Rev. Paula Norbert
In Isaiah’s reading today, we hear words of great comfort and hope that were spoken to the people of that time, close to 500 years before the time of Jesus on earth. I imagine they may serve as words of comfort and hope to us in this day as well. The people at that time had come through a very difficult period of exile and had returned to Jerusalem, but much was in ruin and their faith was challenged because it was not as they hoped it would be. Their reality was filled with hunger and sorrow and suffering and death, yet into this dark place, the prophet speaks of the promise of a new heaven and a new earth…of a day to come when all of God’s people will be satisfied and live in peace. Let us pray, God of Isaiah’s vision, we thank you for the comfort these words offer us still. We thank you that you are still working your purpose out in a world with too much weeping, fear, and injustice. Help us to discern what we can do to reduce harm and bring joy. In Christ we pray. Amen.
To really appreciate this reading today, we might try to imagine how things must have felt for the people of Jerusalem around 475 B.C.E., two generations after they returned from exile and tried to rebuild their devastated city. They knew of the former glory of Jerusalem and its Temple, and the rebuilt version didn’t quite measure up to the glory of Solomon’s Temple. Imagine the prophet Isaiah, walking through the rubble of the city. We might imagine some of the destruction we have seen from war-torn parts of our world or in the wake or the fires and hurricanes we have seen recently in parts of our own nation. Much of the city was still in ruin, including homes and markets, and many people continued to suffer the effects of oppression and dislocation. Hunger, thirst, illness and early death, sorrow and grief, economic injustice and political turmoil were the realities of the day.
The first generation had returned excited and full of joy about coming home to their own land, their own great city: Jerusalem. And yet, when the prophet we call Third Isaiah wrote the beautiful words in this week’s passage, the people were still hungering for a word of hope. In this setting, Isaiah speaks of a vision from God, who, in the midst of human suffering and despite the long wait, is about to do a new and great thing: “to create new heavens and a new earth….be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating: for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy and its people as a delight” (65:17-18).(Rev. Kate Matthews)
This has surely been a year unlike any other in most of our lives. Over these months and certainly in the past few years, our nation has witnessed a level of division and pain unlike any most of us may recall in recent history. Some have likened it to the sixties and I’m sure many of you have memories of those days with protests against the war and for civil rights; politics dividing families, and so much else. Too many of us are fearful and sad and frustrated and angry; too many feel a level of upset that is hard to make sense of. Many are deeply upset by how divided our nation has become. It truly saddens me. In Isaiah, he speaks of the new heavens and a new earth…and of the hopes of the people at that time, much as we are mindful of the hopes of people today for better days ahead. What has become of us? Why have so many people felt so injured and so deeply afraid over these past many months. I recall something a friend sent me after the election in 2016 that went something like this…tomorrow, when all of this is over, children will still wake up hungry in our country and many schools will still not have the funds they need, and too many elderly and veterans will not have adequate housing or decent healthcare, and we must then ask, where are our priorities? Millions and millions of dollars have been spent on this recent election. Is this not sinful in a world with so much need?
And I understand that we have had difficult elections in the past. If you listen to presidential historians they can speak of contentious struggles way back to the beginning of our democracy. I know that people have very real concerns and very real needs that affect how they think about all of this. Is it about fear? I understand fear, I do, and yet what does it say about us as a community if fear overrides our ability to treat others with respect and dignity, even if they don’t share our political point of view or they are of a different, race, religion or gender. Are we not neighbors to one another? Did Jesus not tell us to love one another as I have loved you…and when he said love your neighbor, I seem to recall that he didn’t put conditions on who counts as our neighbor, and in fact, he was very clear that when it came to the last judgement, the most important question would be how we treated the least of our brothers and sisters.
And so we are faced with an important question. How do we repair the damage that has been done? How do we look ahead and believe in hope? How do we make sure that no one is left behind in a country where there is surely a growing gap between the haves and the have nots.
There are many who are already at work in building bridges in our world. Some months ago, I saw a nice piece on two NFL players who are seeking to facilitate conversations among leaders in some of the cities that have been torn apart by racial division in the wake of the death of another unarmed black man. These two are good friends and when something erupts, they are in touch by phone and they travel to the city to invite folks to sit down at the table, police, city leaders and leaders within the black community who are angry and hurt and afraid and together they invite dialogue and a conversation about how to move forward in hope.
There are many churches around the country who have made important efforts to gather folks at the table who share different views on significant social issues or who are members of other faith traditions to allow for dialogue and discovery of what they have in common and how they may witness to hope in their communities.
In Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address in 1861, given on the eve of the Civil War as a plea for unity when seven Southern states had already seceded, he said, “The mystic chords of memory … will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Sadly, the Civil War was fought and many lives were lost and yet, Lincoln, tried in so many ways to bring healing and unity back to our broken nation.
Perhaps we may find solace from the words of Isaiah and of President Lincoln today; we may discover strength and courage from the faithful people who have come before us, who also lived with anger and suffering, oppression, fear and hopelessness. But this promise of new heavens and a new earth is a promise to us as well. It is also a promise that we are invited to help make into a reality. We hear this reading from the prophet Isaiah many centuries after it was written, many centuries after the destruction of Jerusalem, the return from exile, and the life and ministry and death of Jesus, and the fall of the empires that oppressed his people. Still, we persist in the belief, the trust, that is at the core of Israel’s story, of the gospel story, as well as our own: that God is at work for the good of all of God’s children, no matter how things may appear at the moment. We are each called to be bridge builders in whatever form that may take. For us to be a part of God’s plan for our world is a labor of love, and it requires some important adjustments in our lives and the life of the world, adjustments in our priorities about what really matters that are consistent with the plan for God’s Kingdom. We dream, then, not just of bread, or justice, for all, but peace for all, and healing and peace for all of creation at last.
This blessing for Election Day was written by Rabbi Rachel Weiss and her cohort of 20 rabbis Clergy Leadership. Let us come together.
Source of the Universe,
may we find a way through this together,
moving from fearful to fearless, to courage and transformation.
Let us draw strength and wisdom from our ancestors,
as future generations call us to action, however we are able.
Help us to bind up the nation’s wounds,
past and present, realizing that
in a fight among brothers and sisters, everyone loses.
May the ground shake with the rumbling of redemption,
as we remember where we have been and how far we have come,
yet too, how much father we must go
for the voices of those silenced to be heard.
May the results of this election, may the safe transfer of power,
be one step on the path to something new. Something just.
Something still broken, but something that names each of us, expansively.
Something that welcomes us into life.
Source of the Universe, call us to celebrate our diversity
as our greatest strength,
as we use our collective wisdom to prepare for what is to come.
And let us say: Amen.