Message by Rev. Jenny Carter
September 9, 2018
Based on Isaiah 35:1-10
When it comes to learning how to swim, there are three options. The first one is, for a variety of very good reasons, you never learned how to swim. The second one is the adults in your life signed you up for a series of swimming lessons, and cheered you on as you progressed through the ranks of swim class, and now you can navigate any body of water anywhere . The third option is some well-meaning person tossed you into the deep end of the pool, and trusted that you would figure it out. Which we know you did, because you’re here this morning.
For me, I am an option three kind of person. When I was 7 my family installed a back yard pool and so it was imperative that everyone knew how to swim. My siblings had both had swimming lessons, but I hadn’t. When you’re the third child, sometimes your parents just assume that you’ve had the same experiences as your siblings. And sometimes it doesn’t matter if you don’t have the same experiences, and sometimes it really matters. It really matters when it comes to things like riding a bike, knowing how to read, and swimming. Especially swimming since the stakes are higher when it comes to failure. Swimming is something you can’t learn just by watching your older siblings. Swimming is something you have to experience.
Nothing can quite prepare you for being tossed into the deep end of the pool when you don’t really know how to swim. Sure, my family was all around and I knew how to dog paddle a little bit, and I certainly knew how to hold my breath under water, and I took comfort in knowing that if I got into trouble my parents were within arm’s reach. But still, there is a good amount of fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the water. Fear of maybe not doing the right thing. And when you’re seven, you’re convinced monsters live at the bottom of the deep end. I remember the fear. I also remember that after I had been tossed in, and as I made my way back up to the surface, the surface seemed a long way away.
The deep end of the pool is a lot different than the shallow end. In the shallow end, if you get tired, or if a big splash hits you and you have trouble getting a mouthful of air because of the water filling your nose, you can just stand up. Not so in the deep end. In the deep end of the pool you need to struggle and persevere until you can make it to the side of the pool and catch a bit of a breather. And so, if you spend a lot of time in the deep end of the pool, you better learn how to swim.
Our world is in the deep end of the pool, and humanity better learn how to swim. Our climate is warming at an alarming rate, and every 24 hours 150-200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal become extinct. Which is 1,000 times higher than the natural rate. Our polar ice is melting, the oceans are rising, and the forests are burning. Once stable democracies, places that traditionally worked for freedom and justice and equality, are under threat by populist leaders who seek power at the expense of the well-being of the people. Power hungry leaders who seek to scapegoat whole groups of people, whole religions, and entire countries. Currently there are 63 armed conflicts going on in the world, 21 of which are classified as a war. As of today, there are 68.5 million forcibly displaced people in the world, including 25.4 million refugees.
Our world is in the deep end. And some of us have had swimming lessons, others of us can dog paddle a little bit, and others of us can’t swim at all. And of course, there are some who don’t even realize that they are in the pool, let alone the deep end of it.
We are not unlike the people in the Isaiah passage. Like us, they were in the deep end of the pool. And like them, we too live between “devastation” and “restoration”. It’s a daunting and scary place to live. Wouldn’t we all love to be able to hold on to the Utopian vision that Isaiah presents us with? How wonderful would it be to be able to say, “yes, we have been through the times where creation burns, and justice is denied, and power has been abused, and wars cause whole nations to be homeless – but there will come a time when creation will heal and bloom, and justice will flow like a mighty river, and rulers will be just, and wars will be no more”. But that is not our current reality- we are not living in a time of restoration. Like our ancestors in the faith, upon their return to Jerusalem saw, not a shining brand new city but, a pile of rubble, when we look around our world, we don’t see the restoration, we see the devastation.
While Isaiah’s future vision of restoration might not be our lived reality, Isaiah’s words of hope most assuredly should be. As we struggle in the global deep end, as we look for the people within arm’s reach who will help us when we get tired, or when we get a mouth full of water, we should be reminding one another that – even though things are bad now, and the whole world is poised on the brink of devastation, there will come a time when things will be better. We need to hold on to this hope. We need to share this hope. Hope is key, because without hope, there is no life and no future, because there is no point to anybody doing anything. It is critical to hold on to hope.
Having said that, it can be hard to hold on to hope. We look around our world and see very little evidence that the world will be celebrating restoration anytime soon. Yet it is important to remember that even Isaiah knew that hope seen, isn’t really hope. Hope comes when all available evidence points in the other direction, yet still there is something deeply moving and incredibly precious that motivates humanity to rise up, and eventually rise above the current devastations. Humanity has a role to play for sure.
If it’s true that hope that is seen is not really hope, it’s also true that hope left unseen, hope that is not dared, is not hope either. Hope isn’t sitting idly by while the world burns. If we hear Isaiah’s words of hope and think “ah, every blind eye will open, and all shall be well” either metaphorically or literally, then we have made a presumptuous mistake. Especially if we think we humans have no role to play other than just sitting back and waiting for someone to come save us. But if we sit back and say, “No eyes will be opened, and nothing will ever be well” then we have made the exact same mistake, just in a different direction.
For us, for people who seek to live faithfully, there is a middle way: In faith, we can take a stand, not of presumption, either positive or negative, but rather of openness to the future. We can be open to the future, rich with the expectancy of all the unimaginable good that God, the holy or divine, can accomplish in any given moment. All the while remembering that we are to be a part of the divine intervention.
In the book of James, which was part of today’s lectionary passages but left unread, the author is quite blunt: we, the audience, are to be the reversal we wish to see. We are the ones to lift up the downtrodden, to honour the meek, to love neighbours before they have anything to offer us. We are the ones to reduce our carbon footprint, to work at addressing climate change, and to help refugees find a home. We don’t need to wait for someone to come and save us, we are the ones we are waiting for.
This is what Isaiah is talking about too. When stuck in a hinge time and place, we are to be the reversal we wish to see. And it doesn’t matter that what we can realistically do is small, or whether it is large, in terms of global impact, the fact that we are doing it is what matters. Because when we do what we can, where we are, what we are really doing is daring to hope. And when we dare to hope, we can help those who are struggling in the deep end alongside of us to have hope too.
Czech dissident and first post-communist president Vaclav Havel said it so well: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it will turn out.” We are the ones we are waiting for. And it is we who announce, “yes, we are living through times where creation burns, and justice is denied, and power has been abused, and wars cause whole nations to be homeless – but there will come a time when creation will heal and bloom, and justice will flow like a mighty river, and rulers will be just, and wars will be no more.” Because it makes sense to have a planet where life is sustainable, where people can live freely, where power is used for the benefit of all, and where justice and peace prevail. That is hope.
May it be so, in your life and in mine.