When I opened up my Bible on Monday and turned to Isaiah 65, the message of this text leaped out at me. What I heard from this prophetic text was our missional calling to join God in ministry in the world. My thoughts quickly ran to a book that I’d just finished reading that talks about the future of Detroit. The book is called Reimagining Detroit, and it’s written by Free Press journalist John Gallagher, who lays out some of the directions that the city and people of Detroit could take if they hope to experience a renaissance or rebirth. I also thought about the conversations we’ve been having about Motown Mission. As my thoughts ran back and forth between this text and the world in which we’re living, I saw in a clearly stated fashion the biblical foundations of our call to ministry. In reflecting on this conversation between the text and our world, I heard this message: God is about to do a new thing in this world and we get to participate in that new thing.
Now, when I came to Michigan two and half years ago, I assumed that my job was to pastor a suburban church that needed to engage its suburban community. I still believe that this is part of our missional calling, because the key to our growth as a congregation is being a transformative presence in the city of Troy and its environs, what we’ve called the “five-mile radius.” But our ministry as a church doesn’t end at the boundary of this five-mile radius, and not just because many of you live outside that radius. If Acts 1:8 offers us a guiding principle for missional engagement, and I believe it does, we need to remember that the Holy Spirit pushed the church out beyond the city limits of Jerusalem, so that it would minister in Judea and Samaria, and then from there move out to the ends of the earth. If Troy is our Jerusalem, then perhaps metro-Detroit is our Judea and Samaria, and if this is true, then our participation in the work of Motown Mission is just one way in which we are engaging in ministry beyond Jerusalem’s borders.
1. The Future is in the Dream
If Acts 1:8 defines the “boundaries” of our ministry, Isaiah 65 offers us a vision of what God is doing in the world. It is a vision of new creation, where the old things are no longer to be remembered, but we are to rejoice in what is about to happen. Our hope is found in the vision that God has laid before us, and it is a vision that can be summarized in a quotation from Eleanor Roosevelt:
So, what is the dream that guides our future?
“The Future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”
When I came here two and half years ago, I didn’t see how ministry in Detroit would fit into our missional calling. But, somewhere along the line something happened. First there were the conversations I began to have with Pastor Eugene James not long after I got here about building a partnership in ministry between our congregations. Then, there was what could be called a vision that occurred in the midst of a conversation about ministry in the region at my first regional clergy retreat. Some Christians might speak of what happened that day in this way: “The Lord laid it upon my heart.” On that day I asked the question: Why aren’t there any Disciples mission teams coming into Detroit? The answers I got were varied, but the one that stuck out to me was that many of our Michigan churches would rather send their youth to New Orleans than to Detroit, because Detroit is so dangerous. What I heard from them was that Detroit was beyond redemption, but that wasn’t what I was hearing in my own heart. Now, mind you, I still didn’t know what this would involve, or if it would even involve me or this church. But I was deeply uncomfortable with that sentiment.
Then, while I was contemplating all of this, “I stumbled upon” Motown Mission. I began with a conversation with Carl Gladstone, and that led to conversations with Diana and with Eugene James, and then that led to conversations with other people from the region and also with representatives of the General Church. Oh, and in the meantime God seemed to be laying something similar on Alex’s heart. As Alex shared with the East District meeting, her experience with City Year not only expanded her sense of call to ministry, but it gave her an arena in which to do ministry. As you all know, Alex grew up in the suburbs, but as she worked in Detroit, God opened the eyes of her heart to the needs of the city and then laid it upon her heart to begin building bridges between the city and the suburbs. You see, God is at work doing a new thing, and we’ve been invited to participate. And this vision is making itself felt, beyond the walls of this church. As Nancy Zerban, our Regional Moderator, shared in her letter to the East District Assembly, our participation in Motown Mission is one of the new things God is doing in our Region.
2. Naming the Vision
Isaiah 65 is the work of an anonymous prophet living in post-exilic Judea. The prophet is doing ministry in the midst of a land that is desolate. The city of Jerusalem lies in ruins. Its walls have been torn down and its Temple destroyed. There may be plans to rebuild, but nothing has happened yet, and the people are getting discouraged. What we need to hear in the background of this text is these are not good times for Jerusalem, and the people are crying out to God in despair. Where, they wonder, is God in all of this?
The prophet brings a word of hope to a discouraged and fearful people, and that word is this: Be glad and rejoice, because God is about to recreate Jerusalem as a joy and its people will become God’s delight. Times maybe tough and there may be very little that suggests that there’s hope to be found, but in the midst of this despair comes the promise that something new is about to happen. When God brings into existence the new heavens and the new earth, the people will no longer weep or cry out in distress. In that day infants will no longer die prematurely and the aged will live out full lifetimes – indeed to die at 100 will be considered dying as a youth.
And then as we move through this passage we come to the kinds of work that groups like Motown Mission engage in. According to Isaiah, the people will build houses and they’ll inhabit them. Could this be a word about the foreclosure crisis? And they’ll plant vineyards and eat of the fruit of the vine? Do you hear in this a word about urban gardening? One of the chapters in John Gallagher’s book talks about the possibilities and the problems that go with urban agriculture. While there are many issues to be resolved, the fact is, Detroit, and many cities like it, are food deserts. So, could urban gardens that are scattered across the city provide nutritious food for the people of the city, and maybe even jobs and income? Only time will tell, but the possibilities are there.
And I hear a word too about the educational system in the city. Isaiah says that the people won’t labor in vain or bear children for calamity. Instead, they shall have offspring that are blessed by the Lord. One of the projects that we’ve discussed is partnering with Northwestern Christian Church to reestablish a computer lab at the church. We live in age when computers are essential to the future well-being of younger adults and children. If people living in the city are on the wrong side of the digital divide it will make life more difficult, but here is a possibility that God has laid upon our hearts to create a space for people to learn how to use computers as well as find access to them.
3. A Dream of Peace
One of the first projects that we have embraced as part of our Disciples partnership with Motown Mission is the sponsorship of Peace Week. This will happen during the first week of the Motown Mission’s summer season, and as we’ve talked about what should happen it has become clear that our focus should be on racial reconciliation. We hope that partnerships will emerge between the suburbs, as well as rural areas, and the city. Someone asked a question at the East District Assembly about why Disciples can’t seem to work together? Well, here is an opportunity for us to begin building those relationships as we work side by side.
As we consider our calling as a people to engage in these new ministries, we don’t know how everything will work out. There will be difficulties to overcome, but our text ends with a vision of God’s future for the world. The prophet speaks of the Lion and the Lamb feeding together, with the Lion eating straw like the ox. No one, the prophet says, will be hurt or destroyed on God’s holy mountain. If Detroit is, for us, the place in which God is at work doing a new thing, then it is a dream that will be life-changing. The barriers between suburb and city can be torn down, and we’ll be able to dine together, for as the author of Ephesians puts it – the “dividing wall of hostility” will be torn down (Ephesians 2: 14). And as Paul puts it in the second Corinthian letter:
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; . . .” (2 Cor. 5:17-19a).