Comfort Ye My People
To All the Saints of Austin:
As if COVID-19 weren’t a serious enough issue, the last week has brought extraordinary social unrest reflecting the enormous toll that racial and economic injustice have taken on the most vulnerable and victimized of God’s people, our sisters and brothers. The violence we’ve seen in Austin, Minneapolis, Washington, DC and throughout the country have been shocking and deeply disturbing.
Simplistic understandings of all this generally either serve to diminish the genuine grievance and injury that black Americans continue to suffer; the genuine economic injury caused by the near complete shutdown of our economy, which disproportionately harms the poor and what remains of the middle glass; the social disruption and anxiety driven by months of physical isolation and fear of disease; the unresolved grief after the ongoing loss of more than 100,000 lives in this country alone; and the malicious efforts of those who simply want to inflict death and destruction.
Because we are humans and have minds made for organizing and evaluating threats to our well being, we naturally look for easy and comprehensible ways of naming the problem, absolving ourselves, and demonizing others according to the outrage of the day.
I have my own opinions about all of this, and it’s tempting to use this platform to inflict them on everyone else, but I think anything I can say to you only has value insofar as it helps us all focus our spiritual attention on what Jesus calls the “signs of the times.” Our fundamental Christian symbolism and imagery is both powerful and troubling. Water is a sign of life, refreshment, and cleansing. And it’s the first biblical image of chaos, destruction, and death. Fire is a sign of energy and purification. And it’s a means of violent destruction and the climate of hell. Wind is the means by which life came to the human race and of recreation. And it’s deadly in large scale like hurricanes, and in a breath that conveys disease.
These signs of the times are abundant this week, as is the inspiration of our God calling us to discern within the confusion God's wisdom and truth, and the temptation of the deceiver to call us to our lowest nature. Above all else, I think our best course as Christians is to resist the temptation to identify and denounce “the problem,” and instead to proclaim and model to everyone who glances our way in hope what St. Paul calls the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
To some that will sound like naïve whistling in the dark. But I believe that an enormous amount of our current conflict is because we are unwilling to contemplate and let God direct our own beliefs and behaviors, and quick to react with vitriol and violence to our perception of the faults of others. Of course it is important for us to name and thereby disarm evil when we see it. But that never is the stopping point for Christians. Our denunciation and finger wagging around what is wrong with others does not persuade anyone or change any lives. No one ever is remembered for their heroic disgust and disapproval. We will not be judged on the last day for our detailed delineation of the wrongs of others. Healing and peace-making is active work, not passive hand-wringing.
Racism is not corrected by our “surely not I, Lord” self-righteous liberal white horror. It’s corrected by self-examination and repentance, compassion, listening, binding, healing, and sacrificing of privilege. Economies are not rebuilt by choking our political opponents and ridiculing our intellectual inferiors, but by collaborating and taking risks together. Discord is healed not by identifying who started it, but by accounting for our own behavior and leading others by our action and vision that God offers something better.
Let’s remember the words of Isaiah, echoed by John the Baptist (Isaiah 40:1-5, KJV):
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord's hand double for all her sins. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.
Let’s also consider the powerful and poetic words of Mary’s Magnificat from Luke 1:46-55 (KJV):
My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name. And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation. He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away. He hath helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy; as he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.
The deceiver clears straight pathways of our lowest being with bulldozers, threats, imprisonment, and tear gas, and appeals to our adrenaline, reactivity, stepping up our game with vindictive response in kind, to ensure the illusion that we are strong and righteous of ourselves, so we don’t feel “like jerks.”
But blessed are the meek. Our Lord clears the way differently: with justice flowing like rivers. With reconciliation and grace. By calling us to examine the logs in our own eyes before judging the specks in the eyes of others.
This weekend we’ll observe Trinity Sunday together, and the simple and profound truth of God’s own being that we are at our best when we are in relationship, building each other up in love. Join us at 10:30 at https://www.allsaints-austin.org/LiveWorship. Our world is exhausted and in pain. Our neighbors and scanning the horizon looking for signs of hope. Let’s be that hope to our desperate and beloved world.