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Out of the Closet

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mP9yvrBUxag&feature=youtu.be (Watch the sermon here.)

Isaiah 65:17-25

As most of you know, the Revised Common Lectionary is the three-year cycle of scriptures that many Protestant churches follow throughout the church year. To tell you the truth, some weeks I look at the suggested readings and think, “Really?! That’s the best you got this week?” This week was different. This week I read this passage from Isaiah and thought, “Thank you, Jesus and the devisers of the Revised Common Lectionary!” Because, as luck or providence would have it, this passage is perfect for us this week.

Before I read the scripture, let me give you just a little bit of context. As you know, the Israelites were defeated by the Babylonians and were forced into exile, where many of them lived for more than 50 years. When Babylon was defeated, the Israelites were allowed to return to Judah, though not all of them did. Those who chose to return to their home land came back to destruction and desolation. They looked around at a ruined city, a destroyed temple, and surely asked, “What has become of my country?”

Isaiah 65 is written from God’s point of view and offers these words of comfort:

I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

This passage is from the last part of the book of Isaiah, what scholars call Third Isaiah. It reflects “a time when the people of Judah are divided and somewhat cynical about their prospects. There is hardship in the land all around them; their lives are difficult. Their resentment of other nations is strong because of their experience in exile.”[1] In response this passage presents a vision of a transformed environment, a transformed world, with “peoples, habitations, and nature all woven into a complex relationship of wholeness.”[2] This passages “describes radical transformation of living conditions in the new Jerusalem, including low infant mortality, housing and food for all citizens, and sustainable employment.”[3]

God or the prophet Isaiah, is saying: Even in the midst of this uncertainty, even as I look around and don’t recognize my country, “I can see a community where young people aren’t cut down in the prime of life, where a mother won’t have to fear that her baby will die of malnutrition or some easily correctible disease; I see a society in which people’s labor actually comes to fruition, where workers aren’t discarded like trash at a moment’s notice. It seems that I can see neighborhoods, not with empty houses and boarded windows, but homes filled with the sounds of children.”[4] In the middle of their turmoil and despair, God offers life and liberty, shelter and safety. God promises to create a new world. For them and for us.

But here’s the thing: God is not a solo creator. God is not a Lone Ranger style of designer. Time and time again, we have seen that God believes in co-creation, which means we have to be part of the process. We have to be the ones who do the work on the ground.

This has been a hard week in our country, regardless of who you voted for. The divisions within our country have never been clearer, and the results have seldom been more frightening. I know that some of you are nervous about our country, and I know that some of you are nervous about this sermon!

So first I want to address those who voted for Donald Trump. As people talk about the deep divisions within our country, they often use the phrase “two Americas.” I want to say right now that we do not and will not have “two First Congregationals.” We are one church, regardless of how you voted.

Now, I have never before been clear with a congregation about how I voted. They may have guessed, but I never made any statements. This year was different, and I’m guessing there is little doubt in your mind about how I cast my vote. Some of you may have even seen a sign in my yard. (For the record, I only own half the yard—the sign was in my wife’s half! I’m joking, but I do not ask her to silence herself because of my job and calling. I don’t agree with everything she posts on Facebook, either.)

But because you may have guessed how I voted, I need for you to know—not guess, but know—that I am your pastor regardless of your vote or mine. And I want you to know that I know—I know deep in my heart—that you did not vote for racism. I know you did not vote for Trump because he wants to make Muslims register like the Jews did in Nazi Germany. I know you did note vote for him because you think whites are superior, or because you like his attitudes toward women. You voted for him in spite of these things. But some people did vote for him for those very reasons. Some people voted for him because they think he will ban Muslims and because they think he will promote white supremacy. And they are hijacking your vote. They are now claiming that nearly half of American voters agree with them, and so they have become bold. Bigotry is out of the closet because they think that the majority of people agree with hate. I know that is not why you voted for Donald Trump, but they don’t know that, and they are hijacking your vote. Don’t let them. Don’t let them believe it. Don’t let your new President-elect believe it. Demand that he denounce the hate groups that are claiming his victory as theirs. Hold him to the best of his promises, not the meanest.

I also ask for your patience with those who are grieving and fearful. People on the margins were already worried about what a Trump/Pence presidency might mean for our marriages, our civil rights, or our health insurance. But with the violence that has been unleashed, many people are now fearful for their safety, even their lives. Be patient with us and please don’t ask us to put our differences behind us and move forward. It’s not that easy.

Now, those of you who voted for Clinton or a third party candidate: don’t think this isn’t on us, too. We ignored the plight of disenfranchised lower-income white voters and failed to recognize the depth of their pain. We didn’t really believe our African American fellow citizens when they told us how bad the racism is in our country. We let ourselves be fooled into believing that because it’s no longer socially acceptable, racism is rare. It isn’t. Neither is misogyny.

This is not pleasant, but we all need to know what is happening around us. Since Wednesday, hate crimes have exploded across our country—the experts say over 200 acts of election-related hate and intimidation occurred in the three days after the election. KKK rallies have sprung up celebrating the election results. Middle schools and high schools are reporting swastikas and white supremacy graffiti. In Michigan, middle school students chanted “Build the wall” to Latino students in the cafeteria. Black freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania were added to a “Daily Lynching” hate group on Facebook. In Spokane, Washington, “Kill the Jews” was written on a woman’s car. In Los Angeles, a substitute teacher intimidated an eleven-year-old child with deportation threats, telling them “You were born here, but your parents weren’t so they’ll be deported and you’ll be put in foster care.” The teacher even said, “We know where you live, honey.” Women in hijabs are being attacked, their scarves ripped from their heads, one woman even being told to wrap it around her neck and hang herself with it. Gay, lesbian, and transgender folks have been attacked and beaten. Girls as young as ten years old are being grabbed in the crotch at school because, and I quote, “If the president can do it, I can, too.” Transgender people are being told to pack an emergency bag in case they need to leave home in a hurry because of vandalism or attack.

And don’t think it isn’t happening here. An immigrant or refugee student at South Portland High School was told on Wednesday to go back where they came from. A lesbian couple a few blocks from here got a nasty note on their doorstep Wednesday morning. An organizing meeting for this weekend was cancelled because the organizer started getting threats. And a black man claims to have been assaulted in South Portland on Friday by three white assailants yelling “Go back to your country” and “Trump.”

Of course, there is violence on the other side, too. Although the vast majority of protestors have marched peacefully, some of the protests have been marred by a small group of people vandalizing property and threatening others, and there have been a few cases reported of people of color attacking Trump supporters. We must condemn all violence.

Bigotry has come out of the closet. Hatred has come out of hiding. That means we have to come out of hiding, too. People of faith have to come out of hiding and take a stand. People of faith must publicly declare that racism is unacceptable. Christians must publicly declare that people of all religions are welcome and safe in this country. Christians must publicly and repeatedly declare that gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex people are all created in God’s image. It’s on us. It is our responsibility. It is our calling.

So what does that mean? What do we do? Here are a few ideas:

1)     We need to put up signs out front that declare our support for all people. We need to make public statements. Again.

2)     We all need to commit to standing up if we hear hateful speech and especially if we witness hateful actions. We cannot let such things slide, out of embarrassment or even fear.

3)     We need to refrain from telling people in marginalized groups that it’s going to be alright. You can’t guarantee it. We may believe that eventually it will be OK, but in the meantime it may be very not OK, and we need to know you have our backs. Instead of saying “It’s going to be alright,” say “I am with you.”

4)     Do not call for us all to bury our differences and just get along. People in danger do not need to hear that you’ll get along with them. They need to hear what you’re going to do to keep them safe.

5)     Don’t overlook the easy ways of showing support—warm smiles and friendliness to strangers, warm hugs to those we know who might need them. In addition to the stories of violence and hate, we have heard healing stories about strangers comforting one another and standing up for one another.

6)     Having said that, this is not the time to rely only on a quiet witness. This is not the time for a simple “being kind to others” form of Christianity. We are being called to be braver than we have ever been, or at least braver than we’ve been in decades.

The Old South Church in Boston, one of our most historic UCC churches, put out this statement.

What is our role, Christians? This:

To be light and salt wherever we go.  To protect and defend the vulnerable.  To comport ourselves with both courage and kindness.  To be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.  To pray for our leaders and our nation, while bending NO knee to any earthy potentate.  To break the law when and if the law becomes insupportable.  To read our Bibles and hew to the ancient ethic of welcoming the stranger, for we were once strangers ourselves.  To love God who authored our diversities and proclaimed them good.  To honor the Prince of Peace by redoubling our commitment to the One who has broken down the dividing wall of hostility.  To defend those who have been called out, ridiculed, and threatened: persons with disabilities, Muslims, immigrants, women, LGBTQ folk.  To remember the plight of those middle- and working-class people whose economic suffering is real and whom globalism and technology have left in the dust and rust of the industrial past.  To speak the truth that persons of color are disproportionately subject to mass incarceration, racial profiling, poor schools, and environmental racism. On behalf of the liberating Gospel of Jesus Christ, we have a role to play and work that we cannot shirk.

Bow your heads and roll up your sleeves, Christians.  Let us get on with it.

 

To this I say a fervent Amen. Bow your heads and roll up your sleeves.

Today is Consecration Sunday, and usually on Consecration Sunday we have someone who gives the Stewardship Moment—someone who will tell why they give to the church. As this week neared I had trouble figuring out who to ask to fill this role, and now I know why. First, because nobody else would want to do it today! But more importantly, because I’m the one who should be speaking. You see, I give as much as I can to the church because I know how important it is that we exist. The world needs us. The world needs us to be strong and vibrant. The world needs us to help feed the hungry and provide for those in need. More than ever, the world needs us to be relevant.

We can be none of these things if we cannot pay our bills. And to pay our bills, we all have to give our share. So I ask you to look at your pledge card, or at least to think about the amount you wrote down. And I want you to ask: Is this my best? If it is, if that is as much as you can give, thank you! If it isn’t, if you can do more, or if it doesn’t truly reflect your faith in our role in the community, then I ask you to increase it. The world needs us. The world needs you.

The bulletin says that after the sermon there will be a Ritual of Consecration. I changed my mind about how we’re handling that. I won’t be asking you to come forward during the service to bring your pledge. I’m going to ask you to bring your pledge forward after church because I want you to think about making another pledge.

Ushers, please start passing out the other pledge cards I gave you. You’re not going to get off the hook with just a financial pledge this morning. I’m asking you to make another kind of pledge: a pledge to counter the hate, a pledge to come out of hiding and be an advocate. But I know that such a pledge takes time to consider. It would be false if everybody just signed what I handed out. So this new pledge card has a couple of things to get you started: I pledge to stand up for those on the margins of society. I pledge to not be silent in the face of hate. I pledge to fight discrimination in all its forms. Then it gives you space to add your own pledges, and a place to put specifics of how you will do this.

If you are ready to make a commitment, you can put your pledge card on the worship table when you leave church this morning. If you need time to think about it, to figure out exactly what you want to promise, you can bring it back in the weeks to come. Please do bring them back because I’m going to post these somewhere—I’m not sure where yet, but there will be a wall where anyone who walks into our building will see our personal commitments, as well as our commitment as a church. I am asking you to consecrate yourself, to dedicate your actions, to furthering God’s love in the world.

My son taught me something this week. As you know, children learn new words by their context, and if they only hear a word in one context, it can give them an incomplete understanding of the word. Friday Joshua asked me, “Mama, do you know what survive means?” I said, “Yes, it means to live.” He said, “No, it means that something is broken and you have to fix every piece you find.”

That’s our country. It is broken, and we need to fix every piece we find. That’s how we will survive. How all of us will survive.

Our scripture today says that God will create a new heaven and a new earth. We are co-creators with God. We will help create this new world, to transform this world into one of justice, where the lamb will be safe with the wolf, and all God’s children will live in peace.

As our hymn of response, I invite you to sing with me “O for a world where everyone respects each other’s ways.” Let us sing it not as a wishful “oh wouldn’t it be nice” song. Let us sing it because we promise to create it.

This will take courage, but God gives us courage. This will take strength, but God gives us strength. This will take both a sense of purpose and power, and God has given us both. And God has given us each other, so we are not in this alone. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] Rivera, Nelson. Feasting on the Word Year C, Volume 4, p. 292.

[2] Rivera, Nelson. Feasting on the Word Year C, Volume 4, p. 290

[3] Johns, Mary Eleanor. Feasting on the Word Year C, Volume 4, p. 292.

[4] Lischer, Richard. “Your future is too small.” https://www.faithandleadership.com/sermons/your-future-too-small

 

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