Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany + January 16, 2011
The people are hurting in Israel. Life as they knew it disrupted, changed forever. They have been in exile and their homes are destroyed and all that they had left behind lay in ruin.
The people are hurting in Connecticut. Life as we knew it disrupted by this week’s nor’easter and individual traumatic events. Some are in exile from their homes finding themselves in hospital, rehab centers, or shelters… and after the tragedy in Tuscon our sense of safety and community lay in ruin.
In times like these the people of Israel and you and I have a tendency to draw in, be introspective and live more cautiously. There is something else that hurting people do, long for the way things used to be, get frustrated if not downright angry by the new reality, and grumble.
Well grumble might be too polite… we tend to give voice to our longing, anger and fear about the future by complaining. We whine, we moan, we yell, and we shout to whoever will listen. The people of Israel were no different. They bemoaned how they had labored in vain.
- All of their vain selfish efforts… for what?
- All of their strength spent… gone.
- And for what, what did they have to show for it… nothing
How often we too spend our time and resources for experiences and material things that have no lasting meaning or value. That might meet a selfish need in the moment, but leave us empty… spent… with nothing left but our complaining hearts and voices.
The readings this week are meant to link the Baptism of Jesus and the rest of the Church year. Last week we read part of the Servant Songs from Isaiah that described a mysterious person who serves God through their pain. In chapter 49 this morning, we hear that the Servant’s mission is not just to the Jewish people, but for all peoples and nations. For as much as God loves God’s chosen people, God’s love is intended and given to all people.
The prophet of the Babylonian exile Isaiah speaks of God’s decision to call the servant. Who is the Servant… it may be an individual like Isaiah, or as many think, the whole community of Israel herself that God calls to a ministry of public witness. It doesn’t really matter whether the call recipient is an individual, the people of Israel, or we the people today who hear the call of God through Isaiah… The call is to serve God.
Seems simple enough… But as is often the case with calls from God, the Servant protests. The Servant has been doing God’s work and feels as if those efforts have been futile. The Servant complains that despite all of these efforts, no one listens! Surely all this work of ministry is on God’s behalf and God will “reward” us for it (even if people don’t).
While the Servant feels as if it has all been in vain, God doesn’t say “there, there it will all be okay. I’ll send reinforcements to help bring the scattered survivors of Israel back to their ancestral home.” God doesn’t say, “Its okay Servant, you tried, you participated, here is your trophy, here is your reward, now take a break.” No, that would be too easy, too ‘light a thing.’
For God is not scoring the work God’s Servants are called to. God doesn’t give report cards. God gives grace. God gives strength. And in this case, God gives an even greater challenge (while God finishes the initial task of gathering Israel). God sees abundance when we see scarcity. God sees possibilities where we see reason to get frustrated if not downright angry by our reality, and grumble.
God says, “that last job I called you to was too light a thing for you my servant.” God speaking through the prophet Isaiah sees more, much more for God’s people than simply succeeding as a small country in a vast world. God gives that small group of faithful people as a gift to the whole world. God gives those God calls as servants of light to all nations. Called, gathered and sent into the world to share God’s news of salvation for all people.
God loves the people of the promise Israel, but God’s love is not confined to a small country, or even one as large as ours. God the Holy One of Israel calls us all to be light for the nations, shining a love so abundant that it will reach the ends of the earth. A love so abundant, that while we may be imperfect, our sharing God’s light will cause the powerful to see and bow down, not because we have chosen to do so, but because the Lord who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel has chosen us.
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This weekend our nation marks the birth and life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a renewer of society and martyr. It seems appropriate to have heard the words of the Servant and the struggles of accomplishing God’s work while reflecting on the servant leader Dr. King. This American prophet of justice among races, whose faith was the foundation for his advocacy and non-violent fight for racial equality, also had moments of doubt, grumbling and questioning.
Prior to the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Acts opened the doors of justice for Dr. King’s dream, this country lived a nightmare of racism built on the legacy of slavery that allowed legal segregation and discrimination. While this dream of justice struggles to be fulfilled to this day, Dr. King’s prophetic voice and actions preached and lived out the Gospel in a way that continues to be a model of discipleship.
But the saintly prophet was also a sinner with grumbling doubt. During the long days of the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, Dr. King expressed doubts about the non-violent civil action and his leadership role after his home was bombed. It was the comments of a woman, tired from walking all those miles instead of taking the bus that helped transform his grumbling. The woman didn’t console him. She simply told him that the people supporting the boycott were with him. And even if they stopped, that God was.
The bus boycott was a success, but for African Americans the struggle for justice was not over… it continues to this day. But the words of Dr. King spoken at the Great March on Detroit in June of 1963 echo Isaiah:
And with this faith I will go out and carve a tunnel of hope through the mountain of despair. With this faith, I will go out with you and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.
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Israel, Dr. King, and you and I are all God’s called servants, secret weapons and at times very public tools to do God’s work. We are called to restore one another in this faith community, in East Hartford, and all of God’s creation. In the midst of living out that call, we will grumble, complain and whine. We can’t help it because the people of Israel and you and I… forget who we are, and more importantly, whose we are:
- Individuals God knew before we were born… who calls us God’s own…
- Individuals God gave unique voices and gifts…
- Individuals God loves and protects in the shadow of God’s own hand.
But we forget this. We use the sharp edge of our intellect, voice, and actions not to glorify God, but to cut each other, making a bloodied mess of our lives and God’s creation. We then have the audacity to whine and complain about the circumstances we find ourselves in, the very mess we ourselves have made, or stood by to watch fall in ruin all around us.
- Thankfully, God knows our faults and loves us anyway.
- Thankfully, God is faithful and loves us always.
- Thankfully, God doesn’t call the equipped, but equips the called.
God calls us all to be light. God calls us from our dark and dreary world to shine God’s Word of saving grace to people near and far, to light a different way. Listen… God is calling to tell you where and how to shine and reflect God’s love through your life.