by Ellen Sims
text: Isaiah 55:1-13
I needed to hear a prophetic word today. So I’ve chosen for my sermon text the Hebrew Bible lection from the book of Isaiah rather than the assigned Gospel lection. In times of crisis, we can look to the prophets who have always arisen to condemn oppressive empires and call forth a daring, caring community. Moses was our faith tradition’s first prophet. He famously exposed Pharaoh’s oppressive economy in the midst of a deadly plague. In our time of political and social injustice, financial instability, and a health crisis plaguing people and planet, we seek prophetic voices. Lacking sufficiently honest, wise, and selfless leadership, we must reject the ethics, economy, and ecology of Empire for the ethics, economy, and ecology of God. God’s people have revolted from a Pharaoh’s callous oppression in the past. So can we, if we recognize and deeply grieve our current situation, hopefully imagine the new future God is dreaming for us, and begin the hard task of constructing a compassionate community and a healthy planet rather than reconstructing a deadly Empire.
Today’s scripture begins with God’s joyful invitation for thirsty people to “come to the waters.” But this is not the story of Moses’s verdant Promised Land. It’s the story Isaiah told of losing that Promised Land. It’s the story of a people who’d thought they were exceptional but found themselves, centuries after Moses, overcome by another deathly empire and marched off to exile in Babylon.
Six centuries before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah excoriated the Babylonian Empire for sending the conquered Judeans into captivity far from their home. But Isaiah offered this hope to those in exile: God’s ways are greater than the Empire’s. Which we would do well to recall. Indeed, when our present situation looks bleak, prophets like Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis with the Poor People’s Campaign likewise grieve and critique the empire of greed and power while offering hope for God’s justice.
But how do you know if you’re in exile? How can you tell if the land you are living on is not actually your truest home? Since the founding of our nation, Americans have been both perpetrating and suffering from America’s original sins, our recent Fourth of July celebrations notwithstanding. Because the land and culture of Native Americans were stolen and the lives of countless Africans were extinguished or enslaved, Americans have, from the beginning, been victims or supporters of a death-dealing Empire. At times our democratic aims have overcome our imperial aims. But now seems to be a time when our lust for shoring up Empire is increasing. Let me be clear that I’m not advocating for a theocracy; I’m asking Judeo-Christians to evaluate our nominally democratic political reality against the values we claim and the language we use.
Today’s reading from Isaiah, which contrasts God’s ways with the Empire’s ways, may suggest how to determine if we are thriving in God’s beloved community or are trapped in the Empire’s exploitative machine. In the first five verses of Isaiah 55, the prophet invites all to enter God’s realm where even those without money drink and eat. (Doesn’t sound as if he’s describing modern America yet, does it?) Isaiah then challenges us to consider why we continue to shore up, with our money and labor, a worldly system that does not satisfy or nourish, that instead produces products that fail to meet our real, deepest needs. And as we today realize in ways prophet Isaiah couldn’t have fathomed, producing products that do not meet our authentic needs may lead to the death of our planet that is now being buried in plastic. In contrast, Isaiah said that godly actions delight and give life. The nations that remain in covenant with God flourish to the point that “other nations” respect and flock to them (15:5).
Verses 6-11 contrast the “thoughts” of Empire with the thoughts of God using imagery from the natural world. What Matthew’s gospel will later call “the kingdom of heaven” is associated with imagery from the natural world. God’s thoughts produce good things; the Empire’s words are empty. Heavenly words heal the land and put food in the mouths of the people; the words spouted by the Empire are “empty.” The wisdom of the heavenly kingdom harmoniously produces “seed” and then “bread” from the seed; the Empire’s thoughts are the opposite, which is to say they are ideas for extractive use of the land that depletes resources for short term gain for a few. The work of God is fruitful, life-giving, generative. God makes clear to those who exploit the poor and the land: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways. . . . For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” The powerful may mock justice. But God’s authority is higher.
Today’s pericope ends with the prophet’s vivid promise of joy and peace and the restoration of the natural world:
“For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the LORD for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
Empires depend on military might, naming God’s children as enemies and leaving desolation in their wake; God’s kin*dom restores relationships, including human relationship to all creation. God’s un-empire animates the very hills and fields. God’s heavenly kin*dom is closely connected to the plant and animal “kingdoms.” God’s humble reign reaches down to the earth and draws close to the poor. Would Isaiah the prophet categorize the kingdom you and I are living in as God ‘s life-giving kin*dom or death-dealing Empire?
In his book Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks, Walter Brueggemann charges American Christians with being in a culture of denial, and urges us to attempt three things:
*First we need to face into the reality that is already here and the reality soon to come. In 2014, as Brueggemann was finishing this book, he was certain that we were then still in denial that a society based on “extravagant use of fossil fuel . . . is unsustainable” (113) and that America’s overweening individualism has “trivialized the common good” (114), to name just two realities we have yet to acknowledge to this day. I’m daring to hope that at long last we are just now beginning to admit (but not yet truly repent of) America’s sin of racism.
*Next we must embrace our grief as the United States, for instance, loses our political-military hegemony and economic leverage in the world and even our moral certitudes. Brueggemann warns that unvoiced and unmourned sadness about change can turn to violence or simply prevent people from moving forward. Lament is a helpful biblical response to grief.
*Finally, once we move through the previous steps, we are ready to hope for something new and to write a new story. Hoping is no easy task, but a radical commitment to hope moves individuals and a people forward after great loss.
Finding hope after great loss can be appreciated through the story of Plenty Coups, the last great chief of the Crow Nation at the time white settlers pushed his people out and the buffalo disappeared–as did his people’s entire way of life. “The hearts of my people fell to the ground and they could not lift them up again. There was little singing anywhere,” Plenty Coups reported, and writer Jonathan Lear compares that experience to the devastation of ancient Israel when, “by the waters of Babylon” they “sat down . . . and wept” (qtd. in Brueggemann 120). The chief of the Crow Nation recalled his people then had to “live a life that I do not understand” (121).
Yet hope became possible through a dream in which Plenty Coups came to accept that life as they’d known it was ending decisively but they could open their imaginations to a “radically different set of future possibilities, commit to recognizing the discontinuity, and then preserve “some integrity across the discontinuity.” The Crow leader then professed, “I do have reason to hope for a dignified passage across this abyss because God (Ah-badt-dadt-deah) is good. We shall get the good back, though at the moment we have no more than a glimmer of what that might mean” (121). Lear commented that Plenty Coups’ commitment “to the bare idea that something good will emerge,” even as everything he understood was disappearing, “manifests a commitment to the idea that the goodness of the world transcends one’s limited and vulnerable attempt to understand it” (122). In other words, it’s possible to commit to a goodness that transcends understanding.
I ask you, isn’t that what faith in God is all about?
Brueggemann celebrates the hope that Plenty Coups and the prophet Isaiah shared, noting that hope is a tenacious act of imagination. This kind of hope is steely-eyed and playful and daring. “It assures in the midst of free fall that ‘the end’ will not prevail.”
Dear Open Table friends, we as individuals and as a congregation may at times feel we’re in free fall. You and your families are dealing with financial, professional, health, and relational challenges. Our church, too, is facing the challenge of a pandemic at the time of a pastor search and call process. Our world is dealing with a global pandemic along with the ecological crisis: sick people on a sick planet. Meanwhile, the voice of religious faith is barely heard because church membership everywhere continues a decades-long decline and many churches have left like buffalo on the American plains.
Nevertheless, we are called to hope at this time: for ourselves, our families, our church, our nation, our world.
After we face head-on the new realities.
After we grieve what we have known but which will no longer be.
Thanks be to God that, like Isaiah’s people, like Plenty Coups’ people, we don’t have to do the hard work of hope alone.
Brueggemann, Walter. Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eardman’s Publishing Co., 2014).
Lear, Jonathan. Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2006).