Tuesday, February 10, 2009

In the Meantime: What Faith is for (Absalom Jones Sunday)

Sermon preached on February 8, 2009 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene (5 Epiphany, Absalom Jones): Isaiah 40:12-31, Psalm 147:10-12

On January 1, 1808, St. Thomas’ African Episcopal Church held a Service to celebrate the abolition of the African slave trade. Their rector was the first African American to have been ordained an Episcopal priest, the Rev. Absalom Jones. In his sermon that day he said

The history of the world shows us that the deliverance of the children of Israel from their bondage is not the only instance in which it has pleased God to appear on behalf of oppressed and distressed nations as the deliverer of the innocent and of those who call upon his name. He is as unchangeable in his nature and character as he is in his wisdom and power. The great and blessed event, which we have this day met to celebrate, is a striking proof that the God of heaven and earth is the same yesterday, and today, and forever.

He went on to describe the miseries of the slave trade, speaking to the perpetrators of it, and concluding

Though you have been deaf to their cries and shrieks, they have been heard in heaven. The ears of Jehovah have been constantly opened to them. He has heard the prayers that have ascended from the hearts of his people; and he has, as in the case of his ancient and chosen people the Jews, come down to deliver our suffering countrymen from the hands of their oppressors.

Absalom Jones’ words come from an incredible faith in God, the God who is active in history, the God who cares in particular for the oppressed and acts on their behalf. This faith is echoed in both the Isaiah reading this morning and the psalm. From Isaiah

But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

And from the psalm

[The Lord] heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. (Psalm 147:3)

We hear the words of Absalom Jones and these words from Scripture and we rightly say, “This is what faith is for!”

But there is one word contained in the Isaiah reading which should give us pause and cause us to wrestle. Particularly in the face of oppression it is a terrible word with which we must come to terms. That word is “wait.” “Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength…”

If God hears the cries of the oppressed and the brokenhearted, why do they have to wait? The slave trade went on for more than a hundred years before it was abolished. Why did God wait? When it was abolished, slavery itself remained quite legal and it would take another 55 years and a civil war to end it. Why did the slaves have to wait?

This is a question as old as faith itself. And in the history of humanity wrestling with this question there has never been a satisfactory answer to it. And I can’t give you one today. Why do we have to wait? I simply do not know.

The question lies at the heart of the reading from Isaiah this morning. The people have been living in exile in Babylon for two generations. Memories of their homeland have begun to fade and a certain begrudging acceptance of life lived under the rule of the Empire had begun to set in. Those who were still keeping the memory of the God of Israel were asking the hard questions about God’s seeming absence and saying things like what Isaiah quotes, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God.”

God is indignant at this attitude. “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” Do you not remember the God who laid the foundations of the earth, before whom the inhabitants of the earth are but grasshoppers?

This powerful God says he does not grow faint or weary. When, however, we say, will he act?

The answer seems to be “in God’s good time,” a time which is not ours to know.

We are only told what to do in the meantime. Wait.

But what does it mean to wait? Does it mean just to sit back passively, literally, and wait? No it means first of all to remember. Remember the God who cares for you, who “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.”

Remember. But that is not all. There is a second thing we must do while we wait. That second thing comes out of our remembering that we serve a God who sides with the oppressed. When that does not seem to be happening, we cry out. We pray, we lament, we complain, we cajole, we insist. We let God know that we want and need action, and there is an urgency to our prayer.

This is what it means to have faith in the meantime: to remember and to cry out, believing in the power of God to act.

Wednesday is the twentieth anniversary of the consecration of Bishop Barbara Harris, the first woman bishop in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. This too was a moment in which we could see the hand of God acting, but it was also a “how long” moment? Why the wait? But women like Bishop Harris, although I know they asked the question, “How long?” never stopped working for the day, believing with all their heart that it was the will of God.

That is faith, faith in the midst of the hard struggle of life. Stubborn faith, that may reluctantly wait, but does not take “no” as the answer.

Bishop Harris once said to a friend of mine at a moment when she was struggling in the ordination process, “Don’t forget that the power that brought you here is the power that will see you through.”

This is what faith is for—the meantime between the promise and its realization, the time of waiting, of remembering and crying out. It is stubborn belief in the power that will see you through.

Those of us who work for justice in the church and in the world have to have this kind of tough faith or we will not survive. We have to learn to wait on God while crying out, while striving for justice and peace among all people.

And those of us who simply live life, with its many trials and tribulations have to have this tough faith or we will not survive. We have to learn to wait on God while crying out for our own wholeness or that of ones we love.

Wait. That is the terrible cost of faith.

But oh the promise!

But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Let us join with our ancestor Absalom and be this people! Let us never stop crying out and working for what is right. For we serve a God who will act, who does side with the oppressed, who does not grow faint or weary.

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