Emmanuel Baptist Church
275 State St. Albany, NY 12210
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|A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation||
Minister: Rev. Kathy J. Donley
When the Unthinkable Happens
Rev. Kathy Donley
Scripture Lesson:Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 21:5-19
The unthinkable has happened. It has only been 5 days since the election, but already we are seeing an escalation in verbal and physical attacks on women, people of color, lesbian, gay and transgendered people, and Muslims. People are afraid of what is already happening and of what the new normal for life in this country might become. Our young people are taking to the streets to protest because this is not the America they were raised to believe in.
And yet, here we are, gathered in worship, coming together, quieting our hearts and minds and yearning to hear a Word from the Lord. We are not the first to feel this way. As we listen for God’s word in this day, we might attend to what God has said to God’s people in earlier times.
First, the people of Isaiah 65. God is speaking to the those who returned from exile in Babylon, but not the ones who saw release from captivity, not the ones who walked the royal highway across the wilderness to return to their homeland. God speaks to their grandchildren, the ones who were born in a post-war Israel, which has never regained its former glory and is now in turmoil. While some people had been carried off into exile, others had been left behind and those who were left behind took over. They resent these newcomers, these immigrants, coming in like they have a right to be here. Recent drought and harsh weather have led to poor harvests and there is hunger and thirst and illness leading to early death. Economic injustice and political unrest prevails.
Two generations earlier, it was unthinkable that the captives would return home, but it happened. What is unthinkable now is that God still cares about them, that God will actually help them. What is unthinkable is the proclamation that God is creating something new. The prophet’s words are beautiful, powerful poetry:
“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; . . . They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. . . . 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; They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.”
What is unimaginable is the promise that no babies will die in infancy, no old people will have to choose between paying for food or paying for medicine. What is unthinkable is the promise that these marginalized people, whose lives have been controlled by others, they will build their own homes and live in them in safety. Their neighborhoods will not be devastated by foreclosures or sub-prime mortgages. Women will bear children in the confidence that they will live to see them grow up and have children and grand-children. No one will snuff them out with gangs or guns or drugs or imprisonment or deportation.
What is unthinkable is that no one and nothing will hurt or destroy; no one and nothing will be hurt or destroyed. And this will happen, God says, because God is creating a new thing.
The verb to create, barah, is only used about God in the Hebrew scriptures. It is a theological statement. Only God can barah; only God can create. Any newness that comes will be God’s creation.
It reminds me of the preaching of my African-American colleagues when they say that God makes a Way out of No Way. Now it is one thing to hear that “God makes a Way out of No Way” after the fact.
After the sea has been crossed,
after the people have returned from exile,
after the abolition of slavery,
after people of color and women get the right to vote,
after the Berlin wall comes down,
after same sex couples enjoy the freedom to marry,
THEN you can see “God did make a Way out of No way.”
But it is quite another to believe it beforehand. When you are on this side of No Way, this side of the unthinkable, it is a different thing entirely to affirm “God will make a Way out of No Way”.
We are not the first to be on this side of No Way. It has happened many times in history. It happened to Jesus’ first followers too. Our reading from Luke 21 comes from early in the week before Jesus would be executed.
What is unthinkable in that conversation is that the Temple could be toppled. This was Herod the Great’s glorious building project, which doubled the size of the temple that had eventually been erected by those who came back from exile. What is unthinkable is that the huge stones would be thrown down, that the magnificent furnishings would be plundered. What is also unthinkable for the disciples, what they have refused to hear when Jesus has talked about it, is that he will be crucified.
By the time that Luke writes his story, his readers know that both of these things have in fact happened. Jesus was executed just a few days after this conversation. The Roman-Jewish War ended when the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem and knocked down and plundered the temple.
When the unthinkable happens, Jesus offers his own life and his presence as a model for what to do. He says, “They will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to the authorities.” Which is what they did to Jesus. And when they do that, Jesus says, “you will have an opportunity to testify.” Which means an opportunity to speak up, to tell the truth, to speak truth to power, to offer resistance to the status quo.
I read something remarkable this week. A Christian leader writing about the election results said this, “Political power – or the illusion of it – has not always been good for us. Such influence has led us to conform our minds to that of the world about what matters, and who matters, in the long-run of history.”
What is remarkable is that the person who wrote that is someone I almost never agree with. That person is Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. I would never have imagined that I would quote him in a sermon. I am not ridiculing him. He and I just see things fundamentally differently, almost all the time. But to be fair to him, you should know that he is one of the few evangelical leaders who spoke early and often against our president-elect as a carrier of Christian values.
He also said, “What can we do now? We can, first of all, maintain a prophetic clarity that is willing to call to repentance everything that is unjust and anti-Christ. . . . We can be the people who tell the truth, whether it helps or hurts our so-called “allies” or our so-called “enemies.” Moreover, no matter what the racial and ethnic divisions in America, we can be churches that demonstrate and embody the reconciliation of the kingdom of God. After all, we are not just part of a coalition but part of a Body—a Body that is white and black and Latino and Asian, male and female, rich and poor. We are part of a Body joined to a Head who is an Aramaic-speaking Middle-easterner.”
Jesus says that when the unthinkable happens, you will have the opportunity to tell the truth. The English translation says “I will you give you words” but the Greek literally means “I will give you mouth.” Walter Brueggemann says, “What a time for truth-telling! As we all know the world is baffled and confused. . . But the mouth that Jesus gives tells the truth that it may be simple and direct and clear. When faithful, the mouth of the church has always been on the side of justice and mercy and compassion and against fear and greed and brutality. . . . And says Jesus to his disciples; if you have courage for truth-telling, you will surely get into trouble.”
In the coming days, we may need to tell the truth and it may get us into trouble. Our reading ends with vs 19, which says “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” That last word, translated souls is the Greek word psyche. Soul is more of a Greek concept than Christian or Jewish one. The Jewish concept is of a self. So we might translate it “By your endurance, you will gain your self.” Or another idea is to translate it life. One of us has a great expression: “That person is living her best life.” And so, we might think of vs 19 like this, “By your endurance, you will express your truest self and you will be living your best life.”
Living my best life sounds great. Endurance sounds like too much, especially standing on this side of No Way, especially just these few days after Tuesday.
Like many of you, I have been discouraged this week. I have felt overwhelmed and daunted and not exactly sure how to endure. And yet somehow, in the midst of all that, I found some encouragement.
One piece comes from Ched Myers. Many of us know of Ched from his study on Sabbath economics which we did together last year. Ched remembers a poster he saw in the 1970’s in the home of peace activists Liz McAlister and Philip Berrigen. The poster said “The most apostolic duty of all is to keep one another’s courage up.” I think that is why we have come here today, to be together and to keep one another’s courage up.
And then there was Carrie Newcomer. Carrie is a Quaker and a singer-songwriter. You have heard her song Room at the Table which we’ve used on World Communion Sunday. Carrie is friends with another Quaker, Parker Palmer, whose writing we used as a basis for journaling last Lent. Carrie said that she asked him “What you do when you’re personally or politically heartbroken?” Parker said sometimes you just have to take sanctuary. Sometimes you just have to rest in the arms of the people who support you, and gather your courage and strength and hope, and remember what you believe in, and then go out and do it again.
From that conversation, Carrie wrote a song called Sanctuary which has come as a gift of healing and encouragement for me this week and so I want to share it with you. Two quick explanations. Sprigs of rosemary – rosemary is a symbol of faithfulness, loyalty and remembering. Towards the end, it says “you can rest here in Brown Chapel.” Brown Chapel AME church was the headquarters of the African-American voting rights movement and the starting point on the Selma-to-Montgomery marches.
Sisters and brothers, can we dare to believe that even now, God is creating a new thing? Even now God will make a Way out of NoWway. Can we also agree in the next days and weeks and months that we will continue to be truth-tellers? Our truth telling will be guided by Jesus’ own life and purpose in the world. And when our truth-telling gets us into trouble with our friends and family and the authorities and our enemies, we will endure. When our hearts are broken, we will take sanctuary and we will be sanctuary for each other, keeping one another’s courage up. We will live our best lives. And we will trust that one day, the unimaginable will happen -- no one will hurt or destroy, no one will be hurt or destroyed in all of God’s good creation. Amen.
 http://www.crivoice.org/othpersia.html#Return from Exile
 Walter Brueggemann, The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann, Volume 2 (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2015) p. 240-241
 As shared in her small studio session on November 1, 2016 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-3mlXzW9lrs&t=946s