"URGENCY" - Luke 12:49-56; Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

A Sermon by Alex W. Evans, Pastor

Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA

From Sunday, August 11, 2019

Texts: Luke 12:49-56; Isaiah 1:1, 10-20


            James Ryan is the President of UVA. Prior to coming to Charlottesville to lead Thomas Jefferson’s institution, Ryan was Dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

            James Ryan wrote the book about Richmond – Five Miles Away, A World Apart – about the disparity in education in our city. Ryan has recently written another good book – a helpful book for all of us – whether we love UVA, or VT, or UNC, or Duke. The book is entitled, Wait, What? It is a book about life’s essential questions and how to get the most out of life. Ryan says, it is not the answers that really matter; it is . . . . the questions. And he says that there are really five essential questions that you should ask yourself and others on a daily basis. And the first question is “Wait, what?” You can get the book and discover the other four questions on your own – I recommend it. It is short book, easy to read, and full of helpful, encouraging insights.

            In the introduction to the book, Ryan tells a story on himself. He was 11 years old and playing in his backyard with his good friend. The two boys had a magnifying glass and a leaf. They were – you know the experiment – trying to ignite a leaf by magnifying the sun’s rays on the leaf. This experiment was not working too well so they decided “to douse some leaves in gasoline. Turns out that worked really well – so well, in fact, that a fairly large blaze erupted in my backyard,” he says. “My friend and I eventually managed to put the fire out, but not before I singed both my eyebrows.”

            Ryan continues the story: “Later that night, when my parents asked if I had any idea why there was a large black patch of burnt grass in our backyard, I pretended to be as surprised as they were.”

            “That’s odd,” my dad said.

            When Ryan asked his dad why he thought it was odd, he replied, “Because I am pretty sure you started the day with eyebrows.” Ha!

            Parents are so much smarter than we realize when we are kids.

            But, gracefully, Ryan’s father did not press the issue. However, as a good Catholic boy, Ryan first confessed this burned backyard to a priest – I think it may have been in his first confession with a priest. He said that talking about a big fire in his backyard “was a pretty big sin to talk about right out of the gate.” Ryan says, it was “really two sins – lighting the fire, and then, as politicians sometimes say, ‘mis-remembering’ that he had done so when asked by his parents.” (see Ryan, What, Wait?, Introduction)

            So Ryan says he asked the priest what happens if you do not confess all your sins. And the priest told him – well, “that too, would be a sin. A sin of omission.” The sin of omission is “failing to do something you ought to do.” The priest said: “That is just as bad – just as much a sin – as intentionally doing something wrong.” Sin of omission.

            So, for a quick review of theology and terms: Sin is officially ‘missing the mark’ of what God intends for our lives. That could be anything – big or small – that deviates from what God would have us do.

When we confess our sins, God, who is loving, faithful and just, forgives us. That is the promise of the gospel. And we participate in this “confession” liturgy each week. Life with God is a constant turning from what we have done, and what we have failed to do as God people, and living in the new life God gives us through grace.

There are basically two kinds of sin – the sin of commission – when we do things that disappoint God. And there are the sins of omission – when we fail to do what God would have us do.

            So we often pray – in some form or another – forgive us, God, for what we have done; and forgive us, Lord, for what we have left undone.

            We do this, confess and pray, not to feel berated, or belittled, or to wallow in our failings. We do this for a fuller, more honest, more grace filled life with God. We are always seeking to move away from our failings to a generous life of trusting God and serving God’s purposes.

            Now we listen to our second lesson for today. It comes from Isaiah the prophet, chapter 1. And pay special attention to what might be called “omission” – that which the people had not done. Isaiah 1:

The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

10Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! 11What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. 12When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; 13bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.14Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. 15When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

16Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.18Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. 19If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; 20but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

            In Isaiah 1:1, we get the “who, what, and the when,” that we are always looking for. Isaiah, perhaps the most prominent prophet in the Bible, comes on the scene with an important mission from God. This will be a “vision” – meaning a message, not from the person, but from God – and it comes to a particular person, Isaiah (the who). Isaiah will speak God’s words, convey God’s messages, direct God’s people – “concerning Judah and Jerusalem,” (that is the “what.”) And all this takes place in the days of 4 specific kings – real time in real history – from 745-727 BC. So that is the who, what, and when.

            Then, as Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it, Isaiah the prophet reminds us in the very first chapter – and in every chapter - that life and history, circumstances and events, never operate in a vacuum. Life and history, circumstances and events, always relate to God. Everything in life relates to God, to God’s purposes and plans. God is one to be reckoned with. God, and God’s ways, matter. This is always the case – for the people of Israel – and for God’s people in all times.

            And here is how I want to summarize what Isaiah says in this passage – it is all about the sins of omission!

            What are the people actually doing? They are bringing “sacrifices” to God by the multitude. They are burning rams and other well fed beasts, trying to delight God. They are celebrating with cultic festivals. They are performing rituals – worship and prayers, stretching out their hands, and probably even singing.

            What does God say? I have had enough of this! I cannot endure you and your festivals and prayers any longer. “Trample my courts no more! . . . incense is an abomination to me. .  . Your appointed festivals my soul hates. . . . I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.”

            Why does God say this? Why is God so disgusted with God’s people? Because of what they are NOT DOING – sins of omission. The people – according to what follows – are NOT practicing justice, they are NOT living with kindness, they are NOT tending to the oppressed, or caring about the orphan, or pleading for the widow.” The things that God really cares about are being ignored, avoided, minimized.  The people are so caught up in festivals and activities, in worship and prayers, in singing and lifting their arms. . . . . And God is angry!

            Put another way – Isaiah reminds the people – and Jesus does the same - that we find blessedness with God, NOT in cultic prayers, NOT in rituals and showy activities, NOT in offerings and incense. We delight God when we “remove the evil of our doings,” when we “learn to do good,” when we “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow.”  All these things are NOT being done and they should be done – sins of omission.

            Do you think this prophet’s word applies to our lives, today?

I saw a simple quote this week: we had 13 people hospitalized from e. coli caused by romaine lettuce and it was pulled from the shelves across the country. We have had 38,000 deaths from gun violence in a single year, and we have done nothing. Sin of omission.

Or, go to the store and ask for 2 boxes of Sudafed for your cold. By law, you can only but 1 box of Sudafed, the clerk will say. Ok, say you want 1 box, and also 7 assault style rifles, because that would be legal.

            We have had so many people killed in public places – innocent people, children, older adults, students, shoppers, concert goers, worshippers, diners – and we see no changes in our divided, violent culture of guns. Sin of omission.

            Rachel Held Evans, a dynamic voice for faithful Christianity, who died recently from complications from the flu, said that Americans have pledged fidelity to the “unholy trinity of patriarchy, white supremacy, and religious nationalism.” She said we must repent of the ways these unholy allegiances have led us to worship guns and the supposed ideal for which they stand. White Christians especially must repent of the ways we have stood by silently, abetting the suffering of our siblings of color under this unholy trinity. Sin of omission. (see M. Smerko, “Red Letter Christians” blog August 7, 2019)

            Here is another comment: News stories about mass shootings always follow the same template: 1) initial confusion about what happened; 2) onsite interviews with those who escaped the scene; 3) a press conference by police chief and mayor; 4) calls for greater gun control from (some politicians); 5) calls for thoughts and prayers from other politicians; 7) a tweet by the President; 8) then we move on.

Nothing changes, . . . . except people buy more guns. (T. Reese, “Red Letter Christians” blog – August 5, 2019)  Sin of omission.

            This week, with the mass shootings on our hearts and minds, and the turmoil of our culture, it is easy to connect what Isaiah says with our lives. Isaiah warns us to watch our worship and our actions and to always ask, always assess – what matters most to God? What does God call us to be about? What does it mean to be God’s people? God cares about how we live – blessedness with God is not mostly found in our rituals. Blessedness with God is found in our actions for justice. Blessedness with God is found in how we love the stranger, care for the widow, support the orphan, and assist the weak. And I would add – blessedness with God is found in actions that help us rid our culture of assault weapons.

            All of this is really not about the Second Amendment. It is about the Second Commandment – “you shall not make for yourselves an idol;” you shall not bow down and worship idols.” We are the only culture in the world so addicted to our guns, even assault weapons.

            Do you think Isaiah would have a word of God for us?

            You can see the word for the day – for this sermon - URGENCY.

            We have some harsh words from Jesus today too – rooted in URGENCY. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s pleasure to give you the kingdom. . . .Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  He urges us to be “dressed,” be attentive, be ready, be expectant.

            Where is our treasure? Is there any URGENCY?

            In talking about this Jesus passage, commentator Fred Craddock uses the word “Crisis.” “Crisis” does not mean emergency – though we feel close to emergency. “Crisis” means that moment, that occasion for truth and decisions about life. This is what Jesus is urging in this passage: we have to decide which way we are going to go – like a gable on a house that determines which side the rain water falls, like a fork in the road which means one way or another. You probably have heard that the Chinese character for crisis means two things: danger and opportunity. This is the essence of Jesus’ message here. This is the essence of Isaiah’s message here – there is an URGENCY about choices. Will it be for life and faithfulness, or despair and death? Will it be for blessedness, or for continued frustration and disappointment with God, and even death?

            Listen. God has turned toward us. Which way will be turn? God promises never to leave us. Which way are we going to live? These days are calling for our faithfulness, our actions, our advocacy, our calls and other efforts to help make this a safer, more wholesome, more hopeful world. These things matter. God matters. God, and God’s purposes, are always woven into our lives – or at least they are meant to be. How shall we live? What shall we do? We have so much work to do.

            One of the greatest pieces of this passage from the prophet, this harsh call to action, is how this dramatic call moves toward grace and hope. Isaiah says, “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. 19If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; 20but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

            We always have a chance with God. Even in the harsh and angry words that Isaiah speaks, there is grace. However, grace demands faith and commitments toward the Kingdom of God. We cannot say we follow Jesus and simply sing and pray, worship, and go through rituals. We cannot say we are part of God’s purposes without speaking up, and even acting up, on the destructive issues of our times – like assault weapons, and racism, and other issues that threaten God’s plans. There is an URGENCY about faith, an URGENCY that calls forth our lives, our gifts, our actions for justice, for life, for hope, for the Kingdom of God.

            Here is how one theologian put it recently: Our expectation of the kingdom cannot be a passive waiting, a sweet, soft occupation with ourselves and our like-minded friends. No, if we truly expect God’s kingdom, we will be filled with divine power. Then the social justice of the future – with its purity of heart and divine fellowship – will be realized now, wherever Jesus himself is present. Our belief in the future must bring change to the present! The spirit of expectation is the spirit of action because it is the spirit of faith. Faith is bravery. Faith is reality. If we have faith, even only a small seed, we cannot regard anything as impossible. (Eberhard Arnold, Daily Dig, 8/8/19)  

May it be so! AMEN! 

Prayer of Commitment: Holy God – show us the way – the way of Jesus, the way to life, especially in these days. Amen

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on August 11, 2019. This is a rough manuscript.

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