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Sermon for January 20, 2013

God’s Garland of Beauty
Because I love Zion,
    I will not keep still.
Because my heart yearns for Jerusalem,
    I cannot remain silent.
I will not stop praying for her
    until her righteousness shines like the dawn,
    and her salvation blazes like a burning torch.
The nations will see your righteousness.
    World leaders will be blinded by your glory.
And you will be given a new name
    by the Lord’s own mouth.
The Lord will hold you in his hand for all to see—
    a splendid crown in the hand of God.
Never again will you be called “The Forsaken City”
    or “The Desolate Land.”
Your new name will be “The City of God’s Delight”
    and “The Bride of God,”
 for the Lord delights in you
    and will claim you as his bride. Isaiah 62:1-4
We all know how the entertainment industry works. A movie gets released, makes a ton of money, and as a result everyone wants to go back and milk the cash cow yet again with a sequel. We’ve seen it a thousand times for a thousand different movies, and usually the sequels are never as good as the original shows. Either there’s a “been there, done that” feeling or the plot changes somehow to turn the audience against the very same characters they once loved. Not all sequels are bad. Some are good, but not as good as the original. Then, there are the sequels that are so terrible they effectively ruin the good name of the original movie.

Consider the movie, The Matrix Reloaded (2003). I really liked the original movie, The Matrix, when it came out in 1999. I didn’t understand half of it, but I liked it. The special effects were larger-than-life, the film spawned obnoxious catchphrases, and everyone wore a big black trench coat for Halloween that year. Needless to say, when the sequels were green lighted, everyone was excited about the possibility of seeing where the characters ended up next. Unfortunately, as one critic said, they ended up taking the stink train to Lousytown. The Matrix Reloaded was everything the original Matrix was not: boring, entirely too long, technologically outdated, and stupefying pretentious. The redo is not as good as the original.

Consider another example: A woman in Spain took the art world by storm when she decided to save her church some time and money and restore her favorite piece of art. She went to work restoring the flaking, 100-year-olf fresco of Jesus, ecce homo, using skills that only the parent of a kindergartener could love. The result was a simian-looking Jesus that looked like a rhesus monkey with a lion’s mane and a robe. Just because someone's paid to restore works of art doesn't mean they can't mess it up — especially when seemingly minor mistakes can have major consequences.

Redos aren’t always as good. I get that sense from the reading from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah 62 comes out of the post-exilic period, a period of new beginnings for the people of Israel, but also a period of unrealized hopes.  After generations in exile, the people of Israel have returned home and are rebuilding Jerusalem. They have high expectations, but things aren’t working out quite as expected.  The new Temple they are building lacks the grandeur of the old, destroyed one it is replacing. It’s lousy. And they feel lousy. Their new chance at self-determination is failing. The sequel isn’t so great.

And to make things worse, Isaiah uses the well-worn biblical image of a morally loose women to explain Israel’s feelings. The people of Israel are presented as a desperate, fallen harlot in need of deliverance by a man through marriage. Isaiah 62:1-5 is one of those texts that make progressive people cringe. In an age in which women have made tremendous strides in education, earnings and independence, this text sounds offensive to our modern ears.

At the same time, behind the offensive imagery we hear a grippingly tender voice. God is intimate and emotive. The people feel forsaken, despised and desolate. God feels differently. It’s as if God, the Beloved approaches her cherished darling from behind, wraps arms around her love and pulls her partner into a closer embrace. It is a scene of pure delight.

It reminds me of a scene from the book Mortal Lessons, in which physician Richard Selzer describes a meeting in a hospital room after performing surgery on a young woman's face: I stand by the bed where the young woman lies -- her face, postoperative -- her mouth twisted in palsy -- clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, one of the muscles of her mouth, has been severed. She will be that way from now on. I had followed with religious fervor the curve of her flesh, I promise you that. Nevertheless, to remove the tumor in her cheek, I had cut this little nerve. Her young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed, and together they seem to be in a world all their own in the evening lamplight -- isolated from me -- private. Who are they? I ask myself -- he and this wry mouth I have made, who gaze at and touch each other so generously. The young woman speaks. “Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks. “Yes,” I say, “it will. It is because the nerve was cut.” “She nods and is silent. But the young man smiles. “I like it,” he says. “It’s kind of cute.” All at once I know who he is. I understand, and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with the divine. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers -- to show her that their kiss still works.

The God I encounter in this reading from Isaiah is the Partner who is willing to do whatever it takes to relish the transcendent beauty of the beloved.

I want you to think about the person sitting to your right and your left. Think about the person who is sitting in front of you and behind you. Think about your family and your friends. Think about the handful of people who drive you crazy. I’m going to tell you something about them. They know desolation. They know what it feels like to be God-forsaken. Let me tell you something else about them: Each and every one of those people, you and me included, aches to be loved. In a world that seems plagued by an epidemic of emotional agony, it’s not surprising that we are infatuated with love. Many people will go to great extremes to feel loved. Romantic fantasies . . . casual one-night-stands . . . we’ll spend billions of dollars on how-to-books, pills, make-up, and seductive clothes. But none of these seem to secure the kind of love that will fill the empty, lonely spot inside that waits for someone – anyone – to accept and passionately love the real me.

We all have times when we look inward, and see nothing but bare mountains, deserts, desolate wastes. We all have times when we feel alone; times when we feel distant from the people we adore.  We feel devastated when trusted friends betray us.  We are wounded when those whom we trust attack us for no legitimate reason.  We are confused when disease strikes us and those we love. We are perplexed when we cannot save ourselves and our loved ones from pain.

In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius of Loyola encourages a process of self -examination founded on the idea of listening for how our deepest feelings and yearnings can impact us.  He encourages us to get in touch with our areas of desolation. We don’t run from misery. We acknowledge the pain. And we also look for opportunities for consolation. Simply put: Consolation is whatever helps us connect with ourselves, others and God in life-giving ways.  Desolation is whatever disconnects us.

When I think of consolation, I think of a word I’ve introduced from this pulpit before. It’s from the Buddhist tradition. The word is Maitri -- Sanskrit for “unconditional friendship with one’s self.” Unconditional friendship with one’s self can be hard to find. We feel grief, shame, fear, anger and regret, and we look outside of ourselves for some validation.  A lot of this has to do with our relationship with pain and difficulty. What might happen if we stopped struggling against the pain in our life? This is not the kind of question we like to answer. We want a redo! We want a sequel. We want to fix pain, or at least ignore it. When we try to ignore pain, we ignore part of our very selves.

To this interior world of desolation, God speaks consolation. God says, “You are my delight.”  God takes great delight in raising people up from the dust. God finds those whom everyone else has given up on and uses them to radiates God’s glory to a broken world

This week, I want each of us to find a space where you can be alone with God. Sit quietly and allow the Sacred Spirit to confirm this message to you. Allow God to speak love to you in inward stillness. Come to God saying, “O God, lover of my body, mind and spirit, I am yours. I belong to you and you love me as I am.” And as you listen, may the Sacred Spirit twist and touch your pain you as you feel the kiss of a God who is totally in love with you

Friends, I have some good news for us today. In the words of poet Anne Weems:
In the godforsaken, obscene quicksand of life,
there is a deafening alleluia
rising from the souls of those who weep,
and of those who weep with those who weep.
If you watch, you will see
the hand of God
putting the stars back in their skies
one by one
Or, in the words of the Gospel According to Martina McBride, "God is great, but sometimes life ain't good/When I pray it doesn't always turn out like I think it should." 

God meets us in our desolation, and adorns us with garlands of beauty. Not only are we God’s delight, we can SHARE God’s delight in the most disappointing times, the most devastated places, in the deserts and wastelands and shadows. As Martina says:
You can spend your whole life building
Something from nothin'
One storm come and blow it all away.
Build it anyway.

You can chase a dream that seems so out of reach
And you know it might not ever come your way.
Dream it anyway.

This world's gone crazy and it's hard to believe
That tomorrow will be better than today.
Believe it anyway.

You can love someone with all your heart
For all the right reasons
In a moment they can choose to walk away.
Love 'em anyway.

You can pour your soul out singing a song you believe in
That tomorrow they'll forget you ever sang.
Sing it anyway.

God is great, but sometimes life ain't good.
When I pray it doesn't always turn out like I think it should.
But I do it anyway.
Life is tough. God is faithful. So sing, dream, love, pray, and wait, anyway. Why? Because you are God’s delight.

Anyway, by Martina McBride,


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