A series of essays towards General Convention in 2003 and beyond
Readings for Mission of the Church I: Isaiah 2:2-4; Psalm 96:1-7; Luke 10:1-9
Come, let us go to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths. For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. Isaiah 2:1-5
The late Robert Kennedy, quoting George Bernard Shaw, was fond of saying, Some men see things as they are and ask why. I dream things that never were and ask, why not. Isaiah of Jerusalem was someone who understood things as they are. This prophet understood the world as it very often is and yet he was someone who dreamed the dream of God and asked, why not. The Bible says that he began his ministry In the year that King Uzziah died. That death, for the people of this biblical era, had much the same impact on them as the death President Kennedy or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did on us. Isaiah knew the world as it is. Much of his mature preaching occurred during the reign of King Hezekiah and the city of Jerusalem itself was under siege from the armies of Assyria. Isaiah knew the world as it often is. His prophecies frequently speak of the need to end nightmares of violence and plagues of injustice, suggesting a realistic understanding of the world as it often is.
The later sections of the book of Isaiah reflect the writings of his disciples who applied Isaiahs thought to the period of the Babylonian exile when for the people of God the whole world fell apart; when as the poet said, the center does not hold.. Babylonian armies destroyed Jerusalem and then carted the leading citizens off like cargo to Babylon. There they lived in virtual slavery. There they languished as people without hope. There one of their poets would speak these words: By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered thee, O Zion .How shall we sing the Lords song in a strange land. Isaiah and the literature of the book o f Isaiah spoke to such a time. Isaiah understood the world as it is.
And yet, this same Isaiah was able to speak as one who dared to dream the dream of God in the midst of the nightmare that often is the world. He dreamed it and he asked, why not. Why not a world where children do not go to bed hungry? Why not a world where justice does roll down like a might y stream and righteousness like an ever flowing brook? Why not a world where we lay down our swords and shields down by the riverside to study war no more? Why not, O Lord, why not?
Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggerman spoke of this text as a bold and daring act of imagination. Isaiah looked into the night that is often the world and was able to behold the dream of God for this world. And that sanctified act of the imagination became possible because Isaiah had been to the mountain. Come, let us go to the mountain ..
In the Bible, the mountain is frequently a way of talking about those ways and places, those moments and memories, when God gets real, when we meet and are met by God.
Sometimes it is those moments when we go apart to rest for a while. Sometimes it is in that still, small voice that is a sound in silence if you listen. Sometimes it is as we look deeply into the face of each other to behold the imago dei, the image of God, the face of Jesus etched on us. When did we see you hungry, Lord? When you did it to the least of these you di d it to me, says Jesus. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered he was in Memphis to stand with garbage workers who were striking for human dignity and freedom. He was looking in the face of the other when he said, Ive been to the mountaintop, and I seen the promised land.
The mountain is a way of talking about those moments when God gets real. The Mountain is a way of talking about what the Celtic tradition calls those thin places. One of the Negro spirituals says it this way: Upon the mountain, my Lord spoke, Out of his mouth came fire and smoke. Every time I feel the Spirit, Moving in my heart, I could pray. Youve got to come to the mountain! Hearts get changed on the mountain. Lives get changed on the mountain. Worlds get changed on the mountain. The mountain is the place of messianic metamorphoses.
If you dont believe me ask Abraham. Abraham went to the mountain on a mission. He thought he was engaging God's mission by sacrificing his son Isaac. But on the mountain he discovered that when it comes to God's mission grace and mercy and compassion and faith are closer to the heart of God than either stern sacrifice or blind obedience. Youve got to come to the mountain!
about Moses? Moses went up the mountain one way, and went down another.
And in th e writings of Isaiah it is that reality on the mountain that transforms lives and can transform a world. In chapter 2, on the mountain .they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spares into pruning hooks. Nation shall not rise up against nation. Neither shall they learn war anymore. In chapter 11, on the mountain .the wolf shall lie down with the lamb." Wolves and lambs dont share the same self-interest. Dick Gregory used to say, the wolf may lie down with the lamb but the lamb wont get much sleep that night. But on the mountain the wolf and the sheep lie down together. They dwell together. Now there are some wolves in this convention. There ar e some lambs here. And if youre like me youve got some wolf and lamb in you. But on the mountain the wolf and lamb dwell together in peace, they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.. Youve got to come to the mountain!
So when you get to the New Testament it is not an accident that there is a Sermon on the Mount. Its not an accident that Jesus must go to the mountain of transfiguration before he can enter the valley of th e shadow of death. Its not an accident that Jesus sends the disciples on the mission to make disciples and make a difference in the world from a mountain. I t is on the mountain that folk get transformed. On the mountain that enemies can become friends. On the mountain that worlds get changed. The mountain is the ke y to the mission. Come, let us go to the mountain.
A few weeks when I was working on this message I found myself stuck at this point. I knew the mountain represents the context of Gospel transformation, but I was stuck on the question why. What is it about the mountain that can so incredibly change us all? Then I went to church.
While on vacation, I was visiting a church when we stoo d to sing Hymn 686 in Hymnal 1982. Come thou fount of every blessing. Ive been singing that hymn all my life, but I never paid attention to the entire first verse until that day. It goes like this.
Come thou fount of every blessing, Tune my heart to sing thy grace!
Streams of mercy never ceasing, cal l for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet, Sun g by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount ! O fix me on it, Mount of God's unchanging love.
There it is. The mount of God's unchanging love.
The key to living the ways and teaching of God that Isaiah speaks about is living in and out of the love of God. And that unchangin g love can change the world. I think thats what Jesus was teaching us when He said: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two hang all the law and the prophets. This is th e Gospel. This is the Good News! This is the message of the mountain and the motive of the mission. An d it can change the world.
God didnt create us because God needed us. God didnt make me because God needed me. God will be God without me. God was doing just fine before I came along. And God will be doing fine when Ive gone on to glory. And, if the truth is told, Im one of God's biggest headaches. And Ill let you in on a secret; youre the other one. No, no, no. God is God.
When I was the new rector at St. James Church in Baltimore, I went into the sacristy of the church before service to get vested. Several people involved in the service were there, and we introduced ourselves to each other. One gentleman in particular introduced himself with the words, Hello, Im so and so, and Im a member of the B Group. I didnt understand what he meant by the B Group so I asked him what that was. He said, I be here before you. Ill be here while youre here. Ill be here when youre gone. And I have to admit that nearly 12 years later at my consecration as Bishop of Nort h Carolina he stood at the end of the aisle of Duke University Chapel, put out hi s hands and said, Im still in the B Group.
God is the ultimate B group. God didnt create this
world or any of us because of God's need or anything external to God. The Bible
says that God is the alpha and the omega, the beginning, and the end. God is the one who was and is and is to
come. God is God. God doesnt need us. God said Let there be
for one reason
and one reason alone. 1 John
God is love. (1 Jn. 4:7) The book of
Deuteronomy says that love was the reason God set the Hebrews free (Dt. 7:7,8).
Psalm 33 says that the reason for creation is love (Ps. 33:5). The reason for
redemption, the reason God came in Jesus was love. God
so loved the world that he gave his only son Jesus. (Jn 3:16)
And let us not think of this love of God as weak and anemic. Three years ago when I was blessed to be elected Bishop of North Carolina I found myself trying to explain to our then six-year old daughter wha t a bishop did. She had some sense of what I did as a parish priest. She could se e it. But a bishop wasnt quite as clear.
One day, while we were eating dinner, the UPS truck pulled up to the house. The delivery guy rang the bell and my wife answered the door. It was a gift from the late Bishop Walter Dennis. It was a beautiful whit e linen miter. From that point on she began to identify the miter with being a bishop.
After we had moved to Raleigh she was watching a video with a friend. It was a cartoon version of the story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I happened to be walking through the den, where they were watching the video. As I passed through the room I noticed that they were watching a scene i n the story of a cross burning with hooded knights of the Ku Klux Klan. As I walked through the room Elizabeth asked me, Why are all those Episcopal bishops standing around that burning cross?
After I told them what it was they understood. But it was not an automatic reflex. Thirty years ago or so it would not have been possible for any black child in America not to automatically have a reflex reaction of terror at that sight. Those two children, one black and one white, did not react automatically because something did change in this country and this culture. And Im here to tell you that it changed not by sword, not by might but by the power of God's love translated into our social situation. America is a different place because some people decided, of all colors and kinds, that were going to live by love not by hatred. Disciplined love changed that. Love works!
Dont be afraid of it. Dont be ashamed of it. Dont under estimate the power of God's love lived out. This is the Gospel. This is the good news. Here is our greatest strength. Here we can find healing, courage and grace. Here we find life for us an d for the world. So come to the mountain. Come to the mountain of God's unchanging love. Come, theres room for us all. And all means all.
And remember, God loves you maybe more than any of us will ever know, and that love will never ever let us go, so
Go tell it on the mountains, over the hills and everywhere. God tell it on the mountains that Jesus Christ is born.
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