Earlier this week I took a walk to our neighboring congregation, the shul or synagogue just up the hill. I think it was Wednesday. Wednesday was a blue-sky day, one of those days that tempts you to walk clear across the city. As I climbed the hill some lines from Isaiah floated through my mind:
In the days to come
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
One person walking up to a synagogue is not exactly the streaming of nations, but I trust you can see the connection. Isaiah sees a time when everything will be clear. It is a time when we will know what is true and where to find it, so he echoes the climbing psalms, the psalms of ascent. Psalm 122 is one of those:
“I was glad when they said to me,
‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’. . .
To it the tribes go up.”
These lines from the psalmist are poetic but not metaphorical. Hebrew pilgrims going to Jerusalem for a celebration would have sung thus as they went—literally up. This is what Isaiah had in mind, but he sees more than the tribes of Israel on the road. He sees the nations coming in recognition of God, shadows giving way to the real thing. They come not to many mountains but to one. I imagine it would like Black Friday in a city with only one mall.
The synagogue I’m walking toward was defaced a couple of weeks ago with swastikas and other symbols of the systematic attempt at annihilating Jews from the face of the earth—the Shoah. To Christians these symbols probably bring to mind black and white images of broken glass, emaciated bodies and menacing smokestacks. I can’t imagine that any Jewish person can see such symbols and not think of specific faces, names and branches of families that now exist only in memories or as empty picture frames.
In response to that act of graffiti many of us made our bodies present in the synagogue last Saturday, others made signs or cards. It is these cards that I carried up the hill: thoughtful notes from adults, well-intended pictures from the little ones, hearts and peace signs. I even carry a picture of an ice-cream cone signed by Superman. The creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster, were Jewish, so I think that’s appropriate. Another line from Isaiah floats through my head as I cross the first street:
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
When Christians read that passage we hone in that idea of the ‘word’. We read it as an allegorical reference to Jesus. We think Jesus himself is God’s instruction: he fulfills Torah and we pattern our lives after his. And then there’s John’s gospel. The ‘word’—yes—from Jerusalem—yes, more or less. Walking is a good way to see the obvious: Jesus was a Jew. He points us up the hill toward Zion. Isaiah’s words come again:
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many people;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
I approach the front of the synagogue. I’m reminded of something Rabbi Bulka said the previous Saturday when a rabbi, an imam and a pastor stood behind the lectern one after the other. Since it was the Sabbath they didn’t use a microphone. All of them had to shout to make themselves heard in the packed room. The rabbi can shout without shouting. He said what we seek is not ‘tolerance’. That word is too weak; it is too close to intolerance. What we seek is respect and solidarity and kindness. What we seek is a way of living together where we value each other and where we appreciate not just the things we have in common—being Canadians or whatever—but also the things that distinguish us. What we seek is a way of being together where we feel pain when our neighbours do.
I press the buzzer at the door and wait. The red swastika had been covered over with paint the color of burlap. Looking closely I can still make out some of the arms of the hooked cross. Brown paint is a good interim measure. We live in the age of brown paint. Yet Isaiah has us hoping for more than painting over things. He sees weapons turned permanently into farm tools. He sees paint used to enhance a community, tear it apart.
Waiting outside the locked door I think ahead to Advent. The first Sunday we will focus on hope. We will sing about it and we will light a candle for it. Everyone loves hope, at least as a generality. But hope as a generality is hope smothered under burlap brown. It’s more like optimism. True hope, Isaiah’s hope, is different. True hope is specific. Christians and Jews share Isaiah’s hope for an end to conflict and for walking “in the light of the LORD.” Look beneath the burlap, though, and we realize that our two communities think of this hope rather differently. This difference is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s simply the way things are. This is what the postmodern philosophers refer to as agon—the unavoidable agony of difference.
A voice comes on the intercom. I stifle the urge to make a joke about delivering pizza and say I’m here to drop off some cards. I’m invited in. I go through the brown doors and down the stairs. The voice’s body emerges from an office. I introduce myself and hand over the package. We talk about last week and Saturday’s program. The young rabbi smiles and tells me his community has found the city’s reaction comforting. They feel safe in their neighbourhood again. We talk a little longer and then I leave.
I head back down Virginia Drive still accompanied by Isaiah. I remember the premier of Ontario, Kathleen Wynne correcting herself on Saturday. What we seek is not a situation where some unbiased, secular ‘we’ welcomes some peculiar, religious ‘them’. We are individuals and communities with particular hopes and beliefs and commitments—we welcome each other.
We get nowhere when we paper-over our differences. Doing that makes us bad listeners. Think of what it would be like if someone were describing their life and faith to you and you interrupted them. You say something like, “That’s nice and all but we I think everyone values the same things. All faiths are really the same. They’re just different paths to the same place.” You would be right to call out their slight-of-hand. We can only say things like that without listening closely. We can only say that by creating an idea of every religion and then—presto!—pointing out that these fictions agree. In reality they do not, for even our wildest, boldest hopes are different.
Here’s the situation as the writer Marilyn Robinson sees it, “we live in a world where there is seldom anything deserving the name ‘proof’ . . . we must be content with evidence” She goes on to say, “a very great part of what we think we know is and can only be hypothesis” (260). This is true for all of us—Jews, Muslims, Christians, epicureans, atheists, romantics, cynics, Liberals, Conservatives, sports-nuts, Buddhists, lovers of good coffee, patrons of art—all of us. Since we are not gods we traffic in hypotheses. We disagree. This doesn’t make us bad neighbours. This doesn’t make solidarity more difficult. It shows us what solidarity actually requires. It has the virtue of making us honest, humble human creatures, creatures who seek the truth.
O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!
I round the corner back on to Kilborn Ave. I’m thinking about how specific Christian hope is, of course secular hope is specific too (deathly specific sometimes). Christians hope that the triune God displayed in Jesus of Nazareth will bring peace to our world. Christians hope that the power of God’s Spirit, the power that raised Jesus from the dead, will make a difference in our lives and in our world.
Our culture has largely set hoping for the light of the LORD aside and settled for agreeing on procedures. But nice procedures—elections and such—are no guarantee of much of anything. Christians hope for a renewed creation. We put our hope in a particular ‘Jesus-shaped’ way of being upheld by the power of God’s life-giving Spirit. We cannot hope like that be unkind.
I’m back at the church now. I take a seat in the sanctuary and I pray. I pray for our Jewish neighbours and I pray for the things my congregants shared in worship last week. Praying for these people reminds me that Christians hope the best for others. The success of others doesn’t threaten us. God is abundant. I try to pray this way and yet my mind drifts. I think of . . . the upcoming Cyber Monday sales. My home lacks a legitimate computer. I will buy one, I think, and my family will further enjoy the wonders of the internet.
Then I’m struck by the oddness of this distraction: Christian hope isn’t cyber. Isaiah’s image of shalom isn’t virtual or disembodied. It’s of farm tools, for God’s sake! Christian hope is not an escape from the physical, the personal or the face-to-face. It’s the hope of dust and burlap, paint and soil. It’s hope for the bodies beside us and for relationships we don’t know what the hell to do with.
Christian hope—that specific species of hope—feels different than banal optimism. One of the reasons is because Christian hope leaves room for lament and frustration. We are frustrated that children in our neighbourhood should have to ask their parents why someone would wish them gone. There’s a biblical phrase for that: “How long, O LORD?” How long will you hide your face, O Lord? How long will the wicked be given so much leash? How long will we live with pain? How long will we be strangled by depression? “How long, O LORD?” These are prayers of frustration spiked with hope.
This week we begin our walk toward Christmas. We walk alongside the women and men for whom Isaiah spoke. They too say, “How long, O LORD?” We can’t help but whisper our conviction that the prophet Mary carries within herself the Word of divine answer. We whisper that, and we hope for the streaming of the nations to the mountain of the Lord. We hope for the hammer of divine judgment to repurpose swords and spears and spray-paint and border walls. We hope for the feast to which our celebration of communion points. A garden party and wedding celebration pulled together around a table as long as the generations and bathed in the light of truth.
Will that day begin under blue sky or submerged in clouds? Which of our beliefs about God will be shown to be true and which will need erased like so much adamant graffiti? We cannot know. Our lives can’t be anything but a hypothesis. We live and walk as pilgrims seeking God’s light, having stumbled across patches of it along the way. We live as children of hope.
God of light, Holy Arbiter – Give us a humility that upends our fundamentalism, give us a confidence that elbows out our despair. In your grace, give us the light of your Self—Amen.