Exiles, Come Home: a midweek homily

Two weeks ago David Griffin spoke on Isaiah 54:1-10 at our mid-week eucharist

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It is not for nothing that book of Isaiah has earned the nickname “The Fifth Gospel.” Although it begins with warnings of judgment, the book concludes with some of the most encouraging promises of redemption that we find in the Old Testament. Indeed, our passage today is the Servant Song that comes right after the famous suffering servant of chapter 53; chapter 54 is the message of hope after the servant’s great suffering in the last chapter. That message is: God remembers his promises, so he wants you who are exiles and strangers to him to come home and dwell with him.

From chapter 40 on, Isaiah is addressing the exiled people of Judah. Because of Judah’s chasing after other gods and failure to do justice to the oppressed, God allowed the Babylonian armies to conquer his chosen people. As a result, the enemy deported a large chunk of Judah’s population to live in Babylon. All that to say, the nation of Judah finds itself trapped in a foreign land, longing for the land that God had promised to his people. They’re wondering: has God forgotten us? Can we really worship God outside of Jerusalem, the holy city where his Temple was destroyed?

Then, after the Persians take over, King Cyrus announces that all exiles can return to their foreign lands. From Chapter 40 onward, Isaiah exclaims: don’t despair! This is really happening! Don’t feel defeated and helpless, for the Lord is restoring your fortunes! Come home, all you exiles, strangers in a foreign land, displaced by war!

The imagery used here is stunning. The people of Judah in exile are compared to a barren woman, for God’s people has been reduced to a remnant of what they once were. But in just a little while the barren woman (Judah) will soon have children in abundance. You’re going to need a much bigger tent for all the kids you’ll be having!

Don’t be afraid, says Isaiah, who then compares Judah to a divorced woman, covered in shame and feeling abandoned. My absence was only temporary, says the Lord God. I am your husband, and I will always keep my vows. My momentary anger is nothing compared to my everlasting love for you! And I swear from this day forth that it will never happen again. Come home to me!

Our reading from Galatians today quotes this passage, but Paul creatively applies it now to Jesus. In the New Testament, of course, Jesus is the Suffering Servant, Israel in exile. So Paul connects the barren one to Sarah to suggest that the church fulfills the many children promised in Isaiah and, spiritually speaking, the children of the promise God made to Sarah. And because God’s people are his children by promise, they are not his children by virtue of doing the works of the law. No, they inherit the promise by faith in Jesus, in whom all God’s promises are made good. So now God’s family can encompass all the nations of the earth, and not just ethnic Israel.

And so, Isaiah speaks to us here by way of Jesus. And the overall message is: you who are far off, estranged from God and his family, the door is wide open! Come home from your exile away from the Lord Jesus, your husband, redeemer, and friend.

And for those of us already a part of God’s church, God always commands those who used to be strangers, foreigners, aliens, to welcome those who are currently displaced and estranged from their homeland—and not just spiritually, but concretely. We have a warning from Isaiah, for Israel was originally sent into exile for failing to do justice to foreigners, the homeless, the oppressed. So let us open our arms wide to displaced people from among the nations, as visible testimony to what Jesus has done for us.

Let us now lift up our prayers to God after a moment of silence.

O God and Father of all, who sent your Son to preach good news to those who are far off and those who are near:

Seek us out in those moments of loneliness and despair. When we are feeling alienated from you or from other people, let the prophet’s words dwell in us richly, to remind us that our apparent exile has come to an end, though we may not see how that may be now. We thank you and praise you for being our faithful husband, our holy redeemer, and our friend who has sworn everlasting love toward us.

Lord, in your mercy…. Hear our prayer

Let us stretch out the tent of our church, so that people from all over North Arlington, and from the world over, my find their home. Bless our missions in West Asia, Bolivia, and Cambodia; refresh the workers there, give justice to the poor there, and may your saving Gospel be preached to all in those places who haven’t heard it. We pray you also bless our upcoming church plants, so that the stranger doesn’t need to come, but home may to go to the stranger.

Lord, in your mercy…. Hear our prayer.

Finally, Lord, open our hears to those who are exiles and refugees in the most concrete sense of those words. Remind us of your great love for us, so that we may be moved to great compassion for the suffering stranger. Guide your church in all wisdom and mercy so that she may speak up for the outsider with the words of comfort like those you speak to your people through your prophets and apostles.

Lord, in your mercy… Hear our prayer

~ David Griffin

54 “Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
break forth into singing and cry aloud,
you who have not been in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than the children of her who is married,” says the Lord.
“Enlarge the place of your tent,
and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
and strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left,
and your offspring will possess the nations
and will people the desolate cities.

“Fear not, for you will not be ashamed;
be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced;
for you will forget the shame of your youth,
and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more.
For your Maker is your husband,
the Lord of hosts is his name;
and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
the God of the whole earth he is called.
For the Lord has called you
like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit,
like a wife of youth when she is cast off,
says your God.
For a brief moment I deserted you,
but with great compassion I will gather you.
In overflowing anger for a moment
I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,”
says the Lord, your Redeemer.

“This is like the days of Noah[a] to me:
as I swore that the waters of Noah
should no more go over the earth,
so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you,
and will not rebuke you.
10 For the mountains may depart
and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,”
says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

 

Working Together

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February 5, 2017 – Nathan Dickerson

Acts 18.24-28 : Psalm 112.1-9 : Matthew 5.13-20

Listen to the songs here.

Surprises in Cambodia: team reflections #4

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Several days ago, as I was preparing for a workshop session that I would be facilitating on the Khmer Pastors’ retreat, Liz reminded me to leave room to be surprised. She was right. The Holy Spirit so often surprises me in the midst of the mundane, and I operate best when I assume a posture of openness and flexibility to those surprises.

And so, on my final day in Phnom Penh, I sat in Brown’s Coffee (basically the Cambodian Northside Social) and reflected on my time, making special note of the ways God had surprised me. I wanted to share a few of these surprises with the Resto community that has so faithfully prayed for us. And as you read, who knows? Perhaps God will surprise you too – with a gentle nudge to pray for Cambodia, with a desire for greater involvement in outreach, or with a word or image that particularly speaks to your life here in Arlington.

Surprise 1: Loving Cambodia. I have traveled widely, and I am always interested in experiencing new places and cultures. I expected the same from Cambodia: interest, novelty, enjoyment. But instead, I fell in love. Before I even stepped on the plane, as I sifted through the English-Khmer Bible to prepare materials for the trip, the beautiful script resonated deeply with me. With Google Translate as my linguistic assistant, I began decoding numerals, days of the week, and punctuation. Did you know that Khmer is not a tonal language? That it’s derived from Sanscrit and Pali (the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism)? That the main row of characters are the consonants, and the little notations above and below are the vowel sounds? That there are no spaces between words? Like this:

ការអធិស្ឋានល្ងាច

That’s Khmer for evening prayer. Beautiful, right?

20170128_171533My love for Cambodia started with its script and continued through Phnom Penh and Kep. Walking the vibrant, friendly streets; riding tuk-tuks (moto taxis) around town; watching people grill squid and chip ice and boil cockles in the market; eating glutinous sesame rice cooked over coals in banana peels;  women waist-deep in the ocean pulling in their crab traps; monkeys crossing the streets; strangely translated restaurant names (“The Slimming Foods and Puppies House”); I loved it all. I was surprised. God gave me joy where I expected mere interest.

Surprise 2: God speaks loudly in silence. For the first part of our trip, we supported a team from Christ Church Austin as they conducted a silent retreat for members of the international congregation of the Anglican church in Phnom Penh (Church of Christ Our Peace).  It is a strange thing to facilitate a silent retreat; there is no verbal feedback mechanism by which you can evaluate people’s level of engagement with the material. As we moved quietly behind the scenes – arranging meals, setting up tables, preparing the liturgy – the participants silently disappeared to who knows where, doing who knows what.

On the final morning, the retreatants broke their silence with a 1-2 minute reflection on what they had experienced. Each person had received a helpful image, word, scripture, or answer from God. One man, an IT consultant, had composed a stunning poem about the strength of God’s goodness. One woman, a burned-out aid worker, had been reassured of God’s fatherly care by the sight of a baby monkey on its father’s back. Another woman described lying on the roof of our hotel under the stars one night, singing praises to the heavens. Others described powerful moments of healing and hope and comfort.

God speaks in silence. He fills whatever empty spaces we create for him. He comes to us in our rest and our surrender.

Surprise 3: Long-term, gradual, incremental work does add up!  So often, I am hardened and skeptical about good work being done in the world. I know how complex global problems are and how fraught with setbacks and unintended consequences their solutions can be. I begin to doubt that sustainable transformation is really possible. And yet that is precisely the story of International Justice Mission (IJM) in Cambodia, where they have combatted sex trafficking for over a decade. Again and again, I heard people talk about the remarkable transformation that IJM has brought to Cambodia. Though sex trafficking still exists, it’s now an acknowledged societal problem, one that the Cambodian government, police, and courts are increasingly well equipped to tackle on their own. And some communities have been completely transformed. We visited one village that used to be a center of child prostitution and walked down an infamous street once lined with child brothels, where children as young as 5 could be bought and sold. Now, thanks to tireless work by IJM and by Agape International Mission (AIM) over many years, children in that town are being protected, rehabilitated, educated, and equipped for a productive life outside the sex trade. Those brothels are now schools, training centers, churches – places of healing and flourishing. Change is possible. God’s light can penetrate even the darkest corners of humanity.

Surprise 4: Immigrants are immigrants. In that same community where we witnessed such incredible transformation of the child sex trade, we also witnessed the sad reality of immigrant communities everywhere: marginalization and disdain. This community was home to many Vietnamese immigrants, widely mistrusted and disliked by ethnic Khmer. These Vietnamese are highly vulnerable to sex trafficking and exploitative labor practices. They are linguistically isolated from Khmer schools and society. They are poor. They are different.

It was a surreal moment to witness the difficulties facing this immigrant community while hearing news about the increased vulnerability of immigrant communities back home. Immigrants everywhere are vulnerable, and I’m thankful for the protective and healing work that AIM is doing in this particular community. May we all be so courageous, standing with the most vulnerable among us and working tirelessly for their protection.

Surprise 5: Worship and prayer are universal languages. My moments of deepest joy came in worship and prayer. As Liz Gray wrote in our final email update, “God gave us a ‘thin space’ to intercede,” and he truly did. Whether praying blessing in English over rural Khmer pastors; praying for healing with individuals we’d never spoken to on the silent retreat; or praying the words of the liturgy simultaneously in multiple languages; God’s presence in our prayers was palpable and transcended language barriers. Similarly, we were gifted with momentary glimpses of heaven as we sang 1990s praise songs simultaneously, exuberantly, in Khmer and English.

Surprise 6: There is only one Jesus. This should seem obvious. But because I’m interested in other religions and cultures, and because I firmly believe “all truth is God’s truth,” and because I can find redemptive threads in almost any cultural narrative, sometimes I lose sight of the absolute uniqueness of Jesus. I wrote an earlier blog post on one of my many moments realizing this in Cambodia.

Another such moment came during a painful visit to the Killing Fields on our final day. The Killing Fields are one of many designated places of remembrance of the tragedy of Pol Pot’s regime. There, inmates from Tuol Sleng prison (a place of horrific torture which we visited earlier in our trip) were brought to be killed and dumped in mass graves. Bits of bone and fragments of clothing still litter the ground, brought to the surface with every rain.  The earth still takes the shape of what were once mass graves, rising and falling in unnatural mounds. Several massive trees of significance are marked: the tree against which children were killed, and the tree from which loudspeakers were hung to blare revolutionary music to cover the screams.

Along the path through the fields is another tree, dedicated by Buddhist monks several years ago. It is just a young sapling, protected by a fence but drooping sadly nonetheless, bearing a sign: “Tree of Hope and Peace.”  It was at this tree that I had another moment of gratitude for the uniqueness of Jesus. This little sapling of hope and peace looked so flimsy and ineffective against the monstrous trees of torture nearby. But Jesus himself is our hope and peace. Not a flimsy, symbolic, wishful-thinking sort of hope and peace, but a robust, embodied one. Because he lived and suffered as a human like us, he is compassionately with us in our pain. He does not explain away the pain of existence or seek to escape it, as Buddhism teaches; he fully embraces it in his suffering, dying, human body. And because he rose again, we have a confident assurance that there is powerful healing, redemption, and restoration waiting in the wings just beyond our pain.

As I stood there, I remembered another tree of hope and peace from Revelation 22:

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life . . .. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”

And in the midst of a place of enormous suffering and deep darkness, with a hopelessly inept tree before me, I prayed the only thing I could think to pray, echoing some of the last words of that same chapter of Revelation: Come, Lord Jesus!

~Amy Rowe

Kept “in the midst of it” – the homily from last Wednesday’s Eucharist

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Readings: Psalm 121; Isa. 49:1-7; Gal 2:15-21; Mark 6:13-29

Today* marks the 6th day of the new administration under Trump. It is the second day of the annual audit at my office.And we’re in the midst of the sometimes dreary days of midwinter; although, today offers a welcome (warm and bright) reprieve.

As we begin let’s first pause to take in the scene, a panorama of your landscape: what day is today…for you? What are you “in the midst of”? Where are your relationships feeling the squeeze? What pressures are you navigating at work or at home? Perhaps your 3 weeks into sleepless nights with a baby or 3 days into potty-training a toddler. You may need to call the plumber because of a shower leak (which just happened to me this morning). Or you’re facing a big deadline or meeting. On the other hand, maybe you’re having a day of reprieve and your face is turned toward the warmth of the sunshine.

Take a moment.  Steady.  *  Scan the landscape.  *  Click.  *  Take a snapshot in your mind’s eye.

It is “in the midst of it” –from that landscape– that the steady-ing hand of the Lord keeps us! Let’s join the Psalmist to notice God’s keeping power at work.

The writer of Psalm 121 captures these promises. We are kept people–no matter the circumstances or uncertainties; no matter what day it is. Six times the Psalmist speaks of the Lord’s keeping power.

He keeps us from being struck by the sun or the moon—by those things totally outside our control. We can’t control the power of the sun (though we might try with sunblock) or the pull of the moon on our tides. Those pressures that abound in our worlds, but cannot be managed by good habits or positive thinking or even brilliant resistance or protesting. There are so many things out of our control. Our good Father steadies not only our environment, but our hearts–our very life.

He is the Keeper. It’s the title given to the Lord in the psalm. He has the power to do it, to keep us from faltering in our faith. And God does it very well—even through the night—He hides us. In those places where our energy is spent and we have nothing left, where our best ideas have run out, where we’re sick, and at the end of the day, when we’re tired.

He also keeps us in the places where we have great hope and expectation for the future. In places of joy, we still need our good Father’s keeping power, to guard our hearts and minds. So, our appetites and attentions don’t wander. So, our orientation remains one of trust and submission to the wisdom of the Spirit and obedience to God’s good laws. He keeps us from ALL evil.

To help us understand our sense of this word “keep,” I took a peek at the etymology of the word (as any former English Major worth their salt would do). Interestingly, keep was also used as a noun in the middle ages, referring to the innermost stronghold or central tower of a castle.” This calls to mind a sense of protection, preservation, and provision for our hearts and minds–our most vulnerable places. This “inner keeping” orients us, so we can lift our eyes to the hills, that secure spot, where our help comes from…

It’s in these days here, at the beginning of 2017, “in the midst of it”, when we face very real places of chagrin and uncertainty. And yet Christ… We are kept, established, held secure through Christ. God the Father, in His great promises to Israel, foretold of his keeping of Christ, who in His resurrection, demonstrated that even with the destruction of our bodies—John’s head on a platter—our hope would not be at an end. We are kept for eternal life…Isaiah’s prophecy continues from the end of our reading to speak of Israel’s restoration:

Thus says the Lord:
“In a time of favor I have answered you;
in a day of salvation I have helped you;
I will keep you and give you
as a covenant to the people,
to establish the land…”
Isaiah 46:8

We are in that day of salvation now. Christ has been given to us. He has given a new convent to those who fear God. He is both our strength and our song. He is our keeper.

In our liturgy, one of the blessings we receive after corporate confession, our priest says:

Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins
through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all
goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in
eternal life. Amen.

Indeed, may he strengthen and keep us by His tender mercies today and always…

Invitation to pray:

Father God, we need your safe keeping. As your children, fear of what we face can taunt our hearts. But you are our steadfast help to keep our feet firm.

As we lift our eyes, we look to you, the one who made the heaven and the earth. Help us. Keep us. Steady our stance. Turn your face towards us.  May we experience your covering and keeping power “in the midst.”

Keep those suffering and in need of your healing touch.

Keep those in need of your protection and wisdom.

Keep us from all evil. Keep our life—hidden with Christ in God.

~ Erica Chapman

*Homily: 7/37 

RestoMen – Feb. 7, 2017, “Using Our Speech Wisely”

Chewbacca

“The moment”. We’ve all been there: “the moment” when you regretted the words coming out of your mouth almost exactly as soon as they left your lips. In “the moment,” your palms are sweaty, your mouth is drier than month-old bread, and you wish you could rewind to the moment right BEFORE you said the thing it will now take you months to correct. If we could see his face through the fur, even Chewbacca is blushing at your lack of care with your words.

Come out to RestoMen this Tuesday, February 7th as we continue our series on “Wisdom.” This month’s discussion will help us with “the moment” as we explore the topic of “Wisdom and Our Words: Using Our Speech Wisely.”

Dinner begins at 7 PM (please bring a suggested contribution of $5.00 for dinner); the program begins at 7:30 PM. We will have a speaker, small group discussion, and a panel interview exploring the intricacies of how to speak with wisdom…without becoming a wookie!

We look forward to seeing you there!

Sunday Music – February 5, 2017

Opening Songs:

Trisagion
For the Beauty of the Earth
Oh How I Need You
I Need Thee Every Hour

Response:

O Church Arise

Offertory:

Eternal Weight of Glory

Eucharist Songs:

Sanctus Holy Holy Holy Lord

Eucharist:

We Are Hungry
Fall Afresh
Beautiful Savior

resto cambo reflections #3: Gardener of Zion

For the Lord comforts Zion;
he comforts all her waste places
and makes her wilderness like Eden,
her desert like the garden of the Lord;
joy and gladness will be found in her,
thanksgiving and the voice of song.

Isaiah 51.3


I got to see God working in, on, and through his people…to see deserts turning into gardens, and I am so thankful to have witnessed it and been a part of it.

Cambodia Garden

Last weekend our team had the honor of supporting three members of Christ Church (Austin, Texas) in hosting a silent retreat for about twenty English speaking internationals who attend Church of Christ our Peace in Phnom Penh.  Everyone arrived by bus Friday evening and chatted over dinner after which Christine, our “silent retreat” tour guide, gave everyone the schedule of meals and corporate prayer times and a packet with resources intended to guide each person in silent prayer through the weekend. 

During that meal on Friday night, I could sense a mix of skepticism and openness in the group as they were asked to look at a list of descriptive words to identify the state of their soul as they entered the silence.  Were their souls anxious, weary, chaotic, bruised, thawing, etc.?  It was clear that there were waste places and deserts in their lives that had either been identified or not, and this became a weekend of discovery for them as they were welcomed into the discipline of sitting with their own souls and Jesus in the context of silent community.

While this was happening at the retreat in Cambodia, Christ Church back in Austin had been asked to pray for those attending the silent retreat and to send encouragements, visions, Scripture, basically anything that they believed they had heard from the Lord about the retreat.  These messages were posted in a common space, and retreatants spent time browsing them to see if anything resonated that would give them further insights into the work the Holy Spirit desired to do in their lives.

As I wandered and prayed for the retreatants, I felt like I was seeing people come into deeper, more vibrant color.  I’d never had a sense or description like that come to me, but what I saw happening was beautiful, so I praised God for it.  A little affirmation came later when Christine was reading the highlights of some last minute encouragements that had just been sent from Austin, and one of them was a vision/picture that had been drawn and Christine quoted the person who sent it along saying, “I wish you could see the color!” 

On Sunday morning at ten o’clock, they broke silence by sitting in a circle and one by one sharing a piece of their experience, and the flood of beauty that poured from their experiences went deep into the soil of each other.  I don’t know how to better describe it.  The visions, Scriptures, and experiences they’d had through their wrestling in silence with God and the support and encouragement from the church back in Austin unveiled a plot of land with budding vibrance and growth.  It was another victory for the Gardener of Zion.

After they all left, Mary, Amy, Liz, and I went to dinner that evening praising God through the retelling of peoples’ testimonies and growth stories.  We marveled at the beauty of the church in Austin coming around the church in Phnom Penh, and as we looked over the lush, Cambodian landscape from the mountain out toward the ocean, we sat with thankfulness and joy to have been able to witness and take part in the work God did in, on, and through his people.

Please take a moment to pray for the retreatants.  You can literally just pray this:  Lord, please sustain and protect those who attended the retreat.  Help them to not forget your goodness to them, and as they go into their daily work help them to grab hold of the gifts and tools they have been given that they may press deeper into the good work and the good rest you have for them.  Amen.

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