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—they look at people’s current circumstances and invite 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—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.
Next August will mark the 60th 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 children of former slaves and the children 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 siblings. 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? Let’s listen again to the prophet’s words. As you hear the words, I invite you this time to think of our own Tallahassee community.
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 for ever in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Tallahassee as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
I will rejoice in Tallahassee,
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.
If we respond to these words, then for us, they have become the word of the still-speaking God. Thanks be to God!
Last week, we had a great community practice session as we talked to and listened to each other in our conversation about the rainbow weather feather. A couple of times I’ve suggested that the greatest gift churches have to offer the world is the gift of community, which also is one of the hardest things a group of people can do. That’s why we have to practice.
Reading Isaiah, I realize there’s something else that’s even harder than practicing community well: holding hope–for ourselves, for our church community, for the world.
It’s hard to hold hope, isn’t it? When inflation soars. When elections don’t go the way you want. When laws are enacted that impinge on people’s civil rights. When people we love are taken from us suddenly. When the effects of climate change continue to bear down on us.
Yes. Sometimes, it’s hard to hold hope. And yet, hope is crucial if we are to create God’s kindom here on Earth. Hope is crucial if we are to build the world of which God dreams. Hope is crucial if Earth is ever to become a place where everyone is free and has enough food to eat and a place to live and access to adequate healthcare.
How do we hope when things seem so intractable, so hopeless? Hope begins with imagination. And, as Wendell Berry said, “If we can imagine it, we can do it.”
There’s a lot of hoping and imagining going on with the Capital Area Justice Ministries organization we joined last month. Out of house meetings last year and this year, it became clear that three issues were laying heavy on the hearts of people of faith in our Tallahassee community: increasing gun violence, a wave of avoidable arrests of young people, and the lack of affordable housing in our city. Because people of faith across our city were able to imagine a path forward on at least one of those issues, the program they proposed to the City Commission to reduce gun violence was adopted. That decision is cause for hope.
Many of you are involved in our work with CAJM. That work will continue tomorrow evening at our CAJM meeting and research groups kick-off. If you want to learn more about what’s going on, talk with Bill Pehlan.
In what other areas might we begin to imagine a more hopeful future? In anticipation of our church’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2025, we’ve begun working toward creating a strategic plan. Where do we see ourselves headed in our next 50 years? How might we give ourselves space to imagine a hopeful future for our congregation? What might we imagine? What might we dream? How might we create a hopeful future for United Church in Tallahassee? Stay tuned for more information on that planning process.
I want to share with you a poem by retired UU minister, Mark Belletini, called Solemn Te Deum for Peace. It is a study of imagination. Which means it’s a roadmap to hope. Listen.
Can you imagine it?
Palestinians and Israelis settling down together
in their common lands
bound together by the silver covenant of Jordan,
marrying each other,
reading each other’s books,
singing each other’s songs, laughing?
Can you imagine it?
Afghani pilgrims in turbans and tunics,
women dressed with ancestral modesty,
coming to Al Quds to bow at the site
where Muhammad dreamt he leapt to heaven,
nearby joining their sabra friends
as seder guests?
Can you imagine Judith and Bill Kaufman
from Columbus, Ohio,
living on that court not far from Aladdin’s
visiting their friends Omar and Fatima Al-Din
in Baghdad, their pink-cheeked children
joining in dancing till they’re dizzy with joy
under the backyard fig-tree
while the grown-ups discuss the writings
of Iqbal over fried artichokes?
Can you imagine wide-eyed Cubans
from La Habana vacationing in LA or Miami?
And the other way around?
Can you hear it?
Tears lubricating the clatter of Spanish and
English into laughter,
no more the crack of ricochets
breaking the earshot of those who now
embrace shoulder to fleshy shoulder,
with hands stroking backs fiercely,
with deep and wracking sobs?
Can you imagine it? Really, can you see it?
The president of the United States
extending a hand the color of Ethiopian coffee
to sign her witness on the marriage certificate
of her daughter Charlene to her partner Chantal?
Can you imagine it?
Not saying “I have no money to give you today”
because no one has to ask?
Can you imagine not having to fret
about traveling here or going there,
or wanting to slink past the man in the tarry coat
asking for spare change?
Can you imagine childcare and soulcare as if
children and the spirit really mattered?
Can you imagine it?
Can you imagine healthcare by healers
instead of by insurance cartels?
Can you imagine no one lying to you
about their need for cocaine or Coors
because addiction and all of its sources
have been taken seriously?
Can you imagine no one calling sex
“dirty” or their foul moods “black”?
Can you imagine no one hiding behind
the safety of their guilt and blame?
Can you imagine it?
Can you imagine people not having to shout
because they are already heard,
or people going to work instead of overwork?
Can you imagine it?
When I fail to have this vision before
the eyes of my heart, daily, hourly,
written into my pulse and breath
tattooed in them as a saving text,
then come, Spirit,
Purveyor of Peace, Paz, Paix, Pace,
Friede, Salaam, Shalom, Mir,
You Reality beyond doubt,
No Thing at the center of all things,
and annoy me, burn in me, jar me, jostle me,
overcome me, shake me, startle me,
until I am willing to see what must be
even more clearly than I see what is.
And let me never be embarrassed by my vision,
nor ever again confounded.
If we can imagine it–even everything in this long list–we can do it. We can do it. We can do it.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2022