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Live Into Hope

preachingthecrowdIsaiah 58: 1-12
Matthew 5: 13-16
Introduction to the reading
This passage from the prophet Isaiah is consistent with the concern for social justice that characterizes all the prophetic writings.  Isaiah warns the religiously observant in Israel not to fall into the trap of allowing the form and ritual of religion to substitute for the substance of it, that is the humble service to those in need, which is what God desires from a people who call themselves righteous.

Meditation
What are we doing here?

Last week at the congregational meeting, Barbara David spoke briefly about the HolyCow! survey that we took part in during October.  The survey was part of a Classis-wide initiative to determine the health of the churches in the Delaware-Raritan Classis and to figure out where they might need help.  Barbara mentioned that at our Consistory retreat last Saturday, we began to hear an interpretation of the results of the survey for our congregation.  Over the next few months, the Consistory will delve further into that interpretation and approach that question, What are we doing here?  And then, Where do we go from here?

The question itself, of course, has many moving parts.  Who are ‘we’ exactly?  And what brings ‘us’ together?  What unites us, and at the same time, what divides us from one another?  What do we actually do here?  And are we still ‘we’ when we leave this place after worship?  How so?  

This is going to be an enlightening investigation, and I hope, transformative, for us all.

Meanwhile, however, the world presses upon us and situations arise that cannot wait for survey results to indicate how we tend to respond. We must act now.

  • The fire inspector tells us we must replace our stove or decide not to cook in the church kitchen: what does that decision reflect about how we value fellowship over eating together or how we carry out the mission to make dinners for the soup kitchen at the Bound Brook Reformed Church or how we might want to expand our outreach through sharing a meal?  Jesus spent lots of time at table with others, and today we ourselves come to his table.
  • We develop a budget for 2017 and realize that pledges and regular giving are way down from last year.  Does that merely reflect some losses in membership, which are explainable?  Or does it reflect a diminishing spirit of generosity?  Jesus also had lots to say about letting go of possessions and wealth in order to participate in God’s work in the world.  remember what he said to the rich (young) ruler?  “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 
  • In November, Consistory voted to send $1600 from the tithe to mission
    from the Memorial Fund to Interfaith- RISE, based at the Reformed Church of Highland Park.  RISE stands for Refugee and Immigrant Services and Empowerment, and is a coalition of more than 40 faith-based groups who are providing refuge to people (from all over the world) who have been displaced by war and terrorism.  The individual stories are heart-wrenching, and the work of resettlement is difficult, long and tiring.  I can tell you that efforts like Highland Park’s are going on throughout New Jersey and around the country.
    The check we sent somehow got lost in the mail and was never received, so we are in the process of stopping payment and then issuing a new check.  But now we have to deal with the President’s executive order that would halt refugee resettlement and bar refugees from certain (mostly Muslim majority) countries from entering the U.S.  In the face of that order, do we decide not to send the check after all?  Or do we affirm the work of Interfaith-RISE and continue to follow what Jesus has told us to do – to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless?

It seems to me that everything we do as a church congregation, no matter how ordinary it might seem to be, is and should be a reflection of our faith in Jesus Christ.  That is what we are doing here.
    
As you heard in the Gospel reading earlier, Jesus declared to the disciples:  “You are the salt of the earth.  . . .  You are the light of the world.”  One commentator observed :

[b]eing salt and light involves giving ourselves away completely.  True salt, salt that has not lost its taste, disappears into the food to make the food tastier.  Jesus’ disciples transform the world by disappearing in humble service.  Life in a world thus salted is savory.
    
Likewise, light that is not bound by obstructions dissipates over miles, like the ripples of self-giving service.  Life in a world so enlightened is liberated from bondage to darkness.  (Maas 22)

The image of how the love of Jesus seeks out and seeps into every corner and crevice of life gives meaning and value to every individual’s words and deeds.  As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Cor. 12:27)  Each one of us is a grain of salt, a ray of light.  

And when we meet together, when we come together as the body of Christ – whether at a consistory meeting, voting about investing in a new stove or sending money to Interfaith-RISE, or in worship or Bible study or serving a meal at the Bound Brook soup kitchen – whenever we come together the light and flavor of the Holy Spirit energizes us still further.

Today we gather around the communion table, each of us as individuals with our own personal situations, our own angers and hurts, fears and frustrations, inclinations and leanings.  Each of us is served a piece of the bread of life, a sip from the cup of salvation.  I pray that each one sees this holy meal not as empty ritual like what the prophet Isaiah decried, but as individual hope and thus hope for the world.

I close with a poem by Mark Noll, Scots’ Form in the Suburbs, which expresses beautifully this prayer I have for you.

The sedentary Presbyterians
awoke, arose, and filed to tables spread
with white, to humble bits that showed how God
almighty had decided to embrace
humanity, and why these clean, well-fed,
well-dressed suburbanites might need his grace.

The pious cruel, the petty gossipers
and callous climbers on the make, the wives
with icy tongues and husbands with their hearts
of stone, the ones who battle drink and do
not always win, the power lawyers mute
before this awful bar of mercy, boys
uncertain of themselves and girls not sure
of where they fit, the poor and rich hemmed in
alike by cash, physicians waiting to
be healed, two women side by side – the one
with unrequited longing for a child,
the other terrified by signs within
of life, the saintly weary weary in
pursuit of good, the academics (soft
and cosseted) who posture over words,
the travelers coming home from chasing wealth
or power or wantonness, the mothers choked
by dual duties, parents nearly crushed
by children died or lost, and some
with cancer-ridden bodies, some with spikes
of pain in chest or back or knee or mind
or heart.  They come, O Christ, they come to you.

They came, they sat, they listened to the words,
“for you my body broken.”  Then they ate
and turned away – the spent unspent, the dead
recalled, a hint of color on the psychic
cheek – from tables groaning under weight
of tiny cups and little crumbs of bread.
Amen.

Maas, Brian. “Living the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary” Christian Century.- 18 Jan. 2017, 20.

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
February 5, 2017

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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