I am going to start with the bible and work our way forward to us.
Isaiah is my hero.
For fifty years
the remnant of Israel that had been carted off into exile
That is a grotesque understatement
for something akin to slavery,
and economic bondage.
Exile for Israel
amounted to religious and cultural disintegration.
Prior to exile
every hope and promise
of their relationship with God
was rooted in land.
On Mount Zion
upon which Jerusalem was built.
In Judah, the Promise Land
bordered by the Jordan River.
Take away the place –
and there was no religion.
The exiles had to question
if there had even been a God named Yahweh.
to live in exile
was brutal and painful and hazardous,
but to then live without hope in the midst of exile
was suffering most miserable.
That is when the prophet Isaiah’s poetry
was most brilliant.
His was a poetry of hope.
when I say hope
I do not mean wishful thinking.
Hope looks and sounds like
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I have a dream”
was not a speech or sermon of platitudes
it was an act of fierce imagination
that was rooted in the mud of human experience
even while reaching for a vision that human beings
could in fact grasp.
Like today’s Liturgical Reading,
King could animate imaginative language
that incited, agitated, announced, and pointed
to specific suffering
and specific shame
at the very same time it inflated the hearer’s ambition
to make change happen.
Listen to those words he put in the mouth of Saint Paul:
“…You must be willing to challenge unjust mores,
to champion unpopular causes,
and to buck the status quo.
You are called
to be the salt of the earth.
You are to be the light of the world.
You are to be that vitally active leaven
in the lump of the nation.”
Talk about fierce imagination
and bold hope
to a people in exile.
And in almost every speech and sermon
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
is echoing Isaiah –
often quoting Isaiah.
(By the way, I know that it is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
but one of the ways the dominant culture
has domesticated Martin Luther King
is to forget that he was a preacher –
a Christian of deep and pervasive faith.
He has been secularized, in other words,
and that takes the bite out of his words.
So even though Dr. King had a Ph.D.
it is his M.Div. that needs to be remembered –
because amnesia is one of the means
that power uses to marginal people).
Anyway, back to Isaiah.
So Isaiah’s poetry kept hope alive
during Israel’s exile in Babylon –
and it kept the religion and culture alive too.
In the same way African tribal cultures were nursed
and nurtured secretly throughout American slavery,
the religion and culture of Israel
was kept burning in exile.
When there is no hope for a conquered people
into the culture and beliefs of their captors
is a hazard.
But Isaiah just kept telling people
that God could
and God would
do a new thing.
Then, after fifty yeas, God did.
Persia defeated Babylon
and the King of Persia
not only allowed people to go home to Judah,
he actually gave money
to help them rebuild the temple on Mount Zion.
But a lot of people did not go back.
They stayed in Babylon because that was now their home
and to leave the people they knew
and the families they had married into
and risk more poverty and violence
was more than they could do.
But some did go back.
Those who went back discovered it was hard.
They were thwarted in their effort at every turn.
We can imagine
that the property the destroyed Temple sat on
did not remain empty for long
so there was the challenge of getting it back.
We can imagine
that family homes
and family land
and family farms
had been taken over by other people
so the exiles had nothing when they returned.
It was hard,
and nothing like they expected.
They fell into despair.
Isaiah’s poetry returned too.
We heard a piece of it today:
“I will not be silent,
I will not rest
until Jerusalem shines like the dawning sun,
until her restoration gleams like a burning torch.”
He goes on to imagine
a fully restored relationship of intimacy with God,
and in that relationship
the fully recovered life of the people and nation.
Again, it is not wishful thinking
with pie-in-the-sky schemes
and a preacher’s slick rhetoric.
It is the fierce imagination of hope
rooted in the mud and blood of human experience
that also reaches up and grasps
the first rung above,
upon which to elevate and climb
to the next rung
and the next.
That’s Isaiah, my hero.
And The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
is a 20th century prophet
in the line of Isaiah,
and he is also a hero of hope.
So with that as a context
let me tell you about a funny thing that happened
on the way to a job interview.
Last August I was driving my son
from our home in Vermont
to his college in Ohio
on my way to a job interview in Chicago.
We stopped at Waterloo Outlet Mall
to do some college shopping
when I said I’d like to stop at a church in Geneva
just to see what it looked like.
Now you need to know I almost never do something like that – stop and see a church.
In fact, once I’m on the way,
I don’t like to stop except for coffee and the bathroom.
So I don’t know what got into my head that day
because we were on a schedule
and we not only had to get him to college
but I also had to pick Katy up at the airport in Cleveland.
Anyway, I had read that there was a church
with a big historic building looking for a priest
but the last thing in the world I wanted
was to end up in a congregation
with a huge, expensive, historic building
it could not afford.
I had already spent a total of 25 years
in historic and architecturally significant buildings
owned by congregations that couldn’t afford them.
Or should I say, congregations owned by their buildings.
But for whatever reason,
I wanted to poke my head into that church I read about
and see for myself just how hopeless the situation was.
When I walked inside this church last August
something totally unexpected happened.
There was a nearly audible sound that formed inside me;
almost a voice.
Whether in my heart, or head, or entrails
I couldn’t really tell you.
But I am a hardheaded guy, and besides,
I was on my way to a job interview
that came out of nowhere
and was captivating my thoughts and imagination.
Never mind that I didn’t really want to move,
or leave the utterly sustainable congregation I served
and that happens to be situated
in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
I told myself I had no business listening to voices
or gut feelings.
“Nice church” I said to my son,
“but, man, I wouldn’t want to have to support this.”
Well here I am with not a clue
as to what we will do with each other,
but I am pretty sure
we were meant for each other.
At this particular time in your history,
when you are uncertain as to what your future is,
I am, for reasons still not totally clear to me,
a priest embarked on a future with no script…
or at least none that I’ve seen.
Here is what I have come to know
as a result of where I have been the last thirty-six years
and from the people I have been with in that time.
If you and I walk into our future together
with an openness of heart and mind,
having the courage to affirm what we hear
and respond with acceptance and courage
to what we see – whether or not we like it –
then we will be transformed.
That transformation won’t be like water turned into wine –
that’s down right magic
that takes one thing
and turns it into something altogether different.
The kind of transformation I can imagine,
the kind of transformation I have seen and experienced,
is more like health where there was illness;
hope where there was despair;
resilience where there was rigidity;
and the nascent spirit of a community
becoming its defining presence.
I come to you with no pre-disposed ideas
about what Trinity’s future should be or look like;
and I come asking, and maybe even agitating,
for your bare-chested openness too.
I liken our situation
to that of the exiles who returned to Jerusalem
after captivity in Babylon,
and to whom Isaiah was cooing
in that reading we heard this morning.
Their situation was grim.
Actually, according to Isaiah,
it wasn’t grim at all
but they could not see or imagine the future
because what was happening all around them
was not what they had expected
and it was not what they had wanted
and even though God had an amazing transformation
in mind, and already in play,
they could not see it
or participate in it
because it wasn’t what they expected or wanted.
In my personal experience,
in my own life and work,
whenever I know what is supposed to happen
and I have the barrels of my intention loaded
with ideas and plans,
that is exactly when I cannot see
the presence of God
that is surrounding and infusing us.
In my experience of Church,
the congregations I have served
and most especially the big institution
at its graduated levels,
every time we know exactly what the problem is
and have a sure-fired solution to it
that comes with the blessings of the Kingdom of God,
we are about to fall on our collective face.
There is never, and I emphasize never,
one source of blame or responsibility,
not even one vision
to bring forth God’s best dream for us.
It is never so easy
and never so simple
and never so direct.
I don’t know why it couldn’t be easier
to uncover and pursue God’s best dream for us,
but I know it isn’t.
And what is worse,
I don’t think we really get to know how we did
or if we followed God’s best dream
and we look back
and things pop out of our experience
that confirm we did or did not.
All of which is to say
we need to be courageous
in our openness to God’s best dream for us.
We need to be radically brave
as we open ourselves
not knowing whether it will be a hernia operation
or a heart transplant.
Along with that bravery
must come trust so radical
that we are willing to free-fall with our eyes closed
into the arms of God.
Really, it is just that radical.
And believe me,
at my size and weight,
I have never like trust falls!
But that is where we are,
you and me,
We do not get to hedge our bets.
We do not get to second-guess ourselves.
We do not get to hmm and haw.
Once we have a strong inkling about God’s best dream
for Trinity Church Geneva,
we probably only get one chance
to live into it.
So this is our time – yours and mine together.
I know some of you have imagined the future,
have pieces of a scenario that might make sense
and that you wish would come true.
Let it go.
Give it up.
Stop pretending to know the way
and open yourselves to any and all possibilities
as God leads us into that best dream.
I will be your priest,
serve your pastoral concerns
and lead in partnership
toward God’s best dream for us.
I will be a fierce advocate of listening,
and an annoying agitator for trust,
and a tiresome truth-teller about bad behavior,
and false hopes, and inauthenticity.
I will do everything I know how
to stay open to you
as well as to God,
and when I get fearful
or just plain dense,
I will keep asking you and others for help
to become open again.
We will not be perfect,
we will be clumsy and make mistakes,
but we will also be beautiful together
and occasionally dance with a gracefulness
that neither one of us ever expected again.
If none of that sounds like what you expected
then we are already defying expectations!
Thanks be to God.