A New Land, A New Time

reconciliation-hands-across-the-divide

Isaiah 65

For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;[e]
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
and their descendants as well.
24 Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.

I had the good fortune to find some time to walk around Madison yesterday afternoon. As I met one smiling face after another, watched children ride their bikes down suburban streets, saw people helping each other, their kids racing from one house to another I was reminded again and again that people are basically good and kind. I was reminded that we all bear the image of God and the love of God just shines right on through us like sunlight through a stained glass window.

It was a reminder that, although our country feels so very divided right now, we share a goal that goes way beyond the election. We share the goal of a country in which all people can live with great hope and joy, with meaningful work and justice for all. And as I thought about the fact that not only have we just had a contentious election, but that Friday was veteran’s day and I, like so many of you, have such deep, deep gratitude for our veterans and all that they have done for us. All that they have given to help us attain these greater goals of freedom, equality, and a bright future. We all hold those things in common, values and goals we cherish.

We are in a new land today. Let that sink in. We are in a whole new place and we aren’t certain what will happen, how we should live. It’s just really shaky and uncertain. And that’s exactly where the people who third Isaiah was speaking to were at. It’s interesting to hold Isaiah 65 right next to Isaiah 66 because they parallel one another, the first written to those who had not been faithful-but ending with a promise anyway, and the second written to those who had been faithful, also ending with a promise.

Let me be honest and clear with you. I’m really hurting from the results of our recent election. I don’t dislike Trump as a man. I’ve known many men like him, and I want to be clear that I am not saying that anyone here who voted for him is in favor of the racism, misogyny and abuse that is raising its head right now. I do not believe anyone here wanted to see the Klan marching in victory.

My heart is with those who are now fearing that this means half of America doesn’t value them, doesn’t believe they have a right to safety, or hope, or a future. I hear their fear, I hear their dismay, and I can’t ignore it. I have been left wanting to comfort the women and young girls around me with the knowledge that even though we have elected a man who sees them as nothing more than objects to rated, used, and abused, their sacred, intrinsic worth, remains.

So please understand that I recognize that most people who voted in this election, regardless of who they voted for, are good, decent people, who don’t want anyone to be hurt or scared. They certainly don’t condone violence even as violence against women and minorities immediately escalated following this election. Please know, that I understand that no matter who won this election, some of us would be hurting.

We as a church have not done a very good job of acknowledging trauma and I want to acknowledge that there are those among us who have experienced sexual violence, it’s an unseen, often unacknowledged trauma. if you are one who feels your abuse and trauma have been dismissed and disregarded, if you feel unsafe then these next words are for you:

Hold onto your anger with tight fists and don’t let it go! Your anger is a holy fire lit by God within you, reminding you that you are a child of God! A child of the most high and any abuse or violence against your being that you have suffered is so very, very wrong! Don’t let go of that!

Even if there is only one person here who has experienced abuse or sexual assault present here today, hear me clearly: you deserve better than this.

So please hear me now, listen with every fiber of your soul, especially if you are one of those,

You are so deeply loved and cared for, God weeps with you for every violation of your beautiful tender soul. You are beloved, chosen, called, you are seen wholly and completely in every aspect of you being, broken and whole, and loved completely. The breaking, broken parts of your life, are continually washed clean in the tears of God. You are stronger than you ever thought you could be, and those times when you don’t feel strong enough, that’s why we are here, that’s why God gave you us, because it’s okay not to be strong enough. Everyone has their breaking point, and those times when you can’t quite make it, it’s okay.

And again, I want to be clear that I am not saying everyone who voted for Trump approved of his behavior or the interpretation that others are putting on it. I want to acknowledge that there must be incredible frustration and hurt in being wrongly labeled and categorized.

We are called to wrestle and engage with all that is happening, and refuse to let it go, refuse to numb out, or accept violence as politics as usual. So hold onto your pain until it blesses you, until it leads you to treasure, until it brings you to the thing you love the most. Pain is the red flag saying this is important, this is important, this is important.

Trust that God is at work in this process. God is the one who shifts our painful experiences from pointless and painful to transformative. Who uses them to open our hearts and souls to those around us. It is God who shifts our pain from meaningless to redemptive.

We are incredibly divided in our nation right now. Incidents of violence have increased, students are protesting, protests are becoming riots, and it’s all very frightening. To extricate the people from despondency, to attach meaning to their past and present misery, was the task that the prophet and God had in common.

We find ourselves in a new land, where we are called to hold aloft the light of Christ and remember who we are and whose we are.

The exiles in Isaiah, having returned to the promised land also had some faithful and some not-so-faithful responses. The first half of Isaiah 65 lists some of these faults, forsaking the worship of the God of Israel for those super fun worship ceremonies on the hill, defiling oneself, doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord.

We, like the exiles returning to Jerusalem, have been through a sea-change, in fact it’s still going on. And we, just like they did, get to choose how we will respond and most likely, just as it was with them, it will be a mixed choice, a little back and forth, because it’s hard to be all in, all the time. But we do get to choose, and the good news is, that we were born for just such a time. We are a gracious, loving community; we are a community committed to dialogue and to learning, to building bridges across divides. We are a people who know we are called to love justice, to walk with the oppressed, to be humble, and to welcome all people to the love and grace we have received in Jesus Christ.

Now that doesn’t mean we won’t slip once in a while. We won’t necessarily argue or be hurt or angry. We will have different views and perspectives, but we are committed to the way of peace, we are committed to the path of healing, we are committed to one another, we are committed to following Jesus.

We are a wrestling people, not a walking away people. For I remember the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to abandon you.

And that brings us to the second part of Isaiah 65. The part that we take refuge in during hard and difficult times;

For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.

Violence is loud, but Love is more pervasive. We are in process, this is not over yet.

This is the promise we hold onto. That centering our lives on God, living faithfully, we will be participants in creating a new heaven and new earth. That God will delight in us, that every tear will be wiped, every wound will be healed. That in this new kingdom the fruit of one’s labor will not be stolen, that health and wellbeing will be the prospect of all people, not only the wealthy, that we will not fear for the future of our children, but see them live blessed and joyful lives. This is the promise we hold onto.

Now we don’t get to this promise without going through the rest of it. It’s a process, not instant gratification. And this process involves a lot of healing, a lot of looking at the places where we’ve gone wrong, but the promise remains. So we need to actively disavow racism, misogyny, and violence- no matter who you voted for, these things don’t represent who we are. We need to create a safe place for all the children of God to gather, to know they are wholly and completely welcome. And we need to be vocal about doing this. We must witness to the world that we walk the path that Jesus taught us to.

We are in need of deep healing. We urgently need to see the love of God made visible in our world today and we are uniquely empowered to be that love made visible. We are needed right now. This we know. We are healers, caretakers, visionaries, we are worker bees and community organizers. Our message to the world is one of love and grace, not because we are so great but because God is. Not because we are the most forgiving, but because God is. Not because we are the most inclusive, but because God is.

We are all tasked with choosing love over hate, faith in God over despair, and we are all tasked with making these choices visible so that others may see them and take heart. We are called to be love in action, love determined to make a difference, love working to change and transform a life, a culture, a world. It is this love in action that brought Jesus to the cross. It is this love in action that we are called to bring to the world. Take up your cross is not a passive directive! God who entered into the messiness of life and the cruelty of death to be with us, invites us to do the same for each other.

We are not responsible for fixing everything, for healing the world, that’s God’s work. But we are responsible for the piece of the world within our reach. So today my friends, seek out and find that piece of the world near you that needs healing, needs love. Be that healing and that love, let your light shine brightly so that others may see it and take hope, so that others may see it and discover the reason for your hope.

I invite you to consider one solid, concrete way of being the love and healing that the world needs so much right now. Wear a safety pin so people will know you are committed to being a safe person. Sit next to the woman in the hijab, confront hateful talk when you hear it, pray for those who you are afraid of or who anger you. Find at least one concrete way you can be the peace and healing we so need in the world, for the world needs you today. And don’t let go of hope. Choose to rejoice in God especially when things seem dark and hard.

Once, when I was working in the rehab, a place where we didn’t even use the word God, a young man asked if he could close group using the Lord’s prayer. With the rest of the group’s consent he did so. Now I was confused by this because I knew he wasn’t a Christian, that he had recently expressed an interest in Buddhism, so I stopped him after group and asked him what that was about. He said, “when I was running drugs and I had to go through the park where the other dealers were hanging out, and I would get scared, I would say that prayer under my breath the whole way. It helped me feel safe.” We don’t have to begin with perfect faith or any faith. God hears us. This is why we worship, especially when things are difficult, uncertain and scary, because we need it. It changes us, it works in us. So don’t let go of the struggle until it blesses you. Don’t stop halfway through and reside in the pain, praise God always

Psalm 98

O sing to the Lord a new song,

For the Beloved has done marvelous things!

By the strength of your Indwelling Presence,

We, too, are called to do great things;

We are set free through Love’s forgiveness and truth.

Yes, your steadfast love and faithfulness

Are an ever-present gift

In all our lives.

All the ends of the earth have seen

The glory of Love’s Eternal Flame.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord your God,

All the earth;

Break forth into grateful song

And sing praises!

Yes, sing songs of praise extolling

Love’s way;

Let the melody be

Gratitude and joy!

Let the voices of all people

Blend in harmony,

In unity let the people

Magnify the Lord!

Let the sea laugh and all that

Fills it;

The land and those who

Dwell upon it;

Let the waters clap their hands;

Let the hills ring out with joy,

Before the Holy One, who radiates Love

To all the earth.

For Love reigns over the world

With truth and justice,

Bringing order and balance

To all of creation!

An intolerable message, a reflection on John 6

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Gracious God, disturb our calm, unsettle our understanding, and shake us loose from all we hold precious that we might receive you. Amen

 

communion

This is intolerable language, how can anyone accept it? The shock, the outrage, it was clearly intolerable, clearly wrong. Eating flesh and drinking blood? Gross, no way! Who would say such a thing, let alone do it. Sometimes I think we have grown too used to such language; it fails to shock us as it would have shocked Jesus’ audience that day. I think that to really get a good idea of how shocking this was we need to know that kosher meats always have the blood drained out them. Blood was mysterious. It embodied life itself. No one would think of eating something that literally carried life within itself. It was unconscionable

 

And can we hear threads of Philippians in this, God emptying himself out, becoming less, pouring forth and allowing himself to be diminished. Can we hear the thoughts of the Syro-Phoenician woman also, if I but touch the hem of his clothing some of his power, his vitality, his being will pour forth and heal me. Can we hear the fear of loss and vulnerability that made this kenosis, this melting heart, ooey-gooey, emotional stuff feel just too scary? Kenosis being the Greek word used over and over again for the compassion Jesus has for the crowds, for the towns, for the people he meets. This way of speaking, of the pouring out, the emptying, the loss of control and vulnerability is at odds with our understanding of God the Father Almighty. God, who is in control. God who demands retribution. God who’s sovereign identity requires we make good on the debt we owe him, one which, we can never repay. This God, the one who is invulnerable, is at odds with the god we see in Jesus Christ. Who came to us as an intensely vulnerable child born in poverty to an unwed mother.

 

I wonder if perhaps, Jesus didn’t come in order to change God’s mind about us, about the debt we owe and need for retribution. I wonder if Jesus might have come in order to change our minds about who God is.

 

And I wonder if, in John’s gospel, Jesus isn’t trolling the righteous religious people of the day. Those good and upright people who have studied the scriptures long and hard, who have kept every rule and are ever so careful to maintain their scrupulous behavior. Jesus wants to shake us loose from all our rigidly held ideas of right and wrong, of correct and mistaken. I wonder if Jesus isn’t asking us to think very deeply about what really does matter and how too often we let those things which are really side issues interfere and take us off track from the truly significant and why is it we do that?

 

One of my internship supervising pastors took his first call in Scotland. He used to tell many tales from his time there and his deep love of the country and the people resonated through these stories. There was one story though, that brought some uncomfortable laughter. One of the oldest Presbyterian churches in the area had gotten involved in worship wars. They argued over the correct hymnal to use, the correct liturgy, the correct use of liturgical props, you all know this story, right? We’ve all seen it, which, I suspect, is why some of that laughter was a little uncomfortable when he would tell this story. This story is our story, although this church made a choice that few of us would. They decided to split the church right down the middle and so, in the middle of the sanctuary they erected a wall. Sort of like when my sister and I were little and we used to draw an imaginary line down the middle of our room. “You stay on your side and I’ll stay on mine and we’ll get along just fine.” And they did. They chose a side and they stayed on it.

 

The message of the cross is foolishness to those who live according to the ways of the world. It is a messed up, intolerable message. And then, Jesus tops it all off with, and take up your cross if you would follow me. Uh huh, take up a cross and die to the ways of the world. Die to the dream of making it, of maintaining your own security, of taking care of number one first. Let all that go.

 

Is it any wonder that we prefer to focus our attention on whether the correct colors are being used on the communion table? Or whether our liturgy is correct and proper? Dying to all that we know, to our certainty and security is frightening. And so, as we struggle to get everything right and correct, Jesus comes along and says, here is my body eat it. Go on chew it up, feel the toughness, the gritty-ness of my body and then, wash it down with my blood, for all that I am is poured out, broken up for you. There is no correct way to say that. There is no right way, no proper way, nothing in our human understanding that can make that OK. Is it any wonder that our text goes on to say, “after this many of his disciples went away and accompanied him no more.” Following Jesus is to have our certainties removed, again and again. It is to be startled into newness, thrown into vulnerability and to have all that we think we know for certain thrown into doubt and questioning.

 

God invites us again and again to move out of certainty and our attempts to capture God, to hold him in some contained way which falls apart again and again, and we are thrown into mystery. We are too prone to wanting to capture God, to having the correct theology and the correct responses, the correct way of living and being so that we can rest in certainty, but the God we meet in Jesus won’t let us do this. The God we meet in Jesus is one who defies our expectations over and over. He hangs out with the most unsuitable sort of people, the unclean, the dirty and morally suspect. He breaks all our rules which give us a simple and predictable life. He heals on the Sabbath, he allows unclean women to wash his feet, he chats women up at the watering hole. The righteous people must have wondered if there was anything he wouldn’t do!

 

A pastor once served one of those churches who solved the worship wars by holding two services, a traditional and a contemporary. Both were still compromises as there were lots of people who held very strong opinions about what proper worship was, but he did the best he could. He was really surprised and, admittedly felt a little justified, when one of his more conservative and traditional parishioners began attending the contemporary service. He approached this lady feeling just a bit smug because she had been so adamantly opposed to the contemporary service. “I see you’re attending second service now,” he said, “I guess you’re enjoying it after all.” “Oh no, Pastor,” she replied. “I hate it. But a few weeks ago you preached about how important it is to be hospitable, to meet people right where they are, and all of the young kids were going to the contemporary service and I realized I didn’t know any of them. I realized I hadn’t been very welcoming to them so I started attending that service so that I could better support them, get to know them, and be hospitable.” Instead of erecting a wall whether the physical kind or the temporal kind, that hour of separation, she crossed over to where those whom she was called to love and serve were.

 

The root of wisdom is awe and wonder of God. It is to engage the mystery knowing we are about to have the lid blown off our attempts to contain and limit God. We are about to be drawn into the unknown and to strange and new places, strange and new relationships, and we are asked to respond to this again and again with love, with kindness, with compassion.

 

I want to tell you about Syeda Ghulam Fatima. You can read about her on the Humans of New York Facebook site although Syeda lives in Pakistan. She has been shot, electrocuted, and beaten many times for her activism. She is most certainly a woman who knows what it means to take up one’s cross. In the deep rural areas of Pakistan there are brick manufacturing companies which use bonded labor. In return for a small loan an unsuspecting individual will promise to work for a while, only that while never ends. The loans are rigged and there are fees and additions such that keep these workers in debt for the rest o their lives, and when they die their debt transfers to their children. Syeda has worked tirelessly, literally putting her body between the owners and the workers. Syeda does not say that it is too much, too dangerous, too risky. She knows it is and yet she returns again and again. She pours out her life with deep compassion and love for those she would protect. She speaks truth to power and she keeps hoping that love will win, and she doesn’t stop. This is the intolerable message of the gospel, that following Jesus asks us to take up our cross and give of ourselves and all that we have and are, out of love for one another.

 

It would be easy for Syeda to say that these people are foolish and they got themselves into this situation, they can get themselves out. It’s really not her problem. Except that we have been called to love one another. Except that we are all a part of one another. Except that we are called to be food for the world. This is who Jesus has shown us that God is, this food for the world, this joining with those who suffer and are oppressed or cry out. Jesus has forever changed our understanding of who God is. The god we see in Jesus is not aloof, is not distant from our suffering, but is deeply vulnerable to us, has forsaken anything that would keep us separated from God’s self. This is not the angry God who demands retribution, but God who feeds us with God’s very self, standing between us and all that would harm us, all that would separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.

 

Knowing who holds our hand, how can we be afraid? Yet we are so often, and it is easier for us to focus on who is right, who is wrong, is this correct, or that. We nothing if not masters of distraction but the invitation is ever before us, let go of your certainties, your securities, and prepare to let God carry you into the unknown where life is renewed, where grace becomes tangible, and where the invitation to love radically is ever extended.

 

Perhaps Jesus did not come to convince God to let us off the hook, on a debt we could never pay, to give us another chance. Perhaps Jesus came to invite us into a new kind of relationship with God. One in which we are fed and nourished in our inner being that we too might be food for the world. May it be so.