Wednesday, January 20, 2010




For Zion's sake I will not keep silent and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest…

Isaiah 62:1

 A year and more has passed, yet we have not been delivered.  Some believed that Barack Obama had come to restore the Republic, to return our nation to the righteous path.  A new, glorious era in American politics was at hand….If only that were true.  We all can taste the bitterness now.

Roger D. Hodge, "The  Mendacity of Hope" Harper's, February 2010          


The preacher bears a great responsibility.  In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., the preacher must "articulate the longings and aspirations of the people."  "Somehow," he added in Memphis in that last sermon of his life, "the preacher must be an Amos, and say, 'Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.'  Somehow, the preacher must say with Jesus, 'The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor.'"       

Like Martin, a good preacher must be a prophet and a witness.  But I'm no Martin.  And, facing the obligation he places on anyone who would stand before a congregation, I'm inclined to sit down and shut up for fear of embarrassment.  But knowing how great are the problems of the poor and how deep are our shared longings and aspirations in this time of war and economic decline, I feel I have no choice.  And I haven't been afraid for a long time.   As Martin said in another sermon – on Vietnam – "A time comes when silence is betrayal."  By my lights that time has come in America.

It does no good – not even for Jesus – to say, when that time comes, when the "fierce urgency of now" is upon us, "My hour has not yet come."  We do not choose the time.  The time chooses us.  Such a time had come for the Jewish people in Isaiah's time.  The Jews had just been liberated from their exile in Babylon and were about the business of restoring their kingdom in Jerusalem.  It was a time of opportunity, but the dangers of backsliding into old ways of doing things – old ways that had brought them down before – were great.  It was a critical hour in the life of Judah.  It was time for Isaiah to speak his message of encouraging hope: "For Zion's sake I will not keep silent and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest, until her vindication goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch." 

That message – be true to your aspirations and you will be a great people – was one Martin preached in his time and one that we would do well to heed in our time.  For we too have been in exile this past decade …and, I would argue, since Martin was taken from us.  We are emerging from forty years of endless war – overlapping, futile, and, for the most part, unworthy wars…wars that have left us mired in Afghanistan and facing enemies on every continent.  We are emerging also from decades of rampant greed and reckless risk-taking that have produced a Great Recession in an America we hardly recognize any more.

Over the past decade alone, there has been NO net gain in job growth – Nada! - and every tenth American seeking a job can't find one.  Middle class Americans are making less than we did a decade ago and one in every eight of us is on food stamps.  One in every four homeowners is "under water" and home foreclosures have reached crisis proportions.  What kind of crisis?  What does a crisis looks like?  In my community, Vallejo, it looks like this – four pages of foreclosure notices on one day last week…and every day since.  No wonder we've rediscovered layaways, clipping coupons, and doing without so many things we once deemed necessary.  And our newspapers – when they're not running foreclosure notices – have become outlets for national fencing operations eager to take our "unwanted" things right here in Concord or Emeryville.  We've all seen the ads – "Bring us your gold, your family jewels.  We pay top dollar!"

No wonder, at this moment of crisis, that the national mood is one of fear, the worst fear being that we might not be up to the task – an "uneasy feeling," a "sinking feeling," as the New York Time's Bob Herbert put it two weeks ago, "that important opportunities are slipping from the nation's grasp."  We are, he said, "escalating in Afghanistan, falling back into a panic mode over an attempted act of terror and squandering a golden opportunity to build a better society."  And, he added, "If America can't change, then the current state of decline is bound to continue."

Indeed it will…if we don't change.  But you and I – we – know better.  We have had our cold shower.  Our eyes are wide open.  We are poised to act.  Our hour has come.  We dare not squander this opportunity to build a better society.  As Christians and as Americans we must give voice to our longings and aspirations.  We are at another moment when silence is betrayal.  Our old ways of doing things no longer work.  We must find new ways…new ways that reflect those longings and aspirations.

What sorts of new ways?  Jim Wallis of Sojourners warns us against just seeking to get back to "normal."  Noting that "normal" is what got us into this situation, Wallis urges us to craft a "new normal" – one consistent with our Christian and national values of justice, equality, charity, and solidarity with our fellow human beings.  Rugged individualism never really worked – except in B movies – and it won't work now. 

In his latest book - Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street – Wallis says we must rediscover our sense of community, our spirit of cooperation. We must remind Washington, Sacramento, and each other that "car[ing] for the poor is not just a moral duty but is critical for the common good."   It's time, he adds to "stop keeping up with the Joneses and start making sure the Joneses are okay."  We have, he concludes, arrived "at a transformational moment, one of those times that comes around only very occasionally.  We don't want to miss this opportunity."

Just down the road in Berkeley, Rabbi Michael Lerner has been preaching the same message on the pages of Tikkun and in his Network of Spiritual Progressives.  He calls for a "New Bottom Line" in our economic life – one that measures success by how we live and care for each other rather than by what we accumulate for ourselves.  Advocating a new Global Marshall Plan, he urges us to scrap the current security paradigm – the one we've operated on throughout my lifetime – security through domination – in favor of a new paradigm of security through generosity, respect and caring.

Once before – before this current crisis became so apparent – I preached this message in a church in San Francisco.  At the door, after the service, an angry young man in a blue suit and power tie – a millionaire I later learned – stuck his finger in my face and growled "That was naïve, incredibly naïve!"

I have to ask, however, is it being naïve or is it being faithful to preach a Gospel that asks "Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?  And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee?"  Is it being naïve or is it being faithful to hope that we as a people might be numbered among those who did just that for the least of our brothers and sisters and that we as a nation might be "a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord."    

This week we have seen Jesus hungry and thirsty and naked and, yes, dying on the streets of Port au Prince and our response thus far suggests that we may be capable of a new paradigm, a new normal, a new bottom line.  And we have reacted in ways that give one hope.  As the soldiers of the 82nd Airborne they fanned out about Port au Prince to restore calm and distribute food and drink, their commander, a Col. Anderson, said: "We're here to do as much good and as little evil as possible."  Talk about the paradigm of domination crumbling before one of generosity, respect and caring!          

And talk about "making sure the Joneses are okay!"  Witness all the doctors, nurses, and civilian aid workers who are now deployed, all bringing a measure of generosity, respect and caring.  Then there are all of us – here in this sanctuary of peace and solidarity – opening our checkbooks to unseen brothers and sisters and our hearts to those among us who grieve for family in Haiti.

Our hearts are broken…broken open…open to Martin's plea that April night in Memphis: "Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness…. Let us rise up…with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation."

May we not be found wanting in the face of that challenge. 






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