Sermon for Sunday, November 13, 2016
Texts: Isaiah 65: 17-25 and Luke 21:5-19
Preached at Amherst Presbyterian Church, Amherst, VA
Stop me if this sounds familiar: the end of the world happen, and we get two different perspectives. Two different headlines.
Isaiah and Luke are talking about the same thing, more or less; they are talking about the long-promised invasion of God into the realm of ordinary people, what we call the realm of Biblical apocalyptic; but, Isaiah and Luke are on pretty different wavelengths about the thing itself. For Isaiah, this comes to a people living in the shadow of exile, living in the shadow of Babylon, and so this promise, the New Heaven, the New Earth, it’s among the most beautiful, most poignant, most evocative portrayals of apocalyptic anywhere in scripture — “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!” It is the news of the end of time all wrapped up for the folks who are the most eager to hear it.
On the other hand, of course, Luke’s audience isn’t quite so pleased. Or at least they shouldn’t be, not with the promise of violent and vicious imagery that accompanies Jesus’s vision of the days to come. “Not one stone will be left upon another,” he tells the crowds gazing up at the rebuilt Jerusalem temple, and in fact everything has to come crashing down in order for anything to be built: “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom… earthquakes… famines… plagues…” … Arrests and persecution… Betrayals and hatred and death… Jesus’s prophecy to these crowds is earth-shattering and it’s uncomfortable and no wonder that Isaiah and Luke aren’t really running in the same circles. They seem to be getting their news from two totally different sources. They seem to be living in their own little media bubbles. They don’t follow the same people on Twitter. They have few mutual Facebook friends. Facebook’s got them pegged pretty well. Facebook knows what we like.
The Wall Street Journal website has an incisive little tool called Red Feed, Blue Feed. It’s basically an artificial window into Facebook that allows you to see the news feed around any specific event either form the perspective of someone that Facebook identifies as liberal or from someone it identifies as conservative, and since Facebook knows what we like, this stuff is pretty accurate. And as you might expect — or as at least I hope you might expect — the gap between those feeds is almost unbelievable, and I can just imagine it for this one. I would click on “Biblical Apocalypse” and here’s the account in Isaiah, all roses and honey and free housing for everybody, and here’s Luke, with death and destruction raining from on high. You can decide which one of those is liberal and conservative. The whole point of the tool is to shock you, of course, into realizing just how far apart we are, to shock you into realizing, even among friends and neighbors, just how vast the space between our worlds can be.
So the end of the world happens and we get two different perspectives. Or, perhaps more recently, an election happens — you may have heard — and we get two different media accounts. Two different feeds. Two different worlds. Some of you woke up Wednesday morning filled with a dread that the world was now falling apart — not one stone will be left upon another. Others, of course, found your Facebook feeds all full of roses and honey, “no more the sound of weeping.” It is remarkable just how evenly split we are. One political scientist this week observed that the total margin of victory in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania was less than the capacity crowd when Penn State goes to Ann Arbor. With such a narrow electoral college victory, and with the popular vote going the other direction, there’s a way in which this country is not substantially changed from the one it was a week ago. We are divided and we have been. But for those with feeds full of roses and honey, nonetheless, Wednesday morning brought good news, or, as Isaiah says, the “delight of God’s people” indeed.
Now, perhaps there are reasons for delight, regardless of your thoughts on the outcome. A few weeks ago I preached a sermon here called “The Inside-Sickness.” We were talking about Jesus’s parable about the persistent widow, about the need to keep the faith and not lose heart, which is a fancy English translation of a word that means getting the Inside-Sickness, and we talked about the long emotional strain of walking through this campaign season and the cost of living with such virulent and violent rhetoric in our public discourse and the very real possibility that we can all just despair and lose hope and lose heart, and maybe at least now this thing has come to an end. At least now it’s over, and hopefully we can start the reconstructive work that we so desperately need. Hopefully we can breathe. Hopefully we can sleep. Hopefully we can do the work of personal healing and recovery that we need to move forward. That, indeed, would be the delight of God’s people. Or at least it would be the delight of this God’s person.
But before we all pack our bags for a few days at the spa, let’s pause for a moment over this Biblical delight. There’s a Hebrew root here that is translated a bunch of different ways throughout the later parts of the Old Testament, but no matter the context, the consistent use of this “delight” is that it’s not really about personal satisfaction or happiness. It’s something more communal, “Jerusalem as a joy,” Isaiah says. Hosea links it directly to festivals and sabbaths; Jeremiah talks about the “famous city, the joyful town;” delight is what happens when the whole city pours into the streets in celebration. Elsewhere in Isaiah the term is almost musical, it comes with instruments, timbrels, lyres. When the Cubs won game 5 at Wrigley Field and sent the Series back to Cleveland and all across Chicago you could hear the crowd at the stadium singing “Go Cubs Go!,” every voice joined together, tens of thousands projecting into the night air, that’s delight. That’s the delight of God’s people, at least, of God’s Cubs fans. Delight lives in the moments that bring us together.
Delight lives in the moments that bring us together. But if anything this election has pushed us further apart. More to the point, if anything this election has been fueled by rhetoric meant to push us further apart, by rhetoric meant to divide us, to pit us against each other, and in particular to pit us againt communities of color and difference. What we are facing now is the consequence of that division, and it’s not just about Facebook feeds or cable news preferences; now it’s about an eruption of racist and sexual violence even just over the past few days, in our streets, in our schools, in small towns and big cities, all across the map, violent speech and violent action that is fundamentally enabled by the gulf between us, the vast space between our worlds.
In Wellsville, New York, a swastika was painted on the back of a baseball dugout, and, in Durham, North Carolina, the graffiti said “Black Lives Don’t Matter And Neither Does Your Votes.” And this is just the tip of the iceberg. The Southern Poverty Law Center has catalogued literally hundreds of incidents of racially-charged harassment and intimidation since election day. A schoolroom cafeteria breaking into a chant of “Build the Wall” as latino students walk by, middles-schoolers. Drivers harassed in passing, a young Latino man in Austin driving along in a truck when two white men threw garbage into his cab shouting “you are going back to where you came from.” These stories keep going and they keep coming, and there are exceptions, sure, and some are less verifiable than others, sure, and there will be incidents the other direction, sure, but taken as a whole the aggregate picture here is of an eruption of violence and violent speech often in the hands of young white men against women and ethnic minorities. It is epidemic.
And it is here. Even in Charlottesville, where a group of University of Virginia campus safety officers have been suspended after using their car intercoms to taunt a group of young black students early Wednesday morning. Even at Bodo’s, the friendliest bagel sandwich place you’ll ever find, where they’ve reported several incidents of harassment against their own employees “because of their physical attributes.” And if you are thinking to yourself that that’s just Charlottesville and this is Amherst and it can’t happen here please, I promise you, not only can it happen here, but it almost certainly has.
Because this is epidemic. It’s no longer just the Inside-Sickness. As it spills into our communities, as it spills into our classrooms, as whatever toxic combination of hatred and hopelessness whips itself into poison deeds: now, this is the Outside-Sickness. And as long as we have the Outside-Sickness, as long as we are so plagued by the legacies of racism and discrimination, as long as we are so eager to retreat into ourselves and fortify the gulf between us, to dig the trench a little wider, an little deeper, as long as we are committed to this disease, regardless of your thoughts on the electoral outcome, there’s no delight in this moment. Not the delight of God’s people. Not here, not today.
Instead there’s just a call. A call to action. That’s what these apocalyptic texts are, of course: they’re not vision of God’s world yet to come; they’re statements of values. They’re statements of God’s values. This is what God seeks for us. This is what God calls us to build: Jerusalem without the sound of weeping, without the cry of distress. This is who God calls us to be, the delightful people, among whom there is no infant that lives but a few days nor an old person who does not live out a lifetime. This is how God calls us to be, blessed by the Lord, as the wolf and the lamb who feed together. In Isaiah, of course, it’s peaceful and beautiful stuff and impossible-sounding stuff. But never forget the other side of the story. Never forget the power of God who will even tear down buildings to get us there — not one stone left upon another.
This is of course what it means to encounter uncertain, terrifying times with the grace and the sovereignty of God. Not simply that God will put us back together again, not so easily. But that we are empowered. That we are encouraged. That we are engulfed in the flames of the Spirit. That we are engulfed by the waters of our baptism. And that with such a God alive and well and reigning over creation and working through us, through our hands, through our feet, then nothing can separate us, even from each other. This Outside-Sickness, this gap between ourselves, as vast as it may seem, as impassable as it may feel, I promise you, it is as nothing to the grace and the love of God who raised Jesus from the dead. We just have to get to work.
With that in mind, I have homework for you, and for me, too. Homework to help us bridge the gap. Homework to help us find our delight, and God’s delight. Homework to help with the Outside-Sickness. Homework in three parts.
Part 1. We have to say that this outburst of racial violence and violent speech must stop, and it must stop here. Period. If you find yourself in a situation where you are witness to discriminatory or hateful behavior, don’t just stand there. You can interfere. You can interrupt. You can distract. You are baptized children of God and you can stand in the gap. You can’t heal all the wounds right then and there, but you can stop the bleeding for one moment in time. There are lots of good strategies for how to manage these encounters, and if you have questions about what this looks like or what you might do, please come and talk to me.
Part 2. We have to begin to rebuild our relationships, and it may as well start here. If you did not vote for the President-Elect, sit down with someone who did, and try to hear their story. Try to imagine their sympathies and their interests. I’m not asking you to be convinced. I’m asking you to exercise your empathy muscles. And the same goes both ways. If you supported the victor, sit down with someone who did not. Try to imagine their sympathies and their interests. Paul tells the Romans to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. This is hard, hard work – but I wouldn’t give you homework that I didn’t think you could do, with God’s help.
So, part 1: If you see hate speech in action, say something. Part 2: Seek out the story of someone across the aisle, particularly someone who looks different than you do. Which brings us to Part 3, the least tangible, and the most important. Part 3: we have to look deep within. We have to seek out the broken places in our own hearts. You don’t get this sick on the outside without having something wrong on the inside, and yes, I’m talking to myself, but I’m also talking to everybody here. We have to do the hardest work, the work on our own stony hearts, we have to find the rocks within ourselves. But God will not leave one stone upon another.
So it’s like this. You have probably heard the parable of the old Cherokee man who is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he says to the boy. “It’s a terrible fight, between two wolves. One wolf is evil — he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, false pride, superiority, ego.” He continued, “The other is good — he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, compassion, and faith.”
And the grandson though about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather. So, which one wins?
And the answer of course is: whichever one you feed.