Tuesday, August 14, 2007

"Made to Last"

This sermon was given on Sunday, August 12, 2007, which was Proper 14, Year C.

The excerpt from Psalms today that we heard was only part of one whole psalm, Psalm 33, which really, is all about God: how wonderful God is, how God made everything there is, it’s a psalm of praise. Somebody was pretty happy about God when they wrote this. But it’s got some subtle digs in there, too. More than once it points out that while no matter what we do to it, this world we live in is a wonderful world, when we do what God calls right and good (and while right and good as defined by God is not included in this particular psalm, the prophets are happy to help us out with this definition)… when we do what God calls right and good, this wonderful world we live in works perfectly. Perfectly.

I’ll quote that particular bit of the psalm, since it appears before our excerpt:

God takes the wind out of Babel pretense,
He shoots down the world’s power-schemes.
God’s plan for the world stands up,
All his designs are made to last.

God takes the wind out of the pretense?

God shoots down the world’s power-schemes?

God’s plan for the world stands up?

All God’s designs are made to last?

Now this, this is a compelling vision of God. And perhaps for many of us, this is a completely new understanding of God. The question we might be asking ourselves right now, even if this isn’t a new understanding of God for us is this: Who is this God and where can we find him?

Well, that’s the point, isn’t it? God is everywhere. But if we want to deepen our understanding of this idea of God, we can certainly look to the prophets, who as I mentioned earlier, are happy to help us redefine God. So let’s take a look at what the prophets have to say about the God that shoots down the world’s power-schemes.

Eugene Peterson, the gentleman whose contemporary translation of the old and new testament we sometimes use, and have used today, describes the prophets this way, and it may help us to put the situation into context this morning. The Rev. Peterson says this:

Over a period of several hundred years, the Hebrew people gave birth to an extraordinary number of prophets – men and women distinguished by the power and skill with which they presented the reality of God. They delivered God’s commands and promises and living presence to communities and nations who had been living on god-fantasies and god-lies.

God-fantasies. God-lies.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t find much wiggle room in that description of the prophets. In his description, the Rev. Peterson goes on to point out that the prophets, down to the last one, weren’t known for their people skills, either. Which is to say that their condemnation was as absolutely scathing as their comfort and hope was powerful and transformative. These were not people who left you wallowing in a morass of guilt from the things you’d done, the lifestyle you’d participated in along with everyone else in your culture. These were the people who, after pointing out that God’s plan looked considerably different than your life, went on to give you a vision of hope for the future:

Isaiah did it. In my little study bible, Isaiah spends 66 pages, full solid pages of pretty small print, sending a message of judgment to the people of Judah. And if you’re ever looking for some good insults, there are some humdingers in there. He then spends 32 pages sending a message of comfort to those very same people. And then he spends 21 pages sending a message of hope.

Now, the book of Isaiah is pretty long – it’s a rather solid 66 chapters, and heaven help you if you read a translation of it that isn’t a contemporary one, because it’s chock full of obscure cultural and geo-political references that can be daunting, but for all of it’s length and density, Isaiah is the biggest, baddest, most transformative prophet that the Hebrew people ever produced.

Isaiah was Jesus’ favorite prophet, if the number of times he quoted him is anything to go by.

Isaiah features pretty strongly in all of our images of Jesus as Messiah, Jesus as the one who was foretold – because it was Isaiah that was doing the foretelling.

John the Baptist and all of his intentions to ‘make straight the way, for the coming of the Lord,’ that’s Isaiah speaking.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and his brilliant oratory skills demanding that justice flow down like waters, like a mighty river? That’s Isaiah.

It goes on. There’s more than just that. But the point in all of these things was that the nation of Judah (the southern chunk of was used to be a united kingdom of Israel under David, and then Soloman) was so caught up being wealthy and corrupt that it forgot the basic tenets of what it meant to be a people of God, which Isaiah spares no words in reminding them:

To love God with absolutely everything you’ve got: your heart, your mind, your soul, and your very being.

And, in case you do get caught up in silly piety and forget the implications of actually loving God, not just saying that you do, (says Isaiah) know this now and clearly: you have to love your neighbor as yourself. Love meaning: treat fairly, not gaining at their expense, honoring their dignity as a fellow human, including and not limited to anything else you can think of.

This is, in a nutshell, what all the prophets say. They attached specifics to the circumstances, because after all, they’re sent to a particular people at a particular time. And so, they do their best to point out where that particular people are failing miserably, and once they’ve pointed that out in great detail, they get on to the business of reminding them, for the people do already technically know, the prophets get onto the business of reminding those people what they are supposed to be doing. How they are supposed to be living – and not just so God can play control freak, no, that’s not the point.

The point is that we can make our world a more beautiful place, a more hospitable place, a place kinder to those who have less by some simple choices of our own. Or, we can make the world an uglier place, a cruel place, a place full of suffering for all but those who have the most, and we can do this through simple choices of our own.

That was the message to the people of ancient Israel, and ancient Judah.

It’s still the message today.

Since I do have people skills, and so am clearly not a prophet, I will refrain from insulting us all, but the pertinent fact of the day is this: Even the poorest among us have access to more resources than a heafty percentage of the world’s population. The ladies and gentlemen of Buffalo who will be dinning tonight at Friends of Night People have access to more resources than a hefty percentage of the world’s population. Now, that aspect of the wealth of America is to be commended. But other aspects are not so commendable, and I’m fairly certain you already have an idea of what they are, so I’m not going to go there.

But I will say this: there are prophets among us. They are sociologists, they are economists, they are politicians, and the UN has listened to them. Seven years ago, the UN set the Millennium Development Goals – eight goals in which, understood from a Christian standpoint, we are able to fulfill that need, that requirement of ‘loving our neighbor as ourselves’, and in doing so, we help to change our world, we help to change the very face of our world, altering it from the uglier, cruel place full of suffering for so many to a place that is more beautiful, more hospitable, and considerably kinder.

We are, in case you were wondering, half way in the timeline to the Millennium Development Goals – It is 2007, and the target date for these goals is 2015. But we are not halfway there in terms of progress. Some of the eight goals has seen considerable progress, some of the eight goals has not only see no progress, but the situation has gotten worse. And of all of the UN member nations that have completely fulfilled their pledge of monetary aide, only three member nations have actually paid that pledge. It may not surprise you to know that neither the US, nor Great Britain, nor Canada are among those three nations.

And yet, supporting these goals – these very achievable goals – that the UN has set out, not just for the governments of the UN member states, but for their citizens as well – that’s you and me – supporting these goals is like listening to the prophets of old, and not just listening, but hearing, digesting that information, and changing (this is key) changing not only our attitudes, but our behaviors as well.

I won’t go into detail about the Millennium Development Goals, or the MDGs here, but please be aware that the latest edition of the national church’s newspaper, EpiscopalLife has a special edition this month, all about the MDGs – the progress we’ve made or not made, what the Episcopal church has been doing, and what we can do as individuals, and there are extra copies of this paper that you can pick up after the service. If we run out, we can get more.

No comments: