by Ellen Sims
texts: Isaiah 65:17-25, Luke 21:5-10
I know we’re up to our eyeballs in election analysis and emotional responses. And the last thing you want me to do today is revisit those themes. But once again the lectionary uncannily assigned us scriptures that seem to comment on the preceding week’s events. It was a week of change portending more change–maybe, many fear, change of biblical proportion. Some Americans are anticipating the change in the White House and wondering, “How well can our next president fulfill his campaign promises?” Others (many in our congregation) are fearfully worrying, “How bad will things get?” Our future may seem very different today than we’d imagined it just last week. But we really don’t know yet how different things will get. Prophecies by the media and our friends range from Utopia to the Apocalypse. Prophecy happens to be the genre of today’s major texts from scripture.
The biblical prophets weren’t really the fortunetelling kind. Rather than predicting the future, the Hebrew prophets critiqued the present. And sometimes they critiqued the present by saying, “If we keep doing this, we’re going to face these consequences.” They were reading the signs of the times, not tea leaves or animal entrails. Continuing in the radical tradition of Moses, Prophet Isaiah—and Prophet Jesus some 500 years later—not only critiqued oppressive empires but also held out a “an alternative perception of reality” by “penetrating the people’s despair so that new futures [could] be believed in and embraced.” (Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, 117.)
Look at the Isaiah passage again. What part of the poetically-described new Jerusalem sparks your imagination or touches your heart? (HEAR RESPONSES.)
Of course, a people must face into and “lament the death of the old worlds” before they can “be amazed at” and lured into “new futures” (Brueggemann 118). Remember that Isaiah was writing for the exiles who’d been carried off to captivity in Babylon after Jerusalem was decimated and the Temple destroyed. Only after deep lament in which they relinquished their life in Jerusalem could they “receive in doxology the new world” (117). Grief is the language of prophetic criticism. But it can make way for praise, a conduit for hopeful energy. If you and I are glimpsing an America that is grimmer than we’d thought, maybe that realization is the very way we can move toward a more just world. Maybe if we can recognize that our political system is broken, we have a chance of fixing it.
Who are OUR prophets today? Who, in the words of a song we just sang, shows us how to “say no to a life we hold dear and yes to a future we fear”? Who helps us “grieve what we cling to and know we must leave”—things like “power and privilege and pride in one’s kind with little or no care for those left behind” (William Flanders, “Where Are the Prophets?” (HEAR RESPONSES)
Maybe prophets today include songwriters and poets—like William Flanders, who composed two of today’s hymns? And Leonard Cohen, who died this week and for whom we gave thanks by singing the chorus of his “Hallelujah”? And maybe, American prophetic truthtelling sometimes happens in sharply satiric comedy. Like a skit on SNL last night that skewered white affluent liberals for naiveté about racism and that exposed their own prejudices as they complained about others’ racism.
In the skit Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock play the only two African Americans at an election party that starts with the white guests smugly confident of Hillary Clinton’s victory. As the hours pass and more states are called for Trump, the whites reveal their ignorance of the world outside their privileged existence. For instance, when Kentucky is called for Trump, one person assures the others, “Well, that’s OK because that’s where all the racists live.” “ALL the racists live there?” asks Dave Chappelle’s character, eye brows raised. More time passes and election results increasingly trend more toward Trump as the supporters go from cocky to shocked. All the while they reveal their own prejudices by stereotyping Republicans and making their own experiences and culture the measure of all things. When the election is finally called in Trump’s favor, one white woman has this stunned epiphany: “O my God, I think America is racist.” “O my God,” echoes Dave Chapelle, as he and Chris Rock mock her cluelessness. Chappelle deadpans: “Yeh, I think my great grandfather told me something about that. He was like a slave or something that like.” One of the women, incredulous that Hillary didn’t win, asks the room, “Do you even know what it’s like to be a woman in this country and you can’t get ahead no matter what you do?” The two black men laugh and Chapelle seems to think hard: “Mmm. I’ll need to put on my thinking cap and get back with you on that one.” The final line in the skit is from a white male assessing Trump’s win: “This is the most shameful thing America has ever done.” Laughter shared between Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock close the bit.
Here’s why that skit was so powerful to me. I think some of my own thoughts on Tuesday night were uncomfortably close to some expressed by the stunned white people in skit.
I’m thankful we have prophets among us today: Dave Chappelle. Leonard Cohen. You could name others who critique your worldview and expose your ugly innards, who startle you into seeing the fissures in your world and ready you for the possibility that that world is spitting open and who prepare you, in the wrenching process, for a new world that is possible.
But a prophetic vision is worthless unless we do something in response. One possible prophet this week suggested we respond to a prophet vision . . . with a safety pin.
The biblical prophets used objects as symbols. Jeremiah, for instance, bought a clay jar and smashed it before the people of Jerusalem to symbolize the destruction that would await them. And just this week, someone created a new symbol from . . . a safety pin. One problem with symbols is that not everyone can agree on their interpretation. The safety pin is said to signal that the wearer is “safe”—someone whom vulnerable people can safely approach and depend on for support. LGBT folks, for instance, or Muslims, might be able to spot a kind ally who’s wearing a safety pin on their lapel. The safety-pin movement assumes that our culture is even less safe for certain people now that Donald Trump is president-elect. You can go to my Facebook page to see a range of opinions I received yesterday about this new symbol and the possible impact of wearing it. The comments illustrate how complicated even a simple gesture of support can be. One concern some express is that people will wear a trendy symbol without actively engaging in change, but I brought some safety pins today for anyone who wants to wear one in the spirit of reassuring folks on the margins that they are not alone and committing to be a force for kindness and inclusion for all. Because our actions must go beyond the symbolic.
The prophet’s aim is always to activate the people. We’ll never find a pure symbol. Nor a perfect leader, nor a flawless plan. But we will do our best and not give up. In today’s Gospel text, Jesus’s message to his followers—after he describes the trials they’ll face—is to keep on keeping on or as our own Jerry P. reminds us, “Keep the faith.”
Today’s Gospel reading situates Jesus inside the second Jerusalem Temple, rebuilt just as Isaiah had promised it would be. While some are admiring its grandeur, Jesus tells them that the glorious rebuilt Temple will be destroyed. Their greatest symbol of hope—will be dashed again. And Jesus heaps on other dire predictions culminating in this sad but relatable detail: “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends” (Luke 21:16).
Has anyone here not felt a little “betrayed by a friend or relative” during this election season? Anyone make it through without feeling at odds with the politics of someone you really love? When we experience a real sea change in culture, it’s not just the public institutions, as represented by the Temple, that can collapse; it’s also relationships and relatedness itself.
After our rough and still rancorous election season, I would like to give you a BIG ol’ slice of hope today. But there’s only a sliver in today’s readings. The pairing of our texts tells you indirectly that the rebuilding of Isaiah’s demolished Temple was followed by a second destruction of the Temple (in 70 CE). And that Jesus himself will, as the embodiment of the Temple, also be bodily destroyed. Here’s our meager hope for today: “By your endurance you will gain your souls” (Luke 22: 19).
We can endure in the waning of one life and the waxing of another because enduring doesn’t require us to figure out all life’s questions—we just need to persevere with hope and love. We can endure hopefully during uncertainty and anxiety because we have seen the eternal pattern of old giving way to new, of grief yielding eventually to joy. We can endure because we are not alone. When my spirit flags, you buoy me up. When you are ready to quit, I’ll encourage you. We as a faith community can endure because even churches—especially churches—are sites for resurrection, are equipped for truthtelling that is prophetic and forgiveness that is transformative. We will endure, despite the predictions that the Church today is dying a fast death because we know the Church of Christ is still Church even as it evolves. We can endure because we don’t have to turn the whole world upside to effect some change for the good; we can, in the words of our last song, pursue “goals that, in our lifetime can never be achieved” because “all our best achievements bear other names” of those who came before or will come after us (Flanders, “We By Hope Are Saved”).
Open Table, by endurance, we will gain our souls. This is not to say that we have to work hard for God’s approval. But we have been captivated by a way of faith that is engaged and active. We are an action-oriented congregation. But for folks like us, Walter Brueggeman rightly helps not to mistake mere drama for action or substituting bluster when listening and learning are needed. He calls us to a “prophetic ministry [that] does not consist of spectacular acts of social crusading or of abrasive measures of indignation. Rather, prophetic ministry consists of offering an alternative perception of reality and in letting people see their own history in the light of God’s freedom” and justice (116).
Our faith community tries to see where God is at work in the world and then join in that work. Doing so together gives a longevity and capacity for love’s goals we couldn’t attain on our own. We are a church positioned to move through this hinge time in America when one party replaces another, and a time in this world when one way of being church is ending and a new one is forming. Through both our faithfulness to our roots and our adventurousness in our branchings, may we endure and gain a soulful dimension to our life together in God.