Isaiah 49:1-7 John 1:29-42 Russell Eidmann-Hicks
Hunter Camp, a seminarian, wrote this in the Christian Century about tensions that pulled at his heart on a trip overseas: “My seminary group drove into the Hungarian countryside, which was not breathtaking, and stopped at an orphanage. The reality of the children’s home shattered any idyllic images we might have conjured. Unpainted cement buildings with brown stains stood upon bare grounds with rivulets of muddy water. Over the entrance was an arch that read, in Hungarian, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” (Isa. 49:15)
A plump nurse led us through a labyrinth of dimly lit hallways and sparsely decorated rooms. I tasted bile rising in my throat. A sense of powerlessness pervaded the room where we stopped. I walked away from my group and looked inside one of the cribs. What greeted me was not a cherub-faced orphan with a smile. Rather, it was a child whose body looked like a twisted tree branch or a 50-car pile-up. His dark eyes met mine, and he did not blink. I was stunned by the great abnormalities of his body, the absurdity of his form.
I pushed through my initial horror and reached for his little frail hand. The boy held my finger with great resolve, as if he were gripping a lifeline. I tried gracefully to unhinge my hand from his cold, dry fingers. But he would not let go. I tugged hard and ripped myself free. He began flopping around in his crib, coming to rest on his right side. Out of the corner of his left eye he stared at me. His face was wet with saliva and green mucus. I wanted to do something for this child to relieve him of his misery – but I did nothing.
Six hours later I walked with my group into the Budapest Opera House to hear Mozart played by the nimble, controlled hands of Russia’s preeminent violinist. The music was dazzling, and I felt drunk with the brilliance of humanity. Surrounded by the grandeur of the baroque architecture and the sublimity of the symphony. I luxuriated in the power that comes from privilege. Intermission arrived, and we made our way to a semi-private room with curtains woven of crushed velvet, the color of blood. On the table before us was a feast of caviar, lox, Brie, dainty sweets, and champagne. I, along with my fellow seminarians, carried on with great liberality, our glasses singing as the crystal touched. Each of us drank deeply that evening, trying to forget our morning, or maybe our lives.
Following intermission, I returned to my seat and contemplated the future of the boy who’d held my finger. I thought of how the twisted little frame would never stand in a semi-private room clutching a crystal glass. I listened to the symphony, and it beat my theology senseless. I remembered Isaiah’s words, hoping that they were true; hoping that God does not forget the powerless or judge the powerful without mercy.”
In my position as pastor, I often feel torn, as this seminarian was torn, between experiencing the sorrows and agonies of those I meet, and a life of comfort and affluence. Maybe you feel this way too. Like the seminarian, many of the painful situations I find myself confronted with are things I cannot change: the death of a loved one, chronic illness or old age, loss of a job, depression, broken relationships, or inequality. I meet and pray with people, and feel I am helping by showing up and offering God’s love and care. But usually I can’t make it better, like the poor orphan in the story. And then I go to a party or a concert or out to dinner, and still feel the tug of those whose lives are crushed by chronic illness or grief or poverty. The tension never goes away. I trust and pray that God’s spirit is working to bring healing and justice.
What tears me up day after day is the realization that injustice and greed and power overshadow and distort so much of life around us. It galls me to realize how unjust and cruel so many situations are. Time and time again injustice is revealed: unequal rates of imprisonment based on race and wealth, some groups targeted and rejected while others protected, invisible privilege that destines some to poverty and insecurity and some to wealth and safety. We each have our different perspectives. We live within the tension.
I met this past week with a young man, whom some of you have met here in worship, named Everett. He is facing this wintertime with failing health, depression, confusion, severe arthritis, and the threat of homeless as his motel owner is moving to have him evicted. He described the environment in which he lives as ‘emptiness with no heart or soul.’ Even though he has severe medical issues, mental illness, extreme poverty and more; he is routinely turned away, without recourse when seeking assistance from social service agencies. Our church has helped him sporadically and minimally, but there is little substantial we can do. We can’t stop him from losing his housing and ending up on the street; we can’t get hospitals to change their policies to treat his chronic mental illness; we can’t stop the bullying he is facing day after day on the streets near his home. Like the seminarian in the story; I feel the tension every day between those who are treated unjustly and those who are not.
What I admire enormously about Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is that he felt similarly about the tension in our society of injustice and inequality, and he acted. Time and time again he saw people he loved and respected, good people, church people, slandered and discriminated against, beat up and spit upon. It must have worn a hole in his heart. But he kept fighting on, kept speaking out, kept confronting the powerful and the privileged with a vison of equal rights and equal treatment, enshrined not only in our constitution, but in the bible.
Martin Luther King Jr. was certainly one of the prophets of our age, and we celebrate him this week. But we need to be careful not to allow our honoring of him to dull the edge of his message, or to allow us to ignore the ongoing injustices and inequalities that are still rampant in our age. Parker Palmer writes: “Avoid the bad habit of domesticating the prophet of your choice, turning him or her into a cheerleader for your way of thinking and way of life. Remember that all the great prophet were courageous and outrageous folks who railed against the powers-that-be, challenged self-satisfied positions, threatened the prevailing social order, and would find you falling short in some significant ways.”
As we celebrate his birthday, it is easy to forget that in his day, in his own country, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was considered a dangerous troublemaker. King was harassed by the FBI and vilified in the media. The establishment’s campaign to denigrate King worked. In August 1966 — as King was bringing his civil rights campaign to Northern cities to address poverty, slums, housing segregation and bank lending discrimination — the Gallup Poll found that 63 percent of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of King, compared with 33 percent who viewed him favorably. He was slandered and surveilled and stalked by law enforcement and others. His fight was not only against racial injustice, it was also with economic inequality. He spoke out against the War in Vietnam and the military expenditures that skewed our nation’s budgets toward bombs and not bread. He stood up to the simmering hatred and violence of Jim Crow, that are still with us today. And because of this, he paid a price in blood.
Christopher Hitchens wrote: “We can always be sure of one thing – that the messengers of discomfort and sacrifice will be stoned and pelted by those who wish to preserve at all costs their own contentment. This is not a lesson that is confined to the Testaments.”
Prophets rise up to speak for those who are silenced and trampled on by the powers that be. This continues – and needs to continue – as we strive to live up to the values and vision of the faith that we follow. It is not easy in any age. But it is vitally important that the voice of the prophets continues to ring out in our day and at this moment.
Hate crimes and hate speech have gone up dramatically in the last several months. Core biblical values are being scoffed at, such as respect for human dignity based on whether someone is an immigrant, a Muslim, or brown skinned, or gay, or a woman, or disabled, or poor. White supremacist cults are gaining strength, as are those emboldened to attack minorities. The most vulnerable in our wealthy nation – the poorest of the poor, the chronically ill, the mentally ill, the unemployed, religious minorities, are terrified about what is approaching. As people of faith, as followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to claim our prophetic voice, to stand with those who are threatened as changes unfold.
In the suffering servant passage from Isaiah today, we hear a clear description of what it means to be a biblical prophet. God enables and empowers prophets – gifting them with words that have God’s potency and cutting edge. “God made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away.” (Isa 49:3) The prophet has the power to speak to rulers: princes and kings, to those in power, offering them truth; while giving the people hope and a vision of a future of provision, justice, and peace.
Amos, who confronted rulers in Israel in about 750BC wrote this about worship and the centrality of justice for orphans, widows and foreigners.
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Modern day prophets take up the mantle of the biblical leaders. They speak up for those who are impoverished, imprisoned or unjustly punished. Modern prophets confront corporations that pollute or threaten the health of the planet. They stand up for civil rights for those who are targeted or abused. They refuse to allow the strong and wealthy to dominate the powerless.
I know that we come from differing places politically within this congregation; I know we vote in different ways. Much of our politics is differing notions of how to get something done – like caring for the poor, or providing medical care, or dealing with economic stability. But I know and trust that we agree on bedrock spiritual and biblical concerns of human dignity and equality, caring for those who are disabled or impoverished, lending a hand to create communities of compassion, health and sharing. This is the common ground we stand upon as we move into 2017. This is our common path as we follow the prophetic call of our Savior. We follow the one who said that compassion is the heart of our faithfulness. So we stand in the tension and promise of this love together, and support each other, united in love.
Let me leave you with the words of Shane Claiborne, a young man who lives in a Christian community in the heart of inner-city Philadelphia: “It’s time to reclaim our unique identity as followers of Jesus. It’s time to recommit ourselves to the ones Jesus named as particularly blessed in his Sermon on the Mount: the poor, the meek, the merciful, those who mourn, the pure in heart, the peacemakers. According to Jesus, God blesses the very antithesis of many of the things America has come to stand for: prosperity, pride, and power. The prophets of the Hebrew scriptures would undoubtedly name what we have become as ‘idolatry.’ We’ve made idols out of wealth, fame, power, and whiteness.” Prophetic words for a prophetic time. Amen.