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.