Signs and Signposts
November 18, 2007
Isaiah 65: 17-25
Luke 21: 5-19
Some of my fondest childhood memories were trips to my mother’s family homestead in northern New Hampshire. The overflow room where the children sleep is bedecked with moose and deer antlers – yuck! – but my anxiety is allayed with wonderful stories – what Doug Adams calls “grandparent” stories – where aunts and uncles and grandparents tell us the wicked truth about our parents! Family vacations are where we learn of our parents’ screw-ups, where we learn that we weren’t the first kids who screamed aloud at those revolting moose skulls glaring at us in our dreams...
But my favorite story is the one where my mother, her siblings and several friends were hiking up Mt. Washington. According to Mom, she did it every other day.... According to everyone else, it was, well, once or twice a summer…
If you don’t know about Mt. Washington, it’s the glory – and the terror – of the East. Although less than 6300 feet above sea level – a puny hill by your standards – it has the highest wind speed (231 miles per hour) and the most fickle weather recorded anywhere in the world. I was hiking one balmy August day when it changed from 85 degrees and cloudless to 50 degrees, thick fog, and hail – all in less than 30 minutes.
– Which is what happened to my mother and her friends, but worse. It was the mid-1930’s and she was thirteen. They were more than half way down the mountain, on a poorly marked path, when a fog came in so deep that they couldn’t see their feet in front of them. A wrong step would send them hurling over the abyss.
After a few minutes of terror, they realized that they had to get down – somehow – or they would freeze in the night. So they agreed to hold hands and not, under any circumstances, let go. It took six hours of white-knuckled hands and words of encouragement, but they finally made it home. My mother said they would never have made it if they hadn’t just kept walking and holding hands.
I’ve also shared stories of friends in the World Trade Center on that terrible day. With fear in abundance and confidence in short supply, they made it down by holding hands. Holding hands, they made their way to safety.
In our first reading today, Isaiah – like my mother and my friends at the World Trade Center – also made it safely home. But, in this passage, he is returning from exile in Babylon and looking out at his beloved city Jerusalem – destroyed. Gone is the beautiful temple built by King Solomon four centuries earlier. Gone is the sanctuary that is the sign of their and God’s power.
And it is while looking out at this horror that Isaiah hears God. The symbol of God’s power is gone, but the power of God’s love is not. God says, “I am about to create a new heaven and a new earth.... I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.”
And so it was. The second temple was completed in 516 BCE. And once again, the Hebrews looked at that glorious building high atop Temple Mount and knew who they were. The temple was the sign – the icon – of their identity.
For over 500 years. And then came the Romans, and – once again – destruction of the temple. Writing after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, Luke has Jesus predicting the future. With the power of hindsight, he details both the beauty of the temple and the tragedy to follow – nations will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, there will be earthquakes and famines and plagues and dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
And … they will arrest you and persecute you … you will be betrayed by parents and brothers and relatives and friends….
Which is what happened. The Second Temple wasn’t rebuilt. Massive unrest among empires and persecution of Christians became commonplace. Then as now – when suffering is rampant, we typically look for simple black-and-white answers and we play the blame game. We all do it – we explain our victimization by creating demons. This is how terrorists justify violence – both in Jesus’ time, when he predicted that his followers would be betrayed by parents and relatives, and today, as terrorists explain their brutal acts by demonizing the leaders of their country or ours.
But was – is – that the last word?
Christianity started with a small band of persecuted followers, viewing the sacking of Jerusalem, devastated by a world in ruins, certain of nothing but ongoing betrayal and death to … well .. 2500-2000 years later, how do our lives compare with those of Isaiah and Jesus? What are the signs we see as we look around?
On the one hand, we worry that our world – like that of Isaiah and of Jesus – is in turmoil. 9-11 and the collapse of the World Trade Center dramatically changed our lives. Talk about a temple in ruins! There are wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Darfur and in the migrant labor camps and inner cities of our country. Hurricane Katrina was as vicious a portent as we can find. Earthquakes are an everyday threat, a cyclone has just killed 2,000 in Bangladesh, and drought is devastating the southeastern states. And this is to say nothing of global warming!
Closer to home, we worry about our children and grandchildren, for it seems that growing up is harder these days. We worry about the future of our church. We remember the “good ol’ days” where children and dogs had the run of the neighborhood, television shows were squeaky clean, most everyone went to church, and father always knew best. (Well, maybe not always…) Like the early Christians, we see signs of chaos, signs of terror … dreadful signs and portents from heaven… We don’t know what we’re doing wrong and we don’t know how to make it right, but we sure know that we aren’t happy with the way things are.
Like the parrot in Ruth’s excellent sermon of last week, we look to the magician and ask “Where’s the boat?” We’re shipwrecked on a stormy sea, but it’s not a joke and the magician is as impotent as the parrot. Like my mother, we are lost and scared. The signs of calamity are everywhere and the way out of the wilderness is cloaked in fog. But are these signs describing the present or are they also portents of the future? Do we see only signs of terror? On this Thanksgiving Sunday, can we find signs of thanksgiving?
I think we can, and I the clue is in verse 13 (“This will give you an opportunity to testify”) and 20 (“By your endurance you will gain your souls.”) And while there may be no magician with a boat up his sleeve, I believe that there is a magi with a gift or two in his heart. In explaining that, I’d like to explain that, of the signs that describe us and our world, some of the signs are also signposts that indicate who we want to be and where we want to go.
So … how many of you wear a cross around your neck? What about a lapel pin, a wedding ring, a locket, or another piece of jewelry that holds more meaning than mere beauty? What about bumper stickers? Do you display the comma or the “God is still speaking” sticker? What are the signs you use to show yourself and the world who you are? Do you display these for yourselves or for others, or both? Are they signs of who you are, or signposts of how you will find your way home, i.e., reminders to you of who you want to be?
We remember Glenna Seely’s necklace that reminds her to hang in there. Steve Foss has given me permission to talk about his tattoos. The first one, on his left upper arm, is the Kanji symbol for balance. It reminds him that, when he’s having too much fun, he needs to get back to work. And vice versa. On his right upper arm is the Jesus fish, to remind him of his faith. Interestingly, it was the symbol used by the early Christians to identify them to each other without alerting the Roman authorities. Because they are on his upper arm, most people don’t see them. On his back is the coat of arms for Germany because that is his family heritage. He can take his family with him wherever he goes; he can feel his parents and grandparents watching his back and keeping him safe.
On his forearm, he has two tattoos which he can see – and so can others. On the left is the Kanji sign for love, the most important force in the world. On the left is shinnen, the symbol for faith. These are not just signs of his identity, they are also reminders, signposts, of who he wants to be and how he wants to live his life.
And I should confess that, while I’m older and not as courageous as Steve, I also have a tattoo – here on my left wrist just under my watch band. It’s a tiny cross. I got the idea twelve years ago when I was furious at a few people and wanted to act like a Christian even if I didn’t feel like one. So each morning, I drew a cross with a ballpoint pen as a reminder to behave myself for Jesus’ sake. Then, just after 9/11 and before I came West, I was again afraid. Was I doing the right thing in abandoning family and a comfortable lifestyle to come out here? I was scared, and this tattoo became the signpost for the person I wanted to be – faithful and Christ-centered, not the person I too often was – afraid and lonely.
I think that young people are sporting tattoos because they offer a clear identity, much like a collar for ordained clergy, or a cross or lapel pin for people of our generation. In a world with fewer boundaries and more chaos, tattoos are a visible sign of who we are and a signpost of who we want to be.
We long to hear God’s reassurance that all will be well, that God is making a new heaven and a new earth where Jerusalem will be restored, where the lion will lie down with the lamb, and peace will prevail. It has happened in the past and we believe it will happen again. But we also see the signs of destruction that Jesus predicted to his followers and wonder when it will end. We don’t want to be persecuted, nor do we want to play the blame game. We don’t want to betray our parents and brothers and friends – nor to be betrayed by them. So where will we find the signposts that will point the path to salvation and joy?
Once again, it is in verse 13: “This – referring to the arrests and persecutions – will give you an opportunity to testify…”
And how do we testify? -- We witness to the signposts – the way that we find our way home from the fog. For some it’s the cross, the lapel pin, the wedding ring, the tattoo. For some, it is the symbol for the United Church of Christ shown on page 6 of your bulletin. It comprises a crown, cross and world enclosed within a double oval bearing the name of the church and the prayer of Jesus, "That they may all be one" (John 17:21). The crown symbolizes the sovereignty of Christ. The cross recalls his suffering, and the orb, divided into three parts, reminds us of Jesus' command to be his "witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).
And, for all of us, it is the lesson from my mother and the survivors of the World Trade Center: we hold hands. Holding hands is the universal symbol of hope and community. When we hold each other’s hands, we become the signpost that we will can only find the promised land – we will only arrive safely home – when we help each other. We’re going to get there with Jesus and with each other, or not at all. For we know that, as Jesus as said, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
And so, I urge you now to take someone else’s hands, and say to him or her: “With you and with Jesus, I know that we will make it safely home.” And while you do that, please listen again to Betty and Jeff as they share a modern version of the gospel passage.