Guest Preachers: Rev. Dave & Rev. Beth Long-Higgins
Isaiah 58 (Testify, week 4)
This morning we continue to explore the statement of faith of the United Church of Christ. As Pastor Beth has reminded us over the past several weeks, this is not a list of doctrines; it’s a story. It’s even organized and written in story language with God as the main character.
This statement is not a fence that defines our boundaries; it’s the campfire that lights our center. This statement articulates the beliefs most commonly held among us. Some folks huddle right up close to the light and the heat and some folks are comfortable standing a bit further off. And that’s OK. Because this statement is designed to be a center and not a boundary, there’s a lot that it doesn’t say. This statement leaves a whole lot of room for interpretation.
So before we get into it, we just want to remind you that is a good thing. If we wanted to make a narrow list of things you have to accept in order to be right or in or good or saved, we could do that. Others have. But that’s not what we are trying to do. We aren’t trying to figure out who is in and who is out.
We are trying to tell a logically consistent and life-giving version of the Christian story that allows each individual the space to listen to the Holy Spirit and discern their own particular convictions about the specifics of that story and discover God’s alive presence of love working transformation in more ways than can ever be named.
So here we go.
The statement begins: We believe in God, the Eternal Spirit, who is made known to us in Jesus our brother, and to whose deeds we testify: And then we have seven sections about what those deeds of God are. What is God doing? Notice they are all written in the present active tense.
First, God calls the worlds into being, creates humankind in the divine image, and sets before us the ways of life and death. Rev. Marshall Cook shared with us about that the week before last.
Last week, Pastor Beth helped us consider the second sentence. God seeks in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin.
This week we consider the next piece: God judges humanity and all nations by that will of righteousness declared through prophets and apostles.
There is another way to hear this we’d like to share, it is in the doxological form – that is as a prayer. It goes this way: You judge people and nations by Your righteous will declared through prophets and apostles.
There is a lot to unpack here. We are going to begin with an odd confession of sorts as a way into this part of the statement. Our confession is that we are Olympic-aholics. That is we love to watch the Olympics. We love the stories behind the athletes- I remember the stories better than who won the medals when it is all said and done.
We really love the unexpected, come from behind, victories that no one saw coming. If you’ve been watching you likely saw Lydia Jacoby, aged 17 from Alaksa win the 100 m breastroke, besting the Olympic champion who was also in the race.
You may have noticed that there are actually different kinds of events at the Olympics. And by that we don’t just mean different sports. There are sports that are based on measures of length, and speed and weight – or as in the language of the olympic motto – higher, faster, stronger.
In those events the rubric for winning is fairly clear. You get there first, you lift more than anyone else, you jump farther, your aim is better.
But then there are other events for which the criteria for victory is differently defined. In these events, there is no less need for training or physical strength. But there is an added element. It is the element of form. There is a described ideal against which the athlete or team of athletes is judged in their performance.
We see this in sports like synchronized swimming, diving, and one of our favorites, gymnastics. Here it is not strength alone, but how that strength is used that determines who gets to step onto the podium. And finally, it is the panel of judges who make this determination.
This judgement renders the decision about who has competed with the best form on a particular day. Years of training lead up to the day of decision. If you have been watching the Olympics at all or even the news you know of both the surprise and the disappointment and anguish of all of this.
You may likely have heard about this anguish expressed through Olympic champion Simone Biles experience in this current Olympics. Expected to perform at a super-human level with nerves of steel, she has been experiencing something other gymnasts know well. It is called the twisties.
In her own words, Biles, who appeared to become disorientated while performing a vault Tuesday before she stumbled on her dismount, said she had “no idea” how she landed on her feet.
“If you look at the pictures and my eyes, you can see how confused I am as to where I am in the air,” She said she “literally can not tell up from down,” which meant she had no idea how she was going to land or what part of her body she was going to land on. “It’s the craziest feeling ever,” she added.
Getting rid of them “varies with time”.
They had lasted for about two or more weeks in the past, she said, adding that they had “never transferred to the bars and beam before for me,” but this time it had affected her for every event.
Of course, you don’t have to be a gymnast to get the “twisties”. Life will do that to you. Sometimes the twisties will arise because of stuff that just happens. At other times they will come at you because of distraction or disorientation or demoralization. And figuring out up from down can seem not all that clear.
Sometimes the twisties will be visited on others because of the words we use and the actions we do in the world~ both knowingly and unknowingly. It can become easy to feel unanchored – especially when we realize our most prepared state seems not be enough or is out of synch. The last thing in the world, it would seem that any of us would want, is judgement.
But there in the statement of faith is that phrase, “you judge people and nations by your righteous will, declared through prophets and apostles.” Where is the good news in this?
Like the other sections of the statement of faith this one needs some unpacking. First, an affirmation. God has a will for us. It is righteous. That is, God desires what is best for our full flourishing. And not the just the flourishing of us as individuals, but as communities large and small and the whole creation.
Unlike the scoring of an Olympic judge, God has no use for rating us as compared to others to determine the best—fastest, strongest, highest. Instead, God’s “judgement” says more about God’s relationship with us.
The prophet Isaiah reminds us of this in chapter 11 of the prophet Isaiah, often called a description of the Peaceable Kingdom, ‘with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”
Here the prophet reframes the word judgement in terms of “deciding for” in order that flourishing may more and more grow in the experience of the world. Here we are reminded that God not only has a righteous will but that righteousness always bends toward a concern for those who are hurting and challenges all who are contributing to the hurt. We are reminded of the righteous arc of the universe which bends toward justice—God’s desire to decide.
In Isaiah 58 this same the definition of God’s righteousness gets even more clear:
They ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and (God) will say, Here I am.
Do you see what the prophet is declaring here? God’s will, God’s deepest desire is the untwisting of everything that has turned the world upside down or knocked it off balance or which prevents full flourishing for all people.
God’s judgement, is always a decision for us and for our good, especially when the world would try to assert that higher, faster, stronger is the only mantra worthy of our attention, our commitment, and our time.
God’s righteousness is the power of self-giving love, a heart of mercy, and a call to a burning compassion for others which has the power to heal every brokenness and mend the world.
And what do the twisties look like outside the world of gymnastics? It looks like a church that says no, the ground is not set on a stone tablet that insists you can only love a certain group of people. God’s judgement says love is love.
And the twisties feel like the uncertainty of knowing how to act and what to do when faced with the reality that a virus does not fit the patterns of human logic. And so we mask. Then we vaccinate. Then we mask again. The ground in this time is not set by human logic, but by God’s desire for all lives to flourish— so we keep adjusting our behavior for the public good.
Or the twisties in our world are when we change allegiances from one name to another. Last week the baseball team that holds so many childhood memories that include my father changed it’s name. One text chain with family members decried last Sunday morning that “no one we’ve talked to likes the new name!”. The ground of our being is not based on our nostalgia or the likes of the people we personally know. The reality is that the United Church of Christ had been a front-line proponent with Native American groups and nations that the Cleveland baseball team remove the name “Indians” from their branding 30 years ago. God’s desire to decide is based on how our actions and words affect the vulnerable and abused. My family will come to own Guardian clothing eventually. But more importantly, the children of Native American heritage living in Cleveland and around the country will no longer look at the denigrated image of the former mascot and think “I am a fool, a nobody”. The harm that we do when we perpetuate negative images based on race and ethnicity is a cycle that needs more untwisting in our lives for us to understand the right relationship and orientation between the earth and the sky.
And today, as millions of people know that they may be receiving eviction notices this coming week, their lives are full of the twists and turns of potential homelessness. This is just one more example of how our systems have been built around rules of fastest, strongest, richest. Other western countries decided long ago that putting systems in place to ensure that everyone has a place to lay their head is the foundation upon which everything else builds. And we remember that God judges even our nation—all nations. How can we catapult God’s righteousness into a world such as this which is so twisted and out of balance for so many?
Friends, Simone Biles is not the only person in need of stepping back because the twisties are keeping her from performing her best. And perhaps that is the real lesson and example here. We all need to pause and reorient ourselves to God’s righteousness. We need to see and hear from those who are vulnerable. We need to listen to the lessons of those who have gone before. And that is why we gather together on a weekly basis in worship as a community gathered at God’s table.
And so, today, as we gather around the communion table near and far, we remember that already God is at work re-ordering or untwisting the world. God is inviting us again to say “yes” to a gift not of our making, but through which we are remade, a life untwisted and set free for others. God invites each one of us individually, and together, all of us, to know and examine in our own lives what feels off balance and then to orient ourselves to the grounding of God’s love. And then, when we claim our need to pause in order to prevent injury of ourselves or others, we are reminded that God has already decided to be there with us giving us the courage to see anew the relationship of earth and sky and our place in between.
We know this because this is the very relationship which God has had with the prophets and apostles, our foremothers and fathers, who have gone before us and especially Jesus. The testimony of their lives is not meant to be a yardstick to see if we measure up, but companion stories to encourage and ground us for life’s race which is before us.
So, come friends, let us celebrate this gift God offers in communion.