Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Grace and peace from God our Creator, Hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.
So here we are on the umpteenth Sunday of “Ordinary Time”—we’re in that green season of summer between holidays—as a joke, we sometimes call this the “low holy days”—where we’re just supposed to go week to week without any particular excitement. Just some ordinary days. But I can think of 57 people, myself included, who, after last week’s summer trip theme, just might not ever look at the word “ordinary” the same way again.
Ordinary time offers us a little breathing room from the rigidity of the other seasons—we’re not lamenting or anticipating or celebrating anything in particular all summer, so we get a chance to re-center and rethink just what it is that we’re up to in our “ordinary” lives. We have the freedom to reconsider our identity in Christ as individuals and as a community.
Our community here at Bethlehem here in Encinitas is pretty comfortable. But I’ve been away from y’all for a while, now, and my internship supervisor taught me a catchphrase I just might have to stick on my car. The role of the pastor, Pastor Dave says, is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. This week’s lectionary texts make that job easy.
At first glance, this week’s texts are full of a lot of, umm, Bible-y things. The Isaiah text is full of burnt offerings and the dreaded Sodom and Gommorah; the Hebrews text offers fancy words about faith and ancestors; and the gospel is about slaves and the end times. Oof.
The kingdom of God that Jesus is always drawing us into is confusing, because the people he was speaking to thought it was the end of the world and that it was coming like, next weekend, and we’re pretty sure that didn’t happen. And so, now, when he admonishes us to look alive, we struggle to be in as big a hurry as he seems to insist.
The kingdom of God can be beautifully described as the beloved community. Those of you who have known Bethlehem for a while know that if I’ve said something good, Pastor Ray probably said it, and therefore Dr. King probably said it. His words are where the ideal of the beloved community really fleshed out, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. The beloved community, according to Dr. King, is the end of the struggle—“the end,” he says, “is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is creation.”
Those are also Bible-y things, so let’s talk about those.
A theologian I love named Joyce Hollyday writes about this and says that we’re “building a new city—one where justice and peace replace hatred and violence. I may only add the 57th brick in the third row of the left wall of the garage for the second house from the corner. It may seem like little. But if we all work together—and keep the faith—a world more grand than our greatest imaginings will one day appear.” This beloved community is real and possible and about as hard of work as it sounds.
On our trip to Visalia last week, we participated in the building of the beloved community. We spent day after day having fun together and loving each other through some less-than-stellar moments, reminding and being reminded of the value of laughter and tears and hugs between friends. We developed relationships we’d never imagined, and we deepened relationships we thought had no further to go. And, while all of that was happening, we literally built a community. The 45 kids and their 7 small group leaders worked alongside the families who will soon live in and own the homes we were all constructing together. Each of us was able to do our small part, combined with everyone else’s small part, to make a large difference.
Even if you only nailed one column on one stud on one house on one street, so did your neighbor, and that wall now stands. Even if you only installed electrical boxes in one room of one house on one street, so did your neighbor, and that house will have lights. Even if you only caulked one window on one wall in one house on one street, so did your neighbor, and that house will stay weatherproof. Each of these pieces of our work last week may have seemed small, and random, and occasionally haphazard. But the work that went in before our arrival and the work that takes place now, after we’re gone—all of it is part of that neighborhood, and we are part of that community, now.
Imagine if we understood this type of investment and that type of work as we built the beloved community together. Imagine if we took a week out of our summer vacation—a week of vacation out of our year of work—and dedicated those hours to improving the well-being of our world. That sounds like a significant change in the way we live our lives. But I’d invite you to take it further than just a week out of the year. I’d like that week to be unnecessary, because we’re operating on a daily basis with the intention of building the beloved community. Because each time we walk out the door, we’re intending to make gentle the life of this world.
It won’t be easy.
“Nothing sends terror through the bones of the American middle class more quickly than the injunction, ‘Sell your possessions,’” Walter Wink writes. “We equivocate. We rationalize. We explain. And we do nothing but heap on guilt. Jesus is not trying to make us feel bad; he reminds us that it is all divine gift, not effort on our part. ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.’”
The reason this call to sell our possessions always sounds so threatening and so impossible is because it could only work in community. It could only work if our whole world wasn’t centered on who had what. And our societies have been that way for a long time. Jesus knows a little bit about that.
This week’s gospel is wonky and apocalyptic and not even Jesus’ listeners are super sure what to do with it. There’s a slave owner who is going to return from his own wedding feast to serve another to his own servants? That’s backwards. Jesus’ message turns every social system upside down. No master has ever done this.
Who are we, here? Will we be awake when the master returns? When the thief comes? Or is it we who are thieves? If we truly are to be the beloved community, how might the Spirit, alive in us, express this new world order?
As Jonathan asked us all last week, what is the point of any of this if you’re not going to let it change you?
The world we are called to love is complicated. The people we are called to love are complicated. There are systems in which we are entrenched, and there are relationships from which we cannot escape. Cycles of violence plague us.
But we, builders of the beloved community, have reconciliation, redemption, and creation in our toolbelts. We may feel like we’re up against a pretty massive current reality—and we are. Jesus’ message of radical social change came against the Roman Empire, so he knows what kind of systems we’re facing. And his message of radical social change is not small. And because we have been empowered by the holy spirit, neither are we. Because our God is powerful, so too we are powerful. It is how we use our power that makes all the difference.
Because you are sitting in these pews right now, you have the power to worship freely in the nation you call home. Because you are sitting in these pews right now, you have access to reliable transportation, you are healthy enough to leave your home and do as you please, your employment situation is such that you have Sunday mornings free or could arrange to have this morning free in order to be here. Because we are in this church building in this town in this state in this nation, we are some of the wealthiest people this world has ever known. If you’re a citizen who’s 18 or older, you can vote in some of the most important elections this world has ever known. You. Have. Power.
And there are people sitting beside you who have a little less or a little more, sure. But there are people sitting beside you everywhere else you will go today who have a lot less. And there are millions of people you will never see as you go about your daily life who have a whole lot less. The beloved community must include them as surely as it must include us.
The beloved community does not have space for systemic and institutionalized racism, sexism, xenophobia, heterosexism, rape culture, glorified violence, the war-industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex, the war on drugs, the war on terror, chronic homelessness, marginalization of the mentally ill, fear-mongering, gerry-mandering, or any other manifestations of the sin that so easily entangles.
Martin Luther would tell us that we live in two kingdoms—the kingdom of God, and the United States of America. We are called to be full participants in both. As equality in this country falls by the wayside, it is our job to call for the radical social change that Jesus preaches. We are called to put an end to the snowballing income inequality that surrounds us. We are called to bridge the gap in education that leaves poor children with fewer and fewer options. We are called to require living wages from all employers. We are called to demand respect of all cultures and religious traditions in this nation—especially those that are not our own. We are called to live justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. There is work to be done and we are called to be the people who do it.
So, you see, Ordinary Time is not free time. It is not time to skip church and go to the beach. Ordinary time is time to act. It’s the time we aren’t bogged down by Christmas shopping or spring break planning or finals week or any of our favorite excuses—it is time.
Thanks be to God. Amen.