Thursday, December 8, 2016

Sermon for December 5, 216 | Advent 2

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him-
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord-
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of
the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.
Isaiah 11:1-10

Isaiah’s people know what it means to be hunted. Ruthless and territory-famished Assyrian invaders have Israel in their sights, and nothing can stop their attack. A century later, the Babylonians will pounce with the same hunger. A prophet named Jeremiah will see the circling armies and write:
Israel is a scattered flock,
hunted down by lions.
The king of Assyria started the carnage.
The king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar,
has completed the job,
gnawing the bones clean.
v. 50:17
 
Predators and prey. Isaiah has this in mind, too – not just the food chain, but the web of human relationships. Before the nations unleashed their viciousness on Israel, predators were already at work on the inside. Isaiah pictures God looking at the nation of Israel and hears God say:
Your leaders are rebels,
the companions of thieves.
All of them love bribes
and demand payoffs,
but they refuse to defend the cause of orphans
or fight for the rights of widows.
v. 1:23

Predators devour prey. The powerful turn their backs on cries for fairness or compassion. Anyone who is vulnerable can be exploited. The frail are fair game. The defenseless are doomed.
Predators and prey. They are all around us. Think about predators in human relationships. In our myths and stories, the predator is an opportunist. I think about the wolf in the Red Riding Hood story. Usually a male, but not always, the predator watches women and he waits. He sees women not as complete human beings, but as human-objects, as trophies, as a vehicle to boost his own sense of self. Biologists tell us that intelligent predators will hunt for fun, even if they aren't hungry. A predator wants you to think that a wolf who wants to give you directions to grandma’s house is normal, and he sounds believable even though everyone has said that wolf is devious and dangerous. The predator wants you to see the grass and the trees, but not the monster that's looking back at you. If you need a friend, he's a friend. If you need a shoulder, she's got two. If you need money, he'll go borrow it from somebody so he can give it to you. If you want a brute he'll be a brute. If you want a gentleman, he'll be that too. But don't ignore the fact that a predator always has intentions for you. He’ll set the stage just right and set you up for him to make his move. And once he gets what he wants, he will hate you.
When will we get it through our heads that everybody smiling at us does not love us?

Predator and prey. We sure got a lesson on it during the election cycle. In chilling and angry style, we heard the case that America is on the verge of catastrophe and dissolution. We heard about a country where crime is wildly out of control, mobs rule the street, and America is the laughing stock of the world. But, fear not, someone was coming to take care of us. Someone with plans. A tough-talking billionaire entrepreneur, flying around the country in a fleet of loudly branded jets and helicopters suggested that experience intellectual expertise are a detriment to governing. Our voting system validated someone who sold us a savior of a sad state, the lustrous leader of a lurching and crumbling country -- a deeply-flawed and outrageous hero who must always remind us that we love him.
Isaiah watched his nation crumble, but the disaster was not one that could be fixed by ultimate power. Israel was failing God because the powerful were not living up to their responsibilities to the poor, weak, marginalized, and fearful residents. Isaiah succinctly states God’s aims for Israel:
Do good.
Seek justice.
Help the oppressed.
Defend the cause of orphans.
Fight for the rights of widows.
v. 1:17

We do not need messianic heroes of any party or ideology to invent problems and then fix them for us. When we extend ourselves to others in love, when we give aid to those who cannot easily aid themselves, when we open the borders of our hearts who seek to live in our safety, that’s when we shine.

Lest this sermon become another rant about the election, I need to remind us that predator and prey are not just out there around us. The wolf and the lamb, the cobra and the little child live within us. You and I each have some measure of both, triggered by fear. The ecology of fear has deep roots. Sometimes fear makes us aggressive. If we are afraid that our hungers will not be fed, we might seek to dominate and manipulate others. Sometimes fear takes the reigns of our personality, preying on the weaknesses of other people.

Sometimes fear makes us the prey seduces us into a false sense of security, letting us stray into perilous situations. Or, it makes us vigilant to the point of paranoia. If you want to escape from a scary creatures with sharp teeth and claws, then your survival depends on being in a constant state of alert. All your time can spent with your head up, on alert for threats. If you are spending all your time waiting for predators to pounce, then what are you not doing? You are not looking for food. You are not nurturing the young. You are always stressed, always defensive, always waiting for an attack.
Let me be clear. This is not an either/or situation. Both the lion and the lamb live in us. We don’t choose one or the other. Our spiritual growth depends on our awareness of both impulses. Stalk yourself. Discover what you have been hiding from yourself. Let Isaiah’s vision of a peaceable kingdom begin in your own soul. Let your inner wolf live with the inner lamb. Let your inner child play near the nest of your inner viper. What might happen when you imagine an inner world where neither are harmed or destroyed, where the ecology of fear is filled with the knowledge of God, as the waters cover the sea?

Isaiah offers an invitation to dream of a world where predator and prey is no longer the defining relationship of our time. A time when the governments of our outer worlds and our inner worlds, become the banners of liberation and hope. We defy the power of the predator by confronting it with the truth of what it’s done and what it’s taken. We hold the predator accountable. We refuse to play its game. We achieve liberation not by taking revenge, but by taking back the freedom that the predator holds hostage.

A peaceable kingdom. I guess that’s what Advent is all about – not predator or prey, but peace. We look for peace; we watch for peace; we wait for peace; we prepare for peace we remind each other of peace; we train our imagination to dwell in peace.

A peaceable kingdom – that’s also what our communion table is about. When learned how to set a dinner table, someone taught me that when you put the knife down, you always turn the knife edge in, toward the plate. That simple action turns the knife from a weapon to a tool. It turns predator and prey into community. That simple symbolic action creates a table of peace.
Whether you are hunted or haunted, or feeling the need to lash out, or feeling afraid, you are welcome here. Be fed with fairness, and drink in hope. At this Table:

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them…
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy…

At this Table, we watch, we wait, and we work for peace.

Sources:
http://www.ucucc.org/worship/Sermons/2010/20101205.pdf
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/theperipateticpreacher/2016/07/isaiah-11-10-20-superman-batman-trump-and-isaiah/?repeat=w3tc
http://susannabarlow.com/on-symbolism/little-red-riding-hood/
https://livingintheforest.com/2013/07/12/the-predator-archetype/
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SuperPersistentPredator

Sermon for September 16, 2018

A Journey and a Return After this, the Lord chose 72 more followers. He sent them out in groups of two. He sent them ahead of him int...