Strange Bedfellows

A Sermon Shared with the People of St. Matthew’s, St. Paul, December 4, 2016
Isaiah 11:1-10
Don Samuels


Strange Bedfellows

Today, we have a feast of scriptures. We will sample a little of each but we will savor one dish the scripture from Isaiah and more specifically the following mouthful:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,

the leopard shall lie down with the kid, 

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

and a little child shall lead them. 

The cow and the bear shall graze,

their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the


The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,

and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. 

They will not hurt or destroy

on all my holy mountain; 

for the earth, will be full of the knowledge of the Lord

as the waters cover the sea.

On that day, the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Jesus came, not so much to set an example for how we should live, as to perform a substitutional death and atonement for our sins. Therefore, while his death and resurrection are universally examined in faithful and captivating detail, in movies, books and icons, his instructions on our lifestyle, God’s love for all of us and the universality of our love for all people, the neighbor, the stranger and the enemy alike, are more likely relegated to the saints, to Mother Theresa, MLK and the Ghandi's of the world. Most of us will dismissively, maybe unconsciously consider those as unrealistic aspirations.

Universal love is presented as something that is disconnected from real-life, or meant only for those within our sphere, our tribe, our denomination, our political party but disconnected from the other: the other race, or party, or our enemy nations. For many, even Christians, the thought of loving the enemy has become about someone who upset me at work, or who has expressed animosity to me personally, certainly not to political opposites enemies of the state, enemy combatants, offenders and ex-offenders, lazy people, murderers, drug users and dealers, illegal immigrants, county dependents, racial others, the Russians; or Chinese, North Koreans and other deplorables.

After all, we live in a free country, a market economy, a meritocracy that is structurally designed for deserving people to thrive and do well. Those who don’t, live the self-fulfilling repercussions of their personal flaws. Competition and pure universal love cannot coexist in daily life, only in the sense that we create a loving economy and allow equal participation in it, with rewarding benefits (a kind of love, I guess) pouring out, in the form of success, in proportion to the trust investment and hard work one puts into it. 

In our world, those who have therefore been blessed in our scripture-informed economy can be justified in selfish accumulation, knowing that whenever the deserving poor get their act together, and repent of their laziness, freeloading, or lack of drive, they too can become middle class, or in a way, “saved” from poverty.

The idea of God being no respecter of persons seems impossible to imitate. How do we reconcile Jesus’ admonition to love our neighbor, our enemy, the least, the undeserving, with our fascination for hierarchy, the beautiful people, the super-rich people, powerful and influential people, the people with 4 million hits on Snapchat or Twitter and 5,000 Facebook Friends?

The truth is we have, in large part, have simply taken God’s bold dream, for us, off the table. Scriptures, like today’s, are held up for their poetic beauty or as utopian yearnings or as prophesies about life in heaven, not here on earth. In this American life, for many, the thought of voluntarily living among unlike people, is as likely as the wolf and a lamb living together. Repairing the political divide between the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant has become as improbable as a bear and a cow grazing together. A white adult, mentoring an African American boy is thought of as unworkable as a lion and a baby goat playing together. Attending a church with unfamiliar music, strange rituals and strangers is as likely to happen as the lion eating straw with a cow. Moving down to a community that’s less prosperous, less educated and less safe, is as likely to happen as allowing our nursing child to play near the hole of a poisonous snake.

These aspirations remind be of the beatitudes. Jesus upended the worlds' value system when he declared that here, on this earth, in our time, it is the rich, the righteous and the comfortable who are the at-risk members of our community. The blessed, are the meek, the poor, the grieving, the merciful, the pure-hearted, the peacemakers, the persecuted.

You see, only the meek can live among the powerless and see them as Jesus in his distressing disguise.

Only the poor, like the lamb, will most anxiously embrace the notion of a predator-free, prey-empowered community.

Only the grieving have a wide-open door to the divine-comforter and will truly understand the pain of others.

Only the merciful are free from the guilt and shame of inadequacy and inferiority.

Only the pure-hearted can lay aside their social advantages to share and with their weaker brothers and sisters without self righteousness.

Only the peacemakers can forgive the errant fangs of the politically-incorrect sister and transform discord into harmony.

And it is only those who hunger and thirst for a just world, who can appreciate and even enjoy a life that does not shower them with advantages over others.

How far have we given up on the bold and radical vision of Isaiah the Prophet, who declares, “with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth”.

And how much have we marginalized the prophetic voice of John the Baptizer who shouts, at those of us who tolerate and perpetuate inequity, accommodate prejudice and abuse. He says to us, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” For while we have the lush foliage of liberalism and the admirable disposition of Judeo-Christian work ethic, we continue to reap a harvest of the worst fruits of social inequity in the nation, with gaps in education, housing employment and wages, incarceration, home ownership, homelessness and wealth, with xenophobia and intolerance rearing its head online and in schools, like a sleeping dragon stirred.

And how glibly have we trivialized the cultural stretch that was demanded of the Jews in the first century. These people were even more ethnocentric, exclusionary, spiritually superior, ritualistic, nationalistic than we are, and yet they were suddenly being asked to celebrate and share their hope and their aspirations and their exclusive religion, with other, lesser ethnicities.

The same is being asked of us today by the prophet Isaiah: And I hope you will allow me to paraphrase:

"Rejoice, all Black peoples, with these Jewish people";

and again,

"Praise the Lord, all you White People,

and let all the sexual minorities praise him";

and again, Isaiah says,

"The root of Jesse shall come,

the one who rises to rule all Indigenous peoples, and Asians;

in him all the Immigrants shall hope."

May the God of hope fill Democrats and Republicans with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

But why should blacks and whites, men and women, Asians and Hispanics, Straights and Gays, Republicans and Democrats, like the wolf and the lamb, the cow and the bear, the child and the snake rejoice? Is it because we’ll die soon and go to heaven to live in harmony? That is certainly how my childhood hymnbooks were written. Is it simply because this idealistic vision will sustain us through the otherwise unbearable reality of divisive, galling elections? I say no!

I say God wants you to be God’s child first and your parent’s child second. God wants us to belong to the Kingdom first and America second. God wants you to belong to the Christian Party first and be a Democrat and Republican second. God wants us to be human first and ethnic second. God wants us to love the stranger, just as well as we love ourselves. If you are a lion, he wants you to love the lamb as much as you love the other lions. Yes, God wants us to love our enemies first and our friends second it is only this kind of high aspiration, this hunger and thirst for righteousness that God can use to become the fulfillment of the world as God dreams it.

I say rejoice in another kind of hope, the hope that in our day and in this time, each of us will walk out of the chilling shadows of low expectations and our own self-esteem, to live out the warming unity and burning passion of active Christian living. Then we will come to understand that this scripture is speaking of what God will do through us, in defiance of current events, culture to our families’ values, our party’s platform, in defiance of our fears, our personal vanity, our individualistic motivations. It is in our actions, our behaviors, our living-out the unbounded generosity, the beatitudes, the prophetic folly that flies in the face of our culture and economy, that the Kingdom comes and that God is shows up in the world.