Dance Us Through the Panic

A reflection on Isaiah 65.17-25 delivered by Andrew Stephens-Rennie at St. Brigids Vancouver on Sunday November 13, 2016.

I speak to you today in the name
of the itinerant rabbi from Nazareth.
The one who proclaimed
and embodied peace
for those who were near
and for those far off

I come before you today
In the name of the one who was crucified
By those threatened by
his message of
reconciliation and shalom
a holistic peace achieved through
self-sacrificing love

And I am here in the name of God’s beloved
One not bound
By hatred, violence, or death
One who called into question
all earthly claims to power and authority
when he broke the chains of suffering and
death by rising
unexpectedly and
unpredictably,
altogether impossibly
on the third day.

And I am here with you
and in the midst of you,
my beloved community
with a sad and questioning heart
a heart battered and bruised
a soul deeply troubled
by all that has taken place
in these increasingly darker days.

Last week I joked that Luke’s gospel
Would provide ample cover
For whatever outcome Tuesday’s
Election would bring.

But today I am not so sure.

I’m not sure I’m ready
To offer any words of wisdom
Or advice,
Any interpretation or
Proclamation that will illuminate
This week
This crazy, heart-breaking week
That’s about more than
An election and who won

A week consumed with
Report after report
Of hate-filled speech and violence
A week consumed with
News of levees breaking,
Social convention no longer withstanding
The floodwaters that have begun to drown
Those already vulnerable and
Those already under threat

A week in which virtue seems
To have collapsed under the weight
Of oppression

This week, the more I read,
The more disconnected and helpless
I felt.
The gap between the world I desire
And the world that is
Seems to have grown wider.
And it has led me to sorrow and lament.

It is into this week
We have all been thrown.
And it is into this week the
Words of Isaiah’s prophetic poetics
unbelievably resound.

For I am about to create new heavens
And a new earth;
The former things shall not be remembered
Or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
In what I am creating;
For I am about to create Jerusalem
As a joy
And its people as a delight. (Isaiah 65:17-18)

These words, these beautiful poetic
Words resound for me
Not just because they envision a future
I cannot see, much less imagine,
But because these words were
Written for a time such as this,
In a time just like this.

These words, these words,
these beautiful poetic words
resound for me because they too
were written in a time and for a time
when all was not well with the world.

The prophet’s song enveloped
My heart this week
A week in which one of our age’s
Great poets,
Leonard Cohen,
died.

I imagine even after all he’s seen
And all he’s written
This week he finally died
of a broken heart.

Leaving us with Isaiah to

Ring the bells that still can ring
In the absence of a perfect offering
To pay attention to the crack in everything
And the light pouring in.

(Based on Leonard Cohen, Anthem from the album The Future – 1992)

This week, St. Leonard of Montreal
leaves us to Isaiah,
the prophet of old

to dance us through the panic
till we’re gathered safely in.
Lift us like an olive branch
and be our homeward dove
Dance us to the end of love

(Dance Me to the End of Love, Various Positions – 1984)

“For I am about to create new heavens
And a new earth;” God through the prophet, says.

This new world,
These new heavens,
This new earth
Will not be brought about by political means
Will not be brought about by
human ingenuity or coercion
Will not be brought about by
Corporate interests or strategic plans
Will not be brought about by
Fear or violence or shame

But will be created

As it was in the beginning
In darkness
Out of darkness
In God’s self-emptying, self-giving love.

The prophet dares to take us back
Back to the beginning of time

To the time before time

To the primordial ooze
To the spirit hovering over the water

And dares to suggest
That the new heavens
and the new earth will not come
as a result of our clever schemes,
but by the God who called all things
into being.

And who will do so, yet again.

No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. (Is 65.20-22)

These words, these words,
These beautiful poetic words
Paint a picture so at odds with the
World we live in
The rising tide of hatred and fear
That they sound impossible

And they’re meant to sound impossible.

The people of Israel are a people in
Waiting.
Watching and Waiting and Endlessly Praying
For a Messiah
A messiah who is yet to come.
And so we pray with them.

Eyes fixated on the vision Isaiah casts
and what it might have for us, today.

Mere chapters earlier, the poet,
Envisioning just such a Messiah
Puts these words in his mouth, proclaiming

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me
Because the Lord has anointed me;
He has sent me to bring
good news to the oppressed
To bind up the brokenhearted
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And release to the prisoners
And to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour
(Is. 61.1-4)

Words Jesus would claim for himself
Years later
Preaching in his hometown
Unveiling a manifesto for nothing less than
The salvation of the world.

Salvation brought about by
Good News for those we humans have oppressed
Comfort for those whose hearts we have broken
Liberation for all we have taken captive
Release for those we have imprisoned
And freedom for those we have enslaved in debt

A salvation he invites each of us to participate in
And to invite others into
A salvation that has at its heart

Nothing more, nothing less,
Than the reconciliation of all things.

In and through Christ,
The one we later learn
Is the firstborn of this new creation
Of the new heavens and the new earth
A creation of which we are a part
And of which this cruciform
cross-shaped
cross-informed
cross-bearing community
is its first fruits.

Old Testament Scholar
Walter Brueggemann paints
This vision as

“An act of daring
faith that refuses to be curbed,
uncontained by our present notions
of the possible.”

And elsewhere, he writes:

“The future is not in hock to the present
And will not be extrapolated from it.”

This week, my thoughts have been mired
In darkness.
I have been unpleasant to live with.
The weight of this week has rested on me
And been manifest within me
And I have felt paralyzed.
Paralyzed by the endless
Stream of analysis and punditry
That has done nothing more than
Tie my stomach in even tighter knots.

Until I started to turn my thoughts
To this community
To God’s beloved community
Imaging and imagining Christ’s presence
Right here in this city
And in this country
And in the communities of which
We are all a part.

Until my thoughts turned to the God
Who is living and active
In our lives,
In the life of this community
And in the life of the world.

Until my thoughts turned to the ways
In which Christ-centered communities
Like ours
have started to take small
Yet significant steps
from exclusion to embrace.
To live into the reconciliation
that Christ calls us to
and that the Prophet envisions.

As we wade into these uncertain waters,
we do so treading ever-nearer to Advent.
And in Advent, Brueggemann writes,

“We receive the power of God
That lies beyond us.
We receive it willingly,
Because it is the evangelical antidote
To our fatigue and cynicism.

We grasp hold eagerly,
Because it is the gospel resolution
to our spent self-sufficiency,
when we are at the edge of our coping.
We seize the vision in craving,
Because it is the good news that will
Overmatch our cynicism that imagines
There is no new thing that can enter our world.”

But God is doing a new thing.
And whatever state we find ourselves in
We can be sure that God is
Doing a new thing in and through us.
In spite of whatever the principalities and powers
Have up their gold cuff-linked sleeves.

This week I want to leave the last words to civil rights veteran, and Mennonite peacemaker Vincent Harding. In the last years of his life, Harding began many of his speeches with these words that to me channel the essence and the vision of Isaiah’s prophecy, and the endurance to which Jesus calls us.

“I am a citizen of a country that doesn’t yet exist.” Harding proclaims.

“I am a citizen of a country that doesn’t exist,” he says. And so are we. In a 2005 speech at Goshen College in Indiana, Harding spoke these words that are just as relevant to us, in this church, and feel as though they were meant for such a time as this:

“There’s a lesson for us:

If we lock up Martin Luther King,
and make him unavailable
for where we are now
so we can keep ourselves
comfortably
distant
from the realities
he was trying to grapple with,
we waste King.

All of us are being called
beyond
those comfortable places
where it’s easy
to be Christian.

That’s the key
for the 21st century.
To answer the voice
within us,
as it was within Martin,
which says
‘do something for somebody.’

And in so doing, he says:

“We can learn
to play on locked pianos
and to dream of worlds
that do not yet exist.”

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Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Andrew is a writer, dreamer and organizer with a keen interest in developing leaders in faith, compassion and justice.

Andrew serves on staff at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC as an Assistant for Evangelism & Christian Formation, with primary responsibility for St. Brigids, an emerging Christian community where questions are honoured, faith is nurtured, and discipleship pursued.
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