Texts: Isaiah 58:9b-14; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17
But it’s not that easy, is it? As much as we know in our bones that justice and mercy bring life and health and happiness, injustice and oppression and violence still fill the world. Those of us lucky enough to have enough wealth and privilege to sequester ourselves from it—to move out of those neighborhoods, to send our kids away from those schools, to put up fences and gates and walls to keep those people out—we are not certainly not itching to offer our food to the hungry, or to bring the homeless poor into our houses. We yearn for a just and equitable society, but too often our yearning remains just that: mere yearning.
Isn’t that frustrating? There is no guidance here, no direction, no unambiguous word of God. There is no Isaianic poetry telling us what to do in order to make our gloom shine like noonday. There is just a yearning.
Another thing that happened in our ELCA this year was that in June we issued a formal apology to people of African Descent for the complicity of the White Church—specifically the White Lutheran Church—in slavery, segregation and institutional racism. At the Churchwide Assembly, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton and others of the ELCA Church Council read this declaration to members of the African Descent Lutheran Association. Speaking on their behalf, their president, Pr. Lamont Wells, said, “We… can receive this apology as a divine mark of repentance that serves as a catalyst for change. We cannot receive this apology simply as a cheap indulgence to clear the conscience of our oppressors.” This apology from our Church, by itself, is meaningless; it but it nevertheless expresses a yearning to grow towards something new, something better; and if we allow that yearning to drive us into that something new, then this apology will have meaning.
The history of our own country is a testament to this truth. Our national mythology reminds us how in 1620, the Mayflower brought English Puritans searching for a place where they could practice their religion freely without persecution. They set sail for the “New World” because they dreamed of establishing a place where God’s vision for the fullness of creation might finally be realized, where they might finally be able to build the shining “city on a hill” promised in the verses of scripture. More pilgrims of different types and from different countries followed, all hoping to build for themselves new lives, to create new and better societies than the ones they left behind.
The sobering truth is that when those first hopeful pilgrims first landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, there were already enslaved Africans here. In 1619, in late August—right around this time of year—the first ship landed in the Virginia colony carrying kidnapped Africans to be sold for profit. Even as the dream of a new and better world was just beginning to take shape, it was already dying. Today we mark 400 years of slavery and racism in America, and we remember that the best efforts of people to build the “city on a hill” have always and will always lead to sin and death.
This is because our world is being shaken. It is shaken by artillery and gunfire, shaken by racial tension, shaken by crippling poverty and hunger, shaken by populism and nationalism. Even nature itself seems to be shaking as climates change and weather patterns grow more and more erratic. Glaciers that were once considered part of the landscape have disappeared; deserts are growing; coastlines themselves are moving. In the midst of such uncertainty, where are we to look for hope?
The Preacher of the sermon to the Hebrews reminds us how, at Sinai, the earth itself trembled when God spoke. As the mountain was engulfed in flame and smoke and thick darkness, God gave the law to the people, and God’s voice shook the very ground that had seemed so firm beneath their feet. So terrified were the people gathered around that they begged Moses that they may never again hear God speaking to them, that they might never again have to see creation flicker like a candle guttering in the breeze.
The Preacher recalls for us the word of the prophet Haggai, when God said, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven,” and then interprets that promise to mean that there will come a time when God will once more speak and shake the foundations of everything that seems so permanent, so inevitable; but this time, instead of returning to normal, everything that is temporary—our homes and cities, our governments and social structures, our ideas of race and class, of deserving and undeserving--everything will be shaken out of existence. Like sand and soil that, during an earthquake, become fluid and flow away, so shall everything we have come to depend upon be removed.
…Well, not everything. The Preacher reminds us that what cannot be shaken will remain, and what cannot be shaken is the promise of God that we have had from the very beginning: the promise of a world in which justice and mercy are the norm, a world in which the yoke has been removed, the pointing of the finger and the speaking of evil have been forgotten; a world in which the hungry are filled and the needs of the afflicted are satisfied.
This is the world Jesus has come to announce. Like the woman in the synagogue, who had known nothing other than infirmity and affliction or 18 years, he frees us from the shackles that this shaking, temporary world has laid on us. In the name of Jesus we make our declarations and our apologies because we look beyond the limits and the shortcomings of this world to the world that Jesus brings. These declarations and apologies may be just words, but they are words that remind us where our hope lies: not in the twisted, bent-over approximations of justice that we try to create ourselves, but in the tall and unshakable promise of God’s coming reign.
We remember today that our God is a consuming fire; and we are reminded that we cannot entrust our safety and our well-being to things that we know will be consumed by that fire. Instead, filled with God’s promise, we do not merely yearn for the day when God will once more shake the earth; no, we do more than that: we hope for that day. Hope is not an empty wish; hope is not an unfulfilled longing. Hope is the burning desire for something in defiance of all evidence to the contrary, founded on the unshakable faith that that something is true.
It is hope that allows us to declare ourselves a sanctuary church body, and to trust that God will lead us into learning together what that looks like. It is hope that allows us to repent of our sins and apologize to those whom we have harmed, trusting in the crucified and resurrected Christ to reconcile us to one another and to God. It is hope that, after 400 long years of being bound by oppression and racism, allows us to see a future that is free from those Satanic forces, and to reach for that future. It is hope that helps us remove the yoke, and the pointing of the finger, and the speaking of evil; to step off of the shaking and shattering structures of this world that are being consumed by God’s fire, and to stand on the unmovable foundations of the city of the living God.