God on the Loose

[A sermon on Isaiah 43.1-21 from Wine Before Breakfast, February 7, 2017.
Take a moment to read the text, then read the sermon.]

Like many people in this room,
I’m passionate about working with marginalized
and oppressed groups of people.
I’m also passionate about science fiction.
I love reading it, I love watching it.
Until recently, I didn’t think those two passions were connected.
But now I think they are.

So much of my work involves helping people survive.
Of course I pray that one day they will thrive,
that the oppressive systems and powers
that affect them will be dismantled,
that homophobia and capitalism
and prisons will be abolished,
that justice will roll down like a river
and everything will be brand new.

But this can be hard to focus on when you’re helping people
through yet another relapse,
yet another court date,
yet another painful coming out experience.

Then I go home and pick up a book or turn on a TV show.
And I’m transported to worlds where the rules are altered,
worlds beyond the limits of my social imagination,
worlds like Gene Roddenberry’s,
where explorers discover alien civilizations
without colonizing or interfering with them,
or like Octavia Butler’s,
where empathic humans can physically feel each other’s pain,
or like Ursula LeGuin’s,
where anarchists start a new society on another planet.

These works of fiction shake me out of survival mode,
opening me up to new possibilities for humanity.
They’re subversive.
Ursula LeGuin, one of my favourite science fiction authors, once said,
“we live in capitalism, and its power can seem inescapable,
but then, so did the divine right of kings.”
Every major social change at first seems to be fantasy.

These days it feels more like we’re stuck in a dystopian fiction.
We wake up cringing at our news feed.
We’re in survival mode,
running to keep up with the protests and vigils
as the possibility of a just world drifts
further and further from sight.

The first audience of this passage in Isaiah
was also in survival mode.
They had been in exile in Babylon
long enough for it to become familiar.
A vast, empty wilderness stretched out
between them and their conquered homeland.

For decades, their captors had fed them toxic messages,
that their God was weak,
that their God had abandoned them,
that they were never more than worthless slaves.

Into their rut of judgment and despair,
Isaiah relayed this startling message from God:

I am the one whose hands crafted you out of the dust.
Don’t be afraid.
You may think you’re worthless, but I disagree.
I want you.  I’ll pay anything to buy you back.
Don’t you hear me calling your name?
You are mine.
I love you.
Remember who you are.”

2013 was a year me and my wife Danice barely survived.
It was the year we both slowly came out to everyone we knew,
including the church congregations
where we would no longer be allowed to work.

One of the greatest gifts God gave me that year was a labyrinth,
painted on a patch of cement at the end of my street.
I don’t know how it ended up there or who painted it,
but each morning that year, I woke up and walked it.

When I got to the centre, I repeated to myself,
“No matter how anyone reacts to my coming out today,
my primary identity is “child of God.”
I am one of God’s beloved children.
Nothing anyone says or thinks can change that fact.”

Coming out felt like being caught in a hurricane,
being tossed and blown around by other people’s opinions of me.
But God met me in that labyrinth every morning,
whispering, “Remember that you’re mine,
and follow me into the middle of this.”
and we walked through it together.

Some of you are walking through hurricanes of your own.
Or to use Isaiah’s images,
maybe you feel like you’re in deep water,
caught in the undertow, nearly drowning.
Or maybe walking through fire,
feeling the searing heat
of an uncontrollable blaze that threatens to consume you.
Collectively, as a community,
in solidarity with Muslims and refugees,
we are walking through water and fire.

And there is no avoiding this in the Christian life.
In this passage, God does not say
if these hard things happen, I will be with you.”
God says, when these hard things happen, I will be with you.
So don’t forget who you are – you are beloved and worthy of saving.
Don’t forget who I am – I am faithful and I will save you.”

God’s faithfulness is on full display in Isaiah’s passage.

The very mention of water triggers memories of Israel’s salvation story.
Parting the Red Sea.  Water gushing out of a rock.
Crossing the Jordan into the promised land.
God was faithful to save them.

The very mention of fire triggers memories of Israel’s salvation story.
The burning bush.  The pillar of fire.
The fire and smoke on Mount Sinai when the law was given.
God was faithful to save them.

Isaiah is very deliberately invoking their cultural memory in this passage.
Calling them to remember, to be witnesses.
This is who the Jews are.  They are keepers of memory.

So it’s hard to overemphasize how surprising verse 18 is.
It’s unprecedented in scripture.
After looking back on all of these founding stories,
Isaiah says, “Do not remember.”
Do not remember the former things.

The command “remember” is almost never preceded
by the words “do not” in scripture.
“Do not remember” sounds like heresy,
especially after referring to the Exodus,
the very story that makes them a people.
It would be like reminding Christians of the cross and resurrection,
then saying “But forget about all that.”  It’s startling.

But you know, memory can trap us.
Many of us have memories linked to shame,
inadequacy, and pain,
like Israel’s memory of their broken covenants
and spiritual infidelity,
and these can paralyze us in bitterness, self-pity, and self-doubt.

We can also be limited by good memories.
Case in point: “Make America Great Again.”
We can be so caught up in our rose-colored,
idealized version of the good-old-days,
that we forget the negative aspects of our past,
and become incapable of imagining something even better.

So God says, “Do not remember the former things.
Do not dwell on the past.
Pay attention – look – I’m doing something brand new.
It’s sprouting up right now – do you see it?”

And of course, in Jesus, God did do something brand new.
God hinted at it in Isaiah’s prophecies,
but even so, most of Israel was so busy expecting
a powerful warrior king to conquer Rome
that they missed what God was doing right under their noses.

Jesus came and passed through not just water or fire, but death itself.
Jesus carved a way through death for his people to follow.
Jesus went beyond saving Israel and saved all of creation.
Jesus gathered in his own band of exiles
and sent them out to change the world.
They in turn passed willingly as martyrs through death itself.
And the church spread as fast as wildfire over a prairie,
like streams of water through a desert.

God did a new thing.
God loves doing new things.
God replaces old hearts with new hearts,
gives us a new name,
bestows new mercies every morning,
enacts a new covenant,
fills wineskins with new wine
and mouths with new songs,
sits on the throne of a new heavens and new earth and says,

But we’ll miss it if we’re focused
on what God has done in the past,
or on what we’ve done in the past.
The power of the old must be broken
for us to perceive this new way God is about to show up.

If we watch for God down the old paths,
God will sneak right past us down new ones.
We know God works in the shape of a cross.
We know God works in self-emptying love.
But beyond that, there’s no concrete model of what’s to come.
God has a dream.  We haven’t seen anything yet.

So keeping all of this in mind,
the call of Isaiah in this passage is a tricky one:

Remember you are worthy of rescuing.
Remember and cling to the faithfulness of your Rescuer,
but forget everything you thought you knew
about the escape route God will use to rescue.

And today, those of us in this room, this ark, this cave,
are called to do the same things.

Remember just enough to know who you are.
You belong to God.  You are loved beyond belief.

Remember just enough to know who God is.
God is right here with you.  God is faithful to save.
There will be floods and there will be fires,
but you will never be alone.
Eat the bread, drink the wine, and remember.

But everything else – forget it.
Forget the disappointments and failures of your past.
Forget your nostalgia for the golden era of Obama.
Forget everything about how you assume God will work.
forget how you think God will save us from Trump,
or from the man with the gun in the mosque,
or from ourselves.
Let go of the safety of a familiar faith, a predictable God.

Even as you’re fighting for your rights,
even as you’re mourning the dead,
here, right in the midst of the fires and floods,
Plant impossible seeds.
Cultivate an ability to see new visions and dream new dreams.
And stay ready for justice to roll down like a river.

In the dream of God in which we live,
in the epic science fiction novel God is writing,
we stand together under an orange sky, a sky of fire and flood.
The world is busy falling apart.
These might be the birth pangs of something new.
It is risky to hope,
But God is on the loose.
Who knows what will happen?

Beth Carlson-Malena

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