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Isaiah 52:7-10 (The Inclusive Bible Translation)
In our scriptures the prophets often use Zion is a central image – that or Jerusalem – the nation-city rebuilt, back to original luster, shining like a city on a hill. It’s not an image that I can wrap my head around. We are a young nation, and think it remarkable to preserve a house built in the 18th century while our cousins in Europe routinely walk around in 800 year old castles. In Jerusalem you can still walk through the Church of the Nativity, built almost 2000 years ago. It boggles the mind to consider how something built so long ago can still be standing, let alone in use. The closest I can get my mind to absorb is an old house. This I can appreciate, and do, particularly when a perfect moment comes along. It doesn’t happen too often, which is probably what makes it perfect. It’s a cold day outside, I have on a nice sweater, maybe a fire in the fireplace, a cup of coffee, and I sit in my favorite chair, flip on the TV only to find that “This Old House” is on. That’s a perfect moment. I can sit in my comfort as floors get torn out, walls get demolished and replaced, wiring redone, tile laid and grouted, rafters, framing, ceilings repainted and I don’t have to do a thing. I just drink my coffee, sit back and feel like I’ve renovated an old house back to it’s original shine because I have an imagination that allows me to take psychic credit for things I have absolutely nothing to do with.
Would that all things in life were that easy. On Tuesday night, I was struck by one of the quirks of community organizing at the ACTION accountability session for the DA race. There were close to 200 people there, all seeking to educate themselves a bit on the race but something else happened, I think…at least for some. There was a connection between individual races, for particular political positions, and the system – how a DA, for instance, can influence the over all justice system, with all it’s broken parts. The discussions I have had immediately after, during a long bike ride with a friend and in subsequent conversations have all centered on how we can create change, whether that is all at once, in great revolutionary style, or in increments, often seemingly innocuous and definitely not glamorous. It’s the same way we might think about that is how we transform things – our own hearts, our families, our cities, or our world? How do we bring about the kin-dom of God, which Jesus said was all around us – in giant, violent upheaval, or in small, dedicated, even tedious moments – like pulling tile off a wall?
Isaiah didn’t have KIN-dom language, like we do. He didn’t even have KING-dom language, like Jesus used. He spoke instead of Zion, of Israel, of Jerusalem – kingdom, nation, nation-city – all metaphors for what God was up to in the world. Isaiah speaks these words, as he does many others, at a time of turmoil and anxiety about the future, with corrupt rulers at the helm and the constant assertion from the prophet that the moral level of the nation is, shall we say, lacking? Isaiah is a carrot-and-stick guy, and this passage is of the carrot variety, speaking words of promise and comfort to a people likely weary and troubled by the future. Isaiah tells his people to wake up, to dress themselves with strength, and shake off the dust! He calls on them to untie the ropes from around their necks – God is coming to ransom them, to free them from oppression. It sounds huge, but it’s really a practical, mundane hope that Isaiah evokes – big things with small foundations.
I am struck each time that I watch This Old House how they sort of time warp you through what I know is much more work than we’re seeing on the screen. You don’t add an 800 square foot room and completely renovate a bathroom and kitchen in a 120 year-old house without a lot of effort. And just because it’s effort we don’t see doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. You miss out on the team that levels the foundation, or the pair of expert carpenters that seamlessly remove a weight-bearing wall, replacing it with a joist hidden in the ceiling. That work comes while you just see the problems with the house, while the repair work looms overhead like a dark cloud. Isaiah’s promise is the same way, for it comes in the middle of a situation, that is nothing like the promise of God.
Lots of people say that this is why we have church. We come here once a week (maybe less) with a dark cloud hanging over our own vision of the world, to get recharged, or inspired, or simply to be amongst like-minded people. But that alone doesn’t change the world. Might change us, but the dream, the kin-dom, the beloved community, it has to exist beyond these walls to be any good to anyone. So maybe we come here to realize, in part, that we don’t change the world…or at least we don’t change it alone. What we can do is to meet the world’s weakness with our own weakness, our power being found in weakness, which is the most peculiar of Christian assertions. And yet the more I give it some credence, the more I see how counter-intuitively real it is.
Isaiah’s lamentations and accusations are leveled at and for Zion/Israel/Jerusalem. He feels pain for them as he feels frustration at them. It is the task of prophets and messengers to live with the dichotomy of helping people who also bear some responsibility for their own predicaments. And, truth be told, this is the task of all of us who seek to follow the Way of Jesus, a spiritual path founded on Grace, and the idea that we do not earn transformation, we don’t manufacture wholeness, we don’t self-create redemption, but instead choose to participate with God, which sometimes means surrendering to God’s plan instead of trumpeting my own. And it means, of course, wrestling with a lot of discernment and making a lot of room for complexity, which sounds like the perfect description of ministry.
Ministry is often defined as the work of a religious practice, done by the authorized people, wearing the right clothing and typically “looking the part,” which often means only looking like me – white, male, straight, with a beautiful wife and 2.5 children. That .5 is the dog, for those of you keeping score. But the etymology of the term “ministry,” how we get from ancient languages that our faith ancestors spoke to our modern English, begins with the Greek word diakoneo, meaning “to serve” or douleuo, meaning “to serve as a slave.” It’s where we get the term “deacon,” which was one of the earliest terms for people who were in leadership in the Way of Jesus. Ministry, from it’s very beginnings, is supposed to be about service, even sacrificial service. And that extends FAR beyond the pulpit, far outside the scope of “ordained ministry”, past even the reach of the seminary, the congregation, the conference. Ministry goes on all the time, all around us.
So, lest you think that I’m the only minister around here, please know that this is a sanctuary FULL of them right now…those who have served and are now happily retired, those who serve, just not in a church, even those who don’t seek that title at all, and those who think they don’t “know enough” to minister end up doing it, each in their own ways. So, effectively, ALL of us. It takes all of us doing the small things to create the big things. We can’t get repair Zion/Israel/Jerusalem, we can’t bring about the kin-dom, or raise up the beloved community…heck, we can’t even have a good city-wide community without realizing the balance between our effort and our weakness. We need to be involved and to participate, and we need to know that we cannot fix the world by ourselves. We need the best of what humankind can bring to the table AND we need something more than what we are, something Holy and Divine, the something that we call God, which loves what we cannot love, hopes what we cannot hope and completes what we cannot complete.
I get the privilege of bearing witness to the ways that you do this, my good church people, on a daily basis. I have stood with you in the jail, at the clinic, serving a meal, holding a hand, carrying documentation papers, loading up clothing, singing carols in the halls of an apartment complex, marching in the PRIDE parade, our church banner held proudly, bearing witness at the city council meeting, holding signs of welcome at the mosque, the synagogue, the church full of immigrants, and so many other places where your ministry carries the Gospel into the world. It is one of the most wonderful things about being a pastor, you get to see the small, foundational things being done everyday, the work that doesn’t get shown on the big screen. These are the tile laying things, the remodeling work, the cutting in on the corners of the walls with a small paintbrush, the sometimes tedious and ordinary and basic work of remodeling the world into the kin-dom.
Ministry, the sacrificial and dedicated work in the direction of God’s love, hope and realization, takes all of us. Yes, I do this “professionally,” but you do this every time you reach out to someone who feels on the edges, every time you care for the wounded, tend to a sick person, share some food on a cold day, give a smile in the pouring rain, or speak out for the one who cannot use their own voice. When we do the things that Jesus did, we are exactly what the earliest followers tried to be – little Jesuses, little “Christs,” Christians – trying to live just a little differently in the world, sharing the load, translating language, making connections, building bridges, seeking justice and longing for the same world that Jesus longed for…what we call the kin-dom. Here and now.
So thank you, Fellowship, for being the church…where you are, with what you have. For you are all ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I see you.