The Case for Emptiness

Fifth Sunday After Epiphany
Isaiah 6.1-8 (9-13)
Luke 5.1-11

I love it when a lectionary text comes with parentheses. It’s a sign, a hint, code for “preach at your own risk.” As in, “Do you want the good news, or (the bad news)?” Or, “These first few verses are okay, but (these verses) are liable to get you in trouble.” This week’s reading from Isaiah is one such example. The first eight verses tell the tale of Isaiah’s calling, which unfolds in a dramatic scene of burning coals and six-winged seraphim. In the vision, the voice of God fills the air, “Whom shall I send?” To which Isaiah responds with unclean, yet very brave lips, “Here I am; send me!”

According to the parentheses, we could stop there. And likely as not, we would have a pretty good shot at a pretty good sermon. After all, we probably know a thing or two about preaching the word with unclean lips. But speaking of sermons, that’s actually what those parenthetical verses are all about; a summary of what the Lord has in mind for Isaiah’s first prophecy:
• Preach a word the people can’t hear, can’t see, and can’t understand (6.9)
• Preach a word that precludes hope and delays healing (6.10)
And keep preaching, God instructs, until the cities are desolate, the houses are vacant, and the fields are fallow (6.11); in short, keep preaching until “vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.” (6.12) So no wonder these verses get the parenthetical treatment this week. I mean, that’s some assignment for Homiletics 101. Read more

The Witness of the Vulnerable

Presentation of the Lord
Psalm 84
Hebrews 2:14-18
Luke 2:22-40
In a 2016 interview, Peter Mommsen, the editor of Plough, posed a question to Stanley Hauerwas about the campaign for the acceptance of euthanasia and its connection to a desire for control. In response, Hauerwas said, “I say that in a hundred years, if Christians are identified as people who do not kill their children or the elderly, we will have done well. Because that’s clearly coming.” Hauerwas’ words, which have been oft-quoted in the two years since, have been on my mind in the past couple of weeks, as the annual March for Life in Washington D.C. and policy discussions in New York and Virginia have thrust the issue of abortion, always a prevalent topic, into the spotlight of social media and other contexts of debate. In the midst of a discussion that can be so inescapably polarizing, Hauerwas’ words remind us, as followers of Jesus, that so much of our witness and so much of our identity hinges on how we value—not just in word, but in deed—the most vulnerable among us. Read more

Mary’s Topsy-Turvy Vision

Fourth Sunday of Advent
Luke 1:39-55
In her hymn, Mary has a personal understanding and clear vision that God’s work in the world is a sort of topsy-turvy force that contradicts the power and privilege of human-created structures. God’s “great things” include scattering the proud, bringing down the powerful/lifting the lowly, satiating the hungry/sending the rich away empty. Read more