2006 September 10
Rev. Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor
Based on the Scripture reading:
Isaiah 35: 4-7a
Just moments ago you and I engaged in a radical and revolutionary act, and I don’t want anyone to miss it. Just moments ago we did something that connects us back to three millennia of our ancestors’ behavior yet launches us forward even towards eternity, and we did it as a church family with all ages present here today, which is important. Let me tell you what I mean. (Web note: click here for the Litany of Recovenanting.)
From our six year olds to our eighty-somethings, we just spoke a covenant which is 377 years old, based on principles written down by Jesus’ followers just over nineteen hundred years ago, which are grounded in a dream that was almost global roughly twenty six centuries ago: six hundred years before Christ. Now, the sixth century before Christ saw intercontinental war, including a mid-East conflict at Jerusalem, yet during that era lived Confucius, Zoroaster, Buddha, and the Ionian Philosophers such as Thales and Pythagoras, along with church-known folks such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. And amidst their dangerous century, God’s Spirit of vision spread across nations and faiths and brought forth science, religion, and political influences that we know to this day. That very bad, uncertain time was also a time of birth, and I just want to mention one of the gifts of that era and the reason that it inspires our covenant today. I want to highlight the vision from our reading a few minutes ago, before the 377 year old covenant, and it is this.
But let me introduce it, first.
In the sixth century before Christ, our ancestors were literally in exile, displaced persons from their home and house of worship with their leader, the king, in prison for 36 years. Our people saw the death of prophets and depression of the human spirit, environmental danger, national disunity, and logical pessimism on the grandest of grand scales. It was a bleak house. Yet one of the authors of the book of Isaiah wrote this regarding the future: What would come to this desperate people in exile were clear eyes, unstopped ears, physical strength, and a dance for joy. But that was only the start. Isaiah said what God had in store for these exiles was literally water in the desert and safety in places that had been hostile. What God had in store for them was the positive opposite of what we today believe greenhouse gases can do in a negative way: God would literally change nature for the better. God envisioned cosmic wonders and safe home for all exiles, so six centuries later Jesus would restore sight and hearing but more: He would renovate understanding and hope and faith and love, and then in 1629 people in Salem, Massachusetts would promise to keep it up, and here on September 10th 2006 we would finally say, like the young kangaroo in Horton Hears a Who, “Me too.”
We re-covenant not to keep our church alive but to proclaim that hope is alive, the very creation can improve, any part of us that is lost will be reclaimed, and it is God who does all this. Now, what do you think of that? Did you realize that was what you were saying?!
It is. Because Isaiah, Jesus, and we here in these century-old pews all get the same message from God that had echoes in Buddha and Confucius and maybe even Pythagoras: there is hope ahead for us, there is new creation in our midst, and any bit of exile that we know is everywhere God’s concern, that divinity might touch us, and we might live anew.
Well, how’s that for a quiet re-entry to our fall program life? Pre-Socratic philosophers, Asian and mid-East mystics, Jesus of Nazareth, and Dr. Suess?! Isn’t this parish amazing!
Whether or not we are, our God is amazing. Our God, Who looks at the darkest moments and brings them light, and Who looks at the most joyful new life and says, this is good. Our God Who is personal but not private. Our God Who is political and sometimes partisan. Our God Who is reflected in each of us and Who has high expectations for all those reflections. Our God Who has expectations for our four-year-olds and our forty-year members as well as the folks who are just here today and may never be back. Our God is amazing.
One of the reasons that I like this re-covenant day is that it gives me a chance to remember that I don’t have to build a fresh faith each era or invent all the answers to life’s tricky questions on my own. It reminds me that I am part of a history and have an ancestry beyond my blood family. People have prepared paths for me and offered me visions. So for me this re-covenant day has a lot to do with looking back in gratitude and receiving the wisdom that calls me to walk together in God’s ways while showing that the word of truth is still unfolding. I like looking back.
But like Lot’s wife and the early disciples at Jesus’ tomb in Matthew, looking back isn’t always the best thing to do and can turn a covenant into a condiment if we’re not careful. Isaiah, Jesus, and Paul, among others, remind us that God is doing a new thing and wants more than our repetition of the past. God wants us to join the vision for the future. And for me that means this weekend when we re-covenant is one where we make a connection to and a pledge about the future. We turn our eyes to God’s dream and its demands.
Take a look at just one little bit from today’s Gospel. It has two parts, with many dimensions, but they’re both about healing. They say that Jesus is the realization of God’s promise, as He is the one opening the eyes of the blind and so forth, but they show that God’s promise is a bit more than we might have expected. When Jesus enters this short debate with the Syrophoenecian or Canaanite woman, it is easy to get bogged down in His rude behavior or to make an object lesson of her brilliant tenacity. But sometimes the people who bring a map on a trip or who study geography as a pastime are right to ask us to forget the emotions and the language for a moment, if we want to see the seismic story. Look where Jesus is doing these healings and look with whom He is doing them. He is, quote, “in Gentile territory.” Or, He is literally at the edge of the map, if not off the map, as it was known in His time. So Prof. Fred Craddock can drop, as a commentary coda, that Jesus is taking God’s message to its fullest geographical and ethnic limits, if we’ll notice. Does that mean anything to us today?
Bill Coffin is quoted as saying that our God loves us just as we are but far too much to leave us where we are. Isaiah says that our God will change nature for the better and make the hostile into the supportive. Jesus opens the eyes and ears of the limited and pushes God’s message to its ethnic and geographical limits.
This isn’t a golden formula to solve all of our practical problems, as any of Jesus’ disciples or Paul’s church members could swear. Yet this is God’s formula. Dream big. Heal others. Love without reserve. Push beyond the cautious boundaries that culture or even religion would erect. Live with a covenant for the future. Liberate the captives. Pray for peace. Bring the whole family. And come back next week. We have lots to become, lots to be, and in Jesus’ name this year, lots to do.