Image Description: A solid oak dining room table with chairs. A green candle and vase of yellow alstroemeria flowers are on the table.
This sermon was preached at the joint service of St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church and Northside Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and it was focused upon Isaiah 65:17-25 and Luke 21:5-19. An audio recording is above and a written manuscript is below.
Years ago, I attended a Thanksgiving dinner with no mashed potatoes. Gasp! Clutch the pearls! No mashed potatoes. And I love mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving.
Now I’m sure if we went around the room, we could probably all name a favorite dish that we enjoy at Thanksgiving or some other holiday meal altogether — the kind of dish we cannot imagine that meal without. And I’m just curious what yours would be.
For me, it is mashed potatoes. I pile them high every single year. But twelve years ago, I attended a Thanksgiving dinner with no mashed potatoes. That year, far away from my family, I was living in Texas, so I traveled from Austin to Dallas to visit the Thanksgiving celebration of a good friend’s family. And it turns out, that meal had far greater surprises than the mere dearth of my beloved, holiday spuds.
On the way there, I was nervous. Very nervous in fact. My friend’s family was much more theologically conservative than I was. My friend’s family was tremendously more theologically conservative than I was… To give you an example, when I arrived, I was introduced to a family friend who attends their Thanksgiving celebration every year. She was a scholar — a brilliant one — and she had recently resigned her faculty position at a Southern Baptist college because she felt they were moving to far to the left.
Now, I’m not interested in a stark delineation between conservative and liberal, at least, the ways we tend to be reductionistic and stereotypical about both. That’s too shallow. I wasn’t interested in that then, and I’m not interested in that now. What I was interested in then, and what I am interested in now is how we love our neighbors, and to be honest with you, I felt a great deal of nervousness because I was a 25 year old, young woman in seminary. I had left my own fundamentalist upbringing behind, and I loved theology and thought I might like to teach it someday, perhaps also in a seminary. I had no idea what they were going to think about me or that. I had no idea how they would engage my presence there.
And so we had the meal with no mashed potatoes. No one brings them in this family, or at least, they didn’t that year. And after that meal, the family friend, the scholar who had resigned her position, said, “Alright everyone! Let’s move into the next room. It’s time for the Plato Philosophical Society!”
Apparently, this was a tradition too. After the meal, everyone would move into an entirely different room and talk about theology, philosophy, and also, politics.
Alright… here we go… my blood pressure probably went up a bit. As we moved into this other room, I thought, “I’m going to have to defend myself, who I am, why I’m studying at a seminary, and why these things are important to me.”
But the first question at the Plato Philosophical Society had nothing to do with these. The family friend raised this question at the table:
“Do you think that the earth is is 6,000 years old?”
She was basing this question off of a fundamentalist interpretation of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. The friend who invited me to this gathering is an astronomer. I was curious if she might feel like she may have to defend what she studies. But as for me, I can tell you that this is not a question I typically ask of the universe or even the Bible.
And so, there I was, plunged into a question that I never ask. And something very interesting began to take place… once we opened up that question… once we entered it, a whole other set of questions emerged… very human questions…
The universe seems older…
Would God trick us? Can God be trusted?
What can we know with our senses?
In fact, what can we know at all?
Can we be trusted to understand?
Who and what do we trust to teach us things we can’t understand?
Are there times when we knew something to be true, outside of rational ways of understanding?
These questions were connectional questions. Suddenly, we were thinking about human experience; our spiritual lives; our human living, learning, and loving; and our collective living with one another. And as we pondered these things together, something took me by surprise — something more surprising than a lack of mashed potatoes at a Thanksgiving meal. This family friend, the scholar who resigned a position at a Southern Baptist college because she thought they were moving too far to the left, called me, a 25 year old woman and seminarian, a theologian three times in this conversation. She said that word aloud. She assigned it to me. I felt seen and affirmed. I even felt called in that identity at the table. And I did not see that coming. I was grateful for it.
I learned something that day, and twelve years later, I still think of it:
We need each other’s questions.
We do. There are times when we are separated enough from one another that we begin to ask entirely different questions. There are some questions of my faith that frankly, I have stopped asking, and I imagine that some have stopped asking the questions that my communities tend to ask. Even if we may have very different answers… we still need each other’s questions because they are places to encounter God and meet one another. They can even be places of transformation. We may even discover that within them, we are named and called, sometimes even by people we’d readily assume would never name us or call us genuinely.
We need each other’s questions.
Now, you may wonder, Renee, what does any of this have to do with our scripture texts today? Quite a bit actually, because when I hear this morning’s texts from Isaiah and Luke, it seems they are speaking two different languages. One is filled with an abundance of hope and re-creation, and the other is filled with destruction and apocalypse.
They speak to unique contexts, of course.
The text in Isaiah speaks to the people of Judah who had been taken captive to live as exiles to Babylon. Their temple had been destroyed. They lost their homeland, their entire way of life, and their sense of dignity. They lost hope for themselves, and this passage proclaims hope in abundance on their behalf.
The text in Luke speaks to 1st century Jews who were living under the occupation of Rome. Jesus was in the presence of people who were talking about beauty of the temple — the longed-for, rebuilt temple — and he warns that it will be destroyed with large-scale, cosmic apocalypse and the personal betrayal of relatives and friends. This passage speaks about destruction.
Listen once more to these passages side by side:
Isaiah says, “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.”
Luke says, “There will be great earthquakes, and in various places, famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.”
Isaiah says, “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.” And, “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”
Luke says, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another.”
Of course, these two passages are written to two different contexts and entirely different groups of people, each with their particular emphases. But I wonder, if both of these passages could suddenly become personified, what would that be like? What if they could sit down together at a table and have a conversation? Say, have mashed potatoes together?
Maybe we’d discover that their statements of healing and destruction come from a place of different questions: “After losing everything, will we ever experience healing again?” one might ask. “Is it possible that our occupiers will ever face accountability and lose their power over us?” the other might ask.
Different questions and different statements, but once they are entered, don’t they come from similar places? Very human places? Desiring the end of evil and longing for a hopeful, flourishing future? I wonder what kind of family meal these personified passages might share with one another. I wonder what sort of encouragement they might give each other. I wonder how they might name each other and call each other.
I also wonder how they might name us and call us.
Because the truth is, we bring very different hopes, questions, desires, longings, and wonderings when we walk in the door of this sanctuary on Sunday morning, even if we’re all a part of the same community. Those hopes, questions, desires, longings, and wonderings are present right now. Perhaps some of us are filled with joy and possibility this morning. Perhaps some of us are tired, having had experiences where we were not named or called in light of who we truly are. Maybe some of us have a sense of aliveness in creation right now. You might love all this snow. Maybe some of us are wearied by the world’s troubles right now.
We need each other’s questions. Because frankly, we need each other.
We need the encouragement of one another. It’s a great gift that God has given us to each other, and here we are. So for the rest of this service, may it be a family meal, even if no literal food is present right now. May words be nourishment. May song be refreshment. May the human presence of our neighbors be accompaniment. May this place house us at a family table — all of our learning, our growing, our naming, and our calling. Amen.