Sermon: It Does Not Return to Me Empty

Sermon given at
9:30 Traditional Service
Asbury Our Redeemer Partnership
Hood River, Oregon
Sunday 13 July 2014
The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

by Rev. David D. M. King

Isaiah 55:10-13

The lectionary text from Isaiah this morning comes from the time of Israel’s captivity in Babylon. During the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were conquered by the great empires of the age. When the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, they forcibly relocated many of its leading citizens to Babylon, leaving behind only the common people. This is what is known as the Babylonian Captivity. It lasted seventy years, until the exiled Jews were allowed to return to Judea and begin rebuilding their civilization. The Babylonian Captivity changed Hebrew religion forever. Since the people no longer had a temple in which to worship God, written word became much more important. Much of what we now call the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament, was written, collected, or edited during this period, and Babylon continued to be a major center for Jewish writing for centuries.

This bit of Isaiah, Isaiah 40-55, what scholars usually call 2nd Isaiah, comes from this period of exile. The temple has been destroyed. The people have been forcibly relocated. They don’t know what is going to happen next. Will they just stay there as exiles in Babylon until their children are completely assimilated into Babylonian culture? Will they ever be allowed to return to Judea? Will they ever be allowed to rebuild the temple? No one knows. But remember that the exile lasted for 70 years. After 50 or 60 years of living in a foreign land, one can imagine that hope of a return was beginning to fade. Most of the people alive by then would have never known any other home than Babylon. As many as three or four generations of Jews would have been native to this new land.

It is in this context that the prophet speaks the words we heard this morning. God has promised the people that they will be able to return to Judea, that they will be able to rebuild the temple, that they will continue to be God’s chosen people. But that promise may seem pretty far-fetched at this point, and the prophet who declares God’s promised return may be starting to look like more of a kook than a messenger of God.

But Isaiah persists in proclaiming that God will fulfill what God has promised. God is trustworthy. Whatever God says, God will surely do.

The metaphor that God, speaking through the prophet, uses is the metaphor of rain and snow. Whenever rain or snow come, they don’t return to the earth without watering the ground. So also, God’s word, once it has come to earth, does not return to heaven until it has accomplished something.

Being on the border between eastern Oregon and western Oregon, as we are here in Hood River, we’re familiar with both snow and rain. My earliest memory of Hood River involves snow. It was some winter in the mid-eighties. I was probably about as old as Karthik is now. My mom and my grandma and I were traveling from grandma’s house in Haines, Oregon, near Baker City, to our home at the time, in Banks, Oregon, on the Sunset highway west of Portland. We were driving my grandma’s big old Pontiac, and it was snowing and windy the whole way. [We made it as far as Multnomah Falls before I-84 was closed and we had to turn back. There had been freezing rain in the gorge, and the pavement at Multnomah Falls was a solid sheet of ice. We made it back to Hood River and found a room at Prater’s Motel on Oak and 13th, across from what is now the Egg River Inn. I remember it being a sort of divy diner back then. Snow was piled up everywhere, with a few footpaths dug out between the yard-high drifts. What I haven’t told you yet is that it was also New Year’s Eve. While Mom and Grandma were complaining about what a wretched New Year’s this was turning out to be and wondering whether or not the gorge would be open tomorrow, I was staring out the window at the diner across the street, watching the biggest snowflakes I had ever seen float incomprehensibly slowly to the ground. I didn’t mind being snowed in one bit.] And I had no idea that some thirty years later I’d be moving into a house about three blocks away.

When you have a big snow like that, the snow doesn’t just evaporate away the next day. It takes a while to melt and to seep into the ground. And when the ground isn’t ready for it, sometimes it melts off in great streams, running down the roadway and into the creeks and streams and rivers. Where my grandma lives, in Haines, people spend all winter looking up at the Blue Mountains and hoping for snow. And it’s not because they are interested in the ski season. They want snow on those mountains because they know that, come the spring and summer, that snow means life. Without the snow in the winter, there is no water in the summer for the irrigation and livestock that keep the wheels of civilization turning in that part of the world. Here in Hood River, without the snow and the rain, there are no cherries or pears or berries or salmon. Without the rain and the snow, there is no skiing, either, or wind surfing or kayaking or tourism or hydroelectric power.

Even though we twenty-first century Americans live a lot farther from the means of subsistence than God’s people did two-and-a-half millennia ago, it is still nonetheless true that without water, without snow and rain, there is no life. When the snow and the rain fall, they do not return to the heavens without first bringing life. They do not leave without first “watering the earth, making it conceive and yield plants, providing seed to the sower and food to the eater.” For every living thing on this planet, water is life.

And that, says the prophet, is exactly how it is with God’s word. When God’s word comes down to us human beings, it does not return to heaven until it has done something, until it has brought life, until it has produced fruit. “It does not return to me empty,” God says. It does not return to me empty.

In the gospel lesson today, Jesus tells a parable about how the earth receives the seed that a planter plants. The image of rain and snow as God’s word implies a similar parable. Depending on what state the ground is in when the snows and the rains come, it receives those snows and rains differently.

Around here, we get a lot of rain. The ground here is good at soaking it up, and it can be transformed almost immediately into life for plants and animals. That might be like us when we are particularly receptive to God. Whatever God has to say to us, we soak it right up, eager for more. God’s word produces fruit in us almost immediately.

In Denver, where we moved from, whenever it rains, it floods. Now, I grew up in western Oregon, so I kind of like a good rain now and then. There were only a couple of times while we were living in Denver that there was enough rain for me to feel like it was actually raining. Unfortunately, both of those rains resulted in Presidentially declared disasters. It’s awfully hard to enjoy the rain when it’s resulting in massive flooding. Even what seemed like only a little bit of rain to me would often cause some flooding. The ground was just too dry to take in all the water it was receiving, and so the water would stack up and be absorbed slower or flow on through to provide life and nourishment to some other place.

In the same way, sometimes we are too dry to receive the message of God’s word well. Sometimes it rolls over us like a flood, knocking down the things we are clinging so tightly to in order to make way for something new. Sometimes we need to have some old things washed away in order for us to be more faithful to God, in order to be ready to hear what God is trying to say to us right now.

Sometimes precipitation comes in the form of snow. It piles up and piles up now, but later it gradually melts and brings its life to the land around. Snow allows water to be stored up in the winter and released when it is really needed in the spring and summer.

God’s word can work like that, too. Sometimes we hear what God has to say, and it doesn’t really do too much for us right at that moment. But God’s word gets stored away in us. Then, when the time is right, sudden it comes back to us. Suddenly those words that had seemed rather dull before take on a bright and shining new appearance. Suddenly they speak to us in a new way. Like a kind of time-release medicine capsule, we received those words at one time, but they didn’t take effect until later. But still, those words of God did not return to heaven until they had done something in us.

That’s how it is with God’s word. Whether it is a word that we receive through reading scripture, an insight that comes through prayer or meditation, or the very person of Jesus himself, the word made flesh—no matter which form God’s word comes in, it does not return to God empty. Sometimes we are open and eager to receive it. Sometimes we experience God’s word as disruptive, even destructive, like a flood. Other times we do not perceive the import of God’s word until long after we have received it. In all these cases, though, the word does what God intends it to do. Whether we are ready for it or not, God is moving. God is speaking to us, and will not cease until we hear.

Sermon: I Will Go

I Will Go

Sermon given at
the Asbury Our Redeemer Partnership
Hood River, Oregon
Sunday 6 July 2014
The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
by Rev. David D. M. King

Genesis 24:34-67

It seems like this day has been a long time coming. My appointment here was announced way back in February, and it’s seemed like a lot of waiting around until now when I’m actually here. I want to thank you for welcoming me and my family here. We are very excited to be in Hood River and to be a part of the life of this church.

The lectionary passage we have from Genesis this morning picks up in the middle of the story. Abraham, as you may remember, was called by God to leave his home in Ur, not far from Nasiriyah, Iraq, and go to Haran, near the border of Turkey and Syria. From there, he was called again to go to the Canaan, a new land that God was promising. Abraham and Sarah have many adventures on their to Canaan, and then to Egypt, and back to Canaan. They are promised an heir, who doesn’t come and doesn’t come, until finally Isaac is born when Abraham is in his hundreds and Sarah is in her nineties. Even after Isaac is born, Abraham is asked to sacrifice him, until, at the last minute, God changes his mind and allows Isaac to live.

When it comes time for Abraham and Sarah’s beloved son to be married, they aren’t taking any chances. They don’t want to find him a wife from among the local women, of whom they are very suspicious. Instead, they send a servant back to their family in Haran to find a suitable match for Isaac. It seems they didn’t approve of dating outside the family.

In any case, the servant gets sent. He travels the several hundred miles from Canaan to Haran. When he gets there, he tries to make a deal with God. He says that if God really wants this mission to go successfully, it would be in God’s best interest follow some simple instructions. When the servant sees a woman coming to the well, and when he asks her for a drink of water, if she gives him a drink of water and also draws water for his camels without being asked, then God should make sure that that is the woman who is supposed to marry Isaac.

And sure enough, God and Rebekah follow the script. Rebekah comes to well, the servant asks for a drink, and she draws water for him and for his camels. The servant puts gold bracelets on her arms and a gold ring in her nose and asks if he can spend the night at her family’s house. She takes him home and the negotiations begin.

The family agrees right away that Rebekah can be wedded to the heir of such a prosperous man as Abraham, and the servant showers them with expensive gifts: the bride price. But there is a sticking point. The family wants Rebekah to stay at home for ten more days so everyone can say a proper goodbye, but Abraham’s servant wants to leave with her right away. So they agree to do something they had never thought to do before: ask Rebekah what she thinks. Her family is no doubt sure that Rebekah will want to stay at home as long as possible before she is dragged off to a land she has never visited to be married to a man she has never met. But Rebekah surprises them. She speaks just on word in Hebrew — ēlēk — which is usually translated “I will go.” Literally, it means “I’m walking.” She will leave her family, her home, and everything that she has known because God has intervened and called her to go. I’m walking.

It strikes me that the process of betrothal and marriage is not a bad metaphor for what we are going through today. You are getting a new pastor, I am getting a new church—it is a partnership that we are entering into. And, at least in the United Methodist system, it is always an arranged marriage. Just like Isaac and Rebekah, you and I have been brought together with the aid of a matchmaker. We’ve been told quite a bit about each other. We have been assured that this is a good match. But we haven’t had much chance to get to know each other face to face yet. You placed your trust in the District Superintendent, Lowell Greathouse, and in the bishop, Grant Hagiya, to look at all the possibilities and to make the best possible match. And I did the same. And when I received news that the Bishop Hagiya wanted to send me here to Hood River, I responded, like Rebekah, and like any Methodist pastor who knows what’s good for them: “I will go.”

But I’m not just here because the Bishop sent me and I feel obliged to obey. I really do think a good match has been made here. I am excited for the ministry that we will do together in this place. Like any good marriage, we’ll have to work at it. We are bound to have disagreements and misunderstandings. And when those disagreements come, we will have to work to fulfill our covenant to each other, to listen with love, to seek understanding, to find consensus. The same things that make for a good marriage relationship also make for a good relationship between pastor and congregation: communication, honesty, patience, forgiveness, love.

But marriage isn’t just a good metaphor for the relationship between congregation and pastor, it’s also a good metaphor for the peculiar reality of this church: one congregation with two denominations. Unlike with you and I, though, or with Rebekah and Isaac, the partnership that you have formed here between Lutheran and Methodist is not an arranged marriage. No, the Asbury Our Redeemer Partnership is a love match. It is not a relationship one would normally expect. One might even call it scandalous. When I tell people that I’m pastoring a Lutheran-Methodist cooperative parish, by far the most common response is, “So, how does that work?” accompanied by a puzzled facial expression. Denominations don’t usually play well with others. Oh, it’s fine to plan the Good Friday service together or to serve together at the community meal. That’s just neighborly. But what happens when we talk about getting closer than just neighbors? Make no mistake, what we have here, this Methodist-Lutheran partnership—to many people it seems like forbidden love. “I know you feel like you love each other now,” they will advise us, “but how are you going to raise the kids? Whose traditions are you going to follow at the holidays? You’ve got to think about these things before you make such a big commitment. I just don’t want you to jump into something that you’re going to regret later.”

When people look at me with that quizzical expression and ask, “So, how does that work?” I think what they are really trying to ask is whether or not there is a pre-nuptial agreement. It’s fine to say you’re going to worship together for a while, but what happens when money and property get involved? Who keeps the family checkbook? If there is a divorce, who gets to keep the house?

Now, I know this process hasn’t been all roses and romantic walks on the beach. Bringing these two congregations together and forming a new one, it’s been hard. It’s been painful at times. There have been struggles and compromises and hurt feelings. And it’s not all just about Lutherans and Methodists. Some of it is about change, or unmet expectations, or words that were said and cannot be taken back. Many of you are convinced that this partnership is a good thing, that it is God working in this place to do a new thing. Even so, there are still wounds. There are doubts. There is uncertainty. And like any good married couple, we will have to face those things together. We will have to make our apologies, to bind up each other’s wounds, to keep walking forward even when we are not sure where we are going or whether we can make it, trusting that whatever we will do, we will do together.

What you have done already is no small accomplishment. I am awestruck whenever I think of the Methodists among you who chose to leave behind a building that had been the center of Methodist ministry in this community for more than a century, to leave behind the sanctuary where you were married, where your children were baptized, where your loved ones were memorialized, and to hear the call of God and say, like Rebekah, “I will go. I am walking.” That is an act of faith. And I am equally impressed by the Lutherans among you who chose to open your doors and to welcome in a new people, a people who might well want to do things differently than they have been done in this place before. That is an act of faith. I am impressed with a congregation who could probably use some more space for worship or classrooms, but who chose instead to set aside land and raise money to build an ecumenical food bank. You chose to defer your own needs in order to prioritize reaching out to the least and the last and the lost. That is a most excellent act of faith.

And all of this is God’s work among you. Time and again, God has called to you, has asked you to leave behind the things you know and to take a chance on something new. And time and again, you, like Rebekah, like Abraham, like Moses and Miriam, like Peter and Mary, time and again you have met God’s challenge. Time and again you have responded to God’s call. Time and again you have said, “We will go. We are walking.” People of God, we have been called and we are walking. May God give us the strength to keep on walking, and to go forward to wherever it is that Christ might lead us. Thanks be to God. Amen.