(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on January 17, 2016)
I was an extremely picky eater when I was a kid. I did not like things that were different.
I can still hear my dad’s voice in my head as he would order for me at a restaurant. His voice was always slightly raised and a little agitated, but that was more my fault than his. There had been so many times I sulked or pitched a fit when my order didn’t arrive as I desired, that my dad was anxious for the server to get the order right.
“A hamburger, ketchup only. Just the bun, the meat, and ketchup. That’s. It.” Because his majesty 5 year old Gregg would know if they had put mayonnaise or mustard on that bun and then scraped it off. He could taste it. He would throw a fit. I knew what I liked, and I didn’t like different.
I liked things done a certain way, the right way, the normal way.
My way got reinforced quite a bit. The communities I was in had many of the same assumptions I did. I remember in 5th grade I was one of our class’s two representatives to the student council, and Stacy Mascitelli was the other. Student council did two awesome things: we got to be the ones to go to the kitchen and get the milk and hand it out to our class at lunch; and on a rotating basis, we occasionally got to give the announcements on the school’s loudspeaker.
I always was the one to carry the crate of little milk cartons back to our class, and Stacy always was in charge of checking off the list as each kid got their milk. I got the job I wanted, the job expected of the boy. I didn’t have to do the job I didn’t want, the job expected of the girl. Worked out well-for me. And I almost always did the announcements on our class’s turn. I know for sure that even if we both did it, I always went first. That’s what I wanted, that’s what was expected. Worked out well-for me.
Not so much for Stacy. But for me, it was a rare thing when something I wanted went against the norm. I didn’t have very many times when I was the minority or when barriers got in my way.
I started to get a little picture, a tiny glimpse of what it was like to not have norms and assumptions work out for me when we moved from California to Oregon in the 8th grade.
I talk about this a lot, because…it was such a traumatic time in my life. 😉 My “normal” and “right” corduroy pants were weird up here in Lawman jeans territory. People used “pop” instead of “Coke” as the generic for any soft drink. No one said “gnarly”, and people laughed at me or looked at me funny if I did. Worst of all, they didn’t know I always played shortstop and deserved it…instead, up here everybody knew the shortstop was Bo Venerdi, and I had to suffer being moved to the outfield.
It was different up here, and I didn’t like it. Things didn’t work like they were supposed to, and now things weren’t falling into place for me. There’s a picture of me in my 8th grade yearbook that captured me with a look that showed just how miserable I was.
Look at the face of sadness and rejection, in my non-Alligator shirt and weird hoodie that no one else wore.Being in a place where I wasn’t affirmed, where my way wasn’t highlighted and didn’t work out, caused me to see myself more negatively.
Now, here’s the irony: on the worldwide scale of things, it wasn’t really that different. Still the United States, still English speaking, still West Coast, still predominantly white. It didn’t take long to figure out the little differences between California and Oregon and then start having things work in my favor again. My “suffering” was pretty minor, but I think it was helpful to later understand other people’s experience of true difference.
When I graduated college and began seminary, it was at Fuller Seminary in Southern California.
It’s the most diverse place I’ve ever lived. I lived and studied with Americans of many different ethnic backgrounds, with people from Kenya and Korea and Ethiopia, all over the world. I even studied with Calvinists! Difference all over the place!
It was three years of challenge, shattering what was normal for me. Questions and presentations in class helped me realize that other perspectives…whether because of nationality or ethnicity or belief or gender…other perspectives opened whole new arenas for me. I’ll be honest. At first, it was like when I could taste the mustard they had tried to scrape off the hamburger bun; I didn’t like it.
But it didn’t take long before I realized that my Kenyan classmate saw things about community in the bible that my American individualism completely missed. It didn’t take long to see that Korea, for instance, was not that place you had to send missionaries to in order to evangelize and civilize them. No, they were taking their faith far more seriously than most of us here, and they had something to teach the world. Which they are!
It didn’t take long before I understood the pain of the women I was studying alongside. Like Stacy from my fifth grade class, they had lived a lifetime with guys like me constantly taking the mic away from them because everyone assumed the guy would say it better.
Those years were the pinnacle of a long, slow brewing revolution in me. I now love difference, and I know how much I need it.
I had to learn that lesson, as someone who has a lot of cultural things working for me because of my race and my gender. For those who are on the fringes and the outside, for whom things haven’t worked, the value of something different than the norm is more quickly seen.
Oscar Romero was a Latin American Bishop who was murdered about 25 years ago, martyred because he stood up for those who were different, who were poor and oppressed:
Oscar Romero knew the benefit that comes from listening to those suffering under what is “normal.”
Hold on to this thought as we turn to look at the bible today.
Think about the Israelites.
Chosen by God, they were plucked out of slavery in Egypt and given guidelines for a way of life on tablets of stone, written by God’s finger. Think about the Israelites. Brought to a land they felt God had given them, God’s very presence visible in cloud and fire, they were given a kingdom under David and Solomon where wealth and power and a temple for worship all came together to solidify their identity as the people, the chosen ones.
Different is Gentile. Different means God is absent. Our way means salvation and righteousness. Our normal is God’s way and it is right. Things that are different are wrong.
And then it all starts fading away. Solomon’s kingdom splits in two. God’s presence is no longer the center. Gentile armies start chipping away, taking away the land Israel felt was their God given promise. Soon there is only tiny Judah, and then even it is destroyed. Kings are humiliated. People are enslaved, fields are burned, idols are placed in God’s holy places, and thousands of people are forced far, far away to live in conquering Babylon. Where everything is different. Where nothing works well for the Israelites. Where their way of life leads to oppression and to doors being closed in their faces.
They are broken. The ones who had always had “normal” work out for them, the ones who had always triumphed…they were broken and defeated and oppressed and enslaved once again. It was back to metaphorical Egypt. Identity and spirit were broken, and hope was gone.
This is the context to which Isaiah 62 speaks.
This is the context to which Isaiah raises a voice in protest, a voice that will not be silenced, a voice which goes against despair and the status quo. Listen.
Because I love Zion,
I will not keep still.
Because my heart yearns for Jerusalem,
I cannot remain silent.
I will not stop praying for her
until her righteousness shines like the dawn,
and her salvation blazes like a burning torch.
The nations will see your righteousness.
World leaders will be blinded by your glory.
And you will be given a new name
by the L ord ’s own mouth.
The L ord will hold you in his hand for all to see—
a splendid crown in the hand of God.
Never again will you be called “The Forsaken City”
or “The Desolate Land.”
Your new name will be “The City of God’s Delight”
and “The Bride of God,”
for the L ord delights in you
and will claim you as his bride.
Your children will commit themselves to you, O Jerusalem,
just as a young man commits himself to his bride.
Then God will rejoice over you
as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride. (Isaiah 62:1-5, NLT)
The Israelites in Solomon’s time knew exactly what it was like to feel like “a splendid crown in the hand of God” But these exiles, these Babylonian prisoners, these refugees did not. They DID know what it felt like to be “The Forsaken City” and “The Desolate Land”.
They knew how it was to feel rejected and outside and squashed down and defeated…now they could understand the wonder and power of the Lord taking delight in them once again, the joy of having God rejoice over them and say, “I want to be intimately bound to you.”
There is historical evidence that some Israelites were so overwhelmed by the oppression of exile that they couldn’t imagine Isaiah’s words coming true. That is what being on the outside, being oppressed can do: it can destroy your belief that you have value, that you could be loved and desired by anyone, let alone God.
God knew, Isaiah knew, that those Israelites, broken and crushed by sins and power and injustice needed to hear their value. Needed to hear God’s desire for them. Needed to hear that they were “a splendid crown in the hand of God.”
Is there any doubt this is still needed today?
The good news of God, the work of hope in our world begins here: whether you are a winner or loser by the power structures of today, God wants to affirm your place in God’s eyes. You are a splendid crown in whom God takes delight! Again, Bishop Oscar Romero, whose eyes saw things because of his suffering and tears, is an example for us:
We are all chosen! Just as the Israelites needed that reminder, there are many today who need us to follow Isaiah’s example, who need to hear that God wants them. In verse 1, Zion is more than just literal Mt. Zion in Jerusalem; it stands for the ones chosen by God, the family God is making from every tongue, tribe and nation. There are many today who are chosen by God and they do not know it or believe it, because they have been so often rejected. They are different. They are oppressed. They are other.
For all of them, we need to follow Isaiah’s example. To take Isaiah’s words from this chapter, we must not keep still, we cannot remain silent, we cannot stop praying until the oppressed, the broken, the different ones have “their righteousness shine like the dawn, their salvation blaze like a burning torch.”
All whom God has made are chosen and loved, not a single one left out.
All lives matter. And because of that, we must also specifically call out some who are often rejected and labelled “different” and “outsider”, who struggle to believe that they, too, could be chosen. They, too, could be called “a splendid crown in the hand of God.”
So we must name that Women’s Lives Matter. And Brown Lives Matter. And Black Lives Matter. And LGBT Lives Matter. It needs to be spoken as part of the good news of God, even when their words and actions seem different to us, seem challenging to us. I was moved and challenged by this word from Joe Ho, InterVarsity’s National Director of Asian Ministries…a position which tells me he sees things through his different eyes, things that I miss with mine:
Yes, all lives matter because all are created by God and chosen by God for redemption. God is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” as 2 Peter 3:9 says. But the Israelites needed most to hear that message when they were oppressed and outside, when they struggled to see themselves as desired by God.
We cannot keep still, we cannot remain silent, we cannot stop praying until black, brown and female, until poor and hungry and all who feel rejected know God desires them, until all see their salvation blazing like a burning torch!
When we are broken, we need affirmation of our worth as ones God desires. And when things are working well for us in the position of privilege, we need the challenge to remain in right relationship with God. Bishop Minerva Carcaño writes:
We each need the reminder of our value and our brokenness.
This is not always easy or smooth. It can be disruptive and difficult. I’ve struggled to find my place as a white man living in a state without much diversity, struggled to find how I work for racial justice, for gender justice.
This weekend we honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Here are some of his words that remind me how challenging God’s upside down kingdom of justice can be in our world.
More than 50 years later, there is still a need for justice. We cannot keep still, we cannot keep silent, we cannot stop praying until those who feel rejected see their salvation blazing like a burning torch!
Oh God…may we all remember our need for you.
May we have our eyes opened to what it is like to be excluded, to have doors closed in our face, to be outside the norm. May we find reconciliation for ourselves, and offer it to all. May we, in our obedience to you, not go from oppressed to oppressor, but rather pray and work for a world where your love for all is known and felt.