It is for now that you have been called

Scripture Isaiah 1:1,
Sunday August 12, 2007

This week teachers return to school and next week, the students return. Consider a kindergarten or first grade teacher who tells the students, “I am going to teach you to read. In this class you will learn to read.” The excited students look around the room only to notice that there are no books in the room. No display with big books,. No shelves of easy reading books. No books anywhere. This doesn’t seem to go with the promise of learning to read.

Consider a coach who tells the ream, “My goal is for everyone to have a good time. Every student is equally important to the success of the team. “ After hours of practice, drills, and scrimmaging, the students can’t wait for their first game. Then, some team members are selected to play and some warm the bench. And as the season progresses, the same students are warming the bench at every game and seldom are asked to play. So much for everyone having a good time and everyone important to the team.

Then there are politicians who say one thing and do another. I just spent 2 weeks in Mexico in Chiapas where the indigenous people are advocating for the government to treat them fairly. There was an armed uprising in Chiapas in January of 1994. Vincente Fox ran for president that year. He promised to solve the Chiapas problem in 15 minutes. We’ll, he was in office for 12 years, and the Chiapas problem still is not solved. So much for 15 minutes.

In the scripture lesson we heart this morning from Isaiah, the prophet conveys God’s outrage at the same kind of discontinuity between words and actions. The people are worshipping God, offering sacrifices, making offerings, having special services and assemblies, and lifting their hands in prayer. They are devout! This is not the Christmas and Easter crowd, this is the church every Sunday crowd, the read the Bible every day crowd, the pray every day crowd, and attend services on all holy days. They are fulfilling all the proper rituals and observances, and yet, God is displeased. Angry, eve. Because the religious devotion of the people is not reflected in their daily behavior. The prophet offers God’s word: Cease to do evil. There would be no need to say this if there wasn’t a problem. The prophet adjures; Learn to do good. And what is that good? Isaiah tells us: Seek justice. Aid the wronged. Defend the rights of the orphans. Plead the cause of the widow.

Evidently, these pious people were perpetrators of economic and social injustice. In Isaiah 3:15, God inquires, “What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?” Evidently the gap is growing between rich and poor. The rich are driving the poor off of the land. Isaiah 5:8 tells us, “Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you and you are lift to live alone in the midst of the land.” And the poor are denied their rights. “Ah, you. . . who acquit the guilty for a bribe and deprive the innocent of their rights.” (5:23) The state of things is pretty well summed up in Isaiah chapter 10:

Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,
who write oppressive statutes,
to turn aside the needy from justice
and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be their spoil,
and that you may make orphans your prey!

The problem is that these people are devout practitioners of the proper religious ritual, but they are not honoring God’s desire for justice and equity. They are not manifesting the compassionate community commanded y God. So God is angry.

God tells them don’t focus your energies on fancy assemblies, but instead direct your attention to the social and economic injustice you have created. Give up greed and pursuit of wealth and power at the expense of others. Invest yourselves in care for the widows and the orphans, and in a just system of economic, social, and community life.

This is exactly what we see in the life of Jesus, and not surprisingly, it offends the sensibilities of the religious leaders who are complicitors in his death. Yes, Jesus participates in religious observances, but the purpose of those rituals is to form and mold the individual according to God’s desires. The purpose of worship is to show devotion to the God of justice and compassion, the God of the poor and needy. This is how Jesus lived. He embodies devotion to the God of shalom, peace, compassionate community. The stories and teachings of Jesus, like the prophecies of Isaiah and others, lay bare the social and economic injustice pervading society, sometimes blesses and perpetrated even by religious institutions. In his first sermon, Jesus quotes Isaiah. He doesn’t say, “I’ve come to get more people in church.” He doesn’t’ say, “I’ve come to make sure you’re performing your rituals correctly.” He doesn’t say, “I’ve com to thank the high priests, scribes, rabbis, and others who have kept things going all these years.” No. Jesus kicks off quoting Isaiah:

The Spirit of God is upon me,
Because God has anointed me
To bring good news to the poor.
God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To let the oppressed go free,
To proclaim the year of God’s favor. {Luke ]

Jesus, like Isaiah, wants the heart of devotion to God to reflect the hear of God with the commitment to compassion and justice for all people.

In the United Church of Christ, we express our affirmation of God’s desires when we say in our Statement of Faith:

You call us into your church
To accept the cost and joy of discipleship,
To be your servants in the service of others,
To proclaim the gospel to all the world
And resist the powers of evil. . .

The UCC may not be known for its boys’ choirs, its stunning architecture, or its beautiful liturgy, but we have distinguished ourselves in our 50 year history, for our commitment to social and economic justice. We are know as the social action church. The justice and peace church. The church committed to equal rights. The church that tries to take the side of the poor, the oppressed, the forgotten.

This summer, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the UCC, the sermons have featured stories of our history and ministry. This morning we hear of the crusading work of the Office of Communication.

As the UCC was established in 1957, the decision was made to form an Office of Communication. This ministry was to deal with internal communication within the UCC providing materials needed for various programs, like making film stiprs and brochures. This ministry was also responsible for communication between the UCC and the wider world providing press released and programming for public media outlets.
MS to monitor a composite week of the station programming to see if it complied” with FCC guidelines. It didn’t. While blacks comprised 45% of the TV audience, “their concerns were completely ignored by local stations.”

In 1963, when Jackson, MS station WLBT applied to the FCC to renew tis broadcast license, “the UCC filed a petition to deny license renewal with the fCC. The FCC’s initial response was to rule that neither the United Church of Christ nor local citizens had “legal” standing to participate in its renewal proceedings. The UCC appealed that decision in the Federal appeals court, and three years later in 1966, the future Chief Justice of the Supreme court, Warren Burger, granted standing to the UCC and citizens in general to participate in the FCC licensing process. After a hearing, the FCC renewed WLBT’s license. The UCC appealed again. And Judge Warren Burger declared the FCC’s record, “beyond repair” and revoked WLBT’S license.

This legal proceeding initiated by the UCC had far-reaching implications. It established the fright to ordinary citizens to be involved in the media licensing process and other Federal government regulatory proceedings. It recognized the rights of the viewing audience, not just the economic rights of the stations and the advertisers. It established the duty of the FCC to protect the interests of the whole community of viewers.

In the wake of this bold and courageous crusade, the media continues to be monitored and challenged around issues of fairness, violence, appropriate children’s programming and other concerns. In fact, the UCC was recently involved in another licensing conflict involving inappropriate children’s programming.

The UCC has a distinguished history of seeking to respond in humility and repentance to the ringing words of Isaiah: to cease to do evil and learn to do good. Seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed, defending the powerless. In Isaiah’s day, there was a gap between theory and practice, between piety and ethics, between words and deed,. The gospel call us to bridge that gap and to diminish it.

Friends, this work is not yet done. There is still a great need for the gospel of Jesus Christ today. The embodied message of God’s liberating love is needed today. The work of truth which sets us free is needed today. Today perhaps more that any other time in human history, the gospel needs to be communicated with integrity and authenticity. The barrage of information around us twists and distorts reality. God’s work is drowned out by websites, ipods, blackberrys, personal listening devices, blogs, laptops, we’re always wired yet what are we receiving? Our actions are needed to convey the character of living presence of the God of Isaiah, and the God of Jesus Christ: the God of justice, yes, even economic justice, the God who is the defender of the powerless, the God who expects devotion to be expressed not juse in the church but in the school, in the street, in the home, in the corporate office, in the council chambers, in the courtroom, and on the screen..

Speaking at the UCC General Synod in Hartford, CT earlier this summer, rev. Dr. Peter Gomes, retired chaplain of Harvard University, and an Episcopal priest, reflected on our UCC heritage. He said:

You have a chance to redeem a long past by a better future. You have the power to do extraordinary things. Here is a chance for a great church to begin to behave badly. . . become a dangerous community of irrational, passionate Protestants which was your birthright, which is your identity. . . cease being respectable, . and actually do something extraordinary, dangerous, risky.. .

Let us embrace you as that dangerous collection of Christians out there who actually try to take the New Testament seriously and will be willing to take the hear for doing so. . .
You have been preserved for this moment. . . It is for now that you have been called, for this present moment that your ancestors crossed the sea. [This is a reference to the Pilgrims coming to North America seeking religious freedom.]

In the spirit of Isaiah, embodied in Jesus, may we truly be Christ’s church.

Jesus is still with us–we are a part of his body

Date: April 8, 2007
Scripture: John 20: 1-18
Sermon: Jesus is still with us–we are a part of his body
Pastor: Rev. Kim Wells

I know it is hard to imagine, but 2,000 years ago, there were no video cameras or cell phone cameras or recording devices – no reality TV. We know only from historical accounts that Jesus was crucified. He died on a cross, as did many others who were considered a threat to the Roman government. But was he left on the cross to be consumed by scavenging animals as most people who were crucified? Was he buried in a mass grave with many other victims, which was also the custom of the time. Was he put in a tomb which was discovered empty three days later? We don’t know for sure. We will probably never know the actual facts of Jesus’ death and surrounding circumstances. We probably won’t ever have scientific proof.

We do know that his friends and followers were moved to continue the ministry and mission. We do know they invited others to find joy and hope in the Jesus’ life. We do know that the earliest New Testament writer, Paul, refers to the faith community, the church, as the body of Christ.

So in continued fellowship, worship, and service, Jesus’ friends experienced his presence in powerful ways even after he had been killed. And we still experience Jesus’ presence in the church today. The church is still showing the world who Jesus is by carrying out his teachings and his ministry, by being his body.

We can see Jesus in Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Wichita, Kansas. They had the architectural design all done for the building of a new sanctuary. They were ready to embark on a major building project. Then a devastating earthquake struck Guatemala. A lay person in the congregation asked one simple question, “How can we set out to buy an ecclesiastical Cadillac when our brothers and sisters in Guatemala have just lost their little Volkswagen?” Instead of building the new sanctuary, the church raised the money to rebuild 26 churches and 28 pastors’ homes. [From Hunger for the Word: Lectionary Reflections on Food and Justice Year C, Larry Hollar, ed, quoting Ronald Sider’s Living More Simply.]

Michael Hayne tells us of his visit to Mother Teresa’s home for the dying in Calcutta, India. Just before I reached the home an old woman had been brought in from the street in a filthy condition. She was barely recognizable as human. “Come and see,” said Sister Luke, and took me across a curtained off trough. She drew back the curtain. The trough was filled with a few inches of water in which was lying the stick-like body of the old woman. Two Missionaries of Charity were gently washing her clean and comforting her at the same time. Above the trough, stuck to the wall, was a simple notice containing four words: “The body of Christ.” In the dying woman, yes. But also in those caring for her. [from Resources for Preaching and Worship, Year C, compiled by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, quoting Michael Mayne, A Year Lost and Found]

We can see Jesus in the life of Bonita Spikes. Her husband was an innocent bystander in a convenience store robbery. She was called to the hospital and as the curtain was pulled back she saw her husband’s dead body with a bullet wound to the chest. She was aching for revenge, but the killers were never found. She realized that as long as she held on to her desire for revenge she was prolonging her own pain. She got involved with a ministry to those on death row spending time with prisoners, their families, victims and their families. Spikes is against the death penalty which she sees as a way of honoring her husband who was opposed to it. [from Christian Century, 11/28/06, quoting the Baltimore Sun 11/07/06]

We can see Jesus in the Sunday school class of Plymouth United Church of Christ in Fort Collins, Colorado. They have helped the students of Rawdat El Zuhur School in an impoverished area of East Jerusalem. The church school children send dollars to the school each month and also send a CD with a song about peace and a beautiful prayer book. The whole congregation got involved. That is just one example of the more than 900 children at 13 sites around the world who are assisted through the United Church of Christ sponsorship program. (From UCC News April/May 2007, p.A7)

And we can see Jesus in the little church in St. Petersburg, FL opening its doors to offer hospitality to the homeless.

We can see the presence of Jesus here in our world and our lives right now through the church, his body. The church molds and shapes people to live the Jesus life – to care for one another, act justly, love with compassion, forgive freely, serve with sensitivity, give and share with generosity. Whenever we see the church being like Jesus, sharing God’s, love and care, we are seeing the presence of the Resurrected One.

We may never have proof of what happened to Jesus’ actual flesh and bones. There will never be photos or videos to tell us what actually happened to Jesus. But we know his presence is still with us in the church because we experience his ministry and his forgiveness. We experience his call to new life, especially when we have gotten ourselves into trouble. We offer ourselves in love and service. We work for peace. The healing, the forgiving, the sharing, the serving, the hospitality, the bridging of differences, the growing and learning that people experienced with Jesus is still going on today in the church.

Yes, Jesus is still with us. We know it because we are a part of his body. Amen