Home / Sermons / Pain and Possibility

Pain and Possibility

Posted on

No matter which side you were on, we all now have the task of trying to create a place that looks more like Isaiah’s vision than Jesus’ premonition.

Today’s texts – Isaiah 65: 17-25 and Luke 21: 5-19 

Pastor Phil
Pastor Phil

Talk about a couple of contrasting visions.

lion-and-lambFor Isaiah, it’s a new heaven and a new earth. Babies will survive infancy, adults will live to an old age. People will no longer build for others as slaves but live in their own homes. They will not bear children into a world of horrors and wolves and lambs will graze together. Maybe even Republicans and Democrats will share a common meal.

For Jesus in the Gospel according to Luke, there will be deceptions and wars, earthquakes and epidemics, starvation and terrifying sights. His followers will be taken into custody and locked away. They will be betrayed by those they thought loved them. Some will be executed. All will be hated because of Jesus’ name.

That begins to sound not only like that hard stretch leading up to last Tuesday’s election, but like the days since then with protesters across the nation taking to the streets to rail against the president-elect while some of that president-elect’s supporters trying to rip hijabs off the heads of Muslim women, vilifying Latino students in schools telling them they’ll be deported, painting swastikas and racial slurs on public buildings and dorm rooms, “daily lynching calendars” circulating on social media, women being groped by men who say it’s okay now.

No matter which side you were on before Tuesday – and here, I know, there was far more disappointment than delight. In Fitchburg, 72 percent of the votes went for Hillary Clinton. But no matter which side you were on, we all now have the task of trying to create a place that looks more like Isaiah’s vision than Jesus’ premonition.

That’s an odd twist, since normally we like to think of the New Testament as more optimistic than the Hebrew scriptures.

But Isaiah was writing for the Jewish people as they were coming out of exile. They had reason to think the world was now going to be better. They knew their history of slavery, of captivity, of exile. They saw the brightness of the moment. And future generations would know both pain and possibility.

museumSo, too, would generations of African Americans. That’s why I think all of us – in this predominantly white congregation – have something to learn from people whose history includes captivity, slavery, exile, lynchings, exclusion – and moments when the possibilities overcame the pain. That is on vivid display at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

I had a chance to visit there in late September. Our friends from Zion City Church took a busload of folks there in late October and I’m happy that Pastor Colier McNair could with us at our 10 o’clock service to share some of their reflections. But let me offer a few of my own that then try to tie that back to our readings and our present situation.

As an older white man entering this amazing place, I knew I had a lot to learn. I experienced the emotional impact of the museum in different ways than many of those around me.

I know some of the stories of slavery, I had lived through the Civil Rights era, I was horrified at the deaths of unarmed men and women and at the racism that has bubbled back to the surface in recent years.

I love the stories of singer Marian Anderson and baseball player Jackie Robinson, the depth of the African American religious experience and the power of the literature and art that have carried stories of horror and hope across generations.

But for me, these were experiences nestled in my mind. For the folks around me, they were the experiences that touched the core of their beings. Yet as an American, they are a part of my story – a story that has given our nation great wealth and power from its origins right up until today at the expense of a people enslaved and exploited.

Let me briefly tell you the stories of four individuals featured there that had particular resonance for me, stories of two whites and two blacks, stories that may have something to say to us on this day as we look to our future.

henry-laurensFirst, there is the story of Henry Laurens. He became wealthy by being a partner in the mid-1700s in one of the largest slave-trading houses in North America. In one decade, his firm oversaw the sale of more than 8,000 slaves from Africa.

Yes, that – and he was a political leader in the Revolutionary War, first serving in the Second Continental Congress and then succeeding John Hancock as president of the Congress when it passed the Articles of Confederation in 1777.

Mixing racial injustice with great political power is not a new thing in our country.

equianoJuxtaposed with the story of Henry Laurens is the story of Olaudah Equiano, a slave whose diary from the late 1700s helps give us insight into the conditions of slaves in the colonies that would become the U.S.

Equiano was enslaved when he was kidnapped from his home in what is now Nigeria at about the age of 11. Eventually he was sent across the Atlantic with 244 other enslaved Africans to Barbados.

He wound up a slave in Virginia, where he was bought by a lieutenant in the British Navy and brought to England. Later he was sold to a Quaker merchant from Philadelphia, who ultimately freed him.

Equiano would write what became the first autobiography of a slave, detailing the horrors of the lives of slaves. The book fueled the anti-slavery movement in Britain, although it was only much later that it had an impact in this country.

manclesAt the museum, quotes from his book about the awful conditions on slave ships and for the slaves in their workplaces became vivid additions to the exhibits – and a source of unease from those of us who recognize how we still benefit from those injustices over 250 years ago.

That recognition of how the nation has benefited from the pain of slavery may help us find the possibilities of continuing to seek that new heaven and new earth that Isaiah described.

I knew the name Ida B. Wells. As a journalist, I recognized her as one of the towering figures in that profession, a person whose memory is honored in awards to contemporary journalists who help illuminate the systems of racism that pervade our nation.

ida-b-wellsIda Wells was born into slavery in 1862 – just before the Emancipation Proclamation. Working in Memphis in the 1890s, she documented the lynching of blacks in the South, bringing to public attention the way they were used not to punish criminals but to push blacks into submission.

Her offices were burned, her life was threatened, but she never gave up, eventually moving to Chicago to continue her work to rid the nation of the evil of the lynching tree. She was also active in the struggle for the rights of women and was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

She embodies the many African Americans across the centuries who led the struggle for freedom and justice, not waiting for others to act on their behalf.

william-lloyd-garrisonThen there was a white journalist of the mid-19th century. I could identify with William Lloyd Garrison as someone who could stand as a model for me, a voice for liberation and inclusion awakening white folks to what was happening in their country to the black folks in their midst.

From 1830 to 1865, he used the power of his writing to rally the nation against the institution of slavery. Early on, he published a column about “the barbarities of slavery.” His newspaper, The Liberator, developed a wide following in the North. He helped organize anti-slavery societies.

And like Wells, he understood the threads that connect the oppression of various groups, so after the Civil War was over, turned his powerful pen to the cause of women’s rights.

William Lloyd Garrison reminds me that as a white man, I have a role to play in the continuing struggle for justice.

screenAs I wound my way up from the depths of the slave trade in the lower levels of the museum to the joy of the music and art on the top floor, I looked through the Corona screen that wraps the beautiful building on what Rep. John Lewis’ calls the nation’s front porch.

On the day that I was there, I came back onto that front porch with a new appreciation of the depth and richness of the African-American experience, and a deeper awareness of how that experience made my life what it is.

I also came back onto that front porch with a renewed commitment to help reshape this nation so it embraces all people instead of exploiting them, elevates everyone instead of crushing them, creates a place where all can thrive.

Right now, the state of the nation may feel a lot like the description that Jesus offered to his followers – wars, hunger, persecution, imprisonment, death.

But remember that Jesus also promised his followers that they would not be alone in the midst of hardship. He also told them that in the midst of all this, they would have an opportunity to testify – to proclaim the good news.

Dan Schultz grew up in this congregation, the son of Pastor Jon Schultz, who served us here from 1971 to 1996, and Rheda Schultz. Dan is now a UCC pastor in Fond du Lac County. He tweeted yesterday, “America looks like it’s set to become a meaner place, but you can resist that trend.”

Or as Sr. Simone Campbell, she of Nuns on the Bus fame, wrote on Wednesday, “My faith tells me that now, more than ever, we need to mend the gaps and bridge the divides among us. We know that Democracy is hard work.

“If anger fueled the election, we need to listen deeply to this reality, not dismiss it. The temptation is to immediately think about how we will fight back, but fighting back will only reinforce this mess we’re in. Instead, we have to fight for a vision that eases people’s fears, brings us together, and solves problems.”

A vision. That’s what we can organize ourselves around. A vision that will carry us forward, carry our nation forward, carry our world forward. We may not share the vision that seems dominant right now, but we can dream of the vision from Isaiah and then work to bring it closer to reality.

One of the great African American writers who had a vision of what could be was Langston Hughes. At the 10 o’clock service, the choir will sing a musical setting of this poem. It’s a poem that opens the book about the new museum, a book called Dream a World Anew. Let me read it to you now.

dream-a-worldI Dream A World
By Langston Hughes

I dream a world where man
No other man will scorn,
Where love will bless the earth
And peace its paths adorn
I dream a world where all
Will know sweet freedom’s way,
Where greed no longer saps the soul
Nor avarice blights our day.
A world I dream where black or white,
Whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth
And every man is free,
Where wretchedness will hang its head
And joy, like a pearl,
Attends the needs of all mankind-
Of such I dream, my world!

Another great African American poet was James Weldon Johnson. He was also a U.S. diplomat at the beginning of the 20th century and an early leader in the NAACP. He wrote the words to this song while his brother John Rosamond Johnson composed the music.

It’s #593 in our hymnals – “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” It’s a song of pain and of possibility. Let’s sing it together.