by Kjersten Priddy
So, true confessions. I think many of you know that I served my internship in Syracuse, New York last year. What you may not know is how this sun Lutheran came to find myself in the greyest major city in the country. My internship was a Horizon site, so the placement process was a little bit different than the regular process. Instead of interviewing with a series of supervisors, I interviewed with two people from the churchwide office in October to determine if I was accepted into the Horizon program.
So, I was in that weird little room on the third floor. You know, the one with no windows that you get in by going through room 350. I could tell the conversation was going pretty well, I was feeling pretty confident, when they asked me if I had thought about which site I might like to go to. I, of course, had. In fact, I knew exactly the site I should be placed at. The site where I would grow the most, be challenged in all the right ways, with the supervisor who I knew I could learn from and work with. So I told them all this, all about where I wanted to go and why I knew it was exactly the place I ought to be. They nodded affirmingly, and I thought, I’ve got this.
Then they followed up with, “and what other sites have you considered.” Oh, I thought to myself, I know this game. Only having one site makes it look like I don’t trust the process. Which, I, of course, do. So I knew I had to give another site. The only problem was, I had been so caught up in the site I knew I should go to, that I couldn’t think of another one. Mind racing, I pulled a maneuver that I would like to assure all faculty in the room is not a trick I normally pull. The woman sitting next to me had the list of sites out in front of her, half tucked under her notes; I snuck a glance. The sites were listed in alphabetical order by congregation name, and right on the top of the list was Atonement Lutheran Church, in Syracuse, New York.
“You know, I’d been thinking about Atonement, Syracuse,” I said, not missing a beat. They nodded, encouragingly. I snuck another glance at the one paragraph description and went on, trying not to sound like I was reading off the form. “I’m really interested in their urban ministry focus, and their ecumenical partnerships, and…” I dwindled off, the rest of the paragraph being concealed under her notes. They all nodded, and I thought nothing more of it. Imagine my surprise when several months later I received an email announcing my placement at Atonement Lutheran Church in Syracuse, New York. The lesson I’d like for you all to take away from this is: if you think you’d like to control the Holy Spirit, I suggest you don’t give her a whole lot of options.
But I’d go a step further and say, think about how you found yourself in this place. Was this the school of your dreams? Was this the school closest to home? Was this the school of your spouse’s dreams? Was this the place you always dreamed of working? Or in this tight economy, was this the place where the job was?
Events happen in our lives and we find ourselves in unexpected places. Sometimes it is a geographic displacement, the Holy Spirit decides you can best serve the church in upstate New York, for example. Or Minot, North Dakota. But current events should serve to remind us that these displacements are not always geographic. As the Occupy movement is demonstrating, no matter how well you play the American Dream, sometimes we find ourselves displaced by the economic system. Or we find ourselves bound by illness, despite our best attempts at health. Sometimes it feels like the church herself has moved away from us. I don’t know your story, I can only speak to mine, but as I have heard the collective stories of this place over the past few weeks, it seems displacement is a universal truth.
In today’s reading from Isaiah, we find the Israelites in a place of not fitting, held captive by a reality that they did not chose or create. Their days of power and prosperity in Israel are over, and they are strangers exiled in a foreign land. The Babylonians conquered their nation, their cities are destroyed, their Temple demolished, and they are spread out across an empire not their own.
It is into this broken and downtrodden people, that the prophet Isaiah brings God’s message of salvation. “I will go before you,” God announces. “I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places.” This is great news to people all too familiar with the bronze doors and iron bars of captivity. But there’s a surprising twist to this story. The person to whom God is speaking, the great savior of the Israelites, is the King of Persia. Salvation from the pagan ruler of a heathen nation? A nation that does not even know the Lord? How could this be?
But if we look back into salvation history, we find that it is through the unexpected that God’s power always breaks into this world. The son of a Hebrew slave, left in a basket and raised as a foster child in the court of Pharaoh, raised his rod and the Red Sea broke in two so the Israelites could march to freedom. The heathen king of Persia conquered the Babylonians in his own quest for power, and freed the Israelites from their exile. And of course, that most unexpected of indwellings, that began when the birthing wail of an infant in a stable cut through a cold winter night, reached it’s height on a Friday afternoon when the dying gasp of a political prisoner caused the curtain of the temple to be torn in two, and finally came to completion when an earthquake revealed an empty tomb, breaking open the barrier of sin and death that kept us apart from God. A breaking we remember when we gather at the font or around the table and experience for ourselves a God who breaks through each and every day in the most common elements of bread and wine and water.
In the midst of captivity, our unexpected God breaks into this world. When you are buried under papers and deadlines, God breaks in. When the weight of expectation threatens to crush you, God breaks in. When the church does not seem to have a place for you, God breaks in. When illness holds you captive, when finances are tight, when you are trapped behind bars of fear and loneliness, our unexpected God breaks into these most desolate and isolated of places. Breaks in and promises to lead us to places of everlasting life. Our salvation history is of a God who does not stop moving and shaping and creating this world. Who heard the cries of the slaves in Egypt, who heard the lonely exiles in Babylon, who heard the heartbreak of a world held captive by sin and death and who broke into the world to make all things new. This is the God who hears our cries. This same indwelling God is breaking into this time, into this place, and will not stop coming and dwelling and breaking until this whole world is brought into relationship with God. These salvation stories are not tales of a far-off time when God was closer. These salvation stories are our stories, stories of treasures of darkness and riches hidden in the secret places of our lives.
God breaks into our lives in unexpected places, God breaks into our lives in unexpected ways, God breaks into our lives in unexpected people. Sometimes those unexpected people are even us…
That is the possibly the most unexpected twist in this text. This text is addressed not to the oppressed Israelites, but to the King of Persia. God chose Cyrus, of all people, to bring hope to the Israelites. Cyrus, who never even knew it, never even knew God, was God’s instrument in bringing salvation. And if God chose Cyrus, then God can and does choose us. Not only does God break into the captive places in our lives, but God also uses us to break into the captive places in other’s lives. God told Cyrus, “I call you by your name. I surname you, though you do not know me.” And God calls us by our names too. Surnames us, in ways we do not even know. We are the ones God uses to break into this world. God uses us, though we do not know what we are doing, or where we are going, though we may not even know it is God who is acting, but uses us to be God’s hands and feet creating light and life in this world.
Our unexpected God breaks in. This is the history of our salvation; this is the promise of our future. God, who loved us so much that slavery under Pharaoh, that exile in a foreign land, that even death itself could not keep God apart from us, is still working in our lives and communities to break down everything that holds us captive. This unexpected God is even working through us. Thanks be to God. Amen.