This sermon was preached at First Congregational Church of Battle Creek on November 20th, 2022. The text is Isaiah 36 and 37, as well as Isaiah 2.1-4, per the Narrative Lectionary. Click here to listen along—sermons are meant to be heard!
My friends, I speak in the name of the Crucified and Risen One. Amen.
Twitter is tanking. Sackcloth and ashes. Seems serious and people are treating it almost like the end of the world. “Perhaps Elon Musk will be merciful upon a remnant of us.” I was kind of taken aback by this at first. It seems kind of silly on first blush: it’s just a social media site. But as I sat with it, and as I thought about the impact that a place like Twitter has made on my life, it started to make more sense. And before too long, I felt myself growing tender about Twitter, too.
For all of its toxicity and nonsense, Twitter is also a place where I have cultivated friendships and made connections that have changed my life. I was able to find, through Twitter, a Christian community that affirmed my call to ministry and ordained me. So, if the strength of my emotional reaction to the potential demise of a web app feels a little weird, I hope you’ll forgive me. Twitter is home, community, friendship, growth; it’s a marketplace of sharing and truth telling for a lot of people. In that way, I guess, it’s kind of been like church for a lot of us. And millions of people have come face to face with the possibility of that place, that community, evaporating.
What do we do when we are staring death in the face?
Our story this morning finds us in just this moment. Jerusalem is the last bastion standing against the invading armies of Sennacherib, the king of the Assyrians. We heard about this a little two weeks ago. They have razed the entire countryside and now the Assyrian forces are camped outside Jerusalem, preparing to lay siege to the city. They have already cut off food and supply lines so the people of the city, though safe within their walls, are running out of rations. And they’re running out of hope. Their spirits are breaking.
So we hear the field commander come to deliver the final blow, not a weapon but with words. And he tells them a story. He tells them a story about the other cities that have resisted. He tells Jerusalem and her people, in her own language, so that no one might misunderstand, that her time is up, that her Holy One has failed her, and that the only chance of survival was surrender to occupation and deportation. No matter the fact that the field commander promises all the same things that Israel’s Holy One promised her: each person on their own land with their own vine and cistern, living peaceably with all. (Has that ever happened for occupied people?)
Not a great situation. Hezekiah is now fully losing it. He tears his clothes, puts ashes on his head, and wraps himself in sackcloth—the things you do when you are mourning a death. He is mourning his city, his home, his people. Jerusalem’s future looks all but certain. As tragedy compounds, he sends messengers to Isaiah the prophet, asking him to beg Jerusalem’s Holy One to intervene—perhaps there’s a way in the face of our certain annihilation that God might save a handful for the future to carry on the promises of God. “Please, remember the remnant and have mercy.”
Hear what Isaiah says to Hezekiah in the midst of his grief and dread, despairing at the future which seems all to certain. The Holy One says, “Do not be afraid because of the words with which the servants of the king of Assyria have reviled me.” Do not be afraid because of these words which seem so certain of how this will turn out. Do not be afraid because of the intimidation and threats you’ve experienced. Do not be afraid in thinking that I have abandoned you. I have gone nowhere, Oh Jerusalem, God says, and I am with you.
And then God says, “Now get a load of this.”
I spent last weekend in Chicago with a cohort of other young, early-career clergy from the United Church of Christ with the Next Generation Leadership Initiative. I wasn’t sure what to expect going in; I only knew that the trip was billed as a “church vitality trek.” I’ve been to a lot of church meetings in my life, and I feel like I had a sense of how this would go. After all, the Pew Research Survey says. The New York Times says. We know the numbers. Church is in decline.
Because of that word “vitality,” and because this was a church meeting, I was expecting four days of sackcloth and ashes. I was expecting four days of reminiscing about the way church used to be and lamenting that those days would never come back. I was expecting four days of hearing about how the church is dying and how we can work harder to defibrillate it. Perhaps the Lord will be merciful and we’ll get a few more years out of these crusty old institutions that seem to be crumbling around us. As though that’s the best we could hope for.
Yes, we can’t have any conversation about church vitality without being aware of the situation we’re in. The first step in dealing with the fact that something hard is happening is acknowledging that something hard is happening. But that was the starting point, not the finish line. I want to share with you just a handful of moments.
On Friday night, we were guests for Shabbat at Mishkan, a progressive Jewish community that absolutely packed the sanctuary of the Unitarian church where they worship. Rabbi Lizzi and Rabbi Steven led this faithful crowd of folks from all different generations in the prayers their tradition has held faithfully for thousands of years. The music, the singing, the spirit of the place was defiantly joyful.
Saturday found us at the campuses of the University of Chicago and Chicago Theological Seminary, where we sat down with Rev. Dr. Cynthia Lindner and Rev. Dr. Brad Braxton to dig into some of the weeds of being pastors in this strange time in the world. Cynthia taught us the incredible importance of allowing for multiplicity and difference in our lives as pastors and showing up as our whole selves to ministry. In the afternoon, Brad took us to church with a Spirit-filled sharing on the importance of keeping the Spirit at the center of everything we do as pastors—both of which are pretty good words for the church, too.
On Sunday we worshipped in the morning with U Church in Hyde Park on the south side of Chicago and heard from Rev. Julian DeShazier how he grew into his ministry with the people of U Church, and how by building intentional friendships in the community, together they were able to press the University of Chicago Hospital to re-open their level one trauma center to serve the needs of south side residents. Because U Church knows why they are in that place.
That evening, we worshipped with Gilead, a queer storytelling church that gathers at Chicago bars and spends the evening telling true stories that save lives. Between beers and Rhianna songs as calls to worship, different voices—real voices, not just paid clergy—take the mic to tell a story. No matter how disgusting or silly or heartfelt the story is, the response is always, “the word of God for the people of God: thanks be to God.” Because Gilead knows that God is still speaking in every story.
Every single one of these communities and everyone we spoke to had their finger on the pulse of vitality. They were able to see it. And they were able to see it not because they believed hard enough but because they had actually seen God act in this world. They had first-hand experience of how, just as Isaiah promised Hezekiah, something impossible would happen, and Jerusalem would be saved. They all had first-hand experience of the Holy One bringing newness and life out of their spectacular failures. They know how to see. It’s not that they have “a vision,” it’s that they have vision. And all the same, they are rooted in their tradition, they know why they’re they’re, they’re ready to hear God speak in every story, and more than anything, they are led by the Spirit. God is real for them.
And this was made abundantly clear from the outset by every single person we spoke to: if all we can see is “our church is dying!” we do not have vision. “Save our dying church!” is not a vision. We were not there to learn how to save dying churches. We were there to learn to see anew, to see through the eyes of vitality. We were there to see that impossible things are, in fact, possible. And in the worship and the learning, in the friendships and conversations, in the blossoming of heart that unfolded through the weekend, I find that I, too, have tasted that impossible things are, in fact, possible.
The Church is a community of people who proclaim that impossible things are possible. Our ancestors in faith knew a God of impossible things, a God who frees the enslaved, who routs invading powers, who makes banquets in the wilderness, who breathes new life into dry bones. Our tradition knows a God who forgives the wretched, who makes peace between neighbors, who turns the tables over on death itself. And for centuries, even in the midst of all of our spectacular failures as a faith tradition, we have continued to turn toward the Holy One who raises new life out of the dust.
This is the God who has brought me back to life, the God who has composted all the spectacular failures of my own life into a seedbed for resurrection. This is the God who became real to me in a new way this weekend, in ways I am only beginning to be able to get words around. This is the God who makes Herself known in relationships of authenticity, truth-telling, and empowerment, who breathes her Spirit into us anew when we are floundering in our call. This is the God who is living and active in vital communities of faith. This is the God of the impossible.
If it is possible for faith communities in the 21st century to be vibrant and vital, what else is possible? Perhaps even that our life together might actually bring more goodness, truth, and beauty to the world. Perhaps even that we might learn to forget war. Perhaps that we might even fire up the coals and set about beating our swords into ploughshares.
In a way, the whole trip was one big, “do not be afraid because of what you have heard.” What Isaiah has to say to Hezekiah is the word that I needed to hear this week. And that is the word I want to pick up for you this morning: “do not be afraid because of what you have heard.” Just as God was not done with Jerusalem and Her People (and still isn’t done with them!), just so is God not done with the tradition that bears the name of Christ. God is not done with the Church. God is not done with churches. God is not done with us.
I believe God is calling us to become a community of defiant joy, extravagant hospitality, a people of gladness and singleness of heart. A community where the Spirit that undoes death blows through our being in every prayer, every candle, every brunch, every community partnership, every arts event, every preschool class. Not so that our church becomes great again. Not so that FCC flourishes in a way any of us can imagine. But rather, that the neighborhood and city around us spring up green, renewed, made whole and beautiful because of what is already happening here.
And I believe God is calling us, FCC, to become once again a community that believes the impossible is possible, a community whose presence materially and spiritually changes the world around us for the better, a community where everyone finds space to be their fullest, most authentic selves, a place where we can let our light shine. A house of prayer for all people. A community of courage. A living Church. If you’re on board with that, let’s do this. Amen.