Much belated: I’ve been admitted as a postulant to Holy Orders! Started my 18 months of field education at St. Luke’s~San Lucas this January! Totally hit the ground running!:
-Preaching once a month (all three services: 2 in English, 1 in Spanish)
-Assisting with liturgy, worshipping, and/or spending community hour with the Spanish mass every week
-Leading a weekly Lenten Bible study (“Poverty In The Bible”: Sundays in Spanish, Thursdays in English)
-Trying to remember names (failing)
-Trying to be good at small talk in Spanish (failing less)
-Running late most of the time (succeeding)
I’m really really into this parish. Also: my sermons now get recorded! Here’s the audio for my first one (Second Sunday in Epiphany: Jan 18, 2014), make sure to crank the volume up. Text (in English) below the jump.
“The Sharp Sword of Our Mouths: The Truth About Poverty & The Legacy of King”
Text: Isaiah 49:1-7
Opening prayer: In the name of the one holy and undivided Trinity. Amen.
I’m pursuing ordination as a deacon. People often have questions about this: Aren’t you young to be a deacon? Aren’t deacons usually retirees? What is a deacon? The answer to those questions, in order, are: yes, yes, and I’m still figuring that out. Our bishop says deacons are to go out into the world, find trouble, and bring it back to the church. Across Anglicanism, Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy the heart of diaconal ministry is with the poor and the oppressed. Unlike priests who vow to love and serve both rich and poor, deacons vow to prioritize the poor. Deacons fulfill this vow through preaching, teaching and hands-on work. So today, you’re getting a deacon sermon on Isaiah 49:
“The LORD called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me away.”
The truth shapes our mouths into sharp swords. It makes us powerful, and it costs. Whether we aim the blade toward adversaries, friends, or inward at ourselves, it pierces. I don’t mean that truth resembles verbal abuse. It does not. Verbal abuse doesn’t peel back layers of deception. It creates them. There’s a marked difference between the courage of naming and revealing things unspoken, and the cowardice of humiliating another in order to cover your own sin. Isaiah does not call us to cowardice. Instead, he describes how God calls and raises up “one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers” to redeem the faithful and save the world. This is a bottom line in holy scripture. The bible warns us constantly against trusting those who hold positions of authority in this world. It commands us explicitly to seek out leadership and truth from the ranks of the poor.
Do you do this?
Do we do this?
Our churches run feeding programs, emergency shelters, medical missions. Which is good. But that isn’t what Isaiah describes here. He’s talking about leadership, about trusting the enslaved and the despised to save the world. We don’t trust the poor. We don’t seek their leadership. We don’t center parish life around their testimony. And since, despite the bishop’s charge, in these economic times we don’t need to leave the church to find people in trouble, it is necessary for us to aim the sharp sword of truth inward: we don’t trust ourselves when we are poor. My father, for example, is a retired Methodist pastor. I had a conversation with him recently about the period of his unemployment (soon followed by my mother’s) when my sister and I were young. He described to me, for the first time, his humiliation at the four of us living off boxes of macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, and donated food our neighbor would bring us from the Baptist food pantry in town. She knew to hand these to my mother– he was too embarrassed to thank her.
How is this shame possible? My father was raised in church, under a Gospel which proclaims that God incarnate was born in a barn. Our great betrayal of Jesus is the way we, as his followers, let the oppressed blame themselves for their own suffering. What could this world be like if we refused to let that lie stand? What would happen if, like Isaiah, we opened the sharp swords of our mouths to tell the truth about who is really responsible for the suffering of the poor? About those who hoard money, land, political influence, and air time while the children of God freeze to death under bridges at night believing, to the very end, they must have deserved it?
Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day. We mainly talk about King as a leader for the civil rights of black people in this country, which is a true and vital part of his legacy. He was also more than this. King was not poor. Yet toward the end of his life, he began to listen seriously to the Isaiahs around him: welfare mothers in Chicago, the rural poor in places like Marks, Mississippi. That listening was uncomfortable. King felt embarrassed for how little he knew of fighting poverty compared to poor leaders he started to meet. But he stuck with them, listening, learning, trusting. He re-centered his work on the struggles of the poor across lines of race and country. He came out against the Vietnam War, saying:
[T]he war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. […] So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together […] in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.
King went further than words. The last campaign of his life, which he did not live to see carried out, was the Poor People’s Campaign. For this, three thousand poor leaders from all regions of the U.S.– latinos from the southwest, a black and native contingent from the northwest, poor whites from Appalachia– converged on Washington DC. They pitched an encampment on the national mall which they named “Resurrection City,” demanding: thirty billion dollars annually for the war on poverty; legislation securing full employment and guaranteed income; and the construction of 500,000 low-cost housing units per year until slums were permanently eliminated.
They held the encampment for over a month before they were forcibly removed and arrested by the police, their shacks bulldozed to the ground, their demands unmet.
Which leaves you and I with a lot of unfinished business to take care of. King would want us to finish. Isaiah demands that we finish. Christ will make it possible for us to finish. Start now. We won’t win 500,000 units of low-cost housing tomorrow, but that’s not how movements begin anyway. Movements begin with the telling of untold stories. Find an untold story this week. If poverty is part of your own story then tell it without shame, remembering your Savior lived and died as a poor man that we all might have life abundant in this world and the next. If poverty is not part of your story then listen to the truth without fear, remembering the example of Martin Luther King who used the sharp sword of his mouth to heal as well as reveal, and who leaves us with these words:
I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out. … This is the way I’m going. If it means suffering a little bit, I’m going that way. … If it means dying for them, I’m going that way.