One of the things about DC, a city I visited last week, for Thanksgiving, is all the stuff going on there. Wouldn’t want to live there, but it is a happenin’ place.
On Friday morning in DC, where my newly married daughter and her husband Paul live-that is, after Thanksgiving Thursday, after Friday breakfast and after all the dishes had been unloaded from the dishwasher and returned to their cabinets-- my daughter and son-in-law and I took a morning stroll to the Dupont Underground. Where and what is the Dupont Underground? The Dupont Underground is as it suggests—it is at Dupont Circle, or the intersection of two busy streets—Massachusetts and Connecticut Avenues. And it is underground, that is, under the heavily trod sidewalks of our nation’s capital.
Before the advent of the metro, DC used to have a trolley system—and some of those trolleys ran through underground tunnels. The Dupont Underground, then, is a former trolley tunnel. Space is at a premium in DC, of course. Better lighting was installed on the tunnel’s ceilings and for a time the Dupont Underground served as a food court. Apparently, city dwellers didn’t like eating their hotdogs and tacos underground though. The space has recently been transformed into an underground art gallery.
We had the great fortune of visiting the World Press Photo exhibit at the Dupont Underground. According to the Washingtonian Magazine that exhibit is “the World Press Photo Foundation’s largest U.S. exhibit ever.” The photos were on slides, projected on the tunnel’s walls—they were larger than life-size photos depicting memorable moments of the past year.
The prize winning photo for 2016, was taken by Associated Press photographer Burhan Ozbilici. Burhan was a photographer living and working in Kiev, Turkey. Last year this time (in December), he learned that the Russian ambassador to Turkey would be delivering a speech at an (Above ground!) art gallery in Kiev. Burhan thought to himself, “Why not take in that speech on my way home from work?” Surprise, surprise! As he sat with the other gallery visitors listening to the ambassador speak, a terrorist raced in screaming “Don’t forget Aleppo. Don’t forget Syria!” The terrorist raised his gun, and took aim at the ambassador. Burhan’s striking photo depicts the terrorist holding his gun in a triumphant pose, after the fact. The terrorist’s prey, the dying ambassador, lies prostate at his feet.
It’s a disturbing, no, horrific photo. But Burhan deserves that prize, for sure. Who of us would have the audacity, the courage to snap a photo in those circumstances? Wouldn’t we have run for cover? But no, Burhan stayed where he was, and captured, what I suspect, is a photo for the ages. And just so you know, the terrorist was killed by security guards minutes after that photo was taken. The still-breathing ambassador was rushed to the hospital where he died a short time later.
As I said, It’s horrific, that photo—but there were others just as horrific. Photos that have peppered our newspapers and stretched across our TV and computer screens this past year. If some of us are depressed, maybe it’s because of our daily doses of photographic horrors. We’re talking photos of starving mothers cradling their dead or dying children; a dead rhinoceros kneeling in the desert, minus his tusk; bloody civilians lying on the ground after a bombing. I could go on but you know. You know. It’s just that Paige, and Paul and I had the privilege or rather maybe, the disadvantage, of seeing them all at once, and all in one place. As we left the Dupont Underground, my daughter and son-in-law and I looked at each other, eyes wide with wonder and asked, “What is wrong with us?” (Pause)
Poor, poor Isaiah. What we witnessed that day in photos in the Dupont Underground, Isaiah witnessed firsthand. He lived through the destruction of his city, Jerusalem, by the Babylonians—that was in 586 BC. We have little comprehension of that scene, there being no photographers in Isaiah’s day. But we can imagine right? Dead bodies strewn about—bodies of neighbors and even family members--a daughter, a son, wife, husband—also animals--a favorite horse, a pet dog—all these once living, breathing bodies--run through with swords, stabbed with spears. Grossly, cruelly disfigured. And, imagine further, burned out buildings—a home, the place of worship, the temple.
These images are NOT what we want to call up in our minds on a Sunday morning in worship, certainly. Believe me, I thought long and hard before I decided to mention such horrors. Yet, as un-spiritual, un-holy as they may seem, they ARE part of our religious history and sadly, they are part of our world still today. Just as you can’t change bad behavior you don’t acknowledge as yours, you can’t appreciate God’s redemption unless you acknowledge what is fallen. Let me say that again, “Just as you can’t change bad behavior you don’t acknowledge as yours, you can’t appreciate God’s redemption, unless you acknowledge what is fallen. I made that up—but it’s true. Yes, I wax brilliant sometimes!
In our text for today, Isaiah has moved past his grief of what has happened in Jerusalem. Now he is angry—he blames God for the destruction he has lived through. Did you notice? “O that YOU would burst from the heavens and come down! …. After all this, Lord, must you still refuse to help us? Will you continue to be silent and punish us?” It’s as if he is taunting God don’t you think? “Come down and argue with me, if you will, or if not, strike me dead with a lightning bolt, only make an appearance.”
But there is nothing. Not even that still small voice. Nothing. Silk on glass.
Forgive me for pointing this out but as that photo exhibit makes clear, it’s still the case today. God wasn’t in those photos. Only pain, suffering and death in those photos. Where is God? Oh, don’t you wish sometimes, that we could grab hold of the hem of God’s robe and pull him down from the heavens! What’s a Christian to do in the face of so much death and destruction?
Jesus has told us. Be vigilant stay awake. The kingdom will come in all its fullness, eventually. You can’t rush something so important. That’s not a political statement on the tax bill, I promise, but it’s nevertheless true in government as in our faith lives—According to Jesus, the kingdom is immanent and more. IF we are to believe Jesus’ parables, the kingdom is here now. For sure it is in incomplete form—it’s a mustard seed, not a mustard bush—yet. It is yeast mixed with flour and water, but it is not bread, yet. So we have to wait, and be vigilant for the kingdom to appear in all its fullness. Jesus promises that one day it will burst forth in glory and radiance.
If the kingdom is here now, not fully, but sticking a nose out from under the sofa, maybe, and leaving its finger prints on the kitchen counter--shouldn’t we be able to see glimpses of it every once in awhile? Yes, I believe we can and we do, when we push aside our preoccupation with all that is horrid and evil.
So today I want to share with you three, what I consider to be glimpses of the kingdom which is even now coming into the world. See if these don’t resonate with you.
One, Several weeks ago, I was in Scottsville late in the evening—I stopped in at the church before heading over to the James River Brewery for Hops and Hymns. As I strolled down the sidewalk in front of the church, I met a man. He was lugging an enormous bag of cat food. He embarrassedly admitted, “I feed Scottsville’s cats in the evening, two or three times a week. I can’t stand to think of them going hungry.” No fear of that! I know three other cat-feeders in the immediate vicinity of our church! So yes, cruel people kill rhinos for their tusks, but other people are buying cat food for stray cats. A sign of the kingdom, what do you think?
Or how about this? Before I became your pastor at Scottsville, besides doing pulpit supply and marrying people as a wedding officiant, I volunteered as a chaplain at Martha Jefferson Hospital. It seems that most often I got called after I had already gone to bed. I would dress, blurry eyed, and without any coffee to pep me up-- and make the short drive to the hospital. A word to the wise. No one calls a chaplain when there is good news! Always, always, someone was dying or had just died. Unlike those AP photos, though, where people looked to be alone in their personal tragedies, at the hospital, there were always caring nurses and doctors close by—not to mention loving family members. And, there was a dignity to the death. The hospital staff demonstrated a deep respect for the loved ones grieving, too.
One late night, I was called in for the sudden death of an infant. After visiting with the family, I met the infant’s doctor. He was rattled and grieving. He said it was his daughter’s birthday. He couldn’t square that fact, with this sudden death—both in the same day. The several nurses who had been attending to the family, were rattled and grieving, too, as was I, frankly. So, we stood in a circle in the nurses’ station, held hands and prayed together. There was something very holy and extremely right, albeit extremely sad in that moment. God’s kingdom was there. You cannot convince me otherwise.
Finally, I offer as a counter to the horrendous murder of that Russian ambassador—which was religiously motivated. With all the political machinations going on in our nation, you may have missed this in the news, so if you did, that’s a clear indication that you, that we need to be more vigilant.
On Friday, just two days ago-- Pope Francis, visited Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Pope Francis listened to the stories, and held the hands, one by one, of 16 survivors of the persecution of the Rohingya— 12 men, two women and two young girls—all Muslims— and Pope Francis, who is Catholic, you know, said: “We won’t close our hearts or look away. The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.” The head of the Roman Catholic Church praying with Muslims? A sign of the Kingdom for sure.
Yes, the kingdom has made a showing, and continues to make a showing in our world. That is good news. Stay wake therefore. You don’t want to miss out! Amen