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Borrowing God’s Glasses

Sermon  8/14/2016 by Richard Morris

 

Borrowing God’s Glasses

 

Isaiah 5:1-7 and Hebrews 11:29-12:2

 

My favorite movie of all time for sheer enjoyment is the documentary 180 Degrees South. Be careful when you watch it though, because if you’re anything like me – you like hiking, the mountains, wide open spaces – it might just inspire you to pack up your gear, hit the trail and just disappear forever.

The film follows the journey of young man, Jeff Johnson, as he’s setting off for the journey of a lifetime. He’s in search of perfect waves, mountain peaks, and of forgotten lands. Jeff gathers his buddies and they literally set sail down the coast of the US. We are taken on his adventure as they see the most amazing landscapes, weather storms, fight the cold and the heat.

When they finally make it to Patagonia, the ultimate land of adventure, the Holy Grail for backpacking types like me, the true purpose of the film is slowly revealed.

Jeff goes into the heart of Patagonia where our hero meets his heroes. At the center of the film we meet two old men, friends and rivals for decades, sipping tea in a simple one room cabin where they like to pass the days.

Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins – two of the founding fathers of modern rock climbing. They hold hundreds of first ascents of peaks and big walls, founded The North Face, Patagonia, and Black Diamond companies, and amassed fortunes.  They’re also quiet environmentalists each in his own way.

We sit with Jeff and listen to their takes on life in their twilight years.

Yvon waxes, “We’re really really different. We have the same viewpoint of the world and where it’s going, [but a] different approach to it. He’s more bothered probably about the end of society and mankind and stuff than I am, because he wants to do something about it. And I’m just kind of a laid-back Zen Buddhist, and just say, ‘Well, I’ll do what I can and so be it.’”

Doug sitting across from him smiles, “Well, what I tell my buddy Yvon is that a good Buddhist has to take his Bodhisattva vows, which means that before self-enlightenment, one has to end the suffering in world.”

[One hand] A journey of adventure and enlightenment, of your personal heaven on earth. [Other hand] An awareness of and responsibility for suffering around you.

One reason I keep coming back to this film is that when I join Jeff on his fabulous journey that brings him to the feet of his mentors, I feel like I put on a pair of glasses that makes me see the world differently. It’s so easy for me to get caught up in my own trials and adventures that I need these moments that put a different pair of glasses on my face. Glasses that take my eyes off of the narrow footpath that I’m on and instead set my eyes on the whole forest through which we’re traveling.

This week we continue our journey into the mysterious scrolls of Isaiah and Hebrews that Jay started us down last week. Our passages today, though separated by almost a millennium share this common call to put on God’s glasses and look at our journey from above.

Our first passage gathers up the opening chapters of Isaiah in the image of a farmer and her vineyard.

For the first 4 chapters Isaiah is giving it to Israel. He slams the people over and over for the divorce between their religious life and their politics. Yes you pray each day, but you let your courts favor the rich. Yes you memorize your Torah, but you let single mothers fall through the holes in your social safety net. Yes you make all the right sacrifices in the Temple all year long, but you constantly make war.

Now Isaiah muses. God planted you like a vineyard, and tenderly pruned you with good religion. But still, your society is the bitter grape of injustices. Beware! She is going to uproot you.

“Borrow God’s glasses” Isaiah is saying. Borrow her glasses and look at how your journey for holiness, for enlightenment, for salvation is futile, distasteful, doomed if it’s not aimed at making your city just, equitable, and peaceful.

Wow. Isaiah is delivering some painful words about what our religion looks like through God’s glasses. In this passage the people are judged not for their lack of personal love of God, but for how they did not engage that love in the public sphere. Cornel West, a philosopher and seminary professor says, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”

Now we fast forward some centuries and a latter prophet zooms in from the city wide and country wide to individuals who wore those glasses and walked a different path.

The author of Hebrews gives us a passage often called the ‘Faith Hall of Fame.’ She takes us line by line from Genesis through Israel’s history to the first century of Christianity naming those people who got it. From Moses to the martyrs each of their stories is about an individual who was faithful in precisely the place that Isaiah found Israel lacking. Their faithfulness is making justice. They are agents whose love was made public.

I’ve been thinking about these two moves of faith a lot lately. On the one hand we have our individual journeys, the importance worship, asking Jesus for a closer walk with him. On the other hand we have the political, the public, the call to be justice makers.

A couple of months ago I was sitting around a table with a member of our church and her friend who isn’t particularly religious. After a couple of glasses of wine, and in my case craft beers, we get to that place in conversation beyond the weather and the subtleties of New Jersey accents, and on to the real stuff.

We got to talking about my work with our youth group here at First Pres. The friend asked whether my goal is to make sure that the youth stay Christian. Is my goal to try to make the youth stay Christian?. . .

That was a hard question! I’ve been doing this more or less professionally for the better part of a decade and my answer was, “Huh. Well. Hmm. I mean, sort of. . . but then again. . . it’s not just that.”

“Well what is it if it’s not just that?”

I stumbled through some cobbled thoughts on building virtues and teaching stories of the faith so that students can apply them to their lives, and we moved on in our conversation.

But I left that night unsatisfied. In our curious exchange the friend handed me God’s glasses and I’ve been trying to wear them this summer. I’m working towards a better answer that’s about all of our journeys here, not just what we do in the youth group.

Our faith is great, Presbyterianism is great. Messages that we are all loved, forgiven, accepted, and that grace freely flows is great. But if our faith starts and ends in here [heart], or in here [church], then it isn’t all that great. I think that’s what Isaiah is trying to get into our heads.

If you’ll allow me to start working on answer here for our friend at that table: I want our youth, and I want myself to comprehend these gifts of God for the purpose of making justice around us. I want us to feel acceptance and love so that in those experiences we get glimpses through God’s glasses. And over time we learn to look through those glasses to see our journeys differently, that we might see to alter our courses like those in Hebrew’s Faith Hall of Fame.

We have some modern day examples of the church in these two different moves of faith.

53 years ago after a march against racism, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. found himself sitting in a jail in Birmingham Alabama. His lawyer smuggled in a letter from the leading white church leaders of the time. The white church leaders expressed sympathy with the cause for civil rights, but urged MLK to stop being so disruptive in the streets, chastised him for causing racial tension, and wanted him to instead focus on the slow steady work of racial unity, negotiations, and court cases.

Sitting in his cell Dr. King penned with his infamous response, the Letter from Birmingham City Jail. I won’t detail his response here, but if you’re curious, take 15 minutes to read it this afternoon. It’s one of the most important, prophetic letters in American history.  Instead I want to sit with the white liberal church’s failure in that moment. Inside of their congregations I know those churches passed on the faith to their youth, comforted their sick, and preached God’s love.

Yet, there was manifest injustice all around, and they held back. They’re love wasn’t made public.  Somehow they failed to see the situation through God’s glasses. And as a result, their careful pruning in the vineyard of faith did not produce the sweet grapes of justice in their city.

Fast forward again, and on the other hand, just this past June at our denomination’s general assembly. Rev. Denise Anderson was elected co-moderator. She took the pulpit at our national gathering wearing a shirt saying Black Lives Matter. Her presence and her message there offered the church to put on God’s glasses again, to look afresh at our city. What it look like through God’s glasses when our country has just 5% of the world population, but 25% of the worlds prisoners, most of whom are people of color? What sort of course correction can we make as the church to make our love public, to fight the structure of white supremacy in America, so that our faith produces those sweet grapes of justice?

At the very end of our passage from Hebrews there’s a curious line. “Yet all these [heroes], though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.”

God’s inviting us to take our places in that hall of fame. What does it look like to view the landscape through God’s glasses and then make our love public? One example I love is right here where for the last several years you joined the effort a separate drug court that like traffic court, keeps people out of prison who don’t need to be there. That’s a hall of fame move.

Because it is clear that the kingdom isn’t here yet friends. And sometimes when we get a glimpse through God’s glasses it’s terribly clear just how far Rochester, Minnesota, the U.S. is from that kingdom ideal. But everything we do inside of these walls, in youth group, sharing a meal together, can also help us catch a glimpse through God’s glasses to see how that heaven might come to be on earth a bit more. Let’s keep looking through them for ways to chart our journeys so that salvation for us in here is one with justice out there.