Sermon – 8/20/17

Categories: Church,Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollyWorking with God

by Rev. Joe Connolly

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“Thus says Yahweh, God: / Maintain justice; do what is right, / for soon my salvation will come, / and my deliverance be revealed.” — Isaiah 56:1.

I have what these days we call a learning disability. I am dyslexic. What being dyslexic means is numbers and letters sometimes are perceived by me in a way which is not the way they are actually written. My brain interprets some numbers as being inverted, backwards.

Therefore to me, 12 can look like 21. Thank God for numbers like 11, 22, 33 and 44. There’s no way of mistaking them for what they are.

My brain also sometimes interprets some letters as being inverted, backwards. In fact, one time seeing letters in reverse presented a real church issue for me.

In New York City I belonged to All Angels Church. But every time I wrote the name down, it came out as All Angles. (Now some might think All Angles is an appropriate name for a church in New York City, but not really.)

Indeed and therefore, I will always be grateful I learned Hebrew in Seminary. You see, transliterated from the Hebrew the word “el”— e-l— is one of the names for God. And, of course, the letters ‘e and l’ are a part of the word ‘ang-el.’

And I learned that in Hebrew the word angel means messenger from God. So, for me, it is now easier when I see the word ‘ang-el’ separate the ‘e-l’ part of the word ‘angel’ out from the ‘a-n-g” part of the word ‘angel.’ For me it is easier to recognize the word is, in fact, a-n-g-e-l not a-n-g-l-e.

This brings me back to the fact that I am dyslexic. When I was in grade school back in 19xx (the pastor puts hand to mouth and mumbles) the teachers did not know what dyslexia was. They certainly did not test for it.

Now, Bonnie accuses me of having a photographic memory. But that’s not true. However, I believe dyslexia forces me to listen carefully and absorb much of what I hear, a talent I learned in grade school.

In fact, when I was in Seminary a teacher once handed back a paper she had assigned to the whole class and said most of the class would need to do the paper over. Why? She apologized for not handing out written instructions about the paper and insisted she must not have explained the assignment well since only a couple of people had complied with her verbal instructions.

I, on the other hand, must have listened very carefully and fully heard this professor’s verbal instructions. Guess who got an ‘A’ on that paper, first crack? Me, the one who had developed a keen sense of listening back in grade school. (Slight pause.)

We hear these words from the Scroll of the Prophet Isaiah in the third section of that work: “Thus says Yahweh, God: / Maintain justice; do what is right, / for soon my salvation will come, / and my deliverance be revealed.” (Slight pause.)

This is a given. We all have and have developed different ways to learn things. Testing tells us a majority of people— 65% according to one test— are visually oriented; a majority of people learn by seeing pictures. Perhaps that’s why movies are so popular.

Indeed, what first made Hollywood a world wide force was the silent movie. The language being used was purely visual and, therefore, quite universal.

But visual learning dates back much further than that. I have always thought the real proof most people learn by seeing is the existence of Medieval cathedrals found all over the Europan landscape. You see, the literacy rate in that era was very low.

And Scripture demands an ability to read and to interpret what is being read. But people did not need to read Scripture in Medieval times because the Scripture was visually presented to them in the stained glass windows and the statues of the aforementioned Cathedrals. (Slight pause.)

Having said Scripture demands an ability to read and interpret what is read, let me invite you back to the time of Third Isaiah, about 500 years before the common era. Just as in Medieval times, the literacy rate was low.

Despite that, what we today call Scripture existed. In fact, most Biblical scholars insist a book we actually could identify as the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, was already in place and available, 500 years before the common era. Of course, in order to read it you needed to be literate. And the literacy rate was low.

That brings up an interesting question. And what kind of Biblical theology do we find in the Torah, this written work? Biblical scholars would argue that the Hebrews did not have an organized theology, what we today would call systematic theology, a theology that demands being read.

I would, in fact, suggest Judaism is, by its nature, an Eastern, mystical religion, a religion about how things feel, something not particularly compatible with an organized, systematic, read theology. It is we Westerners who demand that in religion philosophic systems be mixed in with mysticism and, thereby, demanded a theology be organized, demanded a systematic theology.

Based on that premise, that the Hebrew people did not have an organized, systematic theology, what was the theology of the Hebrew people? How did the Hebrew people learn theology? Put another way, if a whole people can be said to have cultural traits, ways specific cultures do things— and I tink it’s a pretty fair statement to say cultures have traits— what was the learning style of the Hebrew people? (Slight pause.)

Those same aforementioned Biblical scholars often say the Hebrews did not have a theology. The Hebrews did theology. Action was how theology was expressed. That brings us back to the words of Isaiah— maintain justice, do what is right. (Slight pause.)

There is a related point to be made. Scripture is not like a newspaper. The intent of Scripture has nothing to do with the reporting of events. The intent of Scripture, especially the works we call the Prophets, is to reflect in a thoughtful way about what has happened and what people have done in response to God and what God has done, to reflect on that in a thoughtful way.

These words from Isaiah tell us doing the will of God is the kind of theology to which God invites us. That bids the obvious question: “what is the will of God?”

This passage provides an answer. Everyone, all people, are included in the realm of God, the work of God.

Foreigners, those who love the name of Yahweh, those who worship Yahweh are included in the realm of God, are called to do the work of God. Those who keep the Sabbath, do not profane it, those who keep the Covenant are included in the realm of God the work of God. (Slight pause.)

I have always maintained keeping the covenant is both the easiest and the hardest thing we will ever do. Keeping the covenant should be easy because the will of God is or perhaps should be obvious. Why? Defining the covenant is simple: love God; love neighbor.

Covenant is obviously hard since so few seem to be able to adhere to either part of that two part commitment of loving God and neighbor says. The difficult road of loving God and loving neighbor has been more than evident in our country in this last week.

Indeed, it should be clear there are many kinds of ways and many ways to be violent, which breaks covenant. Among them are social violence, economic violence, physical violence, emotional violence. I could go on, but I’ll let you supply your own types of violence that exists around us. And this is unquestionable: all violence is evil.

However, this is also clear: the Bible calls us to hope. The Bible calls us to persevere and to have faith in things not seen. (Slight pause.)

So, how do we strive to overcome this real and tangible evil we see around us, to have faith in things not seen? If we follow what Isaiah says, we are called to the action of keeping Covenant. But still how are we to act? (Slight pause.) I think I will rely on the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in addressing that question, ‘how are we to act?’

(Quote:) “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate….’

“Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” [1]

These are the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And they are a call to the action known as Covenant, an action in which can all participate.

And perhaps the action to which we are called is the covenant of loving God and loving neighbor. So, instead of me intoning an “Amen” as I often to at the end of my comments I invite you, this congregation, to respond to the words of Dr. King with an “Amen” of your own. And the people said: amen. (And the response was loud and unified.)

08/20/2017
United Church of Christ

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “O.K. Did you see what I did at the end of the meditation today? I invited you to action. And that action to which I invited you was probably pretty easy. All you had to do was intone the word ‘Amen.’ But I also want to point out that the Covenant with God does not incorporate or condone coercion or violence of any kind— as attractive as that might be sometimes— when it comes to action.— no violence, no coercion when it comes to action. So, sometimes intoning an “Amen” as it affirms the will of God is what you need to do. But I think we all recognize when that is not enough all the time. A simple ‘Amen’ is not enough where and when evil is rampant we need to do more. And that is when action to halt evil needs to be taken.”

BENEDICTION: We are commissioned by God to carry the peace of God into the world. Our words and our deeds will be used by God, for we become messengers of the Word of God in our actions. Let us recognize that the transforming power of God is forever among us. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God that we are in awe of no one and nothing else. Amen.

[1] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from Strength to Love, 1963.

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