It’s ironic. Our generations in American culture have more conveniences and less physical labor than any other generation in our nation’s history. And yet, we complain frequently of being tired, burned out, worn out, discouraged and done in than people in underdeveloped countries who are daily combating physical forces in their struggle to survive. It’s as if we do not understand where to find the strength that we need for the day. It’s as if we do not understand how to use the resources that we have to rise above life’s frustrations and setbacks. Perhaps we need to hear this word from Isaiah.
We already know this – or say we do.
We should already know this. It isn’t a new message. It has been explained and illustrated in the Bible in many different ways. It is a strong strand of our nation’s history. NATIONS AND PEOPLES ARE UNDER GOD’S AUTHORITY.
Isaiah thought Israel, the nation to whom he spoke in his own time, should have known this as well. Isaiah was a bit dismayed, as we see in this text, that they seemed not to understand that God is over all nations – and they need to depend on God. The weakness and powerlessness people feel, then and now, so not end our availability to God’s grace. GOD – Isaiah says – is the source of the life and strength that we need and desperately long for. Why can you not understand? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God – always the Creator who holds the power.
In the musical, Kiss Me Kate (Broadway 1948, film 1953), there is a wonderful Cole Porter song called “Why Can’t You Behave?” In the play it is sung by Lois to her boyfriend who missed rehearsal for gambling, and signed an IOU for $10,000 in the name of the show’s director. With a bit of a stretch of the imagination you could almost hear God or the prophet singing this to the people:
Why can't you behave?
Oh, why can't you behave?
After all the things you told me
And the promises that you gave,
Oh, why can't you behave?
Why can't you be good?
And do just as you should?
Won't you turn that new leaf over …. (The rest doesn’t translate well)
John Calvin. Actually, the Reformer, John Calvin, used to walk the streets of Geneva, Switzerland after the Reformation had taken place and the residents had all been converted to Protestantism, brooding and muttering, “Why can’t they be good?” It would be hard to imagine the rather somber cleric using the same words as the colorful Ann Miller singing in the musical – but the idea is the same. WHY can’t a people who have heard again and again about the love of God trust God as their source of strength and hope?
We really should know this. We’ve heard it often enough. And yet we forget, miss the point, and wear ourselves out with stress and frustration when we are feeling tired and discouraged. “Listen!” Isaiah says, “The Lord is the everlasting God.”
R= “ARE NOT ENOUGH”
Apparently, ROOTS are not enough. Hearing the stories is not enough. Having the history of what God has done in the past and the testimonies of previous generations as to God’s faithfulness to them in times of hardship are not enough. Familiarity with the scriptures is not enough. For us to develop WINGS to fly requires something more.
ST PAUL -- concerned for the church at Rome, longs to help them develop their wings. 11 For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12 that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mine.”
IT takes a community to develop wings. A spiritual community which HOLDS us and HOLDS us accountable. I think this is a hard thing for us to understand in our individualistic culture. Mother Teresa commented on her first visit to our country that we didn’t have the poverty of body that India did – but we had a greater poverty of soul. She saw past the affluence to a pervading loneliness. Something like the phenomenon of “Bowling alone” that Robert Putnam writes about. More people are bowling now than every before – but they are bowling alone, not in the leagues, clubs or teams of the past. We are disconnected from each other.
In the early days of Methodism there were classes and bands that held each other accountable. They began their meetings with a serious and deep question, “How is it with your soul?” They talked about sanctification – that deepening process of faith that leads us to be more like Jesus. They were able to do amazing things, to change their world in significant ways, because of the power of God at work AMONG them. Instead, many of our churches have become uncomfortable with faith that demands all that we are and have. Pastors are told, “Don’t expect too much or you’ll scare people away.” We need to take care of our members – and that’s true – but we want to take care of people in ways that they grow in strength and daring for God! For us to become people who rely on God and develop the wings to fly, we must be a part of a community where we are encouraged to do more – to aim for the skies with the knowledge that God lifts us up when we truly understand and depend on God!
We don’t want to depend on others – and yet, to grow wings, we must. WE need community. It’s in the DNA of communities of faith – of each of us as people of faith.
In the miniseries, Roots: The Saga of an American family, we see how the ROOTS of a family – both in culture of Africa and in the stories shared through the generations provide strength even in oppression and tragedy. But there is much more in the story. More than just ROOTS – there is a deep connection that provides hope and strength. We see it in Kunta Kinte, who never forgets who he is or his roots in the Mandinka community. We see it in Kizzy, who encourages her son George to develop his talents training chickens, and when she return to see her father’s grave and scratches out “Toby” to write “Kunta Kinte.” After the Civil War has ended, when the family is still struggling due to broken promises and systemic oppression, George returns to tell his family that he has prepared a place for them. And they work together to move to Henning, Tennessee – north of Memphis near the Arkansas border. Yes, Roots made them strong -- family history, culture, and stories of generations past, but the family relationships, encouragement, and hope gave them wings. As we celebrate Black History Month, we should pay attention to the ways that Black culture, both African and African-American, has strengthened communities, strengthened churches. There are clues here as to what is important to help lift us up, to empower, to set free.
YES -- We need something more than Cheers – a place where everybody knows our name. We need fellowship, community – communion.
In the 1984 movie, Places in the Heart, Sally Field plays the role of Edna Spaulding in the center of a story of a communion that develops among unlikely characters. She is an independent woman whose husband has been killed accidentally by Wylie, an African- American young man who had been drinking. Although it was an accident, Wylie was lynched and dragged through town. Edna is struggling to save the family farm, and it isn’t going well until she takes in a boarder named Mr Will -- a blind man, played by John Malkovich. Then an African- American man comes by – a vagabond named Moze played by Danny Glover. Through many hardships, they learn to rely on each other. Working together, they are getting by. But more than saving the family farm, they learn to value each other and form a family themselves. At the end of the movie, they all celebrate the harvest by going to church. They all sing “Blessed Assurance” as Communion is shared, passing the plate to one another. The blind man passes the plate to the vagabond, whispering “the body of Christ,” who passes it to the widow whispering the same words, “the body of Christ.” She passes it, rather unexpectedly to her dead husband who passes it to the dead young man who had killed him. In that sacrament, in that moment, in that small country church we glimpse the heavenly banquet as even those separated by life and death join at the table. Even those who have hurt one another are joined together. We catch a glimpse of God’s kingdom.
In that moment of communion, everyone receives a gift – more than just the elements that are shared – healing comes, God’s love is shared with everyone. So much that the gathered family actually reflects God’s love and is even given wings to fly.
We should know this. God is the God of all peoples, all nations, the Everlasting God who does not abandon and doesn’t give up on us. God is the source of strength and help, the one with wisdom and understanding, the one with the strength to hold us and also to let us go. And for us to grow we need God – to develop as people ready to fly we need to remember that God is God – and we are God’s people. God’s purpose for us is for us to reflect God’s love to the world. And we need more than roots to do that. We need to be a part of a community that will nurture us, offering us the love and support that we need not just to provide us with Roots, but to give us Wings.