Sunday, December 14, 2014

“Can We Show the World Another Way?” (Isaiah 25:6-26:6)

Our oldest son sent me a text message late in the afternoon on Monday.  “What have you heard coming out of Ferguson, Missouri?” he asked. I was touched by what was on his mind.  The pain in Ferguson, Missouri, wasn’t necessarily on the minds of everyone.  Someone said to me, “What’s new?  This scenario keeps getting played out over and over in our country.  I’m not interested.” 

But that was the minority voice.    Many hearts WERE centered on the pain in Ferguson.

By the time I drove into work on Tuesday morning, cars and businesses in Ferguson, Missouri, were burning in the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision not to indict police Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old.  As I reflected on the news I thought, “There’s a lot of pain and sorrow and fear and anger in that fire—some real, some imagined, some obvious, some hidden.”

I was surprised by one voice from the community of Ferguson whose thoughts were echoed in a story on National Public Radio, “We are so embarrassed.”  Why is that? As we all know, Ferguson, Missouri could be EVERY TOWN, USA.  We all struggle to produce communities in which every human being has fair access to all of those services and opportunities that make for a vibrant life:  meaningful work, housing, clothing, food and clean water, healthcare, supportive community, even the right to marry.  We all struggle to understand what attitudes and systems are in place in every community that allow some people to experience prosperity and other people disparity. 

Whether its friendship or food, some are comfortable and others are miserable.  Whether it is power or wealth, some persons are indulged and others are deprived. The pain of disillusionment shared by many!

What the prophet Isaiah wants to know is if we moved by the pain in the lives of the person on the bottom, like God’s heart—like Christ’s heart?  Because if we are, we just might want to stand on tiptoe and watch for God because God is coming and God’s going to execute justice---God’s going to level the playing field—mountains are going to crumble and valleys are going to be lifted up—there’s going to be a banquet and NO ONE is going to be left out.

We belong to a God who responds to the pain of the miserable, the deprived, the weighed down, and the judged “inferior.”  We belong to a God who transforms attitudes and systems.

Isaiah writes:

“But here on this mountain, GOD-of-the Angel-Armies will throw a feast for all the people of the world…

And here on this mountain, GOD will banish the pall of doom hanging over all peoples…

He’ll remove every sign of disgrace from his people wherever they are.

Depend on GOD and keep at it because in the LROD GOD you have a sure thing. 

All the exploited and outcast peoples build their lives on the reclaimed land.”

What Isaiah is writing about is oppression and hope.  What is oppression?  It’s the unjust, ruthless, burdensome, cruel use of power.  This is the opposite of God’s desire.  In the OT book of Exodus God introduces God’s self to Moses as “I AM.”  “I AM” has been translated as “I AM FOR YOU.”  Oppressive power can be translated as “I AM FOR ME.” 

In our lesson text from the prophet Isaiah, the faith community of Israel has been plundered by an enemy—whether it’s the Assyrian destruction of Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, or Babylonia, we can’t be certain because there’s no specific historical reference.  What we do know is that both Israel and Judah were destroyed by nations to the north—homes and city walls and houses of worship and human life and fertile fields crushed—families separated—faith communities separated.  They are on the bottom of the power ladder and they can’t move. 

The image that comes to my mind for oppression is that of an elephant sitting on one’s chest—who can escape the weight of an elephant?  Interestingly enough, this is the same image that often offered to explain what a heart attack feels like.  Would the citizens of Ferguson, MO, say that right now their community feels like they are having a heart attack? 

And what is the hope Isaiah is writing about?  Isaiah is writing about the changed or TRANSFORMED mind (soul) of humanity. 

“Throw wide the gates so good and true people can enter,” says Isaiah to God, “People with their minds set on you, you keep completely whole, steady on their feet, because they keep at it and don’t quit.”  Isaiah is envisioning a “come together” people filled with the mind of God, but what he’s talking about isn’t a mental will but a spiritual desire to accessible TO God so that God’s compassionate heart will become their heart.  It’s the people of God who won’t quit until they have laid the foundation for a world where destruction and meanness will be lifted from all the people of the world—where the people of the world will no longer feel the shame of disgrace.  We are conductors of God’s hospitality; God’s gracious welcome to ALL people.

Like Christ.  As John writes in his gospel, chapter 10 verse 10:

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

Christ is our savior, our vision for own lives. 

As followers of Christ, wet from our baptisms with the Holy Spirit of God, WE come that all may have life, and have it abundantly.  We are striving to live in sync with the Spirit of God who is “For You”—for YOUR life, for MY life.  We desire to show a world a different way—God’s way---the opposite of theft, murder, violence and oppression.

This “way” is already at work in Ferguson, MO.   I’d like to share two examples with you:
A grand jury decision announced Monday not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown was preceded by a wave of shuttered doors in Ferguson, Mo. Expecting an eruption of protests over the decision, the city's public schools and many public services quickly declared they would be closed on Tuesday.
The Ferguson Public Library, however, remained open.
Scott Bonner, the library's director and its only full-time librarian, kept the building open to provide programming for local students and to offer adults a safe place in the midst of the tumult. The decision marked a renewal of the library's work in August, when it opened its space to impromptu classes during local schools' long closures during protests this summer. On Tuesday, Bonner said, it was tough to gauge just how visitors were reacting to the news.
"I'm seeing a mix of moods," Bonner told Library Journal. "Our volunteers are excited and optimistic, and here to help, and then I have patrons who come in and literally hold my hands and cry — they just needed someone to hold onto and talk to. And everything in between, including people who are doing the regular walk-in, walk-out stuff."
News of the Ferguson Public Library's opening also prompted an outpouring of donations. Partly spurred by social media support from Neil Gaiman, Rachel Maddow and even the show Reading Rainbow, Bonner told CNNMoney that the library's received donations "in the five digits" since the grand jury announcement. And they continue to flood in.
"I think that when there's all these negative stories," Bonner said to NBC News, "seeing a story where a community comes together unified behind a common cause ... it makes people remember that, you know, we're all human beings and we're in this together."
Centene to build new facility and create up to 200 jobs in Ferguson, Gov. Nixon announces
September 2, 2014
Gov. Nixon’s Missouri Works Training program helps to meet job training needs, facilitate expansion
St. Louis, MO
Gov. Jay Nixon today applauded Centene Corporation’s plans to build a new claims processing center and create up to 200 jobs in Ferguson, Missouri.  To facilitate the company’s expansion, Gov. Nixon’s administration is partnering with St. Louis Community College to provide targeted job training resources through the Missouri Works Training program. 

“This investment is an important step forward for Ferguson and the entire region, and I’m pleased my administration could help make it a reality,” Gov. Nixon said. “Attracting new jobs and investments is vital to creating greater economic opportunities for all Missourians in this region.  Centene’s decision to build a new facility in Ferguson is a great example of how our Missouri Works Training program is growing our economy by investing in the skills of our workforce.”   

“This is the right thing to do for the community, state and our shareholders,” said Centene CEO and Chairman Michael Neidorff. “It is time for action, not talk.”

The new service center will include employee development and training, on-site daycare, full service cafeteria and an auditorium for educational advancement.

“I would like to thank the leadership of the state, county and local governments, particularly Governor Jay Nixon who has worked closely to make these exciting plans come to fruition,” saidCentene Chief Financial Officer William Scheffel
Centene announced that it will begin taking applications for the new claims processing center jobs before the end of 2014.

To facilitate the project, the Missouri Department of Economic Development has offered Centene incentives through the Missouri Works Training Program, which the company can receive if it meets specific job creation and investment criteria.

Missouri Works Training is offered through the Department of Economic Development’s Division of Workforce Development in cooperation with local educational agencies, such as the community colleges and area career education schools. 

The first Sunday in Advent ushers in God’s good news in Christ:  God is bigger than the world’s oppressive powers—the people who destroy that which they don’t understand, the people who need to be equal to God.  God is bigger than evil’s oppressive spirit WITHIN us—the inner voice that says “you’re nothing, do nothing---keep your life small, hide your light under a bushel.”

God acts to reclaim our hearts AND our land, our cities and nations.

Where, in Billings, Montana, would Central Christian Church like to join God in God’s reclamation activity? 

Let Us Pray: 

Powerful God, your first candle in Advent sneaks up on us and punches us in the stomach.  We’re sitting here wondering what to make of snow and ice, and the extra calories we ate on Thanksgiving Day, and our Christmas shopping lists, and you’re placing us as heroes in the battle for good versus evil.  This just might be the most interesting Christmas we’ve experienced yet!  Gracious Christ, give us courage!  Amen. 

(This sermon was preached by Reverend Dana Keener at Central Christian Church, Billings, Montana on November 30, 2014.)

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