July 5, 2020
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About a month ago, Princeton Presbyterians, the campus ministry that Len and I serve as chaplains, hosted our annual Reunions event. In past years, we’ve had a breakfast open house in Nassau’s Conference Room, and it’s always been so much fun to catch up with alums, and to celebrate our new graduates with their families.
With the coronavirus pandemic keeping everyone at home this year, we decided to plan something different via Zoom. Our seniors were experiencing an end to the school year unlike any other, and we wanted to do something meaningful to celebrate them. So we organized our Reunions meeting as a time for alums to offer words of blessing and encouragement to graduating seniors.
One of the alums who offered a word to our graduates was Kim Pearson. Professor Pearson teaches journalism at The College of New Jersey, and she was one of the first Black women to graduate from Princeton University. Professor Pearson shared about how she and her friends got deeply involved in protesting and organizing against apartheid in South Africa while she was an undergraduate student. She talked about how it seemed at the time like apartheid was fixed and immovable, something that would never change. But she and her friends became a part of a movement for justice, imagining hope for something that seemed far off and impossible.
Professor Pearson encouraged our graduates to get involved in the struggle for justice in our time, even if the fruit that work will bear is a long time coming. Even if it seems impossible to fully imagine. It was twelve years after she graduated from Princeton when Nelson Mandela was released from his prison cell on Robben Island. Four years after that, he became President of South Africa. After many years of struggle, of not knowing what the end would be, the dream became reality.
Friends, you and I are part of stories that we will not see the end of, but we trust that God’s promises of Good News are true. In times marked by despair, God invites us into the work of imagining hope, of dedicating ourselves to the long and challenging work of making our world more just, more loving, more humane. God calls us to take part in a story in which, as South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu once wrote, “goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness, life is stronger than death.”
In the passage of Scripture that David read for today, the prophet Isaiah dares to imagine a hopeful vision of God’s redemption in a season of hopelessness and despair. The people of Judah have been living as a displaced community, exiled in Babylon, for two generations. The elders who lived in Babylon could still remember when armies laid siege to Jerusalem, tearing down its walls and burning the Temple that once housed the glory of the LORD. Children and grandchildren had grown up as second-class citizens far away from their homeland, a tiny minority in a vast empire obsessed with power and domination. The stories we have of Judah’s exile in Babylon are about survival, especially when God seems to be silent. Hope for something more could be not only foolish, but deadly.
Drawing upon the power of poetry, the prophet calls his people to dream an impossible dream: a return to Jerusalem, the reconstruction of their Temple, the aspiration to live again as free people. Their God, the living God, is already working to bring them out of the death-dealing ways of Babylon. God’s Word for the people of Judah is like rain falling on thirsty fields, nourishing plants, making them flourish and bear fruit.
God is calling this people to hope, but not to an abstract or empty hope, an escapist fantasy designed only to cope with the ugly indignities they faced every day. No, this people must take up the work of justice, to dedicate themselves to bearing witness to a God who makes human beings free. They must remember that they worship a God who declares that every person is deserving of dignity because they have been created by God. Every person, no matter great or small, bears the image of the divine within themselves, and therefore deserves to be treated with justice and equity. Justice is, after all, what the philosopher Cornel West describes as “love lived out in public.”
The people of Judah must get ready, because God will lead them home like a shepherd with a flock to bear witness to God’s steadfast love for the world. The prophet says that their homecoming, their revival as human beings with God-given dignity, will be such a profound triumph of this living God that the mountains and hills will break into song. Even the trees of the field will clap their hands. The whole Creation will thunder with praise.
We do not know how long it was between the time Isaiah proclaimed this vision and when the exiles finally returned to Jerusalem. Maybe its realization was more than a decade away, not unlike Professor Pearson’s hopes that apartheid in South Africa would come to an end. But another ancient Hebrew prophet named Habakkuk reminds us that God’s Word may seem to delay, but it is worthwhile to wait for it. It will surely come.
We have shared a long season marked by despair in so many ways. For months, we have been living in quarantine. We are seeing a national reckoning with racism reveal more tragic murders by authorities, such as the death last year of Elijah McClain in Aurora, Colorado. Amid economic turmoil, political instability, systemic racism, and a deadly outbreak, it is hard to imagine hope, to think of a future marked by human flourishing.
But God is still inspiring people to offer their gifts and talents, to contribute in hope toward the possibility that justice, joy, and peace will surely come. For example, Len and I are so proud of two of Princeton Presbyterians’ graduates, Trina Swanson and An Lanh Le, as they work with Princeton University Professor Ruha Benjamin’s Just Data Lab.
The Just Data Lab’s new “Pandemic Portal” gathers data at the intersections of racism, inequality, and the pandemic. By gathering research about the unsettling truths we face, the lab is oriented in hope, a determined hope of “creating a more just world in which we all can thrive.”
A radical commitment to the thriving of every person sounds like a hopeful imagining that resonates with the world Jesus promises. As followers of Jesus, we believe that God’s Word has been spoken in its fullness in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Jesus calls us to lives that imagine the Reign of God is happening right now, and that its fruition is still to come. When we join together as guests at his Table, we remember that Jesus, our host, gathers up our pasts, our present, and our future into a promised reality where everyone has enough, no one lives in fear, and all Creation offers itself to the living God in praise. We come to Christ’s Table in hope, dedicating ourselves again to his service. Amen.