Monday, October 15, 2018

Isaiah - Prophet, Poet, Pastor for the Present Moment

It all started with Doctor Seuss.  His one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish, not only helped me catch a love of poetry, but to my type A always multitasking personality, Seuss also helped me learn my colors and how to count.  The love of poetry was fanned to flames by Shel Silverstein who humorous tells of a child listing all these reasons why she cannot go to school today because she has, "the measles and the mumps, a gash, a rash and purple bumps. Her mouth is wet, her throat is dry. She is blurry in her right eye. Her tonsils are as big as rocks, She counted sixteen chicken pox.”  And after a long list of ailments when she hears that today is Saturday does she say she is really okay and going out to play.  Whether it is Robert Frost’s inviting us to see two road in a wood diverging or his playful commentary on how fences make for good neighbors; whether it is Mary Oliver asking that powerful and profound question, “What is it that you intend to do with your one wild and precious life?”  Poetry for me sloooooows me down.  You cannot rush, race through poetry the way you would a novel or essay or blog post from some random pastor!  Poetry continues to be a prayer practice in my life.   I love what Eugene Peterson says about poetry.  That it helps clear out our eyes from all our gawking and clear out our ears from too much squawking.  The poet’s job is not just to describe the world as it is, but how it could be.  To widen our imaginations beyond what we simply see.

One of the ways we can engage and encounter Isaiah is listen to his call to be a poet, pastor, prophet in the days before the Babylonian exile.  Quick Bible history lesson in two minutes.  The defining and distinguishing moment in the Hebrew Bible is the exodus, God liberating God’s people from enslavement in Egypt.  They wander for forty years in the wilderness because Moses won’t ask for directions.  Eventually the people end up in the Promised Land.  Over centuries they have a series of leaders, the most famous being King David.  But after David things went gradually downhill and on a steady decline, no one quite measured up to the man, myth, legend of David.  Eventually, the northern part of the Promised Land broke away from the Southern part.  Isaiah is born into a people who are struggling to find unity in the midst of diversity.  He is born into a world where people fear the other both from other countries as well as internally, where they are not quite sure who to trust any longer.  He is called to preach to a people who don’t agree politically, socially, religiously on what to do.  You can stop me any time this starts to seem relevant to today.  While Isaiah might be distant geographically and chronically, he is also as close as the newspaper this morning, Isaiah dares to stand before people to say, “God is not finished with us yet.”

But Isaiah talks about the wolf and lamb laying down OR turning swords into plowshares; Isaiah, the poet and pastor, begins not with the usual religious route of telling us what is wrong and that we are at fault.  Rather, Isaiah understands that you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.   He starts with a vision where all people are coming to God’s holy mountain (chapter 2).  And to be crystal clear here, the all means all.  Not just the people we like.  Not just the people who believe as we believe, vote as we vote, think like we think but also those other people.  Those people who frustrate us or we might even call our enemies.  Please, please remember that Isaiah is saying to people who are living in fear of Babylon bursting and breaking into their country, that there will come a day when we will no longer let that kind of violence define our relationships.  And if that wasn’t bold, or perhaps naive, enough, which it is; Isaiah goes on and says that because the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, there will come a day when the weapons we craft and create and cling to; that often give us a false sense of security, we will no longer need those.  We will take swords and tanks and tools of destruction and drones and turn them into tools for hope.  And perhaps Isaiah here is sounding more like Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstien.  We might say, “Seriously, Isaiah, you can’t possibly believe that all that could ever happen?”  What could we possibly learn from ancient words spoken to a people living in brokenness and fear? 

Isaiah is a poet, who understands that sometimes the only thing that can break through the fear-filled noisy cacophony of life today is softly to say, “It doesn’t have to be this way.”  Theologian Walter Brueggemann says that it is the, "Vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination; to continue conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the leaders propose as the only thinkable one."  And often, because we don’t know what to do with poetry, we try to silence the poet.  We silence the poets in our midst by saying, “Might makes right” is the only way.  Today, we silence the poets by suggesting and saying that having diverse people connect can only happen in kindergarten classrooms.  Today, we might silence the poets by suggesting and saying, “Swords will never become plowshares.”  And if that is the word and wisdom that feed and fuel our lives, then perhaps Isaiah’s words will never become reality.  But, what if, like Frost, we decide to take another road, the one not taken?  A road that will lead us away from only thinking in terms of winners and losers.  A road that takes us away from pitting ourselves against each other.  A road that stop trying to decide who is in and out, but that in God’s presence all belong.  A road that might not even appear on most people’s maps of what they believe to be possible or probable.  A road that will cause us to journey with those who worship in different ways and in no way at all.  A road that will link us to people with whom we have nothing in common.  A road that will say you don’t need sharpen your words or weapons, for on this mountain God’s peace and presence invites us to just be - no ranking or rancor.  That road some will say doesn’t exist, but for those who are making the road as we walk in the world today, we laugh and join the poet in proclaiming this path less traveled might not be seen, but it is prayerfully possible when our words, actions, and very presence take Isaiah’s profound vision to be our truth, our vision, and what guides us every moment this day and this week.  So may the poetry of Isaiah leap from the page today and find expression in our lives for such a time as this with more than a trace of grace to sustain us. Amen.

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