“Deeds That We Did Not Expect” – Sermon for November 30, 2014

Categories: Sermons

Autumn Tree in the Wind (painting), Egon Schiele, 1912

Autumn Tree in the Wind, Egon Schiele, 1912

“Deeds That We Did Not Expect”

 A Sermon on Isaiah 64:1-9 for the 1st Sunday of Advent, Year B; preached November 30, 2014, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister

The people could remember those days when had God acted. Nothing short of the very hand of God seemed to have reached down—a presence so formidable, a power so tremendous. The very reality of the world in which they lived changed so much by the working of that hand, you’d be excused for thinking that the mountains themselves had quaked. The transformation they witnessed in but one short generation, it was an awesome deed far more than most of them could’ve brought themselves to expect.

Now, sure, not everything along the way back then went perfectly. There was a misdeed here and a misstep there. There were casualties—so many casualties—along the way, their names and memories as stark reminders that the powers of world do not let go of their grasp easily, even when it is the hand of God wrestling their death grip open. But even with the struggle and the strife, the people’s sense that they were finally being redeemed with the light of God’s justice leading the way, you just couldn’t deny it.

But that was “those days”. Now-a-days it sure feels like the power’s been sapped out of God’s hand. In fact, not sure we can even find God’s hand anymore. Even the stones, it seems, cry out for justice, and yet there is none. Transformation no longer finds its place on the agenda; trampled-down is the order of the day.

Back in the day, the day when God acted, the people saw visions and dreamed dreams of great things for this era. But somewhere along the way, the visions clouded and the dreams faded. The efforts to shape a new future met their match in the powers-that-be; the movements and moments got co-opted.

And now the light seems dim. Change seems so far off. Despair rules the day.

§

Patricia de Jong, senior minister of the First Congregational UCC in Berkley, California, writes, “Hope is what is left when your worst fears have been realized and you are no longer optimistic about the future.”[1] This story I have told, the story of the people who could remember those days when God acted, the story of the people who now dwell in the deep and dark of despair… It is the story of those whose worst fears have been realized. It is the story of those who are no longer optimistic about the future, excepting that little shred of alternative called hope that just won’t go away.

It is the story of the people on whose behalf Isaiah the prophet spoke in our scripture reading this morning.

And it is also the story of sisters and brothers all around us thrown into lament once again by a grand jury’s decision this past Monday in Ferguson, Missouri.

In Isaiah’s case, he wrote from among exiles who had returned to their home after many decades in forced displacement—the people of Judah and Jerusalem back from their captivity under the ancient Babylonian empire. The people—or at least the portion of the people Isaiah spoke for—were seeking to restore themselves as a holy and pure people back in their homeland, a people who walked in the true ways of the Lord. But as the time went on, the picture of life back in their homeland wasn’t nearly as rosy as they’d hoped. Injustice and lack of concern for the disadvantaged seemed to rule the day.   The ruling groups co-opted the efforts to re-establish worship and rebuild the temple, and what was happening didn’t reflect the faithfulness called for from God’s people, at least as Isaiah understood it.[2]

Isaiah remembers, though, the mighty power of God that had worked in the past. This was the God, after all, that brought the Hebrew slaves up out of Egypt, the God who led them through the desert and provided for their needs, even when the people weren’t always faithful to their end of the covenant. And indeed, Isaiah is willing to admit how his own people in his time haven’t always measured up. But such confession does not quell Isaiah’s fervent plea with God, for God to be the God that God promises to be, the God that God has been before—a God of awesome, unexpected deeds and powerful, tremble-worthy presence.

All around our own country this week, there are many, many voices crying out for some powerful presence to “tear open the heavens and come down.” You see, this past Monday’s announcement of the Ferguson grand jury’s decision not to indict, it was a moment that revealed just how far astray we as a society have wandered from the movement toward justice and equality, particularly for African Americans in this country. In a time not all that long ago past, you could see the powerful hand of God at work, breaking the chains of oppression as legally-enforced segregation practices ended and civil rights bills were passed, as the numbers of African Americans with access to education and professional advancement grew, back when Martin dreamed a dream and George and Louise were movin’ on up. But the events of this summer and fall in Ferguson, Missouri, have brought into the national spotlight in a new way the reality that we here in America are far from healed of our problem with race.

It is a simple fact of life in this country that you are more likely to be subjected to a traffic stop or an arrest or some other disfavorable action by police if you are African American than if you are white. It is a simple fact of life in this country that one in three African American males can expect to go to prison at some point in their lifetime—that’s almost 6 times the proportion of white males.[3] It’s a simple fact of life in this country that at least 4 other unarmed black males were killed by police in the month leading up to Michael Brown’s death.[4] It’s a simple fact of life in this country that the dreams of a past era have faded and the pace of the movement toward justice has slowed or stumbled or even stopped.

It’s also a simple fact that many of us who are white don’t want to fess up to all of this. We want to believe that we’re beyond race and racism as an issue, and because we are in the position of relative power, we have the ability to shape the common narrative and discourse. ‘It’s not about race,’ we want to say, ‘it’s about poverty.’ Well… perhaps. But in this country at least, poverty is about race. ‘But there are poor whites, too!’, we protest. Indeed, there are, but simply looking for the exceptions doesn’t disprove the overall trend. Moreover, it doesn’t change the fact that, regardless of where any one individual, white or black, stands today, African Americans have been at the back end of an incredible head start we who are white have given ourselves across four centuries of history on this continent. The reality that we who are white can even question whether any of this is about race is a symptom of our privileged place in the system. We can say it’s not about race because we have that choice in a way that people of other races—and particularly African Americans—don’t.

§

My second year in seminary, I was part of a program that had 15 of us students working part time in one of three different UCC churches in Chicago—a fairly poor black church, a sort of economically-in-the-middle Puerto Rican church (which is where I worked), and a fairly affluent white church. As part of the program, the 15 of us also took half of our academic coursework together, drawing on what was going on with our work in these three churches as part of our ‘source material’ for the classes.

The year I was in this program, among that group of 15 students, four of us were white, one of us was a student from the Philippines, and the other ten of us—or, fully two-thirds of the class—were black.

One of the classes we did together was called “The Bible and Economic Ethics”. Early on in the semester, our professors—who were both white, I should add—had asked us to read a book titled What are they saying about Scripture and Ethics?[5] The class day came for us to discuss the book, and for the first 45 minutes or so of the 3-hour class, we had a good discussion on what was presented in the book, but something seemed a little odd that morning, almost like there was an ‘elephant in the room’, so to speak. Really, that whole time, it had only been the professors and the four white students and the Philippino student talking. Finally, one of my African American classmates had the courage to speak out and name the ‘elephant in the room’, and over the remaining two hours of class many of us had our eyes widely opened to a new reality.

You see, in the book we were discussing, in one of the chapters the author talked about how a field called “liberation theology” had affected the conversation around scripture and ethics. Liberation theology, which came into serious view starting in the late 1960s, starts from the assertion—the conviction, the confession of faith—that God is on the side of the poor and marginalized and oppressed. There are different kinds of liberation theology, drawing on the experiences of different groups of poor or marginalized or oppressed people—there’s Latin American liberation theology, black liberation theology, Asian liberation theology, feminist liberation theology, and even gay liberation theology. Really though, the two that are recognized for starting the whole liberation theology movement in the late ‘60s were Black liberation theology and Latin American liberation theology.

Anyway, in this chapter about liberation theology, the author mentioned these two roots—Latin American and Black—and then went on to basically dismiss Black liberation theology as not as-interesting or as-fruitful for his interests in writing the book and pretty much never talked about it again. My black classmates couldn’t believe their eyes. That day in that class, they told us that, for many of them, this was the first time in their whole lives that they were in a serious academic setting where they as African Americans were in the majority—remember, they made up fully 2/3s of our class. And yet, yet again they had been asked by white professors to study something that dismissed their experience, something that silenced one of their most prominent theological traditions.

And we white students, we just played along. We didn’t question it; we didn’t realize what had happened; we had to wait for them to bring up the issue. As I remember, one of us white students—it may have even been me—asked why someone didn’t speak up earlier. But you see, as they then pointed out, as a white person, and especially as a white male, I have been enculturated to believe that of course I should speak up, and of course I’ll be listened to when I do. Black people in particular, along with people of other races, with women, people with disabilities, and so on, they don’t have that luxury. Too often, whether explicitly or implicitly, they are told to keep quiet. And when they don’t keep quiet, too often they aren’t listened to.

§

In the face of this kind of despair, this kind of situation “when your worst fears have been realized and you are no longer optimistic about the future,” one of the places to turn is lament. To cry out, to shout out, to plead… why and why won’t you? That is what we see in our powerful words from Isaiah this morning, and that is what we see in the righteous anger we are hearing from Ferguson and from all around our country these days. Lament, protest, riot even, these are the ways of expressing that thing inside you that seems inexpressible and yet uncontainable. Isaiah called out, and called out for a powerful, even dangerous, God to show up. Pondering what it would look like and sound like if there were to be a break in God’s silence, one commentator remarks that Isaiah seems to say that God would “make some noise and probably hurt some people.”[6] I know some in this country are casting a scornful, judgmental eye on the act of rioting and protest, but even Martin Luther King, Jr., champion of non-violent resistance, refused to do so. At one point, he commented on the riots during his lifetime, saying, “I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, nonviolence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view… But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”[7]

We who cry out in lament to the God of heaven and earth, though, we do not go unheard. Before God’s presence, we know that the lament sometimes changes God’s mind and sometimes does not. There is no guaranteed result. But the faithful petitioner is guaranteed a hearing, a listening. And in that is hope.

So too is there hope in the “yet” of our relationship with God. In Isaiah’s words, after he has called out for God’s powerful action, after he has remembered God’s acts of the past, and after he has confessed the people’s own iniquities and complicity in the tragedy, it all turns on this little word, “yet”. “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

This “yet”, it is the basis of Advent, the ground of all our hope as people of faith. That simple word “yet”, it is a push back against the present data and it is a claim for a different reality based only in the person of God—not ourselves or this world—“the person of God in whom we hope and to whom we belong.”[8]

We must not rush to the “yet” too easily or too quickly. We should not “rush to the language of healing, before understanding the fullness of the injury and the depth of the wound.” We must “not rush to offer a band-aid, when the gaping wound requires surgery and complete reconstruction.” We cannot “rush past the loss of this mother’s child, this father’s child…someone’s beloved son.” But still we can mourn, and lament, and weep.

We can let “God, in [great] mercy, show [us our] own complicity in injustice[, c]onvict [us] for [our] indifference, forgive [us] when we have remained silent, and equip [us] with a zeal for righteousness.”[9]

Then we shall know the “Yet” of Advent. Then we shall know the hope of the coming of Christ. Then we shall know the life-shaping power of God as our potter, and we as God’s people.

Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God, now and forever. Amen.

 

[1] Patricia de Jong, pastoral commentary on Isaiah 64:1-9 for the 1st Sunday of Advent, in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year B., vol. 1 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 4.

[2] Thanks, in part, for the exegetical background information in this paragraph goes to Dennis T. Olson, commentary on Isaiah 64:1-9, in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, ed. Roger Van Harn, vol. 1 – The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001), 396.

[3] Braden Goyette, Nick Wing, & Danielle Cadet, “21 Numbers That Will Help You Understand Why Ferguson Is About More Than Michael Brown”, HuffPost Black Voices (blog), HuffingtonPost.com, 22 August 2014, updated 25 August 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/22/ferguson-black-america_n_5694364.html.

[4] Ibid.

[5] William C. Spohn S.J., What are they saying about scripture and ethics?, fully rev. & expanded ed. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1995).

[6] Frederick Niedner, commentary for 30 November 2014 (First Sunday of Advent), in Sundays and Seasons: Preaching, 2015 – Year B (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2014), 19.

[7] Martin Luther King Jr., “The Other America” (speech, Grosse Point Human Relation Council, Grosse Pointe High School, Grosse Pointe, MI, 14 March 1968); cited in Aida Manduley, “The Ferguson Masterpost: How To Argue Eloquently & Back Yourself Up With Facts”, Smut & Sensibility: A Place of Politicized Identities and Critical Analysis (blog), 28 November 2014, http://neuronbomb.wordpress.com/2014/11/28/the-ferguson-masterpost-how-to-argue-eloquently-back-yourself-up-with-facts/. The full transcript of Dr. King’s speech is available at the website of the Grosse Point Historical Society, accessed 30 November 2014 at http://www.gphistorical.org/mlk/mlkspeech/.

[8] Dennis T. Olson, ibid., 398.

[9] All quotations in this paragraph excerpted or adapted from Yolanda Pierce, “A Litany For Those Who Aren’t Ready For Healing”, Reflections of an Afro-Christian Scholar (blog), 25 November 2014, http://yolandapierce.blogspot.com/2014/11/a-litany-for-those-who-arent-ready-for.html.

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