November 17, 2013 – 26th Sunday after Pentecost
Two weeks ago the Muhammad Ali Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of Louisville hosted a conversation around racial equality and economic development. It’s part of the Compassionate Louisville movement. The Ali Institute is holding up the torch that illuminates compassion as much more significant than individual people simply being kind to each other. Compassion requires us to change our perspectives and our systems so that everyone has access to all the benefits of our community.
We divided into groups, one group to talk about economic development and one to talk about racial equality. Not just the theory of it, but what can we actually do in Louisville? I joined the group talking about racial equality.
One person said when we’re thinking about change we need pictures–images–a vision of what it is we want to move toward. What the change will look like. Then we know where we’re headed.
In our house, we sometimes have the TODAY show on in the morning. Sitting in that conversation about racial equality, I thought about how over the last several years I’ve noticed more people of color on the TODAY show in the capacity of experts. And I’ve also noticed more commercials on tv with people of color. And even commercials recently with interracial couples and biracial children.
Now I think I notice this because it’s different than it used to be. As a white person, it’s been easy for me not to think about whether there are people of color on tv showing up as experts or as a typical family. It’s easy not to notice because I always saw people who looked like me when I turned on the television. Now I see a picture of the world I want to live in: one where people of color are considered “experts” and “family” in the same way that I as a white person take that experience for granted.
I would never have said that people of color aren’t experts in their fields but when all I see are white people in those roles it begins to work on my subconscious and conscious vision of the world.
This is not to say tv is my only reality but it–and all advertising–is a powerful shaper of the way we see the world.
It’s similar to hearing about somebody’s doctor. If I told you a story about going to see my doctor, what does my doctor look like in your head from the outset of the story?
Even though most of my doctors are women I know that when I hear somebody talk about their doctor I often unconsciously default to imagining a man in that role. Even though my conscious brain and my lived experience says that lots of doctors are women, we still need pictures of a world where women and people of color, right alongside men, are experts and professionals. We need that vision of the way we want the world to be in order for us to change the world to become what we see in the vision.
That’s the kind of picture we hear in Isaiah. (A picture doesn’t have to be only a visual experience. Isaiah uses words to paint an image; to evoke a feeling and to call forth energy and passion toward a goal.)
Scholars call the last eleven chapters of Isaiah “Third Isaiah.” If Second Isaiah (which begins in chapter 40) proclaims God’s promise of “I am about to do a new thing”, Third Isaiah, says one Old Testament professor, is accompanied by Psalm 139 that says, “If I make my bed in Sheol [or the grave, we might say], you are there.”1 Third Isaiah tells the story of the first wave of exiles–who had lived for several generations in Babylon–now beginning to return to their homeland. What they find is a disaster. The temple (the center of their collective life) is in ruins. Jerusalem (their capitol city) is in ruins. Scholars disagree as to whether all of the Kingdom of Judah was in ruins but certainly so much of the social, political and economic life of Judah was wasted from years of war and exile.
If you need an image of what that was like, recall the pictures of devastation we’ve seen in recent days and years from cities in Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria.
There is a huge project of building and restoration–lying in front of the people who have been released from Babylon and are back in their own country. Not just physical building and restoration–but also emotional and spiritual, economic and cultural, familiar and communal.
What Jesus talks about in Luke 21 is a future time from what we hear about in Third Isaiah when the temple will be destroyed again. There will be persecution and hardship, betrayal and death. It’s not the same circumstances as the people in Third Isaiah are experiencing but there is a similar physical, emotional and spiritual context. It is a time of despair and exhaustion. Injustice and greed are rampant. I can imagine that just as the Hebrew people, freed from enslavement in Egypt but out in the wilderness and wholly dependent on God, they got scared and cried out that they wanted to return to the land slavery, so I wonder if the exiles dreamt about returning to Babylon where life was more certain even if it brought with it more oppression.
In the midst of this suffering and the reality of destruction and the hard work of restoration, God speaks powerful words of life and hope. Words that paint a picture and that call for energy and life toward a goal. God provides a vision of what is coming, of the promises the people can lay hold of not only in the future but now.
Some Christians hear a passage like Luke 21 and interpret it to mean God is bringing a catastrophic end to the world (although they usually believe they will be raptured out of the worst of it all). Jesus actually says something different in the face of the daunting realities of wars and persecution. “Jesus’s primary message in this passage from Luke is: ‘Endure! Endure in your testimony! Endure in your witness!’ For ‘by your endurance you will gain your souls.'”2 (Other translations say, “gain your life.”)
Instead of escaping this world by being raptured away, Jesus called his followers to endure. “To hang in there. To hang in here.”3 To endure is to last for the duration; to persevere. One writer suggests that “perseverance is…more than just stubborn stick-to-it-iveness.” It’s much more “about seeing, or staying focused. Perseverance does not require strength so much as it requires vision. Endurance does not entail an ability to tolerate hardship as much as it entails an ability to see–to see God’s presence even in the intolerable.”4
Vision, then, a picture of where we’re going, the ability to see God’s presence even in the intolerable, is the key to our enduring witness as the Church. And that is what we get in Isaiah 65. It’s a vision of restoration, of right relationships, of health and well-being, of redemption, of justice and all of creation at peace.
In Isaiah 65 there’s this interesting back and forth where God says both “I am about to create” and “I am creating.” It’s what preachers have often talked about as the now and the not yet. There is evidence of this work that God is doing but we don’t yet experience it in its fullness. The re-creating and re-storing and re-deeming work of God is at hand but it is not yet in hand.
So we still need a vision of where God is leading us. We need the a scalable model that architects make for the builders to know the goal of their project. We need an image of what we’re heading toward.
Sometimes that image is found in a text and sometimes it’s found embodied in a community.
A few weeks ago Angela Hagan sent me an email with the subject “Another reason I am thankful for Central Presbyterian.” With the permission of everyone included in this story, I shared it in a Central This Week email and I share it again now.
It was the day that New Jersey became the 14th state to recognize same gender marriage. Angela and Ken and Isabel and Audrey were “eating at a restaurant where Monday Night Football [was] getting ready to come on.” Angela tells it this way, “The news is wrapping up and there is a segment on same sex marriage. Isabel reads the graphic and asks, ‘Is that like same gender?’ Ken says that yes, that is what they mean. Isabel says…’Why is that such big news? Barb and Gwen are married.’ [And then Angela reflected], To live in a world where two people who love each other are free to marry. I have a dream, indeed. My seven year old gets it. Maybe more will, too.” 5
Here in this community, our children get to experience a piece of the reality of the world God is recreating, restoring and redeeming. Not just by hearing the words but by being part of a community where we seek to live this out. Where we live out our call to work alongside God to build a world where love can live and all can safely dwell.
We don’t do it perfectly, of course, but no child who grows up in this congregation will have to turn their back on the church–or on God–because they were told some of the people they love are not part of God’s family.
Here, our children learn and experience–and we learn and experience right alongside them–everyone is part of God’s family and everyone is welcome.
Every week we pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as is it in heaven.” Our participation in this congregation, our time, our energy, our money and prayers–the way we endure and give witness to our faith day by day–is all part of the redeeming and restoring–the new heavens and the new earth that God is creating in the world.
Thanks be to God!
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1 Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995), 187.
2 Jane Larsen-Wigger, sermon on Luke 21.15-19, November 14, 2010.
5 Personal email from Angela Hagan, October 21, 2013.