November 13, 2016
If you feel like you’re teetering on the edge of an abyss right now, if you’re having trouble seeing anything but darkness — Take heart. We’ve been here before.
In the beginning, in the very beginning, before God created the heavens and the earth, there was chaos. One of my favorite renderings of the creation story puts it this way, “Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness.” And over the chaos of this watery abyss, God’s Spirit brooded.
In the beginning, everything was tumult and messiness and darkness, and God sat right there over it for a while, just brooding. But then God breathed. And God began to imagine. And God began to bring life out of the chaos. And even before creation was finished, even while the life and light were just beginning to show through, God was able to see and pronounce the goodness that was there: “It is good,” God promised. Even knowing creation was going to do a whole lot of turning away from God, in ways both small and incredibly dramatic, God was able to point to the goodness. God saw through the messiness, knew it was part of the process of bringing life and light out of chaos.
God’s beautiful creation started so well. The Garden of Eden with humanity and God in perfect relationship, with all things needed for our satisfaction and delight. But hardly a minute passes before we start to see that the inky blackness of chaos was still swirling.
There’s that tempting fruit and the villainous snake and Adam and Eve banished from the garden. Another minute before Cain kills Abel. Then the tower of Babel with the people wanting to prove themselves better than God. Slavery and wars and golden calves and disappointing heroes and exile. And so it goes. We’ve been here before.
Our beautiful Old Testament reading today takes place in a time of great chaos as well. The Israelites who had been scattered and living in exile after a bunch of wars had finally returned to Jerusalem. But they were finding that their return wasn’t the miraculous quick fix they’d been expecting. The city was sacked and the temple ruined. Economic and social conditions were desperate and they’d lost hope for their future. Rather than the glorious kingdom they’d dreamed of, there was nothing but upheaval and uncertainty and fear.
And into that chaos came God’s promise: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” “No more shall the sound of weeping be heard, or the cry of distress.” “Like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be.” “Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.” “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together.” “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”
And so the people of Isaiah’s time brooded over their chaos for a while. And then they breathed and began to re-imagine that new earth along with God. And they began slogging through the messiness, working with God to slowly bring life and light out of what felt like a watery abyss.
Today we find ourselves again in chaos.
For many of us, it feels like everything has gone to pieces. We are mourning over policies that matter to us that seem to be slipping away — things like environmental stewardship and gun violence prevention and immigration reform.
And many of us are fearful. As a woman I feel more physically insecure and less valued than I felt last week. I’ve heard from a Muslim friend who has been avoiding public places, and a Jewish friend who can’t stop looking over her shoulder. A gay friend is worried that his marriage and parenting rights are in danger. A Latina friend says that her body tenses up when she drops off her son at school and she doesn’t feel like she can really breathe until she picks him up again.
For many of us, the result of the election feels like a validation of what Trump has said and done. Like his ugly words and threats have been legitimized and might unleash the unthinkable. And that makes many of us feel less safe. I know, we all know, that most people voted for Trump despite these things and not because of them. But it is still going to take real work to heal those divides and to assuage those fears.
On the other hand, it has become increasingly clear that there is a whole segment of the population that has been feeling far more distressed and frustrated and unheard than most of us ever imagined. It is going to take real work to make sure that they get included when we think about the vulnerable among us.
The truth is that wherever we stand on any particular issue, we’ve all contributed to this chaos. This election revealed a shadow side to our democracy. A shadow side, even, to all of us. We surround ourselves with people who agree with us and “de-friend” them when they don’t. We assume bad motives for people that differ from us. We don’t empathize with people we don’t understand. We lose our civility in conflict. Our understanding of who is worthy of our care and support is too small.
And here we are, less than two weeks from Thanksgiving when many of us are going to find ourselves across the dining room table from people with whom we feel so bitterly divided! If the wolf and the lamb from Isaiah’s vision sit down to feed with us now, it’s a sure thing one of them will end up the main course. So how can we bridge the incredible chasm between where we are and God’s promised new earth? It’s hard not to feel hopeless and worried and fearful of the road ahead.
But, remember, we’ve been here before.
One of my friends who is a few decades older than me wrote a Facebook post urging perspective for her younger friends in their post-election funks. She recounted how she was a teenager when President Kennedy and then MLK Jr and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. The world seemed to be shattered again and again. It was a long season of grief and fear. “Our hearts were broken,” she wrote, “but our nation survived.” During that period she also saw terrible violence as old power resisted the civil rights movement. “We -- black people and white people -- were afraid and at many times hopeless,” she wrote, “but our nation survived.” And then she was in college when her peers were drafted to fight for a war many didn’t believe in. Anti-war protests and returning veterans alike were met with violence. Many people were afraid. But our nation survived. She watched the Watergate scandal reveal deep corruption in the highest places and test our integrity as a people. A President resigned, but our nation survived. “You can fill in the rest from your history books or your own experience, but you get my point,” she concluded. “We are stronger than our disappointment over the current election. We are braver than our worst fears. We will work, and we will love. And our nation will survive.”
We’ve been here before.
Creation is messy and it’s painful. It has far more chaos than we’d like. And yet those beautiful glimpses of goodness still shine through even while the work is unfinished. God continues to mold life out of the muck. As Martin Luther King put it, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
So hear again God’s promise in the midst of our chaos: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” “No more shall the sound of weeping be heard, or the cry of distress.” “Like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be.” “Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.” “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”
That’s better than any of us could hope for in any political platform: Peace, security, harmony, reconciliation, long lives for our children, plenty for all, perfect intimacy with God.
We’ve been here before. We know what we need to do.
First, we brood for a while over the chaos. This in-between time, when it’s hard to see beyond the abyss and the muck, is an uncomfortable and painful time. And so we sit right here for a while and we brood and we wrestle, because until we do that we won’t see the creative potential of the chaos around us.
And then we breathe. Oceans rise, empires fall. But Isaiah promises that no matter what happens to the world around us, through it all, the promise of God’s holy mountain stands tall. All of creation is being recreated from the muck into something new and unfathomably wonderful. All of it. Nothing is beyond God’s touch, God’s capacity to change — not death, not sin, not regret, not oppression, not grief, not fear.
And then, after we brood and breathe and remember God’s promise, we imagine. We expand our vision about what the world could be. Now it’s our turn to begin to work with God to bring life out of this chaos. Today and every day, God’s promised Kingdom is a choice that lies before us. It isn’t a distant and unattainable promise, but a vision that can shape how we live in the world right now. We are invited to be co-creators of this vision. God’s creative powers are in each one of us too.
We don’t need to accept things as they are. We are called to challenge the unacceptable and stand with the vulnerable. And participate with God in the creation of the new earth. With God we can do this. We’ve been here before. Amen.