(Re)New

“(Re)New,” based on Isaiah 65:17-25

A sermon preached by the Rev. Elizabeth Smith-Bartlett

at The Larchmont Avenue Church

November 13, 2016

I.

“It always seems like I’m precariously balanced between fear and hope.”[1]

These words are from Erik Weihenmayer, who is featured in a project called “Gratitude Revealed.”  The project is a series of short films highlighting different components of emotional wellness that, combined, are the building blocks of gratitude.  These are qualities like curiosity and mindfulness, and aims like connection and purpose. Erik is featured on the film about courage.

Erik is a mountain climber, a rock climber, and even an ice climber, which is exactly what it sounds like—he climbs up rock faces covered in snow and ice.  Ropes and a harness support him, and uses ice tools in both hands and spikes on his shoes for added grip.  Even with these measures in place, he describes the uncertainty of ice climbing, noting that he never fully knows if the next step, the next reach, is secure.

As if this isn’t courageous enough, I should also add that Erik is blind.

“It always seems like I’m precariously balanced between fear and hope,” he says, and then he adds, “You have to walk right in the middle.”[2]

II.

Isaiah speaks to the people in the midst of their own precarious balance.  For context’s sake, Isaiah was a prophet in Jerusalem in the 8th century BCE.  At this point in Israel’s history, there were two kingdoms—Israel, the northern kingdom, and Judah, the southern kingdom.  Jerusalem was in Judah.  Scholars believe that the book of Isaiah reflects a significant span of history in the life of the collective people Israel…that the first 39 chapters were written at the time of Isaiah, and the remainder of the book—including this morning’s text—were written some 200 years later.  In this span of time, both northern and southern kingdoms had been conquered by outside forces.  There was a massive deportation of people in the Babylonian exile.  The temple in Jerusalem—the center of religious life—had been destroyed, along with the city itself.  After the fall of the Babylonian empire, the people returned to Jerusalem and began to rebuild.

It is into this precarious balance that God speaks a word of newness—of hope—of a radiant future that awaits them. “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.”[3]

In this new creation, there will be no more weeping.  The young will not die before their time. People shall build homes and live in them, plant vineyards and eat the fruits of their labor. It is a place of unending reconciliation and joy. Carolyn Sharp, who teaches Old Testament at Yale Divinity School, notes that this is a “poignant divine word for a traumatized community that felt God’s absence keenly during the exile.”[4]  This vision of God’s new heaven and new earth is the glorious renewal of God’s people and God’s creation—it is shalom and healing.

III.

It is this vision that was the cornerstone of Jesus’ life and ministry. Jesus’ first words in Mark’s gospel are these: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”[5]  This new thing that God is doing—this new heaven and new earth that God is creating—is the kingdom that Jesus points to again and again and again.

He points to it in his teachings:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom.

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

Forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven.

Like the Samaritan (the outcast, the despised) who showed mercy to another, go and do likewise.

He points to it in his actions—healing the sick, feeding the multitudes, eating with outcasts, restoring sight to the blind, calming the stormy sea.

Repent, Jesus says.  Ask for forgiveness, yes, but in order to truly repent, we must change directions.  We must turn around, and go down the path that aligns with God’s vision and what God is at work doing in the world…the work of shalom, the work of healing.

Believe, Jesus says. Devote your hearts to this. Commit your lives to this good news—to this new thing, this renewal—above all else.

IV.

I saw Godspell on Broadway, just a few months after I’d been ordained.  I was listening to the soundtrack this week, hearing once again the story of Jesus’ life and ministry told through song.  At the show’s beginning, there is John the Baptist, singing “Prepare ye the way of the Lord”. Then come Jesus and the disciples (the ensemble) singing various teachings and texts—

You are the salt of the earth…

All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above…

O bless the Lord, my soul.

The music is upbeat, the tunes are catchy—they make you want to sing along.

And then comes the finale.  The music changes to angry electric guitars and the drama progresses, as the disciples look on while Jesus is crucified and then dies.  The music pauses to mark the moment, and then a single voice begins to sing, slowly, mournfully, defiantly, “Long live God” over and over again.  The others begin to join in on this refrain, and the mood begins to change, as the themes from previous songs intertwine. The disciples sing:

We may not reach the ending

But we can start

Slowly but truly mending

Brick by brick, heart by heart

Now, maybe now

We start learning how

 

We can build a beautiful city

Yes, we can; Yes, we can

We can build a beautiful city

Not a city of angels

But we can build a city of man[6]

At the end of these words, the tune is triumphant once again, returning to the melody and the lyrics that began the show—“Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”  The next chapter has begun.  The disciples set out to continue the mission.

Brothers and sisters, following the way of Jesus means that we too join in this chorus, singing “Long live God”, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord”, and “We can build a beautiful city.” There are times when we sing this chorus joyfully, times when we sing it mournfully, times when we sing it defiantly.  Following the way of Jesus means that we join God’s mission of newness, of renewal—of building this beautiful city here on earth—as we walk between fear and hope.

V.

The election and its aftermath this past week have confirmed what the campaign season pointed to—that we are a nation precariously balanced at best.  We are a house divided, with many hungry for change, and many fearful of what changes in laws or policies might bring for them and those they hold dear.

Jim Wallis of Sojourners Magazine wrote this week that “Our call and our ministry, in such a time as this, will be both healing and resistance.”[7]

This ministry of healing and resistance was Jesus’ ministry too.  It is a ministry that we must take on with deep intentionality as we look toward the future as a nation.

We must heal, for there is much healing that is needed.  We must heal the wounds of disconnection.  We must heal the wounds of feeling left behind and forgotten.  We must heal the wounds that come from prejudice and oppression based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, mental and physical ability, economic class.  We must heal systems that perpetuate wounded-ness.

We must resist, for there is much resistance that is needed. We must resist violence in all of its many forms.  We must resist hardness of heart.  We must resist rushing the conversation, seeking easy solutions or shutting out the voices that are different from our own.  We must resist compromising the gospel message that Jesus embodied, that Jesus died for.

This ministry of healing and resistance will build the kingdom, “slowly but truly mending, brick by brick and heart by heart.”

Brothers and sisters, we are precariously balanced between fear and hope.  Together, may we walk right in the middle, trusting God’s promises, joining God’s mission, following in the way of Jesus, seeking shalom, seeking healing.  Amen.

[1] http://gratituderevealed.com/portfolio/courage/

[2] http://gratituderevealed.com/portfolio/courage/

[3] Isaiah 65:17-18

[4] Carolyn Sharp, Commentary on Isaiah 65:17-25 (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=678)

[5] Mark 1:15 NRSV

[6] “Beautiful City” from Godspell by Stephen Schwartz (http://www.letssingit.com/stephen-schwartz-lyrics-beautiful-city-updated-version-z22f5tb#ixzz4PqOtIsqM)

[7] https://sojo.net/articles/time-healing-and-resistance

Remember…

The reason I finally joined the blogging world was that our presbytery started a blog and invited me to contribute–so I figured I should just keep going! This is the second post that I’ve written for “A Curious Faith.” Please check it out, and like and share it 🙂

A Curious Faith

I was first introduced to artist Brian Andreas’ StoryPeople my junior year of college.

I had spent a semester in an exchange program at Duke Divinity School, and right before I left, my roommate presented me with a print of “Before Dawn”—she said that she picked it for me because the colors matched the quilt on my bed (which they did), but the message hit close to home:

I’ve always liked the time before dawn because there’s no one around to remind me who I’m supposed to be, so it’s easier to remember who I am. 

It spoke to my belief that God was calling me to ministry, even though I didn’t quite know how that was going to pan out.  It spoke to my growing awareness of the gender expectations and pressures that came with being a young woman.  It spoke to my deep desire to feel rooted…

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Through Christ, We Are The Living Water

This past Sunday, February 8th, was the first Women’s Sunday at Hitchcock…at least since I’ve been here 🙂  The women of the church chose the  story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well as their text for the service, and “Through Christ, We Are The Living Water” as their theme.  I gave this introduction in worship between the reading and the reflections; it (clearly) draws heavily from Frances Taylor Gench’s amazing book, Back to the Well: Women’s Encounters with Jesus in the Gospels.

So I wanted to take a few moments to connect the dots between this morning’s text and our time for reflection that Lynne, Lisana, Catherine, Liz and Rene have so thoughtfully prepared.  Because so often when this story from John’s gospel is told, we miss the point of it.

Our view gets clouded by what a seminary professor of mine calls “interpretive litter”[1]—generations of speculative imagination about certain details of the Samaritan woman’s life and character.

The details I’m referring to are the circumstances surrounding the Samaritan woman’s marital status—those 5 former husbands, as well as her current live-in.

Fred Craddock says it well—“Evangelists aplenty have assumed that the brighter her nails, the darker her mascara and the shorter her skirt, the greater the testimony to the power of the converting word.”[2]

These details about the Samaritan woman’s relationships comprise a mere three verses of this 37-verse story, and yet they have dominated the way that she has been perceived for centuries.

But when we look at these three verses, we see that the text doesn’t tell us why the Samaritan woman has had so many husbands. [3]

We don’t know if she is a widow, or if these husbands have divorced her.  If she was widowed, she could’ve been caught in the system of levirate marriage, in which the brother of her deceased husband was required to marry her.  If she was husband-less on account of divorce, it could not have been by her choosing, as divorce was an exclusively male privilege.[4]

Perhaps equally as important as the text’s silence on this matter is that Jesus essentially follows suit.[5]

He does not pass judgment on her situation, and doesn’t care to linger on the topic.  He doesn’t send her away with the instruction to amend her ways and sin no more.  They keep talking—they move on.  And so should we.

After sweeping this interpretive litter aside, we are left with a remarkable exchange between the Samaritan woman and Jesus.

            For starters, it was against social convention for Jewish men to initiate conversation with an unknown woman, period, let alone in public.  We catch a glimpse here of the boundary-breaking ministry of Jesus, and of the grace that God extends to everyone.[6]

This conversation is the longest recorded conversation between Jesus and anyone, male or female, found within all of the New Testament. [7]

And it is truly a conversation—we chose to present it as a dialogue, with Karen and Constance taking on these roles of Jesus and the Samaritan woman, to emphasize this point.  The Samaritan woman holds her own throughout, and in doing so, engages Jesus in serious theological conversation.[8]

At the end of this reading, John notes that many Samaritans came to faith because of the woman’s testimony.  She is the first and most effective evangelist in all of John’s gospel,[9] and as such, she has a lot to offer to us today.

The Samaritan woman teaches us that by sharing our faith with others—even a tentative faith, even a faith that still has questions, even a faith that might lack maturity on account of its newness—we can effectively bear witness[10] to the living water that only Christ can provide.

It is by sharing our stories of faith, and how our faith has called us to respond through the language of our lives, that we can share that living water, and even be that living water to a thirsty world.

And so, as the women were preparing for this Sunday, they chose to follow the lead of the Samaritan woman.  They come this morning to bear witness to what they have seen and experienced—to the living water that they have found.

[1] Frances Taylor Gench,  Back to the Well: Women’s Encounters with Jesus in the Gospels (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 111.

[2] Fred Craddock, “The Witness at the Well,” The Christian Century (March 7, 1990):243.

[3] Gench, 116.

[4] Gench, 116.

[5] Gench, 116.  Gench quotes Gail O’Day, The Word Disclosed: John’s Story and Narrative Preaching (St. Louis: CBP, 1987), 41-42.

[6] Gench, 117.

[7] Gench, 110-111.

[8] Gench, 111.

[9] Gench, 120.

[10] Gench, 118-119.

Hope Revisited

I preached through Advent last year, and I titled each sermon with the name of the candle lit that day on our Advent wreath–Hope, Promise, Joy, Peace, and Love.  I found myself preaching on Advent 1 again this year, and the text was Mark’s version of what Matthew shared with us on Advent 1 last year–and since I’m not great with titles, I decided to call this year’s sermon “Hope Revisited.” 

(Spoiler alert: it borrows heavily from my last post, also on Hope)

Hope Revisited

A sermon based on Mark 13:32-37

I.

This morning we light the candle of hope—the first candle on our Advent wreath,marking the first day of this liturgical season of expectant waiting and preparation for God to break into the world once again at the birth of Jesus.

 One of my favorite poems is by Emily Dickinson—maybe you are familiar with it as well.  It’s the one that begins with:

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul

And sings the tune without the words

And never stops at all…

This version of hope is like a bird—we can see it in our mind’s eye, flitting about, able to fly above and away….  It is a light, sweet, yet resilient little bird—one that is able to sing the tune of better times and brighter futures without missing a beat.

Over the summer I was introduced to a very different image of hope—the image of hope symbolized by an anchor.

 It caught me off-guard, primarily because the heaviness of the anchor was the opposite of this light and sweet little bird of hope.

II.

This morning’s reading is a heavy way to start our Advent preparations, and yet in spite of (and maybe even because of) its weight, it carries with it a message of hope.

We are meeting Jesus in this morning’s text as he is giving his last lecture to the disciples.

We have skipped ahead in the narrative—past the prophets’ predictions, past the angels’ visits, past the manger—all the way to adult Jesus, who knows that he is on the road to Calvary.

And this adult Jesus is looking even further ahead, telling the disciples what to expect in the future, after he has gone.

His words are apocalyptic in nature as he warns of destruction and persecution, and eventually of the coming of the Son of Man.

And after all of this comes his clear instruction: Beware, keep alert.  Stay awake, and be ready.

These words are hard for us to hear as they were originally intended, because this apocalyptic genre has been co-opted and capitalized upon by the likes of the Left Behind book series, and Hollywood, and a certain brand of Christianity that many of us shy away from.

And after each doomsday prediction fails, for better or worse, we become increasingly wary of the whole thing.

But for his original audience—both the disciples who are his audience in the text, as well as the first generations of followers who would have heard Mark’s text read aloud as they gathered together—these words would have carried with them comfort, and even hope

 A heavy hope, like the hope symbolized by an anchor.

 Imagine it for a moment, if you will.

 A heavy hope doesn’t flit above, like that sweet little bird, but rather offers just enough weighted security to keep one from floating adrift.

 A heavy hope doesn’t offer us escape from the storms of life—in fact, it even keeps us in the midst of them, connecting us with the pain and struggle and grief that is part of our shared human experience.

 For a people who had been sent into exile and dominated by the Empire, this promise of the coming of the Son of Man affirmed that God had not abandoned the people to live lives marked by only pain and struggle and grief, but rather, that God was still up to something in the world, that God still had the upper hand even when it felt that hope had been lost.

 And so Jesus urged the people to pay attention for the coming of this day, to prepare for it, because no one except God knew when it would be coming.

Keep alert, keep awake, keep holding on to hope.

III.

And while it still feels strange to begin our Advent season in this way, the lectionary starts us in this place to keep us rooted in “the reason for the season”, if you will.

 Because our hope as Christians is always an Advent hope—the hope of God breaking into the world and into our lives once again.

With our ancestors of the faith, we hold on to the hope that God has not given up on us—that God will never give up on us—that God has a plan yet.

 And this is why the hope to which we cling must be a heavy hope, because there are days and maybe even seasons when God seems aloof, seems absent, seems to be an idea of the past that doesn’t translate into our present, let alone our future.

For many, the world is ending—figuratively, at least—in the here and now.

In her poem, “Blessing When the World is Ending,” Jan Richardson expresses this sentiment this way:

Look, the world/is always ending/somewhere.

Somewhere /the sun has come /crashing down.

Somewhere/it has gone/completely dark.

Somewhere/it has ended/with the gun/the knife/the fist.

Somewhere/it has ended/with the slammed door/the shattered hope.

 Somewhere/it has ended/with the utter quiet/that follows the news

 from the phone/the television/the hospital room.[1]

 Somewhere it may have ended—and in our own lives, we silently know where.

Some relationship, some unforeseen and unfortunate circumstance, some grim dose of “the reality of the world.”

 As studies show, and as we all know, either from our own experience or from the experience of those people we love, this can be a particularly hard time of year.

It can be a particularly hard time of year because we are told to be joyous.

That’s what the lights in town tell us, and the holiday songs played on the radio, and the sounds of bells in every direction.

We are told to be joyous, thankful, cheerful, overwhelmed by the goodness of the season…but that’s not the honest feeling.

That’s light hope, with no heaviness to give it any depth or meaning, and that is often inauthentic to where we really are in our struggles.  It’s inauthentic to where we really are in our lives.

IV.

So there is a tension at this time of year—a tension between the light, sweet hope that comes with our cultural celebration of Christmas, and the heavier hope that our Advent preparations cling to, and on varying levels, that our lives crave.

 There is tension between what we are told constitutes a “good” holiday season—lots of parties, lots of shopping, lots of gifts, lots of food, lots of activities, lots of stuff—and the core of what this good holiday is meant to be.

 There is tension, but there doesn’t have to be dichotomy.

 Because in these Advent weeks of hope, promise, joy, peace, and love, we have the opportunity to model a different way of preparing for, and celebrating, Christmas.

 What might this look like?

 As we are buying gifts, may we do so not out of a place of obligation, but out of gratitude for our relationships with our friends and loved ones.  And as we celebrate, may we celebrate those relationships in their entirety—the peaks and the valleys alike.

As we are busy cleaning and cooking and entertaining, may we remember that we are creating spaces for hospitality, for opening up our homes and our lives to those in our midst.  And may we also open up ourselves—inviting others into our vulnerability and asking them to be with us as we wait.

As we are generous in this season, may this generosity extend to those we will never meet, both in acts of charity and in acts of justice.  What a gift to be able to provide food and clothing for those without this holiday season—what an even greater gift to work for the day when no one will ever go without these basic needs.

V.

Our Advent waiting isn’t a passive waiting—it’s an active one.

 It isn’t a passive waiting for our hurt to disappear, and it isn’t a passive waiting for the problems of the world to work themselves out.

 It is an active waiting to bring healing to ourselves and others.

 It’s a waiting marked by Jesus’ reminder to stay awake and alert, a waiting marked by our own preparations to make way for God breaking into our lives and into the world once again.

 In this waiting, maybe the most authentic and the most compassionate witness that we can offer is a heavy hope, substantial enough to remain in the depths for as long as necessary.

 And yet, in its own way, this heavy hope beckons us to seek out the possibility and wonder of the kingdom that lies just over the horizon, just waiting to be discovered and explored.

 May it be so—Amen.

[1] Jan Richardson, http://adventdoor.com/2014/11/23/advent-1-blessing-when-the-world-is-ending/#sthash.Ptw3vt8X.dpuf

Hope

One of our church members went to France with her family this summer, and upon her return, she swung by my office. We hugged and chatted a bit, and then she pulled this symbol out of her purse, telling me that it was prevalent on their trip and asking, “Can you guess what Bible text this represents?”

faith_hope_love

I was stumped.

She started to break down the symbols—“Start with the cross, and then go into the anchor, and end with the heart.”

Still nothing.

“Faith, hope, and love!” she exclaimed. Oh, 1 Corinthians 13, how sneaky of you!

The cross and the heart were pretty obvious—it was the anchor that caught me by surprise. I’ve never seen hope represented by an anchor, and never made that connection for myself.

I did an Advent photo challenge over social media this past year; for every day, there is an assigned word, and the challenge is to take a picture of something that represents that word. So on the day that was assigned the word hope, I posted this picture (it’s the top of our wedding cake)—

cake-and-birds

—and I captioned it with these words from Emily Dickinson:

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,

And never stops at all…

(Emily Dickinson, “XXXII” in Complete Poems, 1924)

Ever since reading these lines of Dickinson’s poem, I’ve linked hope with birds—with flight, and the ability to sing the tune of a brighter future. This hope is light, and sweet, but unmistakably resilient.

But the more I thought about it, maybe there’s something to heavy hope.

Maybe there’s something to a hope that doesn’t flit above, but rather offers just enough weighted security to keep one from floating adrift.

Maybe there’s something to a hope that doesn’t offer us escape from the storms of life—even keeps us in the midst of them, connecting us with the pain and struggle and grief that is part of our shared human experience.

The nightly news reports have been especially heavy these past several weeks—maybe the most authentic and the most compassionate response that we can offer back to the world is a heavy hope, substantial enough to remain in the depths for as long as necessary, and yet in its own way, beckoning us to seek out the possibility and wonder of the kingdom that lies just over the horizon, just waiting to be discovered and explored.

When you think of hope, what is its symbol?

Is it a bird, an anchor, or something else?