Hope Can’t Wait
December 1, 2019
Isaiah 2: 1-5
Rev. Alice Fleming Townley
I didn’t even remember the house at first, which was probably a good thing because if I had I’m not sure I would have gone inside. We had returned to East Lansing to buy after many months since our initial house hunting trip. Oh yes, it came back to me as I walked through the door, the bright red room complete with a restaurant sized bar, that opened into the pale colored house around it. The realtor threw in a few rumors of wild parties and crime. I come from a Temperance family and had little kids.
The difference this time was that I had toured many more houses, and renovated our Kalamazoo home over many nights while small children slept. Now I could imagine what I could not see with my eyes. With helpers and friends, we repurposed the center to be a place of nurture and hospitality, creativity and play.
The passage we read today from the prophet Isaiah is a vision inviting people to see what could be. The passages on either side tell how it actually was. Isaiah lamented—the city once full of justice, was now of murderers . . . The princes were companions of thieves and everyone loved a bribe and ran after gifts. The people did not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause did not come before them. (Isaiah 1:21-23) Isaiah warned of God’s anger and judgement.
And then we come to today’s reading in the middle of discord and despair. Chapter 2 begins, “The word that Isaiah ‘saw.’” This is no ordinary ‘seeing.’ The author used the Hebrew haza which is different from seeing simply physically ra’a. Haza is to see a spiritual way. [i] It’s a seeing that comes in prayer and scripture, and through wondering and wrestling. It’s a seeing that may come in conversation in community or alone in the middle of the night. Isaiah ‘saw the Word’ that sweeps over deep watery chaos and brings forth life.
The poet Sarah Are wrote for our Advent devotional for today:
. . .Hope requires us to believe in a better day—
Even when this one is falling apart.
Hope looks the 24-hour news cycle in the face,
Hope looks our broken relationships in the face,
And declares at low tide that the water will return.
Hope is exhaling, trusting that your body will inhale again.
Hope is watching the sunset and setting an alarm.
Hope is planting seeds in the winter, assuming summer will come.
I never said it would be easy.
The ground is frozen, you are thirsty, and the night is long.
But I will say this—
I have found hope to be the rhythm of love and the fiber of faith;
For to hope is to believe in God’s ability to bring about a better day
And like a child with an Advent calendar,
I will always be counting down the days . . .[ii]
Isaiah envisioned a time when many peoples and nations would stream to the house of God of Jacob, to learn God’s ways and walk in God’s paths. Zion and Jerusalem would be faithful communities to learn from. Swords and spears, tools of violence, would be changed into plowshares and pruning hooks, tools of turning over dirt and cutting out the dead wood. These practices help seedling roots form, grow, and ripen; and with such practices likewise people root, grow and ripen. Isaiah added, “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!’ (Isaiah 2:5)
This fall Katie See and Michael McKissic spoke to our church during Christian Education hour. Katie shared that the three leading causes of death by gun violence in America are accidents, suicide, and urban violence. Michael shared that on August 1, 2015, his dear son, Michael ‘Mikey’ McKissic II, age 23, was murdered with a gun in Lansing. Mickey worked for Michael in McKissic Construction, the firm his grandfather, Lonnie, started. This was not supposed to happen; Mikey was going to continue the family business. Michael and his wife Sherry and there three other children, were grief stricken. Somehow, someway, Michael and Sherry saw that the way through their grief would not be the way of perpetuating violence, but the way of turning towards that which gives life. They started Mickey23 Foundation in Lansing which helps young people learn trades while repairing buildings that would otherwise be torn down. Sherry has started a fund to help families who can’t afford to bury their beloved who have died from gun violence.
I learned from the newspaper that the rehab project they started this fall is a fourplex that will one day house 4-8 parolees while they learn a construction trade. Michael’s father Lonnie hired former offenders, including Michael himself. Michael had started in his brother’s drug business and served 7 years in prison, and his brother is still there. When Michael got out, he said he had his parents, the father’s construction business, and his Islamic faith to help him walk in a straight path. Now he wants to give that support to others. In September, they organized a youth basketball tournament and a march aimed at stopping violence. Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon and Lansing Mayor Andy Schor and area clergy joined in the event.[iii] The mission committee has sent money to support the Mickey23 Foundation and maybe next year we can dribble a basketball or join in the march. Michael and Sherry are imagining what could be, changing swords into plowshares, planting seeds, and nurturing life.
For several nights in November, searchlights illumined the sky on the U.S.-Mexico border between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. They had nothing to do with the increased border enforcement. They were part of a binational art installation that aims to connect people on both sides of the Rio Grande. It was called Border Tuner, like the tuner on the radio. It worked by one person stepping up to a microphone and turning a small wheel that controlled a set of searchlights. Someone at another station across the border did the same. When the two lights touched in the night sky, it opened a two-way channel of communication. They couldn’t see each other’s faces, but they could hear each other’s voices.
“Buenas noches,” said a tentative voice, one dark night. “Buenas, buenas.” Came the reply. And then a conversation of longing and blessing began, the light pulsing with their vocal vibrations. “Beautiful.” “Bonita”
Border Tuner was the dream of electronic artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. He said, “I realized that everybody . . .is tired of divisiveness, racism, and militarization. While all of this is true, there’s so many other narratives that are being missed about interdependence and coexistence and about the fact that connections between, at least, El Paso and Ciudad Juárez go deep historically, socially, environmentally, economically,“[iv] He worked on this project for two years and included authorities from both countries. The searchlights created a bridge above the barrier. Each night’s program began with a 30 minute program by a local artists, historians, and activists. Then the most intimate part was when two strangers connected. Two children asked each other about their favorite animals. A lawyer who volunteers for asylum seekers and a middle school art teacher thanked each other. One person in El Paso shared fear and regret, and someone from Ciudad Juarez gave assurance and courage.
And Isaiah, saw the Word, “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” For Isaiah, he didn’t wait until all was well, until the downward spiral turned around, or until the right leaders and laws came to pass. In the midst of chaos and despair, Isaiah cast a vision. Swords into plowshares. Spears into pruning hooks. Instruments of death turned to instruments of life. This is Advent. We remember the incarnation, God taking flesh in a brown-skinned baby under Roman occupation. We remember that Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, turned the instruments of death into instruments of life. And, we yearn for full redemption. In this time between already and not yet, hope can’t wait. Hope helps us gaze through God’s eyes at chaos and death, and lament with God’s heart. Hope helps us trust that God is still working and still coming and still re-creating. Hope us join with Michael and Sherry McKissic and the Mikey23 Foundation in tragedy reaching out to comfort and create new possibility; and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer helping strangers building bridges with light. Hope helps us imagine with Isaiah and Mary. May it be, in us, according to God’s Word.
[i] Casey Thornburgh Sigmon, “Commentary on Isaiah 2:1-5,” Working Preacher, December 1, 2019, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4315
[ii] Sarah Are, “God’s Promised Day (Hope) Can’t Wait,” p.1, What Can’t Wait: 2019 Advent Devotional, c 2019 I A Sanctified Art LLC I All Rights Reserved.
[iii] Judy Putnam, “Michael McKisssic, founder of Mikey 23: ‘It’s not how you fall down, it’s how you get back up,” October 18, 2018, Lansing State Journal, https://www.lansingstatejournal.com/story/opinion/columnists/judy-putnam/2019/10/18/michael-mckissic-mikey-23-parolee-construction/4020767002/
[iv] Mallory Falk, “Interactive Art Installation Lets Strangers Talk to Each Other Across the Border,” NPR: Morning Edition, November 22, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/11/22/781730178/interactive-art-installation-lets-strangers-talk-to-each-other-across-the-border