GUEST SERMON PREACHED BY PC(USA) Elder Laura Bachmann
Deec. 11, 2016
South Presbyterian Church, Rochester, NY
Isaiah 35:1-10 (NRSV)
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.’
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Luke 1:39-56 (NRSV)
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.
When I was growing up, our family lived in a house on a hill, surrounded by trees, most of them beautiful old firs. At the bottom of the hill on one side was a wonderful and mysterious wetland bog, and down our driveway and across the dirt road, an abandoned sod farm contained endless hours of exploring possibilities. Nearby, a river wound through the fields, past an old fallen tree whose exposed roots created our favorite fort.
My sisters and I spent hours outside playing, making up stories and acting them out. In the fall, we would rake the golden pine needles into long fragrant piles and imagine the roads and houses and shops that they outlined. We would ride our bikes around this village and argue over the detailed events of life in that place.
Do you remember that feeling? The one where you immerse yourself completely in a world of your own creation? As a parent, watching my children play, I loved to hear them narrating the stories that accompanied their lego creations or the journeys their cars and trucks made across the living room carpet.
I thought of these imagined, vibrant worlds when I read this week’s passages from Isaiah and Luke. Each of them describes a world we can sink into and imagine ourselves living in. Each of them envisions the Kingdom of God. That KOG we talk about so often here.
But before we dive in, and in order to truly appreciate these visions, we need to put them in context. Isaiah, you will remember is an Old Testament prophet. He lived during turbulent times in Jerusalem when the Assyrians were on the move grabbing territory wherever they could. The northern Kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians and many lived in fear in Jerusalem that Judah, the Southern Kingdom, would be destroyed as well.
This particular passage is believed to come originally from a later time, when those very events the people of Israel feared so much, had, in fact, taken place. The people of Israel had been driven out of Jerusalem and were living in exile.
You don’t have to travel far from Jerusalem heading east before you encounter the desert Isaiah speaks about. When I was there last year, it was a matter of maybe thirty minutes on the bus before the world around turned brown and sandy, with rolling hills as far as the eye can see and only the odd Bedouin encampment to break up the landscape.
One can feel the sand scraping the skin, the unrelenting sun beating down on robed bodies. There is a sensation of vastness in the desert that is hard to explain, a feeling of the raw power of nature, the potential for the sand to rise up in a sandstorm and bury your tent.
This really is the wilderness where life can seem on the edge and unpredictable, impacted by forces outside your control. In such a dry place, water is a constant source of anxiety. All of this makes Isaiah’s words even more miraculous and life giving.
Hear then, the prophet’s words describing God’s redeemed creation…
… the desert shall rejoice and blossom, like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly… waters shall break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert…
Here not only plants and the earth rejoice, but the eyes of the blind are opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless sings for joy!
What a world Isaiah imagines for us. In the midst of the chaos of exile, the worry over who the people of Israel could be without Jerusalem and the Temple, the wondering about where God could possibly be encountered if they could not reach God in God’s holy house, in the midst of all this Isaiah imagines a world of plenty, a world where God redeems God’s people.
In the midst of a failed political leadership, the loss of a kingdom, the confusion about how the people of God could still be the people of God without a recognizable leader and a place to worship, Isaiah reminds God’s people that their God, our God, is a god of redemption. A god of hope. A god of plenty. A god of salvation.
As we light the pink candle today, the one I grew up calling the gaudiamus candle – which means joy – we are invited to stop and remember the joy God offers us in this vision of God’s creation, the joy that God builds right into this world that God promises us in fulfillment of God’s presence with us.
Perhaps this seems like a pipe dream, just a very real story like the ones we imagined for ourselves in childhood. Especially today, as we feel tossed about by the turbulence that describes our national life, such a vision sometimes seems completely out of reach.
But here’s the thing, God does not stop with a simple vision. As we read today’s gospel lesson, Mary adds her voice to the story, responding to what God has promised through her.
We hear God’s invitation to Mary to be part of giving birth to this world our Creator so deeply desires for all of us to share.
Listen to Mary’s words: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the mighty one has done great things for me and holy is God’s name.
Mary will carry the incarnate God in her body. She will participate with God in creating this god-with-us for the whole world.
Think about that.
Mary, this single, unwed mother. A person on the farthest edges of society who, but for the grace of God and the obedience of Joseph, would stand unprotected in a world where fallen women were the outcasts of society. We often hear people say, God does not call the equipped, God equips the called.
Surely, Mary is the ultimate example of this truth. Who is she to be chosen by God to bring God’s very self into our world? Who is she NOT to be chosen?
Mary’s sole qualification for this job appears to be her willingness to give it a try. When Mary understands what is to happen, she doesn’t explain to God that she is not worthy. She does not protest that she could not possibly parent such a special child. She does not announce that she just can’t take on another job right now. She doesn’t say she doesn’t know what to do or doesn’t possess the right tools. She rejoices.
Immediately, Mary’s own eyes are opened, Just as Isaiah imagined, she also sees the glory God has promised for the world. She envisions the kingdom of God right here in front of us – a world where God scatters the proud in their hearts, where God brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly, where the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty.
What would it require to create this KOG in our world today?
As the autumn months unfolded for us across the country, I heard many people despairing at the hateful words being spoken; at the violent actions being taken against people who are “other” than us. I heard discouragement about the plight of migrant workers, the loss of manufacturing jobs to foreign lands, the demeaning of women, the racism and xenophobia being voiced by people in the public eye. We mourned as people died in public shootings and traffic stops gone wrong. Closer to home, we worried over the children sitting hungry but trying to focus in our downtown schools. We marched in protest of white supremacist leaflets being distributed in Pittsford and Brighton.
I think many of us wondered how we could ever imagine, let alone, create the KOG Isaiah describes and Mary rejoices in. How can we, as individuals, or even as our community here at South, be bold enough to imagine that we might participate successfully in creating this world?
As we ordain and install our new slate of elders and deacons today, it seems right that we think about what leadership looks like in the KOG. What role are we called to play in creating this place that Isaiah so beautifully describes? What can Mary teach us about responding to God’s call to each one of us to step up and lead? How can we possibly imagine that we are actually able to carry out any of this grand vision?
There is, I think, a deep joy in accepting our status as believers called by God, called simply and solely because we are beloved children of God, to carry out God’s work in the kingdom.
God chooses us. US! In all our unworthiness and inadequacies.
God chooses us.
Mary’s song, the magnifact, is one of liberation. Some even call it a hymn of revolution. Just as we later see Jesus reversing so many of the cultural norms of his day – as he blesses the meek, the poor, the hungry, the pure in heart, the persecuted – even here, at the start of his life, Mary rejoices in some of the same upside down parts of the new kingdom to come – a kingdom where the proud are brought down and the lowly lifted up, where the hungry are filled and the rich are sent away empty,
Where an unwed mother can be the mother of God.
Being chosen as God’s hands and feet to act in the world requires only our willingness to say “yes.” We need not possess any special skills or knowledge. We need not be good public speakers or excellent debaters. We need not know how to raise money or manage the books. We need not memorize the Bible or have the answers to every theological question. God’s grace and God’s steadfast and abundant love for us are the only tools we need.
Think about how liberating that is! The only thing we need is God’s grace. If we truly believe that the God we worship offers us that grace, freely and abundantly, then we can also believe that God is in charge of this kingdom thing. God will make sure it happens. God will equip us. God will guide us.
I believe that pursuing this Kingdom of God, this KOG, pursuing the justice that must characterize it, requires each of us to look around ourselves, to see where we can act and then to take those small steps. Just as Barb has challenged us to pursue evangelism in our own unique ways, being part of creating the kingdom of God calls us each to act in the areas that we have the skill to address, in the communities where we have the voice to speak, in the ways that make use of our unique gifts.
It can be as simple and as difficult as the act of faith that Stena shared with us, where she makes a regular effort to speak to people of color outside the grocery store as her own personal act to combat racism.
We are all called to act and each of us occupies a special place from which only we can reach out to or be heard by others in our community. Perhaps we feel like anything we do cannot possibly be enough, but consider this. For the person who receives food for an empty stomach, for the woman who finds safety from an abuser, for a muslim whose Christian seatmate calls out the hate speech being directed at her, for these individual children of God, these single small acts mean the whole world.
This is how we change things. This is how we create the kingdom of God. This is how we accept our call to serve and to lead.
As Isaiah reminds us, God knows the way, and we cannot fall off the path. Listen to the final words of our passage today…
A highway shall be there and it shall be called the holy way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people, no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray… and the ransomed of the Lord shall return, everlasting joy shall be upon their heads, they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
As we look out into the world and ponder how our hands and feet can pursue justice for all God’s children, how our voices can create new spaces where all people can be heard and valued, how our hearts can love even the most unlovable among us, we must remember that God has already given us all that we need.
If a lowly unwed mother can see the kingdom of God, can participate in making that kingdom real here on earth, even for only a brief time as Jesus moved among us, surely we also can present ourselves to God, an offering for god’s kingdom work.
As we install and ordain our new and returning elders and deacons, let us stand with them in the call to, together, be the church of God out among the people of God. And let us pray together that dangerous prayer, “Lord, put us where you want us, and show us what to do.” Amen.