"For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight….The wolf and the lamb will lie down together."
This text from the third section of the book of Isaiah that we heard on Sunday was written after the remnant population of Judah had been freed from decades of exile in Babylon. You know what people say—“it may be good for the wolf, but I’m not so sure about the lamb.”
I believe you can relate—you who have known schism, you who have been disenfranchised over our long history, you who have experienced being aliens in a strange land. You who for any reason have experienced the world as something other than the dream of God for us. This passage reflects a core truth of the Christian gospel: God is changing this world to make it as it was meant to be—a place where a wolf and a lamb can actually lie down together.
The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, Inaugural Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary and Canon Theologian at the Washington National Cathedral, says this when reflecting on Dr. King’s understanding of a moral imagination rooted in today’s text from Isaiah: “A moral imagination is grounded in the absolute belief that the world can be better. A moral imagination envisions Isaiah’s “new heaven and new earth,” where the “wolf and the lamb shall feed together,” and trusts that it will be made real (Isaiah 65). What is certain, a moral imagination disrupts the notion that the world as it is reflects God’s intentions.”
As Christians, we live in-between the new heaven and the new earth Isaiah describes and the world as we know it now, too often marred by sin and pain. Our work, as people of faith, is recover a moral imagination about our world, so that we can build the world God dreams for us. To do this, we must learn to plant the dream in the center of our present reality.
National Geographic once carried a story that made quite an impression on me. The writer described the tradition of the Ama. The Ama are women in Japan who carry on a time worn tradition of free diving for sea food and for pearls. Diving into cold waters with limited sight of what lies beneath the surface, these women must be powerfully attuned to the ocean.
One of the most fascinating practices of the Ama was initiated by Kokichi Mikimoto, the founder of Mikimoto Pearls. He asked the women not only to search for pearls, but also to help plant the nucleus of a pearl in oysters then re-embed them in the ocean so he could cultivate pearls throughout the sea, even where there were none to be found. When the Ama resurface after replanting the oysters containing the nucleus of the pearl, they make a deep whistling sound called the Isobue.
Those who know the whistle say it is a painful sound to hear. It is a sound that reflects both the beauty and the pain of the sea. The vocation of the Ama is not so different from our own. Submerged in the waters of baptism, we are called to plant the pearl of great price, the hope of a new heaven and a new earth into the vast sea of challenge and pain in this world.
Our work this past year has included some planting of what we pray will be the nuclei of future pearls. I would like to highlight a few places where we have planted:
You have come through seasons of challenge. I believe now, we have the opportunity to turn toward the future, building on the strong foundation of the past in this historic diocese. Like the Ama, we can dive deeper and plant new treasures amid the landscape of our history. Treasures our world desperately needs.
When a Japanese girl is born into households with Ama lineage, the family celebrates by cooking a vibrant red rice. They know that the Ama will not die with their generation. I love this image of cooking the red rice—a celebration of such a singular calling. A modern day Ama said in an interview, “This is work without a beginning or an end. I wish to keep working for a long time.”
Likewise, this work of being Christians, being Church here and now is work without a beginning or an end. You and I step into the waters with all the ancestors to continue that which has no beginning, no ending. Ours is the privilege of continuing the journey.
Like the Amas, we are called to dive, attuning our Spirits not to our own fleeting impulses and desires, but to the call of God through our baptism. Trusting God is doing a new thing. Trusting that God is redeeming this world, forgiving the sinners, repairing the breaches, healing the broken hearted, restoring his justice, renewing his creation, reclaiming the lost. Trusting not in our own strength but in the goodness of our God. Trusting that the lamb and the wolf can actually both get a good night’s sleep, side by side. This is our sacred call.
So, boil the water, prepare the red rice. I want to keep working for a long time. I want to be a sea whistler, to learn my own Isobue. And judging by your presence for so many generations, around this holy table, in this beloved community, despite every challenge you have faced—schism, rejection, exclusion, neglect, disrespect,—judging by your faithful, strong, persistent presence here, I suspect you do, too.
Now is the time for us to dive deep into our baptismal waters. For, we are singers of the Isobue; we are the planters of the moral imagination of our God.
Bishop Ruth Woodliff-Stanley
The Rt. Reverend Ruth Woodliff-Stanley was elected by the Diocese of South Carolina in May 2021, and consecrated as a bishop on October 2, 2021.