Communion Meditation delivered by Rev. Tim Ahrens at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Pentecost 19, October 6, 2002, the celebration Sunday for our 150th year of serving Christ in the heart of Columbus, dedicated to the 42 abolitionist Christians and their children who founded this congregation, to Jan Wade and Rick Sayre who have lovingly given their time and talents to a great celebration and to "Power" and all through the ages who have called us to faithful, justice action and always to the glory of God!
Amos 5:14-24; Romans 10:14-16; Luke 4:14-21
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
It was 10pm on a chilly Autumn evening when I met Dale Griffith. "Power," as he preferred to be called, had come to the 9th Street Entrance seeking help. Unlike others who come late at night, "Power's" request was quite different. He did not ask for money, a ride, a bus pass, food, or any hand out of any kind. He simply wanted me to call the police.
He was sleeping under the shelter of our Broad Street entrance - next to the front doors, beneath the chiseled words, "Enter to Worship Depart to Serve." He asked if I could tell the police that it was okay for him to sleep there. I agreed to call them. Although I offered him food and drink and blankets, he politely declined. Instead he asked what time he could return in the morning to work for the church. He desired to work as a thanksgiving to us for our kindness, not for pay. When I questioned, "Power, why our front steps? Why in the floodlights and noise of Broad Street?," he answered, "Because I feel safe in the light. I feel safe in the shelter of God's house."
The next morning, Power arrived early to begin caring for First Church. On his first day of work, Power raked up 22 bags of leaves in 1 ½ hours. Natalie Wright bought Power a pair of gloves to protect his hands from the coming cold. When Jeff Gallagher gave them to Power, he returned them encouraging Jeff to give them to someone who was really in need. Having been abused and even shot in the stomach by his cocaine-addicted father at 13, Power hated to be touched and trusted very few people. In the weeks that followed, it became clear that even the floodlights and shelter of our cathedral stone could not provide what he really needed. Yet, he declined homeless shelters and even offers of other housing. One night, carrying his graceful, yet troubled life and his servant spirit with him, Power disappeared onto the streets of Columbus.
Bathed in the light and sheltered by God, First Church has sought to serve Christ in the heart of this great city for 150 years. Although the mason's chisel has whittled in stone a command to worship and serve, we have, at times, fallen short of both worship and service. Nevertheless, God has blessed us through the years with "Power" and other angels like him who call us to ways of justice and mercy. Today, after the timpani has been beaten, the beautifully harmonized brass has been quieted, the organ has become silent and each of us has departed to serve, Power remains with us - in word and in deed - calling us to hear the word of God and respond - for God is still speaking.
Has God ever stopped speaking? Somewhere in the Autumn of say, 755 B.C., the prophet Amos was speaking God's word to people who refused to listen. Stopping by a worship center, probably the place called Bethel, and unloading his brutally frank "Word of the Lord," Amos' message totally rejected the worship of the people. Clearly, the Lord despised and hated the people's feasts, their solemn assemblies, their burnt offerings, their cereal offerings, their peace offerings, and their noise and melody. God disdained the sights, the smells, and the sounds of their worship. Through Amos, God cleansed the sensory nightmare his people offered as worship.
God sought justice and righteousness as true worship! God saw that there was no communion with the Holy One, only commotion in the Holy Place and the Lord demanded an end to that garbage. Yes, garbage! Take a look at this oil painting by our own Sal Brownfield and you will see God washing away the garbage of injustice with the everflowing stream - the waterfall - of God's justice and righteousness and power. Take a look - God is still speaking.
The justice that our God seeks has three dimensions. First, God's justice is dynamic. It is not the justice which balances scales judiciously - as portrayed by the blindfolded woman holding the scales of justice. God's justice is the moving, torrential justice that rushes down until injustice is swept away! The prophetic justice of God is never at rest. It is moving forward in power and in truth. It will not be silenced, neither will it be subdued. God's justice is dynamic. Second, this justice is God's expected response to what God has done for the people of God. In other words, doing justice is what you and I are expected to do for God. The pattern of divine indicative followed by expected human response runs throughout the Bible.
For example, God delivers the Chosen People out of bondage and in so doing God lays out expectations for them in the ten commandments. In the letter to the Romans, Paul begins with an exposition of the gospel in chapters 1-11, followed by suggestions for the expected response to that good news in chapters 12-16. In Colossians, the meaning of the Christ event is explained from the first verse of chapter one through 3:4 with imperatives following in the rest of the letter. In the words of I John 4:19: "We love, because God first loved us!" Our God expects justice as our response to what God has done for us!
Finally, to do justice means to act as advocates for the powerless. In Amos, in Isaiah, in Deuteronomy, and throughout Hebrew scriptures, "to seek justice" means to advocate on behalf of the poor, the orphan, and the widow.
When the prophets of old speak of justice, there is nothing theoretical, nothing philosophical, nothing even legal in their notions. And the prophets of old are with us still! In their new manifestation, God is still speaking in the prophets of our times who lead us out of the halls of worship into quarters of the city where the poor live. They invite us to look into the eyes of the lonely widow, the hurting orphan, the hungry and homeless man. They call us to listen to and respond to the 130,000 people who are uninsured in Franklin County, and the close to 90,000 people - 75% of whom are working poor- who have little to no access to health care! They call to us to see and respond to the abused and neglected child, the unfairly paid immigrant, the forsaken, the forlorn, and the forgotten - the "Powers" of our community. And they say to us now and forevermore, "Justice now! Justice always! Let justice roll down like an everflowing stream!" Yes, God is still speaking!
We know that God was speaking in the story of Luke 4:14-21. We know the Spirit of God as given to the prophet Isaiah came unraveled one day in the synagogue of Nazareth. A young prophet, baptized with river water by John and baptized in wilderness fires of temptation by Satan, came home to worship - as he always did on the Sabbath. His name was Jesus. As the scrolls were passed to him, he dutifully read what was placed before him. The words were these from Isaiah 61:1ff: "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me, to preach good news to the poor, he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord."
Good news to the poor, healing, release (or forgiveness as the Greek often translates) from various kinds of captivity, and proclamation of Jubilee all become themes of Jesus' ministry and teaching. Was it coincidence or was it a "God-speaking" incident that brought this text before our Lord? I say the second. But, no matter how I interpret that moment, Isaiah 61:1ff was the perfect scriptural selection for the Spirit-filled and fully anointed son of the Nazarene synagogue.
But, God was not finished speaking when the scrolls were laid down! Jesus sat down and continued to speak in prophetic ways that nearly costs him his life by stoning to death when he added, "Today the scriptures have been fulfilled in your hearing."
You see, it's not enough to read the Bible. It's not enough to offer clear and concise exegetical references and interpretations, so that folks nod in agreement (or perhaps nod off in catatonic sleep state). God knows that people need fulfillment of scripture. God knows, people need the Spirit upon them and within them. God knows, the poor need good news! God knows, people need to be healed of the pain they carry around daily from losses they have experienced, from depression they have battled, from injuries they have sustained in life's walk. God knows, people need forgiveness of sins, forgiveness of debts, forgiveness of burdens, forgiveness of foolish words spoken and strange behaviors acted upon. God knows, people need to be released from captivity - whether physical, mental, spiritual, or emotional. God knows, those blinded, for whatever reason need to see again. God knows, the Spirit of God is needed for fulfillment - not just one more reading of one more ancient text. God is still speaking! God will not be silent. God will not sit down and turn God's head and turn away from the needs of God's children.
And wherever, and whenever, and however justice is done, the garbage of injustice is washed away, healing and forgiveness happen, captives are released, the blind see again, the joy of Jubilee is fulfilled and the beautiful feet of the prophets take to the streets, the plains, the sea sides, and the mountaintops of this world - God is still speaking.
Isaiah 40:21-22 asks, "Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundation of the earth? It is God who sits above the circle of the earth . . . and God who makes the rulers of the earth for nothing." In answering the prophet's questions, we must always remember we have a legacy to uphold at First Church. We were birthed in resistance to injustice. Our legacy is rooted in justice action with the enslaved, with the poor, and with the dispossessed. Our legacy is also embracing "strength and beauty" in the awesome grandeur of our Gothic Cathedral of Grace. Together, these horizons and heights of our legacy intersect in the cross of Christ. And it is in the cross that suffering and glory; justice and beauty embrace.
It is my hope and heartfelt prayer that today, and for ages to come, God knows us as people living in communion with the Holy One, not simply making commotion in God's Holy Place.
Now, as we move from pulpit to table; from Word to Sacrament, may we recognize and respond to God who is still speaking. As we live into our future in the heart of Columbus, serving Christ with a heart for his power and truth, may we be known as bearers of good news; as restorers of the breach, as those who live God's word. As our worship reflects justice action in God's name, may we know that Power and other angels of God are watching our actions and listening to our words to discover if God is Still Speaking at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio. Amen.
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