“Stumped”; Isaiah 11:1-10 Embodied; December 8, 2019; Boeuff Presbyterian Church

Time for Wonder*
A Reading of Isaiah 11:1-10 NRSV Embodied [motions in brackets]

[One arm flat, other arm rising beside it]

A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse;
    a branch will sprout from his roots.

[Hands on shoulders for each line]

The Lord’s spirit will rest upon him,
    a spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    a spirit of planning and strength,
    a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.
He will delight in fearing the Lord.

[Cover eyes]

He won’t judge by appearances,

[Cover ears]

nor decide by hearsay.

[Extend hand in offering a hand up]

He will judge the needy with righteousness,
    and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land.

[Open mouth]

He will strike the violent with the rod of his mouth;

[Strong exhale]

    by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.

[Hands on hips]

Righteousness will be the belt around his hips,
    and faithfulness the belt around his waist.

[Form claws and release]

The wolf will live with the lamb,
    and the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
    the calf and the young lion will feed together,

[Gesture as if introducing young child]

    and a little child will lead them.

[Act as if chewing cud]

The cow and the bear will graze.
    Their young will lie down together,
    and a lion will eat straw like an ox.

[move arm like snake]

A nursing child will play over the snake’s hole;
    toddlers will reach right over the serpent’s den.

[Arms form mountain]

They won’t harm or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain.

[Arms form valley]

    The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the Lord,

[Arms make a wave]

    just as the water covers the sea.
A signal to the peoples

[One arm flat, other arm rising beside it]

On that day, the root of Jesse will stand as a signal to the peoples. The nations will seek him out, and his dwelling will be glorious.

“Stumped”
Isaiah 11:1-10
December 8, 2019, Boeuff Presbyterian Church

“A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout from his roots.” These words that we read and acted out today are curious. We’ve all seen stumps, right? Stumps are what’s left when you cut down a tree. Often that tree is cut down because there’s something wrong with it, disease or other forces of nature causing it to no longer be viable.

In the verses just preceding our passage we read that God had been the one to reduce those who have been opposing God’s will to a stump. In Isaiah 10:33-34 we read, “Look, the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low. He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an axe, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.”

So now we have before us a people who have been cut down completely due to going against God’s will for them. The history of this is a bit complicated, but essentially, the military rulers tried to get around what Isaiah had advised by trying to work with the powers that be against a rebellion, which caused societal collapse and ruin.

Those originally hearing this prophecy are still seeking the redemption promised by the branch growing out of the stump. They remain in exile, utterly stumped by their circumstances. Their lives are devoid of peace, both from within and without. They need this promised resurrection of their people’s viability, but struggle to dare to expect what has been promised. What will become of them?

Hope in the midst of seeming hopelessness is a familiar story both in the Bible and in our media, as that variety of redemption is very compelling. Adam and Eve starting over from exile from the Garden of Eden, Noah’s family rising out of the devastation of the flood, Moses’ redirection from a burning bush in the wilderness, and, of course, Christ’s death and resurrection. We are a resurrection people, after all, and operate from knowing that resurrection is on it’s way, whatever the circumstances may be.

But, that is not where these people find themselves yet. They are yearning mightily for the peace forecasted in Isaiah’s prophecy. And it’s important to name that faithfulness within desperation can still look pretty desperate.

 

Yesterday, Calvin and I went to see Frozen 2 in theaters. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, but there’s a scene, as there is in so many heroes’ journeys when it seems like all hope is lost. The song that the main character sings in that time was especially gripping to me because it worked from despair to hope. Anna sings:

“I’ve seen dark before
But not like this
This is cold
This is empty
This is numb
The life I knew is over
The lights are out
Hello, darkness
I’m ready to succumb

…Can there be a day beyond this night?
I don’t know anymore what is true
I can’t find my direction, I’m all alone
The only star that guided me was you
How to rise from the floor
When it’s not you I’m rising for?
Just do the next right thing
Take a step, step again
It is all that I can to do
The next right thing”

When your context is despair, choosing to do the next right thing can be a revolutionary act.

The next right thing. For the despairing Judeans in the face of ruin, it looked like placing hope in the leadership of a new king, a young Hezekiah, who just might have it within himself to turn things around. He is the shoot beside the stump. Isaiah’s hope in what seems hopeless.

A stump is most often the end of the tree. But in our text we hear of a tenacious branch coming up alongside, it’s unexpected, and reflects hope in the midst of hopelessness.

Something else that seems impossible In these verses is the account of animals who are naturally enemies laying down beside one another. Working Preacher, a lectionary website and podcast from Luther seminary, points to how these passages don’t say that the wolf is no longer around the lamb or that the snake is no longer going to be terrifying to the worried parent, but that this peaceable Kingdom, as it is often called, removes the wolves desire to hurt to hurt the lamb and leave the snake to no longer strike in the hands of a child playing near. I can imagine a child being naive to the risk of being around a serpent, but struggle to imagine a lamb choosing to lie down beside a wolf. Achieving the peaceable kingdom causes not only peace, but also  the internal reformation of impulse to see the enemy as an enemy. It is not instinctual.

And so that brings me to us. We live in a world that is not always, or some may say often, peaceable. There are wolves in this world that are far more than mere metaphors. But the hope of peace is that God can transform the motivations and desires of those who seek to harm us as well and at the very same time liberate us from our fear. This does not mean we are to be doormats to those who want to harm us, but that only when we are willing to see the image of God at work in our enemy are we able to begin to work towards true restorative peace.

Peace, our Advent Wreath word of the day, is so much more than a graduation speech platitude or a hand sign thrown out by a surfer. It is borne through the active work of seeking justice. It is seeking the next right thing when at the impasse of misunderstanding and pain.

In 1955, Martin Luther King Jr. responded to an accusation that he was “disturbing the peace” by his activism during the Montgomery Bus Boycott by saying, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.”

Where in our world are we witnessing injustice? How can we do the next right thing, seeking peace right where we are? What is the new life that God is springing up alongside our desperation? May we be agents of God’s peace. Amen.

 

*Time for Wonder is what we do at Boeuff Presbyterian as a time for people of all ages to engage with the scripture/sermon in a more interactive way. In other contexts it is often called “Time with Children” or “Children’s Sermon.”

“A New Song;” Psalm 98:1-9; November 10, 2013; FPC Jesup

“A New Song”
Psalm 98:1-9
November 10, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - EarwormWhat was the last song that you’ve had stuck in your head? There are certain songs, that even if you’ve liked them at one point they repeat in your head and drive you crazy.

Former poet laureate Billy Collins wrote a poem about this earworm phenomenon. He titled it “More Than a Woman,” but has explained in his live readings that you can substitute the title with any song that is affecting you in this way. Here’s an excerpt from that poem:

“Ever since I woke up today,
a song has been playing uncontrollably
in my head–a tape looping

over the spools of the brain,
a rosary in the hands of a frenetic nun,
mad fan belt of a tune.

It must have escaped from the radio
last night on the drive home
and tunneled while I slept

from my ears to the center of my cortex.
It is a song so cloying and vapid
I won’t even bother mentioning the title,

but on it plays as if I were a turntable
covered with dancing children
and their spooky pantomimes,

as if everything I had ever learned
was slowly being replaced
by its slinky chords and the puff-balls of its lyrics.”[1]

SLIDE 4 - Headache“What are the old songs in our lives? What are the songs that play like a tape looping, or a mad fan belt? What are the litanies we tell ourselves? Those persistent phrases that have taken root in our brains. Perhaps it’s “I’m not good enough,” “I’m not good enough.” Or “if only I were thinner I’d be happy,” “if only I were thinner I’d be happy.” Or “the bullies are right,” “the bullies are right.”

Each of these things lodges in our brains and holds us captive with negativity. But there are other old songs as well that we may hear in our minds that don’t come from a bad place, but still can keep us stuck. Maybe that song for you is “I like things the way they are,” “I like things the way they are.” Or “Someone else should make the change,” “someone else should make the change.”

Even thoughts rooted in an original kernel of truth or those that stem from contentment can hold us captive if we refuse to listen to any new voices, any new thoughts, any new songs.

SLIDE 5 - HandcuffsOur Psalm today calls us out of these endlessly looping songs and the patterns in our lives that keep us in captivity.

Many scholars believe that Psalm 98 and the Psalms surrounding them were written during the Babylonian captivity. This is recounted later on in Psalm 137: 1-3, “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.  On the willows there we hung up our lyres.  For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’”SLIDE 6 - Willow

In their exile the people were commanded to sing the songs of Zion, to sing the songs of the lives before their captivity. This constant remembering of the way things were kept them trapped by their memories, and unable to move forward even in their own minds. In Psalm 98 they were called by the Psalmist to sing “new songs.” The people were in exile and sang the old songs, but since they were no longer a reflection of their reality it just led to discontentment and unrest. The Psalmist calls them out of this former life and their current experience and into the much larger reality of God’s abundance.

When will they stop singing these songs? When will they embrace god’s steadfastness?

SLIDE 7 - InstrumentsThe Psalmist writes, “O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things… Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises. Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD.” (Psalm 98:1a,4-6)

SLIDE 8 - EarwormJames Kellaris, a marketing professor at the University of Cincinnati has studied the experience of getting songs stuck in our heads and has even been credited with coining the term “earworm.” In his research he writes about the “phonological loop,” which is a short-term memory system in the auditory cortex, or part of our brain the processes sound. When a song or phrase enters into this “phonological loop,” it creates what Kellaris calls a “cognitive itch.”[2] One of the ways they suggest to get this “itch” out of our brains is to listen to new songs that will crowd out the old.

And so, I’d like you to think about the last song you’ve heard that has help you think differently about your experience of God? That has helped you to break out of the old loops in your brain. While some of these songs might be Psalms, hymns, or songs on Christian radio, I know one that has made me think differently is  P!nk’s “Just Give Me a Reason.” Particularly in this line: “We’re not broken just bent and we can learn to love again

What a great image of the human condition of sinfulness. Like the captives in Babylon, our songs and old patterns of thought may make us feel lost when they no longer reflect our reality. We can indeed learn to love again, learn a new way of living.

So it’s important to think about this, “are we singing like captives?” Not captives in the most literal sense as the people in the Babylonian exile, but rather captives to old patterns and to our sin.

SLIDE 10 - JesusGod’s own son, Jesus came to earth, lived a sinless life, and died on the cross so that we may be forgiven of our sins. We are no longer captives to the sin. We are forgiven people, why are we still wallowing in our sin?”

What songs do you let take root in your brain and in your life?

When we become Christians we learn the Gospel song, the song about Jesus’ love and desire for goodness in our lives. This song about God’s mercy and the grace we can never earn. This is the new song we are to sing. This Gospel song is what we should sing to bring God’s grace and truth to them who need to hear; for all who needs the forgiveness and salvation Christ offers, which is everyone.

If we embrace the truth of this song we will be swept up into God’s great love for us, a love that leaves no room for self-abuse or for any actions that would keep others away from this Gospel message.  May we never cease to sing this ever-new song of God’s great love for us demonstrated through Jesus Christ. Amen.

“The Welfare of the City;” Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; October 13, 2013; FPC Jesup

“The Welfare of the City”
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
October 13, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01When I hear this last verse in our passage in Jeremiah, “seek the welfare of the city” I am reminded of a place in Richmond, VA that I visited several times while in seminary there. This place is called Richmond Hill, and as you might imagine it is situated on the top of a hill that overlooks the city. It’s a retreat center that has some members living in intentional community and every day they take time to pray for the city. What I found most helpful about these prayers is that they are direct, praying for specific groups in the city.

Slide02Every day they pray for the healing of Richmond, for the sick, for the welfare of all, and for the establishment of God’s order in the community. On each day of the week, they add additional prayers.

On Mondays their prayers are focused on city government, nonprofits, schools, and all who suffer from addictions.

On Tuesdays they pray for print and broadcast media, the churches of Richmond, all who live in poverty, and all who suffer from mental illness.

Wednesdays they pray for the state government, service businesses, construction workers, all in healthcare, victims and perpetrators of crime, and all senior citizens.

On Thursdays they pray for surrounding towns and their governments, all who work in finance, prisoners and prison staff, all unemployed or underemployed, and all public servants.

Fridays they pray for manufacturers, for police, fire, and rescue workers, the courts, all young people, and all who hurt, need inner healing, or are unable to love.

I do believe that Richmond is a different place because of their prayers. I know when I heard that they were praying for the work and studies of our seminary I felt a certain presence of care. When they were praying for those I might forget about I was made to remember them too.

Slide03As a small child saying family prayers I liked to go last because after my parents and sisters listed those they would pray for, I would add “and everybody else.” I didn’t mean this as disingenuous, just knew there was no way of covering everyone. However, when you take the time to think about specific groups and specific people and organizations by name, I do believe it makes it a bit more authentic, more connected, which is what happens in the prayers of Richmond Hill.

SLIDE 4 - Seek the WelfareWhen I usually think of a “retreat” center I think about a place where you become disconnected from worldly concerns and where you seek one on one time with God. But this retreat center is very different. It calls for more engagement with the city than less. It invites people to engage with the world around them, silencing their own personal concerns for the sake of the greater community. It calls them to be more in the world so that one might understand God’s desires for the city.

Slide05Yesterday I had the opportunity to serve the presbytery on the Ministry and Mission Committee in our yearly consultations with those receiving grants from the Presbytery for the missions of their congregation. It was an impactful morning, hearing how each church is channeling their passions towards the needs of their communities.

Slide06The Presbyterian Church of Grand Junction, a church about half our size, shared how they’ve been able to welcome children of the community into the church, growing their Sunday School and Vacation Bible school to over 50 students by providing transportation and breakfast for children of the community.

SLIDE 7 - ClarionMembers from Clarion Presbyterian shared about their ministry to the Hispanic Community of their area. This ministry allows children and adults of this community to learn English, providing meals and childcare for these students so that they may be fully present to learn.

Slide08A member from Westminster Waterloo talked about their ministry to provide wheelchair ramps for those in need, speaking about how every ramp has a story, each individual to the need and to the availability of resources.

As each one of these members of our presbytery stood in front of the gathered assembly of committee members and others who were there requesting funds, it was exciting to see how their eyes lit up with excitement for the ministry of their church. Each one of these missions meets a need of the community with a passion of their congregation.

Slide10This is what seeking the welfare of the city looks like. It is about being open to what is needed in your immediate neighborhood. It is about thinking creatively to solve the problems that you see with the resources that you have, and even seeking outside your own resources to make a way for God’s work to be done.

As our scripture tells us, by seeking the welfare of the city, you are securing your own welfare. You are a part of this community, and by seeking to strengthen those who are in need in the community you are securing a future for all of us.

Following our passage in Jeremiah 29:11, we read: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” This is often quoted as a motivational passage, a way to find peace in God’s awareness and desire for good in our lives. But do we really understand what is meant by this passage? Especially in our American context it’s easy to skew this heavenly design as a balm for our individualistic concerns.  However when read in the Hebrew, we read that the “you” at the end of “surely I know the plans for you” is plural. It is not a plan for a singular person but for all of us.

My first class in seminary was Biblical Hebrew, or Baby Hebrew as our professor Carson Brisson called it. And in it we learned the importance of the point of view of a word. In English our plural second person and singular second words are often interchangeable. Saying you is ambiguous. My Hebrew professor, originally from North Carolina helped clarify this by referring to the plural second person as “y’all.” As a born and raised Midwesterner at first I found this quite off putting and strange, but as we unraveled bits and pieces of this beautiful and complicated language I was grateful for the “y’alls” that truly did give a bit more insight into who it was exactly that were called, charged, and oftentimes reprimanded by God in the Hebrew Bible.

SLIDE 12 - JamesHowellIn my preparation for this sermon this week I came across the words of another southern pastor, Methodist James Howell. He writes, “In the South, God would say “the plans I have for y’all.”  The future, the hope God gives “you” (“y’all”) is for a crowd, it’s for the community, it’s for the nation.  God called Jeremiah to speak God’s Word, not to this man or woman or just to you or me, but to the nation of Israel during its most perilous time in history.  God’s plan is for the people, one plan, not a thousand plans for a thousand individuals…So who is the “y’all” God has plans for now? … Could it be the Church?  Aren’t we the “y’all” God promises to use for good?  God is not through with the Church, the coalesced body of believers who, by the grace of God, never lose their destined role for the sake of the world.  God has plans for the Church; Church is about being God’s instrument, not whether it suits me or entertains me.  I never go solo with God; my life in God’s plan is interwoven with others in God’s “y’all.”  I do not therefore lose my individuality, but I finally discover it when I find my proper place in the Body of Christ. I don’t even want to believe alone; I want to believe with y’all.  I need y’all. “[1]

Slide13These plans that God have for us are not for us to be in isolation, but to be connected to the greater fabric of the community. While those who were in exile from Jerusalem to Babylon might’ve considered that their time in Babylon was only a temporary arrangement God is clear that it is not their position to decide, and in fact that they should settle down for at least three generations. That’s longer than most receiving this message will be alive. In a way, that takes the pressure off of that original audience. They are not called to change the world, they are called to live their lives, to take root in the community, and live fruitful lives. Part of seeking the welfare of our city is acknowledging that we are a part of something so much bigger than our own bodies and our own lifetimes.

SLIDE 14 - Reinhold NiebuhrReinhold Niebuhr once said, “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own; therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”

How will God save you from your own plans? Jeremiah calls this community to hope in an escape from exile, but could that perhaps be worked out by making the foreign into home? By transforming the stranger into family? If we think God’s plans working out means things go according to our plans we’re going to disappointed, and miss out on all the good plans that God has already set in motion. God’s plans are far beyond what we can imagine or understand. If we are so busy trying to limit this grand design into our own narrow view we miss out on the beautiful landscape of God’s great plan.

Slide15While God is working this plan out in, through, and beyond us, what are we to do in the meantime? We’re called to seek the welfare of the city, see the hope and promise in exactly where we are and what we are doing. May you find such peace by securing peace for another. Amen.


[1] “God Has Plans for You,” The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell, UMC; Myers Park United Methodist Church, Charlotte, NC; http://day1.org/5226-god_has_plans_for_you