A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 17, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Isaiah 65:17-25
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I have lived a blessed life.  I was raised by loving parents in a fairly functional family.  My siblings and I all got along – and continue to get along.  The big crises were typical teenager induced troubles and a period when my father was unemployed – which lasted maybe nine months.  I was in junior high when my father was unemployed.  I asked him early in that period how my parents would pay the mortgage and he told me that they had paid ahead over the years so I didn’t need to worry – so I didn’t.

As an adult, I got into good school and graduated without crippling debts.  I got jobs and only faced unemployment once – and it only lasted for six months.  And, thanks to a generous aunt and uncle, I didn’t worry about paying my mortgage during that time either.

I share all this because I believe that our life experiences influence how we interpret scripture and, until very recently, I don’t think I really, fully understood the two defining experiences of Judaism that are recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures.  I don’t think I’ve really understood, at a feeling level, the Exodus and the Exile.

As a rule, I think Christians have a better sense of the Exodus than of the Exile.  After all, there’s a book in the Bible called “Exodus,” and Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy all tell the story, too – though from different points of view and with different agendas.  Thanks to Hollywood, many of us have images of Charlton Heston carrying stone tablets imprinted on our consciousness.

The basics of the story are clear enough:  Moses demands of Pharaoh that he “Let my people go.”  After a bunch of arguing and a bunch of plagues, Pharaoh lets the Hebrews go.  And the Hebrews wander in the wilderness for forty years before they finally settle in what they saw as their “Promised Land.”

The Exile is a little less clear.  In fact, anything that happened after King Solomon is less clear for most Christians.  So here’s a really quick, overly simplistic overview.

The Hebrews settled (or conquered) the “Promised Land.”  They were a confederation of tribes ruled by Judges (thus the book of Judges).  Eventually, they became a kingdom under King Saul, then David, then Solomon.  The 12 tribes were united and really flourished under David and Solomon, but then the confederation fell into two kingdoms:  the 10 northern tribes (known as Israel), and the 2 southern tribes (known as Judah).  In 722 BCE, the Assyrian Empire conquered Israel and they become the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.  Then, in the 580s BCE, after the Assyrian Empire fell, the Babylonian Empire defeated Judah, sending the elites (and maybe more) into exile in Babylon.

Now, I’ve known this history – yes, I have to look up the dates each time I talk about it – but I’ve known this history since college.  And I’ve understood intellectually how important these experiences (or at least the stories of the experiences) were for the formation of the Jewish identity.

The stories of the Exodus formed the Hebrews into a covenant community.  They were community be virtue of their covenant with each other, and they were community by virtue of their covenant with God and God’s covenant with them.  Incidentally, this understanding of being a covenant community is core to the understanding of what it means to be church in the Disciples of Christ tradition and in the United Church of Christ tradition.

During the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, the Temple was destroyed.  Hebrews left behind and especially Hebrews separated from Jerusalem by exile had to figure out how to keep their identity without access to the Temple.  What emerged was the synagogue and the rabbi.  This was a new way of living in covenant with each other and with God, and it’s fair to say that the Hebrew identity became a Jewish identity with this emergence.

So, I knew all this stuff up here in my head, but I am developing a new emotional understanding of these stories, too.

Biblical scholars believe that our second lesson[1] comes from a time after the return from the Babylonian Exile.  The Persians defeated the Babylonians and Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and Judah.  But the Jerusalem they returned to was not the city of its former glory.  Think, instead of Detroit after the collapse of the U.S. auto industry – the loss of population, the rise in crime, and the decay of infrastructure and institutions.  If these words came from perhaps two generations after the return from exile (as some Biblical scholars suggest[2]), we can imagine a prophet Isaiah, walking through the rubble of the city.  “Much of the city was still in ruin, including homes and markets, and many people continued to suffer the effects of oppression and dislocation.  Hunger, thirst, illness and early death, sorrow and grief, economic injustice and political turmoil were the realities of the day.”[3]

And in the midst of all this, his voice rings out, carrying words from God:  “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; … be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.  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.…  They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.”

These are words of hope in what most would see as a desperate situation.  And they are words that reveal God’s building plan.  This new earth that God is creating brings a relationship with humanity so close that “Before they call, I will answer, while they are yet speaking, I will hearken to them,” and so peaceful that “The wolf and the lamb shall graze alike, and the lion shall eat hay like the ox” (Isaiah 65:24-25).[4]

But how do you hear these words?  Do they fill you with hope or anxiety?  For those of us who have not experienced exile (do you see why I spoke about how blessed my life has been?), these words can be anxiety producing.  As historian and theologian Diana Butler Bass tweeted yesterday, “[The] Bible promises new things, not the comfort of old things.”  (Then she hash tagged it nomorenostalgiaincchurch.)

And I’ll tell you, moving outside the comfort of familiar things is anxiety producing – for me, at least.  Okay, God, you say you’re creating new heavens and a new earth.  And I believe Jesus was and is a vital part of that building plan.  But I gotta tell you, change is hard.  The only person who wants change, as far as I can tell, is an infant with a wet diaper.

Yet we, as a church, are in the midst of change.  In fact, we are in the midst of a major change.  And I’ve noticed over the past four weeks anxiety levels in our church have risen.  No wonder, really.  Four weeks ago, the congregation voted to authorize the Cabinet to approve a sale agreement for this building.  And there was some talk about the offers we had already received.  And in the past four weeks, the Construction Team has pursued one of these offers to the point of presenting it to the Cabinet with a recommendation that it be approved at tomorrow night’s meeting.  And we haven’t even broken ground on the 36600 Niles Blvd. site.

What will happen?  Where will we live?  How will we be church if we sell this building before the next one’s ready to be occupied?

I don’t think it’s just me that has these questions or this anxiety.  Yet, here we are, seeming to be stepping voluntarily into a year of exile.  And there are some among us who are experiencing anticipatory grief at the coming loss of ownership this property and the sense of identity that comes with that.

I’m grateful we have the Biblical stories of the Exodus and the Exile to hold us as we experience this anxiety and grief.

Information can help reduce anxiety – so I’ll share some.  But recognize that information alone isn’t going to relieve all the anxiety.  Nor will information ease the anticipatory grief.

That in mind, here are some of the basics of the offer.  It’s a cash offer, which is nice because we don’t have to worry about financing.  The Construction Team and our realtor say that amount of the offer is about as good as we’re going to get.  If all the contingencies that come with any offer are satisfied, we would close sometime in February.  The agreement includes that we can lease back the church building each Sunday morning and the sanctuary each Thursday night, plus the two pastors’ offices and the storage closet in the office as our own.  The outer office would be the purchaser’s space, but in a sense a shared reception area.  The lease back agreement goes through December 2014 (about the time we hope construction will be completed at 36600) and the cost is $1 per month plus our share of utilities, yard care, cleaning, and such.

So, worship, Sunday School, and coffee hour – the heart of our life together as a congregation – will continue pretty much as we have known them.  The choir will continue pretty much as we have known it.  Setting up for worship and cleaning up after worship will have some additional tasks associated with them, and we won’t be able to use the facility during the rest of the week without making a special arrangement with the new owner.

So, how we are church together the rest of the week will shift.  Pastor Brenda and I anticipate that we will be sharing an office and maybe we’ll start having office hours in coffee shops from time to time.  Those are all details that we will live into and we will work hard to communicate through the newsletter.

But none of this information fully answers the question about how we will be church together during this in between time.  What about all the stuff we do that’s not on Sunday mornings?

Well, I think there is an opportunity for us in not being owners of the facility where we worship for a year.  We have an opportunity to spend a year getting to know each other better and tending to our spiritual growth.  Because we won’t have the open opportunity to gather at the church for programs whenever we feel like it, we can gather in small groups in each other’s homes for fellowship, study, and spiritual support and accountability.  Some of these groups might include one of your pastors, but some won’t.  We will care for one another, united in God’s love for everyone’s journey … no exceptions.  This is my hope for the coming year.

This is supposed to be my annual money sermon.  This is supposed to be the sermon where I ask you to take a look at your financial situation and your giving.  Traditionally, I’d invite you to tend to your sharing so it really furthers your spiritual journey.  I’d ask you to make sure the percentage of your income that you give away, and especially the percentage you give to the church, impacts your lifestyle enough to make the sharing a spiritual practice.  And then I’d invite you to make a pledge, to fill out a pledge form and to bring it next week so all our pledges can be dedicated together.  All of that is good, important even.

But given the changes our congregation is going to go through this year, I have one question for you:  Do you trust God to guide our community in this year of transition?

“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.”

If you trust God to guide us, then I invite you to make as big a financial commitment as you can so we won’t just be building a future together, but we will be participants in God’s building plan.

Amen.


ENDNOTES

[1] Isaiah 65:17-25.

[2] See, for instance, Kate Huey, “Infinite Possibilities/A World Filled with Love,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/weekly-seeds/infinite-possibilitiesa.html (16 November 2013).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Michaela Bruzzese, “Lions and Wolves and Lambs (oh, my!),” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/lions-and-wolves-and-lambs-oh-my (16 November 2013).

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