Spring 2019 Convocation Sermon: When Silence is Complicit

Isaiah 62:1-6

Convocation January 2019

Prepared by Central President Molly T. Marshall

Unfortunately, hazardous weather conditions in the Kansas City area caused us to cancel our Spring 2019 Convocation last night. However, we want to share with you the Convocation sermon that President Marshall prepared for the occasion. Feel free to share this message with your family, friends and social media community. Thank you!

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            Without constitutional power to do so, I am declaring a national emergency.  It is not about “The Wall”; more accurately, it is about a governing system so broken that underpaid government employees are facing eviction, collection agencies, family discord, mental health issues, and anxious unknowing.  They are paying the price—not the “essential personnel,” which I guess includes Congress, military, and the judicial and executive branches of government—for this government shutdown. These sidelined workers are forced to choose what is most urgent to pay: utilities, mortgage, school fees, medicines, child care, ad nauseum.  That, in my judgment, is a national emergency, not to mention a national disgrace, as we enter the fifth week of this travesty.

Another part of the real national emergency is the exhaustion most Americans feel as we try to exegete varied sources of information: the news cycle, threatening presidential rants, and political interlocutors. This exhaustion is intellectual, emotional, and spiritual.  We try to put it into historical perspective, seeking not to conclude that it is “the worst of times,” yet we wonder.

The connectivity we all participate in, however, makes it all more ubiquitous and unrelenting. As we become even more weary with the day to day heated rhetoric and lack of nuanced governing, we are tempted to throw up our hands in disgust and abdicate our role as “we the people.” Poet Audre Lorde once proclaimed that our silence will not save us.

In a January 13th opinion piece in New York Times, two professors of government warn that “autocrats love emergencies.” Corrupt leaders, they suggest, fabricate a crisis “in order to justify an abuse of power.”  That way they can avoid the labor intensive work of negotiation and concession that the democratic process requires.

The constitutional balance is intended to foster each aspect of our government having its own domain of power and working collaboratively with the others. When the president declares a national emergency, he effectively bypasses the legislative and judicial branches. In their article Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt contend that our president may be joining the company of Vargas of Brazil, Hitler of Germany, Marcos of the Philippines, and Putin of Russian, who grabbed power for self-preservation rather than national threat.

One of the scripture lessons for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany is Isaiah 62:1-6. The prophets, those who keep watch on behalf of the well-being of others, cannot be silent when there is threat to their people. Not only must they speak forthrightly of the dangers at hand, but they must give God no rest until the fulfillment of divine promises.  Of course, those called to the prophetic vocation in this text are speaking for Zion’s sake, for the sake of beloved Jerusalem. People of good will are their heirs today, and we must be no less outspoken in our warning and our petition to God.

As the prophet writes:

“You who invoked the LORD’S name, take no rest, give God no rest, until the Holy One makes Jerusalem a theme of endless praise on the earth” (v6b).

I am not making any easy equation of the state of things in America with

those in Jerusalem as it recovers after destruction and prepares for many returning from exile; rather, I am suggesting that our time requires the same kind of perseverance in calling humanity and the divine to justice. Indeed, I imagine that the Author of Life wonders why we do not turn more frequently toward divine spiritual resources and why we fall silent.  Refusing to “take rest” or “give God rest” expresses the energetic will to join God in bringing justice in the midst of desolation.

In this text Yahweh has broken the silence, and the prophet urges the unfolding of divine speech. This community of faith, given the vagaries of its life, “has often seemed to live in a world from which the Holy One has been absent, detached, and indifferent,” in the words of Brueggemann.

Christopher Seitz suggests that the prophet puts God on notice, reminding the Holy One of what has been promised, thus giving God no rest. The boldness to press God to act is of itself a passionate action, and it seems to be welcomed by God. God would much rather have the zeal than silence. “God cannot work with those who reject words of promise and turn to their own ways.”  The righteous will pester God even while working toward the desired future.

God may also wonder why we do not listen better to the prophets among us. There are many who challenge the racial disparities, economic divide, gender injustice, and flawed immigration policies. In the name of all that is just, they call for mercy rather than judgment. They do not suggest that furloughed workers have bake sales, walk dogs, and take on child care (all honorable, but with slim economic benefit) to supply the funds their families need. They call powers and principalities to repent and do their jobs.

Christians still produce prophets and with fierce urgency they call us to recognize what is really going on around us.  Prophetic preachers like William Barber, Marvin McMickle and Amy Butler; prophetic writers like Mary Oliver (of blessed memory), Wendell Griffen and Shane Claiborne; prophetic teachers like members of our faculty; these offer perceptive insight into the shifting landscape that summons dissent, resistance, and actions borne of good conscience. God listens to prophets, too.

I pray that the real national emergency will find resolution, and soon. Too many are suffering, and we must not fall silent. Our efforts can be of assistance, and God calls us to help mend the world, as our Jewish colleagues put it.  God is counting on us, and we hold the world’s need ever before the divine face.

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