Open InvitationPosted: March 3, 2013
3: HOPE AND FAITH
Our scripture this morning is from “second” Isaiah. He was a prophet writing to the Jewish exiles in Babylon approximately 550 years before Jesus. If we open our Bibles to the Prophet Isaiah, almost smack dab in the middle of the book, Chapters 40 to 55 are usually attributed to this prophet of the Exile. His purpose was to give hope and inspire faith. This passage contains images that were called upon by Jesus in his teaching and other writers and teachers of the faith. Chapter 55, verses 1-12, is a rich passage.
SLIDE 4: SPIRITUAL HUNGER
Second Isaiah was writing to a people who were spiritually starved and thirsty for hope. He was picturing God offering to those who placed their faith in the divine love a limitless supply of food and drink. “Come to the waters. Come buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price.” This passage sounds like the extravagant welcome of the Sharing Table. Think of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000. Anyone who is hungry, who will admit they are hungry can be fed. Maybe the problem of so many modern folks is we are so full of our stuff, we cannot feel our spiritual hunger. God wants to welcome us to a table of love and sharing, if we will put down our material possessions long enough to come.
SLIDE 5: WHAT IT MEANS TO BE GOD’S PEOPLE
In verses 3, 4, and 5 Isaiah gives a kind of mission statement for the people of Israel. Nations will come to you to see what it means to be God’s people. The nations will learn from you and come to worship the one true God. If the people of Israel turn to the God of David, then God will make a covenant with them to become a blessing to all the peoples of the earth, sort of an echo of God’s promise to Abraham, that Abraham and his family would become a blessing to all the families of the earth.
SLIDE 6: WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY
There is, however, a moment of opportunity. A door or a window is open in the present moment for the people to return and reclaim their relationship with God: 6 “Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.” Maybe the key is that in that moment the Israelites who are weak and in slavery will indeed put their faith in God, rather than themselves. While they are yet dependent upon God, there is an opening for them to deepen and strengthen their relationship with the divine. Most of the time, when we have cried out in prayer has been when we have been in trouble. It is amazing how quickly we turn to God, when we need God’s help. Our need becomes the window of opportunity for us to humble ourselves and return to God.
SLIDE 7: GOD IS GOD AND WE ARE NOT
Verses 8 and 9 eloquently express in metaphor the important affirmation God is God and we are not. While human beings are important to God. We have been created in God’s image and we are little lower than the angels, in comparison to the vastness and depth of God’s Universe, we are nothing. And that reminds me of a Rabbi story Jonathan Miller shared with us.
The Rabbi of the synagogue early on the morning of Yom Kippur goes before the Ark of the Covenant, and beats his breast and prays. “Oh God I am nothing, I am nothing, I am nothing in comparison to you King of the Universe.”
The Cantor of the Temple happens along and joins the Rabbi before the Ark singing, “Oh God I am nothing, I am nothing, I nothing in comparison to you O King of the Universe.
The janitor who is in the back of the sanctuary hears the Rabbi and the Cantor, and he begins praying. “Oh God I am nothing, I am nothing, I am nothing in comparison to you King of the Universe.”
When the Rabbi hears the janitor he turns to the Cantor and says, “look who thinks he’s nothing.”
The prophet is saying. Even if the Israelites are God’s chosen people they are called to humility rather than pride. Only by humbling themselves can the people of Israel become God’s instrument of redemption for the world.
SLIDE 8: COME SEE WHAT GOD IS DOING
And here I want to highlight an important understanding before we begin our re-visioning process. Anthony Robinson calls us to a new understanding of what is going on in our community of faith.
Not long ago I was in Louisville, Kentucky, where I met Jamesetta Ferguson, the pastor of St. Peter’s UCC, a downtown church that has experienced a death to life change. She invited me to visit the church saying, “Yes, we’d love to have you visit. Come and see what God is doing.”
I thought of the other invitations I’ve heard (and given) to church. “It’s a really friendly congregation, wonderful people.” Or “You might like it here, we are very open-minded.” Or, “We have a great youth program.”
What’s the difference between her invitation and these others? The subject of the verbs. For the second batch of invitations, we people, we church or congregation, are the subjects of the verbs. For that pastor in Louisville, God is the subject of the verb. “Come and see what God is doing.” To me, at least, that seemed much more powerful, faithful and, frankly, more interesting.
SLIDE 9: WHAT IS GOD DOING IN THE LIFE OF YOUR CHURCH?
God is doing something important and powerful in many of our churches where the invitation may be more tame and predictable, on the order of: “It’s really a great group of people – you’ll like it.” But that misses the point. God is the point. What God is doing is our story, our hope, and the source of our energy.
Perhaps some of us whose default option is otherwise might experiment with making God the subject of the sentence? What is God doing in your life and in your church? Could you invite someone with words like those I heard, “We’d love to have you come and visit. Come and see what God is doing.”
SLIDE 10: ALWAYS ON THE VERGE OF DROUGHT
Let’s go back to Isaiah chapter 55 for a minute. Verses 10 and 11 are a beautiful metaphor in a land that is always on the verge of drought. When Beth and I visited Israel in 1998 we were in the Jerusalem Mall in the food court on November 4th, when a thunder storm came from the west. When the downpour began the whole food court became silent, and then there was an audible sigh of relief. You see it had not rained in Jerusalem since the fifteenth of May. Israel is a land always on the verge of drought. 10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall my word be that which goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper the thing for which I sent it.”
SLIDE 11: TIMELY MOISTURE
Vernon Volz, a Northeast Colorado dry land wheat farmer in our Congregation can attest to the importance of timely moisture and just the right amount of snow cover in order to nurture the winter wheat to fruition. The snow cover insulates the roots of the wheat and prevents the winter wind from drying out the soil. The prophet compares the word of God to timely moisture – rain and snow that saves the people from starvation. The difference between abundance and prosperity and want is the Word of God. Notice how verses 10 and 11 hearken back to verses 1 and 2: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” God will give us all things in due season, if we are faithful to him.
SLIDE 12: THE TREES OF THE FIELD WILL CLAP THEIR HANDS
Isaiah then closes with another metaphor that has inspired a wonderful Hebrew folk song you will find in your bulletin:
You shall go out with joy
And be led forth with peace
The mountains and the hills
Will break forth before you
There’ll be shouts of joy,
And all the trees of the field
Will clap, will clap their hands
And all the trees of the field
Will clap their hands
The trees of the field
Will clap their hands
The trees of the field
Will clap their hands
While you go out with joy.
SLIDE 13: OPEN INVITATION
As we at United Church think about Isaiah Chapter 55 let us remember it is an open invitation to one and all to eat and drink at the table of God. Jesus practiced open hospitality eating with everyone – commensality. That is the message of United Church. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome at the Sharing Table. The message of open commensality was radical in Jesus’ time, it is still radical today — Open Invitation! That is why at United Church we have an open communion, because the Sharing Table does not belong to us, for this is God’s community. We don’t get to decide who comes or who is welcome.
SLIDE 14: WE WERE PRETTY HOMOGENEOUS
Now I understand as demographics change welcoming everyone may not be as comfortable as in the good old days, when Southeast Huntsville was primarily home to engineers, scientists, government employees, who pretty much looked alike and thought alike. When we look at the pictures from the past we were pretty homogeneous.
SLIDE 15: BODY OF CHRIST IS NOT A SOCIAL CLUB
Most human beings in social settings are more comfortable, when the group is homogeneous. So a social group with wide diversity is often upsetting for some people. On the other hand the community of faith is called to become the Body of Christ and not a social club.
SLIDE 16: DEFEND AGAINST THE GOSPEL
I remember in a previous congregation one member who always sat in worship with his arms crossed defensively, like he had to defend against the gospel, explained to me that he expected the church to operate like his local Moose Club. The Pastor was supposed to be the club manager, and he was supposed to keep everything running smoothly and keep all the members happy. Of course the Moose Club model of church reduces the community of faith to a homogeneous social club. This was the same member, who in a Church Council Meeting said, “You can’t trust people, who read the Bible.”
SLIDE 17: COME SEE WHAT GOD IS DOING
We are the Body of Christ, the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. We read the Bible here. Everyone is welcome. And let’s learn to think of United Church as a place, not where we are the center of attention, but a place where we can invite those outside of our community to come and see what God is doing