“For I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth,” the prophet says.
The People Israel are up against it in today’s reading from the Book of Isaiah. They’re divided and cynical. They have been driven into exile, which means they have lost the comfort and familiarity of their lives in the Land of Promise. So there, in captivity in Babylon, they have to find a new way to get along. They have to begin their lives again in a new and foreign place. Everything presents a challenge, everything seems like hardship, every hope seems lost. And the Israelites don’t trust their new neighbors…they resent them.
In the year 597 BCE, the region of Judah revolted against the emperor Nebuchandezzar. The emperor responded by sacking the city of Jerusalem, burning the Temple, and sending Israel’s leaders into exile in Babylon. They left the land that God had promised them so many generations before, when a stranger took Abram out under a sky full of stars and promised to lead Abraham to a land that God would show him. The People Israel left the magnificent Temple they loved – not just that but they watched it burn – the very place that they believed to be God’s dwelling here on earth. They left their lives and their understanding. They left it all, and they left it for a long time.
Nearly forty years later, when Isaiah proclaims this message of God’s vision, the People Israel are up against it.
“For I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth,” Isaiah says.
“Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating;
I will rejoice in Jerusalem and delight in my people;
No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.”
What a passage this is, appointed a long time ago for what would be the Sunday following the most divisive election season of my lifetime, and maybe yours.
And the thing is, nobody’s got the market cornered on chaos and divisiveness and resentment right now. We’re all in it. And we don’t know why, exactly, though lots of people have a great deal to say about their theories on that count. And we don’t know what comes next.
I heard an interview the week before the election about a working-class white man whose life has not gotten better in recent years. He dropped out of high school – which was a source of embarrassment and shame to him – but then he found a training program, and he learned the trade of welding. He found work with a livable salary in that job, and he did it for a number of years. He got married, had a couple of kids, one of whom has a learning disability. And then the crash of 2008 hit, and he lost his job as a welder. So he was out of work for awhile, and then he went through another training program, and found work again, though this time it was hourly instead of full-time, and at a lower wage. His family lost their health insurance with the welding job; then they found a policy through the Affordable Care Act, but then they couldn’t afford it. They lost their home, were in and out of homelessness.
The thing that stopped me short about this whole story was what the reporter said at the end: this man, this former welder, had tried to do everything right. Like I said, he was embarrassed by his lack of education, but he had tried to compensate for it by learning in other ways. And he and his family were really alone – they didn’t belong to a church, the reporter said; they didn’t have anyone to come around them, to champion their cause, to provide ideas and support.
They didn’t belong to a church, the reporter said.
And I thought – oh – have we forgotten that we belong to each other?
I hold that man’s story of exile, together with the palpable and profound fear I see in my own friends right now. A friend from high school now living in California had her Mexican–born adopted daughter come home from school on Wednesday to say that her classmates told her she was going to be deported. A lesbian couple who are very special to me are making legal arrangements to protect their parental status as two mothers of their beautiful infant daughter. Another friend shares stories of trans folks they know who are helping each other get passports right now in case they need to leave the country quickly.
And again, I wonder: have we forgotten that we belong to each other? How did we get so far away?
“I will rejoice in Jerusalem and delight in my people
No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.”
Isaiah shows up in the midst of an exiled and divided and resentful and frightened people, and shares the word of God. The word of God is capable of creating something new out of something that is very old. The world of God has the power to restore order from chaos. The word of God can make beauty where every single thing seems broken.
In the middle of the People Israel, Isaiah returns a word of promise…in concrete and practical fashion:
“God’s people shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
For like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.”
I want that vision. I want that vision of safety and belonging, of a just return for the work of our hands, of a long life, and enough to sustain it. I want that. I want it for my friends who are American Indian and Black and Latino. I want that vision for my friends who are lesbian and gay and trans and queer. I want Isaiah’s vision for that welder who got laid off and who now finds himself really, really alone. I want that vision for your family. I want that vision for my own.
And I don’t know how we get back from the exile of our own fear, but I trust in the power of God’s promise and prophecy. I’m clear that I will struggle together but not fight for vindication. I will speak aloud the truth that I see, but I am finished with vilifying – on all sides. My dear friend Kate says this more eloquently than I can, as she preaches from her own pulpit this morning: “We have elected a president who I would never allow myself or a female friend (or my daughter) to be alone with. But I will be praying for Donald Trump in the weeks and years to come, and I hope you will too.”
When I was in discernment to the priesthood, I found myself praying with an image that would never have been something of my own choosing or creation. I found myself praying like this, with a posture of my own hands outstretched and open. It felt a little vulnerable and strange, and it also made sense. It forced me to imagine God placing things in those open hands of mine…and maybe taking them away, too.
Wednesday morning, I had an email from Meghan Murphy-Gill. She ended it by telling me that she is praying, palms up, looking for the paths.
Me too, Meghan.
So I will pray, and I will listen. And I will seek to live the promises of my baptism, which are the property of no party and which are subject to no election. And I hope you will too.
Because it’s time for us to find the paths, to find our way back to each other. It’s time for us to return from this exile we have created here in this great nation of ours. It’s time for Isaiah’s promise of “a new creation, where the heavens and the earth are no longer alienated.”
Because I want that vision Isaiah speaks into a word of hope, with conviction, for us all:
“The wolf and the lamb shall feed together…
The lion shall eat straw like an ox;”
The vision that
“They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,
says the LORD.”
 Nelson Rivera. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4. “Theological Perspective.” Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. 290.