Rise Up

Sermon preached for the first Sunday of Epiphany at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.

Isaiah 60:1-6

Rise up! Shine! Your light has come;
the Lord’s glory has shone upon you.
Though darkness covers the earth
and gloom the nations,
the Lord will shine upon you;
God’s glory will appear over you.
Nations will come to your light
and kings to your dawning radiance.

Lift up your eyes and look all around:
they are all gathered; they have come to you.
Your sons will come from far away,
and your daughters on caregivers’ hips.
Then you will see and be radiant;
your heart will tremble and open wide,
because the sea’s abundance will be turned over to you;
the nations’ wealth will come to you.
Countless camels will cover your land,
young camels from Midian and Ephah.
They will all come from Sheba,
carrying gold and incense,
proclaiming the Lord’s praises.

***

About two years ago now, I was driving along listening to the latest hits on the radio when I suddenly found myself immersed in a prayer.

I was not on the gospel station or Christian radio. This was your basic top 40 station, Adele and Coldplay and Bruno Mars. Mostly the lyrics are some variation of dancing all night and staying young forever.

It wasn’t the kind of radio station that packed an emotional punch very often. Yet I remember being blown away by Andra Day’s hit, “Rise Up.” Day herself has shared that “Rise Up” began as a sort of prayer, at a time when her personal life had become stagnant and a close friend had been diagnosed with cancer.[1] It uses the language of faith, faith that moves mountains.

If you haven’t heard it, I encourage you to look it up, but I’ll read you the lyrics from the chorus:

I’ll rise up
Rise like the day
I’ll rise up
In spite of the ache
I will rise a thousand times again
And we’ll rise up
Rise like the waves
We’ll rise up
In spite of the ache
We’ll rise up
And we’ll do it a thousands times again

Simple words—Day said they were almost cliché, except that they are so, so true.

True, and ancient.

I can’t help but hear in Day’s song an echo of the prophets of the line of Isaiah, who called their people to rise, too.

Rise up! Shine! Your light has come;
the Lord’s glory has shone upon you.
Though darkness covers the earth
and gloom the nations,
the Lord will shine upon you. (Isaiah 60:1-2)

It is a prophecy of hope, in a time when hope seemed hard to come by.

We are in the sixth century BCE now, and Jerusalem lies in ruins. It fell to Babylon years ago, most of its citizens forcibly uprooted and sent to live as strangers in strange lands. The few who remained became second-class citizens in their own city. Both those who were forced out and those who were trapped within shared one prayer: that they might be reunited, and Jerusalem restored.

And then it happened. What they were hoping for, praying for, dreaming of. Babylonian power waned and their forces pulled out of Jerusalem. The exiles returned home at last.

It should have been the happy ending. But it wasn’t.

Because in the meantime too many things had changed. In Jerusalem, new families had gathered power and refused to cede their place to the old dynasties. The exiles brought home new ways of thinking about God. What should have been a joyful reunion turned quickly into civil war.

It would have been so easy, so tempting to give up hope. They got what they wanted, what they’d prayed for, and it hadn’t helped. It hadn’t been enough. The dream lay shattered Injustice was still rampant; people lied and stole and cheated and pointed fingers at everyone but themselves. People mistrusted each other and jockeyed for power. The wealthy got wealthier and the poor got poorer. Religion was used as a way of looking good. The city lay in ruins and no one could agree on what to do about it.

Sound familiar?

This is what happens to all communities when people turn on each other, and not to each other. When people drag each other down to get to the top of the pile, instead of raising each other up to stand side-by-side.

And yet into all this mess our poet speaks a word of hope. He or she does not believe that there is nothing to be done, that they’ve blown their last chance, that Israel is lost forever. They know that with God, nothing is impossible.

Rise up! they say. Look around you! Look at what God’s glory can do. Look at who you can be if you shine with God’s light.

Hope is not dead, the poet says. Hope is never dead. Not with God.

This call to rise—to shake off what chains us down and drags us through the mud and turn our eyes to God—it echoes throughout scripture. As I was looking ahead at the lectionary readings for the season of epiphany, I was struck by how each one included a call to rise—to wake up, get up, rise up. To get some momentum going.

During the Christmas season we put the baby Jesus in the manger, and it’s comforting, I think, that we can keep him there, make him stay put for even a few weeks. But that baby is going to grow up into a man who was always on the move, always travelling, always seeking out new folks to share God’s love with, and always calling others to rise up and join him.

The story of the Bible is the story of a people who are asked to rise up, again and again and again, and go with their God wherever God might lead. Called to rise above fear and reluctance and uncertainty; called to rise perhaps even before they feel up to the task.

Of course, the story the Bible is also the story of a God who knows what it is to rise up, even after all hope seems lost, seems dead.

And so we are asked to practice at resurrection while we are still on earth, to practice rising up in the face of hopelessness, or injustice, or inaction. To be the people who shine so brightly with God’s love that others cannot help but notice.

Today after worship we are going to have our congregational meeting, to talk about the budget, and if you are not a numbers person it might seem a little mundane, just the shop talk of the church, but y’all, this budget is important. This budget tells a story about this church. That we are a church that is rising up.

I don’t mean to steal Sarah’s thunder, but this is a strong budget—and I’m not talking about financially, although I think that too—but in what it represents. The trust it represents. The faith. The generosity. The fact that you all—and really, just you all—have decided that the ministry of this church is worth your sacrifice of support.

I was nearly bouncing in my chair when it came time to present this budget to session. I was so proud of y’all. It was balanced; it was generous to our ministries and practical about our needs; and, most importantly to me, we had a jump in new pledging units. I was ready to lead a conga line of celebration.

Session’s response was… stoic. They nodded like the dignified people they are and I think I said something to the effect of “you don’t have to be so Presbyterian about this. It’s okay to get excited.”

One of the elders clued me in to what was going on. “It’s a little hard to take in,” he said. “This wasn’t where we were three years ago.”

Now, I know some of the story of what this congregation has gone through; I won’t ever know all of it, and that’s okay. But every day I get to be a witness to your resurrection; to the way you all have risen from darkness and gloom to shine fiercely with the light of Christ. You all have walked a hard path, and you have come out of it with grace and with strength and with joy. I could not be more honored or more lucky to join a congregation like this one.

I don’t know what challenges 2018 will bring us. I don’t know what opportunities it will provide. What I do know is that this church—that each and every one of you—has the strength and the faith and the courage to rise to meet them.

As long as we open our heart to God’s spirit, and turn to each other when the path seems steep, I have no doubt: we will rise up.

In a few minutes we are going to sing “Rise Up Shepherd and Follow,” an African-American spiritual sung by people who celebrated Christmas in chains. The song held a double meaning—to teach the hope of the Christmas story to each other, and to give directions on how to get free—to follow the north star to the free states.

For those slaves, the call to rise up was dangerous. Deadly, if they were caught. Yet every Christmas, they remembered that Jesus had come to earth to bring salvation to all, and they told each other—rise up. Rise up, because God has more in mind for you than this.

It would be easy to stay on our sofas in 2018. To bask in whatever reflected glory last year’s successes or stability might grant us. But God’s call is to momentum, and God’s glory the only glory worth seeking.

So rise up.

Rise like the day.

Rise up.

Rise unafraid.

Rise up.

And do it a thousand times again.

Amen.

 

[1] http://time.com/collection-post/5029505/american-voices-andra-day/

2 thoughts on “Rise Up

  1. Thanks so much for sharing your sermons each week. I feel like I am there among all the lovely people at CSPC in person. Rise Up os especially meaningful to me..

    Liked by 1 person

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