God of Israel, strange and familiar
by Matt Elia
March 17, 2013
Our Psalm for today reads:
“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.”
What might it mean for us to be like those who dream?
In a short story published in 1911, W. E. B. Du Bois dreamt Jesus Christ turned up in Waco, Texas. What if, he asks, what if Jesus came and wandered amidst lynch mobs and Jim Crow laws, chatting with white wives of important men, and black convicts on the run? What if no one quite gets who he is or what he’s up to? Called simply ‘the stranger’ by everyone, including the narrator, Jesus provokes a different response from each character he meets. Some have eyes to see him. Some don’t.
The power of the world Du Bois creates here lies in a single, tremendously powerful paradox: On one hand, there is the fact that Jesus is the one everyone, I mean, everyone knows—especially in Texas of all places!—and on the other, the fact that Jesus is a stranger. Everyone in the story knows who ‘Jesus’ is, but few recognize this weird, quiet out-of-towner, this drifter whose ambiguous racial identity drives much of the dramatic tension. The white folks keep thinking he’s white at first glance, then freak out when they realize he isn’t. His eyes are too dark, his skin is olive, even yellow, and his hair hangs in close curls on the side of his face. They think they know him, but it turns out, they don’t. The town priest says, “Surely, I know you. I have met you somewhere…You—you remember me, do you not?” But the stranger quietly sweeps his cloak aside and passes through the door, saying in low tones, “I never knew you.”
This ambiguity—between knowing and unknowing, the familiar and the strange—this is precisely what gives the whole thing its dreamlike quality. Indeed, isn’t this what it feels like when we dream? Familiar things feel suddenly strange, and strange things familiar. Normal things appear bizarre to you, but it somehow feels natural when you find yourself baking a casserole at the White House with your old gym teacher from middle school. It’s an unsettling thing, to dream. We often wake up alarmed or sad or filled with longing.
“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,” writes the psalmist,
“we were like those who dream.”
What might it mean for us to be like those who dream?
I think keeping this sense of ambiguity and paradox in mind helps us when we come to the Old Testament reading for today, Isaiah 43. Having been languishing in exile for years, the Israelites receive a new word from Yahweh. Judah fell to the Babylonians because of their unfaithfulness, yes, but now—now, they are coming home. Their Persians captors, being used of God, have freed them, released them to journey back to the land they call home. It would seem, from the Israelite point of view, that perhaps everything will now go back to normal, back to the way things were. The word Yahweh speaks to them now is not judgment, but consolation. Comfort. The only problem is, the instructions don’t entirely make sense. How so?
Notice that in verses 16 and 17, the prophet repeatedly interprets this new journey by alluding to an earlier event, the great Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. He reminds hearers that Yahweh is the one “who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters.” Do not forget, he says, who brought you out of bondage. But then, abruptly, the next verse tells them: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.” Well, that’s going to be a little hard for us since you literally just told us about them.
And furthermore, it’s not hard to imagine their confused response: how could we forget about ‘the former things, the things of old’ when it is you, the God of our beginnings, our past, our story—who is instructing us to forget them? Are we to forsake the familiar things, the trusted things—our tradition, our narrative, our history—for the sake of this new strange thing you will do? It is a disturbing question. It is the perennial question for people of faith, the question God’s people face again and again, in every generation, as an ancient truth encounters a new world, new circumstances, new problems. It is the question we face today, isn’t it?—in our own lives, in the social issues we face, in the life of the churches broadly speaking, and in the life of Chapel Hill Mennonite in particular. It brings us back to the tension between what we know and what we don’t, the paradox between the familiar and the strange.
Let’s read the next verse with this question in mind, and with the dreamlike vision of Jesus Christ in Texas still echoing in our ears. I think something very interesting begins to come into view: “I am about to do a new thing,” Yahweh says, “now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” You might miss it, God says to them, and to us. And because we might miss it, we are reminded that the one doing it, this strange thing, is the one we know, the one who has drawn near to us already. The God of the Exodus.
I’m doing something that is new for you, Yahweh says, something strange. But it is I who will do it—no one else—I, the Lord, the one who brought you out of Egypt. The point is: Something strange will happen. But someone familiar will do it. It is a simple point: Something unknown is coming to you. But someone who knows you, whom you know, will be with you in the unknown. Change comes. But the unchanging one remains with you in the midst of it. And in this way, the wilderness wraps itself around our wandering, holding us in a new world, a mixture of the strange and the familiar, of things we recognize and things we don’t. This will feel kind of like the Exodus, Yahweh says, but it isn’t the Exodus. It might feel familiar, but it isn’t business as usual.
In the context around this passage, there are indeed descriptions of how, exactly the journey will be different. In the original Exodus, for instance, they left “in great haste,” but this time they won’t. Water was scarce the first time; this time rivers are promised in the desert, pools of water in the wilderness. But for our purposes here, I think it is more pressing for us to consider what this text might suggest to us about the way God interacts with God’s people. That is, what does it mean for us to live inside of this tension between the strange and the familiar? What does faithfulness look like in the weird, dreamlike wilderness of the God of Israel, the one who calls us to ‘a new thing’? What would it mean for us to live in this paradox, to be like those who dream?
The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams once began a sermon by acknowledging the fact that people often suspect, not without good reason, that paradox is a cheap, evasive maneuver. We call something a ‘paradox’ or a ‘mystery’ in order to escape our own contradictions, or to conceal our muddled thinking. This is quite possible. You may wish to inform me I have done so, and we have a time in our service for that.
But Williams also points out that a paradox—like the one we’ve talked about today, of the God of old saying forget the things of old—this paradox can be doing something different too. It can acknowledge that life in the real world is fluid, filled with subtle and rapid interactions, and that our language, therefore, sometimes has trouble ‘keeping up’ with that puzzling and elusive thing—truth. We know and we don’t know. Familiar and strange. “In such a setting,” Williams says, “we utter paradoxes not to mystify or avoid problems, but precisely to stop ourselves [from] making things easy by pretending that some awkward or odd feature of our perception isn’t really there. We speak in paradoxes because we have to speak in a way that keeps a question alive” (Ray of Darkness, 100).
I am hoping that the way I’ve tried to speak about Isaiah is like that: As a paradox, an apparent contradiction which keeps us in dialogue, keeps us open and trusting the possibility that something true may emerge in the process of our questioning, our seeking. That truth—about God, about one another, about ourselves—can and does emerge from these tensions, these messy and puzzling conflicts: this lesson is one of the greatest gifts CHMF has given me. This sermon, in key part, has been a way of reflecting biblically and theologically about what happens here, and in our homes, and in our Community Life Meetings. What is this concrete practice of dialogue, of living together inside the new and the old, of being receptive to a God who is at once strange to us and familiar? There are many good ways of naming it. I have tried to suggest a name from the language of the Psalms:
“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.”
What does it mean for our community to dream together? In this sense, dreaming isn’t pie-in-the-sky idealism; it isn’t escape from reality. (It’s not like those John Lennon bumper stickers you always see in Carrboro, “you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”) Rather, for the Psalmist, ‘being like those who dream’ names a concrete way of recognizing that faithfulness to the God of Israel calls us—just as it always called them—to walk side by side with the strange and the familiar, the new and the old.
We have always been a people who find the strangeness of God in the familiar, the ordinary: bread and wine, singing hymns and talking, washing each other’s feet. And conversely, we have always been a people who find the familiarity of God in strangeness, in the strange lands through which we wander—deserts and wilderness and the University of North Carolina—and most of all, perhaps, we find the familiarity of God in strange people. That is, the ones the world calls strange: those who are naked, those who are hungry, those who are thirsty, those who are sick. Those who are excluded, those who are in prison, those whom the world has forgotten, and cast aside. We have always found God in the strangeness of those places, those people. “I was a stranger,” Jesus says, “and you welcomed me.”
If there is something timeless, something ‘we can count on’ not to change in our knowledge of God and of Christ, isn’t it this? Precisely that God is always disrupting our familiarity, always surprising us, always identifying Godself with the strangers and the strangeness we thought we had safely put aside? Hasn’t the God of Israel, the God of the Exodus always been this way? Wanting to be known, but known as a stranger, a burning fire. Giving us a name, but not a name we can use to possess him as another object of our knowledge. Hell, it’s barely a name we can even pronounce. YHWH. I am who I am. The known and unknown God. The God we know, meeting us in the stranger we don’t.
In closing then, it’s worth noting two things. First, this paradox of strange-and-familiar, like a dream, can be unsettling, frightening even. It means we risk missing something. We might even miss seeing God. In the story of Jesus Christ in Texas, there is only one person who recognizes Jesus immediately; the rest mostly miss the point. It is the butler of the white woman who owns the house where Jesus is staying. “He was an ancient black man,” Du Bois writes, “with tufted white hair, and he held before him a large, silver tray filled with a china tea service. The stranger rose slowly and stretched forth his hands as if to bless the [items on the tray]. The old man paused in bewilderment, tottered, and then with sudden gladness in his eyes dropped to his knees, and the tray crashed to the floor. ‘My Lord and my God!’ he whispered; but the woman screamed: ‘Mother’s china!’”
As we discern, in our communal life and personal life, what it means to live out an old faith in ever-changing circumstances, it can be hard to know what exactly is confessing Christ, and what is fretting over the good plates; to know when the Lord is saying, “I am about to do a new thing,” and when it’s just us getting it wrong. But it is just this uncertainty which calls us into community together, into radical patience, and radical dependency on the presence of the spirit in our midst.
And this brings me to the second point, the last thing I’ll say. And that is that we should remember from Isaiah that this paradox, this difficult word, is not judgment; it is comfort. It is not a punishment, but hope—an invitation, an opportunity to meet the living God in community together, and in the strangers we welcome, and in the strangers who become neighbors, and in the neighbors who become friends. In this way, the prophet tells us, the people of God are formed. According to verse 21: unsettling though it may be, it is through this journey, this ‘new thing,’ this strange process that God “gives water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert…drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself, so that they might declare my praise.”