Saturday, November 16, 2013

Sermon for Nov 17, 2013; Isaiah 65:17-25

Rev. George Miller
Isaiah 65:17-25
“Days of a Tree”
Nov 17, 2013

Currently I’m reading Little House On the Prairie which I find to be a shockingly unsentimental look at what life in the west was like long ago.

As the novel starts, the family leaves the safety of the woods in Wisconsin to travel further out west. It’s not an easy journey. They travel in the winter, when the waters are frozen over. It takes courage and conviction. The girls get restless; the long journey takes its toll.

One day Pa points far out to the horizon. “We’re coming to a creek or a river…can you see those trees ahead?”

His daughter stands up; all she can see is a smudge of something in the distance.

“That’s trees,” the father says. “In this country, trees mean water. That’s where we’ll camp tonight.”

It’s not their permanent stop, but it’s a resting place where they can catch their breath and stretch their legs before they continue on their journey.

I like this imagery of trees, that their presence represents so much more then shade and rest, but of water, living water; the source of all life…

I’ve got to tell you: I’m jealous of y’all. Last week you got to be a part of the Harvest Home Fall Festival. I got to attend the FL Conference Fall Gathering.

Y’all got to welcome members of the local community; I got to hear people bemoan the fact that no one wants to go to church.

Y’all got to go from table to table to visit folk, sell things, talk, laugh, and eat delicious homemade soup. I got to sit at a table for 6 hours, hearing folk speak about I-don’t-know-what and eat a sandwich with a piece of roast beef and a slice of cheese.

But there was one cool thing I got to do: hear how our “Still Speaking” campaign came to be.

Ron Buford, our guest presenter, is the man behind our denomination’s use of red and black, our adoption of the comma, and the use of the “God is Still Speaking” slogan.

As he explained, Ron was on vacation in FL when he came across a gift shop that sold bumper stickers. In that shop was a quote from Gracie Allen, George Burns’ wife.

The quote was “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”

Sounds nice, right? But Ron shared with us the context of the quote.

Gracie Allen had grown ill; she was aware that she was going to die soon, and she knew that her husband would have a difficult time living without her. So she wrote a letter to George to be read at her funeral.

It was in this letter directed to her grieving husband that Gracie wrote “Never place a period where God has put a comma.”

In the truthful darkness of her death, Gracie created these words to give her grieving husband light, and somehow, someway those words have come to us, as a reminder that God is still speaking.

Context is everything.

Words of hope written to people having fun at a festival are one thing; words of hope written to faint-hearted folk at a funeral are another.

Much of the Bible was written during funeral times, to address funeral issues. The children of Israel had faced death so many times: the barrenness of Abraham and Sarah; the Israelites enslavement in Egypt.

Yet, like trees planted by the river, they did not wither completely. Though it was not always easy they found ways to bear fruit and to grow, even when death was present.

Context is everything. To appreciate today’s reading it’s good to know when it was written. Modern scholars believe the book of Isaiah was written by 3 people.

The original author wrote to warn the people that war was in the air and they would experience impending doom if they didn’t change their ways. The prophet was right, Jerusalem was destroyed and the people were taken captive.

Chapters 40-55 were said to be written by a different author after the prophecy had come true. They were words directed to the captive people who had watched their entire city destroyed and all their hopes and dreams stripped away.

God speaks to the people to assure them that eventually this too will pass, and one day…one day their families will have the chance to return home and rebuild their city.

50 years pass before that promise is realized. By that time a generation has been born and died. Those who choose to return home expect life to go back to the way it once was. But instead their beloved city is still in ruins: the streets tore up, their houses gone, their fields full of weeds and their Temple completely burned to the ground.

It’s as if God has lied to them.

They attempt to rebuild their lives. It’s not easy. The local economy is shot, inflation is high, and everyone is so focused on themselves that no one has the time, energy or money to rebuild the Temple.

They have structurally and symbolically put God and the worship of God last, and then they wonder why God is no longer speaking or doing anything.

That’s where the words of today’s reading come in.

Modern scholars believe a third author wrote chapters 56-66. He is writing to people who had come out of a bad situation, thinking things were going to be better, only to discover they were just as bad if not worse.

Though their fields are fallow, God says “I am about to create something new.”

Though their infrastructure is completely destroyed, God says “I am about to build something amazing.”

Though their Temple is no more, and they have no place to praise God, God says “I will rejoice in you and find delight in my people.”

Though they were dragged out of their homes and forced to live as captives in another land, God says “You will benefit from your own handiwork and live in your own homes again.”

And though they had been ripped up by their roots and left to wither in enemy soil, God says “Like a tree planted by the river, you will not be moved and you will flourish.”

What do we make out of this? This would be like speaking such words to the people of the Philippines. This would be like speaking such words to the residents of New York on Sept 12, 2001.

Do we have here a God who lies? A God who is insane? A God who is unrealistic?

…What about a God who hopes? A God who still speaks? A God who is optimistic?

A God who created once before and can create again…and again…and again?

The people, the land, the buildings may all be in rubble, but God still speaks and says “I am about to create something new.”

Now there are different ways to take this passage. You could say the new creation God is speaking about is heaven, the heaven of pop culture; the place we go when we die that doesn’t exist until we take our last breath.

Or (as Tracy so eloquently spoke about last week) God could be speaking about a state of being in which everything and everyone is influenced by the reality of God.

This new heaven and earth that God is creating could be a state of mind and a reality we can actually experience now if we are willing to trust, we are willing to seek, and we are willing to play a part in.

Here, in this 2nd understanding, we are talking about the Kingdom of God, which is being created. A state of being in the presence of the Creator so completely that every act, every word, every deed is done with God as the focus.

I believe this it was the writer of Isaiah 65 is talking about; a way of being in which all people get to experience quality and creation: the sick are given the chance to be healed, hungry are given the chance to be fed and everyone has a place to call home.

I don’t believe God only wants us to focus on a new creation that will only exist when we die, but a new creation that can exist, that does exist as we live and breathe in the here and now.

After all, isn’t that part of what believing in the Resurrection is about?

We are children of the Resurrection. This mysterious event, this act of God that cannot be fully explained, that makes no sense to the rational mind, is the ultimate act of optimism that God is still speaking and ushering a new creation upon the world.

Because when Jesus died that should have been the end; God should have been silenced forever. But that was not the case, for God still was speaking and still had more words to say.

Out of death’s existing rubble, God ushered in the life of new creation…and it has been astounding.

And yes, it’s a new creation that has been at least 2,000 years in the process, but it is the one in which we are called to participate, ever living in the moment, believing in the future as opposed to being stuck in the past.

Through the resurrection God’s hope for the world has made itself blatantly known. And we don’t have to wait to die to see what that hope is; we can witness it now and participate in our own unique way.

That’s what the earliest followers of Christ did: they lived believing the Kingdom had already broken in: they shared resources, they fed the hungry, they reached out to the sick, they shared meals, called one another “sister” and “brother” and found joy in all that God, their Father, had done.

Sometimes we feel like we are on a perilous path. Sometimes we are in a state of destruction. Sometimes we are in the need to rebuild.

But if we recall the stories of our spiritual ancestors, if we recall that God brought life to a childless couple, God brought freedom to lowly slaves, and that God promised a new creation to exiles living amongst rubble, then we too can become like trees beside the river.

Trees with strong roots, trees bearing much fruit, trees enjoying the eternal life that comes from being watered by Christ.

God is still speaking. And if God is still speaking, then God is still acting. And if God is still acting, then there is still hope.

As people of the comma, as people of the resurrection, there is always hope.

Amen and amen.

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