Tuesday, December 17, 2013

How badly do we want to leave Babylon?

Sermon preached on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 15, 2013, at The Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, New York:  Isaiah 35:1-10

          We all know the story of The Wizard of Oz, how the “mighty and powerful” wizard is really the man behind the curtain.  If there is such a man in the Bible, it is really not a person, but a place and, more importantly, an experience:  That place is Babylon and the experience is exile.

          The factual story is that between 597 and 582 b.c.e., the Babylonian Empire overtook the Kingdom of Judah, destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, and deported most of the economic, political and religious elite to Babylon.  They lived there until the Persians took over the Babylonian Empire in 538 b.c.e., when the Persian King Cyrus allowed them gradually to return.

          Much of what we know as the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, received its final editing during this period, and the major prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel—all spoke out of the experience of exile.  The experience of captivity in Babylon is the man behind the curtain of the Bible.

          This means that four questions linger in the background of many, if not most, Old Testament texts:
·       How did this happen to us?
·       How do we live in exile?
·       How do we get home?
·       What do we do when we get back there?

I believe the season of Advent is a time of struggling with the two middle questions:  “How do we live in exile?”  and “How do we get home?”  I would summarize these two questions with one:  “How badly do we want to leave Babylon?”  And just so you are clear that this is a very contemporary question—one that is for us to answer—let me ask it this way:  How badly do we want to leave Newtown?  How badly do we want to leave Rochester?

Now let me say that there are, no doubt, ways in which these questions may be personal ones for you.  To what am I captive?  What is keeping you from being the “forgiven, loved and free” child of God that is God’s dream for you?  That is a vitally important question for every one of us.  But the vision of Advent shalom—peace, well-being, communal welfare, justice, the common good—is primarily a societal, communal one.

So I ask:  How badly do we want to leave Newtown?  Yesterday was the first anniversary of that school shooting which took the lives of 26 people and has become the symbol of one of the greatest issues of our day.  We should all be stunned to know that since the Newtown shooting, there have been 28 shootings in schools in this country.

But more than that.  Slate magazine has been diligently patrolling the media since Newtown and reports that as of yesterday, 11,522 deaths by gunshot have been reported in various media in this country.  Using CDC estimates of gunshot deaths, that number may be as high as 33,000, because many gun-related deaths never make the newspaper, although most of those are suicides.  At least 205 children 12 and under have been shot to death since Newtown and at least 541 teenagers.

This is an epidemic.  But there are very few signs that we actually are willing to do anything about it.  How badly do we want to leave Newtown?

And I also ask:  How badly do we want to leave Rochester?  I’m talking about the Rochester that was revealed (yet again) in a new report from the Community Foundation earlier this week.  Among the 75 largest cities in the United States, the Rochester metro area has the fifth highest rate of poverty:  31.1%.  The highest was Detroit at 36.2%.

The City of Rochester contains 19.5% of the population of the Metro Area, but contains 45.2% of the poverty.  That is the highest in the nation for cities that contain less than 20% of a metro area’s population.  If you increase that to cities that contain below 30% of a metro area’s population, we fall only to second highest in the nation, the highest being our neighbor Buffalo.

And it will be no surprise that racism is a strong part of this horror story.  34% of Blacks and 33% of Hispanics live in poverty in Rochester, while only 10% of whites do.  The current federal poverty level, by the way is $23,550 for a family of four.

How badly do we want to leave the Rochester described in those statistics?

I ask these questions about Newtown and Rochester, about the epidemics of gun violence and poverty, because this is the real world into which Jesus is being born in our day.  We cannot ignore this real world in any way—politically, socially, spiritually—and be people who believe in the Incarnation.  If God truly took on human flesh, than human flesh matters, and it matters spiritually.  If God truly came into the world as one of us—and specifically as a person himself affected by poverty—than the world and the state of people affected by poverty matters, and it matters spiritually.  And if God truly came into a world soaked in violence, violence of which he himself was a victim, than the violence in which we are soaked matters, and it matters spiritually.

Isaiah urged those in exile to dream of a highway home—he called it “The Holy Way.”  This way is described first of all as safe:  no lions or “ravenous beasts.”  One may assume, no guns either.  I perfectly understand that some might conjecture that there are no lions on this way because there are guns to shoot them when they pose danger, but we should remember that Isaiah got rid of the weapons of so-called security back in chapter 2.

The way is for everyone, even, thanks be to God, fools.  I think that funny little quirk in the text is massively important for us when we are talking of building a highway out of poverty.  People living in poverty are often thought to be fools—that is how they got there, after all.  And for some that is no doubt true, but, guess what, according to the Bible, even if that is true, it does not matter.

The way is for everyone, except the “unclean.”  Our ears might easily hear the word “sinner” here.  No sinners on the Holy Way.  And then our imagination tends to take us in the direction of anybody we think we are “better than.”  But I do not think that is what is going on here at all.  To be “clean” for an Israelite of Isaiah’s day meant to stand before God with complete confidence in one’s acceptability.  Jesus (and Paul) taught us to do that regardless of our status as sinners, so long as we are willing for Jesus to vouch for us—to let our acceptability depend on his acceptability.

The “unclean” are those who do not want to be part of the way, who, in fact, have no intention of leaving Babylon because they are perfectly happy there because they have confused security with freedom and salvation and they have confused prosperity with acceptability and happiness.  And they refuse to trust that God could or would make such a Holy Way, even for fools.

Isaiah wanted his people to dream this dream, and God wants us to dream it also.  And not only dream, but believe in it, trust in it, and act on it, risk stepping out on the Holy Way, leaving Babylon behind, setting out for Jerusalem, the city of Peace.

The place where sorrow and sighing have no place.  It is despair and hopelessness and injustice and captivity itself which have had to go into exile now.  There is place for them in the home that is God’s dream for us.  Walter Brueggemann says,

Zion is a recovered, restored place of pure, undiminished, unqualified well-being.[1]

          The word that dominates this passage from Isaiah is “joy.”  The wilderness itself rejoices, even crocuses sing for joy (vv. 1-2).  Dysfunctional humanity rejoices (v. 6) and all who travel the Holy Way do so in joy.  But please remember why all this rejoicing:  because shalom, peace and justice, have been established.

          Shalom, peace and justice, are the home of which we dream, for which we long, in which we believe and trust as it is God’s dream and longing as well.  And because of this dreaming and longing, believing and trusting, it is how we choose to live, it is why we must choose to leave Babylon, choose to leave Newtown, choose to leave impoverished Rochester.

          I do not pretend to know how, but I do know that before how comes the choice, and we must make it, and we must be evangelical about others making it, sorrowing and sighing will remain in Babylon, Newtown and Rochester, and the baby will have been born frozen, meaningless, in our nativity scenes.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 1—39 (Westminster Bible Companion), (Westminster John Knox Press, 1998) p. 280.

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