We're Still Here

The Rev. Amy Spagna

Pentecost 26C – November 13, 2016

Isaiah 65:17-25

 

Well… we survived.

I have to admit, at times in this awful political season it’s felt like we were collectively shoved back into elementary school. Instead of the “normal” campaign process which involves respectful listening and debate, the name of the game this year was finger-pointing and name-calling. It only served to throw fuel on the fires of fear and anger, to the point where they short-circuit our brains’ ability to process them rationally. No matter which side you happened to be on, the sentiment is the same: I’m afraid of what I might lose in terms of social status, or income, or privilege if the other side wins. The difficulty presented by overcoming those fears makes living into our Baptismal vows just that much harder. We only have to pull up our favorite news app to see reports of swastikas and “Sieg Heil!” spray painted on buildings in downtown Philadelphia, or of white students yelling racially-charged insults at their Black and Latino brothers and sisters, or of frustrated and angry protesters destroying property. NONE OF THESE THINGS IS OK, not by any stretch of the imagination. Fear is getting the upper hand where they’re happening, and if we are not careful, it will damage the delicate fabric of our society for generations to come. Katharine Jefferts Schori, our former Presiding Bishop, noted in a sermon last weekend that, “We’ve all died a little – our hope for this nation has dimmed, we’ve lost trust in our fellow citizens, we’ve raised our guard against other opinions and those people because we don’t think we can take any more… The tragedy is that the level of fear is preventing thoughtful dialogue. We pin on labels that say ‘enemy’ and think that settles the matter.”[1]

Despite this grim assessment, however, we’re not dead yet. Not by a long shot. I’ve had so many conversations to that effect in the past several days.  Their sum total reminded me of one of the early scenes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. A mortician is wheeling his cart through town, crying out, “Bring out your dead!” A customer approaches him with an old man slung over his shoulder. He offers the mortician 9 pence to take the old man off his hands – despite the old man’s protests of, “I’m not dead!” Now, I’ve always wondered what the customer’s motivation was. Maybe the old man was a relative who’s overstayed his welcome. Maybe he was genuinely ill and the customer simply wanted to take advantage of the incredible convenience of having a mortician right outside his door. Or maybe the customer is afraid that the old man is somehow going to get in the way of his grand plans for world domination. Regardless, the customer does the only logical thing: he flings the oldster over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes and takes him to the mortician… who promptly whacks the old man over the head with a club and adds him to the growing pile of bodies in his cart.  “See you on Thursday!” he says when he’s finished – as if it’s nothing but business as usual.[2]

The “business as usual” approach is part of what makes the scene so funny. However, being able to laugh about something which frightens most of us is helpful only to a point. Like its close cousins anxiety and depression, fear about what MIGHT happen has a tendency to take away our ability to envision a much more positive scenario than what either the facts or our imaginations tell us is in store. I’ve heard quite a bit of that expressed in the last five days. So many people are wondering how we can go on, when we’re afraid that some of the things we take for granted are about to be completely dismantled. On the other side of that coin, what’s become clear is, that question was already being asked, and roundly ignored, until it wound up tipping the balance of the Electoral College in an unexpected way. What I learned from it is this: if there is one place this nation can truly claim to be united, it’s in the fear and uncertainty which result from contemplating a future that, no matter which candidate received your vote, is not what we thought we were promised.

Being in this place is nothing new in the scope of human history. The ancient Israelites were right there with us after the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and deported most of the people. We can hear their fear and anguish in the words of the Psalmist: “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion… how shall we sing the LORD’s song upon an alien soil?” (Ps 137:1, 4; BCP)

And yet, their faith in the very God who had allowed this to happen prevented them from losing hope altogether. A generation or two later, things were looking much better. The Persians had replaced the Babylonians as the dominant power in that part of the world. Jerusalem itself was still a pile of rubble, but people had begun to return home and to think about rebuilding. It’s against this backdrop that the last ten chapters of Isaiah were recorded. In them, we hear the comforting reassurance that everything will turn out in line with God’s expansive plans for the world.  In the beginning of Chapter 65, it seems God’s stance toward the people’s wrongdoing has softened a bit. Verse 8 gives the first hint of this: “Thus says the LORD: As the wine is found in the cluster, and they say, ‘Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it,’ so I will do for my servants’ sake, and not destroy them all” (Isa 65:8, NRSV) The vision expands from there, as God promises to transform Jerusalem into a place where natural predators and prey will be found eating at the same table. It is unapologetically optimistic. Its intent is to reassure a people who have been forced to defend themselves from one threat after another that God has not, and will not, abandon them.[3]

It gets better: God’s peace in this newly created world will no longer include the need for alpha predators like lions and wolves to destroy gentler lambs and oxen.  What’s more, the serpent, whom God cursed when humanity was cast out of the Garden of Eden, will still be cursed. By providing that linkage back to a time before we were hobbled by things like fear and shame and hostility toward one another, Isaiah has made clear that the blessings God is offering can never be threatened again.[4]

This sounds an awful lot like what we’ve come to call “the American Dream,” doesn’t it? The ideal that everyone is on equal footing regardless of where we’ve come from, and the expectation that we will live long and prosper, are what form the backbone of this nation. And just as it was with our ancestors in the faith, our fears, which are at least partly grounded in the reality of the world around us, are trying once more to get the upper hand. Instead of giving in to them, let’s try something else. Let’s try holding onto the hope contained within the ideal of the peaceable kingdom which Isaiah outlines. And, let’s try putting our faith in God’s proven ability to bring this vision into existence. These two things, hope and faith, must be what guide our words and actions in the days to come. In his letter to the diocese this week, Bishop Knisely reminded us, “We must remember our baptismal covenant in which we promise to uphold the dignity of every person. We are each made in the image of God – and each one of us is infinitely precious simply by virtue of that fact. We can help others to see their neighbors as the Holy Spirit has opened our eyes to see one another.”[5]

Getting to a place where we’ll be able to do so will not be easy. For many right now, it is very hard to have any hope at all that things will ever get better. For others, it’s a whole new day, with entirely new opportunities to help shape this country for future generations. And still others are caught in the middle, wondering not only what will come next, but also desperately trying to be heard. Reconciling all of these things begins with listening to each other. Our response must not be one of judgment, but instead one of prayer. Once we have listened and prayed, then we will act. We have been presented with an incredible chance to show the world that the Gospel we proclaim is still relevant. We can, and we MUST, make this our primary task, because God needs us to be agents of God’s justice and love in the world, now more than ever. May God who has given us the will to do these things grant us the power to perform them.

 

 

[1] The Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, “Bridging the Political Chasm.” http://www.saintjamescathedral.org/worship/sermons/2016/11/06/bridging-political-chasm. [Accessed November 7, 2016.]

[2] Monty Python and the Holy Grail, special ed. DVD. Directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones. Culver City, CA: Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, 2001.

[3] Carolyn J. Sharp, “Commentary on Isaiah 65:17-25.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=678. [Accessed November 7, 2016.]

[4] Ibid.

[5] W. Nicholas Knisely, “A Divided Community: Responding with Hope and Action.” http://episcopalri.org/ForClergyCongregations/ResourceLibrary/ViewArticle/tabid/96/ArticleId/135/From-Bishop-Knisely-in-response-to-the-2016-elections.aspx. [Accessed November 12, 2016.]