(Stained glass rendition of the prophet Isaiah, by Valentin Bousch, 1533, Metropolitan Museum of Art, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Daily Office Readings for Friday, February 15, 2019:
Our reading from Isaiah today is a familiar one–the proclamation of the Good News to the Hebrew people returning from the Babylonian exile, and finding that things are not as good as they would have hoped them to be. When reading this passage, we tend to focus on the proclamation itself and its Messianic overtones–yet, at the same time, if we over-focus on that, we miss the more tangible good news hiding in the background. This is not simply a story about messianic good news; the message also proclaims a wonderful upside down story about our own human agency in spreading the Good News.
Further in the passage, we see images of amazing transformation…namely that fallen people are being transformed into workers who will usher in God’s reign. The people who are hearing this were captives, with a history of episodic disobedience to God–yet Isaiah proclaims they are precisely the people who will be the ones building up the ancient ruins and building up Jerusalem.
Generally speaking, the oppressed, the brokenhearted, captives, and prisoners would not be our first choices for agents of renewal. No one would have predicted that the aliens and strangers would be the ones shepherding and tending the vineyards in this new arrangement. It must have been a scary proposition to those who have returned–they’ve discovered Jerusalem wasn’t anything like they had imagined, and now, on top of that, Isaiah proclaims that they will be agents of renewal working side by side with those whom they’ve always been told are “not like us.” What fun, eh?
This paradoxical pairing of bright and shiny with dirty and messy is something we often encounter in mission work. So many times, we enter the mission field with the idea that we are somehow the bearers of bright and shiny–only to discover a world of dirty and messy, a world that seems impossible to fix. Sometimes we discover that the bright shiny edifices we thought would last for years, and provide some good, don’t last very long.
I recall some of the dismay I felt when war re-erupted in South Sudan. My diocese had been very involved in mission work in South Sudan. We were excited to help folks have clean water, a roof for a school chapel, treadle sewing machines that worked, and tools for them to continue to build, in a time of relative peace. Then war showed up again, and how much remains of any of that is anyone’s guess. Making peace with the hard facts that most of those wells probably don’t work any more, the school is closed, and the tools and sewing machines may have ended up God-knows-where as spoils of war, was a hard, bitter pill to swallow. Even harder to swallow was the reality that many of the people I knew there are no longer there–some are dead, some have been relocated to refugee camps out of country.
When I reflect on this, and try to find my serenity in it somehow, what comes up for me is that I had it backwards. We were not the bearers of the bright and shiny. We were bearers of useful things, but the true bright and shiny was in the relationships we made with one another, and the fact that even though the stuff is likely gone, all of us have been transformed somehow. We received word a while back that when we provided some goods for those we knew were in a particular refugee camp, they shared their bounty with camp residents from another tribe living at the camp–a tribe where, had they all still been in South Sudan, would have been their enemy.
Turned out the bright and shiny face of God was already there–in them–and if I was allowed to even share a sliver of it, it did not come from our practical works–it came from the nights we sat by the fire and told stories of all of our common hopes and dreams. It was in the laughter when I was explaining what a whitetail deer was, complete with pantomime antlers and trying to say it was a “big dik-dik.” It was discovering one of the people we were “teaching” how to use the sewing machines knew more about sewing on them than any of us did. It was learning that South Sudanese children, even with a translator’s help, like stories with bodily noises as much as American children do, and laugh just as hard. In all those moments, we saw the face of God in one another, and even if time and war and death part us from here on out, we know it’s there, and we know it’s real.
Isaiah’s proclamation serves as a reminder that God is constantly proclaiming the Jubilee–the brightest and shiniest good news of all–yet, at the same time, it is to be found in the dirty and messy, and if we plan on living into that Jubilee, we’d best roll up our sleeves and start pawing through the rubble.
When is a time that your imagined image of the bright, shiny face of God actually obscured the bright, shiny image of God staring right at you?
Maria Evans splits her week between being a pathologist and laboratory director in Kirksville, MO, and gratefully serving in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri . She presently serves as Interim Assistant Priest at two churches, Church of the Good Shepherd in Town and Country, MO, and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Manchester, MO, as they explore a shared ministry model.