Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd April 7, 2019
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.
It is difficult to hang onto hope when our world seems so hopeless. Some in this congregation have said that they come here to find hope, especially when the world is so dark. But when we come through the doors during this season we find Lent, with its darker banners and themes. It seems to be a more challenging season to find this hope. Lent intentionally takes us into the darkness, indeed into death itself.
This passage from Isaiah was addressed to those living in the dark times of exile. They had lost their land, their homes, their jobs, their temple. It seemed as if they had even lost their God. Where was God in all of their suffering?
Last week’s reports of global warming happening twice as fast as predicted in Canada and 3 times faster in the arctic, killings that continue to happen in places of worship, an escalation in crystal-meth induced violence, insufficient resources for mental health, plane crashes, cyclones and hurricanes—even our bulletin for this morning describes human trafficking on the back. The list seems endless. I just read that someone sent a threat of mass murder to a United Church summer camp for LGBT youth last summer. The RCMP found the identity of the messenger before the camp began and fears were allayed. But we live in a troubled world. Along with our Hebrew ancestors in the faith, perhaps we, too, are left wondering where God is in all of today’s suffering.
The former Archbishop of Cantebury, Rowan Williams, spoke a few weeks ago, just after the terrorist massacres in the New Zealand mosques, the Idai Cyclone in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, and the Ethiopian plane crash. In light of this suffering, he urged us, as Christians, to keep doing the little things that lead to hope in the midst of hopelessness. “We are obliged as Christians to share with one another beacons of hope. A good Christian community shares stories about what love and faith look like. This keeps hope alive.”
Some of you may have heard that Berenice Sisler just died two days ago. When I was planning the funeral yesterday with Lesley, she showed me her mother’s plans for her own funeral, including hymns and scripture readings. One of the readings was from James, which tells us that faith without works is dead. Berenice lived this fully, with multiple contributions to our church and society. She would remind us to keep doing those little things that spark hope even more persistently when suffering seems to overwhelm. Call someone you haven’t seen at church for awhile to see how they’re doing. Visit someone who is shut-in. Send a card to someone just to tell them how much you appreciate them. These are the little things that keep hope alive.
Lent may actually be the most helpful time to try and find hope in the midst of suffering because Lent takes us unabashedly into the heart of suffering to find God. I remember visiting a young woman in the hospital who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She had a 5 year old son. I felt that stabbing heart ache as I sat with her, watching her family fighting back the tears. Why, oh why? But she was the one who helped us with her faith as resolute as ever. She believed that God was walking closely with her in the very heart of her suffering and diagnosis. She had fought to the best of her ability, but was now able to accept this diagnosis not as God-caused, but as a reality that God would help her through to the other side. She squeezed my hand and had a serene smile of peace. I could only marvel at her faith and simply offer my poor presence.
Two chapters prior to our scripture reading, Isaiah writes, “Comfort, O comfort my people”. Even in the midst of exile, even in the midst of the darkest of times, one can find God’s comfort and even hope. Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel calls this proclamation of comfort and hope in Isaiah ageless, saying, “No words have ever gone further in offering comfort when the sick world cries.”
Isaiah speaks of a path God will create for us through the wilderness and the waters. While Isaiah brings to mind the exodus of the Hebrew people from their slavery through the waters of the Red Sea, he then tells the people a curious thing. “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing…” The Hebrew people were always told to remember that God had brought them out of slavery in Egypt, so why does Isaiah remind them of this and then tell them to forget about it? Perhaps Isaiah is trying to help the people make room for new possibilities that they couldn’t even imagine. While it helped to recall God’s salvific acts in the exodus, they also needed to make a new way through the wilderness—perhaps a way that didn’t result in the death of their pursuers who were drowned in the sea. Perhaps this new way would allow even the most feared of their enemies to drink from the same waters.
Images of the wilderness, for me, mean the lush, healing sanctuary of the Canadian Shield. But wilderness in Israel and Palestine means the opposite. There, the wilderness is a harsh, dry environment filled with scorpions, vipers and the odd jackal. Even the streams of life-giving water can turn into sudden flash floods. But in this difficult land, Isaiah promises a restoration not only of the return of the exiles, but also of the very land itself. Not only that, Isaiah says that even the despised creatures, such as the jackal, have a place in the restoration of nature.
Translated into the Canadian context, I have to respect even the dreaded mosquito, if I am to honour the delicate balance of creation that the Medicine Wheel—the Circle of Life teaches. There is a place for everything under the heavens, as we are reminded by Ecclesiastes.
This promise of restoration that includes a place for every person and every creature was a new thing that God wanted the Israelites to learn. They would become a light to all nations. Enemies would be no more. This global vision of restoration assured the Israelites of hope even in the midst of their exile.
God will help us find a way through the wilderness of this world. But to recognize this way, we need to be open to the new things God is doing and set aside our old ways.
It has often been said that the seven last words of the dying church are: “We’ve never done it that way before.” We need to let go of some things to make space and energy for God’s new things. And this is not easy. We may even have to let some things die.
One month from today, I will be visiting my first church in Bedford, Nova Scotia. I plan to visit 11 thriving United Churches (I’ve snuck in a couple more) to find out what things they have found to be successful. I’ll be coming back with some new ideas and we may have some tough decisions ahead of us this fall as to what new things the Spirit is leading us to consider, what to keep, what to let die and what to change.
In the midst of difficult decisions; in the midst of the suffering of this troubled world, let’s continue to do those little things and tell those stories of good news that will help us keep hope alive. “Behold,” God says to us, “I am about to do a new thing.” Amen.
 Abraham Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 145.