Isaiah 40: 1-11
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
December 7, 2014
A voice says, “Cry out!” What shall I cry out?
Jon Stewart didn’t know what to say. He couldn’t scrounge one bit of comedy—who could after the grand jury decision regarding the death of Eric Garner. One of the protesters in Ferguson described himself to psychologist Marva Robinson as being underwater. He felt like he couldn’t breathe, didn’t know if he could make it to the surface, that his skin color stops others from treating him fairly when it comes to law enforcement and the justice system. Eric Garner said that he couldn’t breathe at least more than once, which is all it should take to get heard.
A re-reading from the prophet Isaiah, as imagined by Timothy Wotring, a seminary intern at Broadway Presbyterian Church in NYC:
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Ferguson, to Brooklyn, to Staten Island, and cry to them that they have not been forgotten; they are loved deeply and from the Lord’s hand hope shall be given.
A megaphone cries out: “In the streets prepare the way of justice, make straight in city parks a highway for our God. Every empty lot shall be a home, and every Trump tower - rent controlled apartments; unfair minimum wages shall be living wages, and riot gear will collect dust. Then the presence of God shall be unveiled and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of God has spoken.”
A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry out? Is it for the unjust deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley or Tamir Rice? Or the giant gap in economic inequality? Or that American’s democracy is owned by the Koch brothers and other corporate elites?” All people are fragile; their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades; WE CAN’T BREATHE…but the breath of God infuses hope and rises in communities where truth cannot be suffocated. For the end of police brutality is at hand.
Get us up to the main streets, O Ferguson, bearers of another world; Shout with strength, O New York City, heralds of justice, shout louder, do not fear; say to the police departments across America, “BLACK LIVES MATTER! BLACK LIVES MATTER!” See, the God of justice comes with might, and her hands serve the lowly; her comforting presence ushers in change. She will bring water for those too tired to shout anymore; she will rub the feet of those too tired to march anymore, and she will carry all in her bosom, and gently lead us to a new heaven and new earth, one without murders by choking or trigger happy cops.”
Now this scripture makes sense, this day, this week. Now it can be heard with the power it was intended to have. To the Israelites in captivity in Babylon, the original reading was good news for them. For so long it seemed God was absent and did not hear the cries of God’s people. Which is why we need to be careful when we read from Isaiah during the season of Advent, the season of waiting for God to act. Christianity has a bad habit of fine-tuning its hindsight by reading Jesus into the messages of the prophets: Jesus is the shepherd, Jesus is the suffering servant, Jesus is the long-awaited messiah. But in the story of God’s people, this hasn’t happened. We can’t even say “yet”, because our Jewish sisters and brothers are still waiting.
There are times we don’t know if God hears our cries, if God is deeply present or seemingly absent. When we are in the middle of great crisis, seismic change, chaos, violence, oppression, when we can’t see the hopeful future to come, we can be tempted toward despair and retreat into silence and our own little corner of the world. What can we possibly do? What good would it do to cry out, raise our voices and join them with others? Who would hear us? Would it make a difference? In our worship, in our life together, in our story as God’s people, we need to hear, to see this futility, this anguish, this longing for hope and justice, this bone-deep desire for an everlasting peace in the scriptures, without rushing to Jesus as the answer.
How often have we shared with a friend or spouse or partner a problem or difficulty that we can’t see our way out of, and the one listening has suggested a solution or some advice, some kind of fix—because they love us? Oftentimes there’s nothing for our painful situation; no cure, no way forward except for one excruciatingly small step followed by another. All we really want is for someone with skin on to hear us, so we know we’re not alone.
We’re all called to be God-with-skin-on for each other, no matter what color that skin is. Joining our voices with our African-American sisters and brothers says “We hear you.” Mourning with families who have lost someone due to police brutality says “We hear you.” Reading scripture from the point of view of the oppressed in this time says “We hear you.” When the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter becomes important to everyone and not just blacks, it says “We hear you.” Putting aside our assumptions and our own point of view and asking “Tell me your story” says we are ready to listen.
Ultimately, it is not us who needs to get heard, but God. Yes, God is still speaking: speaking the language of the unheard in riots and angry protests, lying down in the streets stopping traffic, crying “I can’t breathe” from the cross. Underneath all of this, God is speaking tenderly to us so that we might hear words of peace and comfort. But God’s comfort is usually a strange one. The Hebrew word for “comfort” has verb forms that can also be translated as “changed minds”, “repent”, “think better”. Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. God intends us for peace but a peace that comes as a result of a changed mind.
Change your minds, O think better, my people. Speak tenderly to each other. 350 years of state-sanctioned racism was far too long, painful, violent, costly. 50 years of civil rights and 6 years of an African-American president is only the beginning. Your great-great-great-grandfathers and –mothers couldn’t have imagined this day, yet didn’t give up. A voice cries out, from the undiscovered country, that wilderness place called the future: one day everyone will be on a level playing field: black and brown and white, male and female and everyone in between, gay, straight, bi, queer and trans, rich and poor, young and old, and everyone in between. This is God’s glory revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. Amen.