Many scholars claim that at Chapter 40 in the Book of Isaiah, we cross a significant boundary. The Babylonian victory over Judah and Jerusalem is now presupposed and Judah has shared in that defeat. This is now the time when the “former things have [truly] passed away.” The passage begins by appealing to what Israel already knows. It is a reminder of what the Creator God has been doing since the beginning of Creation. It is a basic notion in their understanding of God that God’s ongoing creative activity asserts that things are always moving, always headed toward the way they are supposed to be.
But the image of us as grasshoppers is not meant to denigrate us but rather to remind us that Creation is bigger than anything that we can possibly be or imagine. We are only a small part of the whole. So, for the writer, “who are we to question the vastness of God?” Even though Assyrian rule is probably firmly in place here, there is a reminder that no sooner do they put down roots against Israel that God will put them away with what can be conceived as terrifying power. We remember from earlier passages in Isaiah that an entire generation in Isaiah’s lifetime had their ears shut and their eyes closed. This is the beginning of a new generation and the writer appeals to them in the strongest possible terms: to listen and see and know again, for God’s word does not require assent to remain true and abiding. It stands forever. So, our faith allows us to live in two orders of Creation—the already and the not yet, but always strengthened by the master Creator of them both.
Now understand that it was not that the earlier generation did not have God present; it was that they failed to hear, receive, and heed the Word that God put forth. In other words, our ears must be opened to hear aright. Each generation must be taught to hear and see God. God is the only one capable of “flipping the switch”, so to speak on how the world works. We have to be open to what God does and be prepared to hear and see it.
As an aside, it might just be a play on words or images, but did you know that grasshoppers have five eyes? They are able to see everything in what could be described as panoramic view. That’s sort of interesting, given the comparison of humanity to grasshoppers, to insinuate that we have the capability, if not the sensibility, to see all there is within the perspective of where it is. Perhaps what most gets in the way is that we think we have already figured everything out.
And yet God continues to persevere, holding us when we need to be held, leading us when we need to be led, and perhaps waiting, oh so patiently, for us to notice it all. And when we open our eyes and open our hearts to all that God holds for us, our future is ours. But are we, too, patient enough to wait for it to come? In all truth, we live in a world order that is slipping away. Maybe not tomorrow; maybe not for centuries; maybe not even for eons, but slipping away nevertheless. We are fleeting. But the everlasting God has promised that if we just open our lives and our hearts and our eyes, we will see and know that an everlasting order waits for us. But it’s different; it’s not the one in which we live. And, really, hasn’t that been said from the beginning? What we have now is not ours. We’re not meant for it. But, oh, the future one that waits for us…it is ours. It is home. And nothing is impossible.
This story is taken from “The People Who Could Fly”, a sermon by Otis Moss, III, 12/31/2006, available at http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/moss_5012.htm:
There is a story that I am told has been passed from mouth to ear somewhere along the palmetto dunes of South Carolina, a story passed down from West Africa to the North Atlantic. It is the story, a unique story, of the people who could fly. Depending upon whom you’re talking to, it is a little bit different, depending upon who is telling the tale.
The story takes place in St. Johns Island, just off the coast of South Carolina, as Africans who had been mislabeled slaves are toiling in the hot sun. They are working so very hard to pick cotton. There is one young woman and beside her is her small boy, maybe six or seven. She’s working in the fields and she has such incredible dexterity that she is able to pick cotton with her right hand and caress the forehead of her child with the left. But eventually, exhausted by working so hard in the fields, she falls down from the weight and the pressure of being—in the words of Dubois—“problem and property.” Her boy attempts to wake her very quickly, knowing that if the slave drivers were to see her the punishment would be swift and hard.
He tries to shake his mother, and as he’s trying to shake her, an old man comes over to him. An old man that the Africans called Preacher and Prophet, but the slave drivers called Old Devil. He looks up at the old man and says, “Is it time? Is it time?”
The old man smiles and looks at the boy and says, “Yes!” And he bends down ands whispers into the ear of the woman who was now upon the ground and says these words: “Cooleebah! Cooleebah!”
At that moment the woman gets up with such incredible dignity. She stands as a queen and looks down at her son, grasps his hand and begins to look toward heaven. All of a sudden they begin to fly. The slave drivers rush over to this area where she has stopped work and they see this act of human flight and are completely confused. They do not know what to do! And during their confusion, the old man rushes around to all the other Africans and begins to tell them, “Cooleebah! Cooleebah!”
When they hear the word, they all begin to fly. Can you imagine? The dispossessed flying? Can you imagine the disempowered flying? Three fifths of a person flying? The diseased flying? The dislocated flying? They are all taking flight! And at that moment the slave drivers grab the old man and say, “Bring them back!”
They beat him, and with blood coming down his cheek, he just smiles at them. They say to him, “Please bring them back!” And he says, “I can’t.” They say, “Why not?” He said, “Because the word is already in them and since the word is already in them, it cannot be taken from them.” The old man had a word from West Africa, cooleebah, a word that means God. It had been placed into the heart of these displaced Africans and now they had dignity and they were flying.
- What is your response to this passage?
- What parallels for our time do you see?
- What most stands in our way of “hearing” and “seeing”?
- How much more do you think we’re capable of hearing and seeing than we do?
NEW TESTAMENT: 1 Corinthians 9: 16-23
Well, in case it seems like we’re walking into the middle of a discussion, this passage is actually a continuation of the veritable “meat saga” that we read last week. Paul anticipates a possible misunderstanding in what he had said earlier and he counters by denying that he is only saying these things so that he benefits more from his position. Paul understands that he did not just “decide” to preach the gospel but rather that he is entrusted with a commission, or a calling. He does not take that to mean that he is due any wage or benefit. Paul sees himself as a “slave” to God, one who has been renewed and revitalized. He is in it solely for the purpose of spreading the gospel of grace.
Paul is not “giving up” his freedom or his free will but is rather choosing not to exercise them in certain circumstances. That is a very different understanding of freedom and is interesting given our understanding of the Gospel as “setting us free”. St. Augustine said this: In Christ’s slavery, there is freedom indeed. But it’s hard to get our heads around. Paul does all things and becomes all things for the sake of the Gospel, showing his understanding of the dynamics of community in the life of faith.
In Everything Belongs, Richard Rohr says that “we have defined freedom in the West as the freedom to choose between options and preferences. That’s not primal freedom. That’s a secondary or even tertiary freedom. The primal freedom is the freedom to be the self, the freedom to live in the truth despite all circumstances. That’s what great religion offers us. That what real prayer offers us. That’s why the saints could be imprisoned and not lose their souls. They could be put down and persecuted like Jesus and still not lose their joy, their heart, or their perspective. Secular freedom is having to do what you want to do. Religious freedom is wanting to do what you have to do.
Perhaps freedom is having the ability and the wherewithal to be who we are called to be by God. It is not the freedom to become enslaved to the things of this world, thereby giving up our freedom. The thing that we are called to do is the thing we HAVE to do. It is the thing that we must do to be who we are. That is the freedom God gives us—to be who we have to be and to empower others in the world to do the same. Therein is the hope of Christ.
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What does Paul’s view of “freedom” mean to you?
- What does “freedom” mean in our society?
- How does that affect our notion of “reward”?
GOSPEL: Mark 1: 29-39
It is evident here that Jesus’ reputation is swiftly increasing. Right after they left the synagogue, the first healing episode occurs inside a house. Jesus cures the woman, who then serves him dinner. The next thing you know, all of a sudden the “whole city” (Really? A WHOLE city—like, ALL of Houston?) shows up begging to receive some of what Jesus is offering. You can imagine a hoard of townspeople crowding around the door of the house. And it says that he cured many—not the whole city, interestingly enough—but many.
But keep in mind that for the writer of the Markan Gospel, Jesus did not come to win the adulation of the crowds by working miracles but rather to claim the authority and identity of the Christ, which, for this writer, includes the cross itself. The crowds apparently begin to represent a problem for Jesus. He did not come to settle into the town as a local healer, but to preach the Gospel throughout the region. So he leaves Peter’s house in the darkness well before dawn, returning to a deserted place to pray. For the writer of this Gospel, it was clear that Jesus comes to do God’s will, not to seek his own advantage or popularity.
But, of course, Jesus is eventually “hunted down” by Simon and his companions. You can imagine it: “Come on, Jesus, everyone is looking for you, everyone needs you…what are you doing out here by yourself when there’s so much work to be done.” (OK, I think this is rather humorous!) Jesus’ answer? (Wait for it!) “OK, then let’s go somewhere else.” (GREAT answer!) Because after all, his mission was to spread the Gospel not get “bogged down” in answering every need of the town. What a great lesson this could provide for us! Jesus did not feel the need or the compulsion to be “all things to all people”. He rather had what could be called a “big picture” view of what the Gospel meant. I mean, after all, the whole world order was changing, remember?
There’s a lot that this passage holds. It’s a lesson about Sabbath time; it’s a lesson about prayer; it’s a lesson about understanding others’ needs; it’s a lesson about who Jesus was. Or maybe it IS a call to see the “big picture”, to know in the deepest part of our being that even in the midst of chaos and disorderly fray, even in the midst of too many people expecting too much of us, even in the midst of those who misunderstand who we are, we, too, can be lifted up with wings like eagles and be taught how to fly. We just have to see it. The Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, is only partially about what Jesus can do for us. Mostly it’s about who we can become with Jesus by our side.
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What does this say about answering God’s call?
- What does this say about the totality of the Gospel?
- What could we learn from Jesus’ reactions?
- What “big picture” scenes are you missing from your life?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation, and publicly and privately, in season and out, avow their sympathy with despised and persecuted ideas and their advocates, and bear the consequences. (Susan B. Anthony)
We are what we repeatedly do. (Aristotle)
One of the saddest lines in the world is, ‘Oh come now—be realistic.’ The best parts of this world were not fashioned by those who were realistic. They were fashioned by those who dared to look hard at their wishes and gave them horses to ride. (Richard Nelson Bolles)
Holy God—in this precious hour, we pause and gather to hear your word—to do so, we break from our work responsibilities and from our play fantasies; we move from our fears that overwhelm and from our ambitions that are too strong. Free us in these moments from every distraction, that we may focus to listen, that we may hear, that we may change. Amen. (From Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, “That We May Change”, p. 61.)