Sylvania United Church of Christ
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The sermon for week March 20, 2011

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Isaiah 43:1-13 John 6:53-69 Rachael’s Ordination March 20, 2011

On November 18, 1995, Itzhak Perlman, the famous violinist gave a concert in Lincoln Center. Perlman is known both for his incredible musical talent and the fact that he has achieved so much in spite of having polio as a child. On this night, just as he had played the first few bars, one of his violin strings snapped. Everything stopped and the audience waited silently, expecting a studio hand to bring him a new string. But that never happened.

Instead, Perlman closed his eyes and then signaled for the conductor to begin again. The orchestra began and he played from where he had left off. Of course the audience knew it was impossible to play a major symphonic work with just three strings. But that night Perlman refused to know that. You could see him modulating, changing, recomposing the piece in his head. When he finished, the audience went wild. He smiled and then said in a reverent tone, “You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can make with what you have left.” Perhaps that is the way not only of artists, but of life itself. That is one of the messages I got from the scriptures Rachael chose for her ordination.

Each candidate for ordination is asked to pick their scriptures. I was anxious to see what Rachael would choose and I was not disappointed. If you didn’t notice, these scriptures portray a most powerful God. By that I mean this is no gentle, snuggle up to me and tell me I’m okay god. These words push the limits and speak of a God of power and steadfast love who is ready to do what needs to be done, on three strings if that is what it takes, for what is true and just.

Listen to the language again from Isaiah. Yahweh says “I am creator,” “I am redeemer,” I have called you,” and “I am with you.” This is a bold God who challenges the gods of other nations to match Yahweh’s deeds. This God is not for sissies. There is no sitting back. This God is served by people who one day while delivering the mail decide, “With God’s help, I can be a doctor,” like Rachael’s father Wayne did many years ago. This God is served by people who go to a UCC National Youth Event and come home saying, “Mom, I want to finish my senior year of high school in India.” Then go to Austria, before answering God’s call to seminary in St. Louis and Princeton before traveling to California and only then finally having the opportunity to serve a church in eastern Pennsylvania. This wasn’t exactly 40 years in the wilderness, but I’m sure it felt like it at times. “Is God leading me and if so where?” had to be questions you wrestled with, and hopefully still are, during those long years.

The people of Israel in today’s Isaiah text are in exile, another wilderness experience. They feel cut off, dispossessed from their home with no hope of returning when the prophet comes to them with a word that God is going to do something new. The word of God is calling for new life even though they cannot hear it. Their homecoming is assured, even though they cannot see it. Just before our reading, God has accused the Israelites of being deaf and blind to God’s word in their midst. Now God promises this new hope using this people even though they are so often blind and deaf to God’s presence and action in their midst.

Walter Brueggemann tells us that this is a salvation oracle which enacts a great homecoming. The exiles will return to Jerusalem. It is promised for the benefit of the displaced who are God’s beloved. He says, “This conviction and passion which God has for God’s people are the ground of hope for the exiled community. It is, moreover, a hope to which any subsequent displaced and despised people (and there are many) cling to desperately but firmly.”

Where are those people today: in refugee camps, trapped by poverty in our inner cities? Yes, but the truth is we have all experienced times in our lives when our world came crashing down on us. In those times, we tend to respond out of fear and a desire to get back control.
I happened to catch a few moments of a Joel Osteen sermon on TV recently. Osteen preaches a gospel of prosperity. It works. I happen to know he’s very prosperous. His pitch is usually about how to overcome life’s problems and when we do, there will be a reward. In this sermon he preached about how people will keep trying to pull you down and you have to let God pull you up fort that reward. It tends to be a very “me” directed message.

I was feeling smug about my analysis until the camera panned back and revealed an amphitheater packed to the rafters. There were thousands of people listening to Osteen’s every word. It occurred to me that these are people who feel displaced and despised and they are seeking a word from God. These are people who feel like victims of whatever has happened to them in life. There is have a tendency to feel like a victim when life doesn’t go your way. They don’t know how to play with three strings.

They know what it’s like to be a victim. Victims tend to lay blame on others for their problems. When they are victimized they tend to spend a lot of time and energy making sure it won’t happen again. This attitude is summed up in the old phrase, “Fool me once shame on you. Fool me twice shame on me.” Victims spend their time and energy trying to get even, to get back what was lost or to prevent their victimization from happening again. It is so easy to be among their number.

But God’s people are called to give up their victim status and trust in the truth of God’s word of hope and homecoming. Instead of being victims, instead of focusing on how much we fail to see and hear in response to God, we are called to be witnesses of the many more times we do see God acting in our midst or we do hear God’s word spoken. We are to trust that God will fulfill this promise of bringing us to a new life and a renewed hope and stop feeling like victims. “You are my witnesses, says the Lord, and my servants whom I have chosen.”

Last spring, our church choir joined with members of Zion Mennonite Church in Archbold to sing Hyden’s Seven Last Words. When we sang the piece in Archbold, we began with a hymn and no accompaniment. The entire congregation burst into beautiful four-part harmony. Their soloists were great. It was heavenly music. We then performed the piece here at our church with our own soloists, one of whom was Tami who just read the scriptures for us. The people at the Archbold church sang with incredible harmony and beauty. Their music was heavenly, Tami’s solo was sacred.

Tami has fought back from her stroke with the support of so many people. She has testified that God is alive and well and present to her even though there was in her a broken string. No victim she. Tami keeps bringing beautiful music to all who have eyes to see and ears to hear. And Tami isn’t alone. Each of us has broken strings, frayed strings ready to let go. We have a choice. Can we choose to be witnesses too?

We are to deliver people to hope out of darkness by moving them from victims to witnesses. This is the calling of ministry. This is the work of the church we are equipped to do in our baptism. It is the work of God to help us choose to live not in fear or anger of what has happened or what might happen. No, we are called to live, to love and to minister in acceptance and hope of all the truth and mercy of God that is and can yet be. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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