One: Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it . . .
All: I am the LORD. I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations . . .
One: To open the eyes of the blind, to bring out the prisoners from their dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.
All: See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth forth, I tell you of them.
* Gathering Prayer
God of water and spirit, God of justice and peace, God of generations past and those to come, we thank you for Jesus who shows us the way of righteousness, who humbled himself, who underwent baptism as a ritual of cleansing and community. Scripture tells us that at Jesus’ baptism the heavens opened and all that were gathered heard your voice. Open the heavens to us this morning that we may hear your words of love and encouragement today. Amen.
Prayer of Dedication
In baptism we receive the boundless blessings of your love. Teach us to follow the example of Jesus who loved without limits and gave without counting the cost. Amen.
Leader: Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
All: Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves with rich food.
Gathering Prayer (Unison)
Holy God, in a place of so much wealth, why is there so much need? In a land that affords every available comfort, why do we find ourselves uncomfortable, discouraged, depressed? What is this food you spoke of through your prophets? Where is this promised land of milk and honey our ancestors sought? Open our hearts to the only true satisfaction our hearts will ever know: your boundless love.
The year is 1965. The place is Newport, RI. The event is the Newport Folk Festival, which had been founded six years earlier as a response to the more established Newport Jazz Festival. The Newport Folk Festival quickly became a gathering place for the various protest movements of the time: the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, the labor movement. Famous artists like Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul & Mary, John Lee Hooker, Joan Baez sang a mix of traditional folk songs and their own compositions that told the stories and reflected the values of common, everyday people. Of all these great artists, perhaps the most famous was a young, newcomer from Minnesota named Bob Dylan.
By 1965 Dylan had released three hugely successful albums: “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), “The Times They Are a-Changin’” (1964), and “Bringing It All Back Home” (1965). Dylan’s song “Blowin’ in the Wind” had become the anthem of the anti-war movement. In fact, the 1964 Newport Folk Festival closed with the entire lineup of artists joining Dylan onstage to lead the crowds in singing “Blowin’ in the Wind,” a song that today is considered a classic of American songwriting–one of the many classics that earned Dylan a Nobel Prize for literature in 2016.
Already in 1965 Dylan was shifting away from the traditional folk compositions for voice and acoustic guitar that had made him famous toward music that featured electric guitars and a full band. Nevertheless, at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival he was planning on playing an acoustic set like people expected of him. The story goes that the day before his performance, Dylan overheard someone from the Folk Festival make disparaging remarks about electric guitars. In a flash of righteous anger Dylan completely changed his set list to feature him playing an electric guitar backed by the Butterfield Blues Band. When he took the stage the next night, he began his set with “Maggie’s Farm.” He played a loud, jangly Fender stratocaster and sang, “Ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more”–a clear declaration of artistic independence. People started booing and shouting. Pete Seeger was furious. By the end of his set Dylan did return to his acoustic guitar in a gesture to the crowd’s expectations, but the message was clear: Dylan would not allow himself to be defined by any person’s or group’s expectations. His ultimate allegiance lay far beyond any particular style or movement. Dylan’s ultimate allegiance was to the artistic endeavor itself.
I was reminded of the above story during the First Church South Church Bible study this week. We were considering the gospel lectionary for this coming Sunday: Luke 4:16-29. It begins with Jesus getting a very favorable response to his preaching from his hometown crowd and ends with them attempting to throw him off a cliff. Why this sudden turnaround? Jesus had been preaching about the “Lord’s favor.” The crowd understood this to be a simple affirmation of the lives they were currently living as God’s “chosen people.” They became upset when Jesus corrected their understanding. Jesus explained that their God wasn’t theirs alone, that God chooses sides and it wasn’t necessarily theirs. Rather the God revealed in Jesus choses the unchosen. God loves the hated. And Jesus’ ministry won’t be defined by any person’s or group’s expectations. His allegiance lies far beyond any particular style or movement. Jesus’ ultimate allegiance is to the boundless love of God itself.
A few weeks ago I was driving home from church when I noticed that something was different about the right rear of the car. Flat tire? I didn’t hear the sound of a rim rolling on the pavement, so I wasn’t sure. I was almost home, so I just continued driving until I pulled in the driveway. Sure enough, the right rear tire was deflated but not flat. I was short on time, so instead of putting the doughnut on myself I called AAA. When the AAA guy took the tire off he showed it to me. A patch of the rubber outer layer had worn clear through exposing the steel belts beneath. When I brought the car to the shop to get the tire replaced the mechanic explained that when the wheels are out of alignment the tires wear unevenly. If you don’t catch it in time you get blowouts like the one I got. Alignment is key to keeping your tires in good shape for driving.
Our theme for the third Sunday of Advent is “Those Who Dream Sow Joy.” The Scripture is once again from the prophet Isaiah. The context for this particular prophecy is the return of the exiles from Babylon to their homes in Judah. Earlier prophecy had created in them great expectations for what their return would be like–comfort, rejoicing, salvation–all the good stuff. What they found upon return was a homeland in shambles. Rebuilding was slow and difficult. Even more challenging than putting roofs over their heads was reweaving the torn social fabric that had made their homeland a home in the first place. Those who had dreamed of returning were becoming disillusioned. Maybe this was a mistake. Maybe they should have stayed in Babylon. To these folks the prophet says, “They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD to display his glory. . . . For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to grow up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before the nations.”
What do tires and exiles and oaks have in common? Alignment. I think we can all resonate with the frustration and disappointment of the exiles. Rebuilding is hard. The obstacles between our dreams and reality often seem insurmountable. The prophet is inviting us to shift our view: to see rebuilding as replanting. Creating a sense of belonging is an organic process. Our role is simply to plant seeds of hope, love, and justice. Our role is to turn the soil of our hearts, to tend the gardens of our relationships. God will bring fruit in its time. Our job is simply to align ourselves with God. The process itself will do the heavy lifting. This is why Jesus can say, “Come to me you who are weary and heavy laden. Take my yoke upon yourselves and learn from me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” This is not to say that alignment with God doesn’t require anything of us. In fact, it requires everything. It requires us to pray as Jesus did, “Not my will but your will be done.” Nevertheless, living in alignment with God and one another allows us to tap into the source of all things–a limitless energy that causes the plants to grow and the fish to swim and our hearts to sing with praise.
Years ago I attended a church vitality conference. One of the speakers was the pastor of a small New Hampshire church that had experienced a dramatic turnaround. A congregation in shambles had become vibrant. Someone asked the pastor her secret. She said, “I follow the energy.” Where do you find life energy in and around you? How can we align ourselves with the new life God is always already bringing forth? When we continually keep these questions in mind, we will find ourselves continually sowing seeds of joy.