Letting God’s Word burn in our ears and change our lives

As we read through the Bible we sometimes hit buzzwords. When we do, our theological tools of community, reason, experience, tradition and prayer help us avoid interpretive missteps. Isaiah describes Israel as Sodom and Gomorrah.  Genesis 19 tells how one evening, two messengers came to Sodom and began setting up an overnight camp in the city square. Sitting by the city gate among the city elders is Lot, a recent arrival and successful merchant.  Lot sees the two travelers gets up and greets them with a deep respectful low bow. Concerned for their safety, Lot invites the weary travelers “Come to my house, spend the night, and get cleaned up.” Initially, the two travelers decline, preferring to sleep in the streets. But Lot perseveres and the strangers find sanctuary under Lot’s roof. Lot fixes a big meal, the Bible mentions baking biscuits and the new friends stay up late eating pie and swapping stories. Suddenly a violent knock shakes the front door. Lot knows not to answer it. Outside town folks with torches, clubs, and too much liquor surround the house shouting through shuddered windows, “Where are the men who arrived tonight? Bring them out to us so that we may abuse them” Now our Biblical recorder makes clear that the sheriff and town council approve of this mob violence towards foreigners. Facing the lynch mob, Lot steps outside, secures the door behind him, and speaks, “My brothers, don’t do such an evil thing… don’t do anything to these travelers – they are now under the sanctuary of my roof.”  The criminal crowd yells, “Get out of our way Lot! Do you, an immigrant, dare judge us? We will mess you up worse than those two foreigners.”  The mob shoves Lot so violently into his door that it almost breaks.  From inside the two travelers fling the door open, grab Lot and pull him back into safety.  The camera cuts out wide as the Two Travelers pause, maybe for effect, wardrobe,  or let the soundtrack build and then The Two Travelers blast the door open, flying outside and unleashing a beat down that would make the Avengers proud. When the dust settles, the camera pans the street where anti-immigrant locals lay scattered, rubbing their eyes, groping in the gutter, and stumbling back to their dens.  With the mob now vanquished, the Traveling Two deliver a message to Lot: “The Lord has heard the cries of injustice against these cities and sent us to destroy it. Get out! Tomorrow everything goes down!” The next day something like a volcano destroys Sodom. Now to be clear, Sodom and Gomorrah was mired in abhorrent criminal violence towards the homeless and immigrants, but Genesis 19 is not about same sex attraction or love. In Matthew 10, Jesus mentions Sodom in the context of welcoming strangers.  A lot of bad theology survives in churches, because people do not thoughtfully read Scripture looking for the bigger themes of Love, mercy and justice.

By Isaiah’s time, Sodom was remembered as a violent inhospitable city-the worst kind of place. So just imagine Israel’s outrage when the prophet Isaiah begins his sermon by describing his own nation, governor, mayor, and congress as rulers of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Isaiah is naming names, talking specifics and speaking a hard word. Isaiah begins “The vision about Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Judah’s kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. Hear the Lord’s word, you leaders of Sodom. Listen to our God’s teaching, people of Gomorrah! Your princes are rebels, companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and pursues gifts. They don’t defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause never reaches them.

Most of us enjoy feel-good sermons that offer comfort and steer away from systemic injustice, anti-immigrant politics, racism,  marketplace inequity, or the idolatry of Christian nationalism.  Indeed, those churches on the right or the left that enjoy occasional doses of judgment, usually want the sermonizing to focus on other people’s sins, not the sins of those sitting in their pews! Focusing on other people’s sinfulness or evil does little to heal the world, but if I allow God’s prophetic word to burn in my ears and shake my vision then the world’s healing might begin within me. Jesus flipped over the tables of his own church home, not the altars of the Roman or Greek Gods.   “Wash and be clean” Isaiah calls as he pokes his nation in the eye. 

Isaiah not only offends political and business systems, Isaiah shakes up the church.  “What should I think about all your sacrifices? says the Lord. I’m fed up with your burnt offerings! I don’t want the blood of bulls, lambs, and goats. Stop bringing worthless offerings. Your incense repulses me. I can’t stand your wicked living mixed with church celebrations! I hate your worship services. They’ve become a burden to me. I’m tired of them! When you extend your hands in worship, I’ll hide my eyes from you.  When you pray even for a long time, I won’t listen. Your hands are tainted with blood. Wash! Be clean!

Why would God grow sick of our worship? Did we not get the formulas right? Do we not have the right style? Did we not praise God enough?  Maybe God grows weary of our worship when it does not change the way we live?  Are you the same person you were 52 Sundays ago, five years ago, 520 worship services ago?  Does worship shake you up, burn in your ears, change your vision, or make a difference on Monday? In letters to the churches in Revelation 3, the prophet says “I wish that you were either hot or cold, but you’re lukewarm, always playing it down the middle, makes me sick.“I must confess… I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride for freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Klu Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace that is the presence of justice.”  Maybe God grows weary of worship that never burns hot enough to transform us into agents of love and justice? How can we worship a holy, loving and just God and not become more just, loving and good? 

Isaiah invites us to wash up and get spiritually clean, but spiritual change is always real life change, a change in our behavior, attitude and vision, not just a figurative spiritual change. 

Remove your ugly deeds from everyone’s sight. Put an end to evil.  Learn to do good. 

Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.

I love the Methodist Church because we have a legacy of social justice.  Our UMC Discipline declares “The United Methodist Church has a long history of concern for social justice. Its members have often taken forthright positions on controversial issues involving Christian principles. Early Methodists expressed their opposition to the slave trade, to smuggling, and to the cruel treatment of prisoners.”  I love that! 

We have failed a million times in our work. Southern Methodists even disaffiliated with the larger Methodist church so we could stand with slave holding bishops.  Despite our at times lukewarm sinfulness, a heartbeat for social justice has permeated every one of the seven Methodist churches I have called home.  One church ran the largest food bank in the county, another founded a 501c3 that provided free primary healthcare for the working uninsured in 3 counties, another remodeled homes and a rural parish began ESL and tutoring for Spanish speaking students that grew so large the Rotary Club invited me to talk about immigration.  When I pastored in smaller towns it was easy to spot church members leading our communities as they did justice, loved neighbors and brought hope all over town. In a big city the scale makes spotting one church’s light a little harder.  Belmont helped launch Justice for our Neighbors, partners with the HERO program, Reconciling Ministries, NOAH,  Launch Pad, Community Care fellowship, Nashville Pride, Edgehill,  ASP,  Open Table, the Villages at Glencliff, and so many good people.  You turn out at marches and work to change systems. This summer we built a home in Waverley for flood victims. Two weeks ago Elena tenderly shared how beautifully Belmont welcomed her as a 11 year old refugee and how we have provided sanctuary and scholarships for our refugee Golden Triangle community for the past 12 years. Every day our members are doing justice, loving mercy and humbly working to change our city for good.  This week President Joe Biden responded to our Bishop William MacAnilly’s letter calling for greater gun control legislation.  Our business office manager, Mark Hagewood drafted the Tennessee Western Kentucky resolution calling for legislation to end gun violence and Eric Patton drafted one calling for a “yes” vote on Amendment 3 removing the vestiges of slavery from our state constitution.    

The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church 2016.”The United Methodist Church believes God’s love for the world is an active and engaged love, a love seeking justice and liberty. We cannot just be observers. So we care enough about people’s lives to risk interpreting God’s love, to take a stand, to call each of us into a response, no matter how controversial or complex. The church helps us think and act out a faith perspective, not just responding to all the other ‘mind-makers-up’ that exist in our society.” I love that. 

I love the Methodist Church, because we Love God enough to let the prophetic Word burn in our ears,  create needed systemic tension, and make us uncomfortable enough to, as the bishop says, “stop resting on our blessed assurances”.  I do not need a Jesus who looks like me, thinks like me and acts like me. You don’t either. Our idolatrous Jesuses will never transform us. I need an iconoclastic Jesus who shatters my stained-glass spectacles, flips over my altars, and whose Words burn my ears until I long to become more just, peaceful, merciful, forgiving and generous. I need a Jesus who makes us restless with anything less than an active Love.  

I am proud to be part of a church that loves God and God’s Word enough to let the prophetic word burn our ears and shake up our hearts until we strive for an engaging love: doing justice, making peace, calling equity, practicing welcome, teaching respect, and advocating for enough healthcare, food, and shelter for all people: friends, neighbors, strangers and enemies.  I long to be part of that church, not made or marketed in my image, but one that burns with an uncomfortable holy fire calls me deeper into Love, Justice and Goodness.  Amen.

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