Five of us went to prison last Sunday evening. (Beaver, Peggy, Mary, Tisa) Thankfully, they let us back out. While we were there, we shared in worship with close to 100 women.
Here’s the thing about worship at the prison–it’s about as real as it gets. Oh, sure. Some of the women come just get out of the dorms. But a lot of the women come because they need the worship, they need that connection with God. For those women, God keeps them sober. God keeps their children safe. God gives them hope they’ll be able to make better decisions when they get out. Stripped of just about everything else, those women hang onto God for dear life. Literally.
Preaching in prison is very different from preaching outside. On the outside, we have so many choices, so many options of what to do with our time…what clothes to wear, what job to take, what continent to visit on our next vacation, what justice work we want to do, what to wear to church, what to eat after church. Who to vote for. Whether to vote at all.
We even have the luxury of whether or not to believe in God. There’s so much we can do for ourselves, belief in God’s not really necessary for living successful, even, happy lives. Many of us–perhaps even most of us–do choose to believe in God, but for most it’s not a life-or-death prospect. Preaching at the prison is giving me a whole new perspective on what it means to depend on God…and on what it means to be in constant conversation with God about how to make the world a better place.
Today’s passage from Isaiah is that kind of conversation. It happens after Judah has been defeated by Babylon and many of their people taken back to Babylon in captivity. (Talking about the Babylonian Captivity inside a prison takes on a whole new meaning.) The people have now returned and have been in the rebuilding process for a while. As we heard last week when we talked about rebuilding the temple, the people had become discouraged.
Discouragement often comes when we lose a vision of where we’re headed. Isaiah senses that’s what’s happening…and so he shares the vision he has received from God, a vision of what God dreams for the world. I invite us to hear the prophet’s words once more. May we receive them as a clear picture of what God dreams for the world.
A reading from Isaiah. For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Asheville as a joy, and its people as a delight.
I will rejoice in Asheville, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. 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.
They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 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.
They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by God— and their descendants as well. Before they call, I will answer; while they are yet speaking, I will hear.
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 our God.
Yeah. Okay. I was a little sneaky there, substituting Asheville for Jerusalem. Strange how easily God’s dreams from two centuries ago are still relevant today, isn’t it? The line that always slows me down is They shall build houses and inhabit them… How many people who build some of these mansions on the tops of mountains inhabit them? Probably not many. On the other hand, that’s exactly what happens with Habitat for Humanity. Folks who buy Habitat houses work on them then inhabit them. I suspect this verse was very much in the minds of Millard Fuller and Clarence Jordan when they first thought up the Fund for Humanity that became Habitat for Humanity.
Another line that gives me pause is this one: I will rejoice in Asheville, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. One commentator I read wondered what it would be like to live in a city where no one wept or cried out in distress. Can you imagine? An Asheville where everyone has an affordable place to live? With adequate heat? Where everyone has enough food to eat? Where everyone has easy access to adequate health care? Where everyone has meaningful, well-paying work?
My point today is not to convince you that, as people of faith, this is the work we’re called to do. Many of you have been doing this kind of justice work for longer than I’ve been alive. And it gives me great joy–and hope–to see our children and teenagers actively engaged in this work, as well.
So, if convincing us to engage in justice work isn’t the point of this sermon, what is? The invitation today is to a subtle shift in thinking…a shift from seeing ourselves as “doing God’s work in the world” to understanding ourselves as “working with God to transform the world.” One commentator on this passage asked, “What are the capacities of God? In our mystery-stripped world, we tend to focus on human capacities.” In our “mystery-stripped world”…what a beautiful–and accurate–line. We really have lost a sense of mystery, a belief that sometimes, things or beings beyond our control can help us in acting the world into wellbeing. So often, we try to do everything ourselves. We focus only on human capacities. We rarely ask what God’s capacity might be.
Maybe we avoid asking about God’s capacity because we don’t want to practice bellhop theology–that, like a bellhop in a concierge hotel, God is there simply to do our bidding. We’ve grown way past that theology. In an effort to distance ourselves from it, though, I fear we have–in functional terms–done away with God entirely, except maybe here in church on Sunday.
So, what might happen if we invite God into a more active role in our justice work…not to do the work for us, but to partner with us in this important work? What if we open our minds and hearts to the divine presence in the work of racial justice and economic justice and gender justice and health justice and the vital work of peacemaking? What if we didn’t try to go it alone, but actively engaged every activist action with prayer? What if we invited God back into the work of social justice?
What if we saw our work of repairing the world more literally as the work of making God’s dreams for the world come true?
I’m going to read another piece we’ve already heard this morning, the book I read to the children earlier, God’s Dream. As I read this simple rendering of what God hopes for the world, keep in mind who wrote it–Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa…he who helped people keep the faith during Apartheid, he who regularly spoke truth to power, he who was instrumental in the Truth and Reconciliation process after Apartheid ended. This one who had been through and seen hell all around him still had enough faith, enough love, enough belief in God, enough hope to write this book for children.
Dear Child of God, What do you dream about in your loveliest of dreams?
Do you dream about flying high or rainbows reaching across the sky?
Do you dream about being free to do what your heart desires?
Or about being treated like a full person no matter how young you might be?
Do you know what God dreams about?
If you close your eyes and look with your heart,
I am sure, dear child, that you will find out.
God dreams about people sharing.
God dreams about people caring.
God dreams that we reach out and hold one another’s hands
and play one another’s games and laugh with one another’s heart.
But God does not force us to be friends or to love one another.
Dear Child of God, it does happen that we get angry and hurt one another.
Soon we start to feel sad and so very alone.
Sometimes we cry, and God cries with us.
But when we say we’re sorry and forgive one another,
We wipe away our tears and God’s tears, too.
Each of us carries a piece of God’s heart within us.
And when we love one another, the pieces of God’s heart are made whole.
God dreams that every one of us will see that we are all brothers and sisters–
yes, even you and me–
even if we have different mommies and daddies or live in different faraway lands.
Even if we speak different languages or have different ways of talking to God.
Even if we have different eyes or different skin.
Even if you are taller and I am smaller.
Even if your nose is little and mine is large.
Dear Child of God, do you know how to make God’s dream come true?
It’s really quite easy.
As easy as sharing, loving, caring.
As easy as holding, playing, laughing.
As easy as knowing we are family because we are all God’s children.
Will you help God’s dream come true?
Let me tell you a secret…
God smiles like a rainbow when you do.
Will we help God’s dream come true?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.