August 16, 2020
How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.
Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil. Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.
2020 hasn’t gone quiet like any of us had planned, has it? Lorraine Eakin, the Chair of our Church’s Ministry Coordination, has a particularly vibrant example of this in her home. She created the most incredible color-coded calendar for 2020, highlighting the various ministries we planned for this year. In full Technicolor, this visual represents over six months of conversations our Session and all of us had about our dreams of how the world could be different because Maryland Presbyterian Church exists. It was a roadmap for our journey with the Holy Spirit, full of invitations to partner with our neighbors and friends, here locally and across the globe, to move the world from how it is, closer to how it should be. Last week, reviewing our Ministry calendar, we all felt anew just how much the ground has shifted under our feet. Our dreams have changed.
The Hebrew people know this kind of dramatic shifting of dreams, of the ground under your feet suddenly being new. The book of Isaiah is a chronicle of seismic shifts. Folks in the Isaiah community look around their world and see that something devastating is coming. The Babylonian Empire is sizing them up, and getting ready to lay waste. The community can see that the Israelites probably won’t be able to fend of the coming invasion, and they know what that will mean; the Temple will be destroyed, and the keepers of their cultural knowledge, their priests, storytellers, musicians and scribes, leaders and innovative farmers, along with their craftspeople and traders will be taken into captivity, marched into exile to enrich the Babylonians. But the community does more than just see the risk; they dig into why this is happening. They look at their culture, their economy, and it’s oppression of the marginalized, the vulnerable. In their understanding, God could prevent this catastrophe, if their culture had changed. If the cause of the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant are taken up, their nation will be much less tempting for the Babylonians to invade. But as it is, their culture, with its imperialistic behaviors, looks like an eventual threat, and a valuable prize to the Babylonians. The people have been pursuing wealth instead of God’s beloved community, militaristic power instead of the way of peace. The people have lost their way, and it’s going to cost them dearly.
Our Nation, in many ways, has lost its way; our elected officials have pursued the profitability of stocks, and the concentration of wealth, at the expense of the common good and public health preparations. The breakdown of international cooperation, the eroding of global health relationships, our cruelty to refugees, immigrants, and migrant workers, set us up for disaster, along with being deeply immoral, caging children, separating them from their families, turning away those fleeing to our shores and borders to save their lives. The cause of the most vulnerable among us is seldom brought into account by those with the power to improve their lives the most. Even before the pandemic, health disparities among Black, Indigenous, and people of color were shocking. For years, the prophets of our time, from the Poor Peoples Campaign to those running for office, have been warning us that a reckoning was coming.
But for Isaiah, the call to change, to repentance, wasn’t because of the effects of the coming cataclysm. For Isaiah, and the people in the community he brought together, there was a deeper motivation; it was not who God knew the people to be, who God called them and needed them to be in the world. Before the Exile, in the days of incredible wealth and power, they dug deep into their tradition, into God’s hopes for the world, and dreamed of a different way of being. They saw changes that were needed, saw how they could lead those changes, knew what they were called to do. They knew why more deeply than cause and effect. They encountered the Word of God, moving through their midst, and asked God “Why? Remind us why the world can different, why it should be just.”
Our entire world has had to rethink how we do things during the pandemic. It has been difficult, with schools retooling for online learning, businesses changing procedures, every aspect of our lives shifting. But in our Nation, we don’t often think about the why. We want to figure out how to do what we want to do, seeking wealth, instead of seeking human thriving, often exasperating poverty and inequality, in the pursuit of profits over people.
This is a unique time for communities of faith, one of incredible possibility, and also peril. This is a time to sit with the question of “Why do we exist? Why would someone want to join us in our work?” Our ability to inspire others comes from questions of why, and also our most beautiful creativity, our fullest lives.
Why do we bother to get out of bed in the morning? Why would we strive so hard to be in community together, especially during this time?
I know that for many of you, the question “Why Church? Why MPC?” is an easy one to answer. The past few weeks, I’ve been reflecting on why I feel so strongly called to serve alongside all of you. This community, this congregation is my home because you were a community, long before I arrived, that centered the voices and experiences of women, Black, Indigenous, and people of color, and LGBTQ+ folks. In a world where so many people are seen as disposable for the cause of profits and power, you, as a well resourced, majority white community have risked for decades being in relationship with those who have been marginalized through white supremacy, homophobia, and patriarchal systems of oppression. You saw where God was in our world, and instead of calling people into our building, you headed out of our doors. And when you encountered the Holy at work in the world, as you met new people, you transformed your home, this church, to move towards being home for all peoples. For Eric and me, when we saw why you live the way you did before we arrived, we got it; we saw your reasons why, and wanted to join you on this transformative journey. I saw that we could grow even more fully into a home for those searching for a different way of being church. Personally, I saw that I could continue to be transformed through your love, and Jesus’ presence in all of those we encounter and work alongside of.
As the Hebrew prepare to leave Babylon, they begin to write most of the Hebrew Bible we have today. At the heart of the story is their answer to the Question “Why do we live the ways we do? Why has God chosen us? Why do we follow this Holy One?” They remember that God chose them to bless others, that those outside of their tradition blessed them, which shaped their relationships with those whose traditions were foreign to them, sanctifying a space in their tradition for those who God drew to God’s self from among the peoples outside of their tribes. They remember that they were a people enslaved in the land of Egypt, which is why they are a people on the side of Liberation. And in our reading today, they remember that God provided chosen family, and new generations, when they couldn’t have children and family by birth. They remember that God welcomed them, and so they extend that same hospitality to those marginalized because of being unable to have children. They know why God loves them, and that shapes how they welcome, love, and serve, building a new society where others are included.
Beloved, this year hasn’t gone as planned. And yet, the Holy One has been on the move this year. We have remembered why we love others. It’s because we have been loved by God, and found relationships that empower us to be a blessing, and to be blessed. And so we have been working in new ways with the Assistance Center of Towson Churches to deliver groceries to folks in Woodbourne-McCabe, caring for each other, loving well. We have met an unprecedented moment with compassion, building coalitions with other churches to provide over 150,000 pounds of food to our neighbors in the city. We have reached out to concern for one another, remembering how we have been cared for.
It may seem fool-hardy to try and plan beyond today. And yet, the People of God, in Exile, hear from God, and one another, the call to dream dreams. Just last week, our Session started the process of planning for 2021. At the heart of our planning are three fundamental questions: “Why do we do Ministry?” “How will we do ministry?” “What Ministry will we do?” Like Isaiah’s community in Exile, we are starting with the why. Why is an important place from which to begin. When our Why shapes are how and what, not only do we remain focused on what is unique about us and our calling from God, but we also can invite others who share similar callings. When we ask why, whatever changes, however the world shifts, we can be rooted in our values and relationships to weather the storm.
I wonder for you, why do you want to be a part of what God is doing in our world, and through this community? I really want to know. You’re invited to email, text, or call myself or Leigh. We will share it with the Session as we begin to plan. It may be because of how God has loved you, or the ways this community inspires you. That kind of motivation, it’s amazing where it can lead us as we make this world a home for all of God’s Beloved family.
In the Name of the Parent of Justice, the Revolutionary of Love, and the Comforting Spirit, Amen