A New Land, A New Time

reconciliation-hands-across-the-divide

Isaiah 65

For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 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.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;[e]
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
and their descendants as well.
24 Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.

I had the good fortune to find some time to walk around Madison yesterday afternoon. As I met one smiling face after another, watched children ride their bikes down suburban streets, saw people helping each other, their kids racing from one house to another I was reminded again and again that people are basically good and kind. I was reminded that we all bear the image of God and the love of God just shines right on through us like sunlight through a stained glass window.

It was a reminder that, although our country feels so very divided right now, we share a goal that goes way beyond the election. We share the goal of a country in which all people can live with great hope and joy, with meaningful work and justice for all. And as I thought about the fact that not only have we just had a contentious election, but that Friday was veteran’s day and I, like so many of you, have such deep, deep gratitude for our veterans and all that they have done for us. All that they have given to help us attain these greater goals of freedom, equality, and a bright future. We all hold those things in common, values and goals we cherish.

We are in a new land today. Let that sink in. We are in a whole new place and we aren’t certain what will happen, how we should live. It’s just really shaky and uncertain. And that’s exactly where the people who third Isaiah was speaking to were at. It’s interesting to hold Isaiah 65 right next to Isaiah 66 because they parallel one another, the first written to those who had not been faithful-but ending with a promise anyway, and the second written to those who had been faithful, also ending with a promise.

Let me be honest and clear with you. I’m really hurting from the results of our recent election. I don’t dislike Trump as a man. I’ve known many men like him, and I want to be clear that I am not saying that anyone here who voted for him is in favor of the racism, misogyny and abuse that is raising its head right now. I do not believe anyone here wanted to see the Klan marching in victory.

My heart is with those who are now fearing that this means half of America doesn’t value them, doesn’t believe they have a right to safety, or hope, or a future. I hear their fear, I hear their dismay, and I can’t ignore it. I have been left wanting to comfort the women and young girls around me with the knowledge that even though we have elected a man who sees them as nothing more than objects to rated, used, and abused, their sacred, intrinsic worth, remains.

So please understand that I recognize that most people who voted in this election, regardless of who they voted for, are good, decent people, who don’t want anyone to be hurt or scared. They certainly don’t condone violence even as violence against women and minorities immediately escalated following this election. Please know, that I understand that no matter who won this election, some of us would be hurting.

We as a church have not done a very good job of acknowledging trauma and I want to acknowledge that there are those among us who have experienced sexual violence, it’s an unseen, often unacknowledged trauma. if you are one who feels your abuse and trauma have been dismissed and disregarded, if you feel unsafe then these next words are for you:

Hold onto your anger with tight fists and don’t let it go! Your anger is a holy fire lit by God within you, reminding you that you are a child of God! A child of the most high and any abuse or violence against your being that you have suffered is so very, very wrong! Don’t let go of that!

Even if there is only one person here who has experienced abuse or sexual assault present here today, hear me clearly: you deserve better than this.

So please hear me now, listen with every fiber of your soul, especially if you are one of those,

You are so deeply loved and cared for, God weeps with you for every violation of your beautiful tender soul. You are beloved, chosen, called, you are seen wholly and completely in every aspect of you being, broken and whole, and loved completely. The breaking, broken parts of your life, are continually washed clean in the tears of God. You are stronger than you ever thought you could be, and those times when you don’t feel strong enough, that’s why we are here, that’s why God gave you us, because it’s okay not to be strong enough. Everyone has their breaking point, and those times when you can’t quite make it, it’s okay.

And again, I want to be clear that I am not saying everyone who voted for Trump approved of his behavior or the interpretation that others are putting on it. I want to acknowledge that there must be incredible frustration and hurt in being wrongly labeled and categorized.

We are called to wrestle and engage with all that is happening, and refuse to let it go, refuse to numb out, or accept violence as politics as usual. So hold onto your pain until it blesses you, until it leads you to treasure, until it brings you to the thing you love the most. Pain is the red flag saying this is important, this is important, this is important.

Trust that God is at work in this process. God is the one who shifts our painful experiences from pointless and painful to transformative. Who uses them to open our hearts and souls to those around us. It is God who shifts our pain from meaningless to redemptive.

We are incredibly divided in our nation right now. Incidents of violence have increased, students are protesting, protests are becoming riots, and it’s all very frightening. To extricate the people from despondency, to attach meaning to their past and present misery, was the task that the prophet and God had in common.

We find ourselves in a new land, where we are called to hold aloft the light of Christ and remember who we are and whose we are.

The exiles in Isaiah, having returned to the promised land also had some faithful and some not-so-faithful responses. The first half of Isaiah 65 lists some of these faults, forsaking the worship of the God of Israel for those super fun worship ceremonies on the hill, defiling oneself, doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord.

We, like the exiles returning to Jerusalem, have been through a sea-change, in fact it’s still going on. And we, just like they did, get to choose how we will respond and most likely, just as it was with them, it will be a mixed choice, a little back and forth, because it’s hard to be all in, all the time. But we do get to choose, and the good news is, that we were born for just such a time. We are a gracious, loving community; we are a community committed to dialogue and to learning, to building bridges across divides. We are a people who know we are called to love justice, to walk with the oppressed, to be humble, and to welcome all people to the love and grace we have received in Jesus Christ.

Now that doesn’t mean we won’t slip once in a while. We won’t necessarily argue or be hurt or angry. We will have different views and perspectives, but we are committed to the way of peace, we are committed to the path of healing, we are committed to one another, we are committed to following Jesus.

We are a wrestling people, not a walking away people. For I remember the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to abandon you.

And that brings us to the second part of Isaiah 65. The part that we take refuge in during hard and difficult times;

For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 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.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.

Violence is loud, but Love is more pervasive. We are in process, this is not over yet.

This is the promise we hold onto. That centering our lives on God, living faithfully, we will be participants in creating a new heaven and new earth. That God will delight in us, that every tear will be wiped, every wound will be healed. That in this new kingdom the fruit of one’s labor will not be stolen, that health and wellbeing will be the prospect of all people, not only the wealthy, that we will not fear for the future of our children, but see them live blessed and joyful lives. This is the promise we hold onto.

Now we don’t get to this promise without going through the rest of it. It’s a process, not instant gratification. And this process involves a lot of healing, a lot of looking at the places where we’ve gone wrong, but the promise remains. So we need to actively disavow racism, misogyny, and violence- no matter who you voted for, these things don’t represent who we are. We need to create a safe place for all the children of God to gather, to know they are wholly and completely welcome. And we need to be vocal about doing this. We must witness to the world that we walk the path that Jesus taught us to.

We are in need of deep healing. We urgently need to see the love of God made visible in our world today and we are uniquely empowered to be that love made visible. We are needed right now. This we know. We are healers, caretakers, visionaries, we are worker bees and community organizers. Our message to the world is one of love and grace, not because we are so great but because God is. Not because we are the most forgiving, but because God is. Not because we are the most inclusive, but because God is.

We are all tasked with choosing love over hate, faith in God over despair, and we are all tasked with making these choices visible so that others may see them and take heart. We are called to be love in action, love determined to make a difference, love working to change and transform a life, a culture, a world. It is this love in action that brought Jesus to the cross. It is this love in action that we are called to bring to the world. Take up your cross is not a passive directive! God who entered into the messiness of life and the cruelty of death to be with us, invites us to do the same for each other.

We are not responsible for fixing everything, for healing the world, that’s God’s work. But we are responsible for the piece of the world within our reach. So today my friends, seek out and find that piece of the world near you that needs healing, needs love. Be that healing and that love, let your light shine brightly so that others may see it and take hope, so that others may see it and discover the reason for your hope.

I invite you to consider one solid, concrete way of being the love and healing that the world needs so much right now. Wear a safety pin so people will know you are committed to being a safe person. Sit next to the woman in the hijab, confront hateful talk when you hear it, pray for those who you are afraid of or who anger you. Find at least one concrete way you can be the peace and healing we so need in the world, for the world needs you today. And don’t let go of hope. Choose to rejoice in God especially when things seem dark and hard.

Once, when I was working in the rehab, a place where we didn’t even use the word God, a young man asked if he could close group using the Lord’s prayer. With the rest of the group’s consent he did so. Now I was confused by this because I knew he wasn’t a Christian, that he had recently expressed an interest in Buddhism, so I stopped him after group and asked him what that was about. He said, “when I was running drugs and I had to go through the park where the other dealers were hanging out, and I would get scared, I would say that prayer under my breath the whole way. It helped me feel safe.” We don’t have to begin with perfect faith or any faith. God hears us. This is why we worship, especially when things are difficult, uncertain and scary, because we need it. It changes us, it works in us. So don’t let go of the struggle until it blesses you. Don’t stop halfway through and reside in the pain, praise God always

Psalm 98

O sing to the Lord a new song,

For the Beloved has done marvelous things!

By the strength of your Indwelling Presence,

We, too, are called to do great things;

We are set free through Love’s forgiveness and truth.

Yes, your steadfast love and faithfulness

Are an ever-present gift

In all our lives.

All the ends of the earth have seen

The glory of Love’s Eternal Flame.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord your God,

All the earth;

Break forth into grateful song

And sing praises!

Yes, sing songs of praise extolling

Love’s way;

Let the melody be

Gratitude and joy!

Let the voices of all people

Blend in harmony,

In unity let the people

Magnify the Lord!

Let the sea laugh and all that

Fills it;

The land and those who

Dwell upon it;

Let the waters clap their hands;

Let the hills ring out with joy,

Before the Holy One, who radiates Love

To all the earth.

For Love reigns over the world

With truth and justice,

Bringing order and balance

To all of creation!

Sitting on the Porch

 

 

1434735386-Emanuel-AME-Church

 

09021202~click on this to hear an MP3 recording of the sermon.

Usually when we talk of the prodigal’s father we join him on the race down the road to greet his son, but not today. We like to talk about his grace and long standing devotion to his wayward son, but not today. Today we cannot talk about happy endings and pretend that everything is OK when one of our sons has committed a horrific act of terrorism.Today we gather with thousands of other churches across the nation, across the world, to mourn the terrorist attack on Mother Emmanuel.

Today we must count ourselves one with the parents of terrorists all over the world and sit with the prodigal’s father on the front porch, staring down the dusty road, wondering where we went wrong and if it will ever be put right. Today we must wonder if there is wisdom that we forgot to impart. Today we must wonder if there were times when we were silent and our child took that as affirmation and consent rather than the polite avoidance of conflict. Today we must wonder why we didn’t notice that our son was hanging out with a bad crowd and we might even wonder if we too say things that ought never be said. We must ask ourselves if we clutch our purses a little too tightly when passing a black man. We must wonder how it is that we have arranged our lives so that we ourselves have no friends of color or very few. We must ask ourselves if we have become complicit in the systemic racism that pervades our country.

For surely as we sit on this porch feeling the failure of our parenting we must question everything. We must question the teacher who said “it’s natural for them to segregate. They don’t really like to be around white folk.” We must question those who say, “You don’t want to live on that side of town, that’s where the coloreds live.” We must question the TV shows and movies which make all black men seem dangerous and violent. and black women too sexually available.  We must ask ourselves if we have defended violence against black youth by insisting they were “too rowdy,” or “not respectful enough.” We must ask ourselves how often we refused to show up because we were too scared to stand with our brothers and sisters in their time of trial. How often was keeping the peace was more important than protecting the lives, hopes and dreams of our brothers and sisters?

Today we sit on the porch with the prodigal’s father and we mourn and we repent. We repent not because we ourselves committed an act of violence but because we like to sit and discern the truth for a very long time, too long a time, when action is called for. We repent because while we are not necessarily guilty of violence we are responsible because we have the privilege of choosing our response. Unlike the congregation of Mother Emmanuel who has no choice but to engage we can choose not to. We can choose to avoid the matter, to pretend it doesn’t affect us and too often we have. Even when it is our son who is wreaking violence.

The young man who committed this act of terrorism was raised in a church not unlike this one. I am sure they were glad to have him as youth are so energizing to a congregation. He could have been raised right here. Surely he is one of us. He could have been our child’s best friend, a classmate, a neighbor. Today we join the ranks of those whose children have gone off to do horrific things and surely we can now see how horrible it is to wonder if you could have done better. What might we have said that would have helped that man see the image of God in all people? What might we have done that would have helped that man develop empathy? How could we have affirmed for this young man that we are all so intimately connected that we cannot be well if we allow the persecution of others let alone participate in it. And perhaps more importantly what do we need to do now to end the systems of racism and the complicity of our nation in this horror?

In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. gave the eulogy for the four young girls who lost their lives in the bombing of the Birmingham church. His words apply as much today as they did then:

“[The victims] say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”

Surely we join the prodigal’s father on the front porch today as he looks for and longs for his son who has gone so far off the righteous path. Even as we seek out and learn to see the systems which shaped and formed this young man we must acknowledge, if not our own guilt then at least our complicity. Too often we have defined racism as the malicious acts or words of an individual and we have been quick to absolve ourselves of these types of behaviors stating that we have not done these things. We fail to notice the racist systems that pervade our country and we have not done enough to stop them.

What will we do to change our legacy? How will we engage this conversation? Some will say, “well, that has nothing to do with me,” and retreat into silence. Others will stand with our brothers and sisters of color and refuse to let them stand alone. How will we change our legacy?

We must also recognize that alone we can do nothing and we raise our cry before God because without him we are powerless. But we must not say that this act of terrorism is beyond our comprehension, or that it is solely the result of mental illness and is not about race. We must not say this while we still benefit from and live in systems that perpetuate and continue the very oppression that fueled this young man’s attack. We must recognize that in the midst of this horrific year of the black lives matter campaign that we are only seeing what has already been happening unseen. We must recognize that it is not that things are worse than they have been but rather that a light has been lit which is shining on our national shame. And even as this light is shining on the evil which hates the light, some places are trying to enact laws to halt the videotaping, to blind us all to what is and has been going on, to try and get us to un-see what we have seen and  un-know what we know. Yet we know, we have always known, that evil hates the light.

Chris Crass a blogger with the A Few Good Men Project writes:

“If we truly abhor this devastating act, then we must recognize it as terrorism and seek to understand the worldview, the institutional backing and political agenda this terrorism is embedded in. We must recognize that white indifference and denial is key to giving space for this terrorism to operate and thrive, and commit ourselves to destroying the vast network of support giving rise to the terrorist attack against Black members of a Black church, rooted in Black liberation struggles and a vision of beloved community for all.“

If our hearts are breaking, Chris goes on to say, then let them break away from white supremacy and let us be brave enough to look at how white supremacy and systems developed to perpetuate it have crept into our hearts and minds. Let us be brave enough to admit that none of us who has been raised in the United States is free of this evil. Let us admit that when we come before God in contrition acknowledging that we need God’s help and cannot achieve salvation nor be righteous aside from God that white supremacy is part of that sin, a sin we cannot wash away by ourselves.

Glennon Doyle Melton writes a blog called Momastery which is very popular with the mothers of young children, wrote in response to the Charleston shootings. I never saw the original blog. She said in a later post, I lay awake all night wondering if my words were any good. Were they fair, were they honest, were they helpful?  And who could I ask? And then I wondered how it is that I can arrive at this stage of my life without any real friends who are people of color. I cannot be a good ally, she said, because I am not a good friend. Today she must join the prodigal’s father on the front porch wondering where she went wrong and if there is time to make it better.

You see, white supremacy and the systems that support it rob us of our goodness, of our children, of our friendships, of our possibilities, of our humanity, as surely as it oppresses people of color. We will not be well while our sisters and brothers are not well. We will not have justice nor mercy nor peace, until our sisters and brothers have justice and mercy and peace. This is not a pretty or convenient thing to say nor is it a judgment; it’s just how it is. We cannot evade the reality that we have accepted an evil into our lives, because we would rather not look at it too hard, and because we benefit and that’s hard to give up. Our default in this society is white supremacy and we are fed a diet of it 24/7. We must actively seek to interrupt it, to break it down or it becomes “just the way it is,” fully internalized and accepted.

We gathered here on Thursday, several of us, several members from other churches black and white, Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian. It was pre-arranged as if God knew we would need it in ways we could not have imagined when we first arranged the service. For those of us who attended it was an act of grace; it was a moment when the kingdom began to break in, it was exactly what we needed at that very moment. It was as if, sitting with the prodigal’s father in silence and in mourning we caught a glimpse of dust stirred up on the road and our heart rose wondering if this might be him, could he be coming home, could healing be happening?

I want to tell you that the son is coming. I want to tell you that Cain and Abel are reunited and the murdered blood no longer cries from the ground. I want to tell you that the older brother has gotten over himself and his need to be special, to be above and better than his younger brother and is no longer sulking in the courtyard. But it would be premature.

God has promised to wipe every tear but first the tears must flow, and perhaps that justice which will roll down like waters is in those tears and they must not be staunched nor dried up until justice does roll down. Perhaps that justice which will roll down needs not only black tears and brown tears and red tears but white ones too and it waits until we can humbly say we need forgiveness for things done and things left undone.

For the heart is right to cry out! And perhaps we may stomp our feet and yell in great anger, but we are so right to cry out, like Rachel who weeps for her children and will not, will not, will not be comforted! Go on then and cry out! For our brothers, our sisters, their mothers, fathers, and children have been terrorized, have been murdered, and there is no place of safety. So cry out and let our tears join their tears and let us not stop until justice, peace, and mercy roll down upon us, cleansing us, freeing us and uniting us as one people, one body, one church. Let us raise such a ruckus that God himself will stir in his heavens and say, “My, what a noise you all are making.”

We may not be guilty, perhaps some of us carry some guilt, I know I do, but we are all responsible. We are all responsible adults who can affect the discourse in these united states and who are we really to absolve ourselves of that responsibility? A great light is being thrown on the national shame which is the brutalization of black bodies upon which this nation was built. It is horrific. No wonder we want to look away. But it is also within our purview to change, to create change, to be the change, to demand change. If we will only be brave enough to see what has been hiding in the darkness, if we will only be brave enough to acknowledge our wrongs, then we can begin to heal.

We remember today that we were never called to lives of comfort or security. We were never called to play it safe. We are called to be faithful. We are called to love one another-no exception. We are called to be peacemakers, to be those who bring the good news to those who hunger for it. Today perhaps that is us. And the good news is that we can, if we are very brave and very faithful, begin to dismantle the systems of oppression. We can. We have been entrusted by God with the care and the loving of his very dear beloved children. Let us be faithful to that charge and let us not turn away from the wrongs that have been done, that are being done, and that yet may be done if we fail to intervene. When did we see you Lord? We may ask one day. Let it be for the right reason.