Doves & Dreams: Voices in The Wilderness

Isaiah 62:1-7, 10-12 For the sake of Zion I will not keep silent, and for the sake of Jerusalem I will not keep still, until her vindication shines out like blazing light and her salvation like a flaming torch. 2 The nations shall see your vindication, daughter, and all the monarchs your glory, and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Living God will grant. 3 You, daughter, shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of God Most High, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. 4 Daughter, no more shall you be called Forsaken, and no more be shall your land be called Devastated; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her and your land Married, for the Faithful God delights in you, and your land shall be married. 5 For as a young man marries a virgin girl, so shall your builder[a] marry you, daughter, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you. 6 Upon your walls, Daughter Jerusalem, I have posted sentinels; all day and all night, they shall never be silent. You who remind the God Who Sees, take no rest for yourselves,7 and give God no rest until God establishes Jerusalem and makes it renowned throughout the earth.   … Go through, go through the gates! Prepare the way for the people!

build up, build up the highway; throw away the loose stones; lift up a banner over the peoples. 11 Look! The God who saves has made it heard to the end of the earth: Say to daughter Zion, “See, your salvation comes; bringing reward and recompense first.” 12 They shall call them, “The Holy People, The Redeemed of the God Who Saves,” and you, daughter, shall be called, “Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken.”

Psalm 18:2-11, 16-19 1I love you, O Lord, my strength.

2 The Rock Who Gave Us Birth is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

3 I call upon the Holy One, may she be praised, and from my enemies I shall be saved.

4 The snares of death encompassed me; the rivers of wickedness assailed me;

5 the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me.

6 In my distress I called upon She Who Hears; to my God I cried for help. From her temple she heard my voice, and my cry came before her, to her ears.

7 Then the earth shuddered and quaked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and were shaken because of her anger.

8 Smoke went up from her nostrils and consuming fire from her mouth; glowing coals blazed forth from her.

9 She spread out the heavens the heavens and descended; thick darkness was under her feet.

10 She mounted up on a cherub and flew; she soared upon the wings of the wind.

11 She made darkness her veil made darkness around her, her canopy dark waters and thick clouds. …

16 She reached down from on high, she took me; she drew me out of the multitude waters.

17 She delivered me from my strong enemy and from those who hate me,

for they were too mighty for me.

18 They confronted me in the day of my calamity, yet the Sheltering God was my support.

19 She brought me out into a broad place; she delivered me because she delights in me.

2nd Corinthians 6:2-10 2 God says,

“At an acceptable time have I hearkened to you,

    and on the day of salvation I have helped you.”

Look! Now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! 3 In no way, none, are we giving cause for offense, so there will be no reproach against our ministry.  4 Rather, in every way we have commended ourselves as servants of God: through much endurance, in tribulations, in distress, in calamities, 5 in beatings, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labours, in sleepless nights, in hunger; 6 in purity, in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in holiness of spirit, in love without pretence, 7 in truthful speech, and in the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8 amid honour and dishonour, amid slander and renown, as deceitful and yet genuine, as unknown and yet well known, as dying and look! We are alive; as punished and yet not killed, 10 as sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor, yet making many rich, as having nothing and yet possessing everything.

Matthew 3:1-6, 11-17  In those days John the Baptist appeared preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, 2 “Repent, for the realm of heaven is near.” 3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make God’s paths straight.’ ”

4 Now John had for his clothing camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the women and men of Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region around the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized in the River Jordan, by him, confessing their sins.   … 11 “Indeed, I baptize you with[c] water for repentance, but after me is coming one more powerful than I; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with[d] the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John forbade him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it go now; for this way is proper for us to fulfil all righteousness.” Then John let it go. 16 Now when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God; she descended like a dove and alighted upon him. 17 And a voice from the heavens said, “This is my Son, the Beloved,[e] with whom I am well pleased.”

Good morning, St. Matthew!

We gather on this morning in Itasca on the unceded tribal lands of the Kickapoo, Peoria, Ka-skas-kia, Potawatomi, Mya-a-mia, HoChunk, Winnebago and O-che-thi Sakowin nations, acknowledging that hard past and praying our way into a better future.

And so we pray.

Holy Creator, we are forever complaining that we can’t hear your voice in our lives – and yet if we are honest, we have to acknowledge the problem may be less with your speaking than with our listening skills. We have had parades of prophets, crowds of witnesses, torrents of testimony – and yet, Lord, we claim that you are silent! Today let the voice of one crying in the wilderness come through to us – the one proclaiming that better is beckoning, if we will but listen and allow that voice to reveal to us the kin-dom of God. Amen.

The story is told of a Buddhist monk who was asked to share a story with some students about his faith. He stood at the chalkboard and wrote “Everyone wants to change the world, but nobody wants to help Mom with the dishes.” While everyone laughed, he went on to say that our lives are made up of very few moments of rushing into burning buildings to save puppies, and far more moments of helping with the dishes. To be faithful, he told the students, you need to pay attention to the work in front of you, the mess around you and in doing that messy, everyday work faithfully, you begin to change the world.

This morning we are about the business of considering some pretty great events – the baptism of Jesus and the life of Dr Martin Luther King – but it is important to remember that neither of them simply appeared and changed the world with a snap. Jesus is the promise of literally centuries of prophecy – the careful building of a plan that began in Eden and piece by piece, stone by stone, choice by choice, manifested in the birth of Jesus. And even then, because Jesus was truly human, there were choices he himself had to make in his journey; would he live into his divinity? Would he begin the ministry that would risk a true ending of his humanity? Theologians far more clever than I have held up the idea that Jesus did not move outside of the confines of human existence in his incarnation; he was subject to the same temptations and trials that all humans face, and that means the dilemma of choice. So as he stands at the banks of the Jordan, he needs to decide if he will walk forward into that water, and allow his cousin to give him baptism. He takes that step. He enters the water. And John, who from the womb knew who Jesus was, gives Jesus his first temptation – in his divinity, of course Jesus should baptise John. But Jesus didn’t incarnate to be Divine God – he incarnated to live as one of us and so in his humanity, he tells John to take the next step on the path. Jesus the man has made his choice to begin. And of course, the other two persons of the Trinity show up! The plan is in motion! Jesus has begun! Salvation’s story has started!

I am most certainly not God and I do not have God’s patience. If I were in charge, all of history could be told in 5 minutes, if that. Let’s just get to the happy ending already! But God – who DOES have infinite patience – builds through all our stories, all our choices; our mistakes, our triumphs, our sorrows and our joys – and builds the story page by page, inch by inch, soul by soul. Many prophets got that memo and declared how God was working through the ages to accomplish God’s purpose. One of those prophets was Dr Martin Luther King, who is quoted as saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I will name him as a prophet, because the Lord lifted him up to speak a word to the United States that we in the White community were not ready to hear, but a word that had to be spoken. That is what a prophet does – speak the words not that we want to hear, but the words that we need to hear. Words that tear down falsehoods and reveal who we are. Now if you have been a liar, a cheat and a bully – this is dangerous; these words from the prophet will convict you. But if you are someone who has been belittled, bullied and beaten down – this is good news! But whoever you are, the prophet will restore you to your true self – and that true self will stand revealed.

Dr King was such a prophet – a speaker who showed our true selves. In his words, we white folks found our sins named and exposed. In his words, we might also find balm for that sin sick soul if we turn and accept the change but the choice to do so is ours. But Dr King did not come to his call to prophet as fully formed – he came as a man, fully human, who had to make choices and decisions about whether or not he would step forward to speak the words God had given him. Would he choose to enter the mess?

In 2017, I had the blessing to attend the first Rostered Ministers Gathering in Atlanta, Georgia. What made it truly sweet was not just the reunions with people I hadn’t seen since seminary but having the opportunity to tour many places that were important to the Civil Rights Movement. There are statues, fountains and great museums to be sure – but what really brought the history alive for me was my visit to Dr King’s church, Ebeneezer Baptist. It is still a church and has many of the things churches are famous for; floors of old tile, the paint of the discount hardware store, the inevitable cracks and little unrepaired details that await a budget increase. Going into that sanctuary was not a museum visit; it was going to church! The pews, the organ, the piano, the pulpit, the hymnals, the stained-glass windows – check! All there!  The day I visited, it wasn’t very busy, so it was pretty quiet. And although we are far past being able to experience Dr King in person, they have many of his sermons on tape and they play them throughout the day. So in the most Spirit blessed way, I was able to go to church and receive Dr King’s preaching and teaching.

The text that day was taken from Paul’s travels, and I can’t recall which text he used; trust me, I really looked to find it! But because it wasn’t one of his well-known orations, it wasn’t a history lesson; rather, a fresh word to my ears. This wasn’t one of Dr King’s soaring speeches or even one of his floor stomping sermons. No, in this preaching, you could hear the ordinariness of the Sunday and the fatigue that was in his voice. Yet even in that tired, everyday moment, he opened himself up to the Spirit and spoke of a God who meets us in the mess. The mess of the everyday was his refrain. God doesn’t always, or even often, work in Red Sea parting miracles, he said. Rather God calls us to the moments of mess, to the moments that will ask us to roll up our sleeves and do the work. This great man, whom we all know participated in soaring historical moments, was keenly aware that the path of faithful living was made up of far more ordinary days than extraordinary ones. And it is those ordinary days, those dirty dish days, that determine how we will meet the call of God.

Dr King spoke, in that voice so familiar to my generation, of how we are to walk the path of faith. We can’t look at our lives as being a folded up, hurry up journey to the happy ending – no. We are to look for the places where there is work to be done, dirty dishes to be washed. Do you want to END RACISM? Well, that begins with examining the thousand little ways we participate in racism. Right now, in the ELCA, there are voices being raised to ask, “Why are we a 97% white church?” And don’t tell me that the church is white heritaged; there have been Black Lutherans deep in the history of the church going back centuries. We just have to look to see them.

The Rev. Lamont Anthony Wells, of the Metropolitan New York Synod wrote in a post on Apr 26, 2018 on that synod’s website:

Although many still consider people of African descent as outsiders or newcomers to this tradition, history records that we are not.  Dating way back to 1669, African Americans who were enslaved and/or free, became members of the Lutheran congregations in New York and New Jersey. In fact, African-American Lutherans have been in this country for more than 350 years, much longer than many Lutheran European immigrants.

Mark Granquist, writing February 4, 2021 in a Living Lutheran article entitled, The “mother of Black Lutheranism in America” reminds us:

Many African American leaders fought against these evils and worked to bring justice to their communities. One such leader was Rosa Young of Alabama, … In 1912, Young …sought assistance from a number of groups and, in 1915, wrote a letter to the Lutheran Synodical Conference … asking for assistance. … the conference responded positively, supporting her school and sending pastors to the area to start Lutheran congregations. … Young embraced Lutheranism with a passion. … Young was responsible for more than just one school, becoming the driving force behind new Black Lutheran congregations and parish schools across the county.

By 1927 there were 29 Black Lutheran congregations and preaching points in (her) area, and 27 day-schools. During this period Wilcox County Alabama was the fastest-growing area of Lutheranism in the United States.

Did you know that there is Black Lutheran hymnal, called “This Far By Faith”, published in 1999? Or that there are several Black Lutheran preachers, stretching back to Jehu Jones, who was ordained in 1832? Part of unlearning racism for the white community is learning to see the stories that surround us – things that are already there! One of those amazing voices is Pastor Kenneth Wheeler, who in his book, US: The Resurrection of American Terror writes:

I return to the Zulu greeting sawubona, which literally means I see you. …When Jesus asks his disciples “Who do people say that I am?” their multiple answers revealed their confusion. Jesus is asking us to see him, to see him with his wounds and his scars, to see him as the human being that he is and that he is calling us to be. … I believe we are capable of seeing each other, of seeing each other as God sees each of us. But the work of tearing down the structures of white supremacy must be the first work we are committed to. We must be diligent about that work.

We must be diligent about that work. The story doesn’t fast forward – we each called to contribute our piece of the story, to lay our brick in the road, to take that first step. We are called to the mess, to do our part to make it right. The Jesus we meet is the man who takes that first step, who begins the journey he knows may lead to that cross, because telling people the truth, speaking as a prophet, is dangerous work. When our words reveal the true corruption of a deceitful heart and redeem the ones the world has cast aside and shows them to be diamonds – we better know those words are calling us to the mess, calling us to the Lord’s work. But the choice to speak those words, to take that step into the river, to begin that work – that’s ours.