November 6, 2022
Our reading comes from the prophet Isaiah, today.
The most well-known part of this text always reminds me of being in college, desperately trying to get Meg’s attention. There is really no theological merit for sharing this but, after Bob did that whole “How He and Marla Signed Letters” thing last week, let’s just roll with it. Back then Meg had this keychain that said “They Shall Mount Up With Wings Like Eagles.”
We were on a Campus Ministry beach retreat and for some reason her brother, Pen, decided to drive Meg’s car onto the beach…because Geo Prism’s are known for their 4-wheel drive capabilities. He got out of the car and – at some point – he laid the keys down on the sand…yeah, you can see where this is going.
Keys go missing, the car is stranded, after an ultimately unsuccessful full-group search and rescue mission, it is time to go home. As it turns out, finding a locksmith to come out on a Sunday afternoon to a remote beach location is not a simple thing. This could take hours. But we can’t leave Meg all alone so the conversation turns to who will stay behind with her.
I’m thinking “This is it! God is using her brother’s bone-headed mistake to give me an opportunity to spend time with Meg – YES!”
“I’ll do it,” I say, trying not to sound too eager, “I’ll stay.”
Pen interjects “No…it’s my fault…I’ll stay with her.”
“No really, Pen…I’m fine staying with her…it’s no big deal.”
“I started this, I’ll finish it.”
“But you drove Emily and Heather here…” I suggested, “don’t you need to drive them back?”
“Heather’s driving my car back,” he said before sheepishly punching her in the arm and adding “I think this is just going to be a brother-sister bonding moment.”
“Okay…if you insist,” I reluctantly conceded, but in my head I was thinking “Stupid Pen! Messing me Up!”
Things don’t always go the way you want them to go.
The Jews learned this truth the hard way.
One of the defining traumas of the Old Testament is what’s known as the Babylonian Exile. The Kingdom of Judah operated with this assumption that God would protect them from all harm.
So when Babylon conquered them and deported its citizens, the Jews had to make sense of this. The prophet Isaiah was one of the crucial voices to interpret that history theologically . So – a reading from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 40.
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel,
‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
Art made by children always cracks me up.
I recently saw a drawing sheet that already had two children falling from the sky and the prompt said “QUICK! Draw something beneath these kids to break their fall!”
At the bottom of this particular page, some child had drawn a pool of water…..a pool of water holding 2 crocodiles with their mouths wide open.
I don’t think that’s what the teacher was going for, but sometimes things don’t always go the way you want them to go.
On Tuesday we will once again exercise democracy.
Citizens of these United States will step into churches and schools, libraries and community centers and cast their ballot to determine who will be elected to serve the common good.
It seems to me, though, that no matter how things turn out in this or any election, there’s a solid half of the population who will feel like they are in exile. That is the price for our polarization.
This Party – that miniscule advantage in the House or Senate determining these Policies…no matter which way it goes, some people will feel very much at home; others will feel as if they’ve been deported to some strange land that no longer feels like home.
Just last week I met with an old friend who I haven’t seen in years.
This is a person whose heart is knit to New Orleans – he loves that city.
I asked him, “So when you finish up Grad School in New York will you head back to NOLA?”
His expression fell just enough for me to notice as he said “No…we can’t go back there. After Roe v. Wade was overturned, Louisiana went too far for our taste legislating against reproductive rights. I just can’t see us living there anymore.” I could hear it in his voice. Exile!
When Babylon carried the Jews off into Exile there was a choice to make. Assimilate…or resist.
Assimilate – take on the language, culture and customs of your captors…worship their gods, observe their rituals…by all measures become Babylonian. As you might imagine this was the easier thing to do.
Resist – hold tight to your distinctly Jewish identity; keep the first commandment and have no gods before the Lord. As you might imagine, this was…harder.
And let’s be clear – it’s not that everybody made the same choice.
Some took the path of least resistance and made peace with becoming Babylonians.
Others held fast to their faith in the Lord and committed to being oddities within the Empire.
It is to this latter group that Isaiah addressed his words.
“The rulers of this present age,” he says, “are like insects to the Lord. Scarcely have they crawled out of their holes before they wither away. This trauma that you are living through – this trauma that certainly defines every moment of every day for years on end – remember that it’s all but one breath in the life of God. As soon as the Lord exhales, all of them are carried away with the wind.”
Judged by today’s standards, Isaiah could be accused of being a tad dismissive, but what he’s doing is inviting these exiles to take the long view…to understand that this, too, will pass. And in the same breath Isaiah offers them words of encouragement that have stood the test of time:
Even youths will faint…even the fastest kids in the 3rd, 4th or whatever grade will grow weary – but those who wait on the Lord – they will renew their strength, soar like eagles, run the race and not be weary, walk forever and not faint. They will not tire of doing what is good and right. They will not give up.
Honestly, this is a pep talk. A beautifully poetic pep talk, but a pep talk all the same…designed to inspire those who would practice resistance in the midst of this Exile.
I am reminded of a similar message from a poem by Shane Koyczan called “Instructions For a Bad Day.” Some excerpts:
There will be bad days. Know that now is only a moment, and that if today is as bad as it gets, understand that by tomorrow, today will have ended.
We hungry underdogs, we risers with dawn, we dissmissers of odds, we blessers of on –. We will hold ourselves to the steady, be ready player one.
So be a mirror reflecting yourself back, and remembering the times when you thought all of this was too hard and you’d never make it through. Remember the times you could have pressed quit – but you hit continue.
Be the weed growing through the cracks in the cement, beautiful – because it doesn’t know it’s not supposed to grow there.
Poetry aside and down to brass tacks – what does it look like to offer resistance in the midst of modern exile?
As I pondered this question, my mind drifted to the city of Baltimore, to Zion Baptist Church. Some ten years ago, Pastor Marshall Prentice decided that he’d had enough of the men and the hypodermic needles filling the alley outside his office window. Enlisting the help of a community organizer, he went out to speak with these men, to wonder aloud with them “What would it take for you not to be here?”
The resounding response: “Jobs. Not job training programs…politicians love to talk about job training programs. We’ve been there and done that only to find that nobody hires us because we’ve been incarcerated. Connect us with employers who are actually willing to hire Us, and we’d give this up in a heartbeat.”
It was conversations like these that gave birth to Turnaround Tuesday, a second-chance jobs movement for those with a criminal record. I had the privilege of attending once.
There was a time of story sharing as we watched a one-to-one relational meeting unfold in front of us. Next, there was time to turn to a neighbor and practice that kind of connection with our own one-to-one meetings. I met with a young woman who had been in and out of detention centers but who was working on improving her life and making her mother proud.
The logic for the one-to-one meetings is that – not only is it good for this collection of individuals to be supportive to one another – but that making a sincere connection during a one-on-one interview is also incredibly crucial for getting hired.
All too soon, our time was finished, but per tradition, Pastor Prentice – now sporting a hand-towel around his neck – asked all us visitors to join in as the regulars pushed their chairs to the wall and the screen lit up with some exercise video of a 1990s vintage it seemed to me. And I kid you not this not-very-young clergyman turned into black Richard Simmons right before our very eyes.
“Strong Body – Strong Spirit,” he shouted as he impressively connected his foot to his outstretched hand in a forward kick, “that’s what will get you a job!”
The trick with Turnaround Tuesday is how the program acts as a go-between for the potential employees and the employers.
They cultivated relationships with some of Baltimore’s anchor institutions like Johns Hopkins Health System and convinced them to take some chances.
Turnaround Tuesday was able to get their participants past the typical screening systems that eliminate people with a record. It doesn’t hurt that the workers have an excellent reputation in the community, often proving themselves to be model employees.
Melvin Wilson, co-director of Turnaround Tuesday, understands what they are doing as an act of resistance. “Society has swept a lot of these people under the rug,” he said. “They’ll fill out 18 applications a day and never get a call.”
Regardless of which party wins what elections, our nation hasn’t done anything to help these people. Turnaround Tuesday is the Church’s attempt to do so, and to date the movement has placed about 1500 people in living wage jobs.
A few weeks back I shared with you the iron rule of offering appropriate help: Never do for another what they have the power to do for themselves. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a better example of that in actuality.
So – no matter what happens this Tuesday, the next Tuesday, folks in search of a second chance will gather at Zion Baptist in Baltimore – and they’ll show up the next Tuesday as well…and the one after that and the one after that.
Strong body—strong spirit.
That’s what we all need when it feels like we’re in exile.
Wings like eagles – even when things don’t go the way we want them to go. So that, by grace, we may run and not be weary,
Walking without fainting in the direction of God’s kingdom.
This is your pep talk church. Amen.