Today’s lessons may be read here.
How do you know when a story has ended? When it’s over, and everything that’s going to happen has happened, and there’s no more to be told?
Maybe nine months ago at Sandbox, our Thursday evening worshipping community, I shared one of those wonderful stories from Scripture that the lectionary never gives us on a Sunday. It’s a story from the time before King David, told in the first Book of Samuel. The Israelites were at war with the Philistines, their perennial enemies. They suffered a defeat in battle, and the Philistines capture the Ark of the Covenant, the holy golden chest that contained the stone tablets on which God had written the Ten Commandments. It was their holiest object, a sign of God’s presence with them, and it was at the front with them because they believed it to be an object of great power. And they lose it, in battle.
The Philistines carry it off in triumph to city of Ashdod, and place it in the temple of the god Dagon, one of their gods. They put the Ark at Dagon’s feet, as a sign of their god’s victory over Israel’s God. It’s a terrible moment, a real low point. If the story ended there… it would not be a good ending for Israel or her God. But the story doesn’t end there, with failure and defeat. In the morning, the Dagon statue has fallen over. So they pick it up again, and think nothing of it. But the NEXT morning, Dagon has fallen again – and now both its arms broken off and flung all the way to the threshold of the temple.
And then other things started to happen in Ashdod. People start getting these horrible growths all over their bodies. And there’s also a virtual plague of mice in everyone’s houses and fields, eating everything and pooping everywhere. It sounds funny, but it’s really not – in a subsistence agriculture economy, this is the stuff of famine. Ashdod wants to get rid of the Ark, so the next town over, Gath, says, Send it here. But then the same things start happening in Gath. So they send it on to Ekron, and guess what?…
Then the five lords of the Philistines got together and said, You know what? LET’S GIVE IT BACK. Let’s send it home to the Israelites. And they ask their wise people, what should we do? Should we send an offering to make peace with its God? They answer, Yes. Send the Ark back with five gold tumours – like the growths that appeared on the people – and five gold mice – one for each lord of the Philistines.
So they load up the Ark on a wagon, and put with it five gold mice and five gold tumors, and they hitch two young cows to the wagon, and they send them off, and the cows immediately pull the wagon straight towards the land of Israel, the city of Beth-Shemesh. The people were harvesting there, and saw the Ark coming. They welcomed it with great joy, celebrated and made offerings. That’s where you’d want to end the story, if you’re looking for closure, for just deserts. The people Israel dancing and singing with joy; the Philistines looking on at a distance, relieved to be rid of the thing, and having learned that Israel’s God was serious business…
If you want a tidy ending, stop there. If you go on, another verse, another chapter, the story gets messy again. As stories do – at least, the real ones. At Sandbox I had people make little golden mouse plaques. See, here’s mine. To remind us that the story might not be over yet. When we feel defeated and lost, God might still have some golden mice up God’s sleeve. The story is still moving.
Today’s lessons from the prophet Isaiah and the book of Luke give us two moments – not even chapters, but paragraphs – from another long, sprawling story, one of the central stories of our Scriptures: the story of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was conquered by David, not too long after the story I just told; he brings the Ark there and makes it capital of his kingdom. His son Solomon builds the Temple there. Jerusalem becomes the Great City of Israel, and takes on a symbolic meaning far beyond its reality. It’s a city, a real place with real beauties and real problems; it’s also The City, the religious and political and cultural heart of a people and their faith.
Both Isaiah and the visionary John who wrote the Book of Revelation imagine God’s ultimate salvation and redemption of the world in terms of a vision of a redeemed Jerusalem, a holy city. A City of peace and plenty, of freedom and health. Jerusalem is named over 1000 times in our Bible. Sometimes those writers are talking about the literal place. Sometimes about the symbolic place, the City of God. Sometimes they mean both at once… In the book of Tobit, as in many places in the Bible, the image of the return from exile and rebuilding of Jerusalem is used as shorthand for the redemption of God’s people, the setting-right of all that has gone wrong, the restoration of everything that has been lost. So Jerusalem is Jerusalem, and also often much more than just Jerusalem.
In this short passage from the book of Isaiah, the prophet is looking from one of the bad times towards the good times. These late chapters of Isaiah were probably written around the time of the return from exile, when the people Israel were released to go home by Cyrus, the new emperor of Persia. They had a LOT of rebuilding to do, in every sense; people had been scattered for two generations. But it was a moment of hope and possibility. A few verses before today’s passage, the text describes the destruction and loss that God’s people have lived through: “Your holy cities have become a wilderness, Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation. Our holy and beautiful house, where our ancestors praised you, has been burned by fire, and all our pleasant places have become ruins.”
If you stopped the story then, things would look pretty hopeless. But the story was still moving. That destruction and loss is the context in which the prophet offers this holy vision of the City’s future: “No more shall there be in it an infant who lives only a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime… They shall build houses and live in them; they shall plant vineyards and enjoy their fruit. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity… They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.”
Five centuries later, Luke’s Gospel brings us Jesus talking about Jerusalem – this time, looking from one of the good times towards a bad time. At this moment, things are superficially fine – the Romans, King Herod, and the chief priests all getting along great, sharing the work of extracting wealth from the people and keeping any eruptions of dissatisfaction under control. Jesus sees how thin and tenuous it is; he sees that it’s not going to hold. How close the people are to the breaking point. He sees things with God’s eyes, yes, but to be honest any perceptive observer could probably have called this.
About thirty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Israel rebels against Roman rule; they lose. Jerusalem is destroyed, the Temple – the second great Temple, built after Cyrus sent the people home from exile – the Temple is torn down, not one stone left upon another. Luke and the other Gospel writers are writing after those events, which seemed like a terrible and final ending to many people. In the 70s and 80s and 90s, they knew that something would survive, that there was some kind of hope beyond those losses, that God still had some golden mice up God’s sleeve; but they did not know, yet, where it would lead, whether it would last. In the Epistles we hear the voices of the early Christians busting their butts to try to help write that next chapter. To make sure that neither Jesus’ crucifixion, nor Rome’s crushing of Jerusalem, would be the end of God’s people, God’s work in the world, God’s story.
Of course the story of literal Jerusalem goes on – messy and conflicted, beautiful and heart-breaking. And the story of metaphorical Jerusalem… of God’s people and our efforts to fumble our way towards that City of Isaiah’s vision, where no child is born to calamity, where everyone has a home and food – that story goes on, too. It goes on.
My dear ones. The election this week shook the country. Shook many of us, deeply. I don’t believe anyone here feels anything as simple as triumph or joy. Some of you probably feel some relief, because you trust one party’s approach to our country’s problems more than the other, and that party won.
Some of you feel deep, gut-wrenching grief and anger and fear, about what this next chapter in our country’s life will bring. I know that’s what you’re feeling, because I’ve heard from you, over the past few days.
And all of us – I’m just going to say this, because if it’s not true, it should be – all of us are deeply concerned at the widespread and well-documented reports of increased verbal and physical violence against Muslims, Latinos, GLBTQ folks, and others, perpetrated by those who see this election as legitimating hatred. Kindergarteners are bullying other kindergarteners by telling them they’re going to be deported. Young Muslim women are afraid to wear the hijab, the headscarf that is a sign of their devotion to God, for fear of being harassed or worse. A gay Episcopal priest got a note on his windshield calling him “Father Homo” and telling him that Trump will take his marriage away. However you cast your vote, as citizens and as Christians, we cannot tolerate this persecution of our fellow Americans and children of God.
There’s a lot to wonder and worry about, as we look around our country right now. There’s so much we don’t know. We’re still just trying to get our bearings in a changed landscape. Trying to stay connected, and remember to breathe.
There have been so many times in the long story of God’s people when people have thought, This is the end. The end of their people, their nation, their faith; even the end of everything. And there have been significant endings, of course – but none of them have been The End. The End, like the last page of a storybook. We’re not at that page yet. I don’t think we will be, anytime soon.
Please hear me: I’m not saying this election doesn’t matter in the big picture. I’m not saying everything will be OK. This new chapter will make new demands on each of us and all of us. Next week and next month and next year we will keep figuring out how to be the people of the story. People who work and pray for the good of the city where we dwell, faithfully and fiercely. People who stand right where Jesus told us to stand: shoulder to shoulder with those who are threatened or pushed to the margins. People who struggle to love each other and listen to each other, because we cannot afford to write each other off. We cannot.
Right now this is all I really know for sure, all I’m ready to say: This is not The End. The story is still moving. This story, our story, all our stories. The American story. The Christian story. The story of St. Dunstan’s. Still moving, still being told, being made, by our words and our choices, individually and together, and by the God whom we name as the Author of our salvation.