And when the economy turns down, it’s the city that is expected to absorb the shock and make due. We know about the foreclosures. We know the fear and desperation that accompanies such things. The state of Minnesota is facing a $5 billion budget deficit over the next two years. However it gets addressed, I imagine cities are going be hard hit.
How do we imagine peace in the city?
I suppose it depends upon where you’re in the city. It depends upon what you see and what you hear. It depends upon how you are able to make ends meet. It depends upon your state of being. It depends in part upon knowing who is ultimately in charge.
Today’s scripture from Isaiah marks a shift in the book of Isaiah. The first 39 chapters of Isaiah were written to explain all of the wrong that Israel had done and how their warfare and their dismay and even their displacement was a result of their idolatry and their faithlessness. The name Jerusalem means Je short for YHWH and salem meaning peace or God’s city of peace. The Temple of Jerusalem, the heart of that city of peace, was destroyed and the people were taken away into captivity in a foreign land. It was a dark and dismal time in Israel’s history. When their religion depended upon the indestructibility of the city and them temple that sat in its center, they were lost and confused. They had been defeated and faced a crisis of identity. They thought that they were safe as long as they had their city of peace, Jerusalem. But now it was gone.
Enter on the scene a new voice. In captivity, far away in the distance, there’s a voice that cries in the wilderness. Not all is lost. It’s going to take years, but there is another way. There is another future for the city. And the prophet says, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem that her warfare has ended, she has served her term, her penalty is paid and she has received more than her fair share of the burden.” It’s now time to imagine a time of peace. Fifty years after the destruction of Jerusalem, the exiles will return. The temple will be rebuilt and the city will be reborn with a new set of rules learned in their exile.
Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55) sees it as his mission to comfort the afflicted. That is part of the prophetic mission of hope. We could use a bit of hope in the midst of despair.
In this time when so many of us feel afflicted, afflicted by warfare;
afflicted by threats of terrorism;
afflicted by unemployment;
afflicted by rising costs and shrinking incomes;
afflicted by dis-ease with all of it;
afflicted by our own exile from the old rules of engagement and now charting a new course;
afflicted by consumerism and debt;
afflicted by dysfunction and codependency;
afflicted by depression and despair;
afflicted by prejudice and judgmentalism;
afflicted by the tentacles of empire which e\invade our very lives;
afflicted by economic factors that threaten our employment or our schools, or our homes, or even the violence of our streets, we need words of comfort. But Isaiah’s words are not just comforting the afflicted and telling us to not get so riled up. He is also telling us to imagine a time of peace. And not just the absence of conflict kind of peace, but the presence of justice kind of peace. They are words that say that the vision of God is that warfare has ended and there is a new day dawning. They are words that say we don’t have to settle for the same old story given by the same old folk. A new day is upon us.
The tenor soloist sings in the first words heard in Handel's Messiah, quoting Isaiah 40: "Comfort ye my people saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight and the rough places plain." Then all the people sing, "And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it." In a few moments, we will hear the Soprano and Alto sing “And He shall feed his flock like a shepherd.”
When Isaiah says “Comfort, my people.” I think he is saying, “imagine peace in the city. Imagine what it would take to bring peace to the city.”
I have been impressed by the work of Don Samuels in the Jordan neighborhood. Through his organization PEACE Foundation, he has been imagining peace. PEACE stands for Public Engagement and Community Empowerment. They have the audacious goal of seeking to implement programs to reduce violence in twelve city neighborhoods. He has sought to bring warring factions to the table. They have also sponsored programs like PEACE Games and the PEACE Ball. Whenever someone is gunned down in the neighborhood, he is there with other leaders in the community to stand vigil and say that we need to imagine peace in the city, for to do otherwise is to give over our power to those who do not imagine peace.
When hurricane Katrina hit the gulf coast three years ago, it exposed the fact that peace is a big challenge in the cities. It shone a spotlight on the poverty in the city. It exposed to the nation that racism and classism are alive and well and live in our cities. The Baptist Peace Fellowship has been working with folks in New Orleans for the past couple of years as they rebuild their city and their lives. They imagine peace in their city, but they are under no illusions that peace is a long way off. Early in the rebuilding process, Mayor Nagin proposed that each of the 12 disaster zones have a casino as an anchor for new development. Would this bring peace? What would happen to the displaced? Would they be able to return? You see, it was peace with only the right kind of people.
Luckily, there were other people who were imagining peace for their city. A group of pastors formed an organization called churches supporting churches. They proposed building or rebuilding three churches for each of the 12 disaster zones. That would be a good way to establish or at least imagine peace in the city. And they have been hard at work doing just that. They have struggled to help people keep their land and their homes when others would rather that they just go away.
They imagined peace in the city. And they still imagine it. It won’t come easy. Most things don’t. But remember that God is always on the side of peace. God is always on the side of justice. God is always on the side of mercy. God is always on the side of compassion. God is always on the side of the people over the institutions that may imprison us. God is making a pathway in the wilderness a highway for our God.
We have tremendous power, if we realize it. It is the power of imagination. It’s the power that says that God’s plan for us is to live in peace. We are to find ways to make wars cease. We are to address issues of injustice in our cities. As we are trying to find our way out of the latest economic crisis and wonder how many city jobs will be lost in the US auto industry, it would behoove us to remember that God makes a straight path even in the midst of the wilderness. The valleys are lifted up. The Mountains are leveled. We can see our way to the promised land if we look close enough and spend some time with others who want the same thing.
This scripture is not just a sentimental prophecy that we pull out every Advent season. Rather, it’s a reminder that the God we follow is not content with business as usual. This God will bring us out and calls us not just to be recipients of tidings of comfort and joy, but providers of comfort and joy. Think about how you are being a provider of comfort and joy. Think about how you can imagine peace in this city.
Imagine peace in the city is the word for today. Experience the peacefulness that comes from the tidings of comfort and joy and the generosity that is part and parcel of the Christmas season. But remember also that peace is a process that lasts beyond December. It’s a constant need and a constant blessing if we can embrace it. May we do so this Christmas.
"Comfort ye my people says your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem that she has served her term and that she has received from YHWH’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of YHWH, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight and the rough places plain. Then the glory of YHWH shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of YHWH Lord hath spoken it." (40:1-5)
And may we then sing with real meaning, “O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy. O tidings of comfort and joy.”
May we imagine peace in the city.