Saturday, November 16, 2013
New Heavens and a New Earth --- Today!
RCL Proper 33C
17 November 2013
Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Focus text: Isaiah 65.17-25
About fifteen years before I was born, the Episcopal Church rediscovered the hymns and music of the Appalachian mountains, in particular, the hymns and music of a collection known as Southern Harmony. These tunes, based on Celtic and English folk tunes brought to American shores by the first European settlers, were a mixture of melancholy, contemplation and exuberance. In many ways they challenged the sombre and dignified atmosphere of many American Episcopal churches and brought us face to face with our heritage as Christians living in the so-called ‘New World’.
When my children were very little, I would often rock them to sleep by humming some of these old tunes. Over the years this music has become an old friend whose harmonies come into my consciousness at unexpected moments. I am sure that Ruben, Walter and Eleanor can tell you that sometimes I will express dismay when I discover that a particular tune is not found in Common Praise or Songs for a Gospel People. I harbour a secret hope that I will indoctrinate you all into the mysteries of this American folk music.
On the other hand, I am not always as fond of the hymn texts set to these tunes. Life in the Appalachian mountains and their northern cousins, the Adirondacks, where my family is from, was not always easy. The hardships of trying to carve out a living from soil that was not as rich as the soils of the ‘Old World’ led, in some places, to a certain chronic depression and pessimism. The theology of many of these hymns expresses a deep longing for the world to come where God would remedy all the wrongs and heal all the hurts the early settlers experienced. This world, this life, is a vale of tears and we are meant to persevere. Here we will find no justice; here we will find no fairness. But in the world to come all will be well.
Just for a moment let us consider the people to whom the prophet we now call ‘Third’ Isaiah is speaking. After many decades in exile in Babylon, the people of Judah have been allowed to return to Jerusalem to rebuild their society. An earlier prophet, so-called ‘Second’ Isaiah had proclaimed a message of glory, suggesting that the return to Jerusalem would be as glorious as God’s deliverance of the people from slavery in Egypt. But instead of the miraculous destruction of the army of Pharaoh and the heady early days of freed, the returning exiles were experiencing the drudgery, hunger and disappointment that their forebears underwent during the forty years in the wilderness of Sinai.
Although the people have returned to the land of God’s promises, they are not truly free. They are a province, a small province in a greater Eastern empire. They are surrounded by hostile neighbours who take every opportunity to write to the emperor to report any perceived act of disobedience or potential treason. Some of the returnees remember how Jerusalem shone in the past and they are not shy about telling everyone how the present does not live up to the past.
To make matters worse, the hardship of the present time have raised up other evils. There are ‘deep religious, social, and economic divisions’ between the returning exiles (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd ed., 977 hebrew bible), so it is difficult to forge the unity of purpose necessary to the rebuilding of Judah. Other returnees are beginning to abandon their faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who raised up David and who gave wisdom to Solomon. Instead of keeping the covenant God made with Moses, these disillusioned souls are turning to other religious practices and other gods.
Like the early settlers of the Appalachians and Adirondacks, the returning Judeans long for God’s promises to be realized. But in the meantime, religious division, social inequalities and economic hardships are the order of the day. To them the words we heard in today’s reading from Isaiah must have been heard as the promise of a yet-to-be-accomplished future, a future so distant that those who first heard these words were certain they would not see this promise realized.
But today, my friends, I want to offer you a different view, a view that does not deny God’s promise for a coming reign of justice and peace, but a view that affirms that these words are spoken as a call for action in the present.
One of the most prevalent tools of power in contemporary society is the message that individuals do not matter, that small communities do not matter. It is a message that we sometime hear young people express when they try to explain why they do not participate in elections. It is a message that we hear when someone we know expresses despair in the face of the many social and economic challenges of today’s world: “What can I do? I am, after all, only one person.” This theme of the powerlessness of the individual or small group has even been picked up in the popular media. In the science fiction series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, there is an invasive collective known as the Borg whose opening words to any new species they encounter is ‘Resistance is futile.’
I long to tell you and all who are tempted to believe in this lie the truth: Resistance is never futile. The actions of an individual or a small community are never futile; they alter the course of our world as surely as one small wave becomes part of a greater tidal force. The choices you and I make, whether personally or corporately, always have the power to change the lives of those around us.
The new heavens and the new earth of which the prophet speaks are both a future promise but a potential present reality. When you or I stop to speak to someone who asking for spare change, whether we have any or not, there is a moment in which that person is treated as a living person worthy of dignity and respect. Who knows whether that brief encounter may be the first step towards that person’s renewal? When we give away a coat or boots or underwear to someone who comes to us to ‘take a bite out of winter’, who knows whether that small gift might free the one who receives it to take one step farther in their journey towards the fullness of life God intends for all of us? Who knows what effect our two dozen boxes for seafarers have on people who are far from home and who are risking their lives every time they set sail?
Whatever the hardships we experience in this life, whatever disappointments we undergo, the new heavens and the new earth God promises to us and to all of creation breaks into the present every day. Whenever a woman or man chooses compassion, the new heavens and the new earth breaks forth. Whenever a small community such as ours provides funds to combat youth violence or to provide relief and development to distant communities, the new heavens and the new earth breaks forth. Whenever we welcome into our midst people who are searching for help, hope and home, the new heavens and the new earth breaks forth.
We will never stop hoping for a world where ‘(the) wolf and lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox’ (Isaiah 65.25). But, in the meantime, we shall persevere in making that world present today, in our homes, our neighbourhoods and our cities. We shall resist the despair, the hopelessness, the powerlessness that serve ‘the . . . powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God’ (The Book of Alternative Services, 154). Why? Because it may be that the day we hope for is coming step by step, choice by choice, deed by deed through our faithfulness to the hope we have in Christ. And that day is surely coming --- not just in the future but today. Amen.