Even though it seems impossible – 8/15/10 – Zechariah 8:1-17

This summer we’ve had the chance to look at some Old Testament stories and explore these Hebrew Scriptures in which Christian faith is so deeply rooted.  It’s really difficult to get a sense of what is going on in the life of Jesus and the early church without keeping in mind the teachings, stories, wisdom and prophetic words of the people of Israel.  We tend to forget that this was Jesus’ Bible, and from these texts grew his teachings of compassion, justice for the poor, nonviolence, and a God whose forgiving love reaches out to all peoples.  This comes from the Hebrew Scriptures.  It’s all there.  Through some of the struggles that we have in reading these texts we remember that the devout Jew Jesus held and interpreted them in such a way that led toward a life of mercy and compassion. 

So we’ve sampled some stories that would have animated the imagination of Jesus and his fellow Jews.  This has included Elijah and the widow and her son, Balaam and the talking donkey, the words of Jeremiah to the exiles and Shadrach, Meschak, and Abednego in the fiery furnace and the king’s massive statue, Jonah and the perch with the plant, Deborah and Yael and the mother of Sisera, Keith alluded to the prophet Hosea and Elijah on the mountain with the sound of sheer silence, and then last week the wonderfully perplexing book of Ecclesiastes.  And we’re at the end now with a passage that is, in some ways the flip side of Ecclesiastes.  Ecclesiastes confronts the emptiness of existence and borders on despair, while Zechariah offers words that push the boundaries of hope.  Words that are so hopeful that he feels the need to preface them by saying, “Even though it seems impossible” that this vision that he is giving will come about.

Since we’re doing a pivot here and will be moving into something different, let me give a brief heads up of what’s coming up.  Next week will be a service of song and artistry with Hal Hess’ quartet Encore performing and giving leadership.  The final Sunday of August will include hearing from John Kampen about part of his Sabbatical experience and for the sermon I’ll sit down and interview him about his time in Israel and his reflections from scholarly work on the gospel of Matthew.  That will be a Fresh Air kind of sermon.

The month of September will be dedicated to a series called Body and Soul: Healthy Sexuality and the People of God.  The September Sunday school hour will include study and discussion focused on same sex orientation and worship and preaching will broaden out to themes that address all of us as sexual beings, created for intimacy and healthy relationships.

And who knows what will happen after that. If we can talk about sex for four weeks in a row in church, then anything is possible after that.  Stay tuned.  Actually, the plan is to be going back to the lectionary… 

Let’s look at this Zechariah 8 passage. 

NRS Zechariah 8:1 The word of the LORD of hosts came to me, saying: 2 Thus says the LORD of hosts: I am jealous for Zion with great jealousy, and I am jealous for her with great wrath. 3 Thus says the LORD: I will return to Zion, and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem; Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the LORD of hosts shall be called the holy mountain. 4 Thus says the LORD of hosts: Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. 5 And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets. 6 Thus says the LORD of hosts: Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, should it also seem impossible to me, says the LORD of hosts? 7 Thus says the LORD of hosts: I will save my people from the east country and from the west country; 8 and I will bring them to live in Jerusalem. They shall be my people and I will be their God, in faithfulness and in righteousness.

12 For there shall be a sowing of peace; the vine shall yield its fruit, the ground shall give its produce, and the skies shall give their dew; and I will cause the remnant of this people to possess all these things. 13 Just as you have been a cursing among the nations, O house of Judah and house of Israel, so I will save you and you shall be a blessing. Do not be afraid, but let your hands be strong.

So Zechariah is speaking to exiles, to those who have recently returned to a decimated Jerusalem and are starting to rebuild the city but have a long way to go and are quite unsure about where things are headed.  Lots of uncertainties, lots of devastation around them.  A lot of pain and anger and loss and post traumatic stress that they carry with them from being forcefully removed from their land and now returning.

This week the Enquirer featured a program in Cincinnati that feels like it has a similar tone to Zechariah’s words to his city.  Thursday’s local section carried an article on the ArtWorks program that paints murals in different parts of the city.  Three murals have been completed this summer and are being dedicated.  The one that caught my eye was one in North Fairmount, painted on the side of a Talbert House building, called “All you can imagine is real.”  It was being dedicated that morning, which was a flexible time for me, so I decided to take a field trip to take a look at it and see if I could learn a little more about this project. 

The mural first came into view driving over the Hopple Street viaduct, looking south.  Driving on Beekman Street toward the Talbert House it was pretty clear that this is a struggling neighborhood.  Many houses are in various stages of disrepair, and there’s a lot of untended growth of trees and weeds.  But the mural was a burst of color and beauty.  It has three panels.  On the left side is an elderly woman holding a sign saying “The future has not yet been written.”  Behind her are scenes of the neighborhood’s industrial and residential heritage.  On the right side is a young man, the next generation, holding a banner that reads “All you can imagine is real.” backed by scenes of a vibrant neighborhood.  The center panel is of a park with large oak trees, a path running through the middle, and a light in the background illuminating the scenery.  (pass around paper)

As the dedication time was ending I got a chance to talk with two staff people from Artworks.  So far they have painted 34 murals in 24 neighborhoods and have the goal of having a mural in every city neighborhood.  They speak with local leaders and residents about what would be an appropriate mural that would represent their neighborhood, its history and its hopes.  Something that residents can claim ownership of.  A big part of the program is that they hire youth, ages 14-19 for six weeks in the summer to work with artists to help design and create, and paint the murals.  They pay them minimum wage, a summer job, and give them mentoring and teach them work skills.  This summer there were 400 applicants and they were able to hire 73 of them. 

There and many good things that come out of these mural projects, but one of the hopes is that the beauty of the images of the murals can be an inspiration for energizing other improvements and positive steps in the neighborhood.  Both people I talked with had some stories of how this has already been happening and seemed to be one of the things that got them the most excited about what they were doing.  The title “All you can imagine is real,” captures this nicely for North Fairmont, and the artistic imagination at work through the mural is a testimony to that.  As a side note, I thought that this program would be a great one to have a future Cincinnati Mennonite Voluntary Service worker involved with.  A nice way of connecting with the arts in the city.  We’ll see about that…

The prophet Zechariah’s words are something like a public mural that he posts for his people, this vision calling for the restoration of the city of Jerusalem – his longing, and he declares, God’s longing for the well-being of this people in this city, this neighborhood.  This is his description of a city where people have the health to live long lives and the old men and women can sit in the streets and watch the boys and girls playing together, without fear.  A scene of pleasure and carefree joy that is so basic yet so rare.

Zechariah stands in the long tradition of the Hebrew prophets.  His words carry a similar theme to those of Isaiah, read by Rosella.  “I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.  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.  They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.”  These are the Israelite’s versions of I Have a Dream.     An updated version of these lines might include images of Jerusalem being a place where Jews and Muslims study Torah and Qur’an together, where young Israelis and Palestinians play in the streets together. 

This kind of speech act, offering a vision of God’s dream for the world, is captured nicely in a phrase coined by Walter Brueggemann – the prophetic imagination.  Brueggemann notes that one of the primary roles of the prophet is to energize the community, by offering an alternative vision of the world, of what can be.  The prophetic imagination has its genesis in Moses’ leadership of the Hebrew people out of the slavery of Egypt, calling them to a new social reality outside the bounds of imperial Egypt.  Imperial religion emphasizes that this is the way things are and always have to be, while the prophetic imagination presents an alternative consciousness based in the freedom of God.  The struggle of the Hebrews to accept this vision, and their insistence on returning to the familiarity of Egypt, reveals just how colonized our consciousness can become, losing our ability to even imagine a different world.

It is a rather striking contrast when these prophetic words show up alongside concrete reality.  It feels risky and even foolhardy to talk about freedom with people who have known nothing but slavery, to talk about peaceful streets and plentiful harvests with people who have known nothing but war and hunger, to put a massive image of a vibrant neighborhood on a building surrounded by decay and struggle.       

Zechariah must have known that he was pushing the boundaries here, of what people could accept as words of hope rather than discounting as a pipe dream.  Some of this could sound something like hollow campaign promises, ultimately more disappointing than energizing.  So he says, “Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, should it also be impossible to me, says the Lord of hosts?” 

What makes this different than youthful idealism, or utopian nonsense, is that we believe that this vision, these longings, are manifestations of the desires of God, revelations of the very energy in which we live and move and have our being which is more real than our own limited vision.  Never just a future salvation that has no bearing on the present, and never just pleasant thoughts that have no bearing on how we live.  But something, fully present within the life of God, already pressing in on the present moment, becoming known, becoming real.

Jesus would gather together all these hopes of the prophets, the longings of his people, and create a new label for them.  The kingdom of God.  And he would teach, over and over again, that the kingdom of God is here, has come near, is now.  It’s already present, in the process of becoming real.  And when he taught his disciples to pray, he would teach them to say, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  There is already some Godly realm where these things are realized and true, heaven, and the direction of prayer and the life of discipleship is to be that this come true on earth as it is in heaven.       

And the church is to live as if the kingdom of God is now.  And so we live with these impossible kinds of beliefs.  We live as if we are completely forgiven of sin and as if we can forgive others of the hurt they have caused us.  We live as if we are dearly loved and valued for who we are.  We live as if we can raise our children to play peacefully with the children of the world.  We live as if the work that we do is actually, in some small way, a channel of God’s healing in the world. 

The prophetic imagination pushes us in impossible directions we would otherwise not even consider available to us.  And for this, we say, Thanks be to God.

The Advocate Will Be With You Forever – 4/27/08 – Zech. 3, John 14:15-27

As we near Pentecost we start to tune ourselves into one of the mysteries of faith — this thing, this energy presence that the New Testament calls the Holy Spirit and the Hebrew Scriptures refer to as the Breath of God, the Wind of God, the glory of God, or the Presence.  At Pentecost this…Presence…is portrayed as the tongues and fire and swirling wind that gets poured out on everybody present in that Acts 2 scene and empowers all of them to live lives characterized as good news, gospel.  The readings leading up to Pentecost begin to prepare us for this spirit-shower and what it might mean for us.   

Last week I mentioned the thought of this passage in John 14 being similar to a Last Lecture series that some universities have in which a professor has the chance to give the speech they would give if it was the very last one of their life, passing on their wisdom and life lessons to the next generation.  Along with giving his one commandment – that the disciples love each other in the way that he has loved them, and inviting them into the spacious world of faith, Jesus speaks at length about a Spirit that will be present in the world as a result of him going to his death.  Of all the metaphors for the Holy Spirit throughout Scripture, this part of John has a unique way of characterizing this Spirit. 

Let me read again from portions of John 14.  The words of Jesus: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.  This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither see him nor knows him.  You know him, because he abides with you and he will be in you…v. 23 “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love the, and we will come to them and make our (dwelling place) with them…v.25 “I have said these things to you while I am still with you.  But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.”    

Jesus’ name for this Divine breath, wind, glory, presence, spirit, is “The Advocate.”

A little over a week ago a few of us went up to Columbus to one of the evenings of the Justice Revival that Sojourners organized.  There was plenty of singing, some praying, Jim Wallis was the main speaker and even gave an altar call after his speech for people who wanted to commit or re-commit their lives to a life of promoting justice.  But one of the highlights for me was hearing from the current Superintendent of Columbus Public Schools, Gene Harris.  If I remember the numbers correctly, when she began as superintendent seven years ago Columbus had a graduation rate of around 55%.  In her time there she has helped raise the graduation rate to 70%, and she has a goal of raising that to 90% by the year 2012.  She spoke passionately about the need for the entire Columbus community to get behind their children and for people to consider the children of the city as part of their extended family, children who matter and who deserve the best that the schools have to offer.  Her method of achieving the 90% graduation rate is a city wide initiative to recruit 10,000 mentors who commit to spending an hour a week with a student, beginning in Jr. High and staying with the same student until they graduate.  She herself is mentoring a student and she said that she told her mentee that she is going to be with her every week and that the only way she can get rid of her is if she graduates.  The school leadership is partnering with the business community and the faith community to recruit mentors for the schools.  Ms. Harris said that the business community has already provided her with 1,000 mentors and she’s now asking churches to recruit members for this movement.  This was part of the altar call at the end of the evening.  Come forward, recommit your life to Christ, and commit to helping a child in Columbus progress successfully through the public schools.  

She was an Advocate.  A strong advocate speaking, working, acting on behalf of the students of Columbus.  She was for them.  She was helping other people see that they should be for them also and that there were concrete things they could do to be for them.  In Jesus’ way of seeing things that he was passing on to his followers, this was an example of the Holy Spirit at work.  The Spirit of truth, speaking on behalf of students who may otherwise be invisible in people’s world, not on the radar screen.

Shift now from this local present day scene to this strange and fascinating scene in the book of the prophet Zechariah that seems to be taking place on some spiritual plane, almost like a divine courtroom setting.  Joshua, the name of the high priest, is standing before the angel of the Lord wearing filthy clothes.  Aside from Joshua and the angel of the Lord there is another character which in Hebrew is Ha-saTAN, which means, the accuser, or the adversary.  The adversary is standing at the right hand of Joshua, ready to accuse him in the Divine court.  With Joshua wearing these filthy clothes, symbolic of the uncleanness of injustice and unrigheousness, it looks like the accuser may have a case against this high priest who is supposed to represent a whole people before God.  But the angel of the Lord gets the first word.  “The Lord rebuke you, O Accuser.”  The angel then commands that Joshua’s filthy clothes be taken off of him and clean ceremonial clothes be put on – a fine new turban for his head and a priestly robe.  The Adversary’s case is not heard.  He gets outmaneuvered by the angel of the Lord.

The story is similar to the story of Job, where this same spirit, the accuser, goes before God to accuse the righteous man Job of being probably-not-so-righteous since he’s had a pretty easy life and anyone can be thankful to God when things have gone well for them.  The adversary comes against Job to accuse him. 

In Zechariah and Job, the NRSV doesn’t translate the Hebrew word for Accuser.  It leaves it in it’s Hebrew form of the saTAN, otherwise know as Satan.  The saTAN gets one other mention in the Hebrew Scriptures and in each of the three cases it is an adversarial spirit that sets itself up against someone or a community, the children of Israel.  Like an obsessed prosecutor convinced of the guilt of an adversary, bringing up it’s case against the defendant. 

One doesn’t have to believe in a literal being that goes by the name of Satan to recognize what the Hebrew Scriptures recognize, that there is a certain accusatory and adversarial spirit present in the world that sets itself up against us.  We experience this energy within us, and we experience this energy around us coming from all different sources.  The accusatory voice, force, spirit, that is against the well-being of us and our human community.

In John 14, Jesus speaks of another voice, force, spirit whose presence he is celebrating and whose continuing presence is his representative after he’s gone.  The Advocate, “who will be with you forever.”  “The spirit of truth.”  And while we’re paying attention to the original language of the scriptures, it’s interesting to note the Greek word for Advocate, paraclete.  A word that had a secular useage at the writing of the New Testament which meant “lawyer for the defense.”  The paraclete is the one who defended the one being accused and spoke on their behalf.

Jesus goes on to say that “the world cannot receive the paraclete, because it neither sees it nor knows it.  Why isn’t the Advocate seen – completely invisible to the world.  The Advocate lives in the invisible places.  Places that are forgotten and passed over. The Advocate sees the world in a way that others can’t see it.  The world doesn’t even see that Advocate.  And you won’t see it if you’re concerned about your own self preservation and purposefully or inadvertently marginalizing others who get in your way or who you don’t believe matter.  Setting yourself up as an adversary to others.  The Advocate lives in those invisible margins, advocating for people that others don’t even see.

Everyone needs an Advocate and everyone can be an Advocate.  I’ve had advocates in my life who have helped shape me.

It makes all the difference to know that someone is for you.  That they are standing up for you, speaking out for you, promoting your wellbeing, speaking well of you to others, encouraging you face to face, letting you know that they believe in you.  An Advocate.  Sometimes as the inner voice advocating for us to ourselves.  Speaking a better word than that accusing adversarial spirit that also inhabits our inner world.  Sometimes the Advocate speaks for us through the voice of another – a mentor, a parent, a teacher, a friend.  We all need to know we have an Advocate before we can be an Advocate.  1 John 4:19 says “we love because God first loved us.”  Or, we could say, “we advocate because God has first Advocated for us.”  For us. 

It was encouraging for me to see one of the notes that was written for one of our youth when we had the coming of age celebration back in January when we were writing about the good qualities that we see in our youth.  The note said something like this:  “You will always be there for people who cannot defend themselves, even though you will learn that this is not always a very popular thing to do.”  This is a description of an Advocate.  Someone who is showing signs of being filled with this Spirit that Jesus is describing.  Someone who is learning that they can be for another person when others may be setting themselves up as an adversary to that person just to give themselves meaning and a feeling of superiority.  A young person who is seeing glimpses of the truth that we are partners with the great Advocate.  And that they can be for others, even if the other sits in the margins, outside the circle of popularity.  I would imagine that this youth was able to be an advocate because they knew that they had advocates in their own life who were for them.

Being an advocate is holy work, Holy Spirit work. 

These last two springs CMF has been involved as a supporting congregation with the Interfaith Hospitality Network.  Building relationships with those who are currently without permanent housing is actually pretty basic work.  As basic as sitting down to a meal together and sharing each other’s stories.  But it goes a long way in teaching us how to be better advocates.  How to position ourselves in those places that are often invisible to others and be for homeless families.  Even if it’s as simple as speaking up in a conversation when people are talking about homelessness and we get a chance to share about some friends we’re making with people who have been temporarily homeless.  

I’m also so glad that CMF is an advocate for the arts.  Unfortunately, part of the church’s historical relationship with art has been adversarial.  Accusing it of being worldly or unrighteous.  So this congregation has positioned itself as a strong Advocate of the arts in the Mennonite world.  We’re for art and creative artistic expression.  We get people together to celebrate the arts.  We’re known in the Mennonite church as art advocates and that’s a very Holy Spirit inspired mission and one I hope can continue for many years to come. 

It’s a tragedy of religion that many people imagine God as the one who is against them.  Ready to accuse and condemn and point out faults and shortcomings and pronounce guilty.  In other words, God as the the Satan.  It’s not that the Creative Spirit of the Universe isn’t aware of our shortcomings, that we’ve all got some dirty laundry that we keep wearing around.  But it’s that the Holy Spirit is for us, not against us.  “If God is for us, who can be against us,” the Apostle Paul said.  An advocate.  In our corner.  On our side.  Advocating for us.  And advocating for the most vulnerable among us.  The invisible ones that are easily forgotten.  What the scriptures call the poor, the widow and the orphan and what we might call the poor, the homeless, the immigrant, the orphan, the prisoner who is locked away.  The Jr. High student in the failing city school.  The most vulnerable.  The advocate comes to their defense and speaks a good word for them.  And always will.  Jesus said the Advocate will be with you forever.  Always on the side of the loser, the loner, the poor, and the marginalized.  Always for us.  “This is the spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees it nor knows it.  You know it, because it abides with you, and it will be in you.”