St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church
Twenty-Sixth Sunday After Pentecost
Isaiah 65: 17-25
2 Thessalonians 33:6-13
Dark Hills with God
God walks the dark hills
The ways, the by ways
He walks through the billows
Of life’s troubled sea
He walks through the cold dark night
The shadows of midnight
God walks the dark hills
Just to guide you and me
I’m an Iris Dement fan and I went to see her in concert Friday night. I thought I wouldn’t because I wasn’t feeling much like going out, but I knew I needed to. Going to an Iris Dement concert is like going to church. You go in feeling a little out of sorts and come out feeling better, you go in feeling a bit washed up with little hope for tomorrow and you come out feeling like you can get up and keep moving toward it.
If you don’t know who Iris Dement is, I imagine you will come to know her some before I leave this church. I play her music every now and then at workshops or retreats. She’s been singing a blend of country/gospel for decades, alone and with all the top country and gospel singers of the genre and has been called by NPR as “one of the great voices in contemporary popular music: and her work hailed by the Boston Globe as “a work of rare, unvarnished grace and power.”
Whatever they all say, I just like to listen to her brash honesty and her soul-filled heart…..like to sing at the top of my lungs in the car, belting it out with Iris. So I was feeling of one accord with her when I left the concert….. until, making my way home on the Eastside, I ran into fallout from the downtown rioting. Traffic was stalled amid people running between the cars and glass in the street from a car which appeared to have ended up in a store window. Police sirens and buzzers threaded their way through the alley we were forced to make in order to let them through. Then a large van came with five policemen hanging on each side of it in full swat team gear…all carrying an assortment of weaponry and deterrents. Somebody on the side walk yelled at them as their van, cars and motorbikes…. crept careful through the merging traffic and I suddenly realized how quickly the situation could escalate. A car to my left urgently indicated the need to merge back into my lane, not an easy task. But between us and several other cars we were able to let them in. The entrances to the freeways were closed which meant more cars trying to manoeuver their way out of the area. We all finally freed ourselves of the mess and made our way to Broadway in order to find a freeway entrance and when I did swing onto the I-5 N, my experience took an eerie turn. When you pull onto a freeway at night, glancing into the rear view mirror you usually see a thousand lights behind you. This time there were none. All was dark except for the lights from my car and the other cars who had turned with me. While we were together, the other car occupants must have all felt a similar sense of aloneness as I did, as we left the chaos we’d experienced behind us and entered a realm of darkness. No lights on the bridges, no light swarming down into places where we expected to merge. Just dark and just quiet. And I thought of Iris Dement and her song, “God walks the dark hills.”
In that moment, I threw out all my thoughts which had been gathering in my mind for the creation of this sermon and let God give me the words inspired by Iris. God doesn’t walk the dark hills because this or that presidential candidate is elected or not elected. God walks the dark hills to move into the places where hate……for whatever reason, is trying to get a foothold. Where the shadows hide…. longing for hope and where dark corners peer out toward a better tomorrow.
Jesus told his disciples that when the time came for them to speak for God, he would give them the words and would give them wisdom that none could contradict, because they would be speaking God’s truth and not something made up in the moment, like an angry retort, or offensive and frightening racial epithets, or words meant to incite a riot the way they did in the streets of Jerusalem as Jesus passed by and the way they did in Portland last week. And the words to Iris’ song continued in my mind….
God walks the dark hills
To guide my footsteps
He walks everywhere
By night and by day
He walks in the silence
On down the highway
God walks the dark hills
To show me the way
Reaching home, I realized how close I had come to a moment where I might have had to put my faith to the test as, like the temple walls in Jerusalem, all that was we have come to know as beautiful in Portland….peaceful assembly for a thousand causes, embrace of difference and acceptance of the weird, was falling down in the face of anarchy. And yet….beneath all that, the kernel of life of what was beautiful about it still is….still exists and God calls us and anyone with ears to listen…. to create it and grow it anew.
The Prophet Isaiah underscores God’s intention to create good out of the ashes of division and as I read the Prophet’s words, I gave thanks for the comforting guidance of his fine and sweet literature ….. his own imagined vision of all things made new. The prophet leads us to think in this way as the walls of the temple… as we have always known it and defined it…..come tumbling down.
But we must understand that Isaiah is not talking about building a new kind of utopian temple world out of the ashes of the old. Building something out of the old does not imply the complete destruction of all that has gone on before, but rather the continuation and evolvement of that which has been built on before.
As Christians we can envision the metaphor of the kind of renewal Isaiah is talking about….when we remember Jesus, the incarnate Son of God coming into the world to walk with us in the world. Jesus embraced a radical approach to creating a new world, using building bricks of love, understanding, hospitality, inclusion and achieving power through non-violence. Jesus never tested anyone to see what side they represented, he simply loved all that believed in Him, all who professed faith in God, Son and Holy Spirit, be that a Centurion, a leper or a tax collector. He came not to judge any of these, nor to expect that all should be understood, but simply to love their common humanity and to love the God in each soul encountered.
The life of Jesus, his death and resurrection are true lenses for us to look through as we contemplate engaging in whatever new creation we envision. Not out there, somewhere in someone else’s world, but in the here and now, in our world….in each one of us, in our church community and in this city.
We are charged with the same question as were our ancient ancestors. What is it in us and in our world we are to let go….. and from what in each of us and in our world does God want us to turn away?
This scripture from Third Isaiah is reflecting a time when Judah is deeply divided and its people cynical about the future. Their life is challenging and hard and resentments run large due to a long period of exile and now they look for new ways and places to find what they need for fulfillment and happiness. Does this not remind you of something familiar?
Isaiah’s words come to us from a particular context, that being from a world of people largely turned away from God and doing their own thing in the world. For these people, Isaiah’s words are difficult to hear just as they are for us.
Although Isaiah’s images might seem a bit outdated by 5,000 years or so, the images have not aged and are as relevant today as they were when first created: change, restoration and new things, which have nothing to do with whether you are a Democrat or Republican, rich or poor, white or black, Christian, Jewish or Muslim….even as each is impacted by the world. God wants all God’s people to reach the Promised Land and what is that. It is a way of living that embraces God’s divine will, and not worldly expectations. “For I am about to create a new heaven and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered, or come to mind.” (Isa. 65:17) and that means no more perspectives which are cruelly divisive, racist, mean spirited or exclusive.
Nothing completely passes away according to God. God only wants us….with faith to build upon creation already in place for good ….and to believe that all things are possible with God. Isaiah does not speak of building a new creation out of nothing, the Prophet speaks of creating new good out of the chaos, of creating new good out of an abused environment and whatever else, humankind, in its ignorance and lack of faith, manages to mess up.
If we choose to ignore the Prophet’s warning…..we enter into God’s divine judgment of the entire world, “Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down. (Luke 21:16)
It is an echo of Isaiah’s warning to take care to notice whatever it is that would step in front of the way of peace and justice for all…all people and all nations. It is through his encouraging and guiding words that hope is kept alive, and not through hate-filled rhetoric. The Prophet urges God’s people to place trust and hope in the very God who created them and who created the land they have lived on since the beginning of time.The invitation to God’s people is to give thanks for that, to revel in it and to act with and for God to ensure that all God has created can be preserved and will evolve.
Isaiah’s vision is about possibilities, about the evolution of what is present now, and where our faith in God guides us as we continue to move forward with hope into the future. And God will “delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.” (18-19)
As Christians we receive this promise from God which extends far beyond 5,000 years, into our lives and the lives of all people of this world and in the world to come. It is the life of the wolf, the lamb and the serpent….a message of judgment and salvation which will be heard by a worldwide Anglican communion and other mainline churches around the world today.
Isaiah’s announcement of what passes away and whatever is new that emerges from it will give us all profound thoughts this week, and in the weeks to come, about our roles in creating whatever is good and new in God’s Kingdom.
Here at St. Aidan’s we have been living with the reality of learning to live into a new relationship with another culture and our desire to please God is showing in that we are beginning to laugh with one another, build and create together, learning to recognize each other’s strengths rather than pointing to our differences.
And….last Wednesday morning, after a post-election meeting at the Cathedral with our Bishop, Dean Nathan and other priests, I came back ask our vestry to consider allowing an Arabic Christian Church the use of our sanctuary. The church is looking for a home and is searching for a special worship space to rent. I am happy to say our vestry supports this idea and now the Arabic Church will decide if it can arrange a 1:00 service instead of 10:00 or 11:00. And you thought moving to 9:00 was a problem? Not long after I talked to them, we received an anonymous donation toward their rent from someone who heard about our open show of support and wanted to participate in this small step toward inclusivity.
We pray they come to us…come through our open doors. Yet…. regardless if they are able to or not, they know they have been made welcome, that there is sanctuary for their worship here if they need it. It is one small way in which we walk the hills and valleys with God to create a new Jerusalem out of what has already been created in the past.
Jesus knew all about politics and knew all about the pendulum of popular opinion and its harsh edges and swift vagaries. Jesus knew the pulse of the people and understood their dreams and their fears which drove them into the dark places.
In our Lord’s lifetime on earth and in our own, we will always find ourselves with different ideas, different approaches and different thoughts about solutions to problems. But we don’t build a new Jerusalem by closing the dark places, we walk with God directly into the dark hills and valleys of our world, specifically so that we can shed light into them.
We light them with prayer for reconciliation between all people, we pray for our enemies, for those who through their own ignorance of who we are, would harm us or hurt us, we pray for those who make us afraid, who keep us in our dark places, afraid to speak out, afraid to be seen as different, we pray for all those who are working to create a new Jerusalem by walking with and for God…..in the footsteps of Christ.
Building a new creation isn’t easy but walking with God, keeping Isaiah’s vision in sight, brings life to our faith and far-seeing hope through our love. And it is the small moments of love that will get us to a new place as Church, as a nation and as a world. Small moments of loving care and sincere devotion to the other, person by person ….. beginning with each one of us.
There will be more earthquakes and there will be more wars, there will be more plagues and famines and families and nations will find themselves divided because yes….there will be other elections…..and yet, Jesus gives us the “words and wisdom” to continue on with determined and deep-felt optimism and faithful hope, to work for what is good and for what is right in God’s eyes. We don’t need to become part of a protest movement in downtown Portland, mixing up our message about that which we are protesting. We are already part of a far more radical protest movement whose message of loving kindness and sincere acceptance is clear.
Our hearts filled with faith in the message of Jesus Christ, we take note of the Christmas tree, quietly waiting to take its turn in downtown Portland, with its message to all with ears to listen….. walk with God making a joyful noise…… let the sea and her creatures roar and the hills ring out, let us play our music and sing.
We sing the words of the late great Leonard Cohen, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
And we sing with Iris Dement…..
God walks in the storm
The rain and the sunshine
He walks on the billows
On through glimmering light
Helps us walk up the mountain so high
Cross our rivers through valleys
God walks the dark hills
‘Cause He loves you and me.
Written to the Glory of God
- J. R. Culver+ Post-election, Nov. 13, 2016
 Iris Dement, God walks the Dark Hills: Lyrics
 Psalm 48: 4-9