Isaiah 44:6-8; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Good morning. My name is Lauren Lukason. I joined the community here at St. Paul’s about one and half years ago, and with the support of Rebecca Schultzberg, Ayanna McPhail, Beverly Estes-Smargiassi, John Ferguson, and Jeff Mello, your vestry recently voted to endorse me for admission as a postulant for Holy Orders, which means – if you’re not up on Episcopal church lingo – that the vestry has voted in support of my application to continue to the next step in discerning a call to ordained ministry as a priest in the church, which is why I have the honor of standing here before you today.

There is still quite a bit of road left to travel on this journey of a answering a call to ordained ministry, but I want to take a moment now to say thank you, to this community, to my discernment committee, the vestry, and to Jeff for what is, perhaps, the most compelling of reasons to be here with you and why I ultimately chose St. Paul’s as my community — that is your willingness and your commitment to to engage in the wonderfully messy work of figuring out — over and again — what it means to be members of this thing we call beloved community, Jesus followers or …church.

Something, I believe, Isaiah, Paul, and Matthew have a thing or two to say about.

I want to take a look at the Book of Isaiah, principally because the writings attributed to this prophet would have been foundational to the faith culture of Jesus, Paul, and Matthew. This is the water in which they swam and as such bears influence on how they heard God’s call to them and, consequently, how we might understand God’s call to us through them.

The prophet Isaiah lived in 8th century BCE Jerusalem and the prophesies recorded in roughly the first half of the Book of Isaiah concern events in that time and place. Of particular concern to Isaiah was the expanding Assyrian empire, situated to the east of Judah, in what is now northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey. With Egypt to their south, the small kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean —Judah and Israel, among others — were really starting to feel the squeeze. When facing the impending threat of the Assyrian army, these small kingdoms sometimes chose the route of least resistance and acquiesce to the Assyrian king’s demands for tribute. In exchange those smaller kingdoms would be afforded Assyrian protection, though this had the consequence of making them beholden to the Assyrian king. At other times one of the small kingdoms would choose ally itself with Egypt in an attempt at resistance against the empire, though this, too, was met with counterproductive and often disastrous results.

This conundrum posed quite the question to Isaiah: As the Assyrian empire expands into and through Israel, immediately to Judah’s north, to what extent ought the Judeans stand up to the Assyrians – by means of diplomatic and military alliances with Egypt? And to what extent should they remain free of such alliances and rely exclusively on God to protect them? It doesn’t take much reading of Isaiah to get a sense of where he stands on that question. Isaiah is adamant that, with God’s protection, Jerusalem will never fall to Judah’s enemies.

Isaiah’s prophesies seem to stand fine and well for a good two hundred years, that is, until the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, engages in a twenty-three year siege of Jerusalem. Each time the king of Judah refused to pay him tribute, Nebuchadnezzar would carry out another wave of mass deportations of Judeans who were then held captive in Babylon. If decimating the population of Jerusalem wasn’t enough, before he is finished, Nebuchadnezzar sees to it that the Judean’s temple – King Solomon’s temple – is destroyed.

Now, hang on a second!? This was not in the plan. Jerusalem was to be a city for the ages, never to be over thrown. What has happened? Why, God? Why?!

Now what is a prophet to do?

Fortunately for Isaiah, he had long passed from this world when Jerusalem was conquered. Not so, however, it would seem, for at least one – and probably more – of his disciples who took it upon himself – or herself – to pen, under Isaiah’s name, as would have been a custom of the time, new stories and imagery into which the now temple-les and dispersed Judean community could imagine themselves and, for the sake of posterity, offer an answer to the question, “What now, God?”

This new author of Isaiah promises to the Judeans exiled in Babylon that they would be freed by the king of Persia and permitted to return to Judah to rebuild the temple and move on with their lives, almost as if nothing had happened.

However, not all the Judeans in exile chose to return. Those who remained in Babylon were among the first to establish a permanent diaspora, clustered communities living out their faith — what would later become known as Judaism — around the world. Many, however, did choose to return to Jerusalem, and to rebuild the temple which became the marker of the beginning of what has come to be known as the Second Temple era and Second Temple Judaism.

Second Temple Judaism — the span of time between the rebuilding of the temple and the fall of the Roman Empire, was the foundation of the faith culture of Jesus, of Paul, and of Matthew. Judaism which, in Isaiah’s time, had been an established, unquestioned set of practices, now found itself without a temple and without the sense of being a single gathered community. Out of necessity, for the Judeans living in diaspora, Judaism shifted from being a temple-focused religion to being a home ritual focused religion. Rituals and belief once experienced as simply part of everyday life when held up against the backdrop of the surrounding non-Judean culture became explicit practices of those looking to adhere to the faith of their homeland, and were intentionally taught to younger generations.

Even for those who chose to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple, life had changed. For the generation, or so, that it took to rebuild the temple, religious observances in Judah moved in to peoples’ homes and away from a single centralized location. Synagogues began to spring up as places of study and group prayer, and community meetings. Even once the temple was completed, it would never again hold quite the same place in society as it once had.

And that wasn’t the plan. And maybe it is still good. Because the thing about participating in the cycle of imagining and reimagining, building and rebuilding communities who choose to take their lead from where it seems God is calling them, is that things rarely go according to our understanding of the plan. And yet, God is still in those topsy-turvy experiences of disorienting reordering, right there with us. The only thing asked of us is that we listen with an open heart.

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