Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Never Enough Time

Poolesville Presbyterian Church
Rev. Dr. David Williams; 09.18.2017

Scripture Lesson:  John 3: 13-17


It seems like there’s never enough time.

I’m reminded of that every time I get yet another recommendation for a book to read.  “Hey, this one’s awesome,” a friend will say, and I make a mental note of yet another book I’m not going to ever quite find the time to get to, a literary holding pattern that starts looking more and more like the Library of Congress as the year go by.

There’s never enough time.

I’m reminded of that every time Facebook is geeking out about a new superhero movie that’s about to come out, which seems about seventeen times a year, and I realize that I just can’t even begin to keep up.  I’m reminded of that every time someone recommends that I binge watch some new show that is supposed to be the most amazing thing ever.

I’m reminded of that whenever I look at my growing hutch of of book bunnies.  You know, book bunnies, those ideas you have about a manuscript that you’d love to write.  Oh, what a great idea, you think, and you jot it down.  I currently have nine nonfiction book bunnies, twelve novel bunnies, and a dozen short story bunnies just waiting for me to sit down and get them done.

It’s reached the point that when my muse whispers another story idea into my head, I roll my eyes.  Oh, c’mon.  Why don’t you try writing one of those yourself for a change?

I’m reminded of it when I consider just how quickly my own youth swept away, how quickly the grey slipped into my beard, how just a blink of an eye ago two little boys were curled up on the sofa with my wife for storytime at night.  Was that enough time?  It seems like it wasn’t enough time.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was?  If life just went on, forever and ever and ever, and you could do everything you’ve ever wanted?

Here, today, in a strikingly familiar passage of the Gospel of John, Jesus gets into talking about the life eternal.  Twice in this short passage, we hear it: the end result, hope and goal of Jesus is the Greek in which John’s Gospel was written: the zoen aionion.  Zoe, meaning life.  Aionion, from the same word that gives us aeon.  A life of all the ages.

We hear that, in our busyness, and It’s easy for us to grasp on to that as something that might come in handy.  Eternal life!  I could finally get everything done!   Surely the house would finally get painted if I were given ten to the five hundredth power years to get it done.  

Here, the grasping part of my soul tends to welcome the idea of the life eternal as an endless quantity, a simple layering on year upon year until they stack all the way to infinity.  But then I reflect upon it, and I’m not quite sure that wouldn’t be simply horrific.

Because an endless infinite span of years is meaningless if that time is not used well.

In fact, the human capacity to misuse time, to take what moments have been given us and to pour them into meaninglessness goes deep.  It’s not that we don’t have enough life, not that the quantity of time given to us is inadequate.  It’s that we take so much of what we’ve been given and make it nothing.

We fritter time away on nothingness, dithering away hour upon hour on things that do not deepen us or give us joy.

It’s easy to blame this tendency on the endless cavalcade of distractions served up by this net era.  Give me ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, and how much of that am I going to spend on Facebook watching music fail videos or playing Battlefield?  How much will be spent Snapchatting out conversations that are consigned to instant oblivion?  Surely, surely we modern humans have become so easily diverted from anything of meaning that we’d squander all of infinity if given half the chance.

I was thinking about this when for some reason I providentially encountered something on Facebook this week.  It was put out by one of those algorithms that tries to hook you into clicking through something on Facebook.  Here, a kitten video!  Watch kitten videos!  More videos!

It was, out of nowhere, a link about Seneca.  Not the creek or the road or the watershed that makes up much of this county.  Not the Native American people from upstate New York.  They didn’t call themselves the Seneca, anyway.  They were the Onondaga, whose largest town was Osininka.

What Facebook pitched me this week was an essay by Seneca the Younger, a Roman stoic philosopher who taught and wrote from Rome at the time of Jesus.  Seneca was known as one of the wisest men of his era, who mingled insight with his skill as a writer and public thinker.  His one mistake: because of his success, he was roped into being the teacher and tutor for the young emperor.  The new boy god-king, Nero, had been born into power.  Nero was strangely charismatic, wildly popular with the masses for his antics, more an entertainer than anything else, an embarrassment to the elites in power in Rome.

Nero was utterly charming and just as equally unreliable.  Seneca was brought in to tame him, and for a while, he did.  Seneca was Nero’s favorite teacher, right up until Nero became convinced Seneca had been part of a conspiracy against him.  Nero, like all powerful men of appetite and impulsiveness, wasn’t the safest person to be around.  Things did not end well for Seneca.

The essay Seneca wrote was entitled “On the Shortness of Life,” which something you probably think about a great deal when you’re in close proximity to a man who can have you killed any time he wants.

The heart of Seneca’s essay is simple.  Human beings, for the most part, are given enough time to live life well.  We have the opportunity to find our purpose.  We have the opportunity to do what it is we were made to do.  There will be time enough.

He’s making this argument, remember, in a culture where the average human lifespan was 35.  That might seem a whole bunch when you’re sixteen.  But it feels like almost nothing now.

The reason we feel so lost, Seneca suggests, isn’t that we don’t have enough time.  It is that we waste our time.  We worry about things.  We chase after unattainable wealth or prestige.  We run in circles.  We chew over the past.  We allow ourselves to be battered by the whims and desires of others, caught in a cycle of anxious expectation that consumes us.  As he puts it:

The part of life we actually live is very small.  All the rest of our existence is not life, but merely time.

And in that bit of ancient insight, I think, there is a key to the life that Jesus is promising.  

How much can one do with a life?  If we look to Jesus, Jesus who didn’t even make it to that oh so short thirty five years?  There is something of an answer.  Eternal life is life lived to God’s purpose, where attention is given to our places of giftedness, where compassion and encouragement are allowed not simply to be something we’ll get around to, but part of our now.

Eternal life isn’t a question of quantity of life.  It’s a question of quality of life, a quality of life that encompasses not just some endless time in the future, but this time as well.

Used wisely and compassionately and well, there is time enough for that life.

May that be so, for you and for me,


The One That Is Lost

Poolesville Presbyterian Church
09.11.2016; Rev. Dr. David Williams

Scripture Lesson:  Luke 15:1-10


I seem to have misplaced one of my children.  The evidence is strong.

These last couple of weeks, I’ll wander through the house, and passing that bedroom find it still neatly kempt.  The downstairs sofa, unoccupied.  The upstairs bathroom sink, devoid of beard trimmings.

There’s a missing kid.  Haven’t seen him in weeks.

I know he’s somewhere in Harrisonburg, Virginia.  But I’m not particularly stressed about it, although that was once not the case.

I remember that feeling, when they vanish.  You wander into IKEA with Child A and Child B.  Child A noodles about as you wander through the maze of oddly named cheap objects, the Huurvissmurkl leather sofas and the Leifmoosen hatracks and multicolored Nurp sock storage boxes.  You are, as best you can tell, heading the the right direction, as you fiddle with the pencils and checklists and storemaps.  It’s a good thing you’ve decided to go with the man-to-man approach to child coverage, because Child A is noodling about aimlessly, struggling to track along with you as you drift through the pseudoScandinavian plywood.

And then your spouse surfaces, and Child B is not with them.  “I thought you had them.”  “No, you had them.”

There’s a moment of panic so intense it borders on sublime, a great wallop of adrenaline and full on stress hormone production.  Your senses are heightened and sharpened, and the flow of time itself seems to slow.  You look around, wildly, but all you see is Huurvissmurlk leather sofas and Leifmoosen hatracks and multicolored Nurp sock storage boxes.

Every part of your being is turned towards that goal: find the missing one.  And sure, you’ve got a replacement child, who appears completely unphased by the sudden disappearance of their sibling.  But you don’t care.

You chase after them until they are found.

Our culture doesn’t value the lost.  We are, after all, a society that values winning and winners, and people that are lost don’t fit into that category.  It’s easy to assume that this is because things have gotten worse over human history, that we’re at a place of degradation, that a century of crass industrial consumerism has left our souls empty and uncaring.  If we lose a set of earbuds, we just order another pair on Amazon.

We feel, it seems, increasingly the same way about other souls.  

But then again, as we listen to Jesus this morning, maybe things aren’t so different from how they were back in the day.  Human beings have always struggled to know that matters, what is truly important.  Jesus, of course, knew that there were people like that in his own time.  That’s particularly true when it comes to understanding the importance of our relationships with others.

As he taught a crowd that had gathered around him, he could hear people in groups around the edge of the crowd muttering and complaining about him under their breath.  And not just him.  More significantly, they were annoyed that Jesus didn’t seem to understand who was important.  Look at this rabble! Look at this mess...they’re the dregs of humanity! These people aren’t worth anyone’s time...I can’t believe he even bothers with them.

The ones who grumbled against him were the educated and the elite. The Pharisees were the literate suburbanites of first century Judea, the ones who read and studied the law. The scribes worked for the court of the king and in the households of the rich, managing their affairs and keeping track of their business. Pharisees and scribes did well. They had possessions, all that they needed.

So when Jesus told his parable of the lost sheep to describe how earnestly God seeks out those who are broken and lost in this life, he knew those mutterers would be unable to hear.  Shepherds, on the other hand, would understand exactly what Jesus was talking about.  But shepherds were poor Galilean trash, and the mutterers didn’t do field work. Pharisees didn’t gather their flocks by night. They paid people to do that for them. Lost sheep? Who cares about one lost sheep? I’ve still got the 99...and I was planning on ordering a new one from anyway. Why bother with that worthless thing? My time is more valuable than that.  The ROI just isn’t there.

Then Jesus tells another little story, a story that only appears in Luke’s Gospel. Matthew tells the parable of the lost sheep in Matthew 18:12-14, but doesn’t give us this next one. Why? Why the difference between Matthew and Luke?  Remember, Luke’s gospel was put together to be heard by an educated and elite audience of early Christians, and so its author wanted to make absolutely sure that they heard the next thing that Jesus said...because Luke’s readers were dangerously similar to the whisperers who sat around the outskirts of the gathered crowd.

I can hear him raising his voice, pitching it out out over the heads of the outcasts and tax collectors around him and towards the well-dressed little group beyond..making sure that they heard, making sure that they saw his eyes on them. Then he tells a story of a coin. had a stack of ten one hundred dollar bills.  A hundred bucks is close to what a drachma would be worth today, eight hours of work from a day laborer. Enough to be real money, something you can relate to. And you knew you had $1,000, it was right there the last time you counted it, but when you counted it up again, you came up fifty bucks short. You’re going to tear the house apart looking for that bill, now, aren’t you?

But Jesus wasn’t talking about sheep, and he wasn’t talking about the value of cash. He’s trying to get it through the thick skulls of human beings just how deeply God values each and every one of us, and how deeply God wants us to understand the goodness that God intends for us.

Jesus saw that we struggle to see the value that God sees, and that the richer and more powerful we become, the harder that struggle becomes. As you gather wealth and position in society, it isn’t just that you stop caring quite so much about things. It also begins to color your relationships with other human beings.   You start seeing them as means to an end, valued for what they can do for you.  You give up on them.

The Pharisees and the scribes were sure that they were righteous, sure that they were chosen, sure that they were important. They were equally sure that those who had less, who didn’t measure up, who deserved less...the shepherds and the sinners and the tax collectors...they were just less important to God. We are the chosen! We are the saved! God just loves us more.

That was the trap of self-righteousness they’d fallen into, and it’s a trap that clamps shut on any number of Christians today. Our wealth makes the wealth of those scribes look like the allowance you might give to a five year old.  

The temptation is there..strongly there for all of succumb to the same selfishness that consumed the Pharisees. You look out into the world and you see it everywhere, the willingness to cast people aside, to discard them, to see them as somehow of less worth than ourselves.

What Jesus asks us to remember, this morning as every morning, is that we share a little bit of that anticipatory joy in heaven at the possibility that what was once lost will be found.

Let that be so, for you and for me, AMEN.


Poolesville Presbyterian Church
09.03.2016; Rev. Dr. David Williams

Scripture Lesson:  Luke 14: 25-33


Oh, Jesus.  Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

Some weeks, that pattern of reading we call the lectionary serves up something easy on the soul.  Jesus, telling us to love one another.  Paul, talking about loving one another.

Love sermons are always easier.  Love is a many splendored thing.  Love lifts us up where we belong!  All you need is love!  

But easy doesn’t come most weeks.  Jesus is, well, he’s not easy, most of the time.  This passage from Luke this morning just hits hard, from the first gut punch about hating your family to the two hard tales about being an unprepared fool to the finishing blow about our possessions.  

None of them are easy to hear, but it’s that last one, that last moment from Luke’s remembrance, it’s that which hung with me this week, that echoes through my consciousness.

I think it’s because possessiveness is such a radical part of what our culture pours into us, such an integral part of how we are asked to value ourselves and our world.  We are taught to see ourselves as an agglomeration of things, as a collection of objects, our happiness defined by the things we consume.  Possessions possess us, just as surely as if we were a little girl with a bad complexion and an usually flexible neck living in a Georgetown brownstone.

And so I sat in air conditioned comfort in my comfortable suburban rambler streaming internet radio over my fiber optic line, staring wordless at this very laptop, my motorcycle sitting outside of my double glazed bay window.  I hear Jesus say:  “You cannot be my disciple unless you give up all your possessions.”  How to understand this?  How can I, who have so much, understand my commitment to Jesus when he’s giving me this as a baseline?

This week as I meditated on this difficult story of the life of Jesus, I fished around in my soul for other stories that might make sense of this

Because we are creatures of narrative.  Stories stick with you, clinging to your consciousness, shaping and forming who you are and your understanding of life.

Those stories go back a ways.  I remember reading Sam and the Firefly as a little kid, that old P.D. Eastman book about the adventures of Sam the owl and Gus the firefly.  That story taught me the power of words, I think, their magic as they hang in the air.

I remember losing an entire  week one summer reading the Lord of the Rings saga, which shaped my understanding of the insidious human hunger for power.  I was in fourth grade when I read it, and we were at my grandparents house in Athens, Georgia.  I’m not sure I would have remembered to eat that week, if it hadn’t been for Grandmother’s tendency to stock the house before our arrival with entire cases of Coca Cola and multiple boxes of Count Chocula.

And from when I was older, I remember a book from a class at the University of Virginia that helped me understand the impact of possessions.  It was called Fantasy and Social Value, and it was a legendary gut, the kind of class that’s pretty much a guaranteed A.  You read classic sci fi and fantasy, and then talked about how those stories illuminated social issues.  

I didn’t actually ever take that class, mostly because I think I would have been faintly embarrassed to tell my parents about it.  You’re taking what?  

But I read every one of the books that was assigned, because, well, they might have been left lying around my fraternity house.  One of the stories that hung with me was a classic 1974 novel by Ursula K Le Guin.  The Dispossessed, it was called, a story about a man named Shevek.  He was a scientist who lived on Annares, a stark utopian world.  Annares was a colony of anarchists who had fled Urras, their earth-like homeworld, with the intent of creating a perfect world where everyone has given up their possessions.  Nothing is owned by anyone, nothing at all.  In fact, the very idea of having possessions is viewed as an affront to the philosophy of Annares.

Which makes it...well...completely imperfect, because the people who live on that world still somehow manage to have all of the same flaws.  They may not own anything, but they are perfectly capable of harboring resentments.  They may live austere lives on their near-desert planet, but they still were capable of violence and distrust.

Their lack of possessions didn’t make them any less self-interested.  We can be dispossessed, yet still possessed with the desire to force our will on others.  We can live with nothing, yet still have the hunger for control that shatters human life.  That desire goes deep in us, deeper than the things we own, deeper than the stuff around us.

If we want to commit ourselves to the radical path of compassion taught by Jesus, that desire needs to be let go, and that’s particularly hard for us.  It would also have been particularly hard for Luke’s audience to hear this message.

From the style, language, and emphases of Luke’s Gospel, we can tell that it was written for an audience that would have had issues with possessions.

It’s written in the form of a classical Greco-Roman history, which wasn’t quite history as we tend to understand it.  We often make the mistake of approaching history like a sequence of dates and facts, a collection of flash card datapoints.  In the ancient world, history was first and foremost storytelling, to be mixed with poetry and adventure and song.   Meaning, ancient history was less like a textbook, and more like Hamilton or Jesus Christ Superstar.

It uses sophisticated language written for an audience that was used to reading.  Reading itself was a rarity in the ancient world, a luxury for the powerful and the privileged.  That this was a story meant to be read made the inclusion of this passage even more pointed.  Here, every soul who was a member of Luke’s community would have felt challenged as we feel challenged.

As, frankly, they would have throughout Luke’s Gospel.  Because it was written by and for the privileged and the comfortable, you might think Luke would steer away from saying anything uncomfortable.  

It’s exactly the opposite.  Luke’s gospel makes a point of retaining every part of the oral and written traditions about Jesus that talked about wealth.  Luke, more than all of the other Gospels, talks about the perils of wealth, power, and social position, because that was the primary challenge of the spirit facing Luke’s readers.

It’s easy, in a position of wealth, to take that wealth for granted, to take the things you own and the stuff around you as a mark of your holiness.  Clearly, Jesus must love me, because I have so many nice things!

This is balderdash.
Possessiveness is utterly alien to any Christian who wants to walk the path of Jesus. The desire to acquire is meaningless to those who yearn most deeply for God.
Of all of my spiritual teachers, it was CS Lewises’ master George McDonald who most firmly challenged the life possessive.  McDonald was a storyteller, who wrote strange and dream-like fairy tales.  He was the pastor of a couple of small Congregationalist churches, and wrote novels to provide for his wife and nine children.  Meaning, he wasn’t someone who had a lot of stuff.  From his hard, practical Scots mysticism, he pushed hard against the impact of being captive to what we imagine we own:
The man who for consciousness of well-being depends on anything but life, the life essential, is a slave...
But it is not the rich man only who is under the dominion of things; they too are slaves who, having no money, are unhappy from the lack of it.
and, here sounding remarkably like a Scottish Yoda:
If it be things that slay you, what matter whether things you have, or things you have not?
The mystic renounces desire for power in all of its forms, be they economic or coercive. That possessiveness simply ceases to seem meaningful. The unsatisfied, ever-empty hunger of the consumer is unknown and unwanted. That doesn't mean living a joyless, stale, or austere life. It simply means a different way of standing in relation to creation, one that is far richer and more abundant. As MacDonald puts it:
He who has God, has all things, after the fashion in which He who made them has them.
Next to the touch of a breeze, or the smell of the honeysuckle, or the laughter of your children, or the bright moon on a clear Spring evening, the cloying cornucopia of consumerism seems a rather empty nothing.
Like the Gospel itself, none of these things are our possession.  
Let that be so, for you and for me, AMEN

The Best Seats in the House

Poolesville Presbyterian Church
08.28.2016; Rev. Dr. David Williams

Scripture Lesson:  Luke 14: 7-24


Over the last week or so, I’ve been deep back into a project I’d set aside for a year.

It’s my doctoral project, which I’d written and run by a long suffering group of adult ed folks here at Poolesville.  I sat on my computer and edited it for about the seven hundredth time, folding in y’all’s insights along with those of my advisor.  I always intended it to be a readable thing, which is why I didn’t name my project the way most doctoral level writing is named.  I could have called it “Towards an Ecclesiology of Relational Intimacy: Exploring the Dynamics of Intentional Microcommunity,” which would have been a great way to have no-one read it ever.  But I called it, as some of you might recall because I talked about it incessantly, The Strawberry Church.

It’s a book about little churches and why they’re awesome.

My goal: get that project out there into the world, into the hands of other small church folks who might find it faintly interesting.  There’s a mental image we have of the American church, of huge congregations with big screens and big  parking lots, but that image is wrong.  Most churches aren’t huge.  Of the over nine thousand Presbyterian churches in our denomination, more than half are the size of this church or smaller.  So now, it’s a book, one that explores the dynamics of the small church, something that hopefully I have some clue about.

And I love smaller communities, I do.  Big churches are all well and good.  They can do a whole bunch, thanks to the miracle of old fashioned economies of scale.  The worship is seamless and tightly choreographed, every Sunday as tight and energizing as catching Hamilton on Broadway.  The programs are perfectly professional, not a single hair out of place.  A large church with its heart turned towards mission and service can do a whole bunch of good.

But I like a church that feels like a home, not a Nordstroms.  Our world already has so much corporate perfection, big shiny seamless machines.  It’s what our culture expects.  

As much as I like teeny tiny churches, there’s something in that book that’s particularly difficult for me.  It’s the role of the pastor in the small church.  After reading dozens of books and engaging with the best thinkers in the world of tiny congregations, the conclusion is inescapable: in a healthy little church, the pastor shouldn’t matter all that much.  


So the Good Lord leads me to love little churches, to spend a substantial portion of my adult life flinging myself through the endless fiery hoops of the ordination process, to go to grad school for seven years, to get my doctorate, only to reveal that all of that not only doesn’t that matter, it shouldn’t.  

But that is just how the Good Lord do.  

If you get into this Jesus thing expecting your ego to be inflated, you’re in for a surprise.

Ego and our tendency to want to be at the center of things is exactly what Jesus gets to talking about in the passage from Luke this morning.

He’s been invited to a feast, a big sabbath shindig at the house of an important muckity muck at the synagogue.  We’re not exactly sure where this took place, but it was part of his travels as he moved towards Jerusalem.

It was an event that brought him into connection with the important people in the community.  It was a place to see and be seen.  Where you sat and how you ate and who you talked to would have said a whole bunch about where you fell in the social pecking order of that community.

It was an elaborate social construction, a carefully staged dance, and Jesus knew it.  And when Jesus charged through those conventions like a bull in a china shop, it made for enough storytelling moments to fill a large chunk of this chapter.

He begins by challenging their assumptions about what is and is not appropriate action on the sabbath, and then quickly moves on to the way the meal itself is organized.  There were places of honor, nearer to the host or others of importance.  Then there were other seats and other places.  Jesus is being watched, but he is also watching those around him and observing their behavior.

He’s seen them jockeying for position and power, and then calls them on it.  He calls out his fellow guests, suggesting that perhaps their entire attitude is wrong.  Seeking glory for yourself may be the way of the world, but it is not the way Jesus teaches.  Instead, he says, seek the humble things.   When you look for a seat at the table when you arrive at an event, take the last one.

On one hand, this is actually rather crafty advice.  If you try to push your way up to a place that’s beyond you, you might get knocked down a notch or two, which would be seriously embarrassing.  Better to get called out and moved up by your host.  

Oh yeah.  Lookit me.  I’m sittin’ in the good chair.

Subtle and passive aggressive as that might seem, that’s not the point Jesus is making.

He’s declaring the entire power dynamic of the society around him to be at odds with being a citizen of Kingdom of God.  It’s not just that you shouldn’t seek that best seat at the table.  It’s the best of your shouldn’t even desire it.

His messing with the way things are becomes even more obvious when he turns his attention to his host.  Here he’s talking to a man who has invited his friends and his neighbors and business associates he wants to impress to a gathering, and he tells him: This thing that you’ve done and everyone does?  Don’t.  Sure, it’s the way we do business and the way we get to know one another.  It always has been.  It certainly is now.  If we want it to count for anything, our goal is not gain, or even that back and forth that constitutes much of the way human beings interact and develop relationships with one another.

“Invite those who cannot return the favor.  Invite those who can’t pay you back,” says Jesus, somehow managing to undercut every dinner party and social engagement ever.

Finally, Jesus hits ‘em with a story.  You know Jesus and his stories.  It’s a story about a meal, a great feast prepared.  The person in question sends out invitations, and then follows them up on the day of the event, only to discover that guest after guest had come up with excuses not to follow through.  

His response?  To fill the party with all of those who are on the margins of society, those who were broken and struggling.  And when there weren’t enough of them to fill the house, they just packed in anyone they could find.

Again, a most peculiar way to approach a feast, but here, Jesus was presenting his listeners and us with a pungent little tale with a very sharp point.  That point is that the way we do things, the structures of economics and relationship that rule human society, those things are profoundly off.

It’s the kind of message that I’m sure had the host of the party summoning over his majordomo and whispering, “That Jesus guy?  Make sure we don’t ever invite him back.”

Because that, ultimately, is one of the great challenges of really engaging with the message of Jesus of Nazareth.  The more time you spend with the Gospel, the harder it becomes to see the world in the same way you’ve always seen it.

That, I think, is the greatest strength of the small church, of the sweet fruitfulness of simple, humble relating.   You don’t get caught up in the clutter, in the mess of human distraction, in the bog of our systems and structures.  You don't worry about power, about control, because really? In a little church, none of that should matter. You’re just here, with people face to face, learning to be the Kingdom together.

So here, in a place where that is possible,  

Let that be so, for you and for me, AMEN.

Aye Eff Triple Tee

Poolesville Presbyterian Church
Rev. Dr. David Williams; 08.21.2016

Scripture Lesson:  Isaiah 58:9b-14


I’ve always loved gadgets.  It’s just one of those American male things, I think, but few things warm the cockles of my heart more than a device that does something nifty.   Toy robots?  Oh, of course.   Tiny flying indoor helicopters?  I got one for my forty second birthday.  Oooh, look, there’s a helicopter flying in my house!  Cool.   If there’s a problem, having a gadget to solve it just seems so neat.  Like, say, the high tech mosquito trap I bought to handle our back yard bug problem just a couple of years back.  It was this propane powered device that used fans and nets and carbon dioxide emissions to lure in those little devils, and I was sure it’d be great.  Better living through engineering.  But when I actually did the math after it managed to catch fewer mosquitos than I’d swat on any given day, I realized I was paying about $15 per mosquito.  Fiddle.

That doesn’t stop me, though, and that means that another gadget has arrived in our household: an Echo.  It’s this little cylindrical object that sits in the living room and listens, permanently connected to the internet.  It’s like   Ask it something, and it answers.   Ask it to play music...almost any music...and it does.  “Play the soundtrack to the Broadway version of Evil Dead, The Musical!”  And lo and behold, that’s playing.  Ask it what Millard Fillmore’s birthday was.  Ask it who the prime minister of Bangladesh is.  It knows.  It knows the weather, and will tell you.  It’ll put things on your to do list, or update your calendar.  

It can also turn lights on and off in our entire upstairs with a simple command that works about eighty two percent of the time.  It’s all very much like something out of Star Trek.  It can learn new skills, like a one-minute-mindfulness app that turns it into a robotic guru...although, to be honest, that we imagine that a machine can guide us to a higher level of mindfulness in sixty seconds seems to indicate that that whole mindfulness movement has jumped the shark.

It also weirds out our dog, who I’ve watched either flee or wander over to the device and sniff curiously it after it speaks or turns off the lights.  This is, on the one hand, cute.  On the other, it’s started to remind me of that reaction the dogs had in the Terminator movies, which is possibly not a very good sign.

This hasn’t stopped us from exploring and expanding what this gadget to end all gadgets can do, though, and one of those things is something called IFTTT.  It’s a net-based protocol for controlling devices through what they call “recipes.”  

If This Then That, or so the acronym goes, and what it does, according to the website, is automate your life.  Want the lights in the house to come on whenever you get within a hundred yards after dark?  Just write the recipe that connects your phone GPS to your lights.  Want all of your dimmable lights to turn up to maximum whenever you say the words “Let there be light?”  You got it.  It’s a simple set of logical operators, one that lets you structure the world around you so that each of your actions triggers something else.  

It’s a strange analog of life, as the logic that defines the virtual world presses out into our actual existence.

From the Book of Isaiah today we hear a message of challenge, one that includes a surprising number of if/then statements.   This section of Isaiah comes from an interesting time in the history of the people of Israel.   Most Bible scholars worth their salt see the Book of Isaiah divided up into three clear sections, each of which has its own particular focus.  

Today’s section comes from what is known as Third Isaiah, which was written and preached perhaps 510-515 years before Christ by a prophet who followed the tradition of Isaiah.   Unlike First Isaiah, its visions and proclamations do not describe a Hebrew people comfortably ensconced in Jerusalem and the temple, as do the first thirty-nine chapters.  Unlike Second Isaiah, they do not assume that the Jewish people are shattered in the Babylonian exile, like chapters forty through fifty-five. The context of the last ten chapters is clear: the Hebrew people are back in their land.

They’d been given the opportunity to rebuild is their whole culture, after it was almost wiped from the face of the earth in by Babylonian Empire. After Babylon was defeated by Persia, the Hebrew people were encouraged by Cyrus of Persia to return to their ancestral lands. They were filled with hope at the prospect of return.  All they’d have to do is set up shop again, and all would be well.

The people returned thinking that things were going to be easy, and things were the farthest thing from easy. Life upon their return was a struggle from day to day. The bricks that had been smashed from the walls of Jerusalem did not leap up on their own and autonomously reassemble themselves into Zion Gardens Condos and Suites.

It was hard. It seemed hopeless. And there’s a funny thing about hopelessness.  It tends to bring out the worst in human beings.  Rather than pulling together, and working towards a common goal of rebuilding, we can begin to prey upon one another.  This, as evidenced by the prophet’s condemnation, is precisely what happened as they attempted to rebuild Judah.  For some, the time of rebuilding was a time to profit.  Whenever you find yourself rebuilding, when the system has been smashed and you’re trying to epoxy together a new way of life from the rubble, there are opportunities to do well.  For others?

Those who fell out on the margins of the society...the poor, the foreign, the different, well...things did not go so well for them.  Because, being weak and vulnerable, they became perfect targets for those who were in a position to take advantage.

Isaiah’s story of the rebuilding is full of evidence of this dark form of human relating.  Though the Torah and the heart of God’s covenant with the people of Israel was meant to hold people together.  It was meant to prevent the kind of wild devouring imbalance that turns the heart of any culture towards the bright suffocating blight of injustice.  That love of power is what had broken Judah in the first place, and here, with an opportunity to rebuild, human beings were making that same old pattern of mistakes again.

But the word from God that Isaiah proclaimed defied that despair, and challenged that cycle of oppression. It was a word of intense hope, a word that comes directly from the prophet’s sense of being anointed with the Spirit of the Living God. It’s a word of intense confidence in the power of God to work through his people to bring about restoration.

What is striking, though, is how that statement of hope is qualified.  If you do this, then this is likely to happen.  The Creator of the Universe isn’t saying through Isaiah: I will do this, guaranteed.  Instead, God is saying:  If you do this, I will likely do that.

The “recipe” for this?  The “program” for this?  As set out in this passage, it’s twofold:  1) care for those who are in need, and 2) take a sabbath from greed and self seeking.

If you are merciful, kind, gracious, and compassionate, your society will flourish.  Your just and gracious actions create the likelihood that the world around you will be bent towards both justice and graciousness.

It’s not precise, not mechanical, not quite as straightforward as we might hope.  

But in times when things seem broken, it is the place to begin.

Let that be so, for you and for me, AMEN.