Friday, 28 February 2020

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Sunday Worship - 9:00 am

Sunday School - 10:30 am

 

Established May 2009, Little Rock, AR

Recent Sermons

More Than That

February 9, 2020

9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
   you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.


If you remove the yoke from among you,
   the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
   and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
   and your gloom be like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
   and satisfy your needs in parched places,
   and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
   like a spring of water,
   whose waters never fail.
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
   you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
   the restorer of streets to live in.

Matthew 5:13-20

13 ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

14 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

17 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

 

O God of light,
your searching Spirit reveals and illumines
your presence in creation.
Shine your radiant holiness into our lives,
that we may offer our hands and hearts to your work:
to heal and shelter,
to feed and clothe,
to break every yoke and silence evil tongues. Amen.

 

When we read Scripture it is always important to know the people to whom the words were written and the situations they faced. Isaiah 58 was written to Jewish people who returned to Palestine after several generations of exile in Babylon. The Babylonian Empire had conquered their nation many years earlier. Their temple in Jerusalem had been ransacked and burned. Their political leaders had been executed, exiled in Babylon, or had escaped to Egypt.

Isaiah 58 was written to formerly exiled people who struggled to make sense of their faith in God after returning to their depopulated and defeated homeland. They saw no evidence that God was restoring their national honor and power. They were observing the rituals and ceremonies of their religion. They were fasting, praying, and assembling for worship. Why wasn’t God restoring their ruined society?

 

The people Jesus addressed in his Sermon on the Mount were colonized subjects of the Roman Empire. Although they had lived in their homeland for centuries after the Babylonian exile, their society, the capital city Jerusalem, and the observances and rituals of their religion all took place under the oppressive presence and threat of Roman soldiers and Roman governors. In a sense, they were exiles at home.

 

Some among them (a group called the Zealots) wanted to seize weapons and mount armed resistance to drive the Romans from Palestine. Another faction (the Sadducees) decided to co-exist and collaborate with Roman occupiers. While some Pharisees favored armed revolt and resistance to the Romans, other Pharisees preferred to protect their religious, cultural, and political identity by withdrawing into deeper study and practice of their Scripture, the writings of law and prophets known as Torah. By doing so, they hoped to preserve their cultural and religious identity as God’s people until God’s Messiah came to liberate their people, land, and society from Roman occupiers.

The people who heard the teaching and preaching of Jesus knew about the running debate among the Zealots, the Sadducees, and the scribes and Pharisees concerning how to liberate and protect their society from imperial domination. Like their ancestors who returned to Palestine after exile in Babylon, these people struggled to make sense of their faith in God in the face of daily oppression. How were they to treat Roman occupiers? How were they to treat each other?

 

What do the lessons in Scripture (Torah) about God’s righteousness and salvation mean for people facing violence, greed, corruption, and hatred associated with empire, whether the empire is Babylonian, Roman, American, Russian, Israeli, or some other name?

 

Like the exiles who returned to Palestine from Babylon and the inhabitants of Palestine who were practically “exiled in place” because of Roman military occupation, people today are trying to live with dignity and power in the face of empire. And like the people of those times, we are tempted to become discouraged and bewildered.

 

We have Bible studies and prayer groups. There are more houses of worship in this society than ever. People are singing, preaching, praying, and carrying on other religious activities. Then why isn’t the world becoming more loving, free, hopeful, healthy, and at peace?

 

When so many people are attending Bible studies, prayer groups, and flocking to churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious gatherings, why is bigotry and hatefulness on the rise?

 

Why is the gap getting wider between people who are poor and people who are wealthy?

 

Why are so many immigrants and asylum-seeking people suffering discrimination?

 

Why are people working harder and falling deeper into debt?

 

Why are so many people suffering and dying from violence, mental and physical disease and illness, and the results of contaminated air, water, and soil?

 

Why is climate change happening? Why is the earth crying? Why are fish in the oceans dying?

 

Why is the world not doing better when so much religious activity is happening?

 

The lesson from Isaiah 58 and the message from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount teach that God’s righteousness and salvation involves more than personal and public acts of piety. Attending worship services, Bible studies, and prayer groups makes people busy. But being religiously busy doesn’t make one righteous. People can be religiously busy yet be out of touch with God and others. Notice again the words from Isaiah 58.

 

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. [Is. 58:4]

Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

[Is. 58:6-7]

 

Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, “Here I am.”

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom shall be like the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. [Is. 58:9-12]

 

Likewise, when Jesus spoke being “salt of the earth” and “light of the world” he was talking about more than holding Bible studies, prayer groups, and attending religious conferences and seminars on preaching, evangelism, missions, and church growth, and other acts of religious piety. He was calling people to follow him in being God’s agents of healing, hospitality, generosity, humility, peace, justice, and hope in the world. Jesus wasn’t belittling Scripture. He was emphasizing that Scripture (Torah) directs people into righteous communion with God and others.

 

How can people who object to universal access to health care be in right relationship with the God who sent Jesus as Healer and Teacher?

 

How can Bible-reading and prayer group gathering people who support spending trillions on making war and but who object to spending government money to provide food and shelter for hungry and homeless people be in right relationship with God?

 

How can Bible-quoting and hymn-singing people who defend an economic system that rewards cheating workers be in right relationship with God?

 

How can people who claim to love God support policies that mistreat immigrant and asylum-seeking men, women, and children?

 

How can people say they worship God yet ignore mass incarceration, racial profiling, and systemic violence and murder by law enforcement agents?

 

How can people who love God turn a blind eye to the damage humans are systematically doing done to God’s air, soil, and water?

 

This is what Jesus meant at Matthew 5:20 when he said “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus wasn’t putting down Scripture (“the law and the prophets” or Torah) by calling his followers to embrace God’s call to humility, hospitality, grace, mercy, justice, peace, and hope. He was saying that Scripture enlightens us to know that being faithful members of God’s community, what Jesus spoke of as “the kingdom of heaven,” involves more than religious ceremonies, traditions, and rituals.

 

Scripture lights the way for us to love enemies. Scripture shines light on God’s call that we welcome immigrants and asylum-seekers, that we love enemies, and that we show mercy and compassion to people who are wounded, weak, and threatened. Life with God involves more than reading the menu of Scripture. We must join God in bringing everyone into God’s fellowship.

Allan Boesak said it well in these words:

 

The God of the Bible is the God of liberation rather than oppression; a God of justice rather than injustice; a God of freedom and humanity rather than enslavement and subservience; a God of love, righteousness and community rather than hatred, self-interest and exploitation.

 

God of Light and Love and Life, thank you for shining the light of your extravagant generosity, scandalous grace, and universal community into the world through Jesus and the other prophets.

 

Thank you for calling us to join you in loving the world, healing the world, protecting the world, and nourishing the world.

 

Thank you for helping us understand that your righteousness involves more than piety, more than devotion to religious tradition and dogma, and more than being religiously busy.

 

Thank you for the guidance of your Spirit. Thank you for the inspiration of Scripture and the revelation of your power through the life and ministry of Jesus. And thank you for the assurance that your Spirit will strengthen and guide us to be agents of liberation rather than oppression, justice rather than injustice, freedom and humanity rather than enslavement and subservience, and love, righteousness and community rather than hatred, self-interest and exploitation. Amen.