Sunday, November 17, 2013
Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Infinite Possibilities/A World Filled with Love
O God, in Christ you give us hope for a new heaven and a new earth. Grant us wisdom to interpret the signs of our times, courage to stand in the time of trial, and faith to witness to your truth and love. Amen.
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice for ever in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.
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.
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.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
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.
They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lordóand their descendants as well.
Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.
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.
All Readings For This Sunday
Isaiah 65:17-25 with Isaiah 12 or
Malachi 4:1-2a with Psalm 98 and
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 and
1. How might we see "the city" as a joy?
2. Where do you see possibilities in your own struggles, and in the struggles of your community?
3. In these difficult economic times, whose "job" is it to speak up for "the widow, the orphan, and the stranger in our midst," and for the poor?
4. How do you connect your personal faith with the public life of the community, and this project, or dream, of God?
5. Where do you find hope for the infinite possibilities of the renewal of the earth?
Reflection by Kate Huey
I look out my office window at one of the poorest cities in America: Cleveland, Ohio, in the so-called Rust Belt. The signs and stresses of poverty are on every block where one is approached by a person in need. The news on most nights reports another shooting, usually of a young person, and most often a person of color. Our children are gunned down by random bullets on their way to the store, and a fourteen-year-old suspended from school returns with guns and shoots two teachers before taking his own life. He had been abused as a child. Young girls, kidnapped and held captive and then miraculously free again, make the national and even international news. Drugs and high-interest payday loans are readily available, our schools are struggling, and there are empty storefronts on downtown streets.
Still, there are signs of rebirth and renewal, signs of promise, as this city struggles to recover its former glory. We're still the home of wonderful arts and medical and educational institutions, and city planners are hard at work to bring to life a new vision for the city. In just the past few years, streets and bridges are being rebuilt, apartment complexes are filled, and there's even the promise of a grocery store--downtown! Here at the Church House of the United Church of Christ, a worship service in the early evening on Saturdays, what we call "Church, First," reaches out to this new mission field. One block from our offices, the main street is torn up with construction, and our impatience with the mess is tempered by a slender hope that the time has come for our city to shine once again.
Of course, we're just one city, and not all that unusual. In addition to the latest shooting, the news tells us that the gap between the rich and poor in this nation resembles the Gilded Age, when robber barons amassed fortunes at the top and the poor struggled far below, without the strong middle class that arose in the last century. As a nation, we're spending hundreds of billions, no, trillions of dollars on wars and the cost of the destruction they bring, and then arguing over whether we can afford health insurance for our children. Meanwhile, forest fires threaten communities in the West, the people of New Orleans still live in the midst of destruction, and the oceans yield fewer and fewer fish: it feels as if creation itself is in revolt over the damage we have done.
Dreams and discouragement
Perhaps we might begin to imagine, then, how things must have felt for the people of Jerusalem around 475 BCE., two generations after they returned from exile and tried to rebuild their devastated city. They remembered the former glory of Jerusalem and its Temple, and the rebuilt version didn't quite measure up to the glory of Solomon's Temple. Imagine the prophet Isaiah, walking through the rubble of the city. (The evening news from Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, or Haiti provides vivid images to help our imaginations.) Much of the city was still in ruin, including homes and markets, and many people continued to suffer the effects of oppression and dislocation. Hunger, thirst, illness and early death, sorrow and grief, economic injustice and political turmoil were the realities of the day.
Imagine too the first generation that had returned, excited and full of joy about coming home to their own land, their own great city: Jerusalem. And yet, by the time the prophet we call Third Isaiah wrote these beautiful words, the people still hungered for a word of hope. In this setting, Isaiah speaks of a vision from God, who, in the midst of human suffering and despite the long wait, is about to do a new and great thing: "to create new heavens and a new earth....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" (65:17-18).
No "pipe dream"
The scholars are in surprising agreement on this poetic, hopeful text about God's transformation of the present circumstance into a new creation. They hear echoes of the Genesis creation story, this time with the "curses" in Genesis 3:14-16 undone. Stephen Breck Reid is especially helpful as he focuses on our hearts that respond to God's promises, God's "yeses" that counteract the "noes" we live among: "yeses" that connect us to God and end the "noes" of weeping and wailing from those who suffer, the premature deaths of our children, the injustice of workers not being able to afford to live in the homes they labor over and in; all of this suffering will end because of the caring presence of an attentive, responsive God who will bring transformation not in some apocalyptic sense but in a concrete, this-world experience of all things made right. Creation will be so full of peace that even "natural" predators will live gently, side by side. This world may all sound like a beautiful dream, the dream of God, we might even say, but Reid has an even better word for it, calling it God's own "project."
Perhaps the word "project" calls us to join in even more practically and powerfully than the word "dream," for all of the latter's poetic power. In any case, God is the One who wills all this, and is bringing it to reality, but we're called to join in God's project. What better work is there for us to do, or to give our lives to? However, if the rebuilding of a city and its hope leaves out "the widow, the orphan, and the alien," its most vulnerable ones, is its foundation a solid one? How might we see "the city"--your city, and mine, anywhere the people gather in community--as a joy? The dream is for everyone, including people on the land, because the dream (the project) envisions the earth yielding a harvest shared by all, and everyone's children enjoying long lives.
Not surprisingly, Walter Brueggemann has written elegant words on this Isaiah passage that he calls "perhaps the most sweeping resolve of Yahweh in all of Israel's testimony." One of Brueggemann's gifts is illuminating the text in its setting while shining its light on our own situation today. Post-exilic Israel was looking at rubble; so are we. Israel may have felt overwhelmed and threatened by empires and forces they couldn't influence let alone control; we feel overwhelmed, too. Israel may have worried about its children and lamented their deaths as well as the wasted lives of those who toil in vain; we worry and lament, too. However, it's right in the midst of such despair-inducing circumstances that God speaks and moves, Brueggemann writes: "Ours is not an empty world of machinery where we get what we have coming to us. No! Caring, healing communication is still possible. Life is not a driven or anxious monologue. The Lord is findable....The vision of shalom is most eloquently expressed in times very much like our own, when resources for faith to endure are hardly available....And that is the song of the promises and the image of the poets, the voices of Moses and of Jesus, that a new world is about to be given, and we can trust ourselves to it and live as though in it." When the evening news continues to be mostly bad, what would it look like to live as though we are already living in the new world God has promised?
The reneweal of the earth itself
Natural disasters and environmental degradation sound an ominous note over our lives, and we wonder how long creation can or will bear the consequences of our actions. Recognizing the connections between injustice and damage to the environment, how does the Stillspeaking God challenge us to action on behalf of creation? Life is hard, and sometimes we need our faith to sustain us in our private, personal struggles. Is faith only about our private needs and sorrows, or is God calling us in this text to a larger view? God speaks about what God is about to do, but do we have role in this transformation, as well?
Some of this good news may not sound so good, at least for some of us, Brueggemann warns us: "In the coming world of God's rule there will be no basis for aggressive restlessness. The world can be at trustful rest. In that world there is no cause for anxious greed, for all will be shared and all will have enough. These promises constitute a deep threat to the way we have organized the world." Joining in this project of God may require, however uncomfortably, adjusting "the way we have organized the world." The way we hear this text will be influenced by our position in life and our level of material comfort. What are your thoughts about "the way we have organized the world"? We remember the invitation to join in the project of God: that's one way of seeing ministry. So is proclaiming the promises of God, and the hope that arises from them. Of course, ours isn't some pie-in-the-sky hope, but something as "earthy" as bread for all is quite a project, and again, it will require some adjustments in "the way we have organized the world." And not just bread, or justice, for all, but peace for all, and peace for all of creation at last.
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) can be found at http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/november-17-2013.html
For further reflection
Marian Wright Edelman, 21st century
"Whoever said anybody has a right to give up?"
M. Scott Peck, 20th century
"The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers."
Madeleine L'Engle, 20th century, A Wrinkle in Time
"'Oh, why must you make me look at unpleasant things when there are so many delightful ones to see?' Mrs. Which's voice reverberated through the cave. 'There will no longer be so many pleasant things to look at if responsible people do not do something about the unpleasant ones.'"
Verna H, Dozier, 20th century
"The important question to ask is not, 'What do you believe?' but 'What difference does it make that you believe?' Does the world come nearer to the dream of God because of what you believe?"
Timothy B. Tyson, Blood Done Sign My Name: A True Story, 21st century
"If there is to be reconciliation, first there must be truth."
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