We’re Depending on You

Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/blmurch/3382804237/">Beatrice Murch</a>

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

God’s spirit is on me.
God has chosen me,
And sent me to rally the oppressed,
To mend broken hearts,
To announce the captives’ emancipation
And the prisoners’ release,
To declare that this year God will rescue
And today God will be vindicated.

To comfort the mourners:
To take care of Zion’s mourners,
Replacing their ashes with trophies,
Replacing their funeral clothes with party clothes,
Replacing their dejection with celebration.

They will be called Oaks of Justice
Planted by God to show how great God is.
They’ll rebuild what’s been long destroyed,
They’ll raise what’s been written off,
They’ll restore cities from shambles
Abandoned for generations.

I, God, love justice.
I hate robbery and deceit.
I’ll surely give them what they’re owed,
And I’ll make them a binding contract.
Their descendents will be famous all over the world,
Their children among every race.
Everyone who sees them will agree
That they have God’s blessing.

I’ll be glad because of God,
My whole being will thrill with God,
For God has dressed me in the trappings of victory,
Wrapped me in robes of justice,
Like a groom puts on his corsage,
And a bride puts on her jewelry.

As the earth grows plants
And a garden grows seeds,
So God grows justice and gratitude
Wherever there are people.

It’s worth stopping to think about how radical, even revolutionary, this poetry is. Start with just the idea that God would make a binding contract with people who have no legal status. Let alone rallying the oppressed, emancipating the slaves, and orchestrating a massive jail break. Think about it. There is a reason those cities have been destroyed, abandoned and not rebuilt. Someone wants them that way. There’s a reason why we (yes we) write some people off. But this poem will not allow people to remain written off.

No less radical the idea that justice and gratitude are going to grow in people as naturally as seeds grow in soil. It’s just not how we typically see people behave. Sure, there are lots of just and gracious people. But in the present situation, it’s hard to say whether they are so far in the majority as to be viewed as a “natural occurrence.”

So, here’s the question. Is this a utopian dream (or a terrible nightmare, depending on which side you’re on)? Or is it something that really is achievable?

And the answer is: it’s both. Or it can be. It would be only a utopian vision of justice for the poor and the masses, except for the first line: “God’s spirit is on me.” None of it is possible unless the one who is reading it hears it as her own words and calling. That’s how Jesus would one day read it in a Nazarene synagogue (Luke 4:18-21). He read it with the understanding that it applied directly to himself. But until someone – you perhaps – read it with the understanding that this was not meant to be Isaiah’s calling or Jesus’ calling, but your calling, it remains merely fantasy.

Is it real? Will the revolution live? Will the oppressed be emancipated? Will there be just and gracious people where you live?

Yes, but only if you make it so. It depends – and we’re depending – entirely on you.

Now that You’re Here, What Will You Do?

road in desert
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/traitlinburke/2883054464/">Chalky Lives</a>

Isaiah 40:1-11

“Comfort my people,” says God.
“Speak softly to Jerusalem.
And sing to her that she is free,
Her debt paid in full,
And she has received twice as much from God as she deserved.”

So a voice shouts:
“Make a road for God through the wasteland,
Make a highway for God run straight through the desert.
Fill in every valley.
Bring down every mountain and hill.
Level off he uneven ground.
Flatten the bumps.

“When it’s ready, the greatness of God will be obvious,
And everyone will recognize it in that instant,
Because God said so.”

A voice shouts:
“Shout it out!”

And I said,
“Shout what out?”

People are like grass,
They’re as flimsy as wildflowers.
The stalks dry up and the flowers wilt
When the wind of God blows on them.
Surely, people are grass.
The stalks dry up and the flowers wilt,
But what God says is permanent.

Go to the mountaintop,
Messenger of Zion’s good news,
And there shout out,
Messenger of Jerusalem’s good news.
Don’t be afraid to say it loud
To the cities of Judah:
“Here is God!
Here is God coming with power,
Arm upraised in victory,
Bringing the victor’s trophy,
God’s prize is God’s vanguard.

God will tend the flock like a shepherd.
God will gather the lambs in an embrace,
And hug them close,
And God will gently lead the ewes.

In spite of impermanence there is hope.

All we, like the wildflowers are here today and gone tomorrow. All we, like sheep, are just another dot on the landscape. And yet this poem has the audacity to claim that there is hope. Somehow, we are significant to someone somewhere. Someone cares. Cares enough to take up our cause, to make a way to us, and to lead us home again.

It’s an even more audacious claim now than it was then. Now we know that our existence is as one among the 7 billion inhabitants on the planet, and one planet among the billions scattered across the universe. Could it be true that some divine element or being “out there” has marked us, personally, for some kind of special significance? Or is the prophet merely hearing voices in his head?

Consider, though, that the occasion for this poem was the emancipation of a captive people. After being held in exile for a generation, they were being told they could finally go home. And that was, historically, something that happened that nobody had any reason to expect. It was an overwhelmingly fortunate turn of events. The kind of event that happens (or we hear about it happening to others) and we say, “Someone must have been looking out for us.”

A near miss of a traffic collision. A lucky break at work. No fatalities when a plane goes down in the Hudson River. Even the Goldilocks conditions of the universe that makes life possible on this planet seem to collude in a way that appears to replicate intelligence and care. (And this is the basis for the argument of intelligent design.) It’s the dream of hitting the lottery made all the more addicting because someone somewhere does hit the lottery every week with statistical certainty.

But for all the poem’s majesty and exaltation, the most compelling words are the question implicit in what’s sung tenderly to Jerusalem: Now that you’ve hit the lottery, and (however it happened) you’ve showed up on the planet with twice as much as you deserve, what are you going to do with it? How will you exercise your freedom, now that you are free?

Will you pay it forward, and make a road for someone else to get to freedom so they can sing too?

Have the Attitude of Gratitude

woman smiling
Photo credit: Sukanto Debnath

2 Corinthians 9:6-15

Here’s the point. If you’re a stingy investor, you’ll never get much of a return. But if you invest a lot, you’ll get a lot back. So each of you needs to contribute what’s genuinely you, not what someone else tells you to. God’s looking for unfettered generosity. God will provide more than enough of what you need. And, since you have everything you need, you’re free to share it freely to do great work.

Like it says in the psalm:

God invests everywhere, even in the poor.
God’s justice is eternal.

God supplies food to eat with enough extra to invest in the future. And God will give you plenty to invest, so you can be increasingly magnanimous, too. The best way to become rich is to be generous – and we will be sure to thank God for you. Our ministry takes care of many believers, and in addition, gushes with thanksgiving to God. When you invest in our ministry, you prove your loyalty to God and your commitment to Jesus by sharing with them and others. And, they also will pray and care for you because of God’s having blessed you. Thank God for this indescribable opportunity!

Paul is pitching his own ministry here, of course. But even as such, it’s a pretty good reminder that if you have what you need, it’s an occasion for gratitude.

And if you happen to have more than just what you need to get by, then it’s an occasion not just for gratitude, but for expressing your gratitude through generosity.

Unlike Paul, I’m not going to tell you how to express your gratitude or generosity. But Paul is right to say that such occasions are tremendous opportunities. Not every investment is successful in the way we hope it might be. But the general principle is still true: you can’t expect to make a profit without some putting in some effort.

And, while effort is hard, it doesn’t have to be burdensome. Working hard at something you love is another indescribable opportunity to be thankful for.

It might just be another definition of “unfettered generosity.”

[On a personal note: I’m thankful for the opportunity to work on the Scarlet Letter Bible and to share it with you. It’s hard work. And I love it. And I’m equally grateful that anyone reads it. And that you’re reading it now. To you, I say, quite simply, Thank you.]

Pay it Forward

pay it forward
Image credit: Heather Bauer, Yellow Makes Me Happy

Deuteronomy 8:7-18

God is bringing you into a good place with flowing with streams, with artesian wells and aquifers springing up on hill and in dale, a place where staple crops, fruit vines and trees grow, a place where you will find delicacies like olives and honey in abundance, a place where you’ll never lack, and where you’ll find iron and copper. You’ll stuff yourselves full and thank God for the blessings of this good place.

But, make sure not to forget God or fail to follow God’s instructions, laws, and ways. When you’re stuffed full in the beautiful homes you will have settled down in, and when your livestock are multiplying, and when your money is accumulating, and when everything is going well, don’t think that you’ve come by it on your own and forget that it was God who brought you here from slavery in Egypt. Don’t forget who led you through the vastness of the desert wastes with its poisonous snakes and scorpions. Don’t forget that God made water flow from rocks and fed you all that time, through all that ordeal, and in the end did right by you. Don’t tell yourself that you’ve made all this by your own strength. But remember that your strength is on loan to you from God. It’s a loan guaranteed by a contract between God and your ancestors.

Moses must have been channeling Elizabeth Warren:

There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you! But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that maurauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea — God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

Whether you read Moses’ version or Ms. Warren’s, the bottom line is you’re never as independent as you think you are. And your success depends on the hard work and contributions of a lot of people. Many of whom you don’t even know. Many of whom are long since dead. Your success and prosperity is on loan to you. This Thanksgiving Week, three things to do:

  1. Take some time to be grateful, and to tell someone – heck, tell everyone – how grateful you are to them.
  2. Pay it forward. Don’t just say something to someone. Do something for someone.
  3. Don’t squander the gifts and advantages you have. Do something significant with them. Something that will make the next generation realize how much they have and be thankful.