Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 14, 2008

2008.12.14 “Restore Our Fortunes, O Lord”

Central United Methodist Church

“Restore Our Fortunes, O Lord”

Isaiah 64: 1 – 9

December 14th, 2008

“Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb!

– Psalm 126: 4, The New Revised Standard Version


Perhaps a New York Times article on Thursday said it best: “For Chicagoans, a Slap after Euphoria.”

Not that anybody in New York City would gleefully rejoice over the woes of the Second City, or sigh in relief that attention is diverted from their own gubernatorial problems (remember Eliot Spitzer).  But the article does capture our mood after the bad news about our governor, Rod Blagojevich.  A few paragraphs:

“For Jeff Makowski, a 47-year-old house painter, it had been fun lately to boast to out-of-town friends about Chicago as the home of President-elect Barack Obama. Now the phone calls are coming the other way, and they are often sarcastic. “We’re a national laughingstock,” said Mr. Makowski, who drank a beer with a work pal on Wednesday afternoon after finishing up on a North Side condominium. “They call up and say, ‘What’s going on in Illinois? How can you elect these people?’ ”

Last month, Chicago erected huge banners along Michigan Avenue bearing the image of its hometown hero, Mr. Obama, and “our city just beamed,” as Peggy Smith, a 53-year-old nurse, put it. To Mr. Makowski and others, the election of Mr. Obama had shown the world that Chicago had produced a brilliant politician, a president with the historic purpose of Lincoln — a home-state fellow, of course — and the style of a Kennedy.

But it was a short-lived burst of civic pride that sparkled on Election Night like never before. The arrest on Tuesday of Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich has resurrected the corrupt image of politics in this city and state.

Patricia Sams, a 55-year-old medical assistant, stood at the edge of Grant Park, where Mr. Obama electrified this city with his Election Night speech, and pined for the good old days of six weeks ago. “We were all so elated,” Ms. Sams said. “Black people and white people and Asian people all hugging, just like it should be.”

Chicagoans say it suddenly feels like a long time since the elation of Election Night, an unseasonably balmy evening. The streets are filled with slush again, and the infamous gale known here as “The Hawk,” blows off Lake Michigan.” (“For Chicagoans, a Slap After Euphoria.” The New York Times, by Dirk Johnson, December 11, 2008)

        As Walter Cronkite used to say at the end of the news, “And that’s the way it is”, here in Chicago, 11 days before Christmas.

        In such a mood this morning, we find ourselves with a renewed appreciation for the words of Psalm 126: “Restore our fortunes, O Lord.”

        I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but this is the 3rd Sunday in a row that the Psalm has used that phrase: Psalm 80, Psalm 85, and now Psalm 126. In this season of Advent we acknowledge that while there are times in life when God feels close and active, there are other times when God feels distant and absence, and our faith more longing than memory.

Psalm 126 begins with memory, of the “good old days”, when God restored the fortunes of Zion. As Eugene Peterson renders it in The Message: It seemed like a dream, too good to be true, when God returned Zion’s exiles. We laughed, we sang, we couldn’t believe our good fortune. We were the talk of the nations — “God was wonderful to them!”  God was wonderful to us; we are one happy people.”   Sound familiar?

        But it’s been awhile — at least November 4th — since anything like that.  Now our streets are full of slush, so are our politics, and a cold wind blows off the Lake.

Even more chilling than the wind off Lake Michigan, is the fact that the old standard bearers appear to be falling, one by one. This week, the Chicago Tribune declared bankruptcy. It appears that unless the Bush Administration acts – the big three automakers: Ford, Chrysler, and GM, may wind up in bankruptcy also.

I agree they have mostly brought it upon themselves, but as the McClatchy News service pointed out in an article, “Do you know what that would mean?”  It’s not just the 239,000 jobs at General Motors, Ford and Chrysler that are at stake:

“If there were just a 50 percent contraction in the auto industry, nearly 2.5 million jobs would be lost in the first year, resulting in $125 billion less in personal income. State and federal coffers would lose $50 billion from lost tax dollars . . . .

Experts say it’s not just the obvious — car companies, suppliers and dealers — who’ll be affected. Failure of these companies could affect national security, television studios and even sports teams.” (“If automakers fail, here’s a flavor of what might happen,” by Lisa Zagaroli, McClatchy Newspapers, December 12, 2008)

But it’s more than just economics, as scary as that is. Before many of us went to our Toyotas and Hondas (part of the problem), we used to define ourselves by which of these cars we drove. We might be Catholic or Methodist, Democrat or Republican, but we were also either “Chevy” or a “Ford”. You could start a fight in any bar over politics, religion, or which was better or worse, Chevy’s or Ford’s.  How the mighty have fallen!  Today if the big three are praying – and they better be – they might use Psalm 126, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord.”

And it’s not just the car companies; it’s us as well. Personally, I’ve been afraid to look at my pension reports for awhile. I heard Michele open one the other day at the other end of the house, to say first that she thought we’d finally gained a little bit, only to take it back as she read the rest of the report.  “I knew it was too good to be true,” she said.

Yes, many of us are wistful for the “good old days.” The “good old days” of the church, when pews were filled, and Sunday School classes were overflowing.  When the Educational Building across the street was built in 1957, this congregation had a membership of 1300 members. 

Some of us may even feel that way about Christmas. “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the one I used to know,” we sing, with more truth than nostalgia.  It seemed so simple then, when we were children, so idyllic. Now, as I experience in my own family, many families are divorced or blended or “empty-nesters” and have family all over the place, such that, like Joseph and Mary, many of us spend Christmas on the road.  Sometimes it’s just not possible to get everybody together for Christmas anymore, “just like the one I used to know.”  For some of us those days are gone. 

Thankfully, the Scriptures are not just about what God did in the past, but about what God’s going to do in the future. No matter how terrible things were, no matter how bleak the situation, there was and is the hope that no situation is irredeemable, that the future will be better, and that God will act, not single-handedly, but through faithful people who take action.

Look at where Psalm 126 winds up: “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy! Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.” 

Remember that old song we used to sing in church, “Bringing in the Sheaves?” I thought as a child, that was “bringing in the sheets,” because I didn’t know what sheaves were, and I couldn’t figure out what God had to do with laundry.  What it means, is that sometimes in life, we sow in tears, but in time, we shall reap in joy.

Look at Isaiah 61, another passage about restored fortunes:

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,

because the LORD has anointed me;

he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, 

to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,

and release to the prisoners;

to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,

and the day of vengeance of our God;

to comfort all who mourn;

to provide for those who mourn in Zion—

to give them a garland instead of ashes,

the oil of gladness instead of mourning,

the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

They will be called oaks of righteousness,

the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.

They shall build up the ancient ruins,

they shall raise up the former devastations;

they shall repair the ruined cities,

the devastations of many generations.”

As Calvin Theological Seminary Professor Scott Hoezee says:    

“These words are so full of hope and new beginnings and fresh joy that just reading this chapter aloud delivers more gospel freight than some whole sermons . . . . It’s hard to doubt that when Isaiah first penned and/or spoke these words to a tired and defeated people these words sizzled and popped and fairly exploded into people’s consciousness with hope and joy”.

“Isaiah points to precisely what so many people pine for every single day of their lives: the great reversal.  The poor whose lives have for so long been filled with nothing but bad news get the gift of good news.  Those long held captive in dungeons and prisons of all kinds get promised their freedom.  Those who for years have spent so many days dampening handkerchiefs with their tears get comforted and pointed toward a day of smiles and laughter. Ashes get blown away to make way for glittering crowns. The drab duds of mourning get replaced with festive and colorful garments fit for a really great party. People who for too long have felt like dead sticks are promised that they will soon stand as tall and sturdy as the grandest oak tree.”

“This is Nelson Mandela emerging from his jail cell after so many years of unjust incarceration and walking out into the sunlight of a new day dawning . . .”

“This is exuberant crowds of disbelief standing atop the Berlin Wall and taking whacks at it with sledgehammers as the old order of things was swept away. . . .”

“This is Psalm 126 when people arrive at a new day and find their mouths filled with giggles they could not suppress even if they tried . . .”

“So we preach hope to the person who wishes his life had turned out more exciting, more fulfilling than it did.” 

“We preach hope to those whose marriage was never all it was cracked up to be (and to those whose marriage fell apart for just that reason).” 

“We preach hope to the adult child who has forever been disappointed in mom and dad and to the parents who have long been let down by their children’s lifestyles.” 

“We preach hope to those whose bank accounts are full and whose hearts are empty as well as to those whose hearts are full but they scratch out a poor existence.” 

“We preach hope to the lonely who never could find the love of their lives and to the minorities who were forever made to feel inferior by others.”  (Scott Hoezee, Center for Excellence in Preaching, Calvin Theological Seminary.)

As great as these promises are, they remain unfulfilled until someone stands up to put their finger on the text and make them happen. That was what happened when Jesus read these words of Isaiah in his hometown synagogue, applied them to himself, and said: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21) 

After Barack Obama’s election, someone said out that Rosa Parks had to sit, in order that Martin Luther King might walk.  And Martin had to walk, in order for Barack to run. And Barack had to run, in order that our children might fly.  

Are you ready to do that today, to put your finger on the text, and say, “In so far as it is possible, I will be the one to make it happen.”  Are you willing to pray, not just “Restore our fortunes, O Lord,” but “I am willing to sow in tears, if it will help someone reap in joy.”

Overshadowed in the news of the week was a group of workers here in Chicago who – to their own surprise – discovered this for themselves: the workers of Republic Windows and Doors. It sounds like a story Jesus might have told.

On December 2nd, the 240 mostly Hispanic and black employees of the 40 year old company received the bad news that the company would close in 3 days. Even worse, because the banks refused to lend any more money, there was no money to pay them what they were entitled to under the law: 60 days of severance pay, earned vacation time, and temporary health care benefits.  And a Merry Christmas to you.

So, on behalf of all employees and their families, they enacted a bold plan: occupy the factory. When the employees gathered in the cafeteria were asked for a show of hands of how many would be willing to stay, all hands went up, with shouts of, “Sí, se puede!” — or “Yes, we can!” “I ain’t got no other choice,” Alexis McCoy, 32, a driver’s assistant, said later. “I have a newborn. I have to take care of my family.”

At the last minute of negotiations, according to Representative Luis V. Gutierrez, in an article in the New York Times, Republic’s chief executive, Richard Gillman, demanded that any new bank loan to help the employees also cover the lease of several of his cars — a 2007 BMW 350xi and a 2002 Mercedes S500 are among those registered to company addresses — as well as eight weeks of his salary, at $225,000 a year. The demand held up the settlement, which was reached only after Mr. Gillman agreed to back down. “I’m not going to describe to you the words that were used when those issues were brought up,” Mr. Gutierrez said.

In fairness, Mr. Gillman said, “This has been the worst week of my life,” he said. “I know many of those workers at Republic personally, and I put 34 years of my life into that business, and all my money, too. No stone was left unturned in our effort to save Republic.”

By the time their six-day sit-in ended on Wednesday night, the laid-off workers had become national symbols of worker discontent amid the layoffs sweeping the country. Civil rights workers compared them to Rosa Parks.  But all the workers wanted, they said, was what they deserved under the law.

To their surprise, their drastic action worked. Late Wednesday, two major banks agreed to lend the company enough money to give the workers what they asked for: no jobs, but severance pay, vacation time, and temporary health benefits. When union negotiators returned to the factory on Wednesday evening with the agreement, the workers approved it unanimously. They emerged from the factory chanting, “Yes, we did!” (Even Workers Surprised By Success Of Factory Sit-In, The New York Times, By Michael Luo And Karen Ann Cullotta, December 13, 2008)


        So we begin a new week, with reasons for despair, in the economy, in the body politic; but more reasons for hope, when people, in the interest of hope and justice, are willing to stand up for themselves and for others. 

And a heartfelt prayer to go with it: “Restore our fortunes, O Lord.”


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