By Pastor Suzanne Clemenz
Scripture: Isaiah 43:1-19
While – thank goodness – we haven’t as a local community, or as a nation, hit rock bottom like God’s people in Judah had in Isaiah 43, (no enemy has invaded our land, destroyed our church, and banished us to a foreign place), my sense is that our current circumstances are precarious for a majority of us, and even dangerous and risky for some of us. COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on so many aspects of our lives. For a good number of us our livelihood is uncertain – reduced hours at work, lost wages, and I get frequent prayer requests from folks for whom the future of our their jobs is uncertain. The stress for many of us is real. Those of us who are essential workers are burning the candle at both ends and handling the mental and emotional strain of being on the front lines and witnessing the suffering that the virus is causing. Most of us are worried about what might happen if we or our loved ones become sick. There’s the anxiety of not knowing whether or not we might be an asymptomatic carrier ourselves at any moment, so we are having to sustain a state of vigilance of mask wearing, social distancing, and with the numbers rising at an alarming rate over the past week, we see no end in sight to this hyper-vigilant state we’re in. We find ourselves in a place of uncertainty and vulnerability that many of us have never experienced before.
And alongside this set of circumstances is our state of cultural and spiritual lament over the racial injustice that has erupted in our national consciousness. Somehow, this time, we are paying attention and listening the cries of our black and brown brothers and sisters who keep telling us, and have been telling us for centuries, I can’t breathe. We’re in this moment that is bearing so many things –heartache, anger, mourning, fear, uncertainty, vulnerability, and hope. While we don’t know yet what the outcome of this pouring out will be, we sense that there has been a rupture, something has changed, and where we are heading may be, God willing, a better place than where we have come from. But how do we get there?
So much has changed and is changing, isn’t it? And change for all of us is hard, especially when it is change that we did not see coming, that we have no control over, when it’s change that uproots our routines and our securities. We don’t like being in the dark or out of the driver’s seat even for a second.
When we’re in the dark or the in-between places, we want to get out of the dark or the in-between places as soon as possible. When we’re in the dark or the in-between places, it may not feel to us as if we are beloved children of God. When we’re in the dark or the in-between places, it’s easy to forget that we are even then part of God’s redeeming of creation. And I know what I’m talking about. I speak on the subject of darkness and in-between places from my personal experiences of both.
When we are in the dark and the in-between places, sometimes it feels like all we can do is suffer and wait there. But our Scripture tells us that God wants our orientation to these places to be different. God speaks through the Prophet to remind his people – You are MINE. I have called your name. You belong to me. I would sell the whole world to get you back. You are my beloved. When times are hard, I am there with you. When you feel overwhelmed, I will not the floodwaters overtake you. When it feels that there is just no way out of your situation, I will find a way out for you.
I know that you are in exile, God tells his chosen people in the book of Isaiah. I am going to bring you home. It doesn’t matter how far you are scattered; I will bring you back. Even though you are still blind and deaf. Yeah, I know you have eyes and ears, but bless your hearts, you just don’t get it. You can’t conceive of my love and my plans for you. I mean, look at what God is doing in this passage. He’s telling his people, as though they’ve never heard it before – I am your God. It’s like they’re meeting God for the first time! There is no one or nothing you can follow that will bring you anything good outside apart from me, he says. Don’t you remember how I saved your ancestors? How I paved a road through the waters, how I delivered them from Egypt? If you look back far enough, don’t you see how I have always delivered you?
Here’s what I am going to do, he tells them. I am going to turn the tables on this evil nation that is holding you captive. You’re going to escape. I’ll make a road through the desert for you to come home. I’ll run a river through the wasteland so that you’ll be sustained during the journey.
Stay alert. Be present. Don’t you see it, God says? Don’t you see it? I am about to do a brand new thing. If you know my ways, if you trust my ways, why would you expect any different?
Why would you expect any different? Expectation. What do you expect from God? What do we as a church expect from God? What do you expect from God working to do new things in your life? What do you expect from God working to do new things in our world?
A key point here is our understanding and trusting of God’s ways. And God’s ways are very different than the world’s ways. God’s ways go something like this: An innocent baby being born into poverty in occupied territory who becomes the Savior of the world. When God is in charge, everything is put on hold to find the one lost sheep that has left the pasture. Sure, 99 of them are safe and sound, but everything is put on the line for the one that’s lost. When God’s in charge, as Pastor Tracey preached recently, even those who don’t start their work shift until the end of the day receive a full day’s wages. The ones who are hungry and thirsty are the ones who will be satisfied. The ones who are last are the ones who will be first.
All of this calls to mind for me a story shared by Father Kevin O’Brien, a Jesuit priest, about a formative experience he had when he joined the priesthood. Father O’Brien had left his career as a lawyer to become a priest, and part of the process of becoming a priest included an internship. Father O’Brien had requested an internship in Bolivia so that he could improve his Spanish and because he felt this would be a good fit for him, based on his gifts and his interests. But instead he was sent to India to work in a leprosy hospital in the village of Nirmala. I want to be very clear that this is NOT what he wanted to do.
Long story short—the goal in Nirmala was to serve the poorest of the poor, not to convert them to Christianity, but to live out the gospel in providing for their needs. At first it was an exciting place to be, but the culture shock soon wore off, and high heat, humidity, bugs, snakes, and boredom set in. Electrical outages were common. The pace of life was terribly slow. There simply wasn’t much to do. Language barriers prevented Father O’Brien from communicating with the patients in their small, enclosed village.
Seeing his growing discontent, his supervising priest counseled him: “Kevin, let them teach you something. Remember the risen Lord appeared to his disciples with the marks of the crucifixion still in his hands and feet. With their misshappen hands and feet, they bring you the Lord. They have something to show you.” Humbled, Father O’Brien began to let go and wait on the Lord. He writes that he was “ready to be schooled.”
As he opened up to the vulnerable people around him, he learned how to communicate through caring gestures and to listen with his eyes. As he became comfortable lifting people who often had no hands or feet and whose skin was riddled with disease, he learned the power of gentle human touch. As he witnessed how the villagers looked out for one another, he learned the power of radical hospitality, and as he ate with them, played with them, took care of them, and was served by them, he learned the solidarity that is formed through shared humility and belonging, where everyone makes sure that no one goes without.
Here’s what Father O’Brien writes about what he ultimately learned in Nirmala, India:
At Nirmala, I learned how narrow was my vision and how closed was my heart. I confronted some painful realities about myself. I noticed how trapped I had become by the materialism of my culture. Even with my vow of poverty, I had filled my life with so many things, which only put up barriers between me and other people. I prized my independence, but at Nirmala, I learned how I had made individualism an idol. I became more vulnerable to my Jesuit brothers and my new friends at Nirmala. Although I came from privilege, I learned I was poor in many ways, building a false security on things, on reputation, on productivity and being seemingly perfect, and on performing to meet others’ expectations. Back in the States, I was always rushing, always trying to do something or outdo someone else, which left little time to simply be and enjoy the grace of the moment. Finally, I learned how much of a disordered priority I had put on physical appearance, my own and that of others. Leprosy and poverty can ravage a human body, but they cannot touch the beauty of the person inside.
In short, I came to embrace my own weakness and sin, which left more room for God and others to give me strength. I had come halfway around the world to more fully experience the freedom I have in God … our merciful God who seeks only to liberate us from anything that gets in the way of loving ourselves, others, and God, that is from anything that makes us truly unhappy. (86-87)
Indeed, isn’t God’s vision and plan for us often very different than the plan that we might chart for ourselves?
And isn’t it striking that when God works to do new things, he is just as likely to use our shortcomings and broken places as he is our gifts and talents? How merciful and amazing is that? It’s a powerful reminder when so much within us and around us is hurting and broken.
“Be alert. Stay present. I am about to do a brand-new thing. Don’t you see it?”
As we wait with expectation for the saving and redeeming work that we know God is already about in our restless world, may God give us the eyes to see and the ears to hear what he is up to. Because we know that he wants us to be part of the new creation that he is bringing into being. He has called us by name. We belong to him. As we wait with expectation for what God is doing next in our unruly midst, may we be ready for him to reshape our hearts and give us the courage to follow his way of justice, mercy, peace, compassion, and forgiveness.
“Be alert. Stay present. I am about to do a brand-new thing. Don’t you see it?” Thanks be to God for his grace and for the unending hope we have in his faithfulness.
O’Brien, Kevin. The Ignatian Adventure: Experiencing the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius in Daily Life. Chicago: Loyola Press, 2011.
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