Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Our Sermon for November 13th, 2016: What Do You Mean When You Say "New?" 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 labour 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.
This is an illustration of a folk tale about a wolf and lamb, an image that is also part of our scripture reading for the day. During the children's moment, the kids were shown a different image of a lamb and wolf. We talked about what we could do to help these two animals live peacefully. You can find the image at https://www.flickr.com/photos/38299630@N05/4909083627/in/photolist-8tRamW-8DWdiK-6Bdz63-8tzeff-6AWhNy-6BfESC-6BdgYN-8x6Kxg-8u1nHD-8tNkwT-8tQQiL-8ujYAY-8FoRoa-8FMLsa-8tQRUY-8E3rdd-8E2eGW-6ASayF-8vaFQe-8tPsLA-8umzeQ-8E31es-8sWidM-8E2h1W-8tPtN1-6AWcqN-8tzcCY-8vfGNy-8vaECc-8tRjYj-8tRkW9.
What Do You Mean When You Say "New?" Isaiah 65:17-25
Where do we go from here? This has been one of the most common statements that I have heard over the last week. Now that this election season and this election have come to pass, what do we do now? As I said in the letter that I sent out earlier in the week, and as I am sure that you all have observed, this has been a nasty and brutal season. It has highlighted divisions in our country that many had either failed to see or thought had been addressed decades ago. It has brought to light, for many people, old wounds that never quite healed. Our last six national elections have been very close, as was this one, but, this election seems different. It seems to be a turning point for many people... a line of demarcation. I'm not sure of all the reasons why. Some of it certainly seems to be the tone and the rhetoric used on the trail: people with disabilities being openly mocked, women being described primarily as objects of lust, Muslims being painted as wholly terrible and frightening. But these are not the only reasons that Tuesday's election seems like a hinge on which the direction of our whole national discourse shifted. I am probably not the only one who has felt that. I am probably not the only one who has heard the question asked, where do we go from here?
I want to recognize that some folks aren't at the point where they can ask that question. Some people are legitimately frightened of what the coming months and years will bring. Right now, hey are unable to do anything except lament and try to figure out how to survive. Since Tuesday, the Southern Poverty Law Center has reported that there have been at least 200 incidents of harassment and intimidation in our country. A woman in Ann Arbor, Michigan was threatened with being lit on fire if she did not take off her hijab. A substitute teacher in Los Angeles was recorded threatening Latinx students in his class, telling them that their parents were about to be deported. A black man in Lewiston, Maine was jumped by three white men, all with the name of our President-elect on their lips, telling him to go back to his own country.
Today, I am not going to ask anyone who needs more time to lament to help me figure out what to do next. The current environment of open hostility to people deemed different or other is already demanding too much. This sermon isn't specifically directed to all those folks who are just trying to figure out if they can safely walk down the street, go to work, or send their kids to school. The people who are feeling that kind of fear and lament are probably just going to need to lament for a while. For those who are not in a stage of lament, this is a time to listen and not try to tell other people to feel anything else than what they are feeling. This means that a lot of people are going to need to be like Job's friends during the first seven days of his period of mourning. Spend time with those who mourn now. Just listen and let people feel how they feel.
For those who are asking the question "where do we go from here," I hope we can spend some time today, both the folks who are happy about the election results and the people who are definitely not happy the results but who are at a point where they need to direct their energy away from lament into action, discerning what we can do. Because, believe me, these two groups have some work to do. And, I think our reading from Isaiah is giving us some direction to work with. Remember, Jesus found his mission in Isaiah. If we're going to follow Jesus, maybe we should pay attention to the things he paid attention to. The part of Isaiah that we heard today is from the third portion of the book, the part that deals with reconstructing a broken nation. You see, these people had watched their world end. The ones who survived were trying to figure out how to rebuild. It was not going well. They needed guidance from God to help them rebuild. The words of the prophet that we read in the book of Isaiah exist as evidence of that guidance.
The prophet didn't give step by step instructions for rebuilding Jerusalem. Like many prophets, Isaiah was kind of big picture thinker, describing God's restorative end product in beautiful poetry. For our purposes, I'm going to suggest that we take Isaiah's vision of a new heaven and a new earth and use it as a goal post to guide our service with God in our community. This new heaven and new earth is the standard that we are trying to meet. If what we are building with God doesn't look like this vision, then we need to start again, and realign our priorities with God's priorities. Let's take a moment to look at what God's new heavens and new earth will look like.
Let us not forget that the original audience for this vision had stood in the rubble of their ruined capital, watched their leaders all be sent to exile, and seen their neighbors and love ones starve. God's new heavens and new earth would not be about faux happiness and toothless joy. It would be real, new life. First, the defining feature of the community will be joy. The people will be described as a delight. When you walk through the street, you will not hear weeping or distress. The next portion of the poem heightens the liveliness of the imagery. It says that no more will children die within days of their birth. All people will live so long that centenarians will seem like mere youths. The prophet told them that God would have victory even over death in this new Jerusalem.
God would be concerned with the value of their labor, too. People who had been enslaved or forced to pay high tributes knew what it was to build house and plant vineyards and never be able to access the good things they crafted with their hands. In the new Jerusalem, people would no longer labor in vain. They will not have to worry that their children will suffer the same fate they did. They will be blessed, and God will listen to them, helping them before they even know it, always considering their needs. Domestic animals and wild animals will be enemies no more, because God teach the predators a new way to survive and will prioritize the safety of the prey. In fact, this Jerusalem, the city on a hill reborn, will never be touched by violence and destruction again.
A place where there is no violence, where people's work is both appreciated and fairly compensated, where no child dies an untimely death and where people live vibrant lives well past what we would call "the senior years"... A place marked by God's attention and concern and by humanity's joy... A place where the predatory learn new ways and the prey's safety is prioritized... This place sounds so wonderful, so fantastical, and so far away from our present reality. How can we take this piece of poetry and work with God to make it tangible here on earth? I think we've already started doing some of it. I think we've already started prioritizing the safety of the lambs.
When this church sat down to write it's open and affirming statement, you all very quickly identified some lambs who had been harmed by wolfish churches: people from non-white, non-European backgrounds, recent immigrants, women and people of more fluid gender presentation, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, people who's families did not fit a "father and mother and 2.5 children" model, divorcees, widows, and single adults, poor folks, the very young and the more aged, and people who's bodies and cognition vary from what we are told is ideal. These folks have often been either excluded from Christian community or explicitly harmed when invited. While you knew that all people are beloved by God, you also knew that people from these groups in particular have often found themselves targets for aggression. You made the commitment to say out loud to the people who most needed to hear it that God loves them and that you will make sure that this church will always advocate for them. In doing so, the lambs of our own time were prioritized. This is an amazing start on the work of the new heavens and new earth that we are building with God.
But, we not finished. The World is not fully restored. There is still so much more to be done and we've got to figure out how to do it together. God is clear about the kin-dom's priorities: the forgotten, the outcast, the hungry, the poor, those who are isolated and alone. Care for these folks should be our priority, too. I have a feeling that in the coming weeks and months, we are going to have more than a few opportunities to figure out if our priorities are aligned with God's. When you're ready to start figuring out your next step, both individually and as church, look at these words in Isaiah and in our ONA statement. Use them for guidance. The work will be hard and scary. But, we must do it. Let's be the wolves who've learned a new way to survive.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources when writing this sermon:
Walter Bouzard: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3054
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4750
Gilberto Ruiz: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3059
The Southern Poverty Law Center is collecting testimonies from individuals who have reported incidents of violence and intimidation: https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2016/11/11/over-200-incidents-hateful-harassment-and-intimidation-election-day
Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003)
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.