Sunday, August 25, 2013


Isaiah 58: 9-14
Today’s Old Testament lesson is about Jerusalem
         after the Babylonian Exile.
After 40 years of captivity,
the Jews had returned to find the walls of the city torn down,
         which made them afraid the same way we might be
                  if we lived in a bad neighborhood and the door was missing.
The Temple was destroyed.
So they had a major problem with their worship space. It was rubble.
If they didn’t worship in the Temple,
         they did not think they could flourish or succeed
         agriculturally, economically, or militarily.

 So they set out to rebuild the City
         but it wasn’t going well.
The capital fund drive flopped.
People were squabbling with each other,
         blaming and blame shifting, left and right.

They felt poor -- and the  poorest among them,
         the am ha-aretz, the people of the land,
         were a burden on the better off folks.
It wasn’t that the better off folks were stingy or greedy.
They were just afraid.
They were financially, militarily, and spiritually insecure.
They didn’t have enough army, enough police, enough wall,
         enough Temple, enough anything.

Scarcity and fear were the hallmarks of the day.
So they hunkered down. They pinched their pennies.
They adopted a fortress mentality -- suspicious of outsiders
and even of each other.

Then along came a prophet with this surprising message from God.
“If you want to restore your City, you gotta do it different.
You are going about it all wrong.
Here’s how it’s done:
If you remove the yoke from among you . . .
if you offer your food to the hungry,
         and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light will rise in the darkness
         and your gloom be like noonday.”

They were looking at the construction costs
         and seeing there just wasn’t enough money
                  in the building fund.
So God said, “Not a problem. Here’s what you do.
          Take some of that money in your building fund
                  and put it in outreach.
You don’t have enough construction workers on the wall project?
Send a few of them over to tutor the children of the am ha-aretz,
         the poor folk.”

“Just do it,” God said, “and watch what happens.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt,
         you shall raise up the foundation of many generations,
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
         the restorer of streets to live in.”
God is saying something completely counter-intuitive.
He is saying when you feel like you don’t have enough,
         take some of what you’ve got and give it away.
Poverty is the occasion for generosity.

It doesn’t make any sense at all does it?
That’s because God doesn’t play by our rules.
God also said through Isaiah,
         “My thoughts are not your thoughts,
          nor your ways my ways.
As the heavens are higher than the earth,
         so are my thoughts higher than your thoughts
         and my ways higher than your ways.”

God says that at the deep down core of things,
         when you get to realest possible level of real,
         the take it to the bank truth of life,
         everything we think we know is wrong.
It’s wrong because everything we think we know
         is based on fear and scarcity.
Our basic assumption is that life is a zero sum game.
There isn’t enough of it to go around.

But God says “not so.”
“I came that you might have life and that you might have it abundantly,”
         Jesus told us.
 Life isn’t something to be seized by fang and claw.
It’s a gift to be received in faith,
         and the test of faith is generosity,
the courage, when we don’t have enough,
                  to give away some of what we have.

Crazy, of course. In some spiritual traditions,
         they call it “crazy wisdom.”
There are churches that live like that.
Last year as I was at the budget meeting of a congregation.
They adopted a deficit budget without blinking an eye.
Then they began expressing their concerns.
They had heard some other congregations were struggling
         and they wanted to help.

They got an unexpected gift and they sent it to a local ministry.
We sent them their assessment rebate.
They gave it to St. Jude’s Ranch For Children.
You just can’t help some people.

It is a leap into the dark, an exercise in faith.
It is a leap into God’s ways, a trusting in God’s gift.
It’s like exhaling in the faith that the air will still be there
         so we can inhale again.
Crazy like that.
But you know that crazy congregation somehow
manages to pay the light bill,
         and they just bought some additional land.
How do they do it?
They don’t. It’s a God thing.
It’s exciting to see congregations walk by faith
         because that’s the only way we can walk
into the Kingdom Mission;
and the Kingdom Mission is the only thing that makes life count.
So in itself the faithfulness of a church is a good thing.
It gives God a chance to demonstrate God’s faithfulness.

But the best thing about it is a faithful congregation
teaches its people how to live faithfully.
It doesn’t just talk about  faith and trust.
It shows us what they look like.
Such congregations teach the art of breathing.
You have to breathe out all the way so you can breathe back in.
One basic thing I’ve noticed about living churches and living people:
They breathe – in and out.
The heart of being a Christian is living by faith instead of fear,
         by God’s ways instead of human ways.
When we are baptized or confirmed or received,
         we make a life commitment.
We take our stand on this earth as believers.

To believe means to invest our trust.
We don’t just say, “I believe that God exists.”
That’s just an opinion.
An opinion and $1.85 will get you a tall coffee at Starbucks.
We say “I believe in God the Father. I believe in Jesus.
         I believe in the Holy Spirit.”
I jump out of this burning building of mortal life
         because I believe they are holding the net.

I know a young man in another of our churches,
         who carefully calculates the church’s value to him
-- it’s the difference between his kids’ tuition at our camp
     and the tuition at a comparable private camp –
then he gives that amount to the church at the end of the year
         after he makes sure all his other obligations are paid first.

And God says,
         “My thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor your ways my ways.
         My measures of worth are not your measures of worth,
nor your calculations my calculations.”

 Brothers and sisters,
         you are in a time of discernment.
You are discerning who you are called to be,
         what part you are called to play in the Kingdom Mission,
         and who will best provide the leadership for that calling.

I cannot answer any of those questions.
But God can and God will.
“The Lord will guide you continually
         and satisfy your needs in parched places
 and you shall be like a watered garden,
         like a water spring
         whose waters never fail.”