SEEDS FOR SERMON SEASONINGS
Based on the lectionary for May 25, 2008
(Isa. 49:8-16; Psalm 131; I Corinth. 4:1-5; Matt. 6:24-24)
By Dr. Richard Guentert, Upper Midwest Regional Minister
[Italicized Scripture quotations from the N.R.S.V.]
This is the second Sunday after Pentecost, Memorial Day weekend, and the theme is “God’s continuing deliverance and the Humbled Countenance That Confesses It.” The four texts portray God’s healing and renewing spirit at work – a perpetually repairing presence – and the humility people of faith should manifest in the face of God's action.
It begins in Isaiah 49:8 with the reminder that it is “in a time of favor I have answered you … I have helped you.” This is God’s doing, not our own. Thus it is an act of mercy. The “favor” and “salvation” that here characterizes the awaited deliverence is reliant upon the mercy of the one who delivers it!
Isaiah 49 portrays this in God’s revitalizing visitation. It is deliverance in the form of “the desolate” being apportioned a new “heritage.” (verse 8d). It is a visitation in which nobodies become somebodies . . . invisible folk are made visible all over again . . . a voice speaks to those who are prisoners of their “dark” life-circumstance and it says: “Come out! … Show yourselves!!” (verse 9). And because of this visitation what were once obstacles become roads, and what was once impassible becomes an opening and a passage . . . “I will turn all my mountains into a road” says the Lord (verse 11).
Such a message was the politics of change and the anticipation of hope in Isaiah’s day.
While in Romans 8:19-22 the earth “groans in travail” awaiting the transformative work of God, here in Isaiah the earth rejoices and “sings for joy” at God’s ability to turn things around (verse 13). Deliverance takes the form of a new harmony between the human sphere and the sphere of the humus. The concerns of the human and the humus are of equal importance to one another. The fruitfulness and fecundity of each is dependent upon the other. The generativity of each is dependent upon the generosity of the other. Such is the interdependency of creation as it was intended by its Creator.
The degree of God’s “comfort” and “compassion” is referenced in verse 13, even before the questioner frames the inquiry in verse 15. Even when our circumstances blind, impair or prohibit us from being fully aware of God’s care and loving kindness toward us, even then – notes Isaiah – even then God’s attentiveness and understanding are part and parcel of God’s own being. Note the scope of God’s awareness in the image Isaiah provides in verse 16: “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.”
If you and I wear rings to signal our covenantal seriousness to a spouse, God one-ups us! Isaiah says we are “inscribed” on the palm of God’s hands. (The plural suggests both hands, and connotes that we are never absent from God’s perpetual attentiveness, no matter what our lot in life might be.) God has made us part of God’s own self. How could any relationship matter more, or be more personal than that?
This metaphorical tattoo is God’s betrothal promise – insuring the creation of an enduring love. And such love fosters the kind of "hope" to which the Psalmist in today’s lectionary text alludes (Psalm 131:3). What the Isaiah and the Psalm passages today share in common is human humility cultivated in the soil of healing hope.
And if this is not enough, the Isaiah text takes us one image further. “Your walls are continually before me,” says the Lord (verse 16b). So whatever our “walls” are – whatever confinements limit us, whatever barriers restrict us, whatever walls curb and narrow our options – God is knowing; God is abiding with us; God is partnering with us in all our efforts to overcome those walls. That is the nature of a God of deliverance!
Psalm 131 calls us to a life of quiet trust – to humility – in the midst of our life journey. The image of God is a feminine one. Our life, our being, is likened to a weaned child in the arms of this mother God! (verse 2)
Because of this the Psalmist is a non-anxious child of God. There is no propensity to give-in to worry. Being held in God’s life-giving protection is enough – a step removed from nursing, but still dependent upon God’s nurture. The lesson here is that faith trumps fret, that belief trumps bother, that trust trumps tension!
Much of our time is preoccupied with trying to “figure-out” evil and suffering and the bad stuff that happens in the world. We get consumed by the need to find answers for all the questions posed for us by an agitated and neurotic world. As in the temptation of Adam and Eve in one of the Genesis narratives, we are gripped by the need to know more than we need to know. We obsess about things over which we have no control. The press and media have persuaded their readers/viewers to crave their “fair and balanced” coverage, so much so that we have become mesmerized junkies in search of a “fix” called ultimate Truth! After all, the news agencies have convinced us, “We have a need to know and we have a right to know!” It is the media’s methodical mantra! So we fixate on solving mysteries which are beyond our comprehension. We become consumed by the vagaries and ambiguities of life. And when we are unable to “figure it all out,” we succumb to doubt – or worse, to complacency.
So Psalm 131:1-2 is a refreshing alternative. The Psalmist is content with some mystery in life. He is willing to modify the ravenous hungers of the mind and the spirit. There is a state of acceptance that culminates in contentment. This is not naiveté. This is not turning a blind eye to trouble. Nor is it a denial of the realities of life, which is often “not fair.” It is simply a state of being that recognizes human limitations, is willing to do the human part, and to leave the rest to God. Herein is real hope!
It seems to me that this is what Paul is getting at in I Corinthians 4:1 and 5b, when he writes, “I think of us in this way, as . . . steward’s of God’s mysteries.” He leaves it up to the Lord to “bring to light the things now hidden in darkness” . . . (which fits, of course, with his sentiment in I Corinthians 13:12 – “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”)
Matthew 6:24-35. Ultimately we are to trust the teaching of Jesus. Even as we are on a journey toward fuller expressions of deliverance, and are called to be ambassadors of that deliverance (i.e. reconciliation), we are admonished by our Lord to forsake worry. Abandon it. Leave it behind. Matthew 6:24ff suggests that our worry discloses our worship of the wrong master. So our Lord’s counsel is simple: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink. . . . Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to the span of life? . . . “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today." (verses 25, 27 and 34)
This God of Deliverance calls us to live in humble recognition of the exigencies of life, even as we do our part to partner with the Deliverer in those ministries of deliverance which Jesus has given us to enact.
And the best prayer I can imagine to pair with this set of lectionary passages is The Serenity Prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1930s:
"God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
courage to change the things that should be changed,
and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other."
A humorous alternative occurred when the philosopher W. W. Bartley juxtaposed Neibuhr’s prayer with a Mother Goose rhyme in 1965, with a similar sentiment.
"For every ailment under the sun
There is a remedy, or there is none;
If there be one, try to find it;
If there be none, never mind it."