“New Heavens/ New Earth”

A sermon preached by Rev. Jane McBride at First Congregational Church of MN

November 14, 2010; Isaiah 65: 17-25; Luke 21: 5-19

Saturday January 22, 2011, afternoon & early evening. Put it on your calendar. We First Churchers are good at thinking and talking … But on January 22nd, we’re intentionally starting with action, with engagement. We’ll divide into groups and go out to “engage” various people, organizations, or issues in our wider community. We’ll serve and listen and learn. We’ll return to the church to reflect on our action and engagement. We’ll close our day by sharing a meal and a brief time of worship. This “Day of Engagement”, facilitated by the Board of Christian Involvement will be the kickoff to our congregational visioning process. And this is only the beginning – February will bring a series of small group conversations.

So…do you have your calendar on your phone or in your purse? January 22. Put it in now. Calendar at home? Go ahead, steal a scrap of paper out of the pew in front of you and make yourself a note. Or write it on your hand. Whatever it takes. We want as many people as possible be part of this day.

The prophet Isaiah sets forth a powerful vision for a world transformed. New heavens, new earth. Jerusalem as a joy. No more weeping. No more senseless deaths. Houses and vineyards and fruit aplenty. Labor blessed by God to be meaningful and productive. Friendship between the wolf and the lamb symbolizes a society without destruction or hurt, a community of Shalom, of wholeness and peace. As we prepare to engage and reflect, to consider our identity and purpose as a church, let us ask: what is our role in this bringing this vision of new heavens and new earth to reality?

This week the Carnival Splendor cruise ship was in the news. After a fire in the engine room left the ship adrift and without power, passengers roasted in dark, stuffy cabins. Instead of sipping drinks in the sun and dipping into refreshing pools, they endured 12 hours without toilets or running water. Rather than feasting on steak and lobster, they stood in line for spam and pop tarts. For me, this story brought a stark reminder of how quickly our human attempts to create paradise can turn to nightmare.

Isaiah’s vision of a new heavens and a new earth is about God’s capacities, not ours. Three times in two verses, God repeats the word “create”, declaring: “For I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth… be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating: for I am about the create Jerusalem as a joy…” In the Hebrew scriptures, no one but God is ever the subject of the verb, ba’ra, create. God alone is gifted and burdened with this power.

The people of Israel need an act of creation to heal their wounds. The people have returned home, but the weeping continues. They grieve all that has been lost. They remember those who died needlessly, tragically. The see that the houses and vineyards they had carefully built and lovingly tended are now occupied by others or destroyed. Someone else has eaten the fruit they planted. Their sacred city and beloved temple lays in ruins.

The God of Isaiah, like the God of Genesis does not create ex nihilo, out of nothing. This God shapes a new reality from the chaos of our suffering, the formless voids of our frailty and the menacing depths of our best intentions gone wrong. This God creates beauty from the ruins, and peace and joy amid the wreckage. This God restores the balance and health of the whole of creation. There is a modesty to the promises of a new heaven and new earth. We’re not offered a lavish world, cruise ship world, but a sustainable society, an earth on which all can build and plant and harvest, all can experience the goodness of ordinary joys and sorrows, because we are spared the rending force of evil, both human and natural. There is a deep communion between God and humanity and surprising harmony among all the members of the creation.

As a first year college student, I was drawn to the medieval writer, Julian of Norwich, and her Revelations of Divine Love. Like the prophet Isaiah, Julian saw visions and heard God’s voice. Much of Julian’s theology astounded the church of her time— a recurring theme in her writing is the idea that Jesus is the true mother of humanity. I cherish my my ragged paperback copy of this book, crammed with notes and underlining. Today, I am thinking of the professor who taught me to love Julian. Her young daughter died a few years ago after a long and painful struggle. Now her husband, in his mid-50s, has entered hospice. On Friday, at the family’s caring bridge site, she wrote that her husband “is incredibly peaceful—neon yellow, but peaceful. He has enjoyed walks (in his wheelchair) each day of the last week. He especially likes seeing our dog Eddie chase down rabbits … He has napped with his daughter beside him.” She signed her message with Julian’s most beloved words: “All shall be well”

Yesterday, I sat in as an observer at a Restorative Justice Conference held here at the church. Several young men, called “referred participants” told the stories of how they came to be charged with a crime. They named and accepted responsibility for the ways their wrongdoing had harmed others. The community members presents spoke, in a heart-felt, direct, and yet gentle way, about how this behavior impacts them individually and the harms the greater community. Together, the “referred participants” and the community members worked with the facilitators to come to an agreement about how to repair the harm through community service and in some cases, personal apologies.

It is God alone who creates. Only God can create well-being, or the assurance that all shall be well, in terrible times. Only God can truly and fully repair the harm of our human failings, and create a society of justice and sustainability. What is our role in transforming the world? Our work is to be engaged, to be alert to God’s acts of creation, however personal or global, and to bear witness to them. We are called to a both/ and, rather than and either/or faith. We live in both the old world and the new. We know the earth of oppression and exile and corporate greed and environmental destruction and lives senselessly cut short. We also know the renewed earth created out of our chaos and ruin and founded in the generosity of God who continues to call this earth “good”.

In our lesson from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus warns those admiring the temple. He says, “As for these things you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” Luke, too, lived in a time of struggle, the temple had been destroyed, Christians existed in a world of instability and violence; they faced persecution at the hands of the government, and betrayals by their own families. Luke names the work and the purpose of this community by saying that in all this suffering and uncertainty what is important is that they seize the opportunity to testify, testify to God’s creating work even amid ruin and chaos.

Today we celebrate the generosity of God, and we dedicate our gifts for God’s work through this church. Let us remember that the church changes lives and changes the world, not under our own power, but because of our faithful witness to God’s power. We do not place our hope in the work of our hands, or the stones of this building, but in God’s creating, transforming work in us. This is a vision of which I can be a part. This is a community I can “buy in” to with my money and my life. What about you? Will you join me in action and reflection, giving and engaging and testifying? Don’t’ forget: January 22nd.