The United Churches, January 21, 2017

Psalm 27:1-9
Isaiah 9:1-4

During the month of January, I am focusing on what it means to be a people with a prophetic voice. As you know, I don’t believe that prophets are people who see the future by looking in a crystal ball or reading the lines on your palm. Prophets, throughout the Hebrew Scriptures offered an alternative vision of reality to the present narrative. An alternative vision of the future. Certainly, when reflecting on the life and work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, as we did last week, we could see a prophet: someone that could cast an alternative vision of reality: that his four little children would one day live in a nation where they would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Dr. King cast that vision in the midst of a deeply racially divided country. He held out the alternative vision as so many prophets before him had done.
Why do we need prophets? Why do we need an alternative vision of reality? It seems to me that listening to the news this past year, that many Americans don’t feel represented by the dominate culture around us. Those reactions to the dominate culture are on a continuum representing various interests and viewpoints. We, the disciples of Jesus, stand for the poor, for the disenfranchised, for those who are imprisoned, those who lack freedom, for those who have no hope.
For the framework of my thoughts today, I am going to compare the United States of America today with Ancient Egypt. French observer Alexis de Tocqueville who died in 1859, observed that the United States, uniquely, was “proceeding along a path to which no limit can be perceived.” We share with Ancient Egypt that sense of exceptionalism, static triumphalism and the politics of oppression and exploitation.
You remember that according to the Hebrew Scriptures, that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. Ancient Egypt has a long history that I won’t recount here. Instead I will remind us of the story of the Exodus. Chapter one of Exodus reminds us that taskmasters were set over the people to oppress them with forced labor. The Israelites multiplied and spread and so the overlords continued to exhaust them with hard labor. Just imagine making bricks from morning to night, day in and day out. You’ve seen those pyramids…imagine this mind numbing slavery as your dominate narrative…a slavery that was undergirded by the power of local gods so that you believe that this is your lot in life, a life that will never change and never get better. Kings prospered and bricks got made.
We who know our Sunday school stories, know that God breaks into this misery through the person of Moses, his side kick Aaron and a mess of plagues. The plagues ultimately allowed God’s people to leave Egypt, with the most horrific being the death of the first-born sons. Certainly, killing off the first born sons of Egypt kills future leadership opportunities for the realm.
The people leave with Moses and they are free. They are following a God who is free, not a god who is static like the God’s of Egypt. Static gods have only the interest of the “haves” in mind, and with only the “haves” in mind, oppression is not far behind. Our God who is free…free to be on the move, free from the régime and even free from a name, (God is introduced to the Pharaoh as “I will be who I will be”) is the God who will surface in the brickyards and manifest Godself in Justice and compassion. So, God’s people are free and they are on the move. They are beginning to move into the alternative vision of reality that God had imagined.
Walter Brueggemann in his book The Prophetic Imagination says that articulating an alternative vision of reality involves criticizing and energizing. Criticism is not carping and denouncing. Real criticism begins with the capacity to grieve. The people of Israel cry out to God. The Hebrew word to cry out means both to cry out in misery and wretchedness and the word also means to file a legal complaint. Crying out is the first step in adopting the alternative vision of reality. Crying out expresses that militant sense of being wronged with a powerful expectation that you will be heard and answered. As I have talked with people these last few weeks in the run up to the inauguration, folks have been trying to see the positive side of things and are looking for signs of hope. I admire people’s willingness to be positive, but I also believe that we will not change the current narrative in this country unless we cry out! Brueggemann insists that to be critical, we must have the capacity to grieve. In our culture, we avoid grief. We avoid looking at death. When people are in the hospital we feel as though we must be cheery, bringing flower and balloons. When someone dies, we hope the grieving family will “move on” in a matter of weeks or months. When there is a change in our nation’s administration, we want everyone to just “get on board and be supportive.” But, to live into an alternative vision of reality, we must have the capacity to grieve. Grief and Lament is all throughout the Bible. When we grieve, we cry out, we shout out that things are just NOT RIGHT! In Egypt, the people of God groaned under their bondage, they cried out for help (Exodus 2:23-25.) In the midst of their grief, God heard their cries.
Criticize and Energize. Energy first comes from embracing the darkness. It is acknowledging “this is where we are.” It is being present to the present reality. It is to bring to public expression the fears and terrors that we have. It is to name our sorrows and grief. Energizing gives voice to a public expression of hope as a way of subverting despair. Speech about hope cannot be explanatory, or scientifically argumentative, rather it must be lyrical and be able to touch people at different points. Energizing must come through song.
Remember Paul and Silas in Prison in Acts 16? They are in prison and what do they do? They sing. And while they are singing and praising God, there is an earthquake. The earthquake breaks the bonds of all who are in prison! Everyone’s chains fall away!
Music energized the civil rights movement. One woman said that when everyone was singing that the music filled every molecule of air and that there wasn’t any room for anything else at all. There was only room for the message of the song that was being sung. As I was writing this sermon, the TV was on mute with the smoke of the protests against the inauguration of the president. Rocks and bricks were being thrown answered by tear gas and noise poppers. Imagine if the protesters were singing instead. Bernice Johnson Reagon, a civil rights scholar and singer talks about the power of song in the movement. The movement literally started with congregational singing. “This little light of mine,” “Leaning on the everlasting arms” and “We Shall Overcome.” The music was expanded by those who joined the movement to include popular songs. Reagon goes on to say: When I sing, at full voice, you can hear me a block away. If you’re walking toward me, you’re walking inside the sound of my voice. There are stories about protesters being in jail, and the jailers saying, “shut up that singing.” There is a story of the Freedom Rides, where Bernard LaFayette talks about singing in Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi, which is where they put the Freedom Riders, when they arrived in Jackson, Mississippi. They sang non-stop, pulling songs from all those genres, and refashioning the lyrics. After the first organized loads of bus riders were jailed, people in other parts of the country began to pair up racially, and got on the busses.. When the freedom riders locked up in Parchman got the news that more riders were on the buses coming south, they started singing, “Buses are a’comin, oh Yeah,” In one situation, Bernard LaFayette recalled that the prison guards tried to stop the singing. They said to the singing freedom riders, “if you don’t shut up, we’ll take your mattress,” the protesters would sing, “You can take my mattress, you can take my mattress, oh yeah, you can take my mattress you can take my mattress, I’ll keep my freedom, oh yeah…” That song is a concert spiritual, and we learned it as an arranged concert spiritual, “Chariots a’coming, Oh Yeah.”
There is a story of a policeman beating a demonstrator on the ground and the man being assaulted began to sing, “We Shall Overcome,” and this particular policeman could not continue the beating. This did not happen in every case, however. People who were against the Movement had strong reactions when faced with powerful, solid freedom singing. And the singing was essential to those of us involved in the action, it was galvanizing, it pulled people together, it helped them to handle fear and anger. I am talking about full and rich singing, when people are singing at full power.
When talking about this phenomena of energizing this past week in bible study, our Pastor Emeritus Paul McCann reminded us of this song by Holly Near used in the GLBT civil rights movement.
We are a gentle, angry people 
and we are singing, singing for our lives 

We are a justice-seeking people 
and we are singing, singing for our lives 

We are young and old together 
and we are singing, singing for our lives 

We are a land of many colors 
and we are singing, singing for our lives 

We are gay and straight together 
and we are singing, singing for our lives 

We are a gentle, loving people 
and we are singing, singing for our lives

Look how far that movement has come my friends. We, the members and friends of the United Churches of Olympia are calling out an alternative vision of reality. We can grieve our present situation, the situation here in the United States and the global situation where so many people are suffering. We can sing about America being first: First to compassion, first to justice, first to civil rights, first for caring for refugees, first to healing the planet, first in lifting up the poor of the world. When we are done grieving, then we energize, we sing a new song, full throated so that people are walking into our voices.