What Does Peace Look Like?

Passage: Isaiah 62:1-5
Date: January 20, 2019
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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The people who lived in darkness have seen a great light, Isaiah told us once, back in Advent as we were awaiting the birth of the Christ child. We’re now in the season of Epiphany, celebrating the light of Christ in the world. But today’s text tugs at us to go back to Isaiah, not to those hopeful words from chapter nine, but to a different situation that is the setting for chapter 62.

The entire book of Isaiah spans three different eras in the history of Israel – warning, exile, and homecoming. We’re in the homecoming part now.Israel was punished for her sin in the destruction of the temple and in the exile to Babylon. The people spent a few generations in exile, and now, in this last part of Isaiah, they have returned to their land. The great Persian leader Cyrus defeats Babylon and recognizes that the people of Israel desire to return home, so he allows that and enables that.

They had such high hopes for that homecoming. At last– their land! Sure, the temple would need to be rebuilt, but what a project! They would be on their land, the land promised to them by their God, a land flowing with milk and honey.

But when they come home, they see not milk and honey but dried up streams and rubble. They see not vineyards dripping with grapes but fields that have lain fallow for too long. They see not their homes and their neighbors but desolation. They wonder if God is still punishing them. They wonder if they will ever know shalom – wholeness, peace, prosperity.

Do we not wish for the same things – for wholeness, for peace, for prosperity?

I have to tell you that some mornings, I spring out of bed without any alarm going off, and I make my coffee and settle into my crossword puzzle and am glad to start the day. But other mornings, I awake to the sound of the rain, and my mind starts thinking about Syria and those refugees, or about the thousands of migrant children separated from their parents at the border, or about homelessness and gentrification in Portland, and getting out of bed seems like a bad wager.

Maybe you feel that way too. Maybe you don’t, and that’s your prerogative and not being weighed down by these things helps a person get out of bed in the morning.

But for some of us, it’s painful to knowledge that many of God’s children in our world today experience what those children of Israel did twenty-five hundred years ago: fear and bewilderment, despair, and all those things that do not make for peace.

This weekend as our city and so many other places hold events in memory and in celebration of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., the unfulfilled legacy of his work is on my mind. The work he and others set out to do resonates with the Isaiah text for me. I see images of despair and rebuilding on the foundation of hope and reconciliation. And I think about our own situation here in this northeast corner of Portland.

When we moved here seven and a half years ago, I was surprised to learn that only 6-8 percent of Portland’s people are African American. I’d lived in the Midwest and the East Coast and in Texas – all places with greater racial diversity. As I settled into my new life as a Portlander, I learned more about the city’s history and how the Vanport Flood of 1948 destroyed the life of Vanport’s 40,000 residents, over ten percent of whom were African American.

I learned about the displacement of the black community in the Albina neighborhood with the expansion of Emanuel Hospital and the building of the I-5 corridor through the middle of the neighborhood. I learned about unfair eminent domain practices and redlining that prevented people of color from buying homes in certain neighborhoods.

When our daughter started kindergarten at a nearby local school, it was a Title 1 school, meaning that more than 60% of students were on free and reduced lunch. Because of gentrification and rising home costs and differently incomed people moving into the neighborhood, the school is no longer Title 1, but not because the situation of the families improved. And remember that the vast majority of Title 1 schools in this school district are in northeast Portland.

I was fascinated by the debate in recent city council elections about the right of return program. The Guardian newspaper describes it well: “The program gives down-payment assistance to first-time homeowners who were displaced, or at risk of displacement, from the city’s north and northeast neighborhoods because of urban renewal; it falls under a city plan that delegates how $20m will be spent on affordable housing in an effort to atone for the sins of gentrification.”

Some running for office fully endorsed the policy; others asked why folks would want to return to their old neighborhood when it no longer looked or felt or had the things that make for home. It’s all in here in Portland; it’s all there in Isaiah.

The prophet spoke to a people who felt forsaken by the powers-that-were and worse, by their God. They came home not to overflowing vineyards and a shiny new temple but to desolation. They called themselves by those names, “Forsaken” and “Desolation.”

But the prophet did as prophets do, offered a word of hope to these downcast people. No, the prophet said, pleading his case to God and reassuring the people. No! It will not always be this way. So deeply did Isaiah love his people, so grounded was he in his call that he could not keep silent. He spoke of a future, of hope, of crowns and diadems, of new names and new identities, of a wedding, all of which would lead to shalom – to peace, wholeness, and prosperity for all.

How would that happen? Through the grace and love of God, of course, who would inspire the people and give them what they needed to rebuild their lives, their temple, their city, and their nation. And the people who stayed and were not exiled would work with those who came home after exile. It would take a while. It takes a long time to build a temple. It takes a long time to plant a vineyard that will bear fruit. It takes a long time to rebuild community.

It would take faith and patience and hard work. It would also take a reimagining of who the people were. They were not forsaken; they were Delighted In. They were not desolate; they were Married, which is to say, they were loved and cherished and committed to. They did not wear rags; they were crowned in the finest jewels that would reflect the light of their nation.
History tells us these people eventually knew shalom. The temple was rebuilt. They prospered so much that new prophets had to warn them about their excesses. God was faithful to them. And for a while, indeed, they knew peace. They knew shalom.

I often wonder if we will know peace and shalom here in Portland. Gregg and I plan to be here for a while, and we might even retire here, but that’s a ways off. Still, I feel a commitment to the wholeness of this city, to the peace of our neighborhood, and to the prosperity not just of some but of all. I wonder if we might take anything of what the prophet says and learn from it and have hope for some of the things that make it hard for us to get out of bed in the morning.

Before we get to hope, I think we need to acknowledge that right here, in our city, in our neighborhood, maybe even in the congregation, there are people who feel forsaken and desolate. They feel invisible, forgotten, demeaned as having less value. They feel pushed out, exiled even.

Some feel forsaken and desolate because they have been the victims of persistent and systemic racism. Racism is an ugly fruit born here in the U.S. out of the ashes of slavery. I wonder sometimes if we will ever recover from that sin. And dismantling racism is hard, slow work. Dr. King was prophet when he said the arc of history is long – it is so long we can’t see that bend toward justice. But we show up and we do our part because God calls us to join in this reconciling work and because that’s what neighbors do.

Dismantling the devastation of racism requires work at the individual level and the systemic one. If you are interested in being part of this work, let me suggest three ways you can begin to make a difference.

The first is this: seek in your heart, your soul, your gut the desire for shalom for everyone. There is no room for hate in this work of reconciliation; there is no space to call someone an enemy. Last Thursday Gregg and I attended a lunch for pastors and law enforcement about an initiative to have congregations work with the beat cops in their neighborhood. It’s a program started by a black Baptist pastor in Atlanta, and in his presentation he reminded all of us there of one the foundations of Dr. King’s work, that the work of civil rights was not to destroy enemies but to transform enemies into allies. There are no enemies, only neighbors and allies and those who will become our neighbors and allies. Recognizing that our neighbors and our allies, like us, are worthy of shalom – peace, wholeness, and prosperity – is the first step.

The second may be the hardest: confront attitudes of prejudice and racism in your own heart. There are a thousand ways to do that depending on your own personality. You might seek out an accountability partner, someone you can admit things to. You might journal about what you see in your assumptions and attitudes. You might take full advantage of the silent prayer of confession. You might read a book about racism or white privilege. You might attend any number of events in Portland that address this issue. But if we don’t confront our own sin, we will never realize the depth of grace we need.

The third is this: find a way to advocate for laws and policies that free us up rather than reinforce an unjust status quo, especially those that affect our local situation. Tax policies can affect poverty. Voting to fund schools can help those Title 1 schools. The City of Portland has created a Racial Equity Toolkit for how it does business, and there’s hope in that too.

Over the past few years, different members of the church have spoken with Gregg and me about wanting to address racism, and in a few weeks, we’re having a conversation with these self-identified stakeholders. Last year we had a group read the book America’s Original Sin:Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America and participants had often lively discussions. We hope to offer more opportunities for the congregation to engage in this holy work.

Well. There is much rebuilding to be done. The opportunity before us is not unlike the opportunity that lay before the people of Isaiah’s time. Will we answer the call to do the hard work, to ask the hard questions of ourselves and others, to do our part to reconcile the world, even if we don’t see the end of our work? Do we believe that all the world deserves God’s shalom – peace, wholeness, prosperity?

I’d like to leave you today with some thoughts Dr. King offered almost sixty years ago. “Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood [and sisterhood]. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers [and sisters] or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”(Martin Luther King, Jr., Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution, 2 June 1959)

May we all work toward being what we are meant to be. Amen.