Next Year


Notes from
Advent 2, December 10, 2017
‘Trinity United on Church’, Kitchener

Text: Isaiah 40:1-11

It is beginning to sink in at ‘Trinity on Church’: we have a new staff, and we have a new space. We know what we left, but don’t know what’s next. Meanwhile, it’s this staff, and this space. We were Trinity already, and we are not yet the ultimate Trinity, God knows, but meanwhile, this is us. Thank God. I spoke 3 times to our settled space, then 3 times to our transition, and today I
began 3 reflections in Advent, starting a new year in a new space as new staff. We shared communion – how was it like the old Trinity, and what would you hope for the ultimate Trinity?

Speak up – much change is accidental!

‘Once is a novelty, twice is a tradition, three times is a rut’. We’ll enjoy settling into traditions here, without falling into ruts. One pattern I hear already in the echoes of recent reflections is a narrowing parochialism, as we pump blood to our essential organs and not our outreached extremities. Don’t get stuck here!

So today I acknowledged the news cycle around us. The USA declared it will move it embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Iraq declared that its war with ISIS is over, an Iraq won. The usual pundits lined up to comment – the UCC affirming our ecumenical global partners in resisting the US initiative. 

Tuesday is the beginning of Hanukkah, and our Jewish neighbours will worry about our unholy alliances with anti-Semites. Don’t argue about Netanyahu and his partisan rulers – just reassure them on the immediate local issue, eh? Every Sabbath in every synagogue, we greet each other ‘Shabbat Shalom’ – peace.

We know we some already, and not yet full shalom, but meanwhile, we share that assurance, offer, promise of shalom, ‘peace with justice’. Our Muslim neighbours will worry that we think they are all closet ISIS fans, seeking a new universal caliphate, and sharing the cultural tropes of terrorism that demonize 1.2 billion of their co-religionists. Don’t argue the fine points of
sectarian and political partisanship in the Arab world – just reassure them on the immediate Canadian issue, eh? Every Friday in every mosque, we greet one another ‘Alhumdulillah’ – praise God, or thank God. We share praise and thanks first, not yet arrived at the fullness of the promise, but meanwhile share that assurance, offer, promise of the ummah, the widest human community.

Our neighbours are justifiably unsure of us. In the first half of the 20 th century, we came too close in partisan politics to racist, nativist partisanship. NDP saint J.S. Woodsworth, a UCC minister, wrote ‘Strangers Within Our Gates’ favouring assimilation of immigrants. WASP politicians faced with Jewish refugees from Nazi Holocaust said ‘None Is Too Many’, the title of Abella’s book. Exceptions, who said the right thing too softly, prove the rule. We have to earn trust now. Yet I stepped into it again today. It is barely 70 years since the state of Israel
was founded in 1948, but the 50th anniversary of illegal occupation of Palestinian lands captured in the Six Day War of 1967. Global leaders have deadlocked over a ‘two state solution’ for a long time, despite the security issues for either or both proposed nations, symbolized by the divided city of Jerusalem, and the wall extending from it for increasing distances through disputed territory. Any choice, or avoided choice, takes a side. We all do. When the UCC calls for ‘status quo’ in Jerusalem, amplifying the voices of the patriarchs on the ground in Israel and Palestine, and reaffirming our identity as part of the WCC global church, we do take a side. You may as individuals, or even in some informed groups and congregations, resist that denominational position. You may as individuals, or as part of other informed groups and
congregations, support EAPPI ecumenical observers since 2002, or BDS lobbies now for specific boycotts and divestment of businesses run on occupied land. You looked pretty engaged, if anxious, as I tiptoed through this muddy mess, and ‘got some on me’. Since, I heard confirmation that you all know a lot, and have your own opinions. I also heard familiar narratives, tropes that claim to make sense of the senselessness, or single principles that claim to supersede all others and promised to ‘fix the problem’. I respond with the old chestnut ‘Who
wants the right answer to the wrong question?’

The context of Jerusalem has changed since 1930, and 1948, and 1967. Thank God for Jimmy Carter, with Sadat and Begin at Camp David 40 years ago, who said ‘That wasn’t so hard – I’ve seen worse as an elder on the board in my Baptist congregation, moving the communion table!’ Since then Intifadah led to Oslo, Clinton’s try at Camp David let to Intifadah 2. Do we face Intifadah 3 now? God forbid! Meanwhile, let’s join the religious chorus saying ‘not in my name’! Don’t you dare talk about me, instead of with me – or any religious leader or group, as if you were safely superior and objective, and others partisan fools!

Meanwhile, greet your neighbours this week as Christians of ‘Trinity on Church’: ‘Shabbat Shalom’, ‘Alhumdulillah’. You may add ‘Peace be with you’.

Isaiah 40 is the beginning of what’s called ‘Second Isaiah’. The first 39 chapters record what the original prophet, a contemporary of Jeremiah living through the ‘decline and fall of Jerusalem and Judah, ending in exile to Babylon in 586 BCE. Over a century later, I imagine folks getting tired of ‘blame game’, ‘told you so’ lectures, and a new generation began to preach and write what eventually is included as chapters 40 to 55 of our bible book.
The language and tone of Second Isaiah, over a century into the exile, reflects a time when Cyrus of Persia (Iran) expanded to rule from the Mediterranean through the Balkans to the Indus valley in South Asia, pushing Babylon aside, in the late 500’s. The new generation of Isaiah-style prophets lobbied for a new kind of return to the old country, to build a Second Temple as a symbol not of the nation-state of David, but of a people and a way of being Jewish. Now was not the time to keep condemning old mistakes, but to encourage the
surviving remnant of a people, and the inhabitants of a city:

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.

Many see this as the ‘call story’ of a new Isaiah, and it is at least an introduction
to what will follow in 15 chapters of hope of restoration in place of punishment:

A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.

Here come the Suffering Servant songs, the imagery of preparing a way in the wilderness, of a shepherd God renewing care for this flock, the hope of a New Jerusalem real and imagined. From 586BCE to today, every Passover begins with the hope of celebrating ‘next year in Jerusalem’. Some thought the hope realized in 500BCE with the Second Temple, renewed at Hanukkah from desecration in 1 st C BCE, then lost in 70CE with its destruction.

In the 19 th and 20 th centuries modern empirical scientific worldviews converted this to a political ambition. Some think it was realized in the 1948 creation of the state of Israel. Only a tiny sectarian minority of Christians and Jews share this confusion, over the past 2500 years. I don’t for a moment think than many who chanted ‘next year in Jerusalem’ meant it as an imperialist Zionist plot for world domination of political and economic forces. I am shamed that some of my co-religionist have credenced that delusion even briefly.

Christians have had more temptations over centuries to confuse the hope in Second Isaiah with a political program. Medieval pilgrimages begun in piety were reshaped as ‘Crusades’, much as the Islamic piety of ‘jihad’ was distorted and confused into ‘Holy War’. Most of us, most of the time since 400 CE have relied on Augustine’s ‘City of God’ as a way of challenging the urban status quo with an idealized ‘Heavenly City’, or ‘New Jerusalem’. Our own modern liberal
movement in the early 1900’s presumed to ‘win the world for Christ in our generation’, a colonial imperial dream shattered in world wars.

Empires with Muslim leaders, from 600CE to today, have been less oppressive of religious minorities than has Christendom. Although the haj is one of the five pillars of Islam, encouraging pilgrimage in one’s lifetime to Mecca and holy sites, the violence among pilgrims each year is exceptional. Ashura is a day recalling the death of Ali at Kerbalah, a cautionary warning of abuse of civil power. The Muslim saying ‘Every day is Ashura, and every place is Kerbalah’ is akin to us saying ‘Every day is Good Friday, and every place is Calvary’. That’s a religious and ethical affirmation, not a political tactical plan for fanatic suicide squads!

Most recently, this modern age has generated a few fundamentalist millennialist Christians, and a few more fundamentalist Muslims. Each group seeks to impose their pure vision on others, while demonizing opponents in apocalyptic terms of majority conspiracies. ‘Alt-right’ sectarians, or ISIS seeking a new Caliphate, have a symbiotic relationship with secular media, which characterizes them in the language of ‘religious extremism’ and of ‘terrorism’, advocating ‘security’ solutions, further suppressing and marginalizing legitimate religious concerns.

When we say at each communion service ‘The peace of Christ be with you’ or respond ‘And also with you’, we affirm what peace we have found, and are making, and also the just peace to which we aspire, ‘next year in Jerusalem’. It’s not an imperialist plot to impose that peace upon heathen ‘others’! Encourage your neighbours this week as Christians of ‘Trinity on Church’ saying: ‘Shabbat Shalom’, ‘Alhumdulillah’. You may add ‘Peace be with you’.

If you think today’s reflection was just knee-jerk glib-liberal politics in the pulpit, or that preachers simply repeat ourselves each time a text comes up in the 3 year lectionary, I invite you to check my notes on this site by searching various keywords, or the label ‘Isaiah 40’ through this century:

2005: recharged-

2008: you-waiting- for-