(Aug 20) Just a snippet...you can listen at http://www.huntingdonstonechurch.org/sermons/prepare-august-20-2017
Today’s three passages – Isaiah speaking on God’s behalf, Zachariah and Elizabeth and baby John the Baptist, and then this parable of the tax collector and Pharisee – all three of these passages talk about salvation. We don’t use the word salvation often here. We talk about salvation with words like healing, reconciliation, forgiveness, wholeness. These are accurate words to speak of salvation, and they don’t bring the baggage that salvation has for so many people who have been hit over the head with cruel church teachings.
But with all three passages offering rich ways to understand salvation, I’m going to use the word and hope we can hear it fresh this morning. Reading these three scriptures, I learn two things about salvation: it is ongoing, never finished. And it is always personal and communal at the same time.
Isaiah says that God’s salvation is coming, that soon the people will be delivered. But this is from the third section of the long book of Isaiah, the people are returning from exile, the previous 55 chapters of Isaiah are all about God delivering and saving the people by returning them to their ancestral home.
Now they’re back, and still Isaiah is preaching about God’s salvation and deliverance on its way? Didn’t we just get that, the people wonder? Salvation is never finished.
A simplistic faith might say that when Jordan, Landon and Nina were baptized two weeks ago they were saved, once and done. But just like getting married or deciding to have children, choosing a life of faith gets one climatic moment, but we choose each and every day to be a partner, to be a parent, to follow Jesus.
The exiles come home, they are delivered, they are saved, and still Isaiah prophesies that God’s deliverance and salvation are coming, because this relationship we have with God is not once and done, it lives each and every day as we choose justice, as we widen our welcome, as we share the good news. As the Jews come home from exile they are called to widen their understanding of who God’s people are. Isaiah calls them to prepare for even more salvation.
And many years later Zechariah gets a visit from an angel, proclaiming that he will have a son, John, who will prepare the people for Jesus’ presence on earth. Eventually Zechariah rejoices in the part his son will play in Jesus’ ministry, but at first he’s simply freaked out. So freaked out that he doesn’t speak until his son John is born. Once he gets his voice back, Zechariah proclaims Jesus’ birth and the blessings he will bring “giving knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Only a few verses after Zechariah’s pronouncement, the shepherds also proclaim Jesus’ birth. “An angel of the Lord stands before them, and the glory of the Lord shines around them.” They go to Bethlehem and meet Jesus, and then, “they make known what had been told them about this child, and all who hear it are amazed.”
Zechariah, a priest, and the shepherds are unlikely partners. Priests are revered within the Jewish social and religious world of 1st century Palestine, while shepherds are the dregs of society. Priests are pure, shepherds are impure. You look to priests for answers. You try not to make eye contact with shepherds; they’re smelly, dirty, unpredictable.
But in Luke’s gospel the priest’s and the shepherds’ stories of ecstatic, divine encounter live side-by-side. The birth of Jesus--the dawn of a new era—is proclaimed in a juxtaposition befitting the nature of the salvation Jesus brings.
The gospel writer tells stories throughout Luke that show listeners and readers that our expectations of who is worthy and wise must be inverted. Throughout Luke we find that Jesus’ way brings together the people who don’t belong.
 Luke 1:77-79
Exodus 16, Isaiah 55:1-5, Matthew 14:13-21
Give us this day our daily bread.
Our scriptures today promise
free bread, and
Brothers and sisters pray and holy manna will be showered all around!
given with joy,
a gift that cannot be hoarded or
Give us this day our daily bread.
Come, without money and without price.
Eat what is good
Give us this day our free bread.
Jesus said, “Give them something to eat!”
But five loaves and two fish for five thousand families?
And all ate and all were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.
Give us this day our miracle bread.
These stories, manna in the wilderness, Isaiah’s call to come home, and the feeding of the multitudes, these are familiar, favorite stories about the faithful being fed.
The message could simply be, turn to God for what you need and you will receive it.
Okay – time for the hymn?
Of course it’s not that simple! You know, these stories are so familiar that I didn’t read them carefully at first. It’s easy to focus on the nourishment of daily bread, free bread, miracle bread. To dwell in the rich taste and texture of all these blessings.
Sounds like other promises Jesus makes: "my yoke is easy, my burden is light." "I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly!"
Give us this day our daily bread.
Give us this day our free bread.
Give us this day our miracle bread.
Give us an easy yoke,
a light burden,
an abundant life!
Jesus also says, “Take up your cross and follow me.”
And “those who lose their lives will gain them.”
Three hundred years ago baptism in the Church of the Brethren was like taking up your cross to follow Jesus.
Adult baptism was a confrontation to the church, the law of the land. Early Brethren went to prison, risking their lives to practice adult baptism.
We can say they were simply following Jesus' example – he was 30 when John baptized him in the Jordan River. As Brethren we've always tried to do what Jesus did.
And that's true!
But adult baptism isn't only a simple people's plainspoken way to do what Jesus did.
The early Brethren knew that baptizing one another in this unorthodox, unapproved way was a confrontation of state religion that used violence to control people.
Brethren and their cousins, Mennonites and Quakers, chose new ways to practice their religion to set themselves apart from the state religions that killed in God's name.
"Take up your cross and follow me," says Jesus, and the early Brethren did that – because crucifixion was the Roman Empire's execution for political rebels.
By baptizing each other, early Brethren were rebelling, in the manner of Jesus.
We have abundant stories today: God promises daily manna, given with joy, a gift that cannot be hoarded or stored or secured.
"Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
Thousands gathered for healing and preaching on a hillside, and no one had enough to eat, but through sharing, all ate, and all were full.
Daily bread, free bread, miracle bread.
These are stories of abundance, of easy yokes and light burdens....at least they end that way.
But each of these stories begin with suffering.
The Israelites wander in the wilderness after escaping slavery when they eat daily manna.
The Jews are in exile, each generation wondering how to hold on to their customs while the foreign land becomes their home when Isaiah calls them to their ancestral home for free bread.
John the Baptist is murdered and Jesus is trying to find a quiet place to pray when all these people follow him, hungry for healing and stories and miracle bread.
We sing of the thirsty, the weary, the hungry, the aching.
Today a teenage girl is leaving her village to find paying work in the city where she knows no one and will be abused.
Today a father is saying goodbye to his children so he can go to a foreign country for work, to send money back to his family.
You may have met people whose hunger, thirst, weariness, pain is overwhelming as you visit prisoners, work in social services, travel to Guatemala, visit the sick. We've all felt thirst and hunger, weariness and pain.
But most of us are hungry or thirsty when we’re too rushed to pack a lunch, not because our own government or ruling elite are hoarding food, putting us in slavery, taking our crops.
We’ve lived with some of that, and it’s time to pay attention to how God breaks into oppression, as our own country becomes more dangerous.
When state power and violent empires and foreign occupation are manipulating culture, infecting religion, and abusing people, that's when the joyful gifts of daily bread comes – a gift we cannot secure but can only enjoy.
When state power and violent empires and foreign occupation are manipulating culture, infecting religion, and abusing people, that's when the prophet calls us home, to our center, to return to the place we are fed without money and without price.
When state power and violent empires and foreign occupation are manipulating culture, infecting religion, and abusing people, that's when we find we have more than we need, by trusting each other we eat our fill and have 5 baskets of miracle bread and twelve baskets of fish leftover.
When state power and violent empires and foreign occupation are manipulating culture, infecting religion, and abusing people, that's when courage comes – the courage of illegal baptisms and sharing sacred scriptures in catacombs, and risking our lives for Faith that cultivates peace and justice, not greed or war.
Jordan, Landon and Nina, you will not be arrested today! We still practice adult baptism because Jesus did it this way, We still practice adult baptism because we believe faith is about discipleship, not a freeway to heaven. You've made one choice – to be baptized – and it sets you on a path full of infinite choices.
We will surround you as a great cloud of witnesses. We will recall our own baptisms, if we can remember. The early Brethren who starved in prison after baptism are part of your great cloud of witness. Their courage is here.
How will you use the courage you inherit today?
These stories of abundance each begin with suffering. God demonstrates love for us by throwing us a feast, of daily bread, free bread, miracle bread. We're having a potluck feast today to celebrate our new members Cheryl, Jordan, Landon and Nina. We learned this from God.
Your baptism is no longer a ritual of risk, it is a ritual of rejoicing, and it sets you on a path of so many more choices.
We pray that you will be nourished on stories of daily bread, given and eaten with joy, never hoarded or controlled.
We pray that you will be nourished on stories of free bread, given and eaten in our true home, where we are known and beloved and find ourselves again.
We pray that you will be nourished on stories of miracle bread, in communities that bake trust into every loaf and share so fully with each other that leftovers pile up!
Who can we find to help us eat all this food?
All who are hungry, come! All who thirst, come to the water!
Romans 8:26-28, 38-39
Paul writes to the church in Rome about paradox. These followers of Jesus argue with one another, struggle with their culture, and wrestle with Empire. And Paul tells them all things work together for good?!
The church in Rome suffers, and Paul tells them nothing – neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God. Paradox – something that doesn’t seem like it could be true, but points to deeper wisdom.
As we often sing, “There’s a song in every silence, there’s a dawn in every darkness…In our end is our beginning, in our time infinity, in our doubt there is believing…”
Paradox focuses our attention.
Like the artwork of Escher, these hands drawing each other. When you see this, does your mind spin? From hmm, to wait, that couldn’t happen, to hmmm, I wonder what that could mean. Its mystery invites us to step closer.
Depending on the translation of Romans 8 you’re reading, those “sighs too deep for words” can be translated as “groanings.” The Greek word is stenagmois, and it shows up in Stephen’s speech in the book of Acts. He’s reflecting on the Israelites suffering in slavery in Egypt, and how God heard their “groans” and rescued them.[i]
These groans move God to compassion, the same sighs and groans the Holy Spirit makes, comforting us, advocating for us in our suffering. On our dark nights of the soul when we cannot find words to express our prayers, we simply groan. When have you suffered like that?
But these are sunny, luscious dog days of summer – we’re harvesting zesty cherry tomatoes, we’re out at the lake, we’re going to baseball games! In the lectionary we come to a desert of shadow.
So what’s the blessing of desert and shadow in our sunny summer? As I’ve simmered in this text and these images, the blessing that keeps rising up is focus. The focus of paradox. We can focus on shadow on a sunny day – we can’t even see a shadow on a cloudy day.
Or the opposite – look at this beam of light. We can focus right in on this beam of light in a shadowy slot canyon. We see light most clearly when we're in darkness. We see a shadow only when we're in the sun.
It’s like yin and yang.
Yin and yang is a Chinese exploration of paradox. Unity and duality at the same time. Each is opposite, but they become whole together. The image is based on light moving across mountains and valleys, the white space is what the sun lights up, the black space is shadow, and as the earth spins, the shadows move. The dance of light and shadow inspired the yin yang symbol.
I see the yin in that picture – a canyon of shadow with one point of light. I see the yang in the scripture text, a dark night of the soul in the middle of sunny summer.