, no money, no family by his side. While the Messiah, his cousin, walked the earth, he was imprisoned and killed.
But he knew his place in the story. He was to witness to Jesus, to point to the One who is coming into the world and to acknowledge the superiority of that One. The word “witness” in Greek is the word “martyria” – martyr. That is what John truly was. He witnessed to his faith in Jesus by dying. In this, for John, was freedom. His place in the story was to point to Jesus, to draw attention to him not just through his voice, but through his actions.
We talk a lot about freedom today. We argue about whether our freedoms are being infringed upon, whether we are too free, even. But we talk about freedom in numbers. Numbers in poverty. Numbers in prison. High school graduation rates. Crime statistics.
Very rarely do we give oppression, poverty, prisoners, and survivors a name, a voice, and a place in the story.
And the reason for this is highly ironic.
You see, we have control over numbers. We make changes, we recalculate, we re-district and re-distribute to make numbers go up and down and whichever way we want. We use numbers to try and manipulate the social order. In other words, we use numbers to try to be the Messiah rather than witness to the Messiah. Instead of following the new social order prophesied by Isaiah and fulfilled in Jesus Christ, we attempt to create our own social order, based in human weakness and fear.
This leads us to claim names that don’t truly belong to us. Whether this comes in the form of attachment to political parties or consumer products or over-identification with our success, wealth, and achievements, we accept false names all the time. A recent trend in baby naming has children being named after products – Chevy and Lexus, Armani and Nautica.
But for most of us, the name game is more subtle – “perfect,” “successful,” “brilliant,” “happy.” Names we can never live up to all the time. My sister and I accepted the false names of “the smart one” and “the pretty one.” I’ll let you guess which one I was. Children get labeled early on as “troublemakers” or “the quiet one,” and they hold on to these names all the way through school and into their adult lives. And as long as we allow for a social order based on categories and numbers, we will be imprisoned by these false names.
Without an honest and authentic identity, we cannot find our true voice. We speak from a place of expectations – those we place on ourselves and those imposed on us by others – rather than speaking from our origin, our God-given name. If we are imprisoned by names like “perfect” and “successful,” our suffering, self-doubt, and vulnerability are silenced. If we are imprisoned by names like “troublemaker” or “quiet one,” our true potential and unique abilities are silenced.
And when parts of us are silenced, we can only tell part of our story, and we lose our rightful place in our collective story. The “perfect” and “successful” ones are expected to fulfill the roles of epic heroes, gods and kings, captains of industry, commercialized saints. Is it any wonder that many of those we place on this kind of pedestal end up toppling under the weight of addition, unfaithfulness, and vice? Wrong name, no voice, wrong place in the story. The “troublemakers” and “quiet ones” are forced to tell a story of limited ambition or chronic failure. Should we be shocked that they don’t often strive for anything greater than this depressed narrative? Wrong name, no voice, wrong place in the story.
Isaiah has prophesied and Jesus has fulfilled a new social order. One where everyone has a name, a voice, and a place in the story. One where everyone is free. Isaiah says that when this prophesy is fulfilled, everyone who sees God’s people will “acknowledge that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed.”
So my question for us to day is this: do you feel blessed? Are you free? Can you be honest enough with yourself to reject all of those false names and claim your true, God-given identity? Can you speak with a voice that tells your true story? Can you stop trying to be the Messiah and instead witness to the One who is to come, who is greater than any of us?
You are not a number. God has named you, sent you into this world for a reason, and made you a part of the cosmic story of God’s love for the world. We are a people who have been blessed, who have been set free by the new social order inaugurated in Jesus Christ. And the more we point to Christ, the Messiah, and follow him, even if at a distance, the more we will experience our own freedom and advance freedom in all the world.
All glory be to God. Amen.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
December 7, 2014
Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8
A soldier is running across a battlefield. He is shot in his leg and the bullet ruptures his femoral artery. He has less than three minutes to stop the bleeding or he will die. Even if a medic is nearby with a pressure pack it will take four minutes to stop the bleeding. This was the scenario posed by Joe Landolina in a recent Ted talk. Landolina said that this was one of the problems he had hoped to address when he went to college; to find a way to stop severe bleeding in a short period of time. He acknowledged that others had tried to find a solution. Unfortunately they were not successful because their solutions were two dimensional…sort of like Band-Aids…which while perhaps working on one part of the body would not work on other parts because the parts had different cellular makeups. What Landolina was able to do though was to take a plant derived polymer and apply it to the wound where the polymer would actually reassemble itself into whatever tissue with which it came into contact. The result was the ability to stop a major bleed in…drum roll…ten seconds.
As I was watching this Ted Talk several thoughts were going through my mind. The first was I don’t understand biology well enough to really explain any of this. The second was this is a really cool invention. The third, being the minister that I am, wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were some compound we could spread on the world to stop its bleeding. Today, being Pearl Harbor Day, it is appropriate for us to remember how much blood has been spilled over the last hundred years; two world wars, countless conflicts, millions upon millions dead. And we need to remember, as if the evening news would ever allow us to forget the blood that is still being shed in virtually every part of the world; blood shed over religion, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality and a host of other reasons. So wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a compound, a balm and mixture that would heal the wounds of humanity.
In some ways this healing has been the project on which God has been working since the dawn of humanity; trying to heal the wounds of the world. From the calling of Abraham, to the giving of the Law, to our two stories this morning, we read of God trying to heal the hurts. Our Isiah story concerns God healing the hurts of God’s people by bringing them home from exile. For those of you who were with us last week we talked about God’s people sleepwalking through life and ignoring God’s desires for trust and compassion. The result was that their nation was destroyed by the Babylonians. Now God brings them home saying, “Comfort, comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term.” Our story in Mark has John the Baptist telling the people that God is sending someone who will baptize them with the Holy Spirit, who is God’s agent of healing and restoration. In other words, in Jesus real healing would be possible.
The question with which this leaves us then is, “If Jesus came, taught, died and was raised from the dead…and thus made healing of the wounds of the world possible, why isn’t the world healed? Why are there still so many wounds which are tearing the world apart?” My answer is, unfortunately we have not applied the love, grace, compassion and forgiveness of Jesus often or well enough to the world’s wounds. Think of it this way. The polymer which was developed to stop bleeding wounds only works when it is applied. If it remains in a tube or a packet, the bleeding still continues. Or this past week when I picked up one of those roof cables that is intended to melt snow, and on the box it said, “Installation Required” which means, I suppose, some people think that the all they have to do is buy this product and the snow will melt. The task then is for us to apply Jesus Christ to the wounds of the world; through acts of love and tender care. We have to apply it to our own lives by allowing Christ to heal us. We have to apply it to the lives of others in order that their bleeding cease as well. We have to apply it to our society and to the world. We are to be agents of healing.
And while this healing needs to happen in a global context such as when Pope Francis prayed at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul or met with the Patriarch to talk about reuniting the church, it can also happen on the local level. To that end I want to offer you two examples that I heard about this week.
The first was one of our members who offered one of our blessing bags to a veteran in a wheelchair who was seeking aid by the side of a road. He was surprised to receive it, and then when our member happened to be driving by the same street corner a little while later, she saw the man showing what he had received to a friend, and the man’s face was filled with joy. There is healing in action. The second is about one of our members who teaches at a local university. He has a Muslim student who is struggling in class and at times feels helpless. After a conversation about her faith in God, our member told her to take an empty chair, place it next to her and every time she felt discouraged to imagine that God was in the chair beside her. This is healing in action.
My friends, part of our calling is to be those who apply the healing love, grace, compassion and forgiveness of Jesus Christ to the world. We are to be those who help to heal a wounded world. My challenge for you then this week is this, to ask yourselves, “How am I being an agent of Christ’s healing in this hurting world; in my family, my school, my workplace or my neighborhood? How am I offering the love, grace, forgiveness and compassion of God as it has been shared with me?”
Rev. Dr. John Judson
November 30, 2014
Isaiah 64:1-9, Mark 13:1-2, 24-37
They were the most frightening words the disciples could have heard from Jesus’ mouth; that the Temple would be destroyed and there would not be one stone left upon another. For you and I those words might have simply sounded like an interesting but not necessarily disturbing comment. Yet for the disciples it brought back images that haunted every Jew in the time of Jesus. I say that because the Temple in which Jesus and the disciples were standing was not the first Temple…it was the second. The first Temple had been built by Solomon more than eight hundred years before. It had been the center of Jewish religion and life for more than three hundred years before it and all of Jerusalem were completely destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. While you might say, John, that was almost six-hundred years before the coming of Jesus, how could that frighten them? The answer would be that the Babylonian destruction and subsequent exile were events which forever shaped the Jewish people. Any mention of it brought back tears and fears. Yet, even though it was a frightening reference, it was one that they disciples completely understood.
The disciples understood the reference because the issues that caused the destruction of the First Temple were at work in the era of the Second Temple. These events were that the people refused to listen to and to follow the way of God. Granted this explanation seems a bit cryptic but let’s return for a moment to the era of the First Temple. In that time, the people had forgotten what God had commanded them as to how they were to act toward the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the vulnerable. The people ground the poor into dust, cheated the powerless and abused widows and orphans. The people also trusted their political allies for salvation rather than trusting God. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God had told them to wait and God would send a savior. They forgot these things and thus their doom was sure. In the time of the Second Temple, Jesus’ disciples could see the sameproblems. All that mattered was wealth and power. People were cheating small farmers out of their land. Employers were refusing to pay the wages they owed the working poor. And once again there was a growing independence movement that believed armed rebellion against Rome was the way out. Jesus’ comment about the destruction of the Temple seemed pretty realistic and ultimately proved true when less than forty years after Jesus’ death the Temple was once again destroyed.
We might wonder then how this could happen. How could a society repeat such a disastrous failure? How could a people risk the possibility of a second destruction? The answer is that they could do so because they were spiritually sleepwalking. When people sleep walk they often go through the same routines through they do if they are awake. In some ways sleepwlking is similar to our having arrived at work or at school and suddenly realizing that we have no idea how we got there. We were on autopilot; we were sleepwalking behind the wheel. This is where the Jewish people of the Second Temple period found themselves. There were certain narratives, buried deep within their culture which drove their actions. They did not stop and ask if their actions were right or wrong. They did not wake up and say to themselves, “Hey, wait, we are not treating the poor and oppressed the way we ought to be treating them.” Or, “Hey, you know the Roman Empire is the most powerful empire on earth, what makes us think that we could defeat them?” But it didn’t matter, the narrative had not changed: we are God’s people. We have the Temple. God protects us. So we can do whatever we want and it will still be OK. They were sleep walking through life.
It would be very easy for us to go, tsk, tsk and say, “Isn’t it a shame that those people, did that thing.” Thank goodness we are not spiritually sleepwalking like they are. Yet the reality is that we do the same. Each of us is in some measure possessed by narratives of which we are unaware and yet which cause us to see the world and all that is in it in certain ways. Before we go further, I want us to set Ferguson aside for the moment. The issues and evidence are too complex and responses are too emotional in that case. That being said, in light of all that has happened over the past week throughout this country, I want to offer one narrative that shapes us; and this is it, black men are dangerous. Again I say this not because of what happened in Ferguson, but because of what has been and continues to happen on a daily basis in this country. From the initiation of slavery and the fear of the slave owners which caused them to brutalize their slaves, through the post-Civil War era and the rise of the Clan to protect women from black men, through Jim Crow which tried to emasculate black men, and into the history of Detroit itself.
This narrative can be seen in an excerpt from The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit by Thomas J. Sugure. In this portion of the book he writes of a 6th grade teacher in an all-white Detroit school in the 1940’s who asked her students to write an essay on why they liked or did not like Negros. The answers were almost all about not liking them. The reasons blacks were not liked were that they were mean, they were scary, they put people in their cars and killed them, and that they started riots (remember that there was a large race riot in 1943 in Detroit). The fascinating thing about these answers is that few if any of those sixth-graders had ever met a black person.
Unfortunately this narrative is still at work. I will offer two stories to illustrate my point.
The first is of a young African American seminary student I got to know years ago in Richmond, Virginia where I received my theological training. One of the things he and his classmates had to do was to buy a clerical collar and wear it for a month. At the end of the month the students were to reflect on their experience. Many of the white students talked about people kind of moving away from them as if the people were too afraid to be near God. But this young man said for the first time in his life he could go into a convenience store and not have the eyes of the clerks follow him around the room as if he were going to steal something. He said it made him feel almost white. The second story is from my hometown of Houston. Three young black men were driving a nice BMW through one of the toniest neighborhoods of Houston. A white police officer spotted them and decided that he needed to follow them. Then when the young men pulled into a driveway, the officer quickly pulled in, leaped from his car, drew his gun and yelled at them to stop. The driver of the car, startled, turned around and was shot. He was shot in the driveway of his own home where he lived with his father and his mother.
What I would argue is that the clerks in those stores would claim that they were not prejudiced and treated every person the same. I would argue that the police officer probably had black friends, many of them on the police force, yet the reality is that this powerful narrative runs through our society, along with dozens, if not hundreds of others; narratives about the rich and the poor; about men and women; about north and south, east and west; about innumerable things. And so the question arises, “How do we wake up and stay awake as Jesus asked his disciples to do?” The answer is confession.
Confession is caffeine for the spirit and soul. Confession wakes us up. It wakes us up because it rouses us from sleep and causes us to face those moments when we have allowed our cultural narratives to dictate our thoughts and actions. Confession forces us to mine the depths of our hearts, souls and minds in order to see what lies behind our actions and opinions. That is why we include confession in every Sunday morning worship service. It is not there to make anyone feel badly. It is there to help us open our eyes so that we can begin to see where we have missed the mark God set for us in Jesus Christ. John Calvin almost included confession as a third sacrament because it forces us to confront the choices we make and the reasons we make them. So we begin this advent season with confession because by allowing it to live and work within us, we become more and more capable of being followers of the one whose birth we are about to celebrate.
So here is my challenge for you for this week to ask yourselves this question, “How am I making confession a part of my daily life in order that I might wake up and stay awake in order that my life more fully reflects that of Jesus the Christ, who gave himself for me?”