What Shall We Cry?
For audio, click here: https://soundcloud.com/emsworthup/december-7-2014-11-18-41-am/s-WMJmr
(This is one of those sermons in which I was influenced by so many people thinking and writing and preaching and speaking, that it is difficult to know where all of the following words come from or to correctly attribute them. I know I am in debt particularly to Walter Brueggemann for giving me courage to speak and reminding me about George Carlin: http://www.journalforpreachers.com/pentecost2013-Brueggemann.html , the blog, “Peace Bang,” http://www.peacebang.com/2014/12/04/the-intellectual-condescension-of-white-liberals/, this NPR Morning Edition report about civil rights attorney Constance Rice http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2014/12/05/368545491/civil-rights-attorney-on-how-she-built-trust-with-police, the extraordinary women in my pastor group at PPI, and most especially to the wisdom and generosity of Rev. Frederick White of Kingdom Life Fellowship https://www.facebook.com/KingdomlifefellowshipPittsburgh)
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.3A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
6A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
9Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
Nobody would ever mistake George Carlin for a prophet. But, like the prophets in both the Old and New Testament, the well-known comedian George Carlin had a knack for saying words that upset people. You might remember that Carlin set off a firestorm in 1973 with his now infamous monologue, “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on T.V.” Do you remember that? Don’t worry, I’m not going quote it.
A man named John Douglas was so offended by hearing Carlin’s routine on the radio that he wrote a letter of complaint to the Federal Communications Commission. Mr. Douglas’ complaint was the only one received by the FCC, but that one letter was enough to set off a national debate about what is and isn’t appropriate language for television and radio. The Supreme Court finally settled the matter by establishing the provision that gives broadcasters the right to broadcast indecent, but not obscene material between the hours of 10 pm and 6 am, when it is presumed many children will be asleep. Non-broadcast media such as cable television and satellite radio have never come under that provision which is why you can hear all of Carlin’s seven words and many more 24 hours a day on HBO.
I don’t think any of us would argue against preventing children’s even accidental exposure to George Carlin’s 7 not very polite words. But I think that all of us, whether we are aware of it or not, walk around with our version of the FCC in our minds, editing our words and thoughts into categories of what is ok to say out loud, and what is not. We want to be liked. We want to be loved. We want to be seen as reasoned and reasonable people. But sometimes we become so wrapped up in our desire to not rock the boat and not make other people uncomfortable that we do not speak words that need to be said.
I’m not thinking about dirty words like George Carlin’s. I am not thinking about yelling fire in a crowded theatre. I am not thinking of idle chatter or gossip or wasted breath. I am thinking about words of truth. The truth about our lives. The truth about our community. The truth about our political and economic systems. The truth about the world around us. The truth we know deep in our bones, but do not speak out loud because it might make someone angry. “The truth can set you free,” Gloria Steinem once said, “but first, it will (tick) you off.”
Prophets in the Bible do not seem to worry about ticking people off. On this second Sunday of Advent, we encounter two prophets who are not afraid of speaking truth. At the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, we run headlong into a cranky, weatherworn prophet named John the baptizer. Like the prophets before him, John takes a good look at the world around him and tells the truth. He cries out what other people were thinking, but no one else dares mention. A person could get himself killed by the authorities for that kind of thing. But for people who have long been holding their breath, crushed under the weight of a brutal empire, hearing John’s words is like taking that first gulp of air when you break through the surface of the water. The words uttered by John are words of life for the people streaming down to the Jordon to be baptized.
That’s how prophets are. They are usually not polite. They are not worried about proper leadership technique. Prophets seem to see above and beyond what ordinary people can see. Prophets are called to tell the truth, even when it’s a messy truth. John cannot ignore or tamp down the fire in his belly or in his words. Even when his words pose a danger to authorities that have a vested interest in keeping the status quo, the status quo.
Mark introduces John by casting his words in the tradition of another prophet who spoke his mind — Isaiah. Like John, Isaiah isn’t afraid to speak out. Earlier, Isaiah called out and named the devastation that lay ahead for Israel. And in Isaiah 40, the devastation has happened. The people of Israel have suffered all that Isaiah foretold and Jerusalem is a ruined city. The people feel abandoned by God, so much so that they can barely believe that God still exists for them. The prophet Isaiah who warned of the unspeakable horror of Jerusalem’s destruction now invites the people to look beyond the horizon of suffering and see God’s vision for humanity. Because he has the eyes of a prophet, Isaiah can look at a flattened landscape and envision a peaceable kingdom, where the child plays unafraid of the wasp, where leopard and kid lie down together, where the wolf and lamb play.
Isaiah speaks of great changes that are surely coming. Big changes. He says to the fearful and trembling exiles “Comfort, O comfort my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” The fearful people listening to Isaiah know better than anyone that flesh, grass, and flowers fade and wither. They have seen unspeakable death and destruction happen before their eyes. To those who have been in exile under foreign domination, Isaiah’s words of God’s transformation sound completely ridiculous, scandalous, certainly naïve. Comfort? A word of comfort is pretty thin gruel when you are in the middle of unspeakable grief. How can they believe in the promises of God when they feel utterly forgotten by God?
Yet Isaiah boldly speaks words that fly in the face of the reality. He speaks impossible words that must be spoken to people who will die without some sort of crazy hope. Just like the people from the Judean country and the city of Jerusalem who streamed out to John the Baptist to be baptized in the swirling waters of Jordon. The words of Isaiah and John the Baptist are for people who walk in darkness so deep that they have given up hope of ever seeing light again.
To say that Advent is about waiting for Christmas is only part of the story. The prophets remind us that Advent is about waiting for Jesus’ breaking into the world and God’s love breaking into our lives. Advent is about God’s mercy ripping apart our systems of inequality and injustice, about God’s love wiping out hatred, God’s welcome burning down all things that separate us from each other, and God’s power defeating sin and death. Words like breaking, ripping, wiping out and burning down are not comfortable words for people who like the world the way it is just fine, but they are Advent words. In Advent, we are not talking about small adjustments to the world. We are talking about valleys being lifted up and mountains crumbling. Advent words speak of unsettling, drastic, disruptive and impossible changes, like a world where everyone can earn a living, where everyone eats good and healthy food, where everyone has access to clean water, where differences and diversity are not feared, but embraced, where resources are shared with generosity and compassion, and where people act in ways that first consider how their actions will impact others.
In Advent, the prophets tell us that we are not looking for a small baby in a manger, but a very big thing that does not fit on a Christmas card. We are looking for God’s complete power over all things, including the power of sin, death and the presence of evil in the world. Something mighty is coming at us like a speeding train that we cannot control, and we anticipate that powerful in-breaking every year in Advent. In Advent, we remember that God’s intention is to transform the whole world by taking on the flesh of every human being. And in Advent, we listen to prophetic voices crying out to make straight a highway for our God in the desert of human life. Voices crying for God’s glory to be revealed not just for some people, but for all people, that we might see God’s glory not as a divided people, but together, all people. Voices crying for God’s mercy to bring justice and comfort to every rough place and anywhere there is still uneven ground.
A voice cries out in the wilderness! What shall cry out this Advent, my brothers and sisters? What shall we cry? Will we cry out words that are safe? Or will we cry words that call upon the power of God to bring down the mountains?
I have been thinking for weeks about what words are safe for me to speak from this pulpit in the wake of Ferguson, and Staten Island, and Cleveland. I am not a prophet, but I am not deaf. I cannot ignore the voices crying out this Advent about things that need God’s transformation.
A voice cries out it the wilderness. What do I hear?
I hear voices of fear and despair.
I hear the voices of police officers who are fearful when they go to work in the morning.
I hear the voices of police officers’ families who are fearful that their husbands or wives or mothers or fathers won’t come home in the evening.
I hear the voices of so many in the African American community who are fearful that their sons are at risk every time they leave the house, whether or not they are guilty or innocent of a crime.
I hear voices like that heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, like Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be consoled because they are no more (Matthew 2:18).
I hear voices of fear. And everyone is afraid. Every one is afraid. None of us can breathe. Whether we are white people or black people. Whether we are white police officers or black teenagers. Everybody is holding their breath including the protestors on the streets, and people in arm chairs trying to drown out the crying voices by turning up our Christmas carols.
I have been holding my breath for weeks wondering what I can say to you. Then God broke in.
The pastor of a African American congregation that is leasing the Knoxville U.P. Church asked if he could meet with me this week. I am the chairperson of the administrative commission helping the Knoxville Church decide what to do with its building as it considers a merger. So Rev. White of Kingdom Life Fellowship asked me to meet with him about some issues related to the building on Thursday morning, the day after it was announced that the grand jury in Staten Island decided not to indict the police officers involved in the death of Eric Garner.
We got through our business stuff quickly. At the end of the meeting, I asked Rev. White, “How are you speaking with your congregation about Ferguson?” And then we had a conversation that lasted for two hours. Actually, it wasn’t a conversation. Rev. White talked. I listened. I listened hard. And in his words, I recognized the voice of a prophet. Who told me what it was like to have his young son frequently stopped and questioned by police officers when he walked home from school in Quaker Valley through neighborhoods where very few people share his skin color. I heard the voice of a prophet who said the people who burned and looted in Ferguson and other parts of the country were destroying their own neighborhoods and that kind of violence made no sense and wouldn’t make things better. I heard the voice of a prophet who is talking to the commander of the police precinct in Allentown, hoping to begin conversations that might build trust and understanding between the officers who serve in — and the people who live in — that troubled hilltop neighborhoods – especially the young people. All of whom need to know one another’s names and faces and stories. I heard the voice of a prophet who sees how vital it is for the police and the community to come together and try to solve problems instead of being afraid of one another.
When I asked Rev. White what I might say to you to help us understand what’s at stake for folks in his community, he asked us to engage in empathetic imagination. We are not much different than the people in Knoxville. We love our children. And like people in Knoxville, we have seen our children make bad choices, sometimes terribly destructive choices. The difference, said Rev. White, is that our children’s worst choices do not often put their lives at risk.
Rev. White asked that we just imagine for moment being in the shoes of an African American mother or father or sister or brother for whom the world is often a very, very frightening place – and begin to imagine how we might all work together to make it less frightening for everyone.
It is not Rev. White’s job or my job to tell you what to do or how to think or how to respond. All I can do is offer you is this lens to look through by offering you are these biblical stories of unreasonable, outrageous and sometimes dangerous hope. All I can do is point to God’s entrance into the world for everyone, God’s grace for all people, and God’s promise that no matter how bad it seems and despite all evidence to the contrary, the world was and is and will be changed when God enters into it. All I can do is point to Jesus’ instructions to work for the kingdom as we wait for its completion, and how you decide to do that work is up to you.
But today, I will tell you one thing to do, and it’s direct quote from an angel of the Lord. Fear not. Fear not. Fear not. Because a Savior is being born for us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.