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God's Story, Your Story and Our Story Through the Eyes of the Gospel Writers:

Empathy Today and It's Significance for Being the Best Neighbors With Those in Your Neighborhood--Called Back: a Reflection on Isaiah 51:1-6 and Matthew 16:13-20

My friends, the Pandemic and racial injustice occurring not just in our country but worldwide, offers the Church universal and our particular church an opportunity to do self-examination as individuals and as an institution. The discussion we are having about public health disparities and racial discrimination is important. It is awkward and we all do not agree about health care for all or that racism is systemic. Yet, how we disagree, either moves people toward healing and reconciliation or not.

Joseph Sittler writes, “There is certainly nothing wrong with the church looking ahead, but it is terribly important that it should be done in connection with the look inside, into the church’s own nature and mission, and a look behind at her own history. If the church does this, she is less likely to take her cues from the business community, the corporation, or the marketplace.”[1] Words that align with Jesus’ mission require action, actions that promote the common good not self-interest. And it is at this point that many Christians resist. Actions put us “out there” with those who are hurting, disenfranchised, oppressed and longing for a different way of life. Individual responsibility and community support are both necessary. Jesus’ mission is transformational in its words and actions. Injustice is transformed into justice.

God calls us back to the mission of the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of life. The texts in Isaiah 51:1-6 and Matthew 16:13-20 remind us that from the beginning, God established words and actions as “means” for the “end” of salvation and redemption. God called Abraham and Sarah to be the rock and quarry from which the people of God are hewn. Jesus, the Son of Man is the Rock/Messiah to complete the promise made to Abraham. Jesus establishes the continuity of the words and actions of salvation in Peter and all subsequent believers who form the Church.

Isaiah 51:1-6 asserts that people are to listen to God. Isaiah 51:1, 4 read “Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord…Listen to me, my people, and give heed to me, my nation.” Those that pursue righteousness and are living as reconciled to God are to remember Abraham and Sarah who wrestled with God’s call and were continually called back to a simple trust that God would lead them in their obedience. And now, Christians are to bank their hope on God’s promises, words and actions, in and through Jesus Christ. The Church continues the journey of bringing about the new Eden. The new Eden is the Kingdom of God, “…Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Matthew 16:13-20 announces that Jesus’ identity as the Messiah is a problem for those who oppose Jesus. To confess Jesus as Savior and Lord means that “the self” is not. By confessing Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, the believer then and now speaks in words and actions that Jesus is sovereign over one’s life and all things that are occurring in one’s life. That confession also speaks to the words and actions of the Church. The challenge for such a confession is to live the words and actions of Jesus. Following Peter's confession, Jesus said, "You are Peter and on this Rock, I will build my church (Mt. 16:18). The Church, under Peter’s leadership then and those called to lead it today, is to loose people from all forms of injustice. For through liberation what is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven. That means when justice is loosed on earth, justice will be loosed in heaven. Justice is permanently woven into the fabric of heaven.[2]

The COVID-19 Pandemic and racial discrimination call Christians back to the righteousness of God. We are to do justice. We are to embrace the truth, in word and deed, that all humans are created in the image of God. All humans have dignity and worth. All humans have equal access to participate fully in the abundant life promised by God. And the worship life of each particular church is key to how a congregation loves God and others. In this regard, Krin Van Tatenhove and Rob Mueller in Neighborhood Church write, “The problem for many churches is that we hold so tightly to our practices and invest so heavily in our preferences that we cannot consider what is actually essential about our worship…Is our goal self-perpetuation? Or is it to bring glory to God in this time and place?”[3] Remember, the imposter self says engagement with people different than ourselves does not nurture us in our preferred ways of being a Christian. Well, there is only one preferred way of being a Christian. Listen to God. Speak and do righteousness which is justice. Then and only then, do we advance the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

You are building your life upon the Rock, aren’t you? We are to look to God’s words and actions for the definition and application of righteousness. God is calling you back to the words and actions of creation, redemption and sustenance. All people are created in the image of God. All have the efficacy of the cross available for their redemption. All have the promise that the Holy Spirit brings to remembrance all that Jesus said and did and provides comfort. God’s words and actions of righteousness provide the bedrock for our ability to face challenges like public health care and racial discrimination with our words and actions of justice.

Are you listening to God or to the political rhetoric? God is not liberal or conservative. God is righteous. Oh, politics give us some insight into what is right. But it is the words in the Bible and the actions called for in “loving the least” that show us what righteousness looks like.On this Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost affirm that you are being called by God to listen to God. And listening to God is not comfortable. When you listen to God, you’re being called back to the basics: love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Listen to God. Listen to others.Be empathetic. Act with compassion. Experience warm relationships. Be called back by God to liberate someone from the oppression of unrighteousness which is injustice to the life changing experience of righteousness which is justice. You’ll be liberated too.

[1]Taken from the website, Joseph Sittler, Christian History, no. 25. [2]In the three paragraphs of textual analysis above, I have benefited from the thinking of John Kaltner, Hugo Magallanes, Gennifer Benjamin Brooks and Lance Pape in Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, Luke A. Powery, Cynthia L. Rigby and Carolyn J. Sharp, editors, Connections, Year A, Volume 3 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 245-248, 248-250, 258-260 and 260-261. [3]Krin Van Tatenhove & Rob Mueller, Neighborhood Church (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 103.

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