2014-12-14 by George Kaplan
Preacher: Christopher Adams
14th December 2014
Readings: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, John 1:6-8, 19-28
1 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,
2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn,
3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion — to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendour.
4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.
8 “For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing. In my faithfulness I will reward my people and make an everlasting covenant with them.
9 Their descendants will be known among the nations and their offspring among the peoples. All who see them will acknowledge that they are a people the LORD has blessed.”
10 I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign LORD will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.
6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John.
7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe.
8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was.
20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.”
21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.”
22 Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’ ”
24 Now the Pharisees who had been sent
25 questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”
26 “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know.
27 He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
28 This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
I must confess I have found the lectionary passages for this week’s sermon difficult. I have found them difficult in part because several of them are so familiar. The first part of Isaiah 61 we have heard on multiple occasions, not only because it appears in Isaiah, but also because Jesus quotes it at the beginning of his ministry, when he enters the temple, tells people to unroll the scroll, and proceeds to read this passage: “The spirit of the LORD is upon me…” As Mennonites, I think we find ourselves particularly drawn to it, and tend to refer to it again and again because in it we find the heart of Jesus’ message: “To proclaim good news to the poor. .. to bind up the brokenhearted…to proclaim freedom for the captives, and release from darkness for the prisoners.”
Which is all good, and great, of course. It is what is essential, and we should repeat it to each other. But after repeat viewings, even your favorite film gets a bit dull after a while. That said, the true mystery of scripture is that it is “new every morning” — we approach it with our new experiences, our new growths, and it in turn is able to speak to us. And so it has with me.
The passage continues, in ways familiar to us: the classical reversal of fortunes: crowns of beauty instead of ashes, oils of joy instead of mourning, garments of praise instead of despair. All that is bad and painful has been replaced with all that is good and joyful. The ancient ruins — the buildings crumbling into dust — will be restored, rebuilt, renewed. The place that has been “devastated for generations” will become a site of renewal.
It struck me as I was reading this well-known passage that the pronoun ‘they’ is important — and over-looked. In the first three verses, the ‘they’ are passive participants — Jesus releases and proclaims; Jesus trades their mourning for gladness; it is Jesus who is the actor in this transaction, the bestower. But what do the ‘they’ do with their gifts? Starting in verse 4: “They will rebuild the ancient ruins, and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.” Those who have been mourning, those who have been overcome with grief will become active participants in the cause of renewal. Their healing begun, they are able to engage in the restoration of previously barren or useless ground, the restoration of broken-down places.
In re- and re-re-reading this passage, I was struck by the phrase “devastated for generations”. Here the image is not just of a place that has been devastated for a long time, but for human generations; this area is an area where humans live; its devastation is counted not in terms of years, but in human lives. Generation also implies the passing of this devastation on from the old to the young — a carrying forward into the future something tragic — something devastating — that happened in the past.
America — the United States, rather — has been on my mind a great deal recently. With protests around the death of unarmed black men occurring daily — even spreading to London and other parts of the world — we are witnessing a change. I won’t call it an ‘awakening’ because I quite imagine the black men suffering from a disproportionately high level of police harassment and violence have been ‘awakened’ to the problem a long, long time ago — but the recent deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others, and non-indictment of the policemen who killed them — have sparked protests on a scale not seen (in America) in a generation. As one commentator put it: “young black people are sick and tired of feeling sick and tired”. And rightly so. Nearly one-hundred and fifty years after the US Civil War, white supremacy — cloaked in all its myriad forms — still systematically oppresses, damages, and causes real, bodily harm to non-white people. America’s long entanglement with slavery, ended in 1865, is still playing out generations and generations later. America, the land, is like one of the ancient places “that ha[s] been ruined by devastation for generations”. People who had no business in the business of slavery are playing out its legacy of evil over a century later.
How can we begin to think, begin to conceive of a world that is renewed, that begins to pick up the pieces of the ruined cities? I think one avenue lies in the idea of mourning. We are constantly presented on television and in the papers and online with images of black mothers and wives mourning their murdered children. There seems to be a set script, a theatre of grief that the press adheres to. It has become almost expected. But the mourning that mothers and wives are both subjected to and engage in, is doubly burdensome — they must grieve for themselves, and on behalf of their community. The watching audience — the white watching audience, particularly — is let off the hook, is not required to show compassion or involvement or even caring (though they may do). And the main point being that we cannot move forward from a place of mourning until everyone who needs to mourn has had a chance — and the understanding — to do so. There is so much to mourn in the white community! So much to acknowledge!
Last week I had a very fraught conversation with my parents on everything that was happening in the States. I mentioned I was writing a play about Ferguson, which was the comment that sparked a forty-five minute ‘discussion’. My family is not particularly gifted at discussing ‘contentious’ issues — we get along by tending to pretend that everything’s fine. When, of course, pretending that everything’s fine simply allows the status quo — however painful and oppressive it is — to continue. This conversation ranged a great distance, but eventually settled around a point I have been thinking a lot about — inheritance, generational sin, root causes of inequality and injustice. There came a point in the conversation where I told my father: “Our family — your great-great-grandfather / my great-great-great grandfather — he owned people.” Which is true. We have the household documents showing the purchasing and selling of (black) human lives. That is our family history. It is not the only aspect of our history, but it is one aspect. And it is one aspect that we as a family have never dealt with. Perhaps we think it is too far in the past to be relevant. Or we dismiss it out of hand as simply a ‘sign of the times’ — white people owning black people was just how life was in Virginia in the 1850s. Or perhaps it’s too big an issue to deal with — the implications of acknowledging our benefitting from the systematic oppression of other people may be too large, too overwhelming a psychological, political, social, and moral issue to confront. It is difficult to mourn when one refuses to acknowledge that there is anything to mourn about.
However conflict-ridden and difficult the conversation was with my parents, it opened the door to necessary and needed discussion. We began to ask questions such as: why are the vast majority of my parents’ friends — and indeed most of my friends — white? Why do my parents live in a nearly all-white, gated community? I would extend the question to this congregation — knowing full well that Britain’s history with race is specific to Britain and differs from the racial history of the United States — but still I ask — why are we a historically white congregation?
In this advent season, we recognize John the Baptist — as we read in the passage from John’s gospel — preparing the way for the Lord. He is doing the work, he is making the necessary preparations so that Christ may be welcomed as he should be welcomed. In the long, long struggle for racial justice in the United States, and in this country, how can we, like John the Baptist, prepare the way? What must be acknowledged? What must be spoken about? What must be mourned before we — together — can begin to “renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations”?