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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Sunday, February 08, 2015

The Regard of God

This sermon was first preached in the Chapel service of Shaw University Divinity School on February 7, 2015.

Sermon Texts from the Revised Common Lectionary

Isaiah 40:21-31, highlighting verses 27-28, 31

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The language we use is always changing.  We commonly use the verb “disregard,” but we don’t often use its opposite “regard.”  It means to see, to pay attention, to look upon, to consider.  In the hymn we sing that “Christ has regarded my helpless estate.”  What sorrow it would be if he had disregarded us!  This morning I want us to reflect on the regard of God…the regard of God.
In today’s text from the Prophet Isaiah, we read familiar and beloved words.  As is so often the case in our reading of scripture, one verse stands out in most people’s memory—the last verse.  All of us want to mount up with wings like eagles.  Such a text can take on a life of its own, living apart from its original setting as an icon, a free-standing piece of tradition.  This process may sometimes be beneficial, characterizing key aspects of our faith.  Other times, it may open the door to distorted interpretations and wayfaring teaching.  Those of us called to lead and teach have a responsibility to read with great care so that we may guide along the path that leads to God.
As always, we must discipline ourselves to understand even these favorite texts in their context.  This text comes near the turning point in the canonical shape of Isaiah.  The book began with a denunciation of the ways of Judah and a warning that unless they changed their ways, judgment would arrive swiftly and harshly.  Those pre-exilic oracles clarify something that you and I need to understand—the judgment against Judah came because of their unjust economic practices:  debt-slavery, violence toward workers, low wages that shift wealth from the poor to the rich, laws which favor the wealthy, foreclosure and seizure of homes and land, ignoring the widows and orphans, filling rich homes with gold and silver while many are hungry.  There was a temporary repentance, and the Assyrians failed to conquer Judah.  Isaiah died.  New kings arose.  God sent other prophets.  There is much more of the story to tell, but not today.
In the long run, the rulers were afraid to change their policies for fear of becoming unpopular with their supporters or for fear of crossing and offending the neighboring empires.  The wealthy did not believe things would go wrong for them, since they were too big to fail.  The priests and prophets glibly said whatever their patrons wanted to hear.  Finally judgment came.  Jerusalem was invaded, conquered, and destroyed.  Many people of all ranks and classes died.  A large number of the elite were forced to go into exile in Babylon and serve their conquerors.  The people who were left behind suffered the results of war and the insecurity of having their defenses destroyed.
After decades had left the prior Kingdom in ruins, a new set of oracles came to the people, and these oracles were later canonized in this book of Isaiah.  A new calling to a prophet appeared in that time, most likely among those who had carried on the traditions of Isaiah and preserved his oracles.  Chapter 40 begins with this new calling to the prophet, “Comfort my people.”  It speaks of a new beginning.
But as the chapter continues, it becomes apparent that the people are not hearing what the prophet is saying.  They are set in their ways.  They and their parents have followed Jeremiah’s advice to build homes, raise families, marry off their kids, and make a life where they are.  Many things are not what they want them to be, but they are not expecting their lives to change.  They figure that the God of their ancestors has lost interest in them, stopped paying attention to them.  They believe that God has disregarded their situation.  
I don’t mean that they have all rejected God.  This era in exile is most likely the era in which the Jewish faith practices that we read about in the New Testament began to take form:  the collecting of writings, the editing of histories, the compilation of liturgical and wisdom texts.  Clearly many of the people had made a place in their lives for God and for the regular observance of the Sabbath.  New practices of reading, study, and conversation about sacred texts were taking hold.
People had God in their lives, but they did not expect much from God.  They had worked on preserving a way of life and the stories of their past.  However, they did not really think God would have much to offer beyond that.  They were resident aliens in a place where they would always be second-class citizens and outsiders.  They regularly ran into problems with the empire, so they just tried to keep to themselves and be left alone.  Of course they knew it was true that God had led their ancestors out of Egypt, but that was back in the day.  They did not live as if God had any regard for them.
Now and then I hear the same kind of comments in church.  When someone starts talking about the injustices that the poor endure, some church people are likely to say, “You know Jesus said that the poor will always be with us.  That means there’s nothing we can do to change poverty.  It’s just going to keep on being the same old same old.”  Or if church people get started talking about racial injustice, somebody is going to say, “Racism goes back to the beginning of time, and it’s never going to go away.”  They will shake their heads with doubt that anything can change.  Whatever the social ills we face, it seems that far too often our congregations just want to throw up their hands and give up.  One of the hardest things to do is to get church people to talk through and think through and plan for making changes in the way things are.  We don’t even like to change the arrangement of the Sunday service or change where we sit in the church house.
Somehow church people have gotten satisfied to go through the weekly practices of reading, singing, studying, preaching, and holding meetings without believing things can be different.  We figure if we can just get a little recharge to get us through the week, that’s enough.  If we can sometimes get a little shout on, we’ll be satisfied that we have a little bit of God in our lives.  If we can fill all the nominations for committees and offices, and if we can repeat the same calendar events year after year, then we are satisfied that church is being church, and God is being God.  
Some other churches have trained their focus on getting a little piece of what the world loves.  They go to church to get in on the money machine.  They figure if they say the right incantations and perform the right sacrificial offerings and rub shoulders with the right holy people, the money will come their way.  They aren’t concerned to think about what is wrong with the world we live in.  They just want to get a little piece of the world’s action.  Maybe we would rather not have the regard of God.
In one way or another, most of our church life ends up being confined to a building and unconnected to the rest of our lives.  Outside of service or Bible study, when people struggle with injustice, when the poor cry out for bread, when the thrown away people are longing for a friend to walk with them, we find ourselves throwing up our hands and giving up.  Those problems seem too big.  Mass incarceration is too complicated to understand.  Voter ID restrictions are just an irritation to be ignored.  Underpaid teachers and underfunded schools are too big for us to manage.  Low wages, no safety net for the poor and marginalized, and no access to health care are just too many things to wrap our little heads around.
It seems we have found ourselves right where those people in exile were.  We think we meet God at church for our limited purposes, but as for the rest of our lives, our day-to-day issues and the injustices all around us, those must be hidden from God.  Our God is only concerned with saving souls from hell and not with the problems of this world.  Our God has disregarded us.  As for dreaming about a world we think would be right, we’ve settled on the belief that God has no regard for it.  At least that’s what our ways show.
But Isaiah will have none of it.  He is not satisfied to have a God who shows up for worship and ignores the rest of our lives.  He does not believe that the God of the Exodus has decided to go into retirement.  So he brings a word from God that is mostly in the form of questions.
“Haven’t you heard who God is?  Haven’t your Momma and Daddy told you from the beginning?”  At times, the inquisitor is God’s own self.  “Who do you think I am?  Don’t you know what I have done?  I made the world, by the way.  No earthly ruler can stand up to me.  And NO, I did not get tired and go into retirement.”
The Psalm for today says,
The LORD builds up Jerusalem, and gathers the outcasts of Israel.
The LORD heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.
The LORD determines the number of the stars, and gives to all of them their names.
Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; God’s understanding is beyond measure.
The LORD lifts up the downtrodden, and casts the wicked to the ground.
When we settle, in one way or another, for the world as it is—the world with all its injustices, its unjust structures of economic life, its domination systems that aim to keep the masses down—we show ourselves to have forgotten who God is.  We may still be going to church and reading our Bibles and certainly praying for God to do things that we can’t be bothered to do.  But we are not really thinking of who God is.  We are not thinking through the stories that we have heard about what God has done.  If, in fact, we can put those stories out of our minds, we can just settle in to this old world and have our church routines and not have to be bothered.
But the problem Isaiah is noticing is that this kind of living falls far short of all the good that God wants for us.  God made this wide world and placed us in it so that people could share loving and just lives together.  God did not want us to give token worship and all the while let ourselves and our neighbors continue to be crushed under the feet of unjust systems.  God wants us to soar into the fullness of beloved community.  God wants us to run like the prodigal son into the loving arms of blessing.  But most of all, God wants us to walk and not faint.
What does it mean to have the regard of God?  God’s eye is on us,in the same way that God’s eye was on the children of Israel who were slaves in Egypt.  God hears our cries.  God knows our struggles.  And God comes among us to deliver us.  But the Israelites could not have headed out of Egypt to make a better life if they refused to walk.  It turned out to be a whole lot of walking, but they walked and did not faint.  
In our text, the Jews in exile are being told that God will make a new beginning, so they will have to shake their old habits of settling for the world as it is and start walking toward the world as it should be.  God sees a better life for humanity, and God sees us living it.  This is what it means to have the regard of God.
When the economy crashed half a dozen years ago, the easiest thing to do was to relegate economic injustices to the realm of things too complicated for action.  Church people too often shrank back from the challenges the world was throwing at us and said, “[Sigh!] All we can do is pray.”  When I hear that, it often seems to be a way of saying, “We give up, and we don’t plan to use our energy trying to make a difference.  We will just leave it to God and ask God to fix it without us.”  That is a sad kind of prayer.
Praying is actually a big thing to do, if we do it right.  Praying, contrary to much of our actual practice, is not about changing God’s mind.  It is about God changing our minds.  If we had prayed seriously, we would have come out of prayer meeting working on a plan for action against economic injustice.  If God hates injustice, then praying ought to ignite hunger and thirst for justice in us.  That hunger and thirst should stir us to walk and not faint.  A congregation cannot do everything, but it can do something.  We can do the obvious things of offering relief to those who struggle, but we can also do the less obvious things of economic development, forming credit unions, insuring the health of our poor members, creating business incubators, growing fresh and healthy foods, investing in our neighborhoods, providing job training and jobs, shutting down the usurious lenders, pressuring businesses and governments to act justly toward the people.
Next Saturday is an important day on the calendar for churches in North Carolina.  It is the day of the Moral March on the Capital, the Historic Thousands on Jones Street, the Forward Together Movement.  Right outside Boyd Chapel, people will gather when some of us are in class.  Our chapel hour will be a brief observance to affirm the God of justice whom we serve.  And then we will walk.  We will walk symbolically and demonstratively.  It will be a walk of witness.  We will be bearing witness to the God whom we serve, a God who does not faint and does not grow weary.
This week’s gospel text from Mark 1 tells about the intensity of Jesus’ ministry when great multitudes of people were crowding him all day and even into the night. It was hard for him to get any rest.  Sometimes his disciples would get caught up in the mob excitement.  One problem for Jesus revealed by the gospels is that the crowds often interfered with the tasks Jesus believed he needed to be doing.  The worst example comes later in Mark, when they began organizing to force him to be their king.  But in this passage, Jesus gets away for some rest.  Your fellow student, James McRavion, is preaching on these same texts today in High Point.  We compared our notes, and he pointed out something from this text.  After Jesus rested, then he spent time in prayer.  The prayer must have stirred him to do his work. You could say he got his marching orders.  He tells his disciples to get to walking.  They need to go on to other towns and proclaim the Reign of God.
People from many communities will come to Wilmington Street for many reasons.  Some believe in democracy.  Some believe in America.  Some have suffered financial loss and felt what it’s like to be abandoned.  Some have struggled without means to get health care, housing, or a job.  Some care for their neighbors deeply.  Some have learned the hard way about the strength of solidarity.  Some come out of self-interest.  Many are angry.  Many are frustrated.  Many are hopeful.  
We will march because we have known.  We will march because we have heard.  We will march because it has been told to us from the beginning.  We will march because we have understood from the foundations of the world.  We join the march because it is a sign of who we are.  We march on that day as a foretaste of our discipleship for the long haul.  We march under the everlasting, unsearchable regard of God.  
If next Saturday is the only day we walk, we have not heard who God is.  God is the one who has regard for us.  The everlasting God, creator of the ends of the earth, created our little corner of it too.  God has regard for us.  We walk in the regard of God who does not faint or grow weary.  Saturday’s walk is another beginning of a long walk to justice, to love, and to community.  Let’s plan to walk and not faint, thankful that we live and move and have our being in the regard of God.

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