Last week, I informed my husband on Saturday night that I loathed my sermon, so he should prepare himself. There was nothing especially awful about it–and I have extreme perfectionism when it comes to preaching, so I quietly think most of what I could preach could be much, much better, but on this occasion, I really was not feeling it.
It was a combination, I think, of being confronted again with more mass shootings, more religious hypocrisy in the public square, more stoking of bigotry and hatred by our leaders–more more more. And both the prophet Isaiah and I were feeling exhausted by the whole thing. I had just held forth on American idolatry last week; I didn’t want to wade back in there again.
Preaching, for most people, including myself, is sometimes an exercise in telling yourself what you need to hear in that moment. (It helps to realize you’re doing this, so you don’t end up preaching about how much God loves people who stop showing up to work, or something equally destructive. Sometimes, you don’t need to preach a sermon; what you need is therapy.)
Anyway, I decided to preach about finding hope in the midst of apparent garbage fires. (Then the Holy Spirit absconded with the last page of my manuscript, so I had to preach on the fly.)
Here’s what I said.
Rev. Megan Castellan
August 11, 2019
Ordinary Time, Proper 14
Karl Barth once said that in order to be a good Christian, you have to always have the Bible in one hand, and the morning paper in the other. The same advice is usually given to preachers, and some weeks, the lectionary makes that easier than others.
This week, Isaiah reads like the prophet has been watching CNN along with us, and providing commentary. “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.” I guess the prophet was not a fan of “thoughts and prayers” either. He goes on to implore the people to “cease to do evil, learn to do good. Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” Do the actual thing. Seek justice.
We can hear Isaiah’s anguish through the centuries as he surveys the injustice that surrounded him because it is not all that unfamiliar to us. A well-established religion whose speakers, comfortable in the halls of power, claimed that so long as the people prayed enough, so long as the king gave enough lip service, than God was going to bless the kingdom with safety. God was fine with whatever, they assured everyone! Just keep praying the way we want you to.
But as it turns out, God cares very much for justice. And God cares very much about the lives of all God’s children. When lsaiah refers to the rulers of Sodom, and the people of Gomorrah, that’s what he’s talking about.
Contrary to probably everything you’ve heard, the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah in the actual scripture story, in Genesis is not a particular type of sex. (That notion begins to crop up in the Middle Ages.) But within the Bible itself, the prophets tell us that the problem of Sodom is that the city was horribly unjust. And also, within the story itself. the people of Sodom fail to extend hospitality to strangers. That was their big problem. They are inhospitable to newcomers. Lot does—and Lot gets saved.
But what we know about Sodom is that the inhabitants have grown rich through an unjust system, and through being pretty mean to each other. Which is why Isaiah references them here as a warning. Don’t be like Sodom! Sodom was awful and mean. Be better.
Now, all this may not feel all that edifying. The information that the world has basically always been dramatically awful, such that prophets have been yelling about it for millennia, may not fill your heart with Christian hope.
That’s where the gospel comes in.
The gospel is a bit odd, in that Jesus is trying to give the disciples a pep talk, and he throws in a parable-that-doesnt-sound-like-a-parable. And all of a sudden, he shifts from “everything is going to be fine, God will take care of you” to “stay alert, because PEOPLE WILL STEAL YOUR STUFF.”
Jesus is good at being Jesus, bad at being a HS football coach with the pep talks. Because he’s talking about something different than just “everything will be ok.” There’s a parable in the middle here, which means there’s a twist of some kind.
“God is overjoyed to give you the kingdom,” Jesus says. Great! This is exciting! Good news. “Be like slaves who are ready for their master to come home.” “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.”
And there it is—nope, no one would do that. That is not a thing.
For slaves to stay awake to greet their master would not have been congratulated—that was the minimum of their job. And the master would DEFINITELY not have made them all sit down to serve them.
But that sort of reversal would happen in the Reign of God. That sort of thing happens all the time, where the last is first, and the first last, and the hungry fed, and the mighty thrown down. Jesus talks about it a lot.
Jesus is saying here to stay watching, because there are signs of the kingdom breaking through all around us. Even as the world continues to struggle with injustice and oppression and wrongdoing, even as we suffer with our brokenness and sin, even as our prophets continue to cry out like Isaiah—there are signs of God’s incoming redemption around us, if we are alert and able to see. Signs of God’s reign are at hand to encourage us, even when it seems like the new day will never come. Surprising signs of that ultimate resurrection reversal await our gaze. We just have to find them.
All around us, in ways large and small, God is working God’s purpose out. The creation is being renewed. People are making amends and changing their lives. Enemies are being reconciled. People are loving one another and caring for one another across the divisions our world sets up. And early on a Sunday morning, all these people come together to find God, just because they want something greater in their lives.
There is hope, when we learn to look for it. When we learn to be alert, and prepared. The reign of God breaks in all around us–little pinpricks of light shining in the midst of the storm, lighting our way to the dawn of a new world coming, slowly but surely.