Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 8, 2014

14.12.07 – “Comfort My People” – Isaiah 40: 1 – 2

Central United Methodist Church
Comfort My People
Pastor David L. Haley
December 7th, 2014
The 2nd Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 40: 1 – 2
Advent 2

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

                               – Isaiah 40: 1 – 2, The New Revised Standard Version

One of my basic rules of preaching is not actually mine, but borrowed from the 20th century German theologian Karl Barth. Barth once said that preachers ought to “preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” That is, to apply the timeless Word of God to our day-to-day situation in life.

But what happens when the news in the newspaper is so distressing, that we can hardly hear the Word of God speak to us, much less speak it to others? Today, on this second Sunday of Advent, instead of being comforted by the words of the prophet Isaiah – “Comfort my people;” aren’t we more like the voice heard in Ramah, with weeping and lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be consoled, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:18)

First, there was the news out of Missouri that after a grand jury pronounced irregular by many legal experts, Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the killing of 18 year old Michael Brown. The consequence of that is there will be no actual trial to examine the conflicting accounts of what actually happened that day.

But then came the news out of New York that the NYC police officer who put Eric Garner in a chokehold on July 17th, over selling untaxed cigarettes, who along with other officers kept him pinned to the ground while he said repeatedly, “I can’t breathe,” until he died, would also not be indicted as responsible for his death. At least, in Michael Brown’s case, there was room for ambiguity. But Eric Garner’s death was captured on bystander video, for everyone to see; we were the witnesses. The Medical Examiner even ruled Eric Garner’s death a homicide. Unfortunately, according to the Grand Jury, it was a homicide no one committed, not even the officer who had his arm around Eric Garner’s neck. And so crowds of protestors, both white and black, have taken to the streets with chants of “Hands up, don’t shoot,” “No justice, no peace,” “Black lives matter,” and “I can’t breathe.” With the result the news in the newspaper this week has been very distressing, to me, to most of us. Many people – especially people of color – broke down into tears when they heard the news.  Others simply shrugged and said, “What’s new?”

You should know, that of all people, I am not anti-police. As a police chaplain for almost two decades, some of my best friends are police. I have spent a lot of time riding with police; I have seen them put their lives in jeopardy for me as a firefighter/paramedic in threatening situations. I even had the sad duty of officiating at the funeral of a 21-year-old police officer killed in the line of duty. Just two weeks ago I attended the graduation of another one of my “kids” from the Chicago Police Academy.

But also because of this, I have witnessed how quickly situations can deteriorate and become life-threating, how in a matter of split-seconds, life and death decisions must be made. That is where training and accountability comes in. When wrong decisions are made, not only is justice perverted, but people are abused and die; whether wrongfully or justifiably must be determined. Even police officers – who carry bullets in their guns on our behalf – must be held accountable for their decisions and actions, just as every one of us are held accountable under the law for our decisions and actions.

As tragic as these two deaths and others were (like 12 year old Tamir Rice, shot with a toy gun in Cleveland); as distressing as the non-indictments of the only possible persons responsible for their deaths; has come another uneasy consequence for all of us: a discussion of race in America. In an article in the New York Times yesterday, Police Killings Reveal Chasms Between Races, the author, John Eligondec, put it this way:

“Race has never been an easy topic of conversation in America. But the recent high-profile deaths of black people at the hands of police officers in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland and elsewhere — and the nationwide protests those deaths spurred — have exposed sharp differences about race relations among friends, co-workers, neighbors and even relatives in unexpected and often uncomfortable ways . . .

In interviews here and around the country, both blacks and whites described tense conversations in office cubicles or across dinner tables about the killings and subsequent protests. Many described being surprised to learn, often on social media, about the opinions — and stereotypes — held by family and friends about people of other races. In some cases, those relationships have fractured, in person and online. (John Eligondec, Police Killings Reveal Chasms Between Races, the New York Times, December 5, 2014.)

Have you had such conversations? Are you aware that much of America hasn’t? Why? Because, despite being 50 years past legal segregation, even with a black president in the White House, a chasm still remains between black and white Americans that is as wide as ever. Studies continue to show that the social networks of whites are a remarkable 91 percent white. In fact, fully three-quarters (75 percent) of whites have entirely white social networks without any minority presence. This is significantly higher than among black Americans (65 percent) or Hispanic Americans (46 percent).  (Robert P. Jones, Self-Segregation: Why It’s So Hard for Whites to Understand Ferguson, The Atlantic, August 21, 2014).

As a part of this sermon, I want to share with you my experience.  In Lisl’s “Doing Justice” class, she asked of us this question, “What injustice have you witnessed or experienced that shaped your life?”  Here’s mine; one that shaped my life, that I never actually saw.

I grew up in Marshall County, in western KY. I am ashamed to tell you that I did not grow up with a single person of color: not African-American or Asian or Hispanic, nothing. Where I grew up, Catholics and Lutherans were exotic; most everybody I knew was of white Scots-Irish Protestant descent.

Why was that? Well, there were ugly rumors of serious racial injustice that had occurred in 1908, when two African-Americans were killed, where black people were expelled and their land given to whites, making Marshall County a place no African American wanted to live. That stigma has lasted, to this day; in the 2,000 census, only 37 African-Americans lived in a county of 30,000 Caucasians.

Because of that, I did not have the rich experience of human diversity. Once I left there, I have reveled in it every since, traveling the world to experience it: to India, Mexico, Africa twice, Asia multiple times, and I’m not done yet. I want you to understand that it is the fulfillment of my life’s story, to have a multiracial, multicultural congregation like Central.

As a result of this, what I have learned in regard to these matters last week, the major difference between white people and people of color is this: based upon our experience, we white people assume the justice system will work for us. On the other hand, people of color – based upon their historical and personal experience – assume the opposite: they hope it will, but are not surprised when it doesn’t, even in extreme cases like that of Michael Brown or Eric Garner, where it does not. If we white people had the experience of almost every young black male, of being stopped not while DUI but DWB (driving while black), we would undoubtedly understand better.

Given this, what a privilege we have here at Central, to be together in a multiracial congregation, which is less than 5% of all Christian congregations in the entire country. What an opportunity we have to be able to discuss these things, as difficult as it may be.  While we may not always see eye-to-eye, at least we can meet heart-to-heart, as brothers and sisters in Christ. While we may not have personally experienced the pain and injustice our brothers and sisters have gone through and continue to go through, we can empathize with the sorrow and outrage they have experienced this week.

And now, having said all this, perhaps now and only now are we able to put down the newspaper with the one hand, and pick up the Scriptures with the other hand, and really hear these words from the book of Isaiah, as comforting now as they were then: “Comfort, O comfort, my people,” says your God. Thus says the God who gathers the forsaken and brokenhearted like a Shepherd, and holds them close to heart. In this Advent season, as we wait and work for a better day, let us comfort one another with this Word of God, and our words as well.

Mark Miller is a United Methodist musician. He is the grandson, son, brother, uncle, and cousin to United Methodist clergy. Currently, he serves on the faculty at both Drew Theological School and the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University where he teaches music and worship. He also is Director of the Gospel and Youth Choirs at the Marble Collegiate Church, in New York City. He wrote several of the new hymns in our most contemporary hymnal, Worship and Rejoice, including the new version of Charles Wesley’s “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” which we like so much.

Mark believes passionately that music can change the world. He believes in Cornell West’s quote that “Justice is what love looks like in public.” His dream is that the music he composes, performs, teaches, and leads will inspire and empower people to create God’s beloved community.

So when Mark heard the news this week, he sat down and wrote and then posted on YouTube this song – “How Long?” which he says he wrote not only for Advent but for all people who wait for justice. Like the Word of God spoken by Isaiah the prophet, may we be comforted by it.

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