It is too slight a task for you, as my servant, to restore up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the survivors of Israel: I shall appoint you a light to the nations so that my salvation may reach earth’s farthest bounds. (Isiah 49:6, Revised English Bible)
The servant of God—whose precise identity we do not know—is being given a monumental task. God’s people have been living in exile in Babylon for seventy years, while Jerusalem lay in ruins, and after seventy years a dim memory. Discouragement was so intense that the servant wants to beg off the task: Everything I have tried seems to have been in vain, to have come to nothing. And yet the servant retains a glimmer of hope—surely my cause is with the Lord and my reward with my God.
But the news is good although the task monumental—the servant will bring the people home. Where there has been desolation there will be restoration. Where there has been exile, there will be homecoming.
But there is more. This monumental restoration and homecoming is just the beginning. There is a larger, endlessly expansive, task. So large it makes the homecoming seem trivial. It is not enough for Israel to be liberated—God wants the servant to liberate the world.
The news is good, but there is more. The “more” is not something else, it is to make larger what already is.
Last week when we celebrated the Feast of Jesus’ Baptism, we heard the good news—the astounding good news—that we, like Jesus, are God’s beloved—unearned, undeserved, unconditional—God’s beloved daughters and sons.
But there is more. It is not enough that you should know yourselves to be God’s beloved. Your neighbor is God’s beloved too and that is a message that needs to be proclaimed “by word and example” to the ends of the earth. It is not enough that we should be God’s beloved. We are to build God’s beloved community.
The beloved community was a large part of Martin Luther King’s dream. In 1958 he wrote a piece that appeared in several Christian publications setting forth his vision, which he believed fervently was God’s vsion. It included a commitment to nonviolence. He wrote,
[Nonviolence] does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win . . . friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often voice his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but he realizes that noncooperation and boycotts are not ends in themselves; they are means to [an end]. The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.
Martin’s primary objective was full civil rights for African-Americans. But he always knew that was not enough, that the call was larger and inclusive, the creation of beloved community.
What is beloved community? It is that for which we pray, as Jesus taught us to pray, for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. It is a significant part of our baptismal covenant, our promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves, striving for justice and peace among all people and respecting the dignity of every human being.
There a sense of desolation within the church today. We spend a lot of time worrying about our future and trying to figure what is wrong so that we can fix it and go back to the way things were. Personally, I think there is only one thing that matters and that is our dreams are too small.
We want to restore the church and I believe God wants that also, but alone that is too light a task. We are called to be light in this broken world. We are called to be agents of restoration and liberation and salvation in the world. And, by the way, those three words—restoration, liberation, salvation—are the same word in the Hebrew of the Old Testament.
The banner out front with a picture of Dr. King says, “Dreams require action.” And indeed they do. But they must be large dreams, fueled by an imagination touched by the Holy Spirit, with strong roots in God’s Word and nourishment from God’s Table.
What would a large dream look like? I’m going to risk answering that question, but not pretending to have any answers really, but larger questions. I think that’s where larger dreams come from, by asking larger questions.
Most of you know I grew up here in Steuben County, and my love for this place is strong. John will be a witness to that. But I have no illusions about some realities of growing up and living here. I was raised in a racist environment. I had no doubt growing up that I was better than black people. That’s changed for me and for us some, but there are vestiges of it in my own life and in our immediate world, vestiges strong enough that it requires that we ask, “Why is it still so?” How can we change our environment so that racial equality is a given? That’s a large question worthy of a large dream and then worthy of large action.
I also grew up—and in some ways this was even more pronounced than race—knowing that I was better than poor people, whose dependent on the government for their livelihood was due to the fact that they were lazy and stupid, who did not deserve to use our tax dollars for things they should be earning. I find this prejudice remains fairly strong.
The fire at the Shannon Building this past week has reminded me of this. Many people knew of the dreadful conditions of that place and many others. Why did we not do anything about it? Why are three motels in this village nearly full nearly every night with people who are economically challenged, being put up by DSS because there is so little quality low-income housing here? These are large questions and they are spiritual questions as well as practical and political ones. Are we committed to human dignity as a right and not a privilege? That is a very large question indeed.
Yes, dreams require actions. But first we must dream large and dare to ask large questions that will make many of us uncomfortable or even angry when they are first asked of us.
What would beloved community look like in Bath, in Steuben County? To ask such a question is to be open to being the light God calls us to be to the world for the restoration, liberation, and salvation of all God’s beloved.
And I have to wonder if we dreamed such large dreams and turned those dreams into action, that our worries about ourselves would take care of themselves.