Rev. Pamela Shepherd
Our readings this morning—the first from ancient Israel, about 2,400 years ago, the second from our own day—are both prophetic voices who seek to bring a new future into being by proclaiming and imagining that better day is coming. In fact it is so certain we can live as if it’s here.
The prophet Isaiah who wrote the first beautiful vision we heard this morning was writing sometime around 475 BCE, just two generations after the people Israel had been allowed to return to Jerusalem from their long time of exile in Babylon.
Living in wealthy Babylon, many families had grown rich and comfortable through the generations. But their prophets and singers and storytellers had kept the faith of their people alive by remembering Israel’s glorious past, and by offering their beautiful dream of what it would mean to come home to their Holy City, Jerusalem, the center of their faith and culture.
Yet when the people were finally freed to return to Jerusalem, they found a devastated city. The land had been trashed; people lived in poverty. And even after the people managed to rebuild their temple, it had little of the original temple’s grandeur or glory.
The people wandered dazed through their country’s ruins. Houses were destroyed, markets were empty, food was scare or nonexistent, and the people suffered from dislocation and grief. One scholar wrote, Hunger, thirst, illness, and early death, sorrow and grief, economic injustice and political turmoil were the realities of the day. (sermon seeds ucc.org)
Sounds like the Philippines right now; sounds like Syria; sounds like Detroit or Baltimore, or Cleveland. Sounds like any place where the good times are gone. Sounds like a place we’re thrown into when a dream, a husband, a wife, a marriage, our old world has died; sounds like a place we all know.
And it is to these confused and lost people that the prophet offers a vision that invites them to imagine another world is possible, and then boldly claims God is creating that new world; a new world is breaking out right here.
Sometimes—this may surprise you—but sometimes as I go through my week, visiting the sick, sitting in on council meetings, worship team meetings, capital campaign meetings, meetings to figure out how to get you to sign up to bring cookies, meetings about climate action or the Children & Youth program or Restorative Circles—meetings, meetings, meetings—I wonder, is this worth my one and only precious life? Are we up to something good here?
The Congregational Church in Ashland has been here since 1888. Generations have gathered to worship in this faith community, praying, singing, baptizing our children, getting married and buried and cared for and challenged. Generations of potlucks and Holiday Bazaars, generations of people have gathered here, praying for, and working for the good world God imagines, the Justice and Peace and Abundance for all our faith claims God intends.
In our active, faithful little church we continue to sing and pray and work for shalom, for abundance and justice and wholeness for our world. We imagine this shalom, we sing songs for this shalom, and then—here’s the really crazy part–we go out into the world, broken as it is, (broken as we are) and we live as if God’s Peace is fully here.
We know it’s not here. Isaiah knew the world he dreamed was not here. Yet we continue to live as if it is here, because generations as far back as all the way to Abraham have insisted that we must imagine a new world is possible, and then help that new world come near.
Isaiah’s dream is not some checked out, naïve dreaming. Judy Chicago’s dream is not some random hope. Prophetic dreaming creates the world through imagination, as we choose to insist against all evidence that God’s intention for the world is breaking out among us. In fact, the prophets always say, that new world is already here.
My favorite present day prophet is Eduard Loring, the half-mad founder of the Open Door Community in Atlanta, Georgia. The community lives a ministry of hospitality to the homeless, and to those on death row. They provide housing, meals, showers, clothes, a worshipping community, counseling, and political advocacy.
In the midst of the daily chaos that comes with such a ministry, Loring has become famous for stopping throughout the day, throwing back his head and shouting, “The Kingdom is on its way my friends! God’s kingdom is almost here!” Is he a madman or a prophet? It’s really hard to say. But he keeps insisting on a vision that keeps hope alive for the most hopeless people.
I think that’s what we’re called to do. I think that’s what our church is doing. When we visit the sick and our frail elders, when we welcome the stranger; when we bring cookies for the welcome table, when we march for peace, write letters to stop torture, accompany our friends in Honduras or Haiti; when we work to stop climate change, when we switch to fair trade coffee, when we offer our beautiful building to Buddhists and alcoholics, recovering drug addicts, chamber music groups and peace choirs, we ourselves become the prophets, who show through our faith and our actions, that God has not abandoned this world, and that the world such Love intends will not be stopped for long. So it is true, it is already true, that new world is breaking out right here.
Peace, abundance, justice, joy. These things are possible for this earth, and we are not meant to wait around just hoping they are true. It’s an old vision—an ancient vision we carry forward as people of faith. And in the church, however badly we might do it, we try to live out the world we say God imagines; we claim through our lives that it’s here.
We’re not fools. We’re not fools. But we choose to live as if Eden is coming. That’s pretty naïve, you might say. But God is naïve to trust us with creation.
I want to close with a poem a friend sent this week. It’s called, To Weavers Everywhere:
God sits weeping
The beautiful creation tapestry
She wove with such joy
Is mutilated, torn into shreds,
Reduced to rags,
Its beauty fragmented by force.
God sits weeping.
She is gathering up the shreds
To weave something new.
The rags of hard work
Attempts at advocacy,
Initiatives for peace,
Protests against injustice,
All the seemingly little and weak
Words and deeds offered
In hope, in faith, in love.
She is weaving them all
With golden threads of Jubilation
Into a new tapestry,
A creation richer, more beautiful
Than the old one was!
God sits weaving
With a smile that
Radiates like a rainbow
On her tear-streaked face.
And She invites us
Not only to keep offering her the
Shreds and rags of our suffering
And our work,
But even more –
To take our place beside Her
At the Jubilee Loom,
And weave with her
The tapestry of the New Creation.
(by M. Rienstra)
For myself, I think that is something worth doing. I think it’s worth my life. I think it’s worthy of your life, of you.