How Is It Now With Us?
All Saints Day, November 2, 2014
The film “Out Of Africa” is a beautiful film that came out almost 30 years ago. The screenplay, written by Grand Rapids native, Kurt Leutke, is based on the book of the same title: by Isak Dinesan, the pen name for Danish author Karen von Blixen, who wrote about her own experience owning a coffee plantation in Kenya during WWI. Like all great art, Out Of Africa is about many things all at once: in this case, a personal story of love and loss, and larger issues of women’s rights and colonialism and the ethics of war.
I’ve see the film more than once. The first time, of course, what I noticed was the fine acting, the gorgeous photography, and the detailed re-creation of the world of the early 20th century in Europe and Africa. But the second time I watched it I was struck by the remarkable talent of Malick Bowens, who plays Farah, the Somali Muslim who is Karen von Blixen’s invaluable translator and right hand man. Through the years of her failed marriage and her doomed love affair, Karen and Farah develop the closest of partnerships. They trust one another, care for one another, and know each other’s strengths and weaknesses as only best friends can.
At the end of the movie, the coffee plantation has been destroyed by weather, accident and war and Karen must return to Denmark. As they prepare to sell her estate, she and Farah say good-bye.
“How can it be now, with me and yourself?” asks Farah.
“You will have some money, enough, I think.” Karen answers.
“I do not speak of money.”
“Do you remember how it was, on safari?” she asks. “In the afternoons I would send you ahead to look for a camp and you would wait for me.”
“You can see the fire and come to this place,” he says.
“Yes. Well, it will be like that. Only this time I will go ahead and wait for you.”
“It is far, where you are going?”
“You must make this fire very big, so I can find you.”
Today is All Saint’s Day. In this and thousands of other churches around the world, we remember those who have gone on ahead of us. Their deaths and their absence has changed our lives radically. With each one, the knowledge of our own mortality is pressed upon us. Life is short. And sometimes it seems ruled by arbitrary fate rather than a compassionate God.
“How can it be now?” we ask with Farah, in Out of Africa. How can it be now that those we love have died? How can it be now that we know we will die? How can it be now, when even God appears to be absent?
This is the question asked by the exiled Israelites 2600 years ago. Why has God turned against us? Why have we lost everything? Our homeland, our Temple, our identity as God’s people, our certainty of God’s love for us. Exiled from Jerusalem and forced to live in Babylon, the land of their conquerors, the Israelites must re-construct who they understand themselves to be. “How can it be now between us and God?” they ask.
This month we will be exploring the Book of Isaiah in worship and in the Gateway small groups. If you are a member of one of the Gateway groups and have already started tackling Isaiah, you know that it is not always a pleasant book to read. For every word of comfort and encouragement there are many more words of criticism and judgment.
The entire book is long – 66 chapters – and it’s generally agreed upon by biblical scholars that you can divide it into two or three parts, each one emerging from and reflecting a different time period. The first part, chapters 1-39, is the longest and most of its contents come from the time before the Exile, probably the 8th century BC. The nation of Israel has split in half, into the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, and the Northern Kingdom has fallen to the world power of the day, Assyria. Isaiah preaches in Judah, the remaining Southern Kingdom, condemning its political alliance to Assyria, its unethical social practices, and its empty religious rituals. If you’re already feeling a little down in the dumps, you probably don’t want to spend a lot of time with the first part of Isaiah – or most of it anyway.
Today’s verses, even though they come from First Isaiah, sound much more like the second part of the book – chapters 40 and beyond. Second Isaiah was written in the 6th century BC, when Babylonia had taken Assyria’s place as the great world power, had conquered the Southern Kingdom of Judah, destroyed Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, and taken its citizens captive, forcing them to live far away in Babylon.
These later chapters are very different in tone – they are filled with a message of trust and confident hope that God will soon end the Exile. Now the prophet turns from chastising to comforting the people: God has not forgotten them, but will restore Jerusalem to its former glory and make a new home for all peoples.
On this mountain,” meaning in Jerusalem, he says, God will provide a banquet of overflowing abundance “for all peoples.” There will be rich food and fine wine. The shroud that covers the dead will be removed when God swallows up - does away with - death, forever. God’s kingdom will be established. In this new life, God will “wipe away” all misery and shame, and we will recognize God as the one for whom we have been waiting, the bringer of salvation.
This is Isaiah at his kindest and most compassionate. “This is not all there is. There is more than we can see or touch. After the loss there is a homecoming, after the hunger there is a feast, after the tears there is joy.”
At the Passover table, Jesus told his disciples he would be leaving them. One of them would betray him, and he would be arrested and killed. According to the Gospel of John, the disciples do not just worry about who among them would betray him, they also want to know where he is going, and if they can come. “Lord, where are you going? Why can I not follow you now?” Peter asks. “How can we know the way”? Thomas says. In other words, “How can it be now with us and yourself?”
It’s not hard to imagine that Jesus’ response to them might have been to look back, a nostalgic review of their years together. He could have told them stories to encourage them to remember the good times they shared. Do you know the musical Camelot? Do you remember King Arthur’s last words to the Knights of the Round Table?
Ask ev'ry person if they've heard the story,
And tell it strong and clear if they have not,
That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory
Don't let it be forgot that once there was a spot
For one brief, shining moment
That was known as Camelot.
As Rev. Barbara Lundblad puts it, it is so easy to “imagine Jesus calling his disciples to remember the wondrous wisp of glory they had shared, when light had come into the darkness of the world. With such a story the disciples could go on, sustained by the memory of this one great life, as they waited and hoped for his return.” They would never be able to accomplish the things he accomplished. The direction of the future would depend on their ability to remember that glorious time when Jesus was with them. "Don't let it be forgot that once there was a spot for one brief shining moment."But Jesus did not sing that song. Jesus didn't instruct the disciples to keep him as memory. Instead what he offers them is his presence. "I will not leave you orphaned," Jesus said, "I am coming to you."What a strange thing to say on the night of betrayal and arrest. He should have said, "I am leaving you." And, in fact, Jesus did not deny what was going to happen. "In a little while the world will no longer see me," he said, "but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live."
Lundblad says that when Jesus told his disciples, “’I am coming to you,’ he didn't mean he would return like an old friend from a long journey. Jesus would be with believers in a different way. Or perhaps we could say that God would be with them in a different way because Jesus had been there. Jesus is the image of God, that’s what Christians believe. Want to know what God would look like if God were human? God would be Jesus: God-in-the-flesh, God-dwelling-with-us, God-as-us.
When the meal was over, Jesus was ready to leave. Rise, let us be on our way," he said. You can almost see him getting up from the table. Then he realizes that he forgot to say something. "I am the vine," he says, sitting down again, "and my Father is the vine grower. Abide in me as I abide in you." But how can we abide in Jesus? He has told the disciples over and over, repeating himself at the table: You will abide in me through the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit will teach you how to love one another. The Spirit will keep us connected, said Jesus. You to me, all of us to God. And you to one another.
Rev. Lundblad says she once read something about mountain climbing that surprised: "The reason mountain climbers are tied together is to keep the sane ones from going home." Whoever said that was playing around a bit; we know mountain climbers are tied together to keep from getting lost or going over a cliff. But there's another piece of truth here. When things get tough up on the mountain, when fear [or loss or tragedy] sets in, many a climber is tempted to say, "This is crazy! I'm going home." The life of faith can be like that - doubts set in, despair overwhelms us, we lose someone we love and the whole notion of believing in God seems crazy.
Jesus knew his disciples would have days like that. So he told them: we're tied together like branches on the vine or like climbers tied to the rope -- tied together by the Spirit, to trust in one who is always more than we can understand, to keep us moving ahead on the journey of faith, to encourage us when believing seems absurd and we cannot see past our loss and absence. "I will not leave you orphaned," said Jesus. "I am coming to you." This promise is far deeper than fond memories. And it wasn't only deeper for Jesus' disciples; it is deeper for you and for me.
As mountain climbers to a rope, as branches to a vine, we are tied by the Spirit to Jesus, to one another and to the disciples of Jesus in all times -- including the ones we honor today, the ones who have gone so far ahead that we can no longer see them. We can’t see them, but we know we’re connected by the same cord; we’re part of the same vine; we sit around the same banquet table fed by the same abundant Spirit.
“How can it be now, with us and you?” the disciples ask the Lord. “If you are not going to be with us, we will not know where to go or how to follow you.”
“How can it be now, with us and you?” the exiles ask God. “Now the Temple is gone, now that we have been taken from our home, which was your home too.”
“How can it be now, with us and them?” we ask about those we love but can no longer see, who no longer live with us, but with God.
The Spirit is the cord that ties us together, the flame we can follow even from very far away. Jesus is the vine that nourishes us, his branches. God sets us a table, overflowing with food and wine for all, and pulls out a chair. We share together – all of God’s people – near and far, seen and unseen, across all times and places. Thanks be to God!
The Rev. Dr. Barbara K. Lundblad, "I Will Not Leave You Orphaned." Day One radio program, April 30, 2005. http://www.day1.net
William Loader, “First Thoughts on Year A Gospel Passages from the Lectionary: Easter 5 and 6.” http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MtEaster5.htm
Out of Africa. Dir. Sydney Pollack. Perf. Meryl Streep, Robert Redford. DVD. Universal, 2000.
Chris Haslem Comments on Isaiah. http://montreal.anglican.org/comments/archive/beasdm.shtml
Ralph W. Klein, Isaiah 25:1-9, , http://fontes.lstc.edu/~rklein/Documents/pentecosta2.htm#Pentecost21