Sermon Seeds: Infinite Possibilities/A World Filled with Love
Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 28
Isaiah 65:17-25 with Isaiah 12 or
Malachi 4:1-2a with Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Infinite Possibilities/A World Filled with Love
by Kathryn Matthews 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! 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.
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).
Commentaries 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” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament).
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 (and abundant) commentary on this Isaiah passage that expresses God’s intention for Israel (Theology of the Old Testament). 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. It’s right in the midst of such despair-inducing circumstances that God speaks and moves, however: “Ours is not an empty world of machinery where we get what we have coming to us. No! Caring, healing communication is still possible,” Brueggemann says. “Life is not a driven or anxious monologue. The Lord is findable…”(Peace). Even now, in the most challenging times for a person or people of faith, we can trust that God is at work, bringing God’s dream to reality. This is true no matter how many televangelists prefer to speak of destruction and punishment for humankind being visited upon us by God.
It’s true, however, that 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. Brueggemann urges preachers to turn to the texts at hand that offer a larger vision than “our privatistic, personalistic faith,” and inspire us to “confidence about the renewal and mending of the world” (Texts Under Negotiation). That’s what Isaiah, like any good and faithful prophet, is talking about in this passage. Recognizing the connections between injustice and damage to the environment, how might a sermon on this text “think large” about the state of the world and the condition of the earth? Life is hard, and sometimes we need our faith to sustain us in our private, personal struggles. How do we preach a message that encompasses the personal and the public? Is there really a split between the two?
Some of this good news may not sound so good, at least for some of us, as we all know. Our present political struggles (actually, they seem to be the same political struggles in every time) illustrate the complexity and sometimes intransigence of our economic systems when it comes to sharing effectively the good things God has provided in abundance. Somehow, the abundance gets redistributed so that some (even a few) have an excess, and many (too many) live in scarcity and want, clearly not the will of God. Joining in God’s project may require, however uncomfortably, adjusting the way we live and the way the world lives – our “lifestyle” as “consumers.” (Whoever decided some years back that that would be our new identity?) The way we hear this text will be influenced by our position in life and our level of comfort and security, just as preaching on it is shaped by the setting in which we proclaim the Good News. One of the characteristics of our United Church of Christ heritage is an “evangelical courage.” As we wrestle together on any number of issues – the allocation of health care resources and our responsibility for our own health, or rebuilding the infrastructure that serves the common good, or the role of our military forces in a much smaller world, not to mention how to distribute the costs of these “goods” – can the church be a place where we struggle together, learning not only the facts but also how to become, more and more, people of an ethical vision grounded in scriptures like this text from Isaiah, with all of its beautiful promises?
We read these words from Isaiah many centuries after they were written, many centuries after the destruction of Jerusalem, the return from exile, the life and ministry and death of Jesus, and the fall of the empires that oppressed his people. Still, we persist in the belief, the trust, that is at the core of Israel’s story as well as our own: that God is at work for the good of all of God’s children, no matter how things may appear at the moment. What is our role in this process, and this promise for good? We remember the invitation to join in the “project” of God: that’s one way of seeing ministry. Ours isn’t some pie-in-the-sky hope: something as “earthy” as bread for all is quite a project, quite a labor of love, and will require some major – and perhaps uncomfortable – adjustments in our lives and the life of the world. We dream, then, not just of bread, or justice, for all, but peace for all, and peace for all of creation at last.
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 Lord-
and 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.
You will say on that day:
I will give thanks to you, O Lord,
for though you were angry with me,
your anger turned away,
and you comforted me.
Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the Lord God is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation.
With joy you will draw water
from the wells of salvation.
And you will say on that day:
Give thanks to the Lord,
call on his name;
make known his deeds among the nations;
proclaim that his name is exalted.
Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
let this be known in all the earth.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.
See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.
O sing to God a new song,
for God has done marvelous things.
God’s strong hand and holy arm
have given God the victory.
God has made known God’s victory;
and has revealed God’s vindication
in the sight of the nations.
God has remembered having steadfast love
and faithfulness to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth
have seen the victory of our God.
Make a joyful noise to God,
all the earth;
break forth into joyous song
and sing praises.
Sing praises to God with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the Ruler, the Sovereign.
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands;
let the hills sing together for joy
at the presence of God,
for God is coming to judge the earth.
God will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.
“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
Liturgical notes on the readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading (Series 1) through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings (Series 2). It is suggested that a congregation choose one option and follow it.