Dressed in overalls and a flannel shirt, environmental poet Wendell Berry leaned against the podium in our seminary ethics class deep in thought. “If I can imagine it, I can do it,” he’d just told us. We waited, watching something work itself out in the lines of his furrowed brow. “Right now, I’m trying to figure out how to give up my pick-up truck. Sure would like to give it up, but I just can’t imagine it. (Pause) So, I guess I’m going to have to drive home.”
If we can imagine it, we can do it. That’s the currency of prophets—imagination. Sometimes we think of prophets as fortune-tellers toting around briefcases with crystal balls tucked inside. But true prophets don’t peer into the future and tell us what will happen. Rather, they look at current circumstances and paint a picture of what might happen if we can imagine it.
That’s what the author of today’s Scripture lesson does—he looks at the people’s current circumstances and invites them to imagine a different future. What were those circumstances?
Today’s passage comes from Third Isaiah. I know. In your Bible, it just says Isaiah, right? The book we know as Isaiah contains writings from 3 different periods in Israelite history. First Isaiah—chapters 1 – 39—was written when Israel was an independent nation with its own land, its own leader, its own Temple. As a nation, though, it hadn’t been making good decisions for a long time. First Isaiah was written in the 8th century BCE to warn the people that if they didn’t start making better decisions, they were going to lose their country.
Which they did in 587 BCE. That’s when Babylon invaded Jerusalem, when the Temple was destroyed, and when the people were taken into exile. From the earliest days, the promise of land had held the people together. Without the land, who were they? Without the temple, where was God? Without sovereignty, did they even exist anymore? Second Isaiah—chapters 40-55—was written in the 6th century BCE to inspire hope in the exiles. The prophet offers a vision of defeat for Babylon and a return to Jerusalem for the Israelites.
Third Isaiah—the rest of the book and the section from which today’s passage comes—is written to the exiles after they’ve returned to Jerusalem. Now we’re in the 5th c. BCE. Babylon has been defeated by Persia and the exiles have been allowed to return home…
…except home isn’t what it used to be. Home used to be where the people ruled themselves; now they are subjects of Persia. Home used to be where they owned their own land; now they are tenants. Home used to be where the Temple reminded them of God’s presence. Now, the Temple lies in ruins. The prophet of Third Isaiah writes to people whose dream has been only half-fulfilled. And they’ve grown cynical.
In August, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Can you imagine the Civil Rights Movement without Dr. King? Things had been so bad for so long, would those who sought justice have been able to maintain hope without the images Dr. King gave them?
**Images of the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners sitting down together at the table…
**images of a nation where his four little children would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…
**images of black children and white children joining hands as sisters and brothers.
Can you imagine racial equality happening without the images of this prophet?
So, what images does the prophet in Third Isaiah offer the cynical returnees to ignite their imaginations? The prophet gives them a glimpse of God going back to the drawing board: God creates new heavens and a new earth. Of what is this new creation composed?
I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, its people as a delight. 19No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress (the native language of exiles).
21They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. (Amazing promises to people who had been exiled.)
22They shall not bear children for calamity (which they’d been doing for decades); *for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—and their descendants as well. 24
Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. 25 (A meaningful promise to people who weren’t sure that God was even alive, much less “still speaking.”)
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; (Wolves and lions tamed? If you can imagine it, it can happen.)
In August as we reflected on Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Allen asked me: Who are our prophets today? Do we have any?
Do we? Do we have any prophets today? Communication has changed a lot in the last 50 years, hasn’t it? In 1963, one event—like the March on Washington—could capture a nation’s attention for a good long period of time, like, maybe even a whole week. Today? We’ve probably been through 7 news cycles since I started this sermon. And if we add in Twitter? (Sigh. Let’s not add in Twitter.) As a species, human beings have become so ADD… I don’t know that anyone can keep people’s attention long enough to be called a prophet.
But I don’t think that means that there are no prophets today. Well, maybe Pope Francis…we’ll have to see about him. Other than him, though, I think we have to look for prophets more locally–in our own state. In our own community. (Pause) In our own seat.
In the Benedictine tradition, the Benedictus is read or sung every morning. The words of the Benedictus are attributed to Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father. When the elderly man is told by God that his equally elderly wife is pregnant, Zechariah expresses doubt…at which point he loses his voice. At his son’s birth, Zechariah regains his speech and speaks these words: “You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,” (Lk 1:76).
Following the Benedictine prayer tradition, I read these words every morning. After several years of praying them—I’m not terribly alert in the morning, so it took a while—I began to imagine these words being addressed to me. “You, Kim, shall be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways…” The first time I imagined those words addressed to me, it startled me. I’m no prophet! I thought.
But then I thought, What if I am? What if I am a prophet? What if I can, by the way I live my life, prepare the way of the Lord? What if my actions might inspire others to see God and the world in new ways?
The movie “42” recounts Jackie Robinson’s first year in the major leagues. Based on his portrayal in the movie, I’d call Branch Rickey, manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, a prophet. A died-in-the-wool Methodist, he even quotes Scripture when making his case for the integration of Major League Baseball… “Love your neighbor as yourself;” he says. “Turn the other cheek.” When the manager of the Dodgers farm team refers to Jackie using a racial slur, Mr. Rickey threatens the man’s job if he ever treats Robinson unfairly. Yes. I’d call Branch Rickey a prophet.
But the prophet I want to tell you about today is Robinson’s teammate, Pee Wee Reese. As the team prepares for a trip to Cincinnati, Reese visits Rickey. Reese has received a letter referring to Pee Wee with a racial slur and as a carpetbagger. He asks to sit out the series in Cincinnati. “I’ve got family coming to see me play. They just aren’t going to understand me playing ball with Robinson, Mr. Rickey.”
Mr. Rickey asks, “How many letters have you received, Pee Wee?” “Just the one.” Mr. Rickey walks to a file cabinet, pulls out 3 fat folders, and hands them to Reese. Reese reads a few of the letters addressed to Jackie, many of them threatening to kill Jackie, his wife, or his infant son. Reese withdraws his request to sit out the series.
Pee Wee’s prophetic action happens early in the first game. At one point, Pee Wee goes to Robinson at first base and talks to him. Then he puts his arm around Jackie’s shoulder and smiles, as teammates often do. He keeps his arm around Jackie long enough that Jackie grows uncomfortable. “What are you doing?” he asks. Pee Wee says, “There are some people in the stands, my family and friends, who need to see this.” Pee Wee smiles. Jackie smiles back.
In that moment, with that gesture, Pee Wee Reese invited his family and friends–and the country– to see life in a different way. He rightly assessed the circumstances of racial injustice and used his unique location to invite people to imagine a different, more hopeful way of being. The fact that I didn’t think anything about what Reese was doing until he explained it shows just how effective his prophetic action was. Fifty-five years later, I didn’t think anything about teammates of different races palling around.
As you assess the circumstances of life around you, what prophetic actions might you take? From your unique location and identity, what gesture might you make to invite others to see a more just, more compassionate, more hopeful world? How might you work with God to create new heavens and a new earth?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2013
The Glorious New Creation
17 For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice for ever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labour in vain,
or bear children for calamity;*
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
and their descendants as well.
24 Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.