Called to move forward into a new era

October 20, 2022 by Cynthia Campbell

How does it feel “being back”? Back in the sanctuary for worship (even though there is still – and will probably always be – an on-line option). Back with classes and programs and missions and maybe even meals. Back to visiting people in hospitals and nursing homes. Many pastors and congregations have been moving through “being back” for a couple of months now.

But there are still a lot of questions and many uncertainties. Who is back; who will remain participating from home; and who has simply disappeared? By the same token, who are the new faces – people who actually found a worshipping community on line and are now trying to find out how to become part of the community in person. We are “back,” and yet we have all been changed by the experience of two years of the Covid pandemic in ways that we have yet to fully understand. We are “back,” and yet we live with the knowledge that what happened once could happen again in response to another disaster. Pastors and members alike have been energized by being together again and feeling the power of personal contact, and yet many are still exhausted from the stress of managing church through two years of dislocation.

I have always thought of November as a “hinge” month. It is bookended by Reformation Sunday in October and the First Sunday of Advent (which this year falls on the last Sunday of November). In between, we observe All Saints, the Reign of Christ, and Thanksgiving. Perhaps we are celebrating the end of stewardship or emphasizing the importance of year-end giving.  As we get ready to turn the page to new liturgical and calendar years, these important festivals move us from one season to another. This year, the religious calendar competes with a secular one, as election day falls in early November. A day once filled with anticipation and enthusiasm for the ability to participate in determining the future for our city, state, and nation, has now become a time of heightened anger, anxiety, and fear.

Into a time of decidedly mixed feelings – excitement, anxiety, fatigue – comes a set readings from the prophets of Israel perhaps exactly suited for us, because they spoke a word from God into some of the same decidedly mixed feelings. It is almost a given that prophets speak during times of crisis or impending disaster. Often, they address people who are oblivious to or in denial about the disaster ahead and their own complicity in it. The semicontinuous Old Testament readings for November 6 (Haggai 1:15b-2:9) and November 13 (Isaiah 65:17-25) are words spoken into the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile in Babylon. Much or most of the audience are now “second generation survivors.” They are called to build a new society out of the rubble of the past. The reading for November 20 (Jeremiah 23:1-6) is fully aware of the trauma of Exile but dares to imagine the return generations later. Together, these prophets call the people to envision a new Temple, a new creation, and new leadership.

Haggai’s work can be dated quite precisely to September or October of the year 520 BCE (the 21st of Tishri falls usually in early fall and Darius I became emperor of Persia in 518). The Jews have been back from Exile for nearly 20 years. The city to which they returned was little more than rubble. Everything had to be rebuilt: the wall around the city, homes, and, of course, the house of God, the Temple. Apparently, a small structure had been erected, but it was almost literally nothing in comparison to what everyone had been told that Solomon’s Temple looked like.

Haggai’s words are addressed to the leadership, and through them, to the people as a whole. Three times, he says, “Take courage!” or “Be strong!” Yes, the task is huge. Yes, there is a lot to be done. Yes, it won’t be done overnight. But don’t be afraid, because God says, “I am with you, and my spirit abides among you.” We are in this together, God says. You are not on your own, says the Holy One. I am right here, and I will never leave you, says the Lord.

Some in this country are engaged in the same work. Black churches and leaders are trying desperately to rebuild inner city neighborhood devastated by red-lining, disinvestment, and the creation of generational poverty. Dr. Kevin Cosby, pastor of the St. Stephen Baptist Church in Louisville is one such visionary leader. In his book Getting to the Promised Land: Black America and the Unfinished Work of the Civil Rights Movement (Westminster John Knox Press 2021), Cosby argues that the new civil rights movement should move beyond the Exodus paradigm of liberation from slavery to the Ezra-Nehemiah paradigm of rebuilding Jerusalem. He points out that these leaders (the same ones Haggai is encouraging) were commissioned and funded by the Persians to repair what the Babylonians had destroyed. Then, as now, rebuilding the devastated city and restoring a broken community is hard work. Haggai reminds these brave workers that God is alongside them.

We may not be rebuilding a building or a city, but we are trying to (re)build church. The task ahead of us is renewed community gathered in Christ and committed to his mission. These are days for both glad reunions and deep discernment. As we emerge from the pandemic and as we navigate the challenges of American political life, we are called to continue becoming God’s beloved people who support one another and serve the world. We may be called to new forms of worship and ministry, but that’s ok. Some old things may fall by the wayside, but other beloved traditions may come alive with even deeper meaning. The important word here is to remember that God is with us, which is precisely what we celebrate in the Advent season ahead.

The reading from Isaiah 65 is a call to imagine something even bigger than a new and renewed faith community. This prophetic voice is at least the second, and quite possibly the third, iteration of the school of Isaiah. It is quite likely that the audience is the same: the recently returned from Exile who are in the back-breaking, spirit-numbing work of rebuilding. Isaiah’s message is that their work is in fact part of something much bigger: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth…. Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight” (Isaiah 65:17-18). Notice the repetition of the verb that opens the entire biblical story! The work that is going on in Jerusalem is not simply urban renewal (challenging as that is!). It is part of cosmic renewal, and the only comparison is with creation itself.

It is intriguing that God does not address the beleaguered people directly. Rather, God is speaking about them and their work to a global audience: “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chose shall long enjoy the work of their hands” (65:21-22). This is nothing less than a vision of a just universe. Labor is not exploited; it is rewarded. The fruits of labor belong to the laborers themselves. Multi-generation disaster is replaced by multi-generation prosperity. Think of the confidence this inspires: to know that you and your children’s children will be ok.

In dark and dangerous times, we look for a vision. We need to envision a future in order to be inspired to work towards it. Notice what Isaiah says: he does not imagine going back to “the good old days.” In fact, “the former things [good and bad, presumably] will not be remembered.” This is a new world; a new social order; a new day. God puts before God’s people then and now a picture of what a good society should look like. God paints a picture where all have shelter and food and, thus, live out a full lifetime.

Embedded in our visions of the future are our values. Where do we look to find a vision for our day and our time? Various political ideologies compete for our attention. The media is full of competing agendas that stir our emotions. But as people of faith, surely we want to look as well to our stories and traditions. One of the great gifts of the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament lies precisely in imagining a society shaped by God’s values. Here, as elsewhere, the prophet imagines enough for all, and thus a society that is fundamentally fair. As both individuals and congregations, we might ask ourselves how these values might shape our charitable giving and our investing. Presbyterians have long been good at feeding the hungry, both directly and indirectly. But how might we invest in organizations or strategies that seek to eliminate hunger or make nourishing food available in urban “food deserts”? Just imagine.

The last reading for this liturgical year is Jeremiah 23:1-6. This time, the audience addressed is on the verge of the trauma of Exile. Even as Jeremiah predicts the impending collapse of Judah and Jerusalem, he imagines a return home and restoration of God’s beloved community. The focus here is leadership. Here, as elsewhere, Jeremiah lays much of the blame for the destruction of Jerusalem and the nation at the feet of the ruling class. They have not embodied God’s laws concerning the just or good society. Specifically, he charges, they have exploited the poor and failed to defend the helpless. They have failed in their duty as shepherds. They have failed to protect the flock entrusted to their care, and they are responsible for the scattering of the sheep.

According to Jeremiah, the plan is that God will step in and take the place of the failed shepherds: “I myself will gather [them]; I will bring them back to their fold; I will raise up shepherds who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing.” God will act and God’s people will be restored. No one will be afraid, and everyone will be accounted for.

Together with the other texts for the Reign of Christ Sunday, this reading asks us to reflect on leaders and leadership. Specifically, we might ask: what kind of leaders do we want in our communities, in our congregation, in our nation? And, what kinds of leaders is God calling us to be for the places we find ourselves? Christ embodies the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep and calls us to become servant leaders. All of us, but in particular pastors, elders, deacons, Sunday School teachers, youth group leaders, etc., are called to be good stewards of the flock that God has entrusted to our care. We are to make sure that those we are called to serve are safe and healthy and that no one is left out or left behind.

At the hinge of the year, as the church brings one year to a close and begins anew, these readings invite us to use our prophetic imagination. We are challenged to look at ourselves and our world with God’s eyes. And we are called to remember that God initially sent these visions to people in the midst of and struggling to survive great trauma and almost unimaginable loss. This is not pie in the sky; it is hope on the ground. These are words of comfort and a call to action all at the same time.

Cynthia Campbell recently retired as pastor and head of staff at Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Ky. Cynthia began her ministry in Texas and served in three congregations before completing her Ph.D. She joined the faculty of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 1981 where she taught theology and ministry and directed the Doctor of Ministry Program. In 1988, she was called to the First Presbyterian Church of Salina, Kansas, as Pastor/Head of Staff, one of the first women to serve a congregation of over 1,000 members as pastor. In 1995, she was named President of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. She is the author of A Multitude of Blessings: A Christian Approach to Religious Diversity (2007) and God’s Abundant Table (2011). Cynthia is married to Fred Holper, who is retired from teaching preaching and worship at McCormick Seminary. They have two adult children who live in Milwaukee.