The Stone was Rolled Away

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.
Matthew 28:1-10

When I read the Easter story from Matthew for the first time this year, I began to laugh. “The angel of The Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone. And then, he sat on it.” He took at seat. Can you see him? This angel in clothing as bright as the first winter’s snow. He rolls up a stone, as if he’s pulling up a chair. I imagine him people watching on a stone park bench or kicking his legs back and forth, like a child sitting in a chair where their feet can’t touch the ground. This spectacular, miraculous, unexplainable thing has just happened! And he casually takes a seat, waiting for those who might have some questions to ask him.

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary are there. Unlike the other disciples, fear of their own fate didn’t keep them from going to see the tomb. They went to see the tomb, see the stone rolled in front, the sign that sealed the fate of their dead Lord.

Instead of finding the sealed tomb, they find the stone has been moved, now serving as garden bench for this majestic angel. “Do not be afraid,” they angel pleads with them from his perch. “I know that you are looking for Jesus. But he is not here. He has been raised! Come and see the place where he lay.”

Mary and Mary came to see the tomb, to see the signs of death. Instead, the angel invites them to see the place where Jesus used to lay, to see the graveclothes, to see that the marks of death have been removed. When Mary and Mary ran to tell the disciples and bumped into Jesus, like the angel, he said to the women, “Do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid.” In many ways, these words sum up the whole of the gospel message. Because Jesus has been raised, we do not have to be afraid. It’s doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be afraid of. What is means is that when we experience fear, we do with the empty tomb in front of us, in front of the stone that was rolled away. The powers of death and all of their sidekicks—fear, shame, insecurity, loneliness, guilt, sickness, and self-doubt—Jesus has conquered all of them!

God invites us on this Easter Sunday to come and see that the stone has been rolled away. The graveclothes that wrapped Jesus body are stacked neatly where they belong. The seal of death is gone. Where some of us see little hope for a future different than the one in front of us, we see the stone that was rolled away. When the burdens of making it through a single day make us feel overwhelmed and hopeless, we see the stone that was rolled away. At times when others face unemployment and the fear of how to manage, we see the stone that was rolled away. When some of us wonder if our family relationships with ever be what we hope for, we see the stone that was rolled away. In the overwhelming transitions of life from aging parents, changing bodies, growing children and the attitudes that accompany them, we see the stone that was rolled away. When some of us face insecurity in the workplace, impostor syndrome, the shaming lie of the “I’m not good enough,” we see the stone that was rolled away. When we find ourselves asking, how long, oh Lord, we see the stone that was rolled away. If we wonder what’s next with little peace about the future, we see the stone that was rolled away. What about when we can’t see? What happens when we can’t see the stone? When our eyes are blinded by the trappings of death, by the graveclothes wrapped around our faces that keep our eyes from seeing the stone, we help one another strip away the powers of death and all of death’s sidekicks, so that we can all see the stone that was rolled away.

This is the foolishness of the gospel! Jesus, our Lord and Savior, was tried as a criminal and died a death reserved for fools, crucified on a cross. But after three days, God showed death who the real fool is, raising Jesus, the one whom death could not conquer. This is the foolishness of the gospel! An angel transforms this seal of death, this tombstone, into a stone pulpit for proclaiming the good news: He is not here! He is Risen!

A Look Back at the Past Year

During our month of Community Discernment in January, we took the time to practice remembrance. Looking back over the year, we reflected on what we’ve been up to, what changes we’ve made, and what has been keeping Pastor Megan busy!

At Refuge, Pastor Megan engages in ministry by…
-planning worship services
-preaching weekly and planning sermon series, including Vulnerability, Lent in Luke, Easter in Acts, The Summer of Sacraments, Prayer with Richard Rohr, The Prophets: Young and Old, and Becoming Fools with 1 Corinthians
-supporting congregants through prayer and visitation
-mentoring a teenager
-developing the website with Kristen and writing for the discussion page
-organizing and preaching at worship services at Butner Federal Prison
-researching/organizing/leading the Circle of Support with Genesis Home
-developing our children’s formation on Sundays
-leading Support Team meetings
-heading up Refuge communication (i.e. weekly email/website)

Pastor Megan believes that faithfulness to God’s call to the pastoral office extends beyond the life and ministry of the church and into the larger Durham community. She is challenged and encouraged by John Wesley’s famous statement, “The world is my parish.” Pastor Megan ministers outside of Refuge in the community by…
-visiting the sick/hospitalized
-being a pastoral presence
-guest preaching on Sunday mornings
-counseling a staff member at a local crisis center
-providing pastoral counseling for other community members
-advocating for and being with those who are suffering from homelessness
-attending vigils for murdered victims and the Monthly Community Roundtable lunch with Religious Coalition for Nonviolent Durham
-Serving on the Clergy Steering Committee at Durham Crisis Response Center and helping to organize a vigil for domestic violence victims
-Serving on the Anathoth Community Garden Board of Directors
-Serving on the committee for Duke Veterans
-mentoring a Divinity student (and meeting with others who seek support)
-precepting for Introduction to Preaching at Duke Divinity School
-becoming educated about the needs and challenges facing the poor and marginalized in our community and the resources available to address such needs and challenges

Looking forward, we pray that God would continue to form us into people that have the eyes, ears, and voices to see, hear, and speak for the oppressed, poor, and marginalized.

You Belong.

During the month of February at Refuge, we read from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth.
The apostle Paul, a missionary, planted a church in Corinth when he first went to share
the good news about Jesus to the people living there. He started a church that met in people’s
homes. (And to think, people think we’re a “non-traditional” church.) Before long, the church grew in number as the Corinthian people shared Christ with their neighbors. In fact, it grew so much, there were enough people to have some differences of opinion. (In church? Never.) Leaders rose up from among these new believers, making it easy for the church to divide themselves up into groups, based on what they believed or how they believed they should live life with Christ.

Paul, even though he’s not living in Corinth, hears about the conflict and division in the church there. He hears that leaders have surfaced and that some are following the leader Apollos and some
Cephas and some say they are still following Paul, even though he’s not around. Paul feels a
sense of responsibility for the church in Corinth and longs for them to be united as the people of
God, people who belong to Christ! So, he writes a letter to them with the hopes that this letter
will help remind them of who they are—not a divided people, not a people belonging to worldly
groups, but a people who belong to God.

1 Corinthians 3:16-23
18 Don’t fool yourself. If some of you think they are worldly-wise, then they should become
foolish so that they can become wise. 19 This world’s wisdom is foolishness to God. As it’s
written, He catches the wise in their cleverness. 20 And also, The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are silly. 21 So then, no one should brag about human beings. Everything belongs to you—
22 Paul, Apollos, Cephas, the world, life, death, things in the present, things in the future—everything belongs to you, 23 but you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”

We all want to belong. Young or old—the deep desire to belong sticks with us. I remember
starting at a new school when I began fourth grade. That first day—I had a stomach full of
butterflies. Each step closer to the brightly door of my classroom required monumental energy,
just to put one foot in front of another. You’d think I was headed to face a monster or to fight in a
battle where I would surely lose. It was the longest walk I’d taken in my eight years of life! Who
will I sit with at lunch? Will the other kids tease me for being new? What if I don’t know when to
stand up or sit down or if I forget the words to the pledge of alliance? I don’t know the school’s
motto. Do they have a motto? Will the teacher call on me and ask me the motto? Will I look
stupid? Will I make any friends? Will I belong?!

Such feelings and nervousness about change and belonging are normal for a kid. But it doesn’t
seem to go away! We want to belong, to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, to connect with other people and share in camaraderie. Adults—we do this too! Are you a sport’s
fan and if you’re not, do you know someone who is? Do you cheer for Duke or UNC? How about Yankees vs Red Socks? Cubs or Whitesox? Celtics or Lakers?! When we cheer for a team, we have a sense of belonging! We are a part of the team, even if we’re only a fan!

Just over a month ago, the Seahawks and the 49ers in the NFC West championship game to see who would play in the super bowl. When the Seahawks won, at the end of the game, their owner, Paul Allen, stood up and thanked the 12th man. To the 12th man, he said, “We couldn’t have done this without you.” Since only 11 players play on the field at any given time, the 12th man, the fan, is so important to the game, that they get credit even before the players. The fans belong on that
team; they are part of it.

This is one meaning of belonging—to be a part of a group, to be included in something bigger than yourself. There’s another meaning or sense of belonging, the meaning of belonging that
has to do with ownership or possession. I was getting off the bus a couple of weeks back and I dropped one of my gloves. A stranger caught up with me and said, “Does this glove belong to you? I think you dropped it.” The glove belongs to me. Maybe you’ve been in the hospital
before where you’ve seen those beige colored plastic bags that say “Patient’s belongings.” The bag holds your clothes and anything you had in your pockets when you were admitted.

Interestingly, even though this meaning of belonging is more about possessions or what you own, if we’re not careful, we can talk about people this way. We have an expression we use when we’re trying to find a kid’s parents, we say, “Who does this child belong to?”

I asked Justin if I could share this story because I heard him say it once and I thought it was so profound. Keith and Justin were talking about what it will be like when Magnolia is grown up.
Keith asked Justin, “What would you say if someone came to you and asked you for your daughter’s hand in marriage?” Justin replied, “I would say that it’s not mine to give. She doesn’t belong to me. She belongs to God.”

We use this language to talk about people as if they belong or are owned by a particular group or person. What’s even worse than using this language to talk about people in a particular way, is that at times, we treat people or are treated ourselves as if we are someone’s belonging, like an item that they own. The problem is that treating people like a belonging insinuates that one person has the power to determine the worth or value of another person. It gives one person the power to determine the worth or value of another person. People are not cars—you can’t look up their value in the Kelly bluebook. People are not gold—you can’t take one into a pawnshop and find out how much they’re selling for that day.

Paul writes to a divided church, a group of people who were separated into cliques and groups, making it clear who was an insider and who was an outsider. A group of people where some people belong, some people don’t belong and some people treat other people as if they
are their belonging.
A group of people who began to believe the lies told to them about where and to whom they belong. Lies about belonging. Have these lies been told to us?

You belong to Paul.
You belong to Apollos.
You belong to Cephas.
You don’t belong in church.
You belong on the B team.
You belong to the United States government.
You belong with the 12th man.
You don’t belong with cool kids, the smart kids, the successful kids,
the athletic kids, the kids with two parents, you don’t belong.
You belong to him.
You belong to her.
You don’t belong in a happy family.
You belong in this painful relationship.

To these lies, Paul proclaims, “No! Don’t listen to the lies! You belong to Christ!” You belong
to Christ!” Only God can establish a person’s worth. Only God can say who’s in and who’s out.
And I have some good news friends, with God, there are no outsiders. Everyone is in. You

Paul knows that he will have to convince the Corinthians to understand belonging in this way,
even though it will seem foolish to them. It seems foolish, because, who would give up a sense
of belonging if they have it? Who wants to knock down dividing walls when you are the one that
belongs? Who wants to put aside differences, to join together, to belong to Christ and belong to
one another? Paul says that the God’s way is foolish to the world. The world’s wisdom can’t
understand the foolishness of God. “If you don’t believe me?,” Paul says, “look at Jesus—what

Jesus came to save the world and he did so in the most foolish of ways. Instead of finding a
place to belong with all the right people, he took another road, the road of a fool. Jesus
acknowledged all people as made in God’s image, even the prostitutes, tax collectors, and
sinners, and ate dinner with them. Jesus chose fishermen for disciples and touched people with
contagious diseases. Jesus was arrested, tried as a criminal and died a death reserved for
fools, crucified on a cross. But, after three days, God showed death who the real fool is, raising
Jesus, the one whom death could not conquer, from the dead.

You belong to Christ. You belong. Only God can establish a person’s worth. How, then, is our
life together different as people who belong to Christ? One preacher used to say, “Everyone who belongs to Christ belongs to everyone who belongs to Christ.” We belong together, in Christ. We are the given the privilege and challenge that comes with belonging to Christ and one another. So, we get into each other’s business. We don’t have to live this life alone. We share one another’s burdens! We embrace the foolishness of the gospel, befriending someone on the outside. We stop to listen. Since our worth comes from God, we reject petty attempts to secure belonging through our pride or ego or any act that pushes other people to the outside. We affirm God’s worth in others. We refuse to treat other people as objects. We break down dividing walls that attempt to dictate who belongs and who doesn’t belong. We silence the lies the world tells about belonging. In place of the silence, we hear the ringing God’s promise—you belong.

This post was adapted from Megan’s sermon on February 23, 2014 at Butner Federal Prison.

Practicing Remembrance with Lamentations and Pauli Murray

Pauli Murray in the World Mural by Brett Cook. Photo by Kristen Hendrickson.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, we are encouraged to pause, take a breath, and remember for whom or what we are thankful. After reading the words of the prophet in Lamentations and the words of Pauli Murray, I would propose that we take the act of giving thanks one step further and practice remembrance or memory this Thanksgiving.

Lamentations 3:19-22 states,
19 The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
is wormwood and gall!
20 My soul continually thinks of it
and is bowed down within me.

21 But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,
‘therefore I will hope in him.’
25 The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul that seeks him.
26 It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.

Why the sudden change in the poetry, from darkness and despair to hope in the Lord? Though I only included two verses of the lament, the entire first three chapters are filled with complaints, line after line of utter hopelessness. What has caused this change of attitude? What would suggest the possibility of hope? What force can possibly rescue hope from unyielding lament? What would allow the poet the strength to envision an alternative?

One word: memory. The poet remembers where they have come from, remembers the stories of their ancestors, remembers other times of great hopelessness, and remembers when God has been faithful in the past. It’s the poet’s memory that allows for the triumphant “but” to break through the wall of lament, allowing a glimmer of hope to enter.

Memory, or the practice of remembrance, was a central tenant in the life and writing of Pauli Murray. In her memoir, Proud Shoes, and her autobiography, she engages in the practice of remembrance, telling stories of her family, her experiences, her challenges, and her reflections on her life. She engages her memories and draws upon them for strength, courage, and faith. It seems that memory allows her the freedom to engage with the past in a way that thankfulness might not.

When I am prompted to give thanks or be thankful, there seems to be an assumption that I should give thanks for what is good in my life, the things I have, the hand I’ve been dealt, and the relationships in my life that are meaningful. Giving thanks is a good practice. Certainly, the Psalms are full of thanksgiving to God, for who God is and for what God has done.

The prophet of Lamentations and Pauli Murray prompt us to engage the next level, beyond thanksgiving, and into remembrance. As the Israelites in exile examined their current reality, they were not filled with thanksgiving. As Pauli Murray recounts the horrific realities of slavery, the oppression and abuse from which her grandmother came, she does not do so thankfully. The practice of remembrance does not necessarily encourage us to remember the good without the bad, in the way that a practice of thanksgiving sometimes does. In remembrance, we find freedom to acknowledge the laments of our past and present. When we remember, we are bolstered with the triumphant “but” of the prophet, that we might discover both thanksgiving for where God has been faithful and hope that God will continue to be faithful.

We practiced remembrance at Refuge in November and I would encourage you to take a few moments to do it on your own or with others while you share the meal.

What do you remember during this season of Thanksgiving? As you remember where you’ve come from and where you are today, for what or whom are you thankful?

Dark Testament, Verse 8, Poem by Pauli Murray

Hope is a crushed stalk
Between clenched fingers
Hope is a bird’s wing
Broken by a stone.
Hope is a word in a tuneless ditty –
A word whispered with the wind,
A dream of forty acres and a mule,
A cabin of one’s own and a moment to rest,
A name and place for one’s children
And children’s children at last . . .
Hope is a song in a weary throat.

Give me a song of hope
And a world where I can sing it.
Give me a song of faith
And a people to believe in it.
Give me a song of kindliness
And a country where I can live it.
Give me a song of hope and love
And a brown girl’s heart

Gathered in front of Pauli Murray’s childhood home on the walking tour with Refuge on November 24. Photo by Kristen Hendrickson.

“O Lord, how long?”

On Sunday night at Refuge, we read from the prophet Habakkuk, a short book tucked into latter part of the Old Testament. If you remember from the Old Testament history we’ve referred to over the last few weeks, Habakkuk likely falls in between the destruction of the two kingdoms, after the Northern Kingdom of Israel is destroyed, but before the Babylonians take the Southern Kingdom of Judah.

As we read Habakkuk, we imagine these words of grief and hope spoken as the Babylonians are closing in on the Israelites. They are threatening to destroy Jerusalem, to wipe out their people and land, and to take them back with them as prisoners to Babylon. These words from Habakkuk, then, seem to come at a time of great suffering, imminent doom, and an unknown future.

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?
Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrong doing and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous– therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
I will stand at my watch-post, and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.
Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.

“O Lord, how long? O Lord, how long?” cries the prophet Habakkuk. How long shall I cry for help and you will not listen? Signs of war are everywhere. He can’t escape. Will it be days before their enemies destroy them? Will it be hours? The wicked prevail! They have taken charge. And justice—what a joke! They have lost. Israel and Judah will be destroyed, wiped out, their house of worship demolished. The prophet complains to God, “I cry and you don’t listen! I plea with you to save us from the violence and you will not save us?

“O Lord, how long?” O Lord, how long?” cry those standing at a prayer vigil on a rainy summer evening. Another kid shot, another death, another murder, another life cut short by violence. April 18, 2013. JeJuan Taylor Jr. 19 years old. Gathered to remember, to lament, to pray, to cry out to God. As I listened to the stories of JeJuan, or Jay-Jay as he was called, I watched as those who loved him both celebrated his life with laughter and mourn his death through weeping. But, it’s not just Jay-Jay. He’s not the only one. It seems we’re surrounded by destruction and violence. Before him,
Aubrey Lamont Parrish, 29, before her,
Brian Christopher Keys, 24, before him,
Lashaun Lamont Hunt, 18, before him,
Kinta Lamont Newman, 33,
and that’s just January-April 2013 in our city.

“O Lord, how long? O Lord, how long?” cries a 74 year-old man battling cancer. “How long must I suffer,” he wonders. How long must he endure treatments meant to save his life–treatments that seem to be taking life away? When will this battle be over…and why do we call it a battle anyway, as if one could eliminate cancer cells from sheer willpower? “It is better to die?” he questions. “Has the Lord not heard my prayers?”

“O Lord, how long? O Lord, how long?” cries a woman behind the closed door of her bathroom. She puts on make-up, but not to make her lashes look longer or her cheeks blushed. This make-up keeps things quiet, makes sure no one asks questions at work, disguises the way her husband treats her in the privacy of their own home, when he makes sure she knows who has the control in the relationship.

“O Lord, how long? O Lord, how long?” Can we believe that Habakkuk complains to God in this way? Can we believe how open and honest he is with God, even accusatory? Can we believe it? Of course we can. We look around our neighborhoods, we hear the cries of those suffering, we turn on the news, we suspect that which is kept behind closed doors. But is it alright? Can we be this honest with God? This open? Can we cry out to God from the depths of suffering and ask God, “Where on earth are you? Where were you when Israel was wiped out by the Babylonians? Where were you when some kid shot Jay-Jay in the back of the head for no apparent reason? Where were you on day 33 of chemo? Where were you when he came at her?”

Habakkuk gives us a gift. He shows us a picture of utter honesty with God, of sorrow, of lament. Habakkuk is bold. He says, “I will stand at my watch-post. I will plant my feet on this spot. I will station myself on this hill. I am not going anywhere. I will stand here and keep watch to see what you will say to me!”

And what happens? The Lord answers him.

This gift from the prophet is a stamp of approval on our own freedom to lament. When we cry out to God in suffering, we actually make a bold statement of faith. Paul picks up on this line from Habakkuk, “the righteous live by faith.” It takes faith, in midst of suffering, to believe that there is a God to whom we can cry, “O Lord, how long?” That plea is addressed, “O Lord?” Even, then, when we doubt God, or wonder if God has heard us, or where God is, when we cry, “O Lord, how long,” we proclaim that there is a God to whom we can cry.

Our Lord and Savior made a similar plea in his moment of greatest suffering. Jesus cries from his dying body, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Honest. Truthful. Accusatory. And faithful. Christ, in uttering these words of lament, anger, sadness, and despair, believes he has a father who will hear his cry.

As we lament, we lament not alone, but together. When we plant our feet on the ground, stand at the watch-post, wake each day determined for God to answer when there seems to be silence, we do so together, not alone. We support each other. We listen. We cry together. We speak on behalf of others, “O Lord,” when they can’t utter the words themselves.

When we grieve together, being honest with God and one another, we might be surprised that this grief makes room for hope. Hope that wars will end. Hope that we can stop handguns from getting into the hands of teenagers. Hope for those whose bodies are old and worn out that God will answer the promise, “Behold, I make all things new.” Hope for those who suffer in silence, that they might speak and someone will listen. Hope that thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

The book of Habakkuk closes with beautiful lines of poetry, thanksgiving that God did in fact answer this stubborn, honest prophet.
He says,
“Though the fig tree doesn’t bloom,
and there’s no produce on the vine;
though the olive crop withers,
and the fields don’t provide food;
though the sheep is cut off from the pen,
and there is no cattle in the stalls;
I will rejoice in the LORD. I will rejoice in the God of my deliverance.
The LORD God is my strength.
He will set my feet like the deer.
He will let me walk upon the heights.”

Art, Theology, and Worship by Laura Tardie

Laura shared at Refuge on Sunday about theology and art. She argues that doing art can be a spiritual practice or discipline, connecting us to God. The prophets are, in many respects, artists, creating commentary on the world around them as they experience it.

This is a video Laura made about art and theology.

Laura suggests three ways that Christians might participate in prophetic art:
1. We are commissioned in scripture to uphold beauty: God is beauty.
2. Develop an aesthetic taste based on scripture, tradition and the Holy Spirit.
3. Then we own a share of the current state of ugliness in our world.

Thanks to Laura for sharing her gifts and passion with us and leading us in a night of worship through creating.

Isaiah 1: Israel on Trial

After our intro to prophets broadly speaking, we began our series on the Prophets of Young and Old in the book of Isaiah. Isaiah is the first book of the prophets and the reading comes from the very first chapter. Chapter one is a kind of introduction (imagine that) to the book of Isaiah, where the prophet puts it all out on the table, holds nothing back. Imagine Isaiah, speaking this sermon, this word from God, in the temple courts.

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
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.
10 Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
11 What 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.

12 When you come to appear before me,*
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
13 bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When 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.
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17 learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

18 Come 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.
19 If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
20 but if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be devoured by the sword;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

When I was a kid, Perry Mason and Matlock reruns played every weekday from noon to one and from one to two. During the summertime, we would come in from outside, plop our tired, sweaty bodies on uncomfortable wooden stools, and eat lunch with our eyes glued to the 10-inch square white television. I’m not really sure why we watched one or sometimes two hours of dramatic, courtroom TV. As I think back on it, I can’t really figure out what would be so interesting about over-the-top lawyer shows to school age kids. Perhaps the intrigue, the mystery, “the anything can happen” kind of plot. Once you’re in the courtroom…it’s all up in the air. No one knows what the outcome will be. Suspense. Mystery. In the last five minutes, Mr. Mason or Mr. Matlock inevitably conjures up one final piece of evidence that secures the verdict in their direction. Guilty. Not guilty.

Israel is on trial in Isaiah 1 and God is the prosecutor. Unlike the lawyer, courtroom shows, who find a last piece of evidence in the remaining five minutes of the show, God puts all the evidence for Israel’s infidelity on the table from the moment the trial begins. What has brought Israel to the witness stand? Their rebellion against God. What is the nature of this rebellion? The content of their worship—the recurring conflict between how Israel acts on Sunday and how Israel treats their neighbor on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. The prosecutor God doesn’t hold back feelings about their so called worship: “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?, says the Lord. I have had enough! You come before me with your sacrifices in worship, who asked this of you? Surely, not I! This is not what I want! Where did you get the idea that these are the sacrifices I asked for? I do not delight in these gifts!”

Somewhere along the line, Israel’s sacrifices, what they were doing to worship God, morphed into something that God didn’t ask for at all! Somehow, they got away from the essence of what God desires. They thought they were excellent worshippers, sacrificing great things for God. But the problem was, they were following rules, guidelines for worship and sacrifices, that were basically, made up! These sacrificial ideas came from human origin, likely couched in good intentions. But the prosecutor God rejects these made-up rules, these false sacrifices. The Lord says, “Trample my courts no more! I cannot endure your solemn services of worship. Your religious festivals, conferences, assemblies, and revivals—my soul hates.”

How did Israel get here…get to this point? They couldn’t have done this on purpose! Where did their sacrifices go wrong? True, purchasing the appropriately sized ram or bull does take the better part of a Saturday, not to mention the financial commitment. Someone has to feed the beasts until they are the proper weight for sacrifice…it’s not your problem if the farmers and herders aren’t paid a living wage. With all the time it takes to worship in the temple, who has time plead for the widow? Her family should take care of her anyway. Israel was just busy doing all the right things—serving God, making sacrifices, obeying the rules, ensuring the best, most dynamic, cutting edge worship practices were taking place in the temple. To this Israel, who believes they are doing all the right things, God asks, “Who told you these were the right sacrifices, the right things? Who asked this of you? Not me!”

God’s prosecution of guilty Israel beckons us to also evaluate the sacrifices we make for God. We too are a worshipping community, professing the God of Israel as the one true God. We too make sacrifices for the sake of our faith and the sake of our church.

Did you spend years waking up 15 minutes early on Sunday to make sure your clothes were ironed for church? Sacrifice.
On Superbowl Sunday, we tevo the game so that we can still meet for church, instead of rescheduling. Sacrifice.
Perhaps some of us stood for an hour or two in the rain and humidity to protest the legislature on Moral Monday. Sacrifice.
Did you avoid school dances, movie watching and card games until the your church discerned the Spirit’s movement that these things are now reasonable in some instances? Sacrifice.
Have you or someone you know taken the time to change your Facebook status once a week to include a verse or a statement of faith and then in the month of November, update it every day so that God knows the things you’re thankful for! Sacrifice!
Do you not vocalize all of your thoughts about people you don’t like, but instead keep those thoughts to yourself because of your Christian love? Sacrifice.
I paid, or rather, am still paying, for a top theological education at Duke Divinity school. Sacrifice.
That money you gave in jubilee last year, could’ve bought you a 50” HD flat screen and put surround sound in your living room. Sacrifice.

The question that God asked Israel now comes to us. Are these sacrifices the that God has asked of us? Who made these rules?! What if these sacrifices, like those of the on-trial nation of Israel, totally miss what God has asked of us? What if, like Israel, God says to us, “I loathe your music. Your sermons…they disgust me. Your communion bread stinks. I hate your worship.” Why? Is it because God literally hates what are doing in church, sacrificing our precious time for worship? I don’t think that’s quite it. What breaks God’s heart is when God’s people are more concerned with doing the “right thing” than caring for one another! What breaks God’s heart is when we forget what God has asked of us and instead follow the human guidebook for “right Christian living” or “how to be successful.” The sacrifices we offer to God must not be a list of checked boxes. Did you give away money? Check yes. Did you iron? Check yes. Did you cheat, lie, curse or steal? Check no.

What then does God want from Israel…from us? The prophet Micah asks this question directly: “What does the Lord require of you?” Ironed clothes? A long list of things you don’t do? Constant busyness?
No. Here is what the Lord requires. Micah says, “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

The prosecutor God of Isaiah 1 makes some harsh accusations. They are hard to read and hard to wrestle with. They cause us to take an inventory—to think and question what we do and what we don’t do. But there is hope. God is not only the prosecutor in this court room, God is also the judge; the one who makes the final call, the one who has the last word, the one who shows an abundance of grace and mercy. All is not lost. The verdict has not been cast. God’s word to Israel shifts. After the harsh accusations, after the honest truth has been spoken, God offers another way. Here is what God requires of you, Israel, and us, church:
“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed; defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”

God offers Israel abundant grace. God offers Israel another way, another chance, another opportunity. God reminds them and us that our worship is marked by so much more than a list of sacrifices, rule following, box checking, and do’s and don’ts. That’s good news because I hate to iron, but I love to dance! Every time we listen to someone that’s on the margins and treat them with dignity, that act is a proclamation that Jesus is Lord. You’re my God! That’s worship! Every time we choose to stand for the least of these, we proclaim Jesus is Lord! When we visit the elderly, write to the sick, shower a child in love and belonging, we proclaim, Jesus is Lord! When we invite people into our homes, to sit at our table, we proclaim, in that act, Jesus is Lord!

What does the Lord require of us?

Introduction to the Prophets

On September 8, I presented this introduction to the prophets at Refuge. For those that weren’t there or were helping with children, I’ve recorded the same basic introduction. In this video, I recount the story of God and Israel from the Exodus through the post-exilic period. It is an overview, so many details are left out.

I draw from Walter Brueggemann’s book, The Prophetic Imagination, throughout the video.