upper room daily devotions

Thursday, November 21, 2013

God's Holy Creation: a Sermon on Isaiah 65:17-25 (Nov. 17, 2013)

Recently, there has been an increased presence of homeless people coming to the church seeking shelter, warmth, access to electricity and other things we take for granted, and the basic necessities of food and water. While Wall Street has rebounded since the economic downturn, many people are feeling the effects of the sequestration that has left vulnerable women and children with less money for food and health care, seniors who depend upon meals on wheels with decreased funds, and cuts in most of the programs that feed, clothe, house, and care for the most vulnerable in our society. This quiet desperation is largely ignored in the press, which focuses primarily on stocks, GDP, and the housing market, all of which are important but largely divorced from the suffering of those at the margins of our society.

This is true, even in Seattle, which has rebounded faster and more robustly than much of the rest of the nation. A man came to the church this past week and wanted an hour alone in the sanctuary. He told me that as a homeless person, his access to warmth, to fresh water, and to bathrooms is always predicated on being in someone else's company. Shelters provide no privacy. Feeding programs are done in groups. Bathrooms are public. And so on. He said to me that he missed the dignity that comes with the simple luxury of being able sit in a warm place all alone, to be in the bathroom alone, to sleep alone, to eat in quiet, and to have access to these things without a thousand questions from social service providers. And so, he sat in our sanctuary alone for an hour. Without the noise of other people talking to him, around him, at him. He sat out of the cold and wet. In this room, he found something sacred - actual sanctuary.

Interestingly, some of the most poetic and moving words in the Bible were written by people who, like our visitor this week, existed in the midst of struggle. Comfort is a powerful soporific lulling our senses so that the world comes to us just as we expect without high highs or low lows. Discomfort, however, puts us on edge and awakens us to every curse and every blessing. That is why change is rarely sought by those in power, living in ease with money, support systems, and privilege. Change is sought and pushed for by those who are left out, left alone, and left defenseless.

But, not only do those on the margins push for change, they are also the ones who help us to see with new eyes the simple beauty of this world. They are the ones who can bestow hope because they are the ones who understand, in their marrow and spirit, the transformative power of hope. They are the ones who know the life-giving power of joy. Because they are truly alive.

The reading from Isaiah comes about two generations after the Israelites had returned home from exile, somewhere around the year 475 BCE. Jerusalem had been largely destroyed, and while hope spread before them, the former glory of their city no longer existed. They were in the midst of rebuilding their city. There were those who wanted to rebuild things as they once had been. There were those, like our poet and prophet, who understood that streets, homes, and marketplaces in ruins could serve as an invitation to build things differently, to reimagine society and its systems differently. He offered words of hope that, despite their wait and struggle, God is at work "to create a new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind." Through the prophet God says, "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." Such beautiful words for a people hungering for a future they could almost but not quite see or even hope for.

And then, the prophet gives us new creation that is freed from the curses of Genesis 3, the curse of the banishment from the Garden of Eden, in which woman's childbirth becomes painful, human labor becomes toil, and the serpent strikes the heel of humankind. In this new creation, the sorrow of the past will disappear; work on the land becomes a joy; exile (or banishment) will be no longer; children will not be born for calamity; offspring will be blessed.  In this new creation, natural enemies (or unnatural enemies, as animals did not devour one another in the original creation) comfort for one another. Here the prophets gives us one of the most enduring hopes of our faith - the hope and vision of the peaceable kingdom.

God speaks to the broken city and calls forth newness. God has not stopped holy creation. God is still at work in and among us coaxing this forth. This dream is not only a utopian vision, but it is a promise that God is laboring here among us in our world in the midst of our brokenness. God does not send us someplace different to find newness. God pulls newness out of our despair, out of our ruins. This is so very difficult for us to see or to trust because all we see is the devastation. Whether we are talking about violence in the world, empty pews in our churches, or sorrow in our hearts, trusting God's holy creative acts is hard. It is so much easier to think or hope or imagine that God will create something new in a different world, the world after we die, another city, someplace else. But that is not the word the prophet gives us. It is not the vision that God extends to us. God not only creates newness here; God creates newness in the heavens as well. God is making all things new. As the great Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it: "This poet...knows that Yahweh's coming newness is not contained within our present notions of the possible. And although the work of urbanization is hard and daily and concrete, that work is situation in a vision unscarred. What this poet imagines for his treasured city, the subsequent people of faith have regularly entertained as a promise over every failed city. Here the old city is submitted to the wonder of the creator, who makes all things new."

I invite us to lean in to the difficult work of trusting that God - in our city, in our church, in our lives - is molding and shaping us in the joy and delight that we were made to be. I know it's hard. It's hard when the evidence around us is so very contrary to this vision. But God is down in the ruins of this world and the ruins of our lives. God is right here making all things new. God finds ways to use our ruins to help us look beyond the constructs we would erect. God provides sanctuary, sometimes just for a little while, and in the sanctuary moment of rest, trust, and safety, God's holy creative work can be found making all things new. Right now. Today. Beautiful. A delight. As it - we -were intended to be. Amen.

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