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By the Lapels:
A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Susan Allison-Hatch
There’s a back story to every conversation. Even the conversations we hear today—the conversation between God and God’s people and the conversation between God and the prophet we call Isaiah. To the prophet God says, “Comfort, o comfort my people.” And that’s just what he does for 311 verses in the fifteen chapters of the book we now call Deutero Isaiah. That nameless prophet, that poet we call Isaiah, offers comfort and hope to a people who thought they had been forgotten by God. Comfort and hope to children born in exile and comfort and hope to those grown gray in captivity. Comfort and hope to those who by the waters of Babylon cry out to God and to their captors, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Comfort and hope to those who demand of God, “Rouse yourself. Awake.”
How do you comfort prisoners bereaved and broken? What words of solace do you give to a people tempered in a furnace of adversity? How can you soothe the souls of people who have witnessed their homes destroyed, their temple desecrated, their country brought to ruin? Where is the hope for those whose hopes have been dashed? What is the balm that heals the sores that fester when you think your God has abandoned you?
It’s a wonder that nameless prophet even took on the job. Who would blame him for, like Jonah, running fast and hard in the opposite direction? Perhaps he knew—perhaps he shared—his people’s pain, his people’s loss, his people’s grief. After all, he, too, was a child of the exile. He had to speak his truth. He had to speak God’s truth. I suspect he knew the price of silence.
And what a truth he speaks! He speaks the words of God. Actually he speaks God. The words of comfort this nameless prophet offers are not platitudes, not easy sayings. No they’re the very nature of God. And he speaks them with an urgency that cannot be ignored.
Shaking the lapels of those within his reach this prophet asks, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?”
This is God. God who stretches out the heavens. God who is vastly bigger than our imagination. “The God who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.” This is the God who is in it with us. This is the God of our exile. God bigger than any one moment in history. God bigger than any one moment in our lives. God—beyond our imaginations. God of forever.
Then God joins in the conversation. God says to those in exile—both then and now
You have been borne by me from your birth
Carried from the womb.
Even to your old age I am here
Even when you turn gray
I will carry you.
I have made and I will bear
I will carry and will save.
Think of it—God beyond time. God eclipsing any one moment and God as close as a partner’s breath, a mother’s womb, a potter’s hand. It’s stunning. And so reassuring.
Reassuring to Jews exiled to Babylon and reassuring to you and me as well. For we all live in exile at one time or another in our lives. Seasons of exile are part of the human condition. The exile teenagers face when they are bullied by their peers. The exile of a terminal diagnosis or a crippling disease. The searing exile of failure or shame or coming up short. Our culture doesn’t leave much room for that sort of thing. The exile of grief. The exile of those rejected even by their own church.
And yet God says to those in exile, to you and to me, “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” Do you not know that I am with you; that I have made you and that I will bear you? God who stretched out the heavens, who can topple princes and wipe out rulers can give us the strength to deal with our places of exile. For we belong you and I to something much bigger than ourselves. We belong to God. Though nothing erases the reality of our seasons of exile, God works even in and through our exile.
A way does come from no way.
A Child is born in Bethlehem.
A tomb is found empty.
We are renewed and borne up on eagles’ wings.
Thanks be to God.
Switchbacks on the Trail:
A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Susan Allison-Hatch
“Immediately” “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” I find that hard to believe. People with lives to lead, families to care for, obligations to fulfill just up and leave it all behind. How can that be? How can Andrew and Simon and James and John just chuck it all? Whatever would possess them to do such a thing—without even giving it a moment’s thought?
That word “immediately”—that’s my stumbling block. And I know I’m not alone in this. Others struggle with that word as well. It sends folks scrambling. Some folks focus on the lives the disciples leave behind. You know that argument—the life of a Galilean fisherman was so difficult, so tenuous that of course the disciples rushed to embrace a different way of living, a different way of looking at the world. Perhaps. Others suggest that this story isn’t about those fishermen at all. The way that argument goes, this is a story about God acting in people’s lives, a story about four men’s “yes” to God. Maybe so.
There are some biblical historians who suggest that this is not even a case of an immediate “yes” to God. These folks say that Jesus and those fishermen knew each other rather well. The way the argument goes, Jesus had spent a lifetime hanging around the Sea of Galilee. He knew Andrew and Simon and James and John. They knew him. And they knew they could trust him. So when he said, “Follow me” and they followed, it wasn’t really immediate at all. It had been a long time in the making. A decision growing from a relationship with the one offering the invitation. That happens, doesn’t it.
Each of these approaches to the disciples’ quick “yes” to Jesus has some merit. But still that word “Immediately” jumps out. It draws our attention to the moment, to the beginning of the story of Jesus and those fishermen, and it keeps us from seeing all that follows. Discipleship—it’s not a moment; it’s a way of life. A way of life growing out of a relationship with God. A way of life for Andrew and Simon and James and John, and a way of life for you and me and us together as well. A way of life and a lifetime along the Way.
Whenever I read about Andrew and Simon and James and John dropping their nets, I find myself focusing on the call and that first response and I forget all that follows. The challenges, the doubts, the confusion. Disciples bickering with one another. Followers struggling to make sense of the parables Jesus tells. And then the moments when anyone standing nearby can see God at work in the disciples—God through them casting out demons, curing the sick, serving the hungry; God through them teaching another way of living and being in the world. The moments of sheer terror and the moments of awe that come with a life of discipleship.
“Immediately”—it can lead folks to believe that discipleship is straight line way of life, a continual and steady progression into a deeper and deeper relationship with God. That’s not been my experience of discipleship. And I’m sure I’m not alone in this fits and starts discipleship that seems to mark my life. You see it Andrew and Simon and James and John and the others too. Andrew disappears from the scene. James and John squabble about being at God’s right hand. Simon—we know him as Peter—ends up denying Jesus. At the end they all flee. And then they return to the work of their discipleship. All switchbacks on the trail.
And still I wonder—I wonder if there’s not something to that word “immediately”. That gut-level first response the disciples make. I wonder if we take it not as a one-time-only kind of thing but as a response we make again and again to God’s oft-repeated invitation to come along, to follow on the way.
“Follow me,” Jesus says to us today and every day. This he says to us as individuals and to us gathered here as the Body of Christ. What will be our first response? Where will it take us? The answer’s in the living—the living of our discipleship.
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A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Susan Allison-Hatch
We were sitting at a table in Starbucks. My friend had just come from his wife’s—our good friend’s—hospital bedside. For two weeks, he had been at her side watching her slip away, catching sleep when he could. But that day was different. He had a calmness about him I hadn’t seen before. We talked about the horror he’d been through and how he was coping with it all. In retrospect, I suspect he knew that she was dying. But he didn’t mention that. What he talked about was how he was getting through those horrendous days. That’s where his story joins the story we just heard.
You see, my friend had this deep sense of peace about him, a calm, a fixed point in the storm that was his life in that moment. My friend kept coming back to how he felt grounded in and held by God. I think that’s what happens when you know deep in your bones you’re beloved of God. Everything else seems to fall away. It’s freeing.
Look what happens to Jesus when the heavens are ripped apart and God whispers to him, “You are my son. My beloved. With you I am well pleased.” He’s driven out to the wilderness, tempted by Satan, ministered to by angels. He’s ridiculed by family and rejected by neighbors. Powerful insiders taunt him and plot against him. At the end, even his own disciples flee from him.
And yet Jesus keeps his focus on the work before him—healing the sick, feeding the hungry, giving sight to the blind and proclaiming the good news that God’s reign is at hand. Jesus knows he’s beloved of God and that makes all the difference in the world. He doesn’t have to worry about earning that love or somehow disappointing the One who loves him or falling short in one way or another. He’s loved before he even begins his work. He is; therefore, he is beloved.
That’s true for Jesus and that’s true for me and you. We are; therefore, we are beloved.
I wonder what it would be like if we lived from that place of belovedness. Would we, like my friend, develop a deep peace? Would we, like Jesus, focus on our mission and our ministry?
I wonder if knowing that we are beloved of God just as we are would make it easier for us to delight in ourselves. Do you think we could get a kick out of just being us?
And I wonder how seeing one another as beloved of God would change how we treat one another. Would we be more tender? More patient? More attentive?
How would our expectations of and interactions with one another change if we kept in mind that God is well pleased with us before we do or say a single thing? Would we be more accepting of one another? Would we find it easier to delight in each other? Would we be more likely to show compassion?
One of my seminary friends tells the story of a classmate—a person she found particularly annoying. When she found out she would be rooming with this woman for two weeks, she wondered how she would ever survive. Finally, she turned to a particularly sweet priest who had served a difficult parish for a long time. She asked him how he put up with the difficult ones. He told her, “Whenever I look out at my congregation, I see the beloved children of God.” The way my friend tells it, that shift in perspective made all the difference in the world.
Beloved of God. That’s true of me, that’s true of you and that’s true of all God’s children. How do we live with this knowledge?
In a few moments, we will reaffirm our baptismal vows. They are our response to the love God showers on us. As part of this reaffirmation, I invite you to stop by the baptismal font after receiving communion. Pick up one of the pebbles. Hold it your hand. Let it remind you of God’s love for you. Let it remind you that you are beloved of God. How will you live with this knowledge?