Last week our Advent gospel included the words of Jesus: KEEP AWAKE! I believe that many people woke up this week when Eric Garner’s murderers were not indicted. Many people shook off the weight of despair or apathy and found themselves on fire with moral outrage.
People shook off the weight of whyareyousurprisedwhatdidyouexpect and victimblaming and wedon’thaveallthefacts and picked up the mantle of #Blacklivesmatter which should not require the explanation that of course all lives matter but that black lives clearly do not matter to those sitting on many juries and grand juries in our country, at least not as much as white power and control matter, and so the lie which is perpetrated in our courts and prisons (not always not by everyone but by too many and too often and too systematically) needs to be contradicted by voices that say outloud and clearly and persistently that #Blacklivesmatter.
The numbers of people protesting here in NYC and in Ferguson and around the nation is a sign of people rousing themselves from business as usual. Of waking up. But waking up is one thing, keeping awake, as Jesus calls us to do, is another. We wake up. Then what? What does it mean to keep awake? To sustain wakefulness?
Isaiah has come to church to help us this morning. Let’s listen to his voice anew.
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Ferguson, to Cleveland, 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? All people are fragile; their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of God blows upon it. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. But the breathe of God infuses hope and rises in communities where truth cannot be suffocated.
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.” (re-told by Timothy Wotring)
Isaiah first wrote to a group of Jews who had been uprooted from their homeland and taken away to Babylon where they are forced to live under an alien regime and to accept it’s notions of reality as if their own reality is not real. But Isaiah also wrote for us. His words will sound familiar to many people, particularly those who live under authorities that do not see reality in a way that corresponds to their reality.
Many of those who benefit from the unjust systems in place may mean well and be in fact, quite nice. Listen to the anti-racism activist and writer Tim Wise: Their niceness, however real it may be in some abstract sense, means nothing. It will neither bring Eric Garner back nor prevent the deaths of more just like him. So too, I suspect there may be at least a few nice white folks on that grand jury …for instance, who have nursed a wounded bird back to health or taken soup to a shut-in. But from this possibility, we are supposed to conclude what, exactly? Perhaps only this: that nice people can watch cold blooded murder on video—and still see nothing at all in the way of a crime. Clearly whatever part of the brain controls niceness is not remotely connected to one’s optic nerve.
Isaiah’s people lived in the midst of this insanity too and so did he. The exiled Jews he lived among had given up hope. Isaiah cites their pain: The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me. (Is.49:14) My way is hid from the Lord and my right is disregarded by my God. (Is.40: 27) These are the cries of people who feel that no one has their back. Not even God.
Isaiah’s word begins with God calling a heavenly court, a heavenly grand jury, to overturn the perverse decisions that have come down. “Comfort, O comfort my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that her sentence of injustice is upended. Undone. Liberation is at hand.”
Then Isaiah gives us a poetic image for the way forward. “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Isaiah speaks of a divine highway construction program that will level mountains and raise up valleys. Uneven ground will be made even. Rough places will be smoothed out. In other words, for this new exodus through the wilderness, major structural changes are required. The dismantling of uneven structures, which all racist structures are, is required.
Some of us want to call for the New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to automatically appoint a Special Prosecutor to investigate and prosecute all excessive force and wrongful death cases by police officers, and in particular, to immediately appoint a Special Prosecutor in the wrongful death of Eric Garner. Some say this is impossible.
Is it written in stone that this cannot be? Not according to Isaiah. Not for a God who moves mountains.
+Some of us are demanding that the City and State of New York draft legislation making the chokehold illegal (not just banned as protocol) with significant penalties for any officer who uses it.
+Some are demanding NYC create an NYPD Training Program – modeled on San Antonio’s successful Crisis Intervention Training- to eliminate racial disparity and police brutality.
+Some are demanding a Civilian Review Board to provide oversight and recommendations in cases of racial-profiling and police brutality; and a Borough Task Force, that trains community policing groups in the five boroughs.
Are these things impossible? Not according to Isaiah! Not for a God brings down mountains and lifts the valleys and smoothes over the rough places and levels the playing field so that the words liberty and justice for all are for real.
Then says Isaiah the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. And ALL people shall see it together. The optic nerve and the part of the brain that makes judgments will be reconnected. All people will see the truth and the truth will set us free. Even though, in the words of Gloria Steinem: “The truth will set you free, but first it will really piss you off”
The truth always pisses off those who will find themselves divinely leveled because of it. Those who stand on the mountain top and don’t want to be brought down. When Isaiah says that All people are grass, the grass withers, the flower fades but the word of God will stand forever. Those are fighting words, insulting words for those who wield their privilege like a baton and use their power like a chokehold, but for others, those words bring sweet relief. The baton will wither, the power to choke and crush will fade away. But the Word of God, the Word that breathes life into crushed lungs and broken hearts, that Word will never fade.
Where does all this leave us? After telling us that God’s word endures forever, Isaiah says that WE are the ones who are called to lift our voices with strength, without fear, and to show our bloodied cities with their cavernous divides between races and classes that God is here and will lead us forward. God IS here.
Here, where young people of many races are leading the way in the streets. Here, where elders are cheering them on and joining them to the extent that aging, aching joints allow. Here where teachers and parents continue to bless and love their children, showing them that all colors are beloved by God. Here where people of every shade and hue sing and pray and listen and work together. Here is your God! Here where Jews on the Upper West Side march and sing Shiva for a murdered black brother. Here where 150 Union Seminary students rallied in protest at Foley Square and many were arrested. Here in law offices working to overturn lethal legal fictions. Here is your God. Right where you thought was only unbearable loss, right where you thought was only injustice, here is your God! Here, in the midst of a chokehold, here is your God choking on a cross. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.
All flesh is grass, says Isaiah. The grass withers, the flower fades, yet here in the withered grass, in the straw of a manger, here is your God! Not in flexed muscles that choke life but in the tiny arms of a newborn babe, here is your God! … where our deepest human question tears through the flesh of Jesus himself: My God my God why have you abandoned me? Here is your God!…where the shoot of Jesse was uprooted and the Rose of Sharon withered and the flower of glory in the eyes of a mother’s son faded.. the Word of our God will stand forever.
Jesus stood up to read and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written… the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim God’s jubilee.
This Advent jubilee journey we find ourselves on is a long one that includes loud, relentless shouts in the streets, and soft whispers of faithful love. Comfort, O Comfort my people says your God. The word comfort comes from con forte or strength together. Only together we can be strong. Only together we can remain vigilant and awake. Only together we can find hope for the way forward.
Together does not mean that we all do the same thing. Some will protest. Some will care for the protestors. Some will teach. Some will write. Some will pray ferocious prayers. Some will listen to the pain of others. Listen and learn with humility. Some will organize. Some will nurse and nurture children for a new day. Some will simply use every bit of energy they have to keep on keeping on in a world that doesn’t care. And that itself is a powerful a testimony to the power of God who raises up the valleys and cares for every single blade of grass.
But each of us is called be awake, to be vigilant, to do nothing that calls into question the essential belovedness of the other, especially the essential belovedness of those who experience a daily barrage of indications that they do not really matter. That their dear children can be murdered with impunity. Keep awake. What you do with the dear life you still have matters.
We’ve come this far by faith,
leaning on the Lord;
trusting in God’s holy word,
God’s never failed us yet…