"Embrace - Jesus Style"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
May 17, 2020
Isaiah 56:1-9 and Acts 17:16-34
Isaiah 56:1-9 and Acts 17:16-34
Trouble had been brewing on the horizon for some time. Warning signs were apparent. But the people thought, “What’s happening outside our borders won’t affect us here. We can just continue in our ways. We are a privileged, select, and beloved people. Nothing can happen to us. We will just keep trouble at bay.” They were wrong, though. Their normal ways of life were suddenly disrupted. They were forced to adjust in unprecedented ways. Gone were daily routines that had seemed to define the very essence of life. Careers were abruptly ended. Businesses shuttered. Families separated. Many perished.
After some time, there seemed to be light on the horizon. There was a promise of return to what had been considered normal. Some were hopeful – even eager – to get back to the ways it had always been. Others were skeptical, cautious, concerned that somehow the good old days hadn’t been particularly good, and were perhaps a part of what made them vulnerable to attack. So, the return came in waves. Some rushed back. Some lingered. Eventually those who had survived their forced exile found themselves faced with the tasks of rebuilding. Being back to normal was not altogether normal. The promised return came with some challenges. What kind of people were they going to be? Their exile had impacted their resources, their relationships, and their perspectives on life irretrievably. The end of exile did not mean they were back home – for home had changed.
This sounds familiar, doesn’t it. It sounds like us, doesn’t it? I have chosen words carefully to highlight the prophetic similarity between the outline of Isaiah and our own current experience. The similarities are striking, and worth considering as we chart our course in seeking God’s beloved community. The book of Isaiah is actually three books. The first thirty-nine chapters are the work of the prophet whose name the book bears. He was active in Jerusalem during a time of growing threat from neighboring empires and the fall of the northern kingdom to Assyria. Isaiah saw trouble on the horizon, and highlighted the vulnerability of Judea that was grounded in its infidelity to YHWH’s preferential option for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, as well as its idolatry and devotion to other gods – gods of money, power, and the illusion of security. Isaiah warned, “What has happened to our neighbor, Israel, could easily happen to us. Lines on the map do not prevent the spread of existential threats.”
Isaiah, the book, was composed well after the events it depicts, using pieces of prophetic writing that had proven to be meaningful and true. We do not doubt that Isaiah saw what was coming. We also do not doubt that other voices saw or imagined other forces that turned out to be misleading or simply wrong. The Hebrew prophets were not prognosticators. They did not foretell the future. They did see what was going on around them clearly and boldly. They spoke clearly and boldly – often at their own peril. And they lamented clearly and boldly over the consequences of corruption and cruelty. The function of the prophet was to speak to the people on behalf of YHWH’s vision, and to speak to YHWH on behalf of the people’s plight. The prophet sees, and says, and sighs.
It turns out that Isaiah’s concerns were well founded. Second Isaiah – roughly chapters forty through fifty-five – reflects the conversation between YHWH and the covenant people as they are approaching the end of their exile. In their exile the people have discovered YHWH to be the God of all lands and peoples. The universal source of being is working through all things – even empires! – to bring about a new thing. There is great promise on the horizon. This clear and bold message includes many admonitions against idolatry – the worship of false gods of money, power, and the illusion of security – as well as the poetry of comfort and YHWH’s intended mission for the covenant people. “Thus says YHWH, who created the heavens and spread them out, who gave shape to the earth and what it produces, who gave life to its peoples and spirit to its inhabitants: I, YHWH, have called you to serve the cause of justice; I have taken you by the hand, and I watch over you. I have appointed you to be a covenant people, a light to the nations: to open the eyes of the blind, to free captives from prison, and those who sit in darkness from the dungeon. I am YHWH! This is my Name! I will not yield my glory to another god or my praise to idols! See how former predictions have come true. And now I declare new things! Before they spring forth, I tell them to you.”
Isaiah Three, chapters fifty-six through sixty-six, reflects the post-crisis reality. The first wave has returned. Reconstruction has begun. And yet, things are not going to plan. Unexpected challenges arise. Isaiah Three opens with YHWH’s wide embrace of all peoples – the divine promises are available to all. Even those who have been mutilated in the service of idols are to be included in God’s peaceable kindom – so they may do justice. Reconstruction of society and temple will be futile unless and until the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner are included in the commonwealth. In fact, the peaceable kindom is the temple YHWH desires us to build – not, as Paul declared to the Athenians, a sanctuary of marble and gold. In his enthusiasm to convey the freedom and reconciliation of God’s self-giving love for creation through Jesus, Paul was willing to adopt the wide embrace of YHWH’s message through Isaiah: no one is outside, and no one is unfit. God’s self-giving presence is poured out upon all peoples and all persons – even on formerly mortal cultural enemies. We cling to Jesus’ assurance that in his Abba’s home there are many rooms – many dwelling places. All will be at home; all will be family.
Among Ronald Rolheiser’s ten commandments for mature discipleship, “Be wide in your embrace” is the ninth and the most succinct – suggesting that it may be the penultimate challenge. It’s also the invitation he spends the most time unpacking – suggesting it is nuanced and holds more than at first glance. It’s a simple admonition that is hard to achieve. It is particularly relevant right now. Even before the onset of the Coronavirus, humanity was experiencing increased anxiety over “otherness.” It’s not a new impulse for human beings. There is an evolutionary mechanism of survival that is expressed in tribalism. And tribalism is not all bad. True acceptance of otherness must be grounded in strong core identity that is conveyed and cherished by loyalty and commitment to one’s land and people. However, when the center breaks down, borders are drawn, and walls are built. The “other” is suddenly cast as the enemy, when in fact suspicion and xenophobia further undermine the strength of the center.
Rolheiser reminds us that “We have truth in part, in small pieces. That is why we need to be content to live with a lot of mystery and humility. Moreover, and this is the point, a lot of the pieces we still need to fill in the mysteries of our lives lie precisely in what is foreign to us…. But accepting what is foreign is not easy, despite our rhetoric to the contrary. Most of us claim to accept otherness and difference, but we are there more in desire than in actuality. We claim openness to multiculturalism, ethnic diversity, global community, gender equality, wide religious tolerance, alternative lifestyles, and befriending our shadow; but, as we all admit when we are honest, the reality is not as easy as the rhetoric. The simple fact is that otherness frightens us and often brings out the worst in us. It is not easy to be comfortable with, at home with, and welcoming to what is other, different, and often seemingly deviant….”
Yet our past, our present, and our future all rely on our ability to embrace otherness. The teachings of all great spiritual traditions have at their core the understanding “that God is defined precisely as “Other,” as what is beyond imagination, outside the realm of the familiar. This is what scripture means when it calls God holy. Biblically, holy is not primarily a moral quality, but an ontological one – namely otherness and difference from us. Thus biblically we have the tradition within which revelation from God is understood to come mostly through the stranger, the foreigner, the unexpected, in the unfamiliar, in what is different, in the surprise.” Yet, we are also made in God’s image and likeness – and not just those who are resemble us, but the entire panoply of creation. Thus, part of the essence we share is “otherness.” We are the other, and none have a corner on what is normal. The “norm” is a statistical tool, not a state of being. To be mature followers of Jesus is to be passionate in our curiosity and delighted in our surprise – to be wide in our embrace. Parker Palmer says, “God uses the stranger to shake us from our conventional points of view, to remove the scales of worldly assumptions from our eyes. God is a stranger to us, and it is at risk of missing God’s truth that we domesticate God, reduce God to the role of familiar friend.”
Beloved, this is hard work. The simplest invitation is the most challenging to enact. I suggest that we start with passionate curiosity and delighted surprise. I’m not sure of the best way to do this. We don’t necessarily need new habits – though there is nothing wrong with that. But we’d be better off weeding out our habits that exclude on the basis of otherness and difference, and honing those that return us to a strong center and reduce our need for boundaries, fences, and walls. Centering prayer is one such practice. In centering prayer, the deeper we go, the closer we are to our breath and our source, the more connected we become to one another – to the other we already know. So, here’s a simple practice for this most succinct of invitations. This week take twenty minutes each day to breathe deeply, and to know God’s wide embrace.
Many people have expressed wonder at how the use of technologies like Zoom have both expanded our audiences and brought us closer together. We know that these temporary changes will have lasting effects. My concern is that they also tend to facilitate contact with those we already know and who most resemble us. With increased reliance on remote communication, how will we come to know and trust others who are not in our physical presence? How will we become ever more like Jesus in our wide embrace? As if it weren’t already challenging enough to greet a stranger at our door, how will we greet a stranger at our digital portal? It’s my prayer that the strong light that has been cast on our past and present inequities and the ways they are rooted in our fear of otherness and difference will also shed some light on the path to a healthier, more inclusive and egalitarian peaceable kindom. If we don’t start now, our reconstruction will be for naught. Reaching out to the “other” is not merely a friendly gesture. It is a radical, prophetic, mature enactment of embrace – Jesus style.