Dancing to a Different Tune
Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5; Revelation 22:1-5
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 11-27-2016)
I will never sing, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” the same way. Our Palestine-Israel travel group had just passed through one of the 630 checkpoints in the Occupied Palestinian Territory to enter the little town of Bethlehem. Once we had crossed over to the Palestinian side of the Wall, the bus stopped abruptly. Our guide invited us to stand aside the Separation Wall, three times the height of the Berlin Wall. Covered with graffiti, mostly done at night, the Wall was well guarded by Israeli soldiers in a nearby turret armed with uzzis. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight” is a chorus from the carol that ran through my mind standing next to that Bethlehem wall and it has haunted me ever since.
I was standing in line at a Stuckey’s, a convenience and eating establishment on the main corridor of the Eastern Shore. I was working for the Virginia Council of Churches in their migrant ministry on summer during college. My job began at sunset when the migrants returned to the camp across the street from Stuckey’s, exhausted from a long day harvesting cucumbers, tomatoes, and squash.
The father and son ahead of me in line at Stuckey’s were looking across the street at the wooden shacks in disrepair that serve as seasonal homes for the migrants. The son asked the father, “What are those?” The father answered without missing a beat, “Tobacco barns.” The migrants were essential to the economy of the Eastern Shore but invisible to most people who lived there. They still are and not just on American farms, but along the U.S.-Mexico border, at the borders of Hungary and Germany, on the Sudan and South Sudan, and wherever children, women, and men are forced to flee from home for safety or for economic survival.
Amid all the recent hardline conversation about refugees, internationally and nationally, I have been reminded at how romantically Christians often observe the birth of Jesus, forgetting that in his birth story, Jesus is himself a refugee. As Matthew tells the story, after the holy family was turned away from the Inn, they were chased from Bethlehem to Egypt; they had no place to call home. In a new hymn by Tom Troeger, we hear the haunting truth of a Savior become Refugee: “The winter wind that storms the barn where Mary holds her child portends the coming brutal harm of Herod’s rage run wild” (from “The Winter Wind that Storms the Barn” by Tom Troeger and music by John R. Kleinheksel).
We live in a nation and a world of immigrants and yet we live in a nation and world running scared not only of immigrants and refugees but of everything and everyone from Palestinians to Planned Parenthood to ISIS to the drug trade to declining churches, even to vaccines. When I am scared, I do not think clearly. I react first and think and pray second. When I am with a group of scared people, I find that our language gets extreme and our positions calcify and if not physical, emotional walls are built.
It was to such a community of scared people that Isaiah wrote and generations later, the refugee, John of Patmos, would write. If any two people had good reason to run scared it was Isaiah writing hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus and John of Patmos writing a couple of generations after the death of Jesus.
The first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah read like a wild man with multi-colored hair running down the street, holding a huge placard, screaming, “The end of the world is at hand.” No one took him seriously, but he was the only sane one in the crowd. Isaiah announced that a time of destruction and deportation of his people was coming and everyone scoffed. And yet, this same mad town crier inserted an amazing picture of what God would bring to pass after the dark times ahead.
Exiled on the island of Patmos by edict of Rome, John has an amazing vision of the future that God would bring to pass after the dark times at hand. It is hard to read the words of Isaiah and the vision of John and stay scared. It is hard to hear the words of these divine mad men and not want to get up and dance.
In recent years, an aging Roman Catholic South American priest visited the U.S. and called all people of faith to dance to a different tune than the prevailing music of fear and greed and “Black Friday” consumption. Pope Francis is an elegant dancer who daily shows us a different step, such as when he arrived in D.C. and eschewed attending an elegant state dinner, instead, to attend a holy dinner with the homeless poor.
With much talk today of mass deportations and building bigger walls, the Pope dances to a different tune, reminding us all about refugees, “Perhaps you will be challenged by their diversity, but know that they also possess resources meant to be shared. So do not be afraid to welcome them.”
“Do not be afraid” is a chorus that echoes throughout Scripture over the frequent din of fear. “Do not be afraid to welcome them,” says the Pope. Easy for the Pontiff to say. He does not have to navigate all the complexities of immigration policy, nor is he charged with protecting the safety of citizens against those who would do us harm. “Sorry, Pope Francis, we are afraid and for good reason.”
You can be sure, though, that a Pope from the Latin South is anything but naïve about the real causes for fear out there, just as Isaiah and John were not saying, “You have nothing to fear.” Isaiah, John, Pope Francis know the reality of fear, but despite our fears, they invite us to dance to a different tune, by which our fears are recognized, but they do not cause us blindly to dismiss and discard those who are different from us.
Listen to these Advent lyrics from Isaiah and see if your feet do not begin to tap and your fear begin to fade:
All nations will stream to the mountain of God, all races, all peoples as one; From the ends of the earth to the farthest of reaches, up to God’s mountain they’ll come. Their weapons of anger will all become plowshares, pruning hooks come from their spears; Out of Zion shall go forth instruction for justice, joy will replace all their tears. O, the love of God flows down from the mountain, where war is no more. All the people, the nations, singing together, sing of God’s peace evermore! Joy flows down; let us go to the mountain of God. Love flows down, down from the Lord. Peace flows down, peace ever more!
What the prophet Isaiah could only dream, the refugee, John of Patmos, surely knew. He knew that no matter how dark the clouds hanging over the world, the church, our lives, no matter how high and oppressive the walls we build, the chorus of the old carol is finally true, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.”
Why? Because you and I not only follow the one born in Bethlehem, we follow the Lord of the Dance who left the tomb empty that first Easter morning. That is why we light the Advent candle of hope today. That is why we follow the Lord of the Dance into God’s beloved world, a world still consumed with fear and hatred, evil and intimidation, and even so, by God’s grace, we are invited to enter this holy season of Advent and dance to a different tune.