Sunday, December 4, 2011

"Accessible" (Isaiah 40:1-11)

The Sierra Nevada is the tallest mountain range in California.  It forms a nearly impenetrable wall, rising as high as 14,500 feet.  It was created by the gradual tilting up of the earth’s crust, a process which continues even today as the mountain range continues to grow taller.
As the Sierra Nevada grows taller, the Owens Valley just east of the mountain range sinks lower and lower.  The result is one of the deepest valleys in the world, with the steepest walls.  The views from the valley floor to the crest of the Sierra are breathtaking.
Not many roads cross the Sierra.  For one stretch of nearly 200 miles, there are no roads at all.  The mountains are that rugged.  And of those roads that do cross, many are closed and impassable for half the year due to snow which falls a foot at a time; snow that is thick and heavy, and which some who live there refer to as Sierra cement.
Needless to say, it’s not easy to cross the Sierra.  For nearly 200 miles, the only way across is by footpaths that are steep, rocky, and which climb to heights that make your heart pound and your head spin.
Trust me.  I know.
On the roads that do make it across the Sierra, the going isn’t easy.  Steep grades and winding curves keep things interesting.  Some of the roads cross the crest at nearly 10,000 feet. 
Yet they are a blessing to modern travelers.  Early explorers and travelers had it much harder.  In the fall of 1846, the Donner Party got trapped in the Sierra by an early snowfall.  It took four months for them to get out.  Of the 87 members of the party, only 39 survived.
In this age of planes and interstate highways, it is easy to forget how challenging travel was in the not-so-distant past, and how difficult it still is in some of the world’s more remote places.  How much easier it would be if the valleys were lifted up, and the mountains and hills were made low, so that the way to one’s destination was always a smooth and level path.
The prophet Isaiah had a vision, a dream, of a smooth, level way for God; a smooth, level way to God.  A way for people to easily connect with God.  A way for people to easily find wholeness in their lives.
God seems so distant, so inaccessible, so unknowable; just like those lofty mountain peaks reaching up to where the air is thin.  God is mighty, strong, and steadfast.  We humans are like grass that withers and flowers that fade.  The road from where we are to where God is seems long and difficult, if not impossible.
But the prophet says, “Look!  Behold!  Get a load of this!  Here is your God! He comes to you!  He makes the path short and easy to travel.  He lifts up the valleys and lowers the mountains and hills so that all may travel upon it.  The glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.”
And what better way for God to remove the barriers and obstacles to knowing and experiencing him than to come to us in human form?  Through Jesus, the way of the LORD is made straight and level.  Everyone can travel it.  It is accessible to all.  It is ADA compliant!  There are no steps, no boulders to climb, no obstacles, no barriers, no rough places….
One of the scouts in Troop 29 who just earned his Eagle Scout rank was inspired for his Eagle service project when he observed a person in a wheelchair venture out into traffic-filled Wardlow Road to avoid a stretch where there was no sidewalk, only dirt and gravel.  There was no safe and easy way for that wheelchair-bound person to navigate this path. 
For his Eagle Project, this scout worked with the city to install a beautiful landscaped, handicapped-accessible sidewalk, a pathway that could be easily used by all.  He made the uneven ground level.  He made the rough places smooth.
I was honored to take part in that project, helping to plant trees and native plants beside the sidewalk.  When you consider the words of the prophet, you realize that this is sacred, holy work, building an accessible pathway.  This is the work of Christmas, the work of Christ, the work that all those who follow Christ are called to do.
Now it’s true that the pathway the prophet had in mind was a very particular road in the wilderness.  For several generations, the people of Israel had been held in captivity in Babylon, far from their homeland.  There, they lost hope.  They were more than homesick.  They had lost their identity.  They had lost their connection to God.
But then, one day, they were allowed to return.  Their time of captivity had ended.
The problem was that some had long ago given up. Some had forgotten that there ever was a place, a home, where they could feel connected to God.  Remember, several generations had passed.
So they needed some encouragement, which the prophet provided.
But the word of God is a marvelous thing.  It is a living word, and the Spirit often gives it new meaning in later generations.  And the words of the prophets continue to have meaning for us today.
When I read the words of the prophet, I ask myself, “How am I preparing the way of the Lord?  How am I working to connect people to God, making the uneven ground level and the rough places smooth?
And how is my church preparing the way of the Lord, helping people find wholeness and connect with God?  How is my church removing the barriers and obstacles that separate people from God?  How is my church lifting up valleys and making low the mountains and hills, so that all people are able to experience the glory of the Lord?”
With sadness, I must confess that many people today see the church as a barrier that separates them from God.  They’re here, God is there, and the church is there in the middle acting as the gatekeeper, only allowing those who  meet certain criteria to pass through and connect with God.  And only those who have the right opinion on things like abortion and homosexuality and immigration and the interpretation of scripture and doctrine are allowed to pass through.
On the other hand, it is with joy that I remember that the founders of the Disciples of Christ worked hard to remove such barriers and obstacles.  They believed in one church, accessible to all.  They opened wide the gates and invited everyone in, to connect with God, to commune with God at the Lord’s Table.  They encouraged conversation and dialogue regarding the issues Christians disagreed over, rather than casting out all those whose opinions differed from their own.
This is still who we are today.  We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.  As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table, just as God has welcomed us.
I learned something interesting this week.
The word ‘religion’ comes from the prefix ‘re’ and the word ‘ligio.’  The word ‘ligio,’ like the word ‘ligament,’ refers to that which connects, that which holds things together.  So ‘re-ligio’ means to re-connect, to put back together.
True religion, then, reconnects us back to God.  It removes the obstacles and barriers that keep people separated from the one who made them.  It makes the uneven ground level and the rough places smooth, so that all people can see – and live in – the glory of the Lord.
You know, the harshest words Jesus ever spoke were to those who made the path to God more difficult to travel instead of making it easier:

Do not do as the scribes and Pharisees do [Jesus once said].  They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them!  They do all their deeds to be seen by others.  They love to be thought of as important, holier than others.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees.  Hypocrites!  You lock people out of the kingdom of heaven!  When they try to go in, you stop them.  You snakes!  You brood of vipers!  How can you escape being sentenced to hell? [Matthew 23]

That is not true religion.  True religion connects people to God and to one another.  True religion breaks down the barriers.  True religion opens up the way.
Here at Bixby Knolls Christian Church, we are making connections.  We’re making connections with one another, with our community, and with God.
This is why we do all that we do.  This is why we prepare food for the homeless.  This is why we gather for dinner on Wednesday evenings.  This is why we pick up litter in our neighborhood one Saturday a month.  This is why we are collecting Christmas toys and gifts for Eastmont Community Center.  This is why we gather for worship on Sunday mornings:
To reconnect with God.  To help others reconnect.  To remove the barriers that keep people from God.

In this Advent season, ask yourself:  What are the barriers in your life?  What is it in your lifestyle, your home, your daily schedule, that makes the path to God more difficult than it needs to be?  What mountains have you built, what walls have you constructed, which block your way?
In this Advent season, ask yourself:  What barriers are there in the lives of our neighbors?  What obstacles are there on the path to God, and which of these obstacles did we, the church, place there?  What can we do to remove the obstacles, to make the uneven ground level and the rough places smooth, so that all people may experience wholeness and the glory of the Lord?
Thank God for Jesus, whose birth inaugurated a new kingdom, the kingdom of God, a kingdom accessible to all.  Thank God for Jesus, who removes the barriers.  Thank God for Jesus, who shows us the way to life lived in God.

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