I had the honor of preaching at the ordination of my friend and colleague Sarah today. We were an all-women ordination commission. And it was lovely. Below is the sermon. (Note that since Sarah's mother is a New Testament professor, I opted not to preach on a NT passage - I couldn't bear to mess that one up. LOL.)
There is a trap waiting out there for ministers in the United States. Do you not perceive it? The trap that ministers fall into is confusing the Good News with Nice News. Sarah and I were at a conference a few years ago where the Rev. Jose Morales preached on this distinction, and it has stayed with me.
I’m not all that opposed to nice. When I think of nice, I think of a vacation place I once stayed at with a garden wall covered with tiny pots of succulents and a small bamboo garden. I think of the time I was helpful to a flight attendant trying to handle bags in the overhead compartment on a flight packed full of business travelers and she thanked me for being nice.
This passage sounds nice. Water in the wilderness, new thing springs forth, etc. Don’t worry too much about the beginning where the chariot and horse, army and warrior lie down and are extinguished like a wick, which sounds less nice.
Nice news is palatable, especially for those of us in the U.S., where it’s possible we have confused material comfort with wholeness, relative wealth with safety, security with peace. We reduce Jesus to What Would Jesus Do, we reduce the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to one speech that is misinterpreted to shore up the dangerous myth that ignoring racial difference will eliminate inequality. It sounds nicer. We take the prophetic word, and we shift the words of the prophets away from us towards the other. We assume we are standing with the prophet, with the benefit of hindsight, instead of being the people to whom the prophet speaks. We preach it as though we are the ones being liberated, instead of the ones creating oppression and inequality, from whom others need liberation. We take the prophetic word and name ourselves as Christians as the fulfillment of the prophecy.
Nice news is how we end up with congregations full of people striving to be “good people,” believing that civility across differences and regular church attendance are synonymous with faithful Christian living. Confusing good news and nice news is how we end up with white Christians unable to have a nuanced, accountable conversation about racism and white supremacy. Christian men and too many women unable to have effective conversations about gender and power. Most Christians unable to have thoughtful mature conversations about human sexuality. And let us not talk about colonialism, enslavement, and capitalism, relative to our endowments and our buildings.
Because it’s not nice, right? It’s not nice to speak of politics at the Thanksgiving table. It’s not nice to bring up religion with an acquaintance. It’s not nice to ask your conservative auntie to quit sharing transphobic memes on Facebook. It’s not nice to ask if people with means are totally okay with removing their own know-how and energy and caring from underprivileged under-resourced public school systems because they don’t have the time to make structural change on the backs of their own children at the expense of other people’s children. It’s not nice to talk about how white teenagers from a wealthy private school who travel to DC to speak out against the agency and health care of pregnant people are not innocent, but are willing participants in and beneficiaries of centuries of white supremacy and colonialism. Or how one city’s failure to adequately plan for transportation infrastructure is doing a good job of reinforcing poverty and damaging the planet, and making it difficult for people struggling to make ends meet to get around. It’s definitely not nice to point out that being a legacy admitted to a prestigious school is a way that primarily whites continue to benefit from the legacies of slavery, genocide, and centuries of discrimination.
Nice becomes a weapon. We use it to verify our own goodness, or confirm the evil of others. Instead of letting the Scripture stand in its complexity, and what it means to be in relationship with a creator under all kinds of circumstances, particularly a creator who comes across as capricious at times, and a people who are immature in their faith. And that weapon of nice-i-fying the Scripture means those who most need good news in their life are robbed of liberation.
This passage isn’t nice. It was written during the time of exile in Babylon. It refers to the flight of the people out of slavery in Egypt. The passage begins with what God has done. The promised liberation is accompanied by the transformation of the non-human world.
This deliverance of which the prophet speaks is a reversal of what took place in the Exodus, or a new Exodus. The new thing God will do is deliverance and a world that is greener, more lush.
It’s not a done deal, though. According to this passage, it hasn’t yet happened. The people are still stuck in exile. There isn’t a highway in the desert, or rivers turning the desert green. Deserts are beautiful – but they are deadly.
Just like the hearers… we know some things.
We know what the desert is like. We know what lushness is, where there is plenty of water.
We know God saw these people through exodus. We know God saw these people through exile. We have advance knowledge that God will continue to see these people through. We know what God has been capable of. But that doesn’t mean we know all of what God can and will do.
God isn’t done yet, the prophet tells us. What we, the church, know of God is not complete.
One of the gifts of our relationship with God is this, the promise of the new thing. Who could have known that the church could call queer pastors, gender non-conforming elders, divorced people, people of color?
I am just old enough to have known most of the firsts. The first black lesbian divinity school dean. The first woman president of a PC(USA) seminary. The first Korean American woman ordained. The first African American woman ordained. The first out gay person ordained. Gen X and millennials largely missed our chance to be the first in that large, historic sense, because those who went before us paved the way, and we are followers of the paths they laid. But we can still be the first, the new thing, for individuals whose religious worlds are different from ours.
How we show up – what we look like, which social categories we fit into – this isn’t neutral. Our bodies are political. The incarnation of Jesus was political because it was embodied in a particular being, an occupied body.
Those of us who show up in the world spark possibilities for others. That’s why the white supremacist heteropatriarchy is so damaging – not just because it kills bodies, but because it restricts the imagination itself. To get hung up on the former things – in the Hebrew, the first things – God has done, is to limit our own imaginations.
For those of us who embody something outside what we in the predominantly white church are socialized to expect in a leader, when we enter into the room, our body blows open the constraints. Our embodiment makes a claim about the nature of God, by which vehicles God works. This can be dangerous. White men who speak challenging words are heroic; women of color who speak challenging words are aggressive, or angry. But still we speak, because we are compelled to speak for ourselves and for all the girls of color whose lives we may still impact. We may be the first for someone else, and we represent something new.
Ministry is not exactly full of new things – it’s sort of the same things lived out in new beings – life, death, suffering, joy, the search for meaning, the exploration of the Spirit, the dysfunctional family dynamics. It’s the one more difficult diagnosis, desperately seeking words of meaning after another mass shooting. After all, it means preaching deliverance in a time where exile is real, where refugees flee and end up imprisoned in tents on the border, or islands off the coast, or where our own country had no way to track the children seeking refugee status who were separated from their parents, or where the first peoples of this land have yet to be treated with the dignity they are owed.
When I decided to leave the west coast where I grew up and New York City where I had my first job, to attend seminary in Chicago, an area of the country I had thought about maybe twice in my life, I thought about metaphorical exile a lot, which is what happens when one grows up with the privilege of feeling rooted and grounded in a place, and chooses to leave.
This passage is not about me or people like me. This exile is not self-imposed or about existential angst, but the result of physical displacement. In a world of involuntary exile due to economic inequality, war, and climate change, the proclamation of deliverance from exile in Babylon feels so deeply necessary.
Some of us know a lot about what exile feels like in our bodies and some of us have no idea. As 21st century North American hearers, we probably can’t assume we are the ones exiled… perhaps some of us are the Babylonians who have imprisoned entire peoples for our own gain.
Suppose the new thing is hearing the good news as the ones who are the cause of so much suffering in the world.
In the day-to-day work of pastoral ministry, or chaplaincy, or the ministry of educating, music ministry, or social services, we offer words of consolation and assurance. We show up to be present in times of joy and despair. But the ordination to Minister of Word and Sacrament means we speak other words, as well. The good news words. The difficult words. The words that name the truth of what is happening around us, to us, and the words that name what God has promised.
Ministers of Word and Sacrament have to struggle with the not so nice words and the pressure to be civil and diplomatic in exchange for job security, stability, and a place to live out our call that is bearable. But we are not exempt from speaking other kinds of words, the good news words, the difficult words. We can’t just skip right to the desert blooming, and animals joining the same religion as the people.
That is the call. To lift up what is really happening while reminding all of us of the possibilities, the new things God will do. Truths are not always fun – that’s where poverty, discrimination, increased productivity for decreased wages, environmental degradation, and abuse live. Truths are multiple, though. It is also true that we are beloved. That God has pulled the people out of exile and slavery. That God has called people of exile and people of Babylon to be faithful sharers of the Gospel.
And, based on evidence across the ages, from every time and place, remind people of what is coming next.
This new thing God is doing – this isn’t about one ordination. This is about what we as Christians are called to proclaim in a world that allows for mass casualties through war and economic inequality and does little to prevent mass extinction of other creatures due to climate change and habitat loss. The total transformation of the desert from an arid place to one through which rivers run – that is what the prophet tells us God is capable of doing.
What we know as Christians from the truth of the resurrection is that death does not have the final say. God will make a way in the wilderness. It is difficult to remember that… but that is what you do, day in and day out. Not nice news. Good news.
May it be so.