5th Sunday after Epiphany(A): Why Do We Worship?

5th Sunday after Epiphany (A): Why Do We Worship?

Isaiah 58:1-9a

By: The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles

Each week, we gather together as congregations to worship God and fellowship with one another. Each of our contexts and congregations are different, but we, in essence, all join together to do the same things. We sing, read scripture, participate in liturgy, hear the word preached, and respond to the word by our offerings, Eucharist, or an invitation to the altar. For some, this weekly ritual is deeply moving and helps them to connect more with the divine and then to share the love and grace of the divine with the world. For others, worship is a time to spend with friends, to sing, or is simply a part of their weekly schedule, but it has no real impact on what happens in their life after noon on Sunday.

In this week’s text, the people have returned to exile and found themselves in the same worship rut they were in decades before. The people appear to be very religious. They seek God’s presence and delight in drawing near to God (v. 2) and they fast often (v. 3). In some ancient religions fasting was done so that the deity would hear the people’s voices, and the Israelites seem to have fallen back into those traditions. They complain because God does not answer their fasting or their sitting in ash and sackcloth. Isaiah, writing in the voice of God, says the fasting they do is not one that God chooses as acceptable. Their fast and worship is self-serving. It does not loose the bonds of injustice (v. 6) or provide for the needs of the hungry, poor, and naked (v. 7). This text shows that what matters most to God, and what God demands, is worship that leads us to acts of justice and liberation. Isaiah says worship should lead the faithful to care for the hurting of the world.

Part of our job as preachers is to invite our congregations into transformative worship, but before worship can be transformative we have to ask why is it we worship anyway. Are we here because it is a habit or because we want to be guided by God to satisfy the needs of the broken (v. 10)? This week, I suggest sharing the struggle of Isaiah’s people. Ask those hard questions Isaiah asks: “Do you fast and still oppress your workers?” or with more modern language: “Do you fast and still support corporations who do not pay a living wage?” “Do you worship and bow down in atonement only to get up and ignore the hungry, homeless, and oppressed?” After all, we are not just preachers who proclaim good news to our congregations, but good news to all of creation, which sometimes feels like bad news to our own people. Isaiah declares that if you worship and inhale love and grace so that you can go forth to exhale God’s love and grace to a broken world, then you will find yourself made whole (v. 11), and you will be called “restorer” (v. 12).

One congregation who encompasses Isaiah’s vision for the worshipping body is St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in New Orleans. It is a fairly small church and more than half of its attendees are experiencing housing and food insecurity. Each week the congregation gathers, some in dress clothes and others in dirty clothes they have been wearing for days, to sing, pray, and be together. It is nearly impossible to attend worship there without feeling transformed, without being led to participate in acts of justice. After worship, the people share a meal together and others experiencing homelessness or addiction are found in the area and invited into share in lunch. Together this congregation is transformed by worship, led to break bonds of injustice, and seeking to let the light of God break forth in dark places (v. 8). May it be so for us all.

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The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles

The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles earned a BA in Literature and Religion from Converse College, Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology,  and a certificate for theology in ministry from Cambridge University. She is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and is currently serving as Associate Pastor at St James Atlanta United Methodist Church. She is passionate about full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the Church, conservation efforts especially around endangered and at risk animals, and sustainability and creation care at home and in the local church. She enjoys traveling, volunteering at Zoo Atlanta, and spending time with her husband Brian Trepanier and their pets Merlin and Arthur.

Epiphany (A): The Light Shines

Epiphany (A): The Light Shines

Isaiah 60: 1-6

By: Anne Moman Brock

The darkness arrived a few months ago and now we are right in the middle of it. Last week I told my husband that I was heading to bed. He looked at the time… it was only 7:30 pm! As much as I love the moon, it’s the sun that gives me energy. On long summer days, I can stay up late working in the yard, but now, as we are in the midst of winter, I can barely keep my eyes open past 7:30. The darkness is here.

And yet, each year when those of us in the northern hemisphere are in the depths of darkness, we read passages declaring — no, shouting! — that the Light has come. Isaiah seemed to understand our experience: “Though darkness covers the earth and gloom the nations, the LORD will shine upon you” (v. 2a). He’s right about that… darkness and gloom abound, so where’s the Light he refers to?

He has an answer for that too: “Lift up your eyes and look all around” (v. 4a). Because the Light is shining upon us, nations and kings are drawn to us. If we look all around us, we’ll see them coming toward us.

We are only seen because the Light of God shines upon us. The same is true for the moon — without the Light of the sun it wouldn’t shine in the night sky. So, with this Light on us “[we] will see and be radiant” (v. 5a). Our hearts will tremble and open wide — the abundance will be turned over to us.

It’s because of the Light that the shepherds found Jesus.

It’s because of the Light that the Magi found Jesus.

It’s because of the Light that we find Jesus year after year.

The shepherds were drawn to the Light of Jesus.

The magi were drawn to the Light of Jesus.

We, too, are drawn to the Light of Jesus.

And, we are drawn that brilliant, shining Light because we live in darkness.

It’s hard not to be overwhelmed with the darkness — it’s all around us. Unending wars. Children separated from parents. Despair and hopelessness. Lack of care for the vulnerable. Chronic illness. Unimaginable loss abounds. Political leaders speaking words of hate. We are in the depths of darkness. We cry out, how long, O Lord?

In the depths of this darkness, the Light shines bright. It only takes a pinprick of Light to illumine our faces in this kind of darkness. A small candle can brighten an entire room when darkness overcomes us. It doesn’t take much Light to show us where to step next.

How has your heart been opened wide because of that brilliant, shining Light?

I was diagnosed with infertility during a fall season, just as the darkness was beginning to take over the light. It felt right. It made sense to be in the dark when all the hopes and dreams for my future were ripped away. I didn’t want to see the sun; I wanted to sit in the darkness. But I noticed during these dark days that Light still found a way into my life, despite my persistence in pushing it away.

One Advent candle after another began to light up my dark mornings. Denali, my constant four-legged companion, urged me to walk in the dark, our path lit by the light of the moon. Friends sent empathetic texts — ones that didn’t require me to fake positivity but allowed me to sit in my grief. It was the light of my phone screen reminding me of their love. Small moments of laughter and joy, hugs from loved ones, warm quilts — the Light couldn’t be kept away even on the darkest of days.

My heart was broken open, that’s for sure. My heart trembled because of the Light shining upon me — a Light I couldn’t hide or push away. A Light that claimed my pain and heartache. A Light that came in the form of a child, which then breaks my heart all over again.

“Arise! Shine! Your light has come; the LORD’s glory has shone upon you.”

We all find ourselves in darkness at one time or another. We all know what it’s like to sit in the darkness. But the Light appears in big and small ways. The Light shines upon us — the Light is here.

How has your heart been opened wide because of that brilliant, shining Light?

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Anne Moman Brock

After thirteen years of youth ministry in the United Methodist Church, Anne Moman Brock is now in another form of ministry with Lake Institute on Faith & Giving, part of the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. She is a graduate of Christian Theological Seminary. Anne lives with her husband and two dogs — an 11-year-old husky and a 1-year-old chocolate lab — in Indianapolis, Indiana. She writes about her experience with infertility at www.annebrock.com and on Instagram @livinginthemidst.

Advent 2(A): Promise and Paradox

Advent 2(A): Promise and Paradox

Isaiah 11:1-10

By: The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer

Advent is a strange time for Christians – even before the intense commercialization of Christmas that has arisen in the last century. Over the four weeks of the season, the lectionary emphasizes the harshness of divine judgement, preparation for Christ’s second coming, prophetic visions of the promised new creation, and memories of Jesus’ first coming that inspire hope. Advent can feel like a roller coaster to me. On the one hand, the threat of uncompromising judgement makes me feel like I better get my act together. Then, in short order, I feel joy at the promise of a restored Creation only God’s intervention could affect. I have trouble holding the two themes together, imagining the promise of judgement, but I suspect that is the paradox we are called to sit with in this reflective season.

I know many will preach on John’s prophetic ministry in the wilderness of Judea, but for those who want an alternative, the First Lesson from Isaiah 11:1 – 10 offers powerful images to help us find good news in the paradox of the judgement’s promise.

The image of Jesse’s stump bookends this passage from Isaiah. At the beginning a tender shoot emerges into a branch. We are reminded that the root survived the attempted annihilation, whether by the Assyrian army that overtook Israel in 721 BCE (likely the context for the text’s author First Isaiah), or by the God’s people’s faithlessness that led to destructive military alliances, or today’s threats of secularization, commercialization, and the abundant material comforts that lure us away from vibrant faith. One preaching path for this Advent text is to help the congregation name what threatens to annihilate it, to “cut it down,” both internal issues like fear or gossip but also external issues like the seduction of material comfort that can dull our awareness of God’s presence. The image Jesse’s stump ties in with the image from John the Baptist’s preaching of the axe lying at the root of the trees. The Good News that emerges with this playful inter-textuality is that even if the tree is cut down, through God’s grace a shoot will emerge. A new start is given. The “Giver of Life” works underground, in the darkness, in the roots pushing life up from the messy soil where we thought there was only darkness and decay.

Near the intersection of Brown Avenue and Richland Street in my hometown lies a felled oak tree. Melissa, an elderly parishioner, calls it the Resurrection Tree because a remnant of tree’s veins remained intact allowing it to sprout new branches and be “born again.” The Resurrection “Tree” (it looks more like a shrub) is gnarly looking: the decaying trunk dominates the view and the live shoots emerge at unusual angles. There is unconventional beauty in this Resurrection Tree, but to see it you have to accept that the death is part of picture.

The unusual prey-predator animal pairings referred to collectively as the “peaceable kingdom” dominate the second half of the text. Many of us have an image of this text based on the paintings titled ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ by Quaker Edward Hicks. Hicks created over 60 artworks of the same title depicting the same basic scene inspired by vv. 6 – 8. Some critics suggest that Hicks’ ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ scenes become less and less peaceful over time reflecting his involvement in a painful schism within 19th century American Quakerism. What happened with Hicks’ paintings, this movement toward the partisan, often occur when we uphold images of peace… moments of peace and equality quickly degrade into tools for our own agendas and are tarnished by our preference for being right, rather than prioritizing relationship. Hicks’ ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ paintings point both toward the promise of Advent—the peaceable kingdom of God—and humanity’s need for purifying judgement, directing us away from our self-righteous tendencies toward the Divine who alone can transform and save us from ourselves.

As I reflect on the peaceable kingdom as an Advent image, I notice that for this vision to be realized, a characteristic central to these animals’ instincts will have to die. The predatory instinct of the wolf, the leopard, the lion, and the bear will have be tamed. And the lamb, the kid, the calf, the fatling, and the cow will have let their fear die. Similarly, children seem to have an innate fear of snakes, and parents certainly have a knee-jerk mechanism that would prevent playing near adders’ nests. The hope of Advent, the promise of judgement, is that God’s Spirit is powerful enough to transform our most innate and death-dealing instincts—to be right, to always want more, and to have power over others—into  trust and harmony in the order of Creation.

Advent calls us to keep one eye focused on the ultimate promise that of New Creation where the wolf lies with the lamb, the poor are judged as worthy as the rich, and the meek as valuable as the royalty. But our other eye can stay focused on the here and now. As we await that final transformation into the New Creation, hope for the present time comes from God’s judgement which frees us from bondage to the parts of ourselves and social structures that bear bad fruit and trains our instincts to “love God commands…so that we may obtain God’s promises,” to paraphrase the Book of Common Prayer’s Collect for Proper 25.

Our Advent gaze invites us find unconventional beauty in a decaying tree that somehow sprouts a branch.

Our Advent gaze invites us to trust the uncomfortable promise of judgement, the paradox of hope that in the darkness and decay, roots of justice and righteousness are being nourished and that one day Christ’s Spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel and might will rule the earth from the holy mountain down to the waters that cover the sea.

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The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer

The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer serves as Rector of Grace Church in the Mountains in Waynesville, North Carolina. When she isn’t at “church meetings” as her 4 year-old daughter says, she can be spotted raising children, reading, and occasionally piddling in the yard.

 

 

 

 

Advent 1(C): The Call of Advent

Advent 1(C): The Call of Advent

Isaiah 2:1-5 & Matthew 24:36-44

By: The Rev. David Clifford

The start of Advent begins the new liturgical year for the Christian calendar. However, many churches find themselves pushing toward the end of the year and Christmas day. Our culture certainly does not help us enter into the Christian timeline. Usually by the start of Advent we have already received our Christmas catalogues, celebrated our hanging of the greens, and have begun making our wish lists. Many preachers may find themselves in this very struggle between where the congregation wants to be (preparing for Christmas) and where the Gospel text leads us (the apocalyptic judgment of God).

While some Christians would argue that the apocalyptic end is near with the divisive and chaotic news viewed when the TV is turned on, the passage from Isaiah for the start of our new year paints a very different picture of the apocalyptic judgment of God. Many readers of the Isaiah passage get lost in the dream of peace: swords beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. War will be no more. The vivid imagery of swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks has tricked many a scripture reader into missing the bigger picture. Even the notion of ultimate peace can keep us from seeing the bigger picture.

Each of these texts runs the risk of being subverted for our own intentions. The reality of Christian history is that the church has too often used the final apocalyptic judgment of God to get whatever it is we believe the church (or, more accurately, ourselves) may want. Too often, the Advent season is like this. The challenge for the reader and/or preacher is to be true to the expectant waiting and preparation of the Advent season. I do not mean to suggest here that we need to put Christ back in Christmas. Instead we must find a way to allow the anticipatory nature of Advent to be what it truly is: a sitting/waiting in darkness for the light of Christ past, present, and future.

Isaiah’s vision, or dream, is a beautiful hope for the world. Who among us hasn’t wished and hoped deeply for peace in the midst of conflict, fighting, and war? However, the challenge of the future is that it is a dream – not unlike the Christmas wish lists made up from children whose families celebrate gift-giving. Too often peace seems to be a dreamy and idyllic hope. In fact, history if filled with individuals who have had such a dream who are meet with the violence of a world that cannot envision the dream with them.

Isaiah’s dream of peace does not just appear at the end of time. This apocalyptic peace comes with arbitration. The Holy One “shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples” (verse 4). God not only speaks to the nations, but listens to grievances, disputes, and concerns. God listens and adjudicates. These two words— “judge” and “arbitrate”—are the only active verbs assigned by the text to God.[1] There can be no true and lasting peace without justice.

My own faith formation and theology reads scripture metaphorically more than literally. I do not read of the apocalyptic end times and God’s final judgement in a literal sense. However, this means I also do not read Isaiah’s dream of peace between the nations literally. The chaos, sorrow, pain, and violent conflicts do not merely disappear when Christ is born on Christmas day. To be true to the season of Advent means to acknowledge the struggles and doubts. The preparations made throughout Advent proposes risk and potential failure to live into the ideal of the dream.

It is here that Matthew’s Gospel reading enters. While the Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent is focused on the unknown future day of judgement, the setting is actually the present. The present day in which the thinking of the apocalypse is set is characterized by a lack of knowledge: uncertainty (possibly even doubt). This lack of knowledge extends beyond humankind to even the angels and the Son. Instead of preparing for Christmas, or even the future apocalyptic judgement of God, these texts have a word for us today.

Most people realize that too often they are like the disciples who follow Jesus around, yet almost always get caught up in the wrong things or miss the point altogether. We are so very often aware of our lack of understanding. However, most of us also want to be better. We hope and we dream about a future that is better. Many of us long for the peace of Isaiah’s dream. Humankind is excellent at dreaming. We struggle with the steps between here and there. Matthew’s Gospel text for the start of the new church year reminds us that there are some things we simply do not know.

The other thing humankind is excellent at is guilt and shame. The struggle in these two texts relates to the push and pull between peace and judgement. These poles suggest that there are two ways to miss the point of our scriptures: one would have us focused too much on the peace and miss God’s judgement. I personally see more people lean the other way: too focused on judgement and miss the peace. Our faith certainly requires action of us. We should be working toward God’s justice for God’s world. However, Matthew’s Gospel text points us toward the work of wakefulness and watchfulness.

We are called to peace. We hope for peace. We, as the church, work for peace. However, the highest mountain tops of Isaiah’s dream come – not from our work, but from somewhere outside and beyond it. We are called to watch for it. We are called to witness it. We are called to preach it to the world. As we enter a new year of the church may we prepare for the rapture. May a rapture of relief come over us when we realize we do not have to know everything. May a rapture of relief overwhelm us when we realize we need not do everything. May a rapture of hope, peace, joy, and love fill us this Advent when we realize that our work—while important—has nothing to do with our own or anyone else’s salvation.

[1] Noted by Paul Simpson Duke in the “Homiletical Perspective” of Isaiah 2:1-5 FEASTING ON THE WORD: Year A, Volume 1. Westminster John Knox Press. 2010.

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The Rev. David Clifford

The Rev. David Clifford is the Transitional Minister of First Christian Church in Henderson, Kentucky. David is graduate of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). David lives in Henderson with his wife and three children where he enjoys bicycle riding and reading. He also coaches a local elementary archery team.