Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Sermon: "Listen," or, "On the Sound of the Tearing Heavens"

"Listen" or "On the Sound of the Tearing Heavens"

Photo by Matt Townsend

I preach extemporaneously - 
this is an edited/remembered transcript of homilies proclaimed at:

South Wedge Mission, Rochester, New York
St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Pittsford, New York

30 November 2014
First Sunday of Advent
Day Text: Isaiah 64.1-9


I’d like to invite you to hear and once more consider the words of the prophet Isaiah this day.

Do not listen to them with the cold detachment of a scholar, or the savy of a media-saturated millenial, or a cynicism of a skeptical critic.

Try to hear them from within.  From within the broken hearts of people lamenting the loss of justice for their dead son.  From within the war-torn streets wracked by looting and rioting, by destruction and despair.  From within a community whose parents could tell them stories of broken dreams, burning crosses, and lynching trees.

(At the SWM service, we also took time to listen to a recording by the Rev. Timothy Flemming, Sr. of the Old-Meter hymn, I Been ‘Buked and I Been Scorn” - hear a recording in the same style by Mahalia Jackson here.  Thanks to the Rev. Julien Pridgen for sharing his heritage with me here.)


1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, 
so that the mountains would quake at your presence-- 
2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil-- 
to make your name known to your adversaries, 
so that the nations might tremble at your presence! 

3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, 
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 
4 From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, 
no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. 

5 You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. 
But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. 
6 We have all become like one who is unclean, 
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. 
We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. 
7 There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; 
for you have hidden your face from us, 
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. 

8 Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; 
we are all the work of your hand. 
9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. 
Now consider, we are all your people.

Advent is not really about waiting for sweet baby Jesus.  He’s already been born.  Done that.  The manger is emptied of its precious cargo.  

He took that body to the cross, and the cross is empty too.  Christ has come.  Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  

But the lynching tree is not empty.

Christ will come again.    

That’s what Advent is about.  Christ.  Coming again.  We desperately need Christ to come again.  And we should be terrified.    

“OH that you would tear the heavens apart!”  cries the prophet.  What if he’s not just referring to some Percy Jackson-era conception of cosmology?  What if he’s talking about our heavens?  The ones that we have built out of our own efforts.  The ones we turn to for protection.  The ones that surround and salute and sanctify the privileges we enjoy.  The ones we look to for justification.  

What if the heavens that need tearing open, this Advent and every Advent, are our own shoddy approximations of the real thing?  The pearly gated communities and cocoons we weave around ourselves?  The heavens that are being torn apart by looters and rioters and the cries of outrage and the calls for justice - because they are the ones we have refused to tear down ourselves?  

Listen.  This is not a word in response to Ferguson.  It’s a word demanded by the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Who was born into the manger, homeless, living under occupation, exposed, dripping with the fluids and blood of his teenage mother, mixed with the blood of the innocents massacred by a tyrant terrified of change.  It’s demanded by the cross, the first lynching tree in a long and tattered history in which it would be used more often by Christians than against them.  It’s demanded by St. Paul, who in 2 Corinthians lays down our orders to “practice the ministry of reconciliation.”  

It’s not a new calling.  Just an old and very much neglected one.  

Advent should terrify us.  Because in it, we await the day when Christ will come again.  To set right not only what we could not set right ourselves.  But to set right what we refused to set right ourselves.  Because that’s the irony in all this: even in an age when we congratulate ourselves on our liberalism, our progressivism, or our conservatism - when poll after poll celebrates the desires of young adults to “get involved and help others” - when it seems like it’s enough for us to just “be good people and not hurt others” - history finds ways to insult us with our utterly inability to do any better than the Roman soldiers 2000 years ago.  

Because less than half a century ago, across this country, Christian men and women still gathered around lamp posts and flag poles on which hung the “strange fruit” of Black bodies.  Children were paraded before it like a demonic Eucharistic adoration.  Photographs were taken, and postcards were sent: “look what we did last Sunday, hugs and kisses.”  

Because today, despite calls for the removal of the Common Core, more parents are removing their students to the sanctuary of the suburban schools, lamenting their own lack of resolve, while silently thanking whatever power they pray to that their child won’t be exposed to the “failure of the city schools” - code to mean, “at least they’ll be harassed by other white children with iPhones instead of students of color with Eubonics.”  

Because today, we’d rather post hash-tags and well-meaning Facebook posts and selfies of us pretending to be assaulted by the police, instead of taking our bodies to the pews of Black churches and other places of worship and gathering to simply listen - to listen to the voices of lament, the pleas for recognition, the wild re-incarnation of the prophet Isaiah, who cry before a deaf world: “oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

 The world is not right.  The rules are not fair.  We know it should be different.  We have utterly failed to cash in on the promises of our best intentions and deepest sentiments.  All our best efforts at being nice, good people who want to make help others?  Nothing, in the end, but "filthy rags."

It is not my intention to make you feel guilted today into taking action.  It is not my intention to somehow imply that I am any less racist or more engaged than my colleagues who choose not to preach on this today.  It’s not my intention to promote an agenda of hatred towards the police, most of whom work with honor and integrity at a thankless job filled with life-and-death no-win decisions.

It is not my intention to say that looting and pillaging is justified.  But let me be clear, and please hear me say this: it is absolutely my intention that, today, and whenever possible, we must make it a priority to hear the cry of the Lord Jesus Christ rising from the modern day cross, demanding us to listen as it laments: “my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

We cannot afford not to hear this call this Advent.  We cannot afford to justify ourselves because of our hard work, or our respectability, or our commitment to law and order.  As Isaiah makes very clear to us, no one is justified before God.  God is the potter; we are the clay.  The Gospel we have fallen short of makes plain and clear the fault lines and cracks in our delusions of generosity and justice.  

But we can also ill afford to avoid this call this Advent because without it, we cannot truly hear the Gospel as the Good News we so desperately need.  We need our heavens torn apart - our false heavens where “fairness” is a set of rules devised by the winners to the exclusion of the losers.  False heavens where we have the luxury to change the channel from am impassioned speech to the fourth re-run of our favorite zombie show.  False heavens where we can afford to make commitments to justice we break as soon as something better comes along, while leaving our neighbors with the second-rate hand-me-downs of yesterday’s sentimentality.

Because it is a blessing, brothers and sisters - it is a gift, the gift, that we are being prepared to receive in Advent - to have our idols smashed.  It is such a profound and powerful present for God to reveal to us that the heaven we thought we had achieved is actually a luxury suite in hell.  It is the very grace of God to be shown that, beyond our fears and our excuses and our avoidances, there is a bigger heaven, a new earth, a better kingdom, one in which the prophets’ words are not prediction but pronouncement: “we are all your children.”

This is not something to vote on.  Or to hashtag.  Or to consider.  It is not even something that has to be accomplished.  It is a fact of creation that each and every single human being is the unrepeatable expression of God’s creative love.  Each and every single human person has been blessed with the mission that follows from the manger - to be agents of reconciliation, and prophets of the new creation, in which all live by the politics of peace and the economy of grace.  If our communities do not reflect this yet, it’s not because we haven’t “progressed” that far yet - it’s that we haven’t kept up with the speed of God’s love.  

The Good News is that God loves us, loves this world, far too much to leave us as we are - prisoners, all of us, to the pseudo-paradises we have built.  Using our communities, our voices, our privilege to be the amplifiers of the voices crying out in the wilderness is not a zero-sum game.  The more the Gospel is proclaimed, the more we all can receive and live from our truest selves.  It might not make us comfortable or happy.  But it will make us more free.  All of us.  More free.

And I think it starts with simply being willing to listen.  To admit that Christ's coming again means we cannot do this all on our own.  To consider that maybe the voice of God calling us to repentance and conversion might be coming from the same place it's always been found - the cross.  And the lynching tree.

So here’s my Advent challenge to you: during this season, each morning when you rise, make it a point to ask God: help me hear a voice I’ve ignored today.  Maybe it’s reading an article from an opposing view.  Maybe it’s going to a protest, or worshipping at a Black church, and doing so without judgement or evaluation.  Try to hear; try to listen.  

And it’s not limited merely to race.  We can all afford to Tevo that favorite show to make time to have dinner with people close to us whose stories we barely know.  Maybe you have an employee at work who’s always excluded, and could use a listening ear.  Maybe it’s spending time hearing stories with the guys under the bridge, or going to view the hauntingly beautiful AIDS memorial quilts at Equal Grounds.  Start where you're at.  Just don't stay there.    

I want to close with an experience I had just a few days ago.  As some of you know, I’ve been trying to do my best to post about happenings in Ferguson.  I had sat down to write our weekly email, with a special “pastoral letter” about things.  As I was just finishing, my Pages program crashed.  No lie.  It’s never happened before.  I couldn’t believe it.  Surely, some racist demon had shut down my prophetic portal in an attempt to personally silence me!

After some very un-prophetic choice four letter words, I walked to Equal Grounds to cool off and re-write the letter.  As I entered the shop, who should I encounter but Deacon and Paulette and Kelly, the current leaders of Unity Fellowship Church.  You know, the Black church that shares our building with us.  The Black church that, in all of this and over the past year or so, we’ve barely engaged with at all.  At the coffee shop.  Right then.

UFC is not only a Black church.  It’s a Black GLBTQ community of liberation.  They’ve drawn a double ticket of oppression within their home context.  They’ve been without a pastor since Spring, and have seen the community dwindle to the point where they aren’t regularly worshipping at SWM.  But, as we sat and talked and shared coffee, Kelly and Paulette shared their burning desire to still “do church.”  They shared their idea to start a fourth-Sunday meal for single parents in the neighborhood.  Would we be willing to let them use our kitchen for that?

Now my four-letter words were in amazement.  We’ve been praying and discerning recently how SWM might be called to engage our neglected neighbors more.  We also happen to do a Supper liturgy every third Sunday.  Except ours is usually only us.  Just like that, from one little accidental conversation, we found ourselves agreeing to pray together about the possibility of SWM and UFC regularly using fourth Sundays as joint outreach-service ministries together.  

Maybe that spirit that crashed my email wasn’t so demonic after all.  Maybe it was the Holy Spirit, saying, “Matthew, shut up, and go listen to what I have to say.”

Listen.  It's the sound of the heavens tearing.  And its terrifying.  But it's also the sound of the Gospel.  Proclaiming freedom.  Proclaiming a new creation.  Proclaiming "we are all Your children."  It is the sound of the spirituals and the blues.  The sound of riots and of revelation.  It is the sound of the prophets and of the poor.  It is calling us out.  And calling us into freedom.

Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ is coming again.