This has been a very difficult week. Weeks like this can leave us wondering which wildfire to put out. In fact, the last 11 months has felt as if we’re being chased by wind-blown flames. Of all the international and local crises, which deserves our time and attention the most? The season of Advent prepares us to receive the Christ-child but many of us are struggling to find the Good News with the wolf constantly at our door and with no relief in sight. For a few years we had the sense that equality and fairness were moving forward. But that progress is now seemingly in full reverse; our collective psychological and spiritual foundations are suffering. My being here with you today brings some of the recharging I’ve needed to deal with the cyclone that still stirs inside me.
When Senator Franken made his resignation announcement, many people were saddened and angry—about the resignation and that the president and other abusers remain in office. When the announcement on Jerusalem was made, a friend of mine said, “After an hour of NPR, I want to crawl into a hole and eat potato chips until I go into a coma.”
If only we could pull out a big eraser or press Control, Alt, Delete on the past week and restart with a blank page. If only…but we can’t. As followers of Christ, just as Jesus did, we find strength in each other and in our sacred texts, in order to deal with the struggles in our daily lives. The writings of Isaiah, where our first reading originates, were referred to by Jesus and describe the Prophet Isaiah telling of God’s plan, God’s judgment and God’s restoration for the world. Plan, Judgment, Restoration, are a kind of biblical “control, alt, delete.” From verses 4 and 7: “They will rebuild cities that have long been in ruins. Your shame and disgrace are ended. Your joy will last forever.” But then in verse 8, Isaiah tells what it takes to achieve this restoration: “I love justice and I hate oppression. I will faithfully reward my people and make an everlasting covenant with them.” Covenant. Rights and responsibilities. Contract. Quid pro quo. God’s promise of restoration comes when injustice is confronted and defeated. God makes the covenant and it’s up to us to keep it.
A few short days ago, the president took it upon himself to throw Jerusalem and the Middle East into chaos. By unilaterally declaring Jerusalem as Israel’s capitol, he condemns to death an untold number of Palestinians and Israelis who have already begun to die in Gaza and West Bank protests. There is much to take issue with in his speech, such as his underlying claim that this decision is made to advance peace. On the contrary, in my lifetime, Israeli-Palestinian peace has never been more impossible. Hundreds of millions of people around the world are deeply enraged and rightly so. Being force-fed is never a peaceful event. It guarantees a lifelong abhorrence for what is being forced upon you and towards the abuser. Had peace been an objective, the president could have leveled the Israeli-Palestinian playing field. He could have announced an end to Israeli military aid and support for full Palestinian UN recognition so that Palestine could negotiate a lasting peace with Israel from more equal footing. But the president doubled down with the occupation and God is not with us. Often, the covenant between God and Israel in Genesis 17 is used as a theological foundation for the movement to establish a Jewish homeland:
I will keep my promise to you and to your descendants. I will give to you and to your descendants this land in which you are now a foreigner. The whole land of Canaan will belong to your descendants forever, and I will be their God. Then God said to Abraham, “You also must agree to keep the covenant with me, both you and your descendants in future generations.”
The covenant is obedience to God. In our Isaiah text from today, God is unequivocal about what the covenant is: “I love justice and I hate oppression.” It’s up to us to keep that covenant.
The United Church of Christ and the First Congregational Church of Minnesota have adopted the five principles of being a Just Peace Church:
Just Peace is grounded in covenant relationship. God creates and calls us into covenant.
A Just Peace is grounded in the reconciling activity of Jesus Christ. Human sin is the rejection of the covenant with God and one another, and the creation and perpetuation of structures of evil.
A Just Peace is grounded in the presence of the Holy Spirit. God sends the Holy Spirit to continue the struggle to overcome the powers ranged against human bonding.
A Just Peace is grounded in the community of reconciliation: Jesus performed signs of forgiveness and healing and made manifest that God’s reign is for those who are in need.
A Just Peace is grounded in hope. Shalom is the vision that pulls all creation toward a time when weapons are swept off the earth and all creatures lie down together without fear; where all have their own fig tree and dwell secure from want.
What the president has done with respect to Jerusalem violates our values as a Just Peace congregation. Our Just Peace voices must be heard and our Just Peace actions must be resolute. Like race and racism, the oppression of inequality and sexism reinforces the structures of power that are present in our daily lives. The courageous women who have come forward to tell of their being harassed and assaulted by men in power know this fact all too well. Abuse of power is a sin and political comparisons are inept. There is no acceptable number and no acceptable type of sexual harassment or sexual assault. Any person, man or woman, who abuses their position of authority by sexually harassing or assaulting even one person, must lose their position of authority. No matter how high or low the office that is held, no matter how liberal, conservative, or beloved they may be.
Apologies alone don’t allow us to pass “go.” Contrition for hurting another begins with accountability and is fulfilled with demonstrated behavior change, a turn of the heart, often restitution and a period of self-reflection. Due process must be fair for both to the accused and the victim; these systems of review have largely failed. Under-reporting and much delayed reporting springs from women who report their abuse and who are then ignored, threatened, shamed, fired, and called liars. As clear as I’ve tried to be about my own stance, I don’t mean to suggest that intolerance is enough nor that reporting is easy. Today is the 21st anniversary of the Anita Hill hearings. When she reported her harassment she was put on trial.
For a time I worked in a nightclub where overt sexual harassment was commonplace. I reported it, only to have the manager tell me that it’s a fine line because “you know how flirty the girls can be.” In today’s Gospel of Luke, Mary and Elizabeth greet and bless each other and their mutual nurturance is redemptive. Together, they are concerned only with praising God for the infant-spirits in their wombs and comforting each other. They are acknowledged and equal and they hear each other. Women who have been harassed and assaulted are finally being heard because they are uniting and supporting one another. But the structures of societal denial and blame remain largely intact. To end patriarchal supremacy we will need more than apologies, sensitivity training and a few resignations. We will need to press “alt, control, delete” and dismantle the edifice of male supremacy by despising and opposing all of our hetero-normative structures and traditions, including our masculum imago dei—our white male images of God. This is a false God that empowers plantation owners, members of Congress and presidents.
Sexual harassment and sexual assault happen in every workplace. Recently, a Senate leader said, “I believe the women.” But, will he or we believe the women who do domestic work, or who work for tips? Will he or we believe poor women or immigrant women? Will he or we believe African-American women or addicted women? This will not be easy, but our faith and our world are worth fighting for. In the name of love, we can live up to our highest values. Dr. King wrote: “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Every step towards the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle and the tireless exertions and passions of dedicated and courageous individuals.” In the New Testament, Jesus quotes Isaiah eight times to highlight the disconnect between God and the people, and to remind people that Jesus brings with him God’s comfort. From verse 50 and 52: “From one generation to another, God shows mercy on those who honor God…and God lifts them up and comes to their aid.” In this Advent season when we light candles of hope, peace, joy and love, may it be so.