Scriptures: Isaiah 19:18-25, Revelation 7:9-12
Recently I listened to a podcast by a woman named Ozlem Cekic. It was a Ted talk given last year in New York called, “Why I Have Coffee with People who Send Me Hate Mail” (Sept. 2018). Ozlem was one of the first Muslim women to be elected to the Danish parliament. She was born in Turkey to Kurdish parents, but grew up in Denmark where she became a citizen and was elected to parliament. But as soon as she was elected, she began receiving hate mail—email messages calling her vile names and telling her to go back where she came from. She deleted them without responding, until one of her colleagues in parliament told her to save them. He said, “When something happens to you, it will give the police a lead,” which somehow wasn’t very comforting.
After a few months of this, she was at a friend’s house, complaining about all the hateful messages she had received, when the friend said, “You should call them up and visit them.” Ozlem said, “They’ll kill me.” The friend said, “Oh, they would never attack a member of parliament.”
Ozlem wasn’t sure about that, but the suggestion seemed so outrageous, she decided to try it. She opened the folder in her computer where she stored all the hate messages and decided to contact the person who had sent the most. His name was Ingolf. She found Ingolf’s phone number and called. When he answered the phone, she blurted out, “Hello, my name is Ozlem. You have sent me so many hate mails. You don’t know me, and I don’t know you. I was wondering if I could come around and we can drink coffee together and talk about it.” There was silence on the line, and then he said, “I have to ask my wife.” Ozlem said she stared at the phone and said, “He has a wife?” She could not believe that such a hateful person had a wife.
Apparently the wife gave permission, because a couple days later they met at his house. In the podcast Ozlem says,
I will never forget when he opened his front door and reached out to shake my hand. I felt so disappointed, because he looked nothing like I'd imagined. I had expected a horrible person -- dirty, messy house. It was not. His house smelled of coffee which was served from a coffee set identical to the one my parents used. I ended up staying for two and a half hours. And we had so many things in common.
I will come back to Ozlem’s story in a minute. I share it, however, because it is the perfect introduction for today’s scripture reading.
You cannot appreciate today’s scripture without first understanding the history of Israel’s relationship to its neighbors. The territory of Israel was positioned directly between two of the most powerful warring empires of the ancient Near East: Egypt and Assyria. These two ancient superpowers fought back and forth for a century or more, and right in the middle between them was Israel. Israel became the battle ground where these two powers fought each other, sort of like Vietnam during the cold war, which served as a kind of proxy battle ground between the U. S. and the Soviet Union.
But Isaiah 19 pictures a stunning turnaround in this situation. Verse 19: “On that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the center of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its border.”
The Egyptians were one of Israel’s traditional enemies, going back to the time when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. At that time Moses went to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and said, “Let my people go that we may worship the Lord in the desert.” Pharaoh replied, “Who is the Lord, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord.” That was the attitude of the Egyptians toward the God of Israel. But now, Isaiah says, the Egyptians will build an altar to the Lord in the heart of Egypt.
Why? Verse 20: “It will be a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt; when they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior, and will defend and deliver them.” When the Israelites were slaves of the Egyptians, the Israelites cried to the Lord because of their oppression and the Lord delivered them. But now in the time of Isaiah, the Egyptians find themselves oppressed. The Egyptians are under attack by the more powerful Assyrians. So this time God intervenes to deliver the Egyptians.
Notice how God is not motivated by retaliation. God does not say to the Egyptians, “Well, you oppressed the Israelites in the time of Moses; now you are getting a taste of your own medicine. Take that, you Egyptian scum!” God does not say that. Instead God hears the cries of Israel’s enemies when they are oppressed, just as God had heard the cries of the Israelites in the time of Moses. God reaches out to save the Egyptians in the same way God had earlier saved the Israelites.
But God still isn’t finished. Verse 23: “On that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians.” As I mentioned earlier, there was an ongoing back and forth battle between Egypt and Assyria, much of which took place on the road between them running through Israel. But now this road will be a highway for cultural and economic commerce. These old enemies will become trading partners.
Isaiah concludes in verses 24-25: “On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.’” All those phrases have been used in the Bible previously for the people of Israel. But now those same phrases are used of Israel’s enemies—the Egyptians and Assyrians.
When I read this passage, I thought of my son and daughter-in-law’s honeymoon. For their honeymoon my youngest son and his wife chose to visit Vietnam. When they told me I was flabbergasted. For anyone in my generation and older, Vietnam was not the kind of place you went for your honeymoon. The very word Vietnam conjured up grim images. I had both a father and a brother who fought in Vietnam. But forty years later, here were my son and daughter-in-law going to Vietnam as tourists. And they came back marveling at what a beautiful country it was and how graciously they were treated by the Vietnamese people. And now, as we heard, the sister of an American killed in Vietnam is helping to clear land mines, plant trees, and establish schools in Vietnam. Amazing! The most powerful manifestation of God is not when we defeat our enemies but when we are reconciled with them.
Which bring me back to Ozlem Cekic. Near the end of her talk, Ozlem gave this challenge. She said,
I want to give you a challenge. Before the end of this year, I challenge you to invite someone whom you demonize -- someone whom you disagree with politically and/or culturally and don't think you have anything in common with. I challenge you to invite someone like this to coffee. … Basically, I'm asking you to find an Ingolf in your life, contact him or her and suggest that you meet for coffee.
When you start, you have to remember this: first, don't give up if the person refuses at first. Sometimes it's taken me nearly one year to arrange a coffee meeting. Two: acknowledge the other person's courage. It isn't just you who's brave. … Three: don't judge during the conversation. Make sure that most of the conversation focuses on what you have in common. And bring food. And finally, remember to finish the conversation in a positive way because you are going to meet again. A bridge can't be built in one day.
I don’t know who your Ingolf might be—a person with opposing political views, a person of another race or nationality, or a homeless person you see on the street. Maybe it’s a neighbor, a coworker, or a family member. Whoever it is, find your Ingolf, and invite them to coffee. Try somehow to connect with them, not so you can change them but so you can better understand them, and they can better understand you. And maybe in the process both of you will witness a miracle.