April 7, 2019
Fifth Sunday in Lent, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
At a workshop recently, participants were asked to draw a map of their childhood home, noting what the family did in each room and the values that are attached to those activities. The exercise was designed to get us to consider how we have learned to see the world. I chose to draw my grandmother’s cottage at Lake James in northern Indiana. It’s surprising that, 50 year later, I can remember with excruciating exactness the details of those rooms. I can remember where furniture was located, what color it was; even what it smelled like. Kind of musty. I can remember the bread box on the counter in her kitchen; the antique clock above the even-then old-fashioned television with a twist dial and antennas.
Human beings are like that. Even though we get more forgetful as our brains fill up with responsibility or slow down because of age, we have memories of the past that are exact, cherished, and, not so surprisingly, give shape to who we are and what to expect from the world around us.
Isaiah knew this about his people. His community, people from Jerusalem and the surrounded regions, had been carried away into exile by the Babylonians. For seventy years, they settled there: adjusting, accommodating to the culture around, trying to figure out what they did wrong to get themselves into this exile, and they began mapping their history; telling their stories. No doubt they could tell you exactly how many pomegranates were on top of the pillars outside the temple. They could tell you what the walls of the city looked like on the southwest corner overlooking the valley. They could tell you how many cooking pots hung on the wall near the fire.
Like all empires eventually do, Babylon fell apart. A new empire rose up in Persia, and Cyrus, the new king, signed an order for the Judean people to go back to Jerusalem to rebuild their homes and to build the temple again. They must have been filled with expectation and fear.
First, they have to get across the thousand miles through the desert to get home: a place without water, a place filled with danger. Someone in the community must have had some bad childhood experience with an ostrich because they’re mentioned alongside the jackals.
In one of the most beautifully written pastoral reflections, Isaiah tells this anxious community, “The God who makes things happen, who does things like dividing the Red Sea and stopping the world’s greatest empire in its tracks, is about to provide what you need to enter the dangerous and threshold space that you’re living in right now. Those ostriches you are worried about? They’re busy praising God with their jackal friends, who turn out to be the tenor section of the choir, howling in praise of God, not circling around to devour.
But then Isaiah gives a warning. Remember not the former things. This God-intervention, this God-activity, this stream in the desert, isn’t going to look like what you thought it would. You may miss it if you think God acts in predictable ways. It’s likely to be more subtle than dramatic. More a new perspective than a miracle. It’s possible to miss that it’s going on, and then to assume that nothing is happening.
Isaiah gets us. We may be faithful enough to believe that God can do something again, but we tend to have pretty clear ideas about how God needs to fix the problem. Often in comes from that old map in our head, from our assumptions. We assume that having our problems taken away will make our life better. We assume that being free of disease, or the prospect of death, is the best answer to our prayer. We know which kid in our school class needs be removed from the classroom. We know which politician needs to be unseated in order that the whole world be saved. We know what our children need, and we know what our parents need. We pray over and over again for the same thing, worrying about it actually, so that the groove of our prayer drills so deeply into our brain patterns that eventually we can’t imagine a map forward unless our prayer is answered just how we believe it should.
A United Methodist pastor remembers taking communion from the table to the back of the church to Mary, who was in the early stages of multiple sclerosis. He gave her the bread, and she slowly chewed it. “The blood of Christ poured out for you honey,” James said before the pastor could get the words out of his mouth. The wine dripped out of her mouth and onto her shirt. After church, the pastor told Mary and James, her husband, that he admired their patience and perseverance. “After looking puzzled for a moment, James replied that he wouldn’t have it any other way. “Our marriage has never been better,” Mary slurred with a smile.
The pastor says, “It reveals my own handicapped Christianity that I assumed Mary’s illness and consequent disability was a hardship to bear rather than the labor pains through which she and James were becoming new creations.”
This moment we’re living in right now is the labor pain through which we are becoming new creations. Take that statement to whatever it is you’re living through. These are the labor pains for a new creation.
Have you ever had one of those moments when you just can’t see the amazing thing that your beloved is trying to show you? Look. It’s right there, on the edge of the branch. No, a little to your right. Up a little higher. You can’t see it?” And then your beloved takes your head in hand and moves you until your eyes are pointed in exactly the right direction.
“Oh, my. Yes, I see it.” And you wonder how you could have ever missed it. It was right there all along. You almost have to laugh because it’s so obvious now, and it was so invisible just a moment before.
Isaiah is our beloved. Mary, pouring out ointment, is our beloved. Turning our faces, gently, slowly, with all the precision of the promises of God, toward a new creation. “Look. Look this way. Right in front of your face. It’s the cross, the love of the universe, the love of your life, poured out for you, honey, like a stream in your desert, like expensive perfume, wafting, rising again.”
Do you perceive it?
Jason Micheli, “The Good and Dependent Life,” a book review of Crippled Grace: Disability, Virtue Ethics, and the Good Life by Shane Clifton,” Christian Century, March 27, 2019, p. 30.