Waiting on God & America’s Sin

potters hands

Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Isaiah 64: 1 – 9.  Focus on the American sin of slavery and its continuing racism.

Normally we hear from Mark’s Gospel on the first Sunday in Advent. It’s a text that tells us that when God comes to us it will happen on a grand and cosmic scale and until that happens we are to wait patiently for God. In the Isaiah passage a different tact is taken: begging, pleading and crying.

In these verses from Isaiah we see a communal lament, which is both confession and complaint. Isaiah 64: 1-9 begins and ends with a request. The first request is that God would “tear open the heavens and come down… to make God’s name known to God’s enemies.

Presumably this demonstration would convince God’s enemies to end their rebellion against God and then the prophet moves to pondering and praising God for being a God who in all ages, “works for those who wait for him.” He concludes by saying that all is well for the righteous but the question still remains how should God deal with the guilty?

And in verse 5 the lamenting community erupts into a confession that begins with an accusation. It’s like the spouse who “confesses” their cheating was due to their partner’s failure – thus the people attribute their sin and their transgression to God’s anger and withdrawal.

            This accusation by the community draws upon two key beliefs: 1. That human deeds are derived from divine goodness and 2. Absent God, humans will sin. Therefore it’s not our fault it’s God’s or the devils.

The lamenters next describe how sin has covered them as a community, contaminated their deeds, taken their energy and become their driving force. This captivity to sin leads to a second confession and accusation: “There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity” (verse 7). The failure to seek God is attributed to God’s hiding; seeking is futile because God has left the guilty to the consequences of their own sins.

            Then the lamenters do what they said no one does: they call upon God’s name and attempt to take hold of God. They appeal to “our Father” and “our potter.” They confess that they are all filthy and faded (verse 6) and they claim that they are all offspring and product of God’s creative activity (verse 8). On the basis of this latter connection, the lamenters make one more request: that God’s anger and memory of their guilt not last forever (verse 9).

            So why is this important for us? Because the truth of the lament is not found in the faulty reasoning of the people – “It’s ultimately God’s fault.” It’s like America saying that there is no racism today. It’s like America saying that the shooting of Michael Brown in Furguson, Missouri is an aberration of American life rather than an act as American as apple pie.

Let me read you some facts: This country’s constitution said that black men and women were only to be considered 3/5 of a person because slavery was an accepted practice until the civil war. Following the civil war between the years of 1882 and 1968 – 3,446 black people, along with another 1,297 people mostly of Mexican and Chinese descent were lynched in this country.

That’s close to 5000 people lynched and only one person brought to justice, a sheriff by the name of Joseph Shipp who was found guilty by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1907 for his role in the lynching death of an innocent black man named Ed Johnson. His was the only criminal trial in Supreme Court history.

Sherriff Shipp was found guilty of criminal contempt for leaving the jail free of his or any deputies’ presence so that the white mob could take Ed Johnson from his cell and lynch him. For this he was sentenced to 90 days in a Washington, D.C., jail.

Reporter, Noah Parden, writing for the Atlanta Independent Paper, wrote on January 30, 1910: “After completing his three-month sentence, Sheriff Shipp returned to Chattanooga, where he received a hero’s welcome. As he stepped off the train from Washington, a crowd of more than 10,000 people singing “Dixie” greeted him.

Which brings us to a 2014 study done by a research group – ProPublica, entitled: Deadly Force in Black and White, which examined the 1,217 deadly police shootings between 2010 to 2012, data collected by the FBI, and they found that young black males between the ages of 15 and 19, were 21 times at greater risk for being shot by a police officer than were their white brothers and sisters in the same age range.

The data shows that young black men were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million citizens, while just 1.47 per million citizens white males in that age range died at the hands of police.

Let me give you something that will illumine the reality of these numbers:

To calculate how many more white teenagers would have had to be killed for them to have been at equal risk to a black teenager the number is staggering. For there to be equality between the races when it comes to being shot and killed by a police officer, 185 white teenagers would have to be killed each week over the same time span from 2010 to 2012.

So while Israel tried this tactic of denying their complicity in the nation’s sins, the sins that led them into captivity in the first place were the very sins they didn’t want to take responsibility for. For example it was God who made us sinners since he withdrew his presence from us. It is God who created me this way. No mention of the complicity by those taken into captivity.

No one is innocent. Even those of us who are not doing these things like shooting unarmed teenagers, even though you and I do not do this, we are still held accountable for what we do or do not do about it. For example to remain silent is a choice. Just as it’s a choice to talk about it. As last week’s sermon made clear, God may save us by grace but he will judge us by our actions or lack thereof.

Advent like Lent is a time of preparation. Part of that preparation besides waiting is repenting. As a country we need to repent of the racism that took Native American Lands by force and in exchange gave Native American reservations to live and die on. We need to apologize for the institution of slavery and for its vestiges as seen in the Jim Crow Laws of the last century and the secret segregation known in the real-estate market as red lining that still goes on today.

There are nations who have gone this way before us and have given us a way through our own spiritual wilderness. In South Africa councils of reconciliation and justice were held throughout the country and blacks and whites had to face each other and own up to what had happened during apartheid but know their country is moving forward.

In Australia the government formally apologized to its aboriginal people’s for having taken by force their children from their homes and given them to white Australians to raise as their own.

Until we come to terms with the real issues of race and privilege in this country we will not heal much less return from an exile that will be of our own making.

The lamenters in Isaiah 64 never make a clear and contrite admission of culpability and they never return to their previous glory. They never return to their land as owners of it again. At best they are renters to the Babylonians and the Romans and after Rome they no longer live in the land of their birth again until the victors of World War II place them there.

            In Isaiah 64:1-9 the pain of the people is brought on by the consequences of the people’s sins, experienced most deeply as anger and alienation from God. Their appeal is for God’s intervention – to heal the alienation and to halt the damage of their sins. The people’s pain is clear. How God will respond is not. Let’s hope that our response is different than our Biblical ancestors. Let’s hope that God does not deal with us according to our sins but will transforms us and forgives us as we repent and prepare the way for the Lord’s arrival. Amen.

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