Isaiah 43:16–21; Psalm 126; John 12:1–8

Tell us what we need to hear, O God, and show us what we need to do to
become disciples of Jesus Christ. Amen.

In my defense, I had a legitimate excuse to not want to sit with
anyone on that evening a few weeks ago at a conference in Boxburg, South
Africa. I was there at that conference, a mission conference of the
World Wide Anglican Communion, the purpose of which was to refocus the
Church from undue energies on our own internecine theological
battles—which apparently will not be solved—but to focus the
Church again on its reason for being, mission, to be sent out into the
world to do God’s work. And what is God’s work? It is to
stand with Jesus in the places of suffering in the world. And all week
long I heard the stories. I heard the stories of whole villages,
societies being torn apart by conflict and war. The stories of the
ravages of malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, the stories of the break
down of governments, of health care systems, and of educational systems
that were to relieve the suffering of the poor. I heard the stories. The
stories by missionaries of how when the Church responds with compassion
and mercy in times of trouble, it helps their witness of Christ, and it
gives them an audience.

But by that time in the conference I didn’t want to hear
any more. I had been overloaded. My heart was full. My head was
aching. I wanted to be left alone. No more stories. No more pain. No
more suffering. And so I took my tray of food and found a table in the
corner of the cafeteria to be left alone.

But then he shuffles in. An older man, a bit distinguished, but
helped by someone who was carrying his tray, and as he was
shuffling and limping closer and closer toward me, I was saying, not
proud of this, “Don’t sit next to me. Leave me alone.” And he looked
at me, and all those empty spaces around, and he chose to sit right beside
me. It wasn’t so much, I believe, that he was limping a bit. I don’t
think it was even so much that someone had to take him with his tray, and he
was obviously a bit hard of hearing. But what really took me over the
top was the fact that he had no hands. There in the place of human
hands were metal contraptions. And these things taking the place of
hands, he was negotiating, I thought, remarkably well. And as he sat
down and we exchanged some pleasantries I couldn’t help but look at
those clamps at the end of his arms pick up the spoon and the fork and
even cut meat. It was remarkable how he could work
with those clamps.

He had asked me about who I was. Why was I there at that Conference.
He asked me about my work here at the National Cathedral. He had a
warmth in his voice, and so I felt safe in asking him something that I
normally wouldn’t of complete strangers who are disabled in that
way. I felt safe in asking him, “Your hands, how long have you been
without them? Were you born that way?” He said, “No, not born that
way. I haven’t had them for 17 years.” “Was it an
accident?” I said. He said, “No. They were deliberately
blown off.” And he began to tell me the story, his
story, his being an Anglican priest from New Zealand who felt
called by God to go to South Africa to help people in their suffering in
the ’70s and ’80s, and to be with them and to stand with
them in the anti apartheid movement. He joined one of the movements,
became a chaplain in one of the liberation movements, and was so
effective that the government banned him. While he was banished in
Mozambique he received a letter from the South African Government one
day. Opening the letter, it blew up. They planted a letter bomb that
tore off his hands, shattered his hearing, left him blind in one eye, a
bloodied, mangled mess.

And as he proceeded to tell the story, at first I was brought back
to the wilderness that I had been experiencing in that conference. Do
you know what I mean by wilderness? The Bible does. In our first
reading in Isaiah 43, Yahweh, the Lord God, is saying, “I am making a way
for you in the wilderness.” The wilderness was a frequent theme in the
Scriptures, suggesting not just a geographical desert, not just a place that
was impassable and unlivable. But when the Scriptures speak of
wilderness, the desert, they are also speaking of the wilderness
within, that dry place, that place where you do not want to be, where
your life doesn’t seem to get its shape. And you would do anything to
get out of the wilderness.

In Isaiah 43, the Lord God is saying to the people, “A new
thing is happening here. Behold, it is springing forth already. Can you
not perceive it?” But alas, most of the hearers could not perceive
it. The Hebrew people at the time of that writing in Isaiah 43 were in
exile. They had been driven from their land and taken in captivity to
Babylon. And for some 75 years, almost 75 years, they were in Babylon,
until in 539 B.C. Cyrus had conquered the Babylonians and made it
possible for them to return to their land. But guess what? Most did not.
There in the wilderness of exile, they had focused so much on the past,
so much on their good old days—the Halcyon days when they were
Israel—that they could not perceive that God wanted them to be in
liberation—so focused on the past. So in the prophecy, the Prophet
Isaiah first reminds people of what God has done with them in the past.
But then he said, don’t dwell on that. You are stuck. You are
stuck in the wilderness and exile, but more than being stuck in Babylon,
you are stuck in your own desert.

That’s not so hard for us to get our minds wrapped around, is
it? Don’t you and I get stuck sometimes by clinging on, hanging on
to the past? We as individuals can’t move on because of the past.
It’s the past, it’s what happened to me. We sometimes as
societies can’t move on because we’re clinging to the
past—and yes, even in the Church. (Why aren’t you
surprised?) The good old days. If only we could return to the way the
Church was. Let there be no changes, no new advances in theology.
Don’t change the liturgy. Don’t change anything. It’s
the past. But you have to wonder what kind of past are we clinging on
to. Were they the good old days? Good for whom? Were they the good old
days of the Crusades, when the Christian Church justified mass slaughter
of unbelievers, in the past but also in the present? Are those the good
old days? Or the good old days of the Church battling science over and
over again over every new discovery, only to be embarrassed generations
later to say, “we were wrong; we were not able to see what God
wanted us to see because we were clinging to the past.” Are those
the good old days?

Or the good old days of slavery? Of Jim Crow laws and of racial
discrimination? Should we return to those good old days when the Church
justified that? Or the good old days of denying women leadership, any
leadership role in the Church over men? The good old days of shunning
people who are different, disabled, divorced, who have same sex
orientation, or any other reason to be scapegoated by the Church or
society? Should we return to those days? The days of justifying all of these abuses by appeals to obey
Scripture which are nothing more than religious smoke screens for
justifying bias—shall we return to those days? Those days, for a
lot of my people, were not good old days. And we choose not to cling to
the past.

In Isaiah 43, the Lord God gives us two ways of getting out of the
wilderness, of getting unstuck. First he said, stop dwelling on the
past. That word, remember the past no more, means in Hebrew to not
cling to it, to not get stuck there. Of course, you recall the events
of the past. In the Prophecy itself Isaiah reminds them of how God in
the Exodus made a way in the Sea so that they would not be captured by
their oppressors. And in the Prophecy that was read this morning, it
was also recalled how God made water appear in the desert—the Sinai
Desert—when the children of Israel were there for 40 years; he provided
for them. So recalling that, the instruction is, “don’t dwell there,”
because if you do, you will fail to see; you will not be able to see
that God is doing a new thing.

In fact, in that conversation with the man next to me with no hands,
he said to me, “Eugene, I am not full of hatred about this. If I were
full of hatred and bitterness, I would be a victim forever. Instead, I
use what happened to me to seek justice, but not the retributive justice
that we are so fond of here in America: someone did something so it’s
time to crack out the whip or the gun or the lethal injection or the
bomb. No, not retribution, but rather restorative justice. The justice
of God that seeks healing.” And he said his work was dedicated to making
sure that not only he, but the ones who did that to him, would be made
whole. Justice.

Stop clinging to the past, Yahweh said. But second, and more
importantly, we ended that Scripture reading by the Prophecy, “…the
people whom I formed for myself that they may declare my praise.” The
second thing that Yahweh says is: start praising. Notice, though, this is
not the praising of some deity lacking self-esteem who needs people
constantly to be praising him. Not the kind of praise that would have
you bow down before a hierarchical, authoritarian God, and in your
humility, praise, praise, oh praise. But rather it is the praise with
arms up. It is the praise of enjoyment, the joy of being in God’s
presence, the delight of being able to be in the household of
God and do God’s work. That’s the praise. That’s a prescription for
escaping the wilderness.

How do I know so? Because of the stories. In 1995, a year after the
apartheid government was brought down in South Africa, Anglican
Archbishop Desmond Tutu was speaking before a crowd of 2,000 at Yale
University. And his speech was a simple one. He said, “I’m
going to give you seven reasons for the miraculous change in South
Africa. Reason Number 1: God.” And then the next five reasons were
the usual social, political, cultural things that were happening in
society that caused the fall of apartheid. And then reason Number 7, he
said simply again: God. Desmond Tutu firmly believed that God saved
South Africa. And somehow when they kept turning to God and in the
praise of God, they caused their own liberation, but not only the
anti apartheid movement in South Africa led by the Churches. But I also
rehearse the stories of the Civil Rights Movement in our nation, led by
the Churches, praising God, singing freedom songs, knowing that God is
doing a new thing, making a way in the wilderness.

Or I think of Solidarity in Poland in the late ’80s, how in trying to get
from under the thumb of oppression, Lech Walesa and others called
the people to prayer and praise, and they were made free. Or the team
conference where I was in South Africa: the praise and the prayer of the
people from all over the world, many in dire circumstances, but theres
they were praising in ways we can only imagine. The very first church
service, the Eucharist that we had in that township where we had the
service, a thousand people had lined the streets, waving and singing,
praising God for our presence there. What a welcome! Such
hospitality! The praise of God. And the stories all during the week, including the story of my
handless friend who was right there in the march praising God.

Maybe it’s not so hard to think, then, why Mary in the Gospel was
wiping Jesus’ feet with expensive oil. There in the presence of the
Holy One, she wanted to praise. Judas Iscariot said, “Why are you doing
that? What a waste. Don’t waste that perfume. Give it to the poor.”
Not that he cared for the poor. He had forgotten to praise. The poor will always be with us and the poor will help us to know the
way out of our own deserts as well as their own.

Well, my friend had to get up and leave. I didn’t want him to,
at that meal. But he was helped along, and I found out later that he was
to be the plenary speaker for the next session. His name is the Rev.
Michael Lapsley. And after his tragedy, he began the Institute for the
Healing of Memories, in South Africa, seeking justice in healing. And he
gave a powerful speech. I didn’t want him to leave then, and I
wish he was with me today. I miss him.

But if Michael Lapsley is anything like Jesus, and I think that he
is, I think that Jesus, too, has another meal. And Jesus searches even
places like this Cathedral and seeks out those who want to be left
alone. And Jesus comes and sits right by you, and if you come forward
for the sacred meal, he will walk with you and stand with you and say,
“Let’s talk.” And even though Michael isn’t here, I’m glad that Jesus is here, who
suffered even more than Michael, who will lead me out of my own
wilderness, and yours. If that’s all we do this day, that would be perfectly fine
with me.