The Rev. Christy Laborda Harris
I love the LORD, because he has heard the voice of my supplication, *
because he has inclined his ear to me whenever I called upon him. (Psalm 116:1)
So begins today’s psalm. The psalmist rejoices because God has heard his prayers… really his cries for help. The “cords of death entangled” him. But God heard the psalmist’s prayers and his life was rescued from death.
For most of us, our primary mode of communication with God is much like that of the psalmist. When we pray, we talk to God. We tell God what’s up in our lives. We ask for help. We scream for help. We thank God. Perhaps we demand to know where God is as something bad befalls us or someone we love.
Our first reading today, from the Prophet Isaiah, reminds us of another form of prayer, another way of being in relationship with God. The author declares,
Morning by morning [God] wakens–
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord GOD has opened my ear… (Isaiah 50:4-5)
Much harder than speaking, for most of us, is listening.
The context of the fiftieth chapter of the book of the Prophet Isaiah is the exile of the Hebrew people in Babylon. They are a weary people and for good reason! They have lost their homes, their dignity, land, temple, and Davidic throne. Living in exile, they are suffering a crisis of identity and spirituality. Without the places and things that they understand as defining them, they no longer know who they are or what they believe. While most of us, or perhaps none of us in this room, have experienced exile from our homeland, United Church of Christ Minister Jane Anne Ferguson writes that:
Exile, with its accompanying feelings of alienation, confusion, and despair, is a powerful metaphor for understanding the modern experience of change. Whether the crisis is individual or communal, the pain of change results in feeling exiled from “what was before” in the movement to “what is next.” Individuals experience the confusion and despair of exile in innumerable ways through life transition: illness, unemployment, loss of relationship, aging, search for community, search for personal meaning.
We have all individually experienced this exile from “what was before” as we move toward and wait for the unknown of “what is next.” We have all had to wrestle with, or at the very least ask, who we will be in light of this change, how we will understand ourselves in the “what is next.”
We, like the Hebrew people, also go through such experiences of exile and change communally. Two of the commentaries I read about this text connected the exile of the Hebrew people with the current change of the Church. Commentator Ronald Byars writes,
Although our own crisis cannot be compared to that of the exiled people of Israel, those who love the faith and the church have at least some experience of being “weary.” Weary, perhaps, with trying to maintain a faithful witness without either resorting to reactionary defensiveness or blandly trying to fit in with a culture that neither understands our faith nor is particularly curious about it.”
Weariness can cause us to shut down. Go into survival mode. Keep our heads down and try to ignore that which is going on around us. We are reminded that as the prophet Isaiah speaks a word of sustenance to the weary, God wakens his ear each morning, to listen as those who are taught. We are challenged in our own weariness, in the land between “what was before” and “what is next” to keep our ears open to God.
In her article entitled, “The End of the Church,” historian Diana Butler Bass argues that we are witnessing the end of conventional church, that in the US Christianity is being reorganized
after religion. And yet, she declares, there is hope. Statistics show that Americans are not rejecting faith, they are rejecting self-serving religious institutions and searching for: life-giving spiritual experience, connection, meaning, vocation, and ways to do justice in the world. She writes,
The end of conventional church isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Christianity after religion, a faith renewed by the experience of God’s spirit, is closer to what Jesus hoped for his followers … Will there still be Christianity after the end of institutional religion? Yes, there will be. But it is going to be different than what Americans have known, a faith responsive to the longings of those who are expecting more spiritual depth and greater ethical integrity rather than more conventional church…”
Not the end…but transformation. Transformation of the church. Transformation of Christianity.
In response to Butler Bass’ article, Jane Anne Ferguson writes,
It seems the church is dying to be reborn. The hope is it will be like the legendary phoenix, who, after a lifespan of a thousand years, willingly dies in its nest of flames so that it may rise from its own ashes a new being. The church as institution may not be as willing as the phoenix to trust the process. No doubt, to people in the pews it may feel more like crucifixion with very faint hope for resurrection…”
As we live in the in-between time, we are surrounded by questions very similar to those the Hebrew people asked: What will the new “church” look like? Will it care for us, nurture our faith, be the community we long for? Will God still be there?
And we are challenged in the midst of this change, like they were, to trust in God and trust in our identity as children of God. We are challenged to examine the church—our practices, our structure, our worship, our community, our tradition—and ourselves—our faith, our identities, how it is we live our faith—and ask questions: Where are we abandoning God as our center, as our shaping and driving force in favor of survival tactics that defend what we know and love? Where are we digging in our heels and refusing to walk into that which the Spirit calls us? Where are we ignoring or refusing opportunities for transformation?
Ironically the prophet’s call to the contemporary church could be into a kind of exile through daring to be countercultural to its traditional self. The prophet’s voice speaking through the Servant in Isaiah 50 could be the voice of the church in exile if the church is willing to go through radical transformation, painful though the change might be, to be reborn and shaped in ways not yet imagined.
‘…Morning by morning [God] wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught…
The prophet’s message calls the church to return to listening to God, who is at the center of their identity and meaning.
“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asks his disciples.
“But who do you say that I am?”
We must first listen in order to answer this question. Who do we say that Jesus is? Who is God? What does it mean for us to live as a followers of Jesus? What does it mean to be the church, Jesus’ body, today, in 2018, and tomorrow, in the years to come?
I pray that Morning by morning God might waken our ears. Waken our ears to listen as those who are taught. Waken our ears to hear and understand the answers to these questions in new and transformative ways.
For our Fall Formation this year we will be reading and discussing Marcus Borg’s book The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith. It is my hope that this will give us the opportunity to think about and work on articulating what we understand to be at the heart of our faith and identity.
Our psalm today ends with the psalmist, grateful for God having heard the voice of his supplication, proclaiming:
6 Turn again to your rest, O my soul, *
for the LORD has treated you well.
7 For you have rescued my life from death, *
my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.
8 I will walk in the presence of the LORD *
in the land of the living.
This “walking” is about more than locomotion. Professor of Old Testament, Frank Spina, writes,
This verb [walking] is among the most common in the Bible for living life as God wants it to be lived. As a result of the psalmist’s prayer, there is not only life in the sense of not being dead, but also life as it is meant to be lived fully in the presence of and according to the call of God. ‘Walk[ing] before the Lord in the land of the living’ needs to be seen as the most abundant life that can possibly be lived.
I don’t know about you, but I want this. For me. For you. For St. Stephen’s. For the Christian Church. It is not simply about not being dead. It is about living life fully in God’s presence, living life following God’s call, living the most abundant life that can possibly be lived.
We are living in a time of change, a time of exile from “what was before”, from what we know and love, an in-between time before “what is next.” And this is hard and scary and uncertain.
And yet, even in this unknown land, we are invited to walk in the presence of the Lord. This land, this land of change and growth and transformation, this land is the land of the living. The promised land. The land where we live in God’s presence, following God’s call into the most abundant life that can possibly be lived.