by Angel Figueroa
There is a phrase that most professional church workers are going to hear eventually in their ministry. In my opinion these five words are the most dangerous that can be heard in a church setting and are behind the decline of many congregations. Those five words are “We’ve never done that before.” These words are often said in response to any suggestions that perhaps things need to be done a little bit different to proclaim the in-breaking kingdom of God. And there is a certain universality to them, being able to be used to protest everything from the seemingly trivial; such as removing a pew to provide an accessible space for people with differing mobilities to worship, to literal matters of life and death such as battling the rising tide of antisemitism and Islamophobia that resulted in such horrors as the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh or the recent masjid attacks in New Zealand.
This text from Isaiah is part of what is known to scholars as Second Isaiah and was written to provide comfort to the exiled Israelites and promise them liberation from the forces that kept them captive. In Isaiah those forces were the literal military forces of the Babylonian Empire. The prophet’s words of hope and liberation still ring through today, even if the force that keeps us enslaved now is different. The ancient Israelites were prevented from living their identity as the People of God by military force. We as the Church refuse to live that identity because of something even more insidious - fear. If there is one thing that most unifies the human experience, it’s fear, and especially fear of change and the unknown.
At first glance this seems foolish. Looking around at the world it’s hard to see why people would be attached to it. Afterall, we live in a world where untold millions don’t know when the next meal is coming. We live in a world we live in a world where parents don’t know if their beloved child is going to come home at the end of the day. And even in the United States and other countries that claim to be societies that promote equality, we live in societies that are incredibly stratified and your place in society is automatically affected by the color of your skin, sexuality and gender identity. This is a fallen and broken world and falls far short of the promised vision that is given again and again in Isaiah. Yet we cling to it, because it is something we know, understand, and yes even benefit from.
As with the Apostle Paul, we define ourselves by the titles and positions we hold, and even those of us who work in the church are not immune to that. If there is any doubt, look at a typical ordination service. While I am not discounting the level of effort, heartbreak and tears that can go into the process of becoming a pastor, it is the only vocation that the Church celebrates with such pomp and extravagance. Because we are members of a fallen humanity and world, even our institutions are turned inward, even if we claim to be outward focused. Of course this is not unique to the church. In fact it is part of the reality of living in a fallen world. We loose sight of the One who is our creator and our life and turn to false gods.
Martin Luther stated in the Large Catechism “That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.” Instead of placing all our faith and hope on the One who liberated Israel from captivity in Egypt and exile in Babylon, we instead turn to other things. We rely on our material goods to provide us safety and comfort. We take refuge in academic and institutional titles and positions to show that we are of value. We turn to jingoistic nationalism to prove that we are living a right and moral life. Wholeness, value, a life that is just and loving, these are all gifts of God, and God alone. Yet we turn everywhere but to the Triune One in search of them. Not only that, but we cling so closely to those other things, we do anything we can to maintain them.
And in our desire to hold on to our false gods, we resemble Judas as told in our Gospel story. The story of the anointing of Jesus is in all four Gospel accounts, but this one is different. It’s the only one that both identifies the objecting disciple and gives a reason for his objection. The reason he states in his objection is a good and godly one, for care of each other is part of our fundamental responsibility on this earth. But though he gives a good and godly reason for his objection, instead he was driven by self serving greed. There are far too many parallels in this countries political dialogue about policy, both domestically and internationally. We cut back on badly needed social programs because we say that we are trying to avoid creating a system of dependency, while in reality we just want to lower our taxes. In my own county the Board of Chosen Freeholders (New Jersey term for county council) was hesitant to break a contract with ICE to house people detained for suspicion of unauthorized presence, and the sticking point wasn’t the morality of the decision, but rather the amount of money the country was getting payed. We also see it in all our foreign entanglements and interference overseas. We speak of “bringing democracy” but in reality we are just trying to improve our position on the world stage. The stated goal might be a worthwhile one, but it is the intention behind it that makes even an outwardly good action a sinful instead. But we are so attached to our idols we have no choice but to keep sinning in order to prop them up, for we derive our happiness and hope from them. It’s unthinkable to us to do anything else, for our very identity is tied up to these things we hold up, and to give them up will result in a very real form of death.
And that brings us back to the words of the prophet Isaiah. It must seem odd to be looking at one of the most hopeful passages of the prophet. After all Lent is supposed to be a time of repentance, denial and yes even death. Isaiah of course is full of these kind of passages as well, but those passages aren’t assigned today. Instead we are given this passage of intense hope, and the promise of new and better things, a path through the wildness and water enough that none may thirst. But I think that Lent is the perfect time to hear this promise. God has freely sent to us the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. God has freely sent to us the One who is Living Water that quenches all thirsts. But to follow the way, we must first leave the exile that captures us. We must forsake the things that keep us bound to our fallen world, even if that leads to our death, physical or social. For it is only in dying that we can live anew in the glory of God.
Less than 6 months before he would die, the noted writer and apologist C.S. Lewis wrote a letter to Mary Willis Shelburne who was in the hospital and thought to be dying. While in reality she recovered and lived for 12 more years, she as was perhaps natural, had great fear of death. In an attempt to relieve her fear, Lewis wrote the following words. “Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave it with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind.” While not in themselves a commentary on the text, they serve as a good lens as we look at this promise and other promises given to us in the prophets and in Jesus. God has so much in store for us, and we cannot look with regret at the old things we are going to lose, because they are nothing but shit in comparison to the glory of the coming reign of peace and justice that Jesus has come to establish.