Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage (Isaiah 19: 19-25) transports me to the charming town of McMinnville, Oregon, population 33,000, about halfway between Portland and the coast. I was there in the early 90s for a summer conference, and one of the most memorable parts of the event was the welcome we received from the local host. He showed the gathered crowd a large map of the universe, and at the center was a planet with some continents and bodies of water. There was a star located square in the center of that planet, and as he oriented us to the position of the map, we realized that this center of the world was in fact right where we were, there in McMinnville, Oregon. We all shared a laugh and he talked about the common human tendency to put ourselves at the center of the world with everything revolving around us, and to assume God and everybody else looks at the world in the same way. One of the objectives of the conference was to help us get out of that narrow world view and to see life from some other perspectives, hopefully including some of God’s unique perspective.
There is a tendency in all religions and in all religious practices to create this center of the universe understanding of who we are. The people of Israel were certainly no exception. You can read through the Hebrew scriptures and find plenty of examples of narrow exclusivism and exceptionalism, centering the presence of God in this Promised Land, more particularly in Jerusalem, and more particularly still in the Temple, with all the rest of the world revolving around that sacred space. But one of the glorious distinctives of the Hebrew scriptures is the way it includes the back and forth conversation between the priests who promoted the particularity of Israel and the prophets who pushed for a more universal understanding of God’s work. The prophets were always trying to pry open the lenses of faith to new and wider perspectives. The passage today shows the prophet Isaiah prying open that lens to a remarkable width. Just look at the history of his audience – enslaved in Egypt, exiled in Assyria – and then imagine what feelings they must have had toward these two historic enemy lands. Their coming back from exile was marked by an exceptional priestly effort to rebuild the Temple to restore that particular sense of God’s presence, centering them again on the world map. And here comes the voice of Isaiah to counter this agenda. He makes the boldest claim he could think of: the same God who plagued Egypt would heal Egypt, and would create a highway between Egypt and Assyria enabling the people of both lands to visit one another and worship together freely. After lauding the presence of God in these two lands, north and south of the “center,” the prophet remembers who he is talking to, and gives the covenant people of Israel a place at the blessed table: In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. The LORD Almighty will bless them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.” The prophet didn’t see the world revolving around Jerusalem or the Temple. To the contrary, Isaiah pictured these three historic enemy nations transformed into a veritable constellation of cooperating covenant communities, all revolving around the same God as the center of their worlds. This is the fulfillment of the blessed peacemaking work Jesus spoke of in his Sermon.
I heard a radio program this week that illustrated Isaiah’s far-reaching vision of former enemies seeing each other through a wider lens. Ali Abu Awwad is a Palestinian living in the West Bank, and Robi Damelin is an Israeli living in Tel Aviv. Awwad lost his older brother Yousef to an Israeli soldier. Damelin lost her son David to a Palestinian sniper. They have many reasons to cling to the animosities and the enmity that divide their lands. But instead, they have joined together in the ground-breaking work of reconciliation through the Bereaved Families Forum. Ali Awwad shared a story for the first time on the radio program: When I went with Robi to the place that David had been teaching in the early date that he get killed, we went to meet the student there. When I get to the library that David was preparing for the student, a good library, and I saw Robi start crying there, I don’t know, it’s strange, that feeling that I got at that moment. I have that feeling that David is telling me, ‘Take care of my mother.’ This is the first time I’m telling that. I never told Robi that. And I think Yousef was so happy that Robi was taking care of me. Ali and Robi are traveling that highway that Isaiah describes, a holy way, a blessed way. Their story widens the lens of my faith.
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.