Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
Reality. Grief. and Hope.
These three things are intimately woven together.
I know it’s Trinity Sunday, and I certainly have in mind the mysterious doctrine of the divine Trinity—Creator, Christ, Holy Spirit. But this week in particular, this trinity of reality, grief, and hope, is forefront in my mind.
Reality. Grief, Hope is the title of a book by Walter Brueggemann I’ve been reading. Brueggemann is a venerable and prophetic Old Testament scholar whose books are always enlightening, and often convicting to read, because he shows how the prophetic scriptures of the Old Testament, especially the prophets resonate with and speak to our world. They are not just ancient texts about the past…very little of scripture is…scripture has to have relevance and resonance today…or what’s the point.
Reality, grief, and hope are not simply descriptions of stages of development that we move through…certainly not in any linear fashion. They are actions or stances we must take…they are, what Brueggemann describes as, prophetic tasks. Necessary. Vital. Indispensable. As true for the Hebrew prophets of Ancient Israel as they are for us today.
Reality, as Brueggemann describes it, is a prophetic task that arises to counter distorted ideologies. “Royal Jerusalem,” he argues, “in ancient Israel was deeply enthralled to an ideology of choosenness,”(p. 5). The urban Jerusalem elite, with its economic advantages and political domination believed that they were divinely ordained to rule, and to rule in perpetuity. But their rule was built on an unjust and unequal system, as all the prophets point out. The reality of that world didn’t match up…could not conform to the lofty ideal of chosenness. Reality, in other words, kept breaking through. The prophetic task “in the face of such enthralling ideology,” says Brueggemann, “is to penetrate and expose that ideology by appeal to the reality of the lived world.” (p. 15). The prophetic task of reality is to break through ideology.
Here in the US we have our own ideology of chosenness—known as exceptionalism—this is the idea that the United States has, in Breuggemann’s words,“a peculiar God-given mandate for democracy and freedom [which we have pursued] with messianic zeal.” (p. 24).
I’m going to stop here…to make a confession. I come from a long line of people who believe deeply in the peculiar promise of this country…The City on the Hill…the Beacon of democracy…Liberty and justice for all. I believe that. I believe that is what we are called to. I have been, and will continue to be an advocate for the positive values of that idea. But reality has never matched up with those lofty ideals…The shadow side of the ideology of exceptionalism…is the 400 year, bloody reality of racism and white supremacy. The reality that we have been witnessing this week—the prophetic reality that for years and years and decades and decades keeps trying to break in—from W.E.B. DuBois to Ella Baker to Black Lives Matter—is the reality that demands we reject (in Brueggemann’s words) the “distorted view of […] entitlement, privilege, and superiority […] and take seriously the reality of historical existence.” ( p 33). In other words, what we continue to see over and over is the yawning chasm between the ideology of exceptionalism and the sinful reality of systemic racism.
When confronted with this chasm between what we believe can be possible and what is really going on…we can choose to deny that reality, or we can begin to grieve. We can either engage in what Breuggemann calls “a vigorous, shameless nostalgia […] for a world that is gone and will not be recovered.” (p 82), or we can lean into the loss. We can grieve. We can weep with those who are weeping. We can stand alongside those who are fearful. We can amplify the voices of the marginalized and we can lament.
Speaking as a straight, white, male, and one of the prime beneficiaries of this system…contemplating the loss of it is frightening, admitting the loss of “normal” is scary and sad. But prophetic reality keeps reminding us that “my normal” is more than simply scary and sad for people of color…it is terrifying and life-threatening. I know denial is a coping strategy that we all use, but it is not one we can afford or sustain, and it is not faithful. We must prophetically choose grief instead of denial. I know, you all have heard me say that grief denied is dangerous and grief ignored is toxic. Breuggeman adds: “sadness over a loss that is unvoiced, unembraced, and unacknowledged a) turns to violence and b) precludes movement toward new possibility.” (p. 82).
As Christians we must not simply reject violence, we must be actively working toward new possibilities, and so we must grieve. The work of Christians today, especially white Christians, is to become deeply aware of and attuned to the reality that breaks open our deadly comfortable ideologies of niceness, and exceptionalism, and to consistently and faithfully do the work of grieving…of letting go. Today, after the prayers of the people, I will invite all of us to kneel and give voice to some of that grief in a liturgy of penance. It will be neither the beginning nor the end of a grieving process—but I hope that it will be a marker on the way…a cairn pointing us toward the new possibilities that God is holding out for all of us.
Of course, new possibility is hope. Which the next prophetic task, and the one that the church, is uniquely positioned to proclaim…if we are faithful about living into the first two (reality and grief).
Grief opens us up to despair. The prophets of ancient Israel wrote long poetic lamentations of despair—you know those parts of the bible that make most of us really uncomfortable, and we don’t like to read them—have you ever wondered about that? About why they make you so squeamish? Could it be reality trying to break through some denial?
So yes, the prophets are tough…But it’s also there that you find amazing promises of hope. You know, all those scriptures that we do love…that we hear at Christmas and Easter… “in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the Lord,” “Comfort, comfort ye my people”…”Do you not know? Have you not heard?” I will not abandon you. “Live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.” (2 Cor), “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” That is the prophetic hope—that is the blessed assurance—that even when we are in the slough of despond—that moment when thing can not get any worse…God is still not finished. From the depths of our despair we cry out…And God responds…By binding up what was broken…by bringing home those who were lost…by breathing life into bodies already entombed. Breuggemann says that it is out of the abyss of despair that “a torrent of promises” comes and “a new orientation becomes possible as hope overrides despair.” (p. 158).
Reality. Grief. Hope are inextricably woven together. And like the Holy Trinity, you can’t have one without the others. We are seeing this every day. As reality continues to break in, and our ability to deny it lessens, and our capacity to grieve it grows, a new orientation will become possible…and hope will override despair.
This is our work. This is our Christian vocation. To first learn ourselves and then to teach others to “obey everything that Christ has commanded.” And what is that? “To love others, as Christ has loved us.” That’s what it means to be a Christian…to show people what love looks like.
If you have not read the Presiding Bishop’s article on what love looks like in this moment, I strongly encourage you to read the whole piece. I’ll close with this quote from it.
“Love looks like making the long-term commitment to racial healing, justice and truth-telling — knowing that, without intentional, ongoing intervention on the part of every person of good will, America will cling to its original, racist ways of being.”
Let us recommit ourselves to the work of reality, grief, and hope. Let us be what love looks like. Amen.