Tuesday, March 7 – Keith Howard

This sermon was preached for the First Tuesday in Lent by Keith Howard. The readings for the sermon are: Isaiah 55:6-11, Psalm 34:15-22, and Matthew 6:7-15.

In today’s lesson from Second Isaiah, we are taught that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts.  We are also taught that we may never understand the mechanism by which God operates.  “Nor are your ways, my ways.”  God’s actions and thoughts differ from our own.  I suppose we should give God the benefit of the doubt and accept what God says.

If we are at seminary with the hope that we might lead people toward God, this lesson should give us all pause.  It suggests that what we think we know and what we think will be helpful in guiding others to God may be wrong.  How then, can we have confidence, stepping forward to the front of the line to lead and guide God’s church?

Today’s New Testament lesson gives us the essential equipment we need.  The lesson today is the Lord’s Prayer.  This prayer is located in Chapter 6 of book of Matthew (there is a shorter version in Luke).  It follows the Sermon on the Mount in Chapter 5.  In that passage, Jesus teaches his followers that much of what the world values is a mistake.  It is all upside down.  Jesus teaches that the meek shall inherit the earth; that peacemakers are blessed and that those who have pure hearts are blessed and they may see God. The Sermon on the Mount gives us insight into how the ways and thoughts of humans may differ from those of God.

After that sermon, he teaches us, his disciples, how to pray.

In today’s lesson, Jesus suggests that we focus on the Kingdom by praying secretly, in the way He instructs us.  The Greek word in the text translated as “secretly” could also mean “inwardly”.  These prayers, then, are for the inward journey.  He teaches his disciples a way to pray that helps us purify and turn our hearts to God.

Think about the structure of the prayer.  It has three parts.  First, we are to sacredly recall our source and creator, and ask for the divine presence to be in our lives here on earth.  Then we ask God to join into earthly time.  We seek Daily bread – spiritual and physical nourishment, today.   We ask for forgiveness for yesterday’s wrongs and release from future temptations.  We ask for this because we see the ultimate reality:  the Kingdom of God, power and glory forever.

By praying the Lord’s Prayer, we take the inward journey, we acknowledge our creator, we ask for support and forgiveness and we affirm the power of God.  Through this prayer, we strengthen our relationship with God.  We speak to God and God speaks to us.  The contemplative process opens our hearts and allows us to discern God’s direction for our actions.

Having prayed as we are commanded, we are strengthened and ready to take the next step, which is to act, in accordance with God’s commandments:  to love God and to love your neighbor, as yourself.

So as a leader, can you weigh the sacrifice and benefit of stepping to the front of the line?

Consider this: In the summer of 1964, a young man was ordained as a deacon by the Baptist church. Before the end of winter, he would be dead.  Beaten, shot, and beaten again all in the same night, by police after he had participated in an action related to the Alabama Civil Rights voter registration drive.  His name was Jimmie Lee Jackson.  Deacon Jackson had been working in Selma on the voting rights campaign, but on the night he was beaten, he was protesting in Perry County, about 30 miles to the north of Selma.

Since starting seminary at CDSP, I have spoken with people who grew up in Selma.  They told me that after Deacon Jackson was beaten, he was denied medical help in Perry County, because no hospitals in that county would treat African-Americans. Instead, he had to be driven the 30 miles back to Selma, where the Catholic Church had built a medical center to serve all races. Deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson succumbed to his injuries on February 26, 1965.

In response to his death, Civil Rights leaders in Selma organized a march from Selma to Montgomery, the Alabama state capital – about 55 miles away.  The march would symbolically lay Deacon Jackson’s body on the capitol steps and at the feet of Governor George Wallace.

Fifty-two years ago today, Sunday March the 7th, about 600 unarmed residents of the area started walking across the Edmund Pettis Bridge.  They were met by armed authorities and were beaten back, in a violent clash of city police, county sheriffs and deputized local citizens against the protestors.  Today is the anniversary of what we know as “Bloody Sunday”.

After two and one-half weeks of court battles, 25,000 marchers arrived in Montgomery.  On March 24th, on the capitol steps that Dr. King is remembered for speaking about Justice – and when it would be realized:

How long? He called. (How long?) Not long: the crowd responded (Not long).

Deacon Jackson and Dr. King, were Christian men of faith – a deacon and a pastor who took action in the world, standing up to civil authority that was violating the human rights of their fellows.  That action led to a chain of events that changed the course of modern American history – but also led to their deaths.

How could Deacon Jackson and Dr. King have confidence that it would be worth it?

How can we be confident that our actions in the world will result in a better world for all people?  “Our ways are not God’s ways.  Our thoughts are not God’s thoughts.”

The reading from Psalms 34, gives us hope.  That reading comes from a lesson taught by a sage to the children…… “Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.” Psalm 34:11.

The teacher explains that righteousness is rewarded by God and that evil collapses of its own weight.

Listen to the end of the lesson again.

“Evil will slay the wicked;
the foes of the righteous will be condemned.
22 The Lord will rescue his servants;
no one who takes refuge in him will be condemned.” (Psalms 34: 21-22)

“Evil will slay the wicked.” This passage grounds our Christian actions in hope, in the knowledge that in the end, God’s will prevails.

It is this hope for the efficacy of our actions to bring about the Kingdom that empowered Dr. King, as he said: “How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. (Yes, sir)

How long? Not long, (Not long) because:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; (Yes, sir).”

It is in the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Christ that we know – that we are assured — that the order of the world is not as it seems and righteousness will overcome evil.  Blessed are the peacemakers.  The meek will inherit the earth. Blessed are the pure on heart.  As evil is all which is opposed to God, it collapses because it is not grounded in the foundation of God.

Deacon Jackson could not have known what was to follow as a result of his actions.  The 600 protestors on Bloody Sunday could not have known where the journey would lead.  Dr. King, standing on the steps of the Alabama capital could not have realized the reach of their protests.  And we will not know in the moment how our leadership will shape Christ’s followers and the world.  Our thoughts are not God’s thoughts and our ways are not God’s ways. But we can join with all who have preceded us and sacrificed their own agendas to God, by taking a confident first step on the bridge of faith which leads God’s people toward the kingdom.

Let their lives inspire us in faith and hope as we move ahead to lead others.

Amen

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