Sermons

Whom Shall We Receive? Rev. Dee Ledger, A Message for Racial Justice Sunday, February 10, 2019

In the Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex, Sophocles once wrote, “I have no desire to suffer twice, in reality and then in retrospect.”  Though not  entirely sure of the personal backstory that prompted this brilliant, wise Greek playwright to say this around 430 B.C.E., I am pretty sure that he spoke truth from experience.  They say that hindsight is 20/20, but to look backwards in time is to invite regret when once looks at one’s actions through a different lens. And so, truth can wound.  So when Isaiah cries out, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips,” he has been found out, or been spiritually convicted, we might say of a particular, salient truth that turns him completely inside out.

Do you know the searing truth of which I speak?  It’s when you discover that your worldview has been lacking in certain important respects or it can be that moment of epiphany when you realize that although your knowledge has been deficit, you simultaneously discover that you know your family, your society, your community, and more importantly, yourself more deeply than ever before.  And with that knowledge, there is regret, yes, coupled with awe, and maybe a whole bunch of other feelings thrown into the mix.  You have met God—or rather, you have experienced God, and that has changed you, made you uncomfortable, and rocked your world.

How could it not?  Which is to say how can God not upend and rock our private and personal interior worlds, if God be God—both Mystery and yet an entity as personal and intimate as our breath? Those of you who have lived through the cultural shifts of the 60’s and 70’s, 80’s and 90’s whether feminism or civil rights, gay rights, or environmental awareness know what it is to look back and understand something that you can process more fully now.  And we, who are inheritors of this history, will have our own moments when we shall, in truth and in Sophocles words, “suffer twice”—both in our present awareness of reality, but also when we, as elders, look back on our collective and individual past mistakes and omissions and commissions.

In seeing the Holy Lord of Hosts, Isaiah sees himself fully and his community—every flaw, every sin, every pain, and every broken promise.  It is as if the brokenness of his community and his own life is revealed in stark relief to the shining wholeness and well-being that we say is God’s own nature.  The metaphorical burning coal that touches Isaiah’s lips purifies the prophet, sanctifies and consecrates him for God’s use, and purges his guilt over his own sins and failings.  He is far better for the searing.  He is better prepared to give God’s message because he has first understood his own culpability and ability to be lost unawares.

I wish there was such a thing to purge the pervasive sin of white supremacy and, yes, it’s steadfast, shadow companion, white guilt that has no action, no reparation, no ability to see beyond itself and its own needs. When my LGBTQ book group suggested a book for this month—Black History Month—I confess that I internally braced myself.  Perhaps because everywhere on the news and in our society it is evident that we are suffering both in reality and retrospect over the sin of racism that still grips this nation, a nation whose government did not elect to formally apologize for its enslavement and subsequent Jim Crow laws until 2009, and then not in a way that would make reparations and reconciliation possible.  We are still suffering in retrospect for yearbook photos of Ku Klux Klan get-ups and blackface minstrel throwbacks, and how, where, and when we shall hold ourselves and our public officials accountable for our collective and individual complacency and denial of institutionalized racism and harm.

The book that I read was When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir and it is written by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele.  Patrisse is one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter and a queer woman.  I marvel that it took a black queer woman to get me to read about the founding of this movement and much of the personal pain that birthed it.

And because I have been subconsciously conditioned to list the credentials of  women writers—black and white– so that they will get a fair hearing, I will tell you that Patrisse is a Fulbright scholar, a 2017 Sydney Peace Prize recipient, and a public speaker in demand across college campuses for keynote  addresses, including American University and Cornell.

But this message isn’t about Patrisse’s impressive achievements or her ability to rise while being raised by a single mom working multiple jobs and while living in a highly impoverished neighborhood in L.A.  It’s not about how she witnessed firsthand not only the incarceration and brutal treatment of at least two of her beloved family members, but also perpetual surveillance, raids, and a shocking mismanagement of her brother’s mental health crisis within the criminal justice system.

As a woman, I have been taught subconsciously that a male prophet often must pave the way for a female prophetess to be heard, if she is heard at all.   It is an uncomfortable truth that I’ve grown with and learned to navigate around in ministry.  So, you and I must first talk about Isaiah.  And this message is actually about this Middle-Easterner, and how he also tries to deliver a very unwelcome message to a people who “listen but do not comprehend,” who “look but do not understand,” and whose “minds are made dull,” so that they “may not turn and be healed.”

It is a judgment that God sends Isaiah to deliver, and Isaiah, though he  accepts the call,  asks his Creator, “How long, O Lord?”  Meaning, “just how long will this judgement of yours last?”  And God replies, “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate…and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.”

And it is here I am reminded of an article that I read.  It was about an art exhibit in Baltimore that highlighted urban blight in Baltimore and, specifically, the effect of multiple vacant properties slated for demolition.  A modern-day black prophetess Nneka N’namdi, who founded Fight Blight Bmore in 2016, uses technology, art and activism to physically explain blight. Around Mother’s Day that same year, she is riding through a neighborhood and witnesses a group of kids riding bikes next to a demolition sight that had a six-foot drop and no caution tape or signs to warn the kids.[1]  She had the audacity and courage to wonder aloud what would happen if one of those children lost control of his bike and ended up in the vacant demolition pit.  She begins to do research and question.  She argues to anyone who will listen that these vacant houses lower the property value of a neighborhood but she questions the need to destroy them. According to the Baltimore Sun, here are more vacant houses than occupied houses in Baltimore, and the true number of vacant homes could be as high as 30,000. Nnamdi’s art exhibit also specifically points to Hopkins as a malevolent force of displacement and disinvestment. And according to the Baltimore Sun, the Hopkins-supported East Baltimore Development Inc. (EBDI) project displaced no fewer than 800 black families.[2] Divestment by the city in black communities—not God– has a role in poverty, vacant property, and crime.

Over and over again in scripture we see prophets who are sent to the people.  There was Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Deborah, Esther, and Jesus to name a few.  And it is a trope in our holy scripture that the prophet questions his or her ability to speak to the people.  And so today we will also sing and say, “Here am I, Lord; send me” with the best of the prophets.

But sometimes it isn’t our ability to answer God’s call that is in question, or our willingness to “be sent” as the next prophet or prophetess but to do something every bit as necessary, courageous, and humbling as our willingness to be sent: which is our actual choice and willingness to receive the prophets, female and male, who are sent to us—whether they be black, female, queer, or all three at once.  Because, can we admit that we collectively struggle in receiving the prophets that are sent to us, particularly if they don’t look like the cultural majority who have had the platform, podium, or pulpit for so long in our collective history?  We seem to require that they have certain credentials before we listen, or we pay attention when they have a best-selling book (Patrisse’s book is a New York Times bestseller and Library Journal best pick) or we feel we must have something, anything, in common with the prophet to make us listen attentively and well.  (Remember how I said that Patrisse’s book was recommended by my LGBTQ group?)

And these days, our mere listening to the other is not enough; we need to do more than politely entertain a different point of view if we want a different kind of world.  If we be white, we need to leave behind our feelings of white guilt.  Instead, we might choose to shift the focus.  The writer Cheryl Strayed wrote to a young woman coming to terms with her privilege and uncomfortableness: “That, in fact, those painful and uncomfortable feelings are not the problems to be solved or the wounds to be tended to. [Instead] Racism is.”[3]

Racism is the wound that needs tending.  The final words of Isaiah’s prophecy in this particular call passage close with the words “The holy seed is its stump” which almost reads like a Zen koan after reading several lines about the people not hearing, not comprehending, and all the cities lying vacant and in distressed.  There is a harshness to the prophet’s words that seems to reveal that people’s hearts will be hardened until they can receive God’s judgement.  I don’t know about that.  But prophets have an ability to see how a cascade of willful ignorance and oppressive imperial policy without accountability can prove detrimental to the spiritual health and well-being of an entire people, city, or country.  Yet, despite this, the holy seed of hope and redemption remain within the sad stump that is left. The writer Alice Walker once said, that “healing begins where the wound was made.” [4]

Sisters and brothers, we are sent, but few heed the call.  Many more of us may need to learn how to receive the prophets that God sends in the form that she sends.  In this, we are reminded of an Advent song, “O How Shall I Receive You?”

“O how shall I receive you,

how meet you on your way,

blessed hope of every people,

my soul’s delight and stay? 

O Jesus, Jesus, give me now by your own pure light,

to know whatev’er is pleasing and welcome in your sight.”[5]

 

Remember, healing begins where the wound was made.  Let us choose the healing.

Amen.

 

 

[1] See http://www.baltimorecorps.org/elevation-nneka-nnamdi/ and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ktC2nTkWV50

[2]Rachel Juieng, “Baltimoreans call attention to urban blight,” October 25, 2018,

https://www.jhunewsletter.com/article/2018/10/baltimoreans-call-attention-to-urban-blight

[3] Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond, “How Can I Cure My White Guilt?

The thing about privilege is that it can be used for good.” Aug. 14, 2018

[4]  The Way Forward Is with a Broken Heart.

[5] New Century Hymnal, #102, Paul Gerhardt, 1653, Transl. Catherine Winkworth, 1863, and others; alt.