Our Approachable God

 Luke 12: 32-40            Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Isaiah 1: 1, 10-20              August 11, 2019

 God is still speaking,

 Let your Word abide in us, O Lord.

“Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are read like crimson, they shall be like wool.”

Prayer: Living and holy God, it is a blessing to be in your presence.  May we know your enrichment.  Amen.

 Christian Century editor Peter Marty tells a story of one of his coworker’s daughter Emily.  Emily recently graduated from preschool.   Preschools do graduations nowadays.  Emily’s teacher told her proud parents that in all her years of teaching she never met a more sweet child.  “She’s an absolute angel, full of kindness toward others, always generous.”  That was nice.

Then the teacher added, “For her own good,” she said, “You two will have to toughen her up.  If you don’t, she’ll get eaten alive in the Chicago public school system.”  Whoa!  The parents were taken aback.  The teacher also said that Emily should deal with tough kids like this: “If they hit her, she needs to learn to hit back.”  The message, of course, is that sweetness, kindness and gentleness are weak and should be downplayed in order for Emily to survive in the challenging world of kindergarten and beyond (“Tender and Tough,” Peter W. Marty, Christian Century, July 17, 2019, pg. 3).

I get it.  It’s a rough and tumble and unbending world  out there, and rough and tough is needed sometimes, isn’t it?

But, in a way, isn’t that kind of sad?  Kindness, gentleness, generosity—all God qualities—aren’t these hard enough to come by as it is, let alone downplaying them in the raising of our kids?  Instilling in our kids the values of the equality, dignity, and respect for all people and have them live that out with kindness, gentleness, and generosity—these are, I believe, vital in making the world a better place to live.  They shouldn’t be downplayed.

It’s a sad day when the rough and gruff is what is first required in order to live and survive in this world.  Is that like having a stain of sin on our hearts before God?

 It’s a sad day because gun violence is still out of control.  Are mass shootings becoming like just another day?  I saw a Tom Toles political cartoon way back in February of an AK 40 with a silencer on the barrel.  And the silencer has words on it, “If another mass shooting occurs and nobody cares anymore, does it make a sound?”  And then way in the corner, it says “About as much as “thoughts and prayers” (from the Washington Post, Century Marks, Christian Century, February 27, 2019, p. 8).  Ouch! It’s now mid August 2019 and for years now, and lawmakers still have not done anything.  Is gun violence a sin-stain on our hearts that God’s sees?

 It’s a sad day when our Outreach committee was discerning to support the Bethany Children’s Homes Helping Hands program in Womelsdorf.  That a federally funded grant program that took in 25 children during June.  The average length of stay is 15 to 45 days.   This group of children was younger than expected, ages 3 to 4 years old!  It appears to me a direct connection of very young children separated from their parents and loved ones.  At the border.  And, is the sin-stain growing darker?

 It’s a sad day when mounted police officers put a leash on an arrested man, making him walk between them like an animal.  Images that take us back to 1800’s chattel slavery days remind us of our pervasive racism and white supremacy.  God sees the sin-stain like scarlet on our hearts.

 It’s a sad day when prosperity gospel preacher Kenneth Copeland pronounces, “Glory to God!  It’s ours!  The Gulfstream V is in our hands!”  This is the third $36 million dollar executive luxury jet purchased for Kenneth Copeland Ministries.   God sees the sin-stain that is red like crimson.

 It was a sad day when the leaders of Jerusalem and Judah were just going through the motions of their worship rituals, putting on a front of faithful devotion, making a big show of saying the words about God’s ways, without really following God’s ways.  Speaking for God, Isaiah thunders that God hates worship that denies the realities of poverty and injustice for people.  God had enough of meaningless burnt offerings.  God was weary of festivals when they disregard the poor and oppressed.   They did a lot of doxology—praising God with words, and very little doxapraxy, which is praising God in practice and action.  God is furious, and shuts eye and ear, to them, according to Isaiah.

Now that I’ve ranted a fair bit, where’s the good news in all of this?  Did you notice?  Isaiah knows God.  And Isaiah never loses sight that God still engages in relationship with humanity, even with our sin-stained hearts.  So, Isaiah circles back, takes a deep breath, and calmly instructs, “Now wash yourselves.  Be clean.  Remove evil.  Learn to do good.  Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”  Make yourself ready for God.

 And God says, “Come now.”  Which means “approach me.”  God says, “Let us argue it out,” which means let’s be in conversation.  Let’s reason together.  Let’s be in a covenantal relationship with each other.  Let’s settle this.

 Even though we have sin-stained hearts, we are still encouraged to approach God. Back in the day, people thought they would die to be in God’s presence. The Holy one of the universe who is magnificent, awesome, powerful, terrifying.  Yet God says “come.” We may come sheepishly, knowing of our past failures.  We may come with fear and trembling knowing God is tender and just at the same time.

But, as we approach, Jesus says,  “Do not be afraid.  It is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  The kingdom.  That is a life filled with God’s love and grace and forgiveness and mercy.  It is a new life with God made more real than ever by Jesus Christ!

 And as we approach God, by God’s grace, the Holy Spirit’s presence begins to transform us.  God says, “even though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow.  Even though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”  And deep within our spiritual lives, self-interests diminish and God’s interest rises.  Deep within our hearts we see the kind of life with God that goes contrary to kind of life we often see practiced.   And as people who’ve approached God and felt the grace of forgiveness, we now have to be the ones who push for God’s ways going forward from that point, living into what is possible.

 Recently I became aware of a story about John Lewis, the congressman from Georgia.  When he was in early high school attending a segregated school in Alabama, his uncle took him to New York for one summer.  For the first time in his life, he saw blacks and whites living, working, shopping, eating side by side.  He saw educational opportunities that he did not know existed.  He saw a future he never imagined in Alabama.  At the end of the summer, he went back to Alabama, back to where he was treated as less than equal.  And, he really understood what segregation was all about.  That summer in New York John Lewis credits as giving him the desire to push for change, for living into what is possible (Heath, Emily, Glorify, Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity, Pilgrim Press, Cleveland, 2016, pg. 50).

 Similarly, as we approach God, we are able to experience the joy of living with holy love, grace, and forgiveness; we’re able to experience our sin-stained hearts made clean.  Then we can live into what is possible -  our lives start to look positively Christ-like, and our actions filled with God-qualities of kindness, gentleness, and generosity, and more.  God’s ways begin to  take center stage.  Not downplayed, but lifted up.

 But, we have to do the hard work.  We have to decide to approach God. We have to decide to make that connection with God. To let the Holy Spirit have an active part in our transformation.  To let God’s qualities take a highly influential place in our lives.  We have to decide that our attitudes and actions reflect that our sin-stained hearts are made clean.  And, we have to decide all that again and again, day after day.

 And, somewhere along the line, we become resurrection people.  People who know that even when we sin, the grace of God shows us that there’s a better way.  That same grace gives us no choice but to stand back up, keep moving forward, and keep approaching our approachable God.  Amen.