I had a seminary professor that was fond of saying that you need to exegete the congregation. What he meant by this is you study a scripture over the course of week and then you write your sermon with your congregation in mind, using illustrations that come from their context, their culture, and their community. You write your sermon for your whole congregation and not just a portion of your congregation. Which makes sense. When I worked fulltime with youth I would share stories that would connect to their context and their reality as teenagers. After seeing the events unfold on Wednesday I have been wrestling with how best to address them as your pastor, asking the questions what does Eastminster need to hear in this moment? Do they need to hear a message of lament, challenge or of hope? As your pastor I have made a commitment to always share the truth with you and to work for the peace and unity of the church. We have just started what I hope will be a long relationship, yet we are still getting to know one another, we are still learning to trust one another. In these last few months we have continued to face a lot of reclosing of in person worship, the continued and escalating pandemic, a heated election cycle, and now a national trauma. You have only heard me in this pulpit 16 times and only 8 of those times have been in person. I don’t have the benefit of seeing how you react, what you connect with, what you laugh at, or how the spirit moves in our community. There are portions of the congregation I haven’t even met yet and even the ones I have, I haven’t seen your entire face. Sometimes it feels a little like I am driving through a dense fog. I can see a few feet in front of me, but not much beyond that. In light of this national trauma I wanted to share three words, a word of lament, a word of challenge, and a word of hope. I will speak to a small camera in the back the room and share a message and trust that God will speak into your life through it.
A word of lament, I imagine all of us are hurting right now and a little confused. On Wednesday, I was in a zoom meeting with the Presbytery, on one screen I had the zoom and the other screen I had video from a newsfeed watching the destruction in DC. It was difficult to watch, difficult to maintain focus in the meeting, but I didn’t feel like I could look away, I felt my body tense, I had moments where I felt like I might cry, I turned off my camera and one point and said a prayer for our police, our leaders, our nation, and even the instigators. I thought about how I would explain this to my boys, what questions they might ask. I felt the brokenness of our system that would allow this to happen. I felt anger and pain at many of the images, but in particular at some of the symbols that were being carried. The symbols of hate from white supremacists, the nooses, the gallows that were erected, the slogans about the holocaust. I also saw people carrying crosses, and invoking the name of Jesus and God. I felt the weight of how the church has failed. God is not aligned to a party or a candidate. God at all times is on the side of the people, the poor, the oppressed, those without rights, God is not aligned with hate, discrimination, or worldly power. I thought about all the students I have worked with over the years and how many have been turned away from the church because they saw Jesus being mixed discrimination and hate. Many of my students have told me over the years that they loved Jesus but not the church. This pain made me think about the prophet Jeremiah, who ministered during a period of brokenness to a broken people and he lamented “My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war. Disaster overtakes disaster, the whole land is laid waste. Suddenly my tents are destroyed. How long must I see the standard, and hear the sound of the trumpet?” How long oh Lord? How long oh Lord will we see disaster after disaster? Crisis after Crisis? Pandemic after pandemic? But in the midst of pain God listens, God always hears our pain. God is the eternal witness. God has seen pain and heart break from the beginning and God’s eternal promise is God’s presence within that pain. That God will never leave us or forsake us. That God has indeed known suffering. The very Christian symbol of the cross is a symbol of the empire, the empire that used the cross to put to death Jesus but it has become of symbol of life and a reminder God is with us in midst of any suffering and God is with those who are oppressed.
A word of challenge, I know we are all confused by this attack. We saw these images and it is hard to process, hard to understand. I think we need to recognize that was a large crowd with very mixed intentions. Most went to D.C. to exercise their freedom of speech. There is nothing wrong with this, everyone should have the freedom to do this. But there were others in that crowd that came with very different intentions, just like we saw in the crowds this past summer. Their intention was not to support democracy or free speech but to do damage, cause mayhem and harm. In truth much of it is the result of rhetoric that allows hate to stand unchallenged. When I have spoken to my colleagues of color, none of them have been surprised by this attack. One described the attack on the capital as the same spirit that lynched black men and women all across our land. The same spirit that in 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina overthrew an elected town counsel. Four hundred armed men plotted for months, ransacked the town and then murdered 60 people.  Those 400 men were celebrated. I am sorry if this makes you uncomfortable, and please know that it makes me uncomfortable. I think sometimes the work of the spirit is to sit in our own discomfort. I think the work of the spirit is calling us to repentance, to listen one another, and talk with one another, not to demonize one another, but to listen and talk.
A word of hope. From our scriptures today, we see two images. The first is an account of the first day of creation, God hovers over the waters, and night and day are created. We see again light and water and God creating order out of chaos. The second we also see God acting and moving. Jesus is baptized by his cousin John, the heavens are torn apart. Nature itself is upended in this moment, creation is changed at the baptism of Jesus. And out of that very rupture the Holy Spirit descends like a dove. The Greek here implies that the Spirit is infused into Jesus, that it comes into him. A new reality is transforming all things. John who cries out on the banks of the Jordan a word of lament and challenge, “repent and be baptized.” John who says he is unworthy to serve, unworthy of Jesus. John will usher in a new baptism. Baptism is the reality in which God summons us, God imparts to us faith. Faith in Jesus, and this the true presence of the Church and the world. That baptism opens our hearts and our minds to be instruments of peace and unity to our neighbors and to our community.  This is our hope, that we can be God’s instrument of peace and unity. When we see violence, it should create in us an urgency to be agents of love and change in this world.
God hears our pain. God calls us to repent, listen and talk. And God longs for us to be instruments of peace and unity in this world.
 Jeremiah 4:19-21