Grace and peace from God our Creator, Hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always. Amen.
My friends Gretchen and Maria and I did a project for our Old Testament class, the very first semester of seminary, in which we taught our classmates about the Psalms. We made up a bunch of skits enacting various kinds of psalms, with props and stupid stuff. We’re nerds.
There are a lot of different kinds of psalms—celebratory, harvest, royal, coronation, victory, you name it, there’s a psalm for that. Gretchen’s favorite, though, is the lament psalm. Psalm 13 is her all time favorite because it opens, straight up, with a cry: HOW LONG O LORD? In our presentation, Gretchen laid down on the floor in anguish and shouted the entirety of Psalm 13. I will not reenact that for you just now, but I think you’ve got the idea.
Did you know that back in the day, there were professional lamenters? Professional mourners? A family would gather these people—usually women—to weep and wail and cry out to God on behalf of their loss. Gretchen would be very good at this. We have lost this art as a people. We have lost the ability to sit in the depths of our…stuff…and cry out. We have invented so many saccharine platitudes for the devastation we face. “Everything happens for a reason,” we say. “Time heals all wounds,” we say.
Somewhere along the way we decided that these are words of comfort. Comfort, oh comfort my people, so says our God. My internship supervisor told me once that pastors have two jobs: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
I grew up in those pews. I know how comfortable we are. I grew up in those pews while Ray Hartzell stood here. And if word got back to Pastor Ray—let alone Jesus—that I had the privilege to stand before you this morning and I did not cry out in mourning about the depth of the racial injustice that has been and is being perpetrated in this our great nation, I would be mortified. Pastor Ray stood here and proclaimed the good news of Jesus the Christ while never letting me forget that, once I’d heard it, I could never be the same. I could never abide the status quo. Pastor Ray read me the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. alongside the prophets. Pastor Ray told me about the marches in Alabama and Mississippi and in Washington DC and about how Dr. King cried out in lament for the lives and deaths of his people. Pastor Ray told me about that 20 years ago. Pastor Ray and Dr. King marched 50 years ago. But here, in the United States of America in 2014, still, a voice cries out.
In July, a 43-year-old black man named Eric Garner died of complications related to his asthma after being held in a chokehold by a white New York City police officer until he cried out, “I can’t breathe.”
In August, an 18-year-old black man named Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white Ferguson police officer, after throwing up his hands and crying out, “I don’t have a gun! Stop shooting!”
In August, a 22-year-old black man named John Crawford was shot and killed by a white police officer in a Walmart in Ohio while holding a toy gun, crying out, “it’s not real!”
Three weeks ago, a 12-year-old black boy named Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a white police officer in Cleveland while holding a toy gun, and did not even have time to cry out.
Two weeks ago, the grand jury in Missouri did not indict the officer who killed Michael Brown.
On Wednesday, the grand jury in New York did not indict the officer who killed Eric Garner.
On Friday, the grand jury in Ohio did not indict the officer who killed John Crawford.
You probably saw on television, on Facebook, on Twitter, on just about everywhere that people have taken to the streets in protest of these injustices. Some of these protests turned into riots. Some fires were started. Some people were injured. Some people were arrested. More people came back the next morning to protest again. Demonstrations in support of these communities have spread to cities all across the United States. President Obama and other leaders have called for peaceful protests and nonviolent resistance. You’ve probably seen the signs and the hashtags “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace.”
The Rev Dr Martin Luther King has a lot to say about this. In March of 1968 he spoke to the Grosse Point Historical Society about nonviolent resistance. He said, “I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I'm absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”
Isaiah prophesies in this morning’s text, “A voice says, ‘cry out!’ and I say, ‘What shall I cry?’. In the Gospel According to Mark this morning it was written that a voice cries out in the wilderness “prepare the way of the Lord!” What kind of way are we preparing? What kind of wilderness is this?
New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio said on Wednesday that we should not have to proclaim that Black Lives Matter because we should know that all lives matter. We, as people of God, know that all lives matter. But because we as Americans have built ourselves a system in which only some lives matter, in which only white lives matter, we have to cry out BLACK LIVES MATTER! We have to cry out NO JUSTICE NO PEACE! We have to cry out LORD HAVE MERCY! We have to cry out HOW LONG O LORD! We have to cry out!
The operative part of Isaiah’s prophecy is that we are not the first to speak. A voice says, “cry out!” and we say, “What shall I cry?” First, we must listen. I, as a white person of privilege who may go so far as to call myself a white ally has a responsibility to listen this time. All evidence to the contrary as I spew hundreds of words at you, it is my job and it is our collective duty to listen. Then, after we have listened, we must use our voices to amplify the voices of those who remain unheard.
One of the ways that we use our voices as people of faith is by singing. We sing together every week, all year. Here at Bethlehem we have the opportunity to sing in a variety of languages—ours and not—of joys—ours and not—of struggles—ours and not. We sing the histories of people of faith throughout the centuries around the world. We sing old spirituals and protest songs, and we sing about the counter-cultural events that took place throughout scripture. When we sing laments together, our songs are an expression of our grief but they are also an expression of our hope. When we cry out to God, we have hope that God hears us. We have hope that God cries with us. When we cry out to God together, we have hope that in our togetherness, our work will bring about justice.
Writing the lament part of this sermon was super easy. I got really emotional and typed in all capital letters as I expressed my grief. Once that was on paper, I had to figure out where that expression of hope was going to come in. I thought about your faces, and me standing up here staring into them, exhausted, somehow not having a word of hope to proclaim. But that was just it. I thought about your faces. I thought about you. I thought about us, the body of Christ. I thought about the community that we are, the force for good that we are, together. I remembered that it’s not just you and not just me—it’s us. This work of lament and prayer and protest and hope and justice is not just mine or yours, it’s ours.
Walter Brueggemann, who just may be my favorite Old Testament scholar, reassures us that this work is for us. We don’t all need to be protesting in the street, late into the night. Some of us can instead be reading more about our history and how it led us to this place; some of us can be talking to people whose experiences are different from ours, and learning from them; some of us can be reading the lament psalms over and over and over. Brueggemann says that “We can’t expect everybody to be in the same place of radicality, but we can expect the people to be engaged as they are able. We need to grow and deepen our understanding.”
You don’t need to be any sort of professional to do this work. You, as a person of faith, as a child of God, as a person who happens to be in the pews this morning for whatever reason—you have all the qualifications you need. If the scriptures are any indication, “public transformation happened by the courage of uncredentialed people.”
That's you! That’s me! That’s us! We’re called to this, all together. And it can and must look like so many different things. “We have to be engaged on every front because the issue is so urgent and the problems are so complex that there cannot be a single strategy. As we grow in our commitment to racial equality or social justice we have to be very imaginative. We have to find ways that have transformative potential.” What do you imagine would transform the world around you? What do you Imagine that might transform you?
Remember that being Christians has always called us to be counter-cultural. Walter Brueggemann says, too, that “The Gospel is a very dangerous idea. We have to see how much of that dangerous idea we can perform in our own lives. There is nothing innocuous or safe about the Gospel. Jesus did not get crucified because he was a nice man.”
This work of proclaiming the Gospel and lamenting injustice, to which we are called, has never been easy—that’s not about to change. It’s not easy or safe or comfortable to admit complicity in a racist system. It’s not easy or safe or comfortable to watch as violence erupts on our tv screens.
But if all we ever do is watch, how do we expect it to end? How do we expect it to change? A voice cries out in the wilderness “Prepare the way of the Lord!” not “Watch while others prepare the way!”
This is active. There is going to be work. There are going to be tears. There is going to be discomfort. But there is going to be life. The waiting that we’re doing in this Advent season comes to fruition in the birth of the Christ child, just over the horizon.
While you may feel far from Christmas cheer this morning, Advent is a better time than most to dive into this hard work of lament. Sarah Thebarge wrote for Sojourners that “the truth is, we need Christmas more than ever this year — not in spite of injustice but because of it. We need the incarnation of Love in our midst. We need the Prince of Peace to arrive in our world, in our country, in our justice system, in our hearts….This Advent, let’s follow the…star of hope that beckons us from a great distance. Let’s remind each other that, if we don’t give up, we’ll find the Light that darkness cannot overcome.”
Let’s remind each other. Let’s not give up.
A voice says, “cry out!” and we say, “what shall I cry?”