Isaiah 2: 1-5 (The Message)
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
November 27, 2016
Earlier this week a colleague of mine who pastors a church in New England posted on Facebook a plea for folks to call the Department of Justice to audit the presidential vote for voter suppression, Russian collusion, and FBI interference. And without really thinking about it, my naïve, desperate, hopeful little heart picked up the phone, followed the instructions in the post, and left a message. After all, this was a trusted friend, a United Church of Christ pastor, whose wisdom I thought was at least, if not more, level-headed than my own. If she posted it, it must be not only a good idea but a legitimate one as well.
But then another friend posted this comment: “To paraphrase my friend who is a former NYC prosecutor. It does not work that way, nor should it. Prosecution should NEVER be a popularity contest. It should be evidence driven, only. Believe me, I'd love to see the Department of Justice investigate. Do you really want a government that will open investigations just because of phone calls? Turn the tables. How would that be?” And then my mind went to people calling the DOJ to investigate their Muslim neighbors, to set up a registry, and I felt like I had had a cup of cold water thrown in my face. Yup, I needed that.
Then one of you hit the nail on the head: “Are you in the bargaining stage of grief?” and I realized that was exactly where I was, where I still am: in grief. The five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance—are not exactly constant or linear; they are the wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff of living and loving and loss. Denial is no longer an option, anger is not sustainable, depression is not a place to stay, bargaining won’t get me anywhere, and I don’t want to get anywhere near acceptance just yet. Yet it seemed I had forgotten I am grieving, and thus, I need to be aware of my emotions and the effect they can have.
I now realize that the dominant emotion I have been feeling—sadness—is reminiscent of the emotions I experienced when my parents divorced. Here were two of the most important people in my life and they couldn’t stand to be in the same room anymore, let alone share a life together. Often they would abuse the other verbally to me, and I wouldn’t say anything out of deference.
The Qur’an says that when someone thinks they are more important than someone else, everything that follows goes bad. It comes from verses that tell the story of God’s creation of Satan as one of the angels, and when God commanded all the angels, including Satan, to bow to Adam, God’s newest creation, Satan would not do it. Satan was made from fire and Adam from clay. Satan thought himself superior to Adam, because fire can destroy clay. And so from then on, Satan held a grudge against God and Adam and all humankind, demanding to be made immortal in order to spend eternity avenging his pride against God and humanity.
It’s just about every relationship story in the Bible: Cain and Abel, Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, Joseph and his brothers, King Saul and David, the prodigal son and his older brother. When someone thinks they are more important than someone else, everything that follows goes bad. When Laban, Jacob’s father-in-law, said to Jacob, “May the Lord watch between me and thee while we are absent, one from the other”, it wasn’t a blessing. Laban said it because he didn’t trust Jacob with his daughters. When Jesus said, “Whenever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them”, it wasn’t a blessing of small gatherings. Jesus said it because when there’s more than one person, there’s bound to be trouble sooner or later, and we’ll need Jesus to keep us honest.
All argument, all conflict, all war is civil war. We may be different nationalities, different ethnic backgrounds, but we’re all of the same race, the human race, made of the same stuff. How is it that we can be so diametrically opposed to one another, if not that at least one of us thinks our point of view or our experience of reality is more right, truer, more important than another. Thomas Hobbes said that war is the natural state of human beings, and there are days we can be convinced that’s true. Stephen Covey wrote in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand. They listen with the intent to reply.”
Put another way, now it seems like it’s better to be right than kind. We see this everywhere in our current social and political climate. Which is why I grieve so, and why it feels like a divorce. Mom and Dad have been fighting about who’s the head of the house. Some of the kids wanted to live with Dad, some wanted to live with Mom, but Dad ended up getting full custody of everyone. Both sides calling names, with sometimes unreasonable, inflammatory accusations, abusing one another, some of us caught in the middle, no one listening or checking all the facts (guilty as charged), and I’d hardly call it replying. It’s been a cold war for a long time now, and none of us have gotten what we really think is fair with many getting not even that.
And so Isaiah reminds us of God’s big picture. We think we’re seeing the big picture, but God always has an even bigger one. While we’re rattling our sabers over who’s going to take the next hill, God wants to know if we’ve got what it takes to climb God’s holy mountain. All nations will river toward it, people from all over will set out for it, like water protectors and militarized police and indigenous people from around the world and white residents from Bismarck and Mandan, clergy of different faith traditions, and people of all stripes on social media, and the Army Corps of Engineers. Trump supporters, Bernie busters, Pantsuit Nation, Libertarian, Green, Independent, conservative and liberal, and everything in between and beyond. We’re all invited. Because none of us is more important than the other in the eyes of God.
God will settle things fairly between the nations. Have you ever seen the graphic illustrating equality and justice? Three people, of differing heights, are trying to watch a baseball game over a fence. Equality has all of them standing on boxes the same size. The shortest person, a child, still can’t see over the fence. Justice has each person standing on a different sized box that allows each of them to see over the wall. Even so, God would say it doesn’t go far enough. The fence is still there. What God is after is restoration, liberation, the Beloved Community—for everyone.
They’ll build their walls into houses and their fences shall give way to green pastures and shared spaces and the kinship of all people. No more shall they request increased funding for border control or build pipelines that they wouldn’t want in their own backyard, near their own watershed. Neither shall they insulate themselves from each other because the divide is too vast, the wounds too deep, and more than hearts broken.
What pulled me out of my grief and restored my hope when my parents divorced, what keeps pulling me forward now in this national divorce is a dream I had when I was a teenager; the dream that called me into ministry, that I’ve shared with you before. A dream about a civil war and a table of reconciliation. A dream in which Jesus promises to suffer with and heal wounds. And then I remembered the pivot of the dream: I had to recognize how Jesus was already working in my life, to look for the better angels within me and around me, and now more than ever.
Gandhi said that the only devils in this world are the ones running around in our own hearts and that is where all our battles should be fought. And yet battle lines are being drawn—even at the extended family holiday table, some areas of our nation more tense than others, retrenching into our enclaves, breaking off relationships in our disposable society.
What if the Church and other faith communities were like repair cafés, a safe place where you could bring what was broken and keep bringing it back until it was repaired? Like courage and hope, our hearts and our spirits, our will toward the good, maybe even a relationship or two? To live in the light of God is to shine that light on ourselves and to hold others in that same light. To not only celebrate God’s Advent light but to be Advent light.