Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
December 3, 2017
“How Long? Not Long”
Isaiah 64: 1-9 – Common English Bible
“If only you would tear open the heavens and come down!
Mountains would quake before you
2 like fire igniting brushwood or making water boil.
If you would make your name known to your enemies,
the nations would tremble in your presence.
3 When you accomplished wonders beyond all our expectations;
when you came down, mountains quaked before you.
4 From ancient times,
no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any god but you
who acts on behalf of those who wait for him!
5 You look after those who gladly do right;
they will praise you for your ways.
But you were angry when we sinned;
you hid yourself when we did wrong.
6 We have all become like the unclean;
all our righteous deeds are like a menstrual rag.
All of us wither like a leaf;
our sins, like the wind, carry us away.
7 No one calls on your name;
no one bothers to hold on to you,
for you have hidden yourself from us,
and have handed us over to our sin.
8 But now, Lord, you are our God.
We are the clay, and you are our potter.
All of us are the work of your hand.
9 Don’t rage so fiercely, Lord;
don’t hold our sins against us forever,
but gaze now on your people, all of us.”
I know you are asking today, "How long will it take?" (Speak, sir) Somebody’s asking, "How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom [off] her sacred throne?"
Somebody’s asking, "When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust[heap] of shame to reign supreme among the children of [humankind]?"
Those were the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. spoken from the steps of the State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, at the conclusion of the march from Selma in 1965. Words not spoken before they started, words not spoken while everyone waited around wondering when they could finally cross over the Edmund Pettis Bridge, and how they would make it past and through the violent white mobs. No, these were words spoken after they arrived. A march first attempted on March 7th but interrupted and interrupted again, and not completed until March 25th, with a Unitarian minister killed in between. Not to forget, of course, that it is 50 miles between the two cities, which they walked 12 miles at a time.
At the end of his speech, Dr. King asked: "When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, (Speak, speak, speak) plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, (Speak) and truth bear it?" (Yes, sir)
I come to say this to you [today]. However difficult the moment, (Yes, sir) however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, (No sir) because "truth crushed to earth will rise again." (Yes, sir)
How long? Not long, (Not long) because:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; (Yes, sir)
[Who] is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; (Yes)
[And] has loosed the fateful lightning of a terrible swift sword; (Yes, sir)
[God’s] truth is marching on. (Yes, sir)
Blood stains still visible on the bridge, the words of Dr. King delayed, but not denied. The speech is also sometimes referred to as "Our God Is Marching On!" But I really resonate with the original title: “How long, Not long.”
It resonates because, week after week, we keep having to ask it. How much longer can we stand of the sheer quantity of lies and the ever-emboldening confidence of fabrications, distractions, and the deliberate blurring of reality? Outrages meant to exhaust us; tweets meant to wear us down. How much longer, Lord, must we endure these present days? Even though we rest assured in Dr. King’s exhortation: No lie can live forever. But really? Are you sure? Do you promise?
I’m with Isaiah. Sometimes, when I’m at my wits end, when I can’t shake my head anymore because it will fall off my neck, the prophet Isaiah said so well what I often conclude is the only thing that will save us: “If only you, God, if only you would tear open the heavens and come down!” And set things right. Restore our world with civility. Decency. And truth. Bring on some of that good ol’ fashioned trampling and grapes of wrath stuff. And loose that fateful lightening from its terrible swift sword.
Oh Lord, how long? Because the waiting is awful. Of course, it hasn’t actually been that long. And as a person of privilege, my struggle is more existential, not a matter of fearfully anticipating raids at work, banned and abandoned at the airport, deported from my home and fearing the separation of my family, and beatings for walking down the street…
You get what I’m saying. Keep all things in perspective. Yet, no matter the circumstance, justified or not, physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual, my long and your long… is long. From the back seat of the car, asking, “aren’t we there yet?”
And then, just in time, along comes Advent. Advent calls our waiting sacred. Advent is an interesting time to consider… time. There are plenty of quotable quotes, like: “Just in time.” “Time is of the essence.” “All in good time.” However, Karoline Lewis says those are all attempts to control time, as in, “we just have to get through it.” Or hurry up and be patient. We also often force it to be redemptive, demanding that “Time heals all wounds.” Oh really? Many of us know, that’s not always true. It is true, however, that “time will tell.” And as Dr. King promised, as does scripture, the “time will come” when what you reap is what you sow. When the chickens come home to roost.
At Christmas we say “Jesus was born in the ‘fullness of time.’” Meaning, the time is already here. But, the famous line of Advent is actually “here, and not yet.” Christ is among us, and yet to come. Just as we say of the Kingdom of God: It exists, in and among and through us, yet it’s fulfillment, we still wait. But for how long?
As much as I want “their time” to come, whoever the target of my pointing to “them” is in any one given moment… Yet, perhaps, instead, I should ask: Am I ready for my time? It took Isaiah only a minute to get there. He started by pleading to God, beseeching, “If only you would tear open the heavens and come down!” If you did, he told God, mountains would quake. Fires would ignite. Water would boil. Nations would tremble.
Isaiah described the actions of what I call his “Cosmic Warrior God” to “Show them!” But, did you notice the shift, the sharp contrast, when Isaiah then said, “We are the clay, and you are our potter.” I don’t understand the sudden change. What happened in those couple of verses? If God is the Cosmic Warrior come to set things right (as in set in “them” right), why is God all of a sudden a potter, molding and shaping…?
Maybe this is it: To set me right. Let me see if I understand. This isn’t about what “they” do. This is about what we do. The shift from warrior to potter means, regardless of what anyone else is doing, what do we believe and what should we do right? It’s not what do “they” do wrong anymore? Would you agree?
I’ve never thrown a pot, but it sure looks messy. Actually, now that I think of it, we made pottery at summer camp. Well, tried to. Everything I tried to make melted, collapsed, into a misshapen lump. Have you ever tried? Maybe you stuck with it and became a master potter. I finally managed to make a rudimentary bowl, which I then presented to my mother as “a gift.” She dutifully praised and thanked me. Lies, I realize. All lies! But sweet. And exactly what we need a mom to say.
But whether a mess or beautiful, I’m reminded that all pottery must go into a kiln, into the flames, to be complete. It all must go through the fire. How long? I don’t know. Just like I don’t know how long these present days will last. I do know that God hears our pleas for justice and compassion to finally reign – And I also know that justice is already here. In you. And compassion is already here. In you. It’s in, among, and through people of faith and people of good will and people of conscience. People worrying less about whether Starbucks puts Christ back in Christmas than they care about putting Christ back into Christians. How long until that time comes? Dr. King said: Not long.
Because as long as you and I seek our faithfulness to the life and teachings of Jesus, as long as we act justly, love mercy, and walk with humility, that’s what matters. It’s the “here” we can control. The “not yet” for which we pray. And let judgment be in the realm of God’s duties. For us not to condemn but provoke. Or at least, for our condemnation not to be self-righteous. Because we must still condemn white supremacy, the fleecing of the poor for the sake of the rich… The Bible is constantly speaking up on behalf of justice for immigrants and refugees. These are not things to abandon, to say “Let’s all get along!” Or make it all about just Jesus and me. My call is for our justice and mercy to come with humility. I don’t promise it will be easy but I believe we may feel a little less on edge.
I do acknowledge that I’ll still find myself with Isaiah calling upon God to smite those whom I label as enemies of decency. It’s a reflex! And so satisfying. But deadly. So spiritually deadly. But like Isaiah, no matter where we begin, how many times we fail, or how many missteps we take, my hope is to conclude as he did: Praying for God to shape and mold me and you and us into pitchers full of peace, carafes of compassion overflowing, and jugs filled to the top with grace. My Advent prayer is for each of us to be willing clay in the divine Potter’s hands, realizing, of course, that also comes with time in a kiln.
Including this fiery, agonizing, polarized time in our nation. But this time too, this waiting, is sacred. Christ is here, and not yet. In Selma, they had finally crossed the bridge and arrived on the steps, but the journey was, and is, far from over. In the meantime, our faithfulness to the life and teachings of Jesus can be expressed this way:
Where hatred roars, we will sing of love.
Where fear stalks, we will stand with courage.
Where bigotry rages, we will call for justice
Where pain overwhelms, we will extend comfort.
Where systems oppress, we will work for change.
Not self-righteously, but allowing ourselves to be clay in our Divine Potter’s hands. With a little Cosmic Warrior help sometimes! Because we need Dr. King’s radiant star of hope to plunge against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night and pluck weary souls from their chains of fear and the manacles of death.
For how long? Not long. At least, I hope so!
 https://www.axios.com/community/Jim “Trump's mind-numbing media manipulation machine”
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Travelling around the world