march 7, 2010

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
March 7, 2010
Psalm 63:1-8
Isaiah 55:1-9

Let us pray:
From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth,
From the laziness that is content with half-truth,
From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,
O God of Truth, deliver us. Amen.

To begin, a parable: Not so very long ago, in a place not so very distant or different from our own, a stranger was traveling through the area when he came upon a small town. As he entered the town, the people who lived there moved toward their homes, locking the doors and closing the windows. The stranger noticed as people peered out the windows trying to learn more about him without having to actually meet him, or let him meet them. The stranger simply smiled, and called out: “Why are you all so frightened? I am a simple traveler, looking for a place to stay for the night, and a warm place for a meal.”

“There’s not a bite to eat in the whole town, maybe the whole county,” he was told. “We are weak from hunger. There’s hasn’t been enough to go around for quite some time. These are tough times. Better keep moving on.”

“Oh, I have everything I need,” said the stranger. “In fact, I was thinking of making some soup to share with all of you.” He showed them a large, iron cauldron he had with him, filled it with water, and began to build a fire under it.

Then, as people peered from behind their windows, and the brave and curious ones began to venture to their doorframes, he reached his hand into a worn, silk bag. They waited to see what his hand might hold when he removed it from his bag. With great ceremony, he pulled out an ordinary looking stone, and dropped it into the water.

By now, hearing the rumor of food, more people in the village had come out of their homes to watch. As the stranger sniffed the “broth” and licked his lips in anticipation, hunger began to overcome their fear.

“Ahhhh…” the stranger said to himself rather loudly, “I do like a tasty stone soup. It’s almost ready. If only there were a little bit of cabbage to add, it would be perfect!”

Soon someone from the community approached hesitantly, holding a small cabbage he’d retrieved from its hiding place, and added it to the pot.

The stranger stirred the soup, and then dipped in a spoon to taste. “Wonderful!” he cried. “It’s only too bad I don’t have any seasoning with me…that makes good stone soup great!”

Not long after, an old woman came to him with her hands cupped in front of her. One palm held some salt and cracked pepper. The other, dried herbs from her long-gone garden.

The stranger thanked her as she emptied her hands into the pot. He stirred the soup, dipped in his spoon, tasted it, and said, “Delicious! It is a shame I don’t have an onion. Just one onion makes delicious stone soup unbelievably delicious!”

Within a few minutes, a little boy came up. His eyes were wide and his hands were hidden behind his back. “Would you like to taste the stone soup?” asked the stranger. The little boy’s eyes got bigger, and he grinned as he nodded. Then, he held out his hands to reveal three small onions…

…And so it went…person after person, each growing a little less timid and a little more enlivened, brought what they could find—potatoes, carrots, beets, beans, and so on, until there was indeed a delicious meal for everyone in the community to share. As they sat around eating and talking, they wondered at the power of the magic stone, carried in the worn, silk bag, that could make soup that was this delicious! Just a stone! (Well, and a few meager offerings from people who didn’t feel like they had anything to give.)

One of the elders in the community, the leader, offered the stranger a great deal of money, all the money left in the community, for the magic stone. The stranger, much to the leader’s disappointment, refused to sell the stone.

And when the town woke up in the morning, they found that the stranger had moved on. Some of the children ran down the road after him, and finally came upon him. “Please, please!” they begged, “tell us the secret of this magic stone! Where can we find one? We have been hungry for so long, and it was such good soup…we haven’t eaten like that for a long time!” The stranger gave the silk bag holding the stone to the youngest child, and whispered to the children, “It was not the stone, but you all that performed the magic.”

So it is with this morning’s reading from Isaiah. This prophetic text points to the heart of Israelite faith. It expresses the hope for us who seek to follow Jesus, and become more Christ-like. Hope, that doesn’t seem to make sense, that defies our understanding, that calls us to lean not on our own understanding. This text, born in the exile, defines God’s amazing grace.

The God who provides food in the wilderness, bread for the journey…this is the same God who offers abundant pardon and forgiveness.

The prophet Isaiah is defining for the people of God the grace of God, a gift no money can buy. Freely given, freely shared. Like the air we breathe, the sun that warms our skin, the love that warms our hearts—it cannot be taken away, confined, restricted, purchased, sold. A gift to which everyone—everyone!—has equal and unlimited access.

This is the flip side, the gift that balances and goes with and allows us to bear the responsibilities, the liabilities, expressed by Morton Kelsey in this morning’s reading.

The cross stands before us to remind us of the vices we all share, the vices which crucify human beings today: cowardice, bigotry, impatience, timidity, falsehood, indifference. And, the cross stands before us to remind us of the saving grace we all share, the grace which can save us even from ourselves, and each other.

The church ought to be a place of grace. The church is not always a place of grace.

Sometimes, too often, the church argues foolishly about who is worthy to receive God’s grace. It’s like we forget God has already settled the question. God’s answer: Everyone. But like Isaiah says, “God doesn’t think the way we think; the way we work isn’t the way God works. God’s work surpasses the way we work, and the way God thinks is beyond the way we think.”

The church ought to be a place without borders or barriers. The church isn’t always a place without barriers or boundaries—who is in, who is out, who belongs, who does not, who is worthy who is not. The church ought to be a place of honest self reflection, examination, repentance, confession, transformation, affirmation, praise. The church isn’t always an honest place, a place we trust we can be honest with each other, or with God.

Sometimes, too often, we prefer to feel good, put our best face on and our best foot forward. Parade faithfulness, at least until there is conflict, or difference, or scarcity. Then we retreat into whispers, forget our commitment to be more Christ-like, and say behind backs what we would never say face to face.

Thank God we are not expected to save ourselves. Thank God, God’s invitation is still extended. Thank God, God is merciful, and lavish with forgiveness. Thank God, God’s grace knows no boundaries or barriers.

United Methodist Bishop Will Willamon shares a story about a United Methodist congregation somewhere in the rural Dakotas who suffered a severe blizzard—severe even for this blizzard-familiar area. The snow was high. The roads were closed, and remained so for longer than anyone could remember. Even the mail did not get through for weeks. All the churches cancelled their meetings, and the town followed suit. It was too cold to go out. The only thing that went on as usual was Sunday worship. But, because the mail was stopped, because meetings were cancelled, because the choir couldn’t practice and the women’s circles couldn’t meet, no one knew what to do. They didn’t know if it was World Communion Sunday or United Nations Sunday or Scout Sunday. They didn’t have bulletins because the paper shipment couldn’t get through. No one knew who was scheduled to usher, or read scripture, or play piano, or acolyte. No one knew what the lectionary readings were, or what color the vestments should be. There was nothing to announce, no reports to give, no news to share, no gossip to whisper. The pastor strode, looking embarrassed, before the congregation on Sunday morning, and said: “In the absence of any other reason for gathering today, we’ll just worship God, and listen for God’s still small voice of truth.”

The Israelites already had a covenant with God, but it took a prophet in exile to remind them that the grace born of the covenant was already at work in their lives.

The community had all they needed to feed themselves and each other, but it took a stranger and a little magic that wasn’t so magical at all for them to realize all that was possible by sharing what they already had.

The United Methodist church in the Dakotas gathered so regularly and faithfully, it took a blizzard and break from business as usual for them to remember they were there to worship God.

Our rules will not save us. Our laws and creeds will not offer us communion with the living God. Our money cannot buy what matters most. Our prayers prayed and hymns sung and rituals performed mean nothing, if they are not reflected in the way we live our daily lives, and how we respond to the people and world around us.

Only God’s grace can help us face the cross, and our part in crucifying the risen Christ. Only God’s grace can turn us from our civilized vices, to Christ’s way of compassion, justice, and care.

May our fervent prayer—on our lips and in our hearts—be like the psalmist: “God—you’re our God! We can’t get enough of you! We’ve worked up such hunger and thirst for God…So here we are in the place of worship, eyes open, drinking in your strength and glory. In your generous love we am really living at last!” May it be so. Amen, and amen.

No comments: