Is This What You Think I Want?

Sermon from February 9, 2020

A hopefully-not-too-presumptuous modern-day paraphrase of Isaiah 58:1-12

Listen up, people!
I’ve got a message for you from God, and I’m gonna wail it out like an electric guitar.
God is sick of our rebellion, our neglect of what is right.
And I’m not going to sugarcoat it for you:
We’re in some deep trouble.

God says,
You act like you know me.
You pray.
You come to church.
You read the Bible.
You invoke the name of Jesus and call yourself a Christian.
You act like you’re interested in what I have to say,
Like you care more about my opinion than owning each other on social media.
Lol.
As if you haven’t shown, time and time again, that you’re more concerned about seeming right than doing right.

You ask for help. You ask for me to come near you.
You say, Seriously, what the heck, God!
Why are we doing all this praying and church-going and Bible-reading and Christian-being?
What’s the point when people are still getting addicted to opioids? When there’s still crime in our neighborhoods? When loved ones are succumbing to an avalanche of hopelessness and despair?
Every time we turn on the TV or Twitter, there’s another flood of bad news.
It keeps getting worse.
Are you paying attention to us?
Literally, God, do you even care?

Look, you guys, I don’t know what to say.
You pray for my guidance, but you do as you please.
You go to church, and then you go home, as if nothing you heard there made an ounce of difference.
You read the Bible, but you ignore what’s written inside.
You call yourselves Christians, but you fail to see Christ in the people around you.

And it gets worse!
You accumulate junk and throw more than half of it away, as if those piles of meaningless stuff don’t come at the expense of those who are literally starving.
You despise each other, demonize each other, refuse even to regard one another as human.
And yet you seek my blessing?

Is this what you think I want?
Outward displays of piety, while you hate each other inwardly?
Have I asked you just to pray, to go to church, to read the Bible, to claim Christianity like it’s a social club?

This is what I want from you:
To loose the chains of injustice!
To open up the doors of the prisons!
To look into the face of the poor, the beggar on the street, the undocumented migrant, and to see that you are looking into my face!
To share your food with people who are hungry!
To open your doors to strangers!
To stop arguing with your family and friends over petty differences!
To let go of hurts!
To stop trying to control one another!
To forgive and receive forgiveness!

Oh, my people, my beloved people, don’t you see?
This is how your light shines in the darkness!
This is how my love cuts through even the deepest despair and division!
Like the sun rising in the east, like the winter snow melting each spring, this is how healing comes!

For the secret, the profound secret at the center of all of life and creation, is this:
Your healing is wrapped up in others’ healing.
You will never be free while your neighbors are shackled!
You will never be whole while your neighbors are wounded!
This isn’t a private matter between you and me! It’s a public matter—a matter of life and death—and it involves all of us! [1]

And yes, it involves me, too—I don’t say this from a distant throne, sitting in detached and disappointed judgment, but as someone with skin in the game.
It’s why I came.
I came to show you, not just tell you, what it means to love your enemies, to heal the sick, to forgive sin, to cast out evil, to love, to pray.
I came to join you in your deepest hurts and traumas. Your addictions. Your fears.
I came to live as a refugee, a prisoner, a man without a home or a bed, because while you suffer, I suffer.
I came to die, to hang upon the cross, because I knew that you would die—and if I were to just stand back and watch it happen, how could I live?

So now I must invite you:
Will you join me in death?
Will you take up your cross and follow me?
For when you do, you will find that even death can’t keep you down.
After all, it could not keep me.
When I joined with you, you became joined with me, and we will rise together, all of us, whole and transformed, forever and ever.

What I’m asking isn’t easy, but it’s the only way.
Stop arguing and fighting and neglecting each other and turning one another away.
Spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed.
You are destined for another life now—my life.
And you will rise like I rose.
You will become strong and steady,
Like a well-watered garden,
An ancient city rebuilt.
You will be called bridge-builders, restorers, healers, reconcilers, resurrectors, friends, Christians.

[1] Special thanks to my dear friend Bethany Ringdal for the insights in this paragraph, especially her God Pause devotion on February 3, 2020.

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