A Vision of Promise

Sunday, November 17, 2019
Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 28)

Focus Theme:
A Vision of Promise

Focus Prayer:
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.

Focus Scripture:
Isaiah 65:17-25

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.

All readings for this Sunday:
Isaiah 65:17-25 with Isaiah 12 or
Malachi 4:1-2a with Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

Focus Questions:

1. How might we see “the city” as a joy?

2. How do we see the sufferings of our own time in the context of God’s story and intentions for humankind?

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. Does God’s work of renewal go on without our participation?

5. Where do you find hope for the infinite possibilities of the renewal of the earth?

by Kate Matthews

This reflection is written in, and arises from, a specific setting, in this case, the city of Cleveland, Ohio, which was once among the wealthiest cities in the country. Last spring, I took a tour of our historic Lakeview Cemetery, where one U.S. president and many philanthropists/robber barons–I haven’t figured which title fits them better–are at rest from their endeavors.

The tour guide challenged us to consider the good these men did (they were all men, in this case) in creating and endowing great institutions and building up the community around them, even as they amassed stupendous fortunes, often at the expense of their workers. Their fabulous mansions on our main street are almost all gone, but the magnificent art museum and stately concert hall still stand in glory, not far from those final resting places.

How the mighty fall
Alas, in more recent years, Cleveland is much lower on the list for wealth and well-being of its people and institutions, but it remembers its glory days and still dreams of being great again. Oddly, this deep desire is disproportionately focused on sports, which seem to hold some kind of spiritual significance for many, perhaps symbolizing the vitality, and pride, of the city itself.

There were a few golden years recently, with one national championship and a near-miss at a World Series championship, and the city continues to spend enormous resources on maintaining and improving its glittering professional sports facilities, even as its schools and neighborhoods are in need of more attention and care.

The signs and stresses of poverty
On game nights, when the city lights shine, this “Rust Belt” city continues to show the signs and stresses of poverty on any block where one is approached by a person in desperate need. The news on most nights reports another shooting, usually of a young person, and most often a person of color.

On the one hand, our children are gunned down by random bullets on their way to the store, without much reaction, and on the other, our city–and the nation as well–still remember and struggle with the horror of the police-shooting death of a twelve-year-old boy, Tamir Rice, at play with a toy gun. Police procedures are called into question by the Department of Justice and by a population that both needs and, at times, fears law enforcement officers.

Everyday struggles
We also received national and international attention after three young girls were kidnapped, held captive for many years, and then miraculously freed again. They spent those years in a house in a struggling neighborhood in the city, with the people in surrounding homes living their daily lives, facing their own struggles, all the while unaware of the ordeal of these young women a few feet away from their own doors.

Like any city, Cleveland has street drugs and high-interest payday loans readily available, our schools struggle, and there are empty storefronts on downtown streets and in all of the city’s neighborhoods, where foreclosure rates have been high.

Signs of rebirth and renewal
Nevertheless, there are signs of rebirth and renewal, signs of promise, as this city works hard to recover its former glory. We’re still the home of wonderful arts, medical and educational institutions, and city planners work to bring to life a new vision for the city. Much to the relief of the city’s leaders and residents, a large corporation has just decided to stay in the area and build a new headquarters here, keeping thousands of jobs in place.

In just the past few years, new hotels but also schools have been built, an amazing public square opened as a beautiful community gathering place and a magnificent new bridge crosses the Cuyhahoga River while roads are being rebuilt; apartments fill restored buildings, and the world’s most beautiful grocery store has opened in a former bank building; that magnificent structure was almost destroyed but has been given new life as a source of food and community downtown (not a bad symbol of what can be!).

New church, new hope
At the Church House of the UCC, a new-church start in the Amistad Chapel reaches out to this new mission field; I had the privilege of having lunch with their pastor this week, and heard stories of the congregation’s ministry with people who live in downtown shelters (when they aren’t sleeping on the street).

For everyone who lives or works in the city, or cares about its welfare, our impatience with the mess of rebuilding is tempered by a slender hope that the time has come for our city to shine once again.

All cities have their problems
Of course, we’re just one city, and not all that unusual. In addition to the latest violence in many cities, the news tells us that the gap between the rich and poor in this nation resembles the Gilded Age, when those robber barons amassed fortunes at the top and the poor struggled far below, without the strong middle class that arose in the last century. No wonder there is so much unfocused anger in our population.

As a nation, we’re spending hundreds of billions–no, trillions–of dollars on our military, on wars and the possibility of wars and the cost of the destruction they bring, and then arguing over whether we can afford health insurance for our children and the most vulnerable among us, while health insurance CEOs are paid tens of millions of dollars every year–and if they fail, they get exit “packages” that would eradicate hunger in the very cities where they made that money.

And the suffering isn’t limited to our cities: consider the damage done by gas pipelines and drilling that damage pristine wilderness lands, or forest fires that are caused by human ineptitude or neglect (and climate change); hurricane damage still affecting Puerto Rico and the Bahamas, Louisiana, the Eastern Seaboard and Texas; polar bears struggling with dwindling ice cover because of global warming; and the oceans yielding 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 B.C.E., two generations after they returned from exile and tried to rebuild their devastated city. They knew of 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. (Cable news reports from one embattled area after another in Syria, most recently, as the Kurds are forced from their lands and their homes are destroyed behind them–provide 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, even as they continue to be the reality for many in our own time.

High hopes were crushed
The first generation had returned excited and full of joy about coming home to their own land, their own great city: Jerusalem, the city of God’s promises. And yet, when the prophet we call Third Isaiah wrote the beautiful words in this week’s passage, the people were still hungering 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 remarkable agreement on this poetic, hopeful text about God’s transformation of the present, gloomy circumstances into a new creation. They hear echoes of the Genesis creation story, this time, though, with the “curses” in Genesis 3:14-16 undone.

Stephen Breck Reid focuses on our hearts that respond to God’s promises, what Reid calls 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.

God will respond
All of this suffering will end, Reid says, 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–ravenous wolves and ferocious lions–will live gently, side by side with the gentle lamb, and presumably with us as well.

This world may 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.”

Will we join in?
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 of this, and is bringing it to reality, with us joining in, if we respond to the call. 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? Are glittering hotels, bustling nightlife and massive sports arenas what’s needed most for God’s dream, God’s project, to come to fruition? What does the lamb need to feel truly protected, loved, and at peace?

Seeing the city as a “joy”
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 an abundant harvest shared by all, and everyone’s children enjoying long lives.

The imagery of this ancient text still inspires us today, in economic times of great complexity and problems that nevertheless call us to find creative ways to justice and greater sharing.

God speaks and moves in the midst of it all
The great biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann, has written elegant and abundant words on this Isaiah passage that he says describes God’s intention for Israel. 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, he writes; 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 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.

Hope in the midst of despair
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….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.” Yes!

(Note: One of Dr. Brueggemann’s many reflections on this text is in the wonderful book, Peace).

Called to a larger view of God
Even now, in such challenging times for a person, indeed for a 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.

When the evening news continues to be mostly bad, what would it look like to live as though we are already dwelling in the new world God has promised? What responsibilities do we bear in all of this dreaming?

For example, 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 (such as environmental racism), we need to listen for how God is challenging us to action on behalf of creation.

Called to a larger view of God
Life is hard, and we often 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?

This good news may not sound so good, at least for some of us. 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 generously sharing the good things God has provided in abundance.

Somehow, the abundance keeps getting redistributed so that some (too few) have an excess, and many (too many) live in scarcity and want, clearly not the will of God.

What if we join God’s project?
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 years ago 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 while still weighing the “cost” of discipleship, to borrow Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s powerful words.

Courage for visionaries
One of the marks, or 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 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 involved in issues but learning also to be people of an ethical vision grounded in scriptures like this text from Isaiah, with all of its beautiful promises?

Hope never dies
We read this text from the great prophet Isaiah many centuries after it was written, many centuries after the destruction of Jerusalem, the return of the people from exile, and 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, of the gospel 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.

Joining 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 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 healing and peace for all of creation at last.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 20th century
“Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
“Sorrow looks back, Worry looks around, Faith looks up.”

Marian Wright Edelman, 21st century
“Whoever said anybody has a right to give up?”

Barbara Kingsolver, 21st century
“The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.”

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.”
Weekly Seeds is a source for Bible study based on the readings of the “Lectionary,” a plan for weekly Bible readings in public worship used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray with and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.

You’re welcome to reprint this resource and use in your congregation’s Bible-study groups.

Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer: Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers © 2002 Consultation of Common Texts. Used by permission.