Sermon for Proper 14 C

Today’s Readings

The purpose of a sermon, I think, is to encourage an encounter with the Gospel – the good news of Jesus. So, I usually focus on the appointed Gospel reading. But encountering the Gospel is not just an encounter with a written record. In fact, it is never that. The Gospel is a living thing; our encounters are lively and intimate. Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John reliably point us in the direction of the good news. But they are guides along the path, not the destination; and they are not the only guides.

I say that as a way of acknowledging that I’m not much focused on this morning’s Gospel… Because, for me, the passage from Isaiah is just too irresistible.

Isaiah, whoever we may mean when we use that name, wrote a long time ago. He, if it was in fact a “he,” wrote over a period of several hundred years… so “he” either lived a very long time, or he had a ghost writer or two…

The book of Isaiah divides neatly into two parts and it would be lovely if the parts followed some sort of linear, timely progression. But they don’t. The prophet offers us an impressionist landscape, not a blueprint.

As a very basic premise, we (the faithful Jews of Isaiah’s time, the disciples of Jesus’ time, and us) are given the Law of Moses to help us live our lives in a way that pleases God. The role of the Prophet is to help us understand the law, and to warn us when we aren’t getting it right – we need that help today as much as ever.

The pattern in much of Isaiah, as in other prophets, is to draw attention where we are in rebellion against God’s law, and to call us to repentance and amendment of life… or else…

In recent times we have developed the notion that Prophets are in the business of predicting the future. This notion of prophesy is hard to resist when the Gospel writers appear to have scoured Isaiah for predictions of Jesus’ birth. But really the task of the prophet was to tell people of urgent issues in their own time, not some far-off future.

The imagery in the book of Isaiah is quite compelling and it couples with the Birth of Jesus in powerful and beautiful ways – but we need to keep in mind that while we may find shadows of the distant future in ancient prophets, Isaiah was not predicting anything. He was telling folks off…

If we let our view of prophets shift too far in the direction of predicting future events, then we lose the immediacy and relevance of the prophets in their own time. And the big danger in that is that we then lose the immediacy and relevance of those same prophets in our time.

So, what do we encounter in Isaiah from this morning’s reading? Well, we seem to encounter a prophet who is in a bad mood… “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom… you people of Gomorrah.” This is a tough start. These are two cities that were wiped from the face of the earth. Their destruction hints that our own potential destruction may be coming… Rulers and citizens and all…

If you haven’t lost heart already, think about what comes next: “I (meaning God) have had enough of your offerings… trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile… Your new moons and festivals my soul hates… even though you make prayers, I will not listen.”

Yikes. God does not want us to come to church. God has had enough of our offerings. God will not even listen to our prayers. Isaiah might just as well be reading the sign that Dante places over the gates of Hell: Abandon hope all ye who enter here. How do we get from this place to the good news of Jesus?

The purpose of the Prophet is not to bring us to despair, but rather to bring us to repentance. And what Isaiah is doing in his pronouncement is telling us that lots of good words and lots of wonderful offerings and many beautiful liturgies do not add up to repentance. Repentance is going to have to start somewhere else.

Isaiah has some good starting places. Cease to do evil and learn to do good. Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow. Of course, we will hear this list again… from the mouth of Jesus.

Orphans and widows had a particular place in the society of the time – and it was not a good place. Your value and status in the community came from the family and the family was a projection of the father. A widow had no status because her status died with her husband. And orphans had no status because it died with their father – you could be an orphan even if your mother was alive…

Isaiah is talking about the most powerless people in the neighborhood… the people nobody wants to even notice… And Jesus, centuries later, says the same thing – apparently, we didn’t listen to Isaiah – and not to Jesus either… In modern times, widows and orphans are no longer the great pariahs of society… We have not eliminated that place; we’ve just relegated other people to it. Isaiah and Jesus are both calling us to repent…

But then Isaiah takes this marvelous turn. After we’ve been told that our prayers and our worship are worthless and that blood is on our hands, Isaiah says come, let’s talk. Let us reason it out… our sins, which are blood red, can be washed white as snow… if we are willing to become obedient; to become disciples.

If not, we will be devoured by the sword. The mouth of the Lord has spoken. Have a nice day…

Following Jesus is about relationship: Our relationship with God, our relationship with our brothers and sisters, our relationship with all of God’s creation. Was Adam’s sin about an apple or about damaging the pure and direct relationship he had with God? Sodom wasn’t destroyed because of sex, but because they refused hospitality… they refused relationship and, in so doing, refused God. The sin of neglecting widows and orphans, or whoever it is that we wish to avoid, is in rejecting relationship and therefore rejecting God.

The ancient Jewish understanding of our obligation to God is the ancient Temple creed – love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength. By tradition that is paired with the command to love our neighbors as ourselves.

These days there are those who like to cast themselves as prophets – and they fill this role by predicting destruction. Natural disasters, like earthquakes and floods, as well as tragedies like airline crashes seem to bring these voices out of the woodwork. God is punishing us because… of whatever.

But notice that while Isaiah does hint that great destruction is possible, maybe even imminent, what he really wants is for us to love the people around us, especially the ones we don’t want to love – those persistent widows and orphans…

The good news of Jesus is that God’s loving and forgiving grace is always poured out for us – even when we do not know it or want it. And especially when we don’t deserve it – since we never deserve it…

Our proper response to God’s grace, as in the days of Isaiah, is to live in faith and to seek justice for all of creation. Martin Luther King taught that justice is the calculation of God’s love. The call from Isaiah and from Jesus to us is to seek to love all of creation – that is a lot of calculation.

At the same time, we must let ourselves be loved. It may seem surprising, but in my experience, we have a very difficult time letting ourselves be loved. We have a conviction that love must be earned… that we must somehow be worthy of love.

A friend of mine once said, reflecting on his ex-wife, if she had just been a better person, I would have loved her unconditionally. He was being quite serious. And as I pondered what he had said it struck me that while I thought his statement was a bit crazy, I tended to live my life with the notion that if I can be a better person, God will love me unconditionally.

We do not need to do anything to make God love us – God loves us! Unconditionally!

Unconditional love may come naturally to God, but not so much to us. I think what Isaiah may be telling us is that our need for worship, for prayer, for offerings, is not to help God love us, but rather to help us love our neighbors and ourselves.

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