A reflection on Proper 9A, July 6, 2008, by The Rev. Margaret Rose
Last week I phoned Delta airlines to change a reservation for next August. It was evening, just after thunderstorms had created havoc in Air Traffic Control Land. Tara, the agent, on the phone was perfectly nice, but I could tell she was exasperated—perhaps with me, but also in general. So I tried to soothe in seeking to get what I need. “Things must be tough out there tonight.” I venture. She tells me quickly of the thunderstorms and cancellations and the incessant red lights on the switchboard. And then starts in on the sad state of the economy, her mortgage, the war in Iraq, the violence in Zimbabwe and the hopelessness of it all.
Then there is a pause. “But it will all be over soon.” She concludes. My pastoral ears prick up. “Are you about to go home for the night?” I ask, wondering if the real truth is down sizing or perhaps happier --retirement. “Oh no”, was the reply. “The end time. You, know, the Book of Revelation. (Taken aback, I began to wonder if my ticket said Reverend anywhere.) She continued, “Now doesn’t matter any more. There is no hope for here. I’ll be glad when the final day comes.” I suggest that perhaps there have been a number of these predictions in the past and that today and tomorrow really are important, even if the apocalypse IS around the corner. Having nothing of it, she reminds me she must get to other customers and finishes her work on my ticket.
Whew! I was reminded of the number of times, I, as a child growing up in Georgia was terrified that the end had come and I’d been the one left in the field. Back then it was Hal Lindsay’s Late Great Planet Earth and today’s it is the Left Behind series as well as interpretations of the book of Revelation. I shuddered as I hung up the phone to return to Zechariah’s own oracles and apocalyptic visions for the future and the Hebrew text for today hoping to find an antidote to such fear mongering—if not for Tara at Delta, then for those of us who seek to find hope in a 2008 world which has much need of fixing. Gratefully Zechariah offers both historic similarity and quite a different prophetic vision. .
Zechariah the prophet lived in a despairing time perhaps not so different from ours. Six Hundred B.C. might not have had a mortgage crisis or a bear market and post colonial Africa was eons away. But there were certainly housing problems and war and tumult in the Middle East. The temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed and the band of faithful scattered. Lamenting a war torn world, the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon, confounded in a strange land, losing faith and despairing. Here enters the prophet Zechariah whose prophetic imagination offers hope for a future. Though his oracles and visions describe End times like those of the Delta Airlines agent but there was one great difference. Now matters. The prophet’s voice speaks hope for the earth, the promise that God will not give up on the people of Israel, that the land here and now in history will be restored---not without repentance and renewal, not without hard work, but nevertheless in real time—and with real people not in a heaven far away where only some will be taken up.
“My cities will overflow with prosperity, the Lord will comfort Zion.” And to paraphrase …No matter that the city walls lie in ruins. You won’t need them any more. Jerusalem will be a holy refuge and God’s protective presence will keep the people safe with love. In this new future, the prophet continues, “Old and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem each with a staff in hand because of their great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.” ( Sounds like kick the can and sitting on the stoops of town houses.) The land where rest and play become the image of prosperity to which a robust economy and booming industry are secondary. This vision is not that of a restoration of former glory but of harmony of relationship. Yet as always, with the vision comes a challenge—the need for strong hands to do the work. The prophetic messenger exhorts the people to come and labor on. Let your hands be strong in the works of justice and mercy.” With this grounded vision, God’s people cannot help but be filled with hope even for their own lives, even in the midst of despair: Here again the words from today’s lesson: the battle-bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
today I declare that I will restore to you double.
Prisoners of hope…That is the promise.. As God’s people, we too are prisoners of hope… not happy go lucky, not laissez faire and certainly not passive hope.. entrapped in hope! Not always an easy way to live, not without work or challenge or the need for our own strong hands But nevertheless a promise and a call—to those of old and even for us.
I would have liked to share this vision with my despairing Delta Agent. Would it have helped? Probably not. But what of us who also read the news and who also live in this land which even as it celebrates with gratitude its independence, is not unaware of trouble and suffering at home and abroad. What of the hope of this country who once seen as acity on a hill called to be the new vision of hope for the world. What of the new World, the new Jerusalem, the land of hope? Is there a vision for us? Is there a way forward in our own time in which can claim hope from Zechariah’s vision. Can we look at our own history and our own future -- Can we too claim to be prisoners of hope because of who we are enabled to be by our own faith?
Could it be that the very criteria for Discipleship, for Christian witness is that we live as Prisoners of Hope… That certainly is our self identity as a nation ---whatever our religious or political affiliation.
A couple of weeks ago Lt. Anthony Woods graduated from the Kennedy School after several desert tours in Iraq. There he commanded a unit where too many died before their time. No easy answers, he said, upon coming home, only questions, and it would be reasonable to despair. Yet in an address to his class he claimed a different vision, “Many who came before us looked upon the world and could have found reason to despair, but instead of losing hope, they chose to act;
Let us remember the abolitionists. Their legacy calls on us to end slavery and human trafficking in own time. Let us remember the scientists. Their eradication of polio and smallpox inspires our effort to cure cancer and hiv/aids. Let us remember those who ended apartheid in South Africa. Their struggle shows us how to stand up for human rights for citizens in places like Tibet or Myanmar “…or even our own country.
These witnesses have left a legacy of hope , a foundation to rebuild that City of Peace in our own time.
Talk is easy of course. And yet there are these witnesses even today who have kept on keeping on, who have allowed the hope which may at first seem to shackle, yield to freedom and new life.
On this independence day weekend I pray that we will look to our history and use Zechariah’s vision to spur us to a future which may not restore us to some idealized former glory but which celebrates our own and others freedom and pride.
In the parish where I was once the rector every “Independence Day Sunday” we sang this hymn to The musicians and poets among us thought it was sappy and sentimental but we sang it anyway and claimed it’s truth along side the chorus of America the Beautiful.
THIS IS MY SONG
This is my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
But other hearts in other lands are beating
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country's skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on clover-leaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
Oh, hear my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine.