Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Sermon: "Shut Up and Listen, or, a Sermon for Frederick Douglass Sunday"

"Shut Up and Listen, or, A Sermon for Frederick Douglass Sunday"

Preached at: South Wedge Mission
Rochester, New York
Frederick Douglass Sunday/Second Sunday in Lent
24 February 2013

Colgate Rochester Crozier Divinity School
Rochester, New York
CRCDS Social Justice Fellowship Chapel Service
26 February 2013

Day Texts: Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18
Psalm 27
Philippians 3.17-4.1
Luke 13.31-35

Frederick Douglass died on February 20th, 1895.  He was a resident of Hamilton St in the South Wedge Neighborhood of Rochester, New York.  We chose to honor him on this Sunday.  The Episcopal Church offers this collect for his commemoration:

SWM's Frederick Douglass open space station,
where quotes from his life were written on links
of chain.  We broke them off, one by one, and
wrote them on prayer flags, which will become part
of our worship space, and our hope for our community.
Almighty God, 
whose truth makes us free: 
We bless your Name 
for the witness of Frederick Douglass, 
whose impassioned and reasonable speech 
moved the hearts of a president and a people 
to a deeper obedience to Christ. 
Strengthen us also 
to be outspoken 
on behalf of those in captivity and tribulation, 
continuing in the Word of Jesus Christ our Liberator; 
who with you and the Holy Spirit 
dwells in glory everlasting. 


-Grace, mercy and peace are yours from the Triune God.  Amen.-The Pharisees, as you may know, are basically Jesus main antagonists throughout the Gospels.  The Daleks to his Doctor Who if you will.  And yet, for some strange reason, today we find them actually warning Jesus about King Herod.  Who is not such a good guy. 

-Now maybe they're first-call Pharisees, or seminarian Pharisees, and so, have been confused by an overly political vision of religion.  Or maybe the Pharisees are just trying to scare Jesus off.  Though if I were them, talking to my enemy, I'd probably say, "YES! GO to Jerusalem, it's all good there!  No death or dying for you!  It's NICE in Herod's palace wink wink!"  Or maybe they’re delivering a message for the tyrant.  Making Jesus an offer he can’t refuse.  Church authorities being corrupted by political power.  Never happens in our time, right?

-But Jesus fires back with a message of his own.  “Go and tell that fox” – in the Greek, its actually feminine, almost like Jesus is undermining the psuedo-masculinity of the threatening – “go and tell that vixen of a king: listen.” Listen.  Cease your posturing.  Quit hiding behind your minions, and your privilege, and your power.  And check it.  “I am casting out demons and rocking the healing circuit.  And I’m not going to stop until I hit Jerusalem.”  Listen Herod.  Something else is going on.  I’m the Jesus.  I’m coming.  You're on the wrong side of the cross.  And there’s not much you can do stop me. 

-And yet, Jesus’ prophetic action, the beginning of his response of speaking truth to power, is to tell them, essentially, to shut up and listen.  And he makes this demand, in order to point the powerful to the true miraculous power happening, not in palaces and temples, but down below, on the ground, amidst the powerless and forgotten.  Where demons are being cast out.  Where sickness is being eradicated.  Where God is happening.  Among those with whom Jesus is in solidarity.  Those for whom the prophetic Jesus is speaking.

-And that’s a hard place to go.  To have to listen.  To release the feeling of control that comes in words, and privilege, and power.  Because it first of all means an unmasking of ourselves.  It’s one thing to reveal that the emperor has no clothes when it is an emperor like Herod or Caesar.  But I wonder if there’s not a dash of Herod in each of us too.  Even in our best moments, that wants so badly to dictate the terms of engagement.  Trying to keep Jesus from coming to Jerusalem.  Where he might actually confront us.  Change us.  Force us to discover all that we do not know and cannot be.  Order us to silence.  Or to suffering. 

-Being cast down from your throne is not fun.  When I was in seminary at Duke Divinity, I was elected co-president of the Divinity Student Council.  As a leader of the student body, I had all these ideas and ideals about how to cultivate community, and work for reconciliation among a student body grappling with the open wounds of race and gender discrimination.  I had read all the right books, had all the right intentions.  Now, to prophetic action!

-And so, I gave speeches, and rolled out plans.  And continued to try to promote programs and initiatives throughout the year.  But nothing seemed to change.  Towards the end of my term, I found myself in the Women’s Center, talking with my friend Brandy, who was also the head of Sacred Worth, the GLBTQ alliance.  I was lamenting to her about how frustrating the year had been.  “I feel like people think I’m a privileged asshole,” I concluded.  And she said, “yes Matthew, they kind of do.” 

-Ouch.  Why, I wondered?  Wasn’t I trying to help the marginalized and all that?  And she said, “I know you care, and you have great ideas.  But caring’s not enough.  You never came to our meetings.  You never showed up to be with us. You never really took the time to listen.”

-Double ouch.  But also thank God.  Thank God that Brandy played the Jesus to my Herod.  Drove me from a place of playing at being a prophet, to a place of sitting at the feet to learn from those whose suffering was already prophetic.  Because she was willing to speak a hard truth to me with love and a desire for my transformation, Brandy opened me up to a whole world.  Of hearing the stories of African American students, and gay students, and women seminarians, who had fallen between the cracks of the blind spots of my own need to “be the change.” 

-And hearing this was hard.  Not only because I had to face the fact that I was more privileged than prophetic.  But also because it forced me, who as you may have noticed loves to talk, to listen.  To stop talking about the injustice.  And instead to experience it.  To be exposed to and by it.  To suffer it.  See, in hearing Brandy’s pain, I began to feel pain too.  Pain for her, and the suffering she had undergone at the hands of good intentions like mine.  Pain that led me, not only to listening, but to lament.

-And see, that’s the even more powerful bit to me about Jesus’ way of being prophetic.  Jesus is not afraid to cry out.  Not merely in heroic rebellion against the powers and principalities.  But also to take on himself the suffering of the community he loves.  “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” he cries out.  “You who are so bound to endless cycles of power, and privilege, and willful blindness and violence! How I long to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wing!”  Standing at the very heart of the rift between brothers and the rupture of injustice undergirding the powerful, Jesus lets his rage becoming something more.  He weeps.  He laments.

-See, that’s the other thing that can happen if we listen.  We might not just have to change our minds.  We might end up bearing the terrible pain and the heartbreak of the stories of others.  I know for me, it’s much easier to look at a moving photograph, or read an account of human suffering, than to have to look into the eyes of someone and receive their scars.  Ideals and good intentions feel safer. 

-But Jesus is the one who, even though he is God Incarnate, willingly abandons the safety of privilege and power.  Jesus listens.  And Jesus weeps.  And Jesus suffers with.  Which means that God listens.  And God weeps.  And God suffers with too.  And such suffering with, such compassion, such solidarity, leads this God to take on the suffering, and the sin, and the failures of power, and the schemes of humanity, and to carry them to Jerusalem. To Calvary.  Where the ultimate act of prophecy can take place.  The non-violent overthrowing of the violent.  By the solidarity of the cross.

-I think it’s quite fitting that, having risked listening to and weeping with the poor, having allowed himself not to get even, but to be moved with compassion, Jesus here also uses a very powerful feminine image of God.  It’s almost as if, in his listening compassion, Jesus purposely seeks to expand the picture of God we have.  From the (em)masculated fox, Herod.  To the fierce and powerful love of the Mother hen.  That’s the power of listening.  And of lament.  They change the game.  Where hens are stronger than foxes.  And prophetic compassion trumps the violence of privilege.  And where our tiny visions of a God-like-us might give way to a conceptions we never imagined.  God as woman.  God as black.  God as gay.  God as not-quite-like-us.  

-Crazy what happens when you listen.  Today is Frederick Douglass Sunday here at the Mission, and I think on the great South Wedge Abolitionist, because his journey of justice also began with a listening.  In his groundbreaking autobiography, Douglass recalls his first encounters, while a slave, with the “wild songs” of the slaves, which “revealed at once “the highest joy and the deepest sadness.”  He writes:

Bust of Frederick Douglass
from outside the chapel at CRCDS
The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness.  I have frequently found myself in tears while hearing them…to those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery.  Those songs follow me, to deepen my heart of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds.

-Douglass’ deep compassionate listening to the pain of his people led him into a long, suffering battle, not only for the slaves, but also, for others whose humanity was being violated.  In 1848, just down the Erie Canal at the Seneca Falls Convention, he was the sole African American man to attend the convention to pass a resolution demanding women’s’ suffrage.  And when most of the other men came out opposed, Douglass alone stood fast, and put the powers of his mighty oratory into the service of those to whom he had deeply listened, drawing on the prophetic energy of compassionate lament, undoubtedly forged in the fires of the suffering of those wild slave songs, enough were moved to pass the resolution.

-Crazy things can happen when we listen.  The suffering of the world will break our hearts.  Our souls may just end up crying out under the weight of a compassion we’d rather run from.  We might even find ourselves following Jesus on that lonely prophet’s journey to Jerusalem, and to the prophet’s fate upon Calvary’s hill.  But that is the way that God Incarnate has set forth for us.  Listening.  Letting go.  Lamentation.  And, if we are so blessed, a love that is stronger than hate, more powerful than privilege, and impossible to deny.

-That is my prayer for myself this day.  And my prayer for this family of God at the South Wedge Mission, and at CRCDS.  And my prayer for each of us.  That we would listen.  Let go.  Lament.  And so love, truly, deeply, richly, prophetically.  

-In the name of our Mother God, the gathering hen, the great listener. Amen.


  1. Matthew. this is a beautiful sermon. And I swear I'm not just saying this cause I'm mentioned in it. ;-).

    In regards to that, though, I feel quite humbled and honored to be included in your sermon. I'm very grateful to know you, dear friend, and thanks for listening, and, for that matter, for teaching me to listen too.

  2. This is very well said. Thank you. I wish that some of the entrenched patriarchy at Luther Seminary could hear it. It's becoming tiresome to fight to be heard here. Thanks for listening.