Stones, Cry Out!

A sermon preached by Jennifer W. Davidson, PhD

At American Baptist Seminary of the West

October 15, 2012

 

Scripture Texts:

Habakkuk 1:1-5; 2:1-5, 9-11; 3:17-19

Psalm 22:25-31

1 John 4:7-21

 

Photo courtesy of NWHM.org

Her name means “Grief Stricken.” Malala. She was named for an Afghan girl of the late 1800’s, a warrior and a poet who led the Afghan’s into battle against

the colonizing British. This is her namesake; a girl who died before she reached the age of 20. Grief Stricken. Malala.

She is today a fourteen year old girl, who, if she lived in my hometown, might be in ninth grade Biology, sitting next to my own son in High School. They were born only three months apart—my son and Malala – three months in time, but worlds apart.

Malala is fighting for her life today. She was transferred from a hospital in Pakistan to greater safety in the United Kingdom. Why is Malala fighting for her life? Because she dared to fight for the right of girls to receive an education in her home town of Mingora, in the Swat District of Pakistan.

When she was only eleven years old, Malala became well known around the world when she kept a blog for the BBC. One of her entries, dated January 3, 2009, described her fear and anxiety and her astounding courage and determination to pursue her education even then:

“I had a terrible dream yesterday with military helicopters and the Taleban. I have had such dreams since the launch of the military operation in Swat.

My mother made me breakfast and I went off to school. I was afraid going to school because the Taleban had issued an edict banning all girls from attending schools.

Only 11 students attended class out of 27. The number decreased because o the Taleban’s edict. My three friends have shifted to [other districts] with their families after this edict.

On my way from school to home I heard a man saying, “I will kill you.” I hastened my pace and after a while I looked back if the man was still coming behind me. But to my utter relief he was talking on his mobile and must have been threatening someone else over the phone.”

Eleven years old.

Just this past week, three years after Malala wrote that blog entry, she refused to give in to the increasing threats and warning letters. She did not stop her advocacy work for girl’s education, that had been getting increasing attention worldwide. So last Tuesday “masked gunmen approached her school bus

and asked for her by name. Then they shot her in the head and neck. ‘Let this be a lesson,’ a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban said afterward. He added that if she survives, the Taliban would try to kill her again.”[1]

The lament cried out powerfully in the voice of Habakkuk rings and resonates with clarity into our twenty-first century world tonight:

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen?

Or cry to you, “Violence!”

and you will not save?

Why do you make me see wrongdoing

and look at trouble?”

The words taste bitter in our mouths. Too much suffering. Too much violence.

“The law becomes slack and justice never prevails.”

Written sometime between 609 and 586 BCE, the words of Habakkuk – and God’s response to him—were composed in the midst of a brutal occupation of Judah

with corrupt puppet leaders reigning.[2]

Habakkuk’s confrontation of God, likely took place in a liturgical setting—in the midst of worship. This is no private weeping or whispered agony. This is full-throated, public agony. This is the heart-wrenching sob the clutched stomach in the midst of worship.

This heartache, these accusations, are not hidden away from view—not at the time that they were spoken, and not now—preserved as they are in the heart of scripture. God allows our grief its full expression –  her name means “Grief-Stricken” – Malala – because God knows that if we are awake then these tears of anguish will overcome all of us at one point or another in our lives.

The prophet stands at the watchpost, waiting to hear what God will say. We hold our breath. We wait, too.

God’s Word comes.

Write the vision;

make it plain on tablets,

so that a runner may read it.

What is that vision?

First, God reminds us what it is not. Why do we need to be reminded? Because the powers in this world would have us forget. Because gunshots fired into the head and neck of a fourteen-year-old girl in Pakistan, because gunshots fired by a Neighborhood Watch member in Florida into the defenseless body of a boy buying skittles for his little brother at half time—try to pass themselves off as the truth. As if death has the last word. As if threat of violence—and violence itself—is enough to silence God’s people.

As if the collusion of corrupt powers and governments which keep

“61 million girls and boys shut out from even the most basic of primary schooling”[3] is the end of the road and not the beginning of our work.

This is why we need to be reminded of what God’s vision is not.

Pride. Arrogance, Wealth, and Insatiable Death are identified as contrary to God’s vision. So much so that “the very stones will cry out from the wall” against the unjust use of power. Even stones that have been crushed into “plaster will respond from the woodwork.” When the people fall silent the walls will shout. Proclaiming that God’s vision for the world is vastly different from that of the world’s most powerful and vicious.

In the days following Malala’s shooting the stones started to cry out. The walls started shouting. Protests broke out across Pakistan. Islamic leaders spoke out against the violence. Gordon Brown, U.N. Special envoy for global education,

writes that “Demonstrations for Malala have spread  [through Pakistan and beyond]— not just to Bangladesh, India, and Afghanistan, but around the world.

…For one Malala shot, there are now thousands of even younger Malalas ready to come forward. We may not yet be seeing a 2012 Asian autumn led by children to mirror the Arab spring, but the spontaneous wave of protest we are witnessing

shows that children are more assertive  of their right to education than the leaders who promised to deliver it.”[4] The stones are crying out— and they have the voice of children. The plaster in the woodwork is shouting. The Spirit of God is moving.

What is the vision? We see a glimpse of it in our psalm reading. Like the Habakkuk text, the verses of the Psalm tonight are also proclaimed in the midst of a lament.

This lament is most familiar to Christians as  the lament that was on the lips of Jesus as he suffered the worst that the powers of pride, arrogance, wealth, and insatiable death could levy against anyone. Jesus cried out the words that begin this Psalm, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

In the light of the resurrection, however, our eyes not only take in the agony of the cross, but also the vision of God’s redemption offered to the least of these—

to the ones whom pride, arrogance, wealth, and insatiable death always exploit.

This is God’s vision— hear the stones cry it out now: “The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek God shall praise the Lord.”

When the least of these are cared for—and who is more “least” than the 600 million girls who live in the developing world—girls like Malala? When the least of these are cared for and given full dignity, then God’s true character is revealed for all the world to see. In seeing every last little one thrive, our hearts will leap in recognition of God’s dominion. Our response—the response of the whole earth—

will be to worship in praise and adoration the One who cares for the least, the lost, and the little.

God’s dominion is unlike that of other kings. The uniqueness of our God, who bestows dignity and life on the forgotten and forsaken ones—is the astonishing good news that must be proclaimed to future generations. So that all may recognize God.

We recognize God not in God’s fierceness and fury, but in God’s steadfast love,

in God’s lovingkindness, in God’s hesed and shalom.

God’s steadfast love, God’s lovingkindness, God’s hesed and shalom

they sound like abstract concepts, ideals; they have almost a dreamlike shimmer to them.

But they are nothing if not made concrete, if not made real, if not embodied in our relationships with one another.

Why is a little girl named Malala such a threat to the vicious powers of this world? Precisely because God’s kingdom breaks into this world in the lives of those the world dismisses. God’s kingdom breaks into this world in the lives of “nobodies.” In the lives of girls like Hagar and Miriam; in the lives of girls like Tamar and Ruth; in the lives of girls like Mary and Elizabeth, in the lives of girls like Malala.

God’s love is poured out on the world in the life, death, and resurrection

of a singular nobody—In contrast to the misuse and abuse of power in the world,

God’s love hung from a cross and swept away the tombstone.

This is the outpouring of God’s love for us and for God’s broken, breaking, hurting, and hurtful world—that we are ourselves empowered to love.

It is God’s love for us that transforms our hearts of stone. It is in our love for one another that we come to know God at all.

This is God’s vision made plain, so plain that even those speeding by can read it.

This is God’s vision made plain, plainly different from the vision of oppressive rule today.

Even when all evidence continues to be to the contrary: “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines…” we must remain faithful to God’s vision of abundant life and love offered graciously to all. Even when the man Jesus hung cursed on the tree, we continue to rejoice in the Love that is our salvation, in the God who makes our footing steady and sure even in the midst of turmoil and danger that surrounds us.

Grief-stricken and emboldened by Love—we cry out with the stones: Your kingdom come, O God, your will be done. Amen.


[1] Nicholas D. Kristoff, New York Times. October 13, 2012. “Her Only Crime was Loving Schools.” (Accessed October 15, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/11/opinon/kristof_her_crime_was_loving_schools?r=0.

[2] See Valerie Bridgeman’s introductory essay to the book of Habakkuk in The Peoples’ Bible, published 2010 by Augsburg Fortress Press.

[3] See educationenvoy.org

[4] See Gordon Brown, “Malala’s Next Fight,” at www.educationenvoy.org/press

Occupy Liturgy

Dr. Jennifer W. Davidson,

Assistant Professor of Worship & Theology

“I am Andrea.”

“I am Andrea.”

“I am Andrea.”

The voices moved through the crowd in waves, beginning with a single voice of a young woman on the steps of Sproul Hall on the campus of UC Berkeley. But her voice was carried on the voices of others, as the General Assembly on November 15, 2011, (reported to be the largest GA so far of the occupy movements) employed the “people’s mic” system of communicating. When using the people’s mic, the assembly repeats each phrase of the speaker, so that everyone can hear what has been said. When the crowd is especially large, each phrase gets repeated multiple times in waves until everyone has heard and spoken the same message no matter how far the assembly extends.

Those of you who know American Baptist Seminary of the West, know that it is blocks away from Sproul Hall and directly across the street from People’s Park in Berkeley. A park with a deep and still-resounding history, though in recent years it is a site where the woundedness of our society is most clearly seen in the faces of those who live outside in the Park year-round—some in the grips of drug or alcohol addiction, some in the grips of mental illness, all hungry and, in the rainy season, cold and wet. The strength of the history of People’s Park as well as the literal cries of the people who live there now, are woven into our classroom space and into my teaching at the seminary.

So it was, as a professor of worship and theology at ABSW, that I was drawn immediately to the GA’s use of the people’s mic as a powerful, liturgical method of communication. Its similarity to responsive readings, so common in worship, in which the leader speaks and the assembly responds, was evident at first. But, in fact, it is much more than that.

In this case, the assembly doesn’t have a pre-printed or pre-set response as it would in worship. Instead, the people repeat exactly what the speaker says. One person’s voice is carried by the voices of hundreds, of thousands of voices, speaking the same words.

Think about the power of that for a moment. In a culture that has seemingly forgotten how to listen, in a culture that has been shouting at one another, talking over one another, the people’s mic is transformative communication.

It relies on everyone listening—as the words get repeated in three or four word phrases, in waves from the front of the crowd to an invisible back of the crowd. One can almost imagine that the crowd and the words themselves stretch out infinitely behind us. The message ripples endlessly on and on around the globe.

It relies on everyone listening, but it also relies on patience. The speaker must patiently wait until the rippling message stops before she speaks another phrase. The assembly must patiently wait before they hear what the rest of the sentence will be, the completion of the thought.

It relies on listening, it relies on patience, but it also relies on the assembly also speaking. The people’s mic doesn’t work if the people stop moving the message along. Communication breaks down. The message dies out. The assembly must speak or no one can listen.

Two things resonate for me here. The first is that this method of speaking, listening, waiting, and speaking again so that all can hear, all can understand, shimmers for me with the movement of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Here we were, a large crowd gathered, used to speaking our own languages (whether the language of youth, of the street, of the academy, of Fox News, of the Daily Show, or Colbert Nation) now speaking the same language, the same words. Now listening, as we’ve not had to listen in a very, very long time. And speaking the same words as if they were our own.

The second thing that resonates is that all of this matters because words matter. And saying words matter. The philosopher of language J. R. Searle writes about the performative quality of language in which the words we say have the power to shape the world we live in. This may sound fantastical at first, especially because of the cheapening of words in advertising and mass media. But it is a truth that we actually take for granted: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit;” “I now declare you husband and wife.” Words do not only have performative qualities in ritual to reshape personal realities, but they also can reshape reality on a global scale, such as in declarations of war. These phrases, when spoken in the right moment and with a sense of authority granted to them, change lived reality. Words matter. Saying words matter.

Hear that again: The words—in connection to the moment and spoken with authority—change lived reality. At the General Assembly on Tuesday night, the moment was the coming together of a group of people who were unknown to one another. It was also the coming together of the Occupy Oakland and the Occupy Cal movements. The ones who spoke were granted authority by the assembly itself. And reality changed. Now this crowd was no longer simply a group of people; rather, they had been formed into an assembly, into a new social body.

I couldn’t help but think of this when I heard a single, woman’s voice coming dimly through a distant bullhorn from the steps of Sproul Hall, “I am Andrea,” then listened as the assembly repeated her phrase in the now familiar waves: “I am Andrea;” “I am Andrea;” “I am Andrea.”

Notice that the crowd didn’t say, “You are Andrea.” Instead, they kept her words in tact, and repeated in astounding solidarity, “I am Andrea.”

Hear this language with the echo of another liturgy that forms us into yet another social body—the church, the body of Christ: “This is my body;” “This is my body;” “This is my body.” “Broken for you;” “Broken for you;” “Broken for you.”

Now, suddenly, the Greek word leitourgia, the ancestor to our word liturgy, takes on a deeper meaning in contemporary context. While the original meaning of the Greek word leitourgia as “work of the people” has been contested in recent years as a too simplistic rendering, there is a sense in which the work of the people at the General Assemblies of the occupy movements gives us a better feel for the original meaning behind the Greek leitourgia.

In its original sense, leitourgia is the work of the people on behalf of the people and for the benefit of the people. When we overlay the GA’s words of solidarity, “I am Andrea,” with our own familiar, “This is my body,” we understand that worship is leitourgia because it is what forms us into a people. We participate in the liturgy because it shapes our reality, because it forms us into a new social body—the body of Christ in the world and for the world.

It is too easy to lose the counter-cultural potential in our worship. Sometimes it takes the Spirit moving in unexpected places and in unexpected ways to remind us of the ways the Spirit is always moving faithfully in our midst—indeed, moving so that we might also be moved to faithful life.

The Inadvertent Worship Revolution

About thirty adults were discussing their experiences of Lent at a recent Sunday school session at an American Baptist congregation where I am a member. As we reflected together on our understanding of the season, we paused for a moment and asked how many of us had practiced Lent when we were growing up. Only two people in the group raised their hands, and they were both women who had grown up Catholic.

It was a vivid reminder of the ecumenical divide that continued to shape many of our experiences as Christians growing up in the United States. Although the ages in the group ranged from the early thirties into the eighties, our experiences were similar: we had grown up alienated from the season of Lent because “that was what the Catholics did.”

So what brought about the change? The release of the Lectionary for the Mass in 1969 from Vatican II, the Protestant-shaped, ecumenical Common Lectionary in 1983, and, later, the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) in 1992, had a big part in the revival of liturgical seasons for many free churches in the United States. Excited about the breadth of scripture available in the RCL as well as the vast amount of resources for preaching, Sunday school, and worship, more and more congregations and denominations adopted the use of the lectionary for use in worship. As a result, and rather inadvertently, churches that had not followed the Christian Year—with its seasons of Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Ordinary time—began to find these ancient seasons emerging in our worship lives. Gradually, language and ritual experiences (like the imposition of ashes on our foreheads) that had seemed too Catholic only a decade before, had started to become, once again, catholic: available to the whole people of God.

This has really been a sweeping and dramatic change for many churches—and it is one that may go a little too unnoticed. The revival of the Christian Year has been almost a by-product of free-churches adoption of the RCL, because one of the guiding influences in the selection of texts for each Sunday morning was to pair the readings with the liturgical season. So, for instance, we have a lot of apocalyptic and second-coming texts in the season of Advent as we anticipate not the birth of the baby Jesus so much as the coming of Christ in this season. Or, in one year of the lectionary, we have texts that center around images of water throughout the season of Lent, traditionally the season of preparation for Baptism. How much are our congregations aware of these themes as they bubble up into worship each week? How much are our pastors, who preach from texts selected from the RCL, aware of these themes?

The students at ABSW are broadly ecumenical—African Methodist Episcopal, Christian Methodist Episcopal, Christian Methodist Episcopal Zion, Church of God in Christ, Free Methodist, American Baptist, Southern Baptist, Presbyterian, nondenominational and more! Some of these churches use the RCL in worship and some do not. Every year in our Middler Colloquium we spend some time talking about the formation of the RCL and its relationship to the Christian Year. We do not do this in order to press for the use of the RCL in all churches. Instead, we talk about the lectionary in order to encourage all congregations to be intentional about how scripture is used in worship. And, for those congregations that do follow the lectionary, to be as informed as possible about what went into shaping that lectionary and how it is related intimately to the Christian Year.

If this piques your interest, let me recommend a couple resources for you to find out more about the Revised Common Lectionary and the Christian Year. If you’ve never encountered the RCL, I invite you to look at the website for the Consultation on Common Texts, the folks behind the RCL. While you’re on that site, be sure to visit the Daily Readings section—a fabulous resource to help our congregations become more intentional about encouraging common, daily Bible reading. If you’re interested in some of the great resources available to congregations who use the RCL, be sure to check out The Text This Week. Also, The African American Lectionary Project is an online resource that overlays the Christian Year with the Black Church Year in beautiful ways, offering scripture, worship aids, cultural history, and exegetical reflections for each Sunday. (Note: This site automatically plays music on entry.)

If you want to find out more about the Christian Year, I recommend the book The New Handbook of the Christian Year by Hoyt Hickman, Don Saliers, Laurence Stookey, and James White, as a good introduction. For a more scholarly look into the hermeneutics that shaped the RCL, be sure to check out Fritz West’s book, Scripture and Memory: The Ecumenical Hermeneutic of the Three Year Lectionaries.

Finally, if you don’t already, consider providing educational opportunities for your congregation to explore the Revised Common Lectionary and the meanings of liturgical seasons. These can be done in Sunday schools, as occasional, educational “Worship Moments” on Sunday mornings, and/or as occasional articles in your church newsletter.

I invite you to leave a comment here to let us know what things you are already doing to educate your congregation about these things. Tell us your story about when you first started to observe the season of Lent. Or, whether or not you follow the RCL, share with us here the ways you place scripture at the center of your church’s worship experiences.

Jennifer W. Davidson
Assistant Professor of Worship & Director of Chapel
American Baptist Seminary of the West

Our Ambitious Hope

“The need to keep awake translates into listening to the clamor for liberation,
supporting and empowering our people’s deepest hopes.
Waiting for the Lord does not bring us out of history;
it involves us with it since we are hoping
for the God who has come and is in our midst.
Such a hope is ambitious, but it is worthwhile.”
–Gustavo Gutierrez

Many Christian churches around the world have begun to mark the season of Advent, spanning the four weeks before our celebration of the Incarnation on Christmas Day. On some level, Advent is about anticipating our commemoration of the historical moment of the birthing of the Christ in Jesus. This moment happened at a given place and time among real people and animals. The Christ in Jesus was born into a distinct situation: among an oppressed Jewish people trying to survive under the thumb of the Roman Empire. Advent and Christmas certainly commemorate this historical moment.

But the season of Advent, even more than waiting for Christmas, anticipates the coming of the Christ into the world. Some call it the Second Coming. Some call it the Reign of Christ. Advent is a season where our waiting for Christ is a kind of lament for a world not-yet-reconciled. Our waiting for Christ in Advent is a vigorously impatient waiting—-an aching waiting for the time of No-More-Tears.

Advent and Christmas fall in the midst of the ever-darkening skies, the time of year when our days grow brief and our nights long. In the silences of our night, each and every night, you are invited to listen for the Coming One in our Midst. Gather into the blessed darkness of night your every care, concern, and hope for God’s beloved world.

One beautiful online resource to help shape your personal Advent journey this year can be found at The Advent Door, by Jan Richardson. Jan is an artist, writer, and minister who brings her gifts to bear most beautifully upon her contemplative reflections on the season of Advent. Each evening, after the night has gathered around you, I invite you to turn to The Advent Door, read the reflections, and contemplate the images there. Then open yourself to the presence of God in your midst.

This Monday, December 14, if you find yourself near our campus between 6:00 and 7:00 PM, you are warmly welcome to come to a contemplative prayer service embracing the themes of Advent. The chapel will be set up with several stations for you to move through at your own pace, praying for the needs of the world, for the coming of Christ, and for your own openness to healing and reconciliation. This will be our last chapel service of the year. We would love to see you there.

Finally, as we live into this season, may we all come to know our need for Emmanuel, God-With-Us, our need for a reconciled world, and a reconciled heart to God’s love. And in a few weeks, even as we celebrate that the Christ was born in Jesus two millennia ago, so may we also celebrate the good news that Christ is active in the world today through the in-breaking of the Spirit into every broken place. Thanks be to God!

Jennifer W. Davidson
Assistant Professor of Worship & Director of Chapel
American Baptist Seminary of the West