Date: Nov. 13, 2022
Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 65: 17-25 and Luke 21: 5-19
Sermon: A Vision
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
If you need to plan to be out of the country for an extended period, like two months, here’s something to keep in mind. Try to schedule it before an important election. So, Jeff and I just spent September and October in Spain and Germany. We knew that we wanted to be home in time to vote, so we were home the week before election day. But we can’t say that we missed all of the electioneering in the lead up. When we got home, evidently our son and girlfriend, Malcolm and Samantha, had culled all of the political flyers from the huge stack of mail. Thank you very much! After being home for a day or two, I had the radio on NPR. After about 5 minutes, I said to myself, I don’t have to listen to this. I can turn this off. And I did. I just did not want to hear more about all of the intrigue and the voting system and what is wrong with the other candidate and all the rest of it. Do I really need to know that a candidate claimed to be selected by God to serve in office? Talk about a messianic complex!
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not a cynic. I was born on the sunny side. I have not missed an opportunity to vote since I first registered when I turned 18 in 1978. I was voting by mail when I was in college and lived in Minnesota but went to school in Massachusetts. I get the importance of using our rights and fulfilling our responsibilities as citizens. A lot of good and a lot of harm can be done by elected lawmakers. But politics and government is, well, politics and government.
Seldom do I hear what I really care about discussed by those running for office. Because we, as followers of Jesus, are called to place our hope and our trust in, as Isaiah puts it, ‘a new heaven and a new earth.’ We are called to invest our lives in God’s new reality.
And we heard a beautiful, poetic, expression of God’s dream from Isaiah this morning. Despite everything that has happened — the loss of the land, the return to the land, the departing from the ways of God and the teachings of God’s chosen ones — God is STILL promising these wayward people a new heaven and a new earth. A new Jerusalem characterized by delight and joy and peace. And what does that look like? No more weeping in distress. Well, still waiting. The loved ones of those killed by gun violence are still weeping in distress along with so many others including families with loved ones lost to addiction. Isaiah tells us the new heaven and new earth are characterized by a low infant mortality rate. Now the infant mortality rate has been going down, worldwide. But in this country it is still higher among people of color. No new heaven and new earth – yet. What else does Isaiah tell us about that new heaven and new earth? Isaiah tells of people living to a ripe old age. Not neglected, forgotten, or bereft of needed healthcare. But treasured and healthy into old age. No new heaven and new earth – yet. Isaiah then tells of people building houses and living in them, and planting fields and eating the produce. That is a vision of people benefitting from their own labor and not having their labor stolen from them, to build houses and provide food for others. No more taking advantage of the labor force, an underpaid workforce, no more farmworker abuse, no more rich people living at the expense of poor people. Well, after the blathering of the election season, we know – no new heaven and no new earth — yet. Then Isaiah tells of life like a tree – a community established for the long haul, a long term vision, not just immediate pay off. It’s not just about getting re-elected. It’s about the long term health of the community. Think of the indigenous perspective of weighing the consequences for those seven generations ahead. Well, no new heaven and new earth — yet. And then we hear of that new heaven and new earth characterized by the peaceable kingdom. No violence. No abuse. No pain. No destruction. No war. No veterans. God’s dream is of new systems and arrangements that are just and equitable and compassionate. Shalom. Life, in profusion, in mutual support and respect. A new heaven and a new earth.
To the original audience for this writing, people who have betrayed their God, their God is promising a beautiful future. The fulfillment of re-creation. A new beginning.
From Luke, we hear teachings associated with Jesus that remind us that the new heaven and the new earth, that dream of God, that peaceable Kingdom, is a drastic departure from current circumstances. And a lot has to go down for this new reality to emerge. We know that that kind of drastic transformation is difficult. We don’t like change.
Now the US is a young country compared to many countries in Europe. We had a conversation with one German person who asked why we in America don’t change our government. He told us that Germany has some kind of upheaval every 50 or 100 years, and they institute a new system of governance. Times change. New arrangements are needed. He wanted to know why the US was still functioning with a government designed almost 250 years ago. Well, there is a lot that could be said about that. But the point is, we don’t like change.
But like Jerusalem, the Jerusalem addressed by Isaiah, the countries of Europe that have gone through major devastation, again and again, and so have more experience with emerging from the rubble. Here in the US, we are holding on, and reticent to let go. The emergence of a new reality is a struggle.
Luke mentions false teachings and being led astray. He refers to upheaval, conflict, and natural disasters. The old order, crumbling. All of these images are to remind us of the gap between what is, and what God intends for us – a new heaven and a new earth.
And then there is the Temple. Oh that Temple in Jerusalem! The people believed that Temple was the home of God’s presence on earth. Sacred. Holy. Perfect. The Temple was the locus for community sacrifice which was thought necessary to maintain right relationship with God. The Temple was the headquarters for the meat industry because animal flesh was needed for sacrifices. And then the sacrifices became food. The Temple was also the center of banking and the exchanging of Roman money for Jewish money to buy the animals needed for sacrifice. And the Temple was the edifice housing political power, such as it was, for the Jews even in Roman occupation. Ah, the Temple. And there are many stories of Jesus and the Temple. He was dedicated there. He became a full-fledged member of the community in the Temple. He healed people by the Temple. He challenged religious leaders in the Temple. He made his triumphal entry near the Temple. He praised the poor widow putting her two coins in the Temple treasury. He turned over the tables of the money changers at the Temple. Oh, Jesus had a long term relationship with the Temple. So, he knew it well. And he calls out the Temple – it is a building. Stones. It is not the dream of God which is forged through relationships, behavior, and values. It is not the new heaven and new earth. God’s dream is so much more than a building, stone on stone.
In the story we heard from Luke, Jesus promises his followers words and wisdom for making real the dream of God. His followers will bear testimony. To the new heaven and the new earth. A new order. A new reality. Where no one is left out or left behind or neglected. Where no one is taken advantage of or degraded or demeaned. Where differences are respected and celebrated. And everyone lives in peace.
Now we share a wisdom story about a chief with three sons that comes from the indigenous heritage of this land.
Once there was a chief who was nearing the end of his life. Even though he had tried many times, he was not able to decide which of his sons should succeed him as chief.
One day, he gathered his sons together and told them, ‘Do you see that mountain in the distance? I want you to journey to that mountain, climb to the summit and bring back the thing you think will be most helpful in leading our people.’
After several days, the first son returned with a load of flint, used to make arrow tips and spear points. He told his father, ‘Our people will never live in fear of their enemies. I know where there is a mound of flint.’
The second son climbed to the top of the mountain, and on the way found forests rich with wood for making fires. When he returned, he said to his father, ‘Our people will never be cold in winter. I know where wood can be found in abundance to keep them warm and to cook their food.’
The third son returned late and empty-handed. He stated, ‘When I got to the summit, I found nothing worth bringing back. I searched everywhere, but the top of the mountain was barren rock and useless. Then I looked out towards the horizon, far into the distance. I was astonished to see new land filled with forests and meadows, mountains and valleys, fish and animals — a land of great beauty and great peace. I brought nothing back, for the land was still far off and I didn’t have time to travel there. But I would love to go there someday; I delayed coming back because I found it very difficult to return after seeing the beauty of that land.’
The old chief’s eyes blazed. He grasped his third son in his arms, proclaiming that he would succeed him as the new chief. He thought to himself, ‘The other sons brought back worthy things, necessary things. But my third son has a vision. He has seen a better land, the promised land, and he burns with the desire to go there.’ [From One Hundred Wisdom Stories from Around the World compiled by Margaret Silf, p. 82-83, adapted.]
So what is our calling as the church? We are not here to win an architecture award with our building. The church is not here to promote a political party or a candidate. Our mission is so far beyond any kind of campaign or election or media marketing initiative. It’s about a vision of a new heaven and a new earth – the reality of shalom, dignity for all and a relationship of respect and adoration for our mother Earth.
We are here to promote and live into a far greater reality. As a church, we are here to live into that reality in the way we treat each other. In the way we organize our life together. In the way we work with each other. In the way we treat the Earth. In the way we worship. And the way we treat the land that has been entrusted to us.
While we were away and were hearing that Hurricane Ian was headed for Pinellas County, I thought about the church, the building. What if it was damaged or flooded or washed away? I thought of all my books and papers and treasures in my office. Had I seen them all for the last time when I locked the door on my way out after church Sunday August 28th? Maybe. But I realized that our church family would still exist. We would still be a church, building or no. We would need each other. We would be needed by each other. And we would still be needed to keep the dream of God alive and to make that dream real.
God, however we may understand God or imagine God, wants the best for us. Wants us to thrive and flourish. Wants us to live in delight and joy. Every. Single. Person. Every. Single. Life form. All of Creation. As followers of Jesus, like it says in Luke, our testimony is needed. And we are being given the words and the wisdom.
In the weeks to come, you will be asked to consider making a financial commitment to the church for the year ahead. You already know – from the politicians and the electioneering – about rising prices, rising utility costs, rising insurance rates, and the need for rising pay so that people can have what they need to live. And you know about diminishing returns on investments and decreasing dividends. And you know that our church building is intentionally simple so that we can put our energies into our ministries making the dreams of God reality. So why does the church need your money?
We need your money to keep our community vibrant and faithful. Our church is so much more than a building. Or a campaign. Or a party. We are keeping alive the dreams and visions of God. We are making those visions real. We are making our testimony.
The church is the embodiment – a manifestation – of the new heaven and the new earth. And we’ll never get that from the legislature or the congress or the city council. Jesus never ran for office. He never won an election. A new heaven, a new earth. Only God, above, beyond, within, has a dream that big, and it has been entrusted to us through Jesus. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.