“We are returning from exile…” Sunday August 21, 2022

Here’s the transcript of the Sermon:

Some of the great privileges and also heavy burdens of the vocation of being a pastor are the many holy and sacred moments that we get to experience with people.  The times when they shed their façade of everything being alright and show their real selves – being vulnerable with their brokenness, pain, and suffering.  

Sacred moments like having conversations with people who have finally come to terms with who they are.  And they struggle with how to tell their loved ones out of fear of being rejected or hated as if their life together was a lie.  Scared of how the church will react and respond.

Sacred moments of people sharing their stories that leaves me speechless.  Like stories of women who were raped just off a sanctuary right before a pastor would go in to lead worship.

You hear stories from people talk about someone coming right up to them, spewing hatred about their sexuality, race, gender, nation of origin, and more.  Unfortunately, it is often “Christians” who are doing the spewing of such hatred.  

I have female colleagues and colleagues that are LGBTQ that share stories about how congregations absolutely refuse to even consider them as a pastor because of their gender or sexuality.  To put this in practical terms white straight male pastors can get a call in 6 months where as women, people of color, and LGBTQ pastors will wait on average 2 years or more for a call.  

These conversations are vulnerable sacred moments.  Often deeply disturbing and becoming more common than anyone would like them to be.  These are the realities of many people’s experience with church over the years.  

They are often untold in public because people just don’t feel safe in sharing them. They don’t want to be retraumatized by them and they are tired of being completely dismissed, treated as a lie because other people can’t bear to hear these experiences and don’t believe them because they haven’t experienced them firsthand.  When we don’t like the truth about the past, we have a tendency to white-wash it and ignore the uncomfortable parts while overly enhancing the good things. 

Each time I hear one of these stories, it reminds me of why the church needs to acknowledge its brokenness and sin, seek ways to end such abuses and wrongs, and find ways to repair such breaches.  We may not have caused these abuses, but we have a responsibility to end them and repair the damage that has been done.  

When I hear such stories of abuse and pain caused by the church or its representatives, I’m reminded of why doing new things like a hybrid service is so very important now.  Because there are people who have been traumatized by the church in indescribable ways and will never in their lifetime ever set foot in a sanctuary again.  And I don’t blame them one bit.  I wouldn’t either if I experienced what they did.  These are real stories of real people.  

All of this is what I thought of when I first read Isaiah this week.  The context is simple.  This is towards the end of Isaiah, meaning it was written to the people of Israel after their exile in Babylon ended and had returned back to the Promised Land.  One of the constant challenges that is conveyed throughout the Hebrew Scripture is about Israel’s desire to go back to some white-washed history that never actually existed.  

After Israel left Egypt it was only a matter of hours and days until the people were clamoring to go back – telling themselves that their enslavement was not as bad as it actually was.  They wanted to go back not to what was, but rather to the nostalgia that brought them some level of comfort.  

When the people are leaving Babylon, they are going back to the Promised Land.  What are they going back to though?  Do they think they are going back to what was when they were ripped up from the land and taken away for many decades?  Going back to just pick up where they left off, along with the unhealthy and idolatrous ways they operated under?  

Isaiah knew they preferred the white-washed nostalgia to the reality that they were going back to a land and temple that had been devastated and destroyed by Babylon.  They were going back to the geography, but the geography was nothing like what it was when they were taken away.  The world had changed permanently.  Their nostalgia, like all nostalgia, was not based in reality and would not serve them to go forward.  

Isaiah confronts the people with a choice.  Were they going to choose a white-washed past that ignores the reality of abuse and idolatry that Israel operated on, or were they going to return to the land that had changed and to be changed themselves as well –Isaiah presents Israel with a path forward – a message of hope and transformation.  

Isaiah proclaims that path by acknowledging the reality of the present.  “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 a bit further on, Isaiah declares “you shall be called repairers of the breach.” 

It’s really hard to remove the yolk from someone if we aren’t willing to acknowledge that a yolk exists.  To hear people’s experience and accept it as real, rather than explain it away or blame the victim.  It’s really hard to feed the hungry if we aren’t willing to acknowledge that there are hungry people.  To spend time with them and get to know them.  To hear their experience and accept them as real rather then tell them that it’s their own fault because they aren’t doing this or that.  It’s really hard to satisfy the needs of the afflicted if we don’t recognize what affliction is.  To hear actual affliction for what it is and not confuse inconvenience with affliction.  

What are the yolks, the hunger, the afflictions that exist in our society and community that Isaiah is calling on us to remove, to provide food for, and to satisfy the needs of?  We’re not necessarily talking about things that we caused ourselves.  These aren’t individual sins that Isaiah is talking about.  Some of the yolks that lay on people’s shoulder, some of the ways they hunger, and some of the affliction that people face today are abuses they have suffered in the form of racism, homelessness, literal hunger, poverty, discrimination based on sexuality, and sexual and spiritual abuse.  We may not have caused any of these things.  But that’s not an excuse to do nothing about them.  

Isaiah calls on Israel to be proactive, to not fall into the trap of longing for the comfort of nostalgia, but rather offers a real path forward, a fresh start that will be a healing for people.  That will release people from the suffering they face and set them free of the yolk they carry.  

What’s it mean to be what Isaiah calls a repairer of the breach?  It’s to see the reality of brokenness around us – to see who is afflicted and what those afflictions are.  To acknowledge that these afflictions exist.  It’s to name these things out loud.  It’s to work to end the abuses, afflictions, and the burdens of yolks that people carry and to replace all this with something more just, empathetic, and merciful.  It’s to repair the damage done to people and to communities, sometimes damage that has been generational.  That’s what it means to be a repairer of the breach.  That’s what God is calling on followers to be today too.  

This isn’t some kind of nice side option that we can do if we feel like it.  It’s not something that a small group of people can do while everyone else just watches.  No, this is what it means to follow God.  If we want to be followers of God, then this is how we respond – we are called to be repairers of the breach.   

The church is coming out of an exile of sorts – the pandemic.  We were ripped out of our own promised land and taken away for a period of time.  And it has been traumatic in so many ways.  The church is returning to its promised land.  But what are we returning to?  

Are we telling ourselves that we are returning to some kind of white-washed past, a time of nostalgia?  That we’ll return to the so-called glory days of the church when the pews were full, there were tons of kids and young families, and the church provided the main opportunity for social interaction in a community.  If only we just do this or that, we’ll have it the way it was.  People will come back.  Reality just doesn’t support this.  And for many people, they don’t have those memories of full churches.  They never have.  This congregation has been in decline for about 25 years now according to a number of metrics.  The numbers don’t lie.  

So, what are we returning to?  Are we going to try yet again to do things that haven’t been working for two and a half decades?  If we do, we will have not learned anything during this time of exile.  We can’t just try harder doing the things we’ve always done and hope that they will work.  They aren’t.  The world has changed.  The church isn’t the center of the culture.  People aren’t clamoring to come through the doors of a church.  People fulfill their social needs through a variety of other options.  It doesn’t matter how we feel about these things and about these changes.  They are real.  

Will we follow Isaiah’s invitation to a reset that allows us to go forward?  A path that lives in the reality of seeing the yolks on people’s shoulders, the hunger in their bellies, and the afflictions that they suffer.  The very real desire people have to fill the spiritual hole within them.  Because it’s in that reality that God’s way, the way of Jesus that we claim to follow, has real power and is alive.  It’s in this way that we encounter the living God who transforms us in amazing ways and gives us life.  

A way that sees us in our vulnerability and brokenness and suffering and offers us liberation from these things, an end to suffering, to being fed, and being set free.  If we don’t need to be set free, and we aren’t willing to remove the yoke from those around us, then what exactly are we doing here?  If we aren’t interested in being transformed by God, then we need to ask – why not?

The story of Israel is that it constantly wanted to go back to a white-washed nostalgia.  And God, over and over again, was inviting them to go forward.  Inviting them to participate in God’s shalom – To seek justice and set people free.  To be transformed so that new life can thrive in people and communities.  

To repair the damages of the past and end the abuses of the present because God is a God of forward progress and hope and healing.  A God who is drawing us into a loving embrace.  A God who offers hope in the future.  A God who says that the best days are yet to come.  

The question for us is this – we’re coming out of an exile.  Are we going to try to create a past that no longer works because the world has changed?  Or are we going to go forward?  I don’t have the answers for what exactly needs to happen or how.  God didn’t lay a nice instruction manual for Israel either.  God provided Israel with what they should focus on and put their attention on.  Choosing to focus on recreating the past leads to disappointment, anger, scapegoating and loss. 

Going forward in God’s path is far different and better.  Let’s be honest, it’s full of unknowns and of us not being in control.  It’s got challenges.  It means we have to let go of some things that are holding us back from going forward – things that used to work but don’t anymore because the world has changed.  It’s not that the past or its ways are bad.  It’s that they aren’t helpful for us to move forward anymore.  Maybe we need to mourn what we have lost from the past, like we do in a funeral.  Funerals allow us to acknowledge the reality that something has changed permanently – often in ways we don’t like, and we didn’t pick.  And that we have lost someone we love dearly.  And in a funeral, we proclaim that God keeps God’s promises and there is hope for the future.  And that isn’t easy to do.  It means letting go of things that are beloved and considered sacred.  

This past week we sent out an article in our weekly email that talked about enshrinement – the term used to describe the things that churches make sacred and can’t be touched.  If we are going to go forward, we need name these things, release them and let them go, mourn their loss, and move forward so that we can live into the promise of God that Isaiah clearly lays out.  

If we are going to participate in what God is doing here in this community then we have to live authentically and be congruent with the core of our proclamation of life, death, and resurrection.  If we aren’t willing to live into what we proclaim, then why would anyone else listen to our proclamation?  

We are called to be repairers of the breach.  So that our light shall rise in the darkness and our gloom 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.  

Going forward means being all in.  Being all in doesn’t guarantee anything, and the way forward will not be clear, but it does give us life.  And if you want to know what it means to be all in, there’s a great example from Teddy Roosevelt, of all people.  He gave a speech in Paris in 1910 that has since them been referred to as the Man in the Arena speech.  Here’s what he said:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

The choice is yours, people of St. Stephen.  What are you going to do?  What are you going to choose?  You are coming out of exile.  Are you going to go back?  Or are you going forward?  Amen. 

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