“A Voice Cries Out”
Sunday, December 7, 2014
First Congregational United Church of Christ – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
We are halfway through our Advent journey together. We have gathered around the Advent Wreath and the candles of Hope and Peace are burning brightly. It seems like a bit of a joke, lighting a candle for Peace today. What does it mean to light a candle for Peace in the middle of this crisis point in American history?
When I pray for peace, I am not praying for some simple, easy, peace that is the absence of conflict. I am praying, as Martin Luther King, Jr. did, for true peace. Peace with justice. We cannot have peace without justice. The two go hand in hand.
What we are being forced to grapple with right now as a society is that we are not a peaceful nation. Not if you define peace as Dr. King does. We can fool ourselves for long periods of time – especially those of us who are White and socioeconomically privileged. We can go for long periods without remembering that racism and has never gone away. It just goes underground for a while, only to resurface. If you’re a person of color, of course, it never goes underground. From what I gather, it is a daily presence in your life. But those of us who are White have the privilege of choosing to forget if we so choose.
The prophet Isaiah’s words feel hollow to me this morning. Don’t get me wrong, I long to be comforted. I have shed many tears in the past few weeks, trying desperately to figure out what I could say to my friends who are Black to ease their pain, make it better, give comfort. But there do not seem to be words that can bring comfort right now. There can be no comfort without justice, either, it seems. When Isaiah spoke to the people all those many centuries ago, he was delivering God’s words of comfort alongside justice. The two go hand in hand.
But who will comfort Esaw Garner, the widow of Eric Garner, who was killed by an NYPD officer’s bare hands, in broad daylight, in a crowd of bystanders, while the whole thing was caught on tape? In a press conference earlier this week, after the grand jury announced it would not indict the officer on any charges, Ms. Garner was asked about accepting the officer’s statement of remorse. She replied, “Hell no. The time for remorse would have been when my husband was trying to breathe. That would have been the time to show some remorse – to show some care for another human being. When he was screaming 11 times that he can’t breathe.”
I cannot imagine words that would bring any comfort to Eric Garner’s wife right now. There is no comfort without justice. There is no peace without justice.
Our scriptures bring to life a long-lineage of justice-bearers, justice-hopers, justice-dreamers, justice-do-ers, justice-screamers. You know them. They are called prophets. They do not bring glad tidings of hollow comfort. They bring the comfort that can only come after true peace is wrought through groaning, laboring; through back breaking work.
No one likes the prophets. They usually get killed, in fact. The good ones do, at least.
Prophecy isn’t about getting out a tarot card or looking into a crystal glass for the future. Prophecy is about looking around the here and now and naming what others are too scared to see. I think Karoline Lewis had it about right this week when she said, “[Prophets] are analyzers of the ‘now’ for the sake of moving toward a different future.”
And the Gospel of Mark, the earliest gospel to be written, begins with a prophet. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’ John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
John comes, not with words of comfort, but shouting, “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!” This, it seems, is not how you make friends. This is not how you win elections or become the most Tweeted celebrity. It is the way of a prophet. To see sin. To name it. And to call people to repentance.
I can hear John shouting at us – the United States of America – from across the centuries. “Repent! The Reign of God is at hand!” For this moment is about so much more than Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Darnesha Harris, Rekia Boyd, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Rodney King. This moment is about our entire history as a nation – founded upon oppression. Until we repent, there can be no justice. Until we repent, there can be no peace. Until we repent, there can be no comfort.
Now let me be clear, when I say racism, I am not just talking about individual one-on-one acts of racial aggression. Thought we do, indeed, still have a problem with that kind of racism, too. Do you realize that earlier this week, after K-State students organized a peaceful demonstration in the Union that social media at K-State erupted with anonymousracial slurs? We are thankful for the administration’s swift response, which made it clear this kind of behavior would not be tolerated. So it turns out that name-calling racism isn’t just one state over in Missouri where peaceful marchers walking from Ferguson to Jeff City were greeted in Rosebud, MO with hateful speech from white residents. It’s there. It’s here. It’s everywhere.
Those of us who seek to treat people of every race with respect and dignity are being called upon to do more. For racism is not just a person-to-person sin. It is an institutional sin. Folks who do anti-racism educational work talk about the iceberg of racism….the person-to-person stuff is on top, but the more dangerous stuff is lurking there below the surface and it is the institutional, systemic racism that poisons our nation.
What does it look like to repent from that kind of sin? Repentance is not just about saying, “Sorry,” though it seems to me that saying sorry would be a good start. The Greek word for repentance literally means something like, “To change one’s being.” It’s a total and complete life change. A 180. What would that look like for our nation? To have our entire being changed?
Sounds a little scary, right? But also a little exciting? It sounds like being born again. Which I do believe is what John and Jesus came preaching, if I remember correctly. That we could all repent and be born again. That we could be made new. It won’t be an easy or painless process. It won’t be comfortable.
As I was studying the texts for the week, I found something fascinating. The Hebrew word for comfort – the one used in Isaiah 40 – is nachum and it is also translated as “repent” is other places in the Hebrew Bible. Some how, some way, repentance and comfort are all tied up together. It seems to me that we can keep our eyes on the prize, hold on, and grope our way through the chaos of the present moment to repentance together….if we can do that we will be on a journey to justice, a journey to peace, a journey to comfort. It will not happen overnight. We are playing the long game here. And it will require every ounce of strength we have.
But we do not go alone. I love that the Gospel of Mark begins like this, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” The entirety of the Good News is not contained in Mark’s gospel. Mark’s gospel – Jesus’s life and death – that’s just the beginning.
The entirety of the Good News of Jesus Christ is still being born anew each and every day. It is a story that is still being written in 2014. There are still voices crying out in the wilderness. And the call to repentance is as good of news now as it ever was. The Gospel is still being shouted loudly by prophets in our day. And we have the honor, the duty, the gift of having ears to hear. Will we listen? Can we be born anew?
***** I invite you to visit the Black Flag Theology blog. One of brother timothie’s poems, a reimagining of Isaiah 40 for our day, served as our benediction for worship after this sermon was delivered. ****