Isaiah 65:17-25 – 26th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C – November 13, 2016
The journey had been long. Forcibly removed from their homeland of Jerusalem, driven to live in exile in Babylon for nearly seventy years, the people of Judah are now, at long last, beginning their return home. They have such hope. Surely all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well. And yet, in the years following their return, God’s beloved people find all is not well. They are bone-weary exhausted from their exile, an exile whose losses and fears permeate their every breath, an exile that literally overturns the very ground of their being–family, land, temple, culture, life.
In their release from exile, in their return to Jerusalem, to the very place for which they had yearned for generations, the exhaustion and the confusion of God’s beloved people somehow does not begin to dissipate, but rather deepens. Why is this so? Why is it that rather than freedom, they find oppression? Rather than joy, they find broken heartedness? Rather than peace they find injustice? Rather than flourishing they find their lives stunted in every way–body, mind, spirit, family, community?
Why is there fear so deep they feel it in the very marrow of their bones day and night?
Was this not the holy land of God? Was not this place, Jerusalem, filled with the presence of God? And if so, why do God’s beloved people continue to experience chaos and fear so deep that even to imagine or to hope for something else seemed beyond even the most desperate of grasping hands and hearts. Shouldn’t they be flourishing? Building and planting, inhabiting and celebrating? Living? Isn’t God here in their midst? And shouldn’t that change everything?
Chaos and fear, oppression and injustice–they are disturbing, disruptive environments in which to live, are they not? They consume us. They pull the very breath from our lungs. And we become desperate to find a way out, desperate to become free of their crushing weight. Perhaps this experience resonates in your own life or in the life of your community?
And so we commit ourselves–we commit ourselves in our churches and in our homes, in our schools and in our workplaces to the creative work of God. It’s the same work Jesus proclaims at the start of his ministry, when he comes to the synagogue in Nazareth, opens up the scroll of Isaiah and reads in proclamation:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
We commit ourselves to this work. We deeply believe in it, we proclaim its gospel promise and truth. And we remind ourselves, over and over, that God is in our very midst, and so all will be well, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.
And yet, in the midst of fear, in the midst of chaos, in the midst of anxiety and doubt, injustice and oppression, we find ourselves, perhaps more often than we would like to admit, responding to one another and to ourselves, in ways that rather than freeing one another up, in fact perpetuate the very fear, injustice and oppression from which we are seeking and hoping and striving to be free.
Perhaps it can help us to see this piece of truth. The truth, my Beloved, that, for the most part, we are a people who are patterned in our responses. We are patterned in the way we live and move and have our being. And it can be so very hard to break free.
It’s a truth contained in the biblical narrative itself. Think of the flow of the biblical witness we hear over and over! The people of God sin and do what is evil in the sight of the Lord. God speaks up, usually through an unwilling prophet of sorts, and people wake up and repent, and all is well…and then, somewhere, usually just a stone’s throw down the road…the people of God sin and do what is evil in the sight of the Lord. God speaks up, usually through another unwilling prophet of another sort, and people wake up and repent, and all is well…and then, somewhere not too far down the road…. You get the point, yes? And if we’re honest, I imagine we find ourselves, at least to some degree, in this same kind of pattern. Just sayin’.
The truth is that we are patterned powerfully by past experiences—both the gifts and the wounds. So that more often than not the way we respond to one another, particularly when we are in chaos, deep distress, or anxiety, is more reaction than response. And we often don’t even know why. We may catch ourselves a moment or two later, or perhaps weeks or years later, and wonder–why did I ever respond in that way? Oh, my God–why did I respond in this way? And why over and over and over???
Call them ruts. Call them grooves. Call them patterns. Call them whatever you will. But I imagine we all know this experience deeply in our lives, yes? And we know this experience both as the giver as well as the receiver. And sometimes, just sometimes, we are lucky enough that it gives us pause to notice and to reflect and to wonder. Why do I lash out that way? Why do I not notice how I am stomping this other person down or perhaps even stomping down myself? And even if I do notice, why can I not stop? Why does my fear consume me so much I cannot truly see and respond to the need of my neighbor? And why do I respond in these ways over and over and over? Where is the grace of God?
These, my Beloved brothers and sisters, are deeply holy wonderings. Because through these holy wonderings we begin to notice that perhaps the rememberings, the patterns once needed for survival, the patterns that have become incarnate in our very beings, have in truth become the very tools of the destruction of one another and of ourselves, perpetuating fear and chaos, strengthening injustice and oppression.
It is here, beloved, in this very place, that God speaks to her people–“I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.”
It is the voice, the presence of God, offering good news. Offering release to the captive. Recovery of sight to the blind. A chance, a breath, a real hope to let the oppressed go free. It is an invitation, an opening to nurture the full growth and blossoming and peace and joy of all God’s beloved people, and of all God’s beloved creation. And it begins with release from the binding and blinding remembrance of the former ways of being. Not to forget what brought about their emergence, but to let go of the dominance of their pattern over us. This is grace. This is grace in its fullness. And we sure do need a lot of it. Amen?
Recent scientific studies back up this holy noticing, as they reveal to us the reality of the patterned thinking of humans. What has emerged in these studies is that approximately 93% of our thoughts are repetitive and useless. Shocking, isn’t it? But it gets even better! Of this 93%, nearly 80% of our thoughts are negative. Fear and anger and anxiety truly are all around. It makes sense of the overall flow of the biblical narrative, doesn’t it? It makes sense, perhaps too, of our own narratives, both individually and collectively.
So what do we do with this? What is God’s holy, healing, living invitation in this place?
We begin with noticing, and the gift of a holy breath to catch ourselves in the middle of a patterned response. And perhaps we commit ourselves to seeking to practice another way of being. I say practice, because that is what it takes to learn a new behavior. I say practice too because it is a deep truth that in practice, in the intentional seeking and striving to live in a new way to which God is calling us, grace does abound as an ever flowing stream.
But this is hard work! Just ask the lamb and the wolf! Did you catch that little image in our reading? The one where Isaiah proclaims, “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox….” It is an image that, while so deeply loved, has in many ways become domesticated in its commonness, to the point that it perhaps no longer catches our breath with its powerful proclamation of transformation.
For transformation, and that is what we are talking about, while deeply filled with grace, can be disorienting to our very core. This image of the wolf and the lamb thus points powerfully to the disruptive power of God’s grace to change, to transform, even the most ingrained ways, the strongest patterns, in which we habitually live and move and have our being.
So let’s explore this just a little bit more. And let’s start with the wolf, because this is a major game changer!!! Can you even begin to imagine the wolf’s confusion at that first inkling of an urge to have table fellowship with that lamb upwind from him, without the lamb being the main course??? What would the wolf’s mother think? And what would they possibly eat for dinner that night?
And what about the lamb? Taught by her elders from day one to stay far away from that mean old hungry wolf and to run like the wind with that first whiff of his presence! What would her flock say if it ever knew of that strange desire that bubbled up in her to invite the wolf over to play, to romp in the grass?!?
It’s disruptive, is it not? And yet the image holds within its offering the proclamation of the truth and the good news of God’s power and grace to transform even our most ingrained ways of being.
This is not to say that it happens right away. Transformation just doesn’t seem to be instantaneous, at least 99.999% of the time. Transformation rather seems to emerge and to blossom over time–one noticing, one wondering, one opening to new possibility, one trusting of the realness of God’s presence and grace with us, at a time, and often just enough to have the courage to choose something new in that moment. It is truly a journey that unfolds one grace infused breath at a time.
And yet as we are on this journey, we notice that the world begins to open up to us. We notice that the fear that ate at the very marrow of our bones begins to lose its grip. We notice that the very places and circumstances where we never thought we could choose differently, begin to blossom with possibility infused with the goodness of God–we begin to notice the possibility of a real opportunity to choose to respond in love and presence, to find and work for ways to lift up the brokenhearted, to join with God and one another to do the work that will let the oppressed go free, to move into a new way in which we live and move and have our being so that our every act, or at least a good sized chunk of them, are the embodiment of proclaiming the presence and the blessing of God in this very place.
And that, my brothers and sisters, is how we join with God in creating God’s holy mountain in every place we stand. A place where all are invited to live and move and have their being free of fear, free of injustice, free of oppression. A place where all are invited to live and move and have their being in fullness of life and joy and vitality and delight. A place where all can flourish–where all can enjoy the work of their hands, where all can dwell in the homes they have built, and where all can delight in the fruits of the vineyards they have planted. Where all can live together in peace and wholeness.
This takes works, brothers and sisters, co-creating with God this holy place. But it is exciting, is it not? It’s wonderful, is it not? And it is the most real ground of our being, of our life with God and one another, and so we rejoice as we let these words from God forever reverberate in our hearts:
“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 forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.”
We rejoice because we are active participants with God in this great ongoing act of creation, creation that is filled with joy and delight, that is filled with justice and love and fruitfulness as it comes into being one sacred breath, one sacred noticing and grace-filled choice at a time, this creation, this holy ground, in which all are invited to live and move and have their being in the fullness and goodness of God. Amen.
*Rev. Julia Rusling is a Priest Associate at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Dunwoody, GA. This post is used with her permission.