Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Luke 12:32-40
Two weeks ago, I did a silly thing, since I was still on sabbatical. I looked ahead to see what the texts were for today. Innocently thinking, I’ll start preaching again and it would be good to have what I’m supposed to reflect on rattling around in my head. So I looked up the lectionary passages- that’s the list of prescribed readings for the year- and then looked them up in my Bible. In reading the Isaiah passage, I got about as far as “you rulers of Sodom” and closed the Bible with a loud swiftness. Let’s check the gospel: don’t be worried, sell your stuff, and be consumed with showing mercy and charity. Snap, close it again.
Gosh, that’s just the stuff people looooooove to hear.
It would be great if I just decided here, instead, to tell you some stories of my sabbatical- right. Surely, I saw some interesting things or thought some deep thoughts or was moved in some way that can bear fruit for us now. Then I can tie it up in a nice theological bow, perhaps linking back to “Be not afraid” and we can go straight to the hymn. Huzzah.
Have we met?
The reality is that we are actually confronting three of the most frequently occurring issues in Scripture in these passages. Sodom and Gomorrah as an example of how not to behave is the first. “Be not afraid” is the second. God’s concern with our possessions is the third. Each of these things appears so often in scripture as to be ubiquitous. If a complex, literary compilation like the Bible uses the same examples and exhortations through different styles, writers, and time periods- there must be something fairly significant about them.
First, why are Sodom and Gomorrah mentioned in a passage that refers to God hating the way people worship? What did Sodom and Gomorrah have to do with ritual sacrifices, liturgy, or religious practices? To be very clear, the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah is one of gross inhospitality. Living in the desert requires an openness to strangers, a willingness to take them in, offer them sustenance, and care for their animals. Life in the wilderness is communal, even when you do not know each other.
The men of Sodom and Gomorrah, when confronted with strangers in their city, not only ignored social norms and expectations and failed at God’s call to hospitality, they demanded to be allowed to do what they wanted with the strangers. In other words, not only did they fail to be generous with what they had, they decided to make the very bodies of the strangers their own property to do with what they wanted.
When these cities reappear as examples later, it is due to a prophetic call to hospitality and alertness to God’s work in the world. In the time of Isaiah 1, which is written much later as a kind of foreword to the proceeding chapters, the people of Israel have been exiled, lived in exile, and now have returned to the land. The writer is not telling those listening to stop worshipping. Instead, they are being called out for believing that their worship life will absolve their failure to live ethically with the rest of their time and their community.
This is where it applies to us as well. What we do with the other 167 hours of the week is as important to God as what we do in one hour on Sunday morning. Both historical and contemporary readers of Isaiah are supposed to understand that our worship can be distasteful to God, not because God doesn’t like the hymns or the order in which we do things or the candles are wrong, but because we don’t bother to align the rest of our lives with what we do and say here, which affects the people around us during this hour and all the other hours of our lives.
Which brings us to the theme of “sell your possessions and give alms”, which really means “sell your possessions and do charity or mercy”. I am guessing that most of you didn’t want or need a better translation on the second half of the sentence and were hoping for something different in the first half. Here is the hard truth: we all have too much stuff. We have more than we need and, if we were honest, we have more than we want.
Just like how our worship may get separated from our living, instead of intertwined and one informing the other, so our possessions may begin to possess us. We do not have a good connotation of “being possessed”, but think of how many commercials, advertising emails, discount mailers, catalogues, print ads, and other things we receive on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Speaking for myself, I hesitate to mention how often I see something and want it.
Jesus’ words here go beyond mere accumulation; they are aimed directly at questioning our priorities. How dedicated are we to the way of Christ- a way of radical welcome, of mercy, of forgiveness, of generosity, of time and talent? Is the way of Christ our highest brand loyalty or does that belong to a certain shoe manufacturer, fishing rod company, athletic team, or car brand? To whom do we belong, by what are we possessed, and how would someone looking at us or our homes or our bank statements know?
This seems like a good time to mention “Do not be afraid”. This phrase comes up again and again and again in the Bible. Why would it be repeated so often if it were not a thing God cared about? In the light of the other two examples in this sermon, does it mean- do not be afraid if you are not hospitable, not community-oriented, or if you just love stuff? No, I am pretty sure that if you find yourself in that boat, you are called to a little healthy concern about your priorities.
However, “be not afraid” does mean that you should never doubt God’s priorities. A merciful God, revealed in the preservation of Israel through the exile and beyond and even more fully in the life and resurrection of Jesus the Christ- a merciful God will not cease to love you, will not fail to walk with you, will not stop making space, opening a path, and inviting you forward into the way.
The Quaker writer Parker Palmer wrote about going to an elder in his community when he was struggling to find direction in his life:
Ruth's reply was a model of Quaker plain-speaking: 'I'm a birthright Friend,' she said somberly, 'and in sixty-plus year of living, way has never opened in front of me.' She paused, and I started sinking into despair. Was this wise woman telling me that the Quaker concept of guidance was a hoax? Then she spoke again, this time with a grin: 'But a lot of way has closed behind me, and that's had the same guiding effect.' (Letting Your Life Speak)
As we go forward into the life of faith, into the life we are called, the more deeply we trust the Spirit, the more way will close behind us. The way of dedicated individualism, the way of over-consumption, the way of anxiety and fear, the way of dehumanizing strangers and alienating neighbors—the way of Christ leads 180 degrees away from all of this and as you walk into one, the other closes behind you. This is real. This is the truth. Be not afraid.