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Sunday, November 17, 2019 | 9:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 4:00 p.m.
God’s Provocative Poetry
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
The apocalyptic vision arises as a matter of glimpsing the already existing reality of new creation from within the old, so that those living within the old catch a sudden sight of the new, inviting them not to escapism but to hope.
N. T. Wright
According to an in-depth analysis done recently by CNN, in the last ten years at least 177 American schools have experienced a shooting. When reporters spoke to some of the students who survived the latest one in Santa Clarita, California, the students remarked, “We thought it might happen to us one day. We just didn’t know when.” Those reflections echoed a sentiment shared by my own daughter, a first-year college student. About six weeks ago, we received a text message from her school that let us know students were sheltering in place due to reports of an active shooter on campus. While that report ended up being false, my daughter later confided to me, “I’ve assumed this might happen to me one day. I’ve been preparing for it for years, but it’s scary.” What are we doing to our children?
I offer you that context because I want to let you in on a little secret about pastors, at least the pastors I know. Sometimes, on days when we learn of yet another act of violence and when we turn on the news only to hear cynical pundits pontificating and when we have discussions with community leaders who tell us that some Chicago kids are not living with PTSD because they are still actively living in the midst of trauma each and every day, nothing “post” about it—on those kinds of days, we, pastors, can have a difficult time believing.
We, pastors, can have days on which violence and apathy, loss and lament seem so overwhelming and all-consuming that we allow ourselves to wonder if this is all true and real. Days on which we stare at the biblical text and have a difficult time seeing it intersecting with our daily life. Most of the pastors I know, including myself, experience days such as these.
Usually, when I am having one of those days, I will whisper a prayer I often heard my father whisper, a prayer found in scripture: “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief.” I’ll pray it again and again as a kind of mantra. “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief.” Oftentimes, after a while, that prayer is enough, and through it God leads me back. But the reason I share this pastor’s secret with you today is because I have a feeling many of you might understand it.
I suspect that many of you also have moments of suspended belief and tenuous faith. As a matter of fact, I would imagine that some of you even have Sundays on which you sit in this space and find yourself wondering, “Is this true? Is it real?” Perhaps on those days, like me and my pastor friends, you start to whisper, “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief.”
Surely a prayer like that one formed on the lips of the returned Israelites as they stared around them at the ruins of their Jerusalem. It was not supposed to be that way. As a matter of fact, before they arrived, they had been overjoyed that the new Persian king, Cyrus, was allowing them to return to their holy land, ending their time in exile. As they had made their way out of Babylon, they carried with them plans for rebuilding Zion and restoring their customs and institutions (Paul Hanson, Isaiah 40–66: Interpretation Series, p. 185). It would be just like before—but even better.
Yet when they finally arrived back home, things were not that simple. They saw destruction and devastation, the skeletons of war, scattered all around them. And between them, conflict and vindictiveness began to pick away at the promise and the hope (Hanson, Isaiah 40–66, p. 192). A sharp disconnect formed between the way things were and the way they were supposed to be. If we could listen underneath their conversations and laments, we might hear their whispered prayer, “Lord we believe; help thou our unbelief.”
Hebrew Bible scholar Paul Hanson describes the scene this way: “‘But, [Isaiah],’ we can hear the people complain, ‘how can we know that justice and peace will be restored when all we see is the victory of our adversaries while we continue to suffer humiliation and defeat? When you [tell us the divine word that] ‘The former things shall not be remembered or come to mind’, [are you seeing] something that we fail to see?’”
In response to that question, Hanson continues, “we can picture the prophet [Isaiah] closing his eyes, quietly reflecting, and then, after a period of silence, replying with the poetry of verses 17–25.” Poetry that offered them the sight of a healed future on its way. Poetry that offered them the gift of a vision full of prophetic imagination that takes what is and unveils what will be. Isaiah offered them that gift, all the while knowing it was going to be quite difficult for those imagination-exhausted, hope-depleted people to trust and see it for themselves.
Yet Isaiah asked them to doubt their doubts for a while, to suspend their disbelief, and to set aside their fear, even if it were only for a few moments. Then Isaiah stood right in the middle of their dashed hopes and dreams, right in the middle of the piled-up bodies and torn-down temple, and powerfully preached God’s provocative poetry of hope, God’s challenging claims about making all things new.
Even though his community was experiencing a collective day of despair and disbelieving, Isaiah preached to them about God’s provocative promise of a time of restoration, a time in which everything, in heaven and on earth, everything in Jerusalem and Chicago and Syria are made new. Isaiah preached about a time in which we will never again hear the weeping of mothers who’ve lost children to gun violence or the distress of a child who’s lost a parent to addiction.
A time in which grief and premature death are over. A time in which continued war and threats of war are finished. A time in which our kids aren’t always on hyper-alert for sounds of gunshots, whether they are in their front yards or in their schools.
Through his provocative poetry of hope, Isaiah proclaims that the days of living enveloped by the shroud of anxiety will soon be over. No more will people or nations make decisions based on fear or mistrust. No more will governments fight amongst themselves for power and control.
In this outrageous time of newness, Isaiah proclaims, even the wolf and the lamb will eat together, side by side, without enmity, without strife. And there will no longer be a sharp disconnect between the way things are and the way things are supposed to be. In the time of newness, Isaiah proclaims through God’s provocative poetry of hope, our prayer will stop with “Lord, we believe.”
Now, let me stop with the poetic promise for a moment so I can ask, what does all that sound like to you today? Does it sound like a passive “just wait—it will get better in the sweet-by-and-by?” Does it sound like a delusion, a way of keeping us satisfied with the status quo? Does it sound like a naïve dream that cannot make a claim of truth in a post-Enlightenment world? Is that what it sounds like to you this day?
I’m sure that Isaiah’s community had some of those reactions. His poetic vision sounded outrageous to them, and it seemed to have nothing to do with the reality they saw displayed all around them. I am sure they found his provocative poetry of hope difficult to swallow in the beginning, lovely rhetoric with no basis in reality.
Nevertheless, I also am willing to bet that God worked it so that, as Isaiah preached it, even the most cynical ones gathered around began to feel like it could be possible. God worked it so that, as Isaiah preached it, some of those imagination-exhausted folks began to see their lives cast in a more resiliently hopeful light. And then, I am willing to bet that God worked it so that, after Isaiah was done preaching it, when they all went back out into the world, they found themselves talking to each other about what Isaiah had said. Can it be true, they asked? Can it be true?
Then, by the grace of God, they decided they were going to choose to believe in what Isaiah proclaimed. They were going to choose to believe God’s promises of restoration and hope, even if those promises did not currently mesh with what they saw all around them. But believing was not all they would do; they would act out of it, too. And acting out of those promises meant they would live their lives, live as a faith community, actively practicing that provocative hope-filled poetry out into the world.
That commitment to live out of and practicing that provocative poetry of hope meant they would speak up and interfere whenever they saw injustice or hate, whenever it was a family subjected to racist attacks in their town or a kid bullied at school because of her identity. For they knew injustice and hate are not stanzas in God’s provocative poetry of hope.
Living out of and practicing that provocative poetry of hope meant they would figure out how to feed the hungry and welcome the refugee, giving of their own resources and writing their city leaders or their congressional representatives in order to advocate on behalf of those with no power. For they knew inequity and poverty are not stanzas in God’s provocative poetry of hope.
Living out of and practicing that provocative poetry of hope meant they would choose to treat one another with kindness even when politics got involved, trusting that as long as their hearts were one, their minds did not have to be. For they knew divisiveness and slander are not stanzas in God’s provocative poetry of hope.
And the more that community talked about Isaiah’s vision and reflected on how it enlivened them and gave them courage, the more they decided that as a people of faith, part of their call was to proclaim the provocative poetry of God’s hope out into the world in all that they said and in all that they did, even on those days when they still found themselves praying, “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief.”
And guess what: proclaiming God’s provocative poetry of hope is also part of our call, as well. Like Isaiah’s community, we, too, have the God-given opportunity to be God’s poets of newness for our world, certainly with our words, but also with our actions. We, too, have the God-given opportunity to declare in the middle of our own destruction and chaos, “Behold, God is doing a new thing” and then letting that new thing inform how we choose to live our lives. Can you imagine being that kind of a witness? It might sound a bit like a poem called “Continue,” written by the late Maya Angelou. Listen to some of her words because she, herself, must have listened to Isaiah:
My wish for you
Is that you continue
To be who and how you are
To astonish a mean world
With your acts of kindness
Continue . . .
In a society dark with cruelty
To let the people hear the grandeur
Of God in the peals of your laughter
To let your eloquence
Elevate the people to heights
They had only imagined
To remind the people that
Each is as good as the other
And that no one is beneath
Nor above you
Continue . . .
To put the mantel of your protection
Around the bodies of
The young and defenseless
Continue . . .
To let gratitude be the pillow
Upon which you kneel to
Say your nightly prayer
And let faith be the bridge
You build to overcome evil
And welcome good
Continue . . .
(Maya Angelou, “Continue”)
Surely Ms. Angelou was listening to Isaiah when she wrote that poem, because “Continue” is illustrative of what it means to be one of God’s provocative poets of hope in a world that doesn’t even know it needs it. So on this day, may we join our voices and our actions with all the poets of faith who have gone before us. And may we continue together until the day dawns when all prayers can finally and always just end with “Lord, I believe.” Amen.