by Phillip Bass
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be
acceptable to you O’ Lord. Amen.
On this Sunday last year, I stood among those gathered together at St. Luke’s, and shared a sermon in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. If you will remember, those were the riots that sparked a new era in the movement for LGBTQ+ rights in America and around the world. And, today, June 28, marks the 50th anniversary of the first LGBTQ+ Pride parade. On June 28, 1970, that first parade, then called the Christopher Street Liberation Day, took place and pride parades have occurred every year since, in growing numbers around our country and our world. When I spoke last year, we were gathered together, we sat next to one another, passed the peace, shared coffee, and greeted one another with handshakes and hugs. I miss all of these ways of being present as a body and I deeply miss all of you. But, the events of 2020 have simply not allowed for us to be together in the ways we previously enjoyed. And, just like St. Luke’s campus, many Pride parade routes will be empty today. And, I speak to you virtually, and not in our shared St. Luke’s home.
None of us knew one year ago, what dramatic changes would take place in our lives within the coming months. None of us were aware of our coming exile. We had no idea that in one year we would be socially distanced to protect ourselves and those we love from an invading virus. None of us knew that we would be driven into our homes for months on end to stay safe and that during this time we would not gather together again as a body. Nor did we know that we’d lose hundreds of thousands of lives both around the world and here at home. When I spoke on this Sunday last year, I spoke of Holy Chaos; the idea that there are times in history when the status quo can no longer be endured. I spoke of there being times in life when the ways things always have been can no longer be and of times when we are forced into something new. I reminded those gathered that in these times of Holy Chaos, we must lean into our righteous anger, rely on mercy, and to seek the justice that creates Holy change.
In reflecting on the experiences of 2020, I, personally, have been challenged to look within myself and question why it is easier for me to celebrate the changes that have occurred through the lens of history than it is to embrace the change that is occurring in the here and now. Why is it easy to look back on eras before I was even born and perhaps even romanticize parades, protests, marches, and riots? But, somehow, in our new reality, in our current exile, I find myself struggling with some of the same.
I’m sure that many of you are aware of the ReOpenNC rallies, where fellow North Carolinians have demanded the end of our COVID socially distanced exile. Likewise, I’m sure many of you have listened to the scientists and medical experts who tell us to Stay Home. Perhaps you have found ways to support the Black Lives Matter movement, but wrestled with ideas surrounding defunding the police and the destruction of property. Voices everywhere are telling us what to do and what to believe. Who are our prophets?
Who do we listen to? How do we know who to believe? I have come to realize that it is easy to appreciate the challenges of the past because I have benefited from them. And, I have found that I wrestle with some of the movements of our current age because they threaten my sense of comfort and my privilege. It would be easier to listen to the false prophets who promise a return to normal and who tell me what I want to hear.
Our 2020 experience of discomfort and displacement is not so different from what we hear in today’s reading from Jeremiah. Today we find Jeremiah prophesying to Jerusalem. Speaking in the Temple, he warns the people of their own coming exile. Scholars tell us that our reading today gives us a glimpse of history that falls somewhere between the first Babylonian attack on Jerusalem in 597, but before the ultimate devastation of 587, when the prophecy of exile was fulfilled. At this time, the inhabitants of Judah were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to live in Babylon by the conquering army. And, over the following years, many other Jews fled the captivity of their land to seek refuge in other surrounding kingdoms.
Interestingly, Jeremiah was not prophesying alone. Our reading today reminds us that there were other prophets, telling the people what they wanted to hear. You see, Hananiah was also present in the Temple. And, while Jeremiah was warning those present to prepare for the coming exile and to accept the reality of their experience, Hananiah was prophesying a return to the status quo. Just prior to our reading today, we hear Hananiah promising the return of those already exiled during the first Babylonian attack back to Jerusalem within the next two years. One prophecy said, Stay home, prepare, and be safe. The other said to return to the status quo and go on about your life as if the exile was not currently present, because surely it is ending soon. These sound very familiar to the voices of prophecy we hear today. And like us, the people of Jerusalem had a choice. Their way of life, very much like ours, was under attack. They were being divided, some had already been sent into exile, most were fearful of the future, and no one had any idea how long their experience of chaos may last. So, it was easy to grasp onto the voices of false prophecy that provided comfort and a promise of the return to normalcy.
So, how do we know who to believe today? Well, Jeremiah gives us an answer. Our reading tells us that, “As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.” Our reading makes it clear that we recognize the prophecy of truth when we hear a promise of peace. But, let’s be clear. Peace is not the same as the status quo. And, peace may not always look like what we would consider peaceful. Too often, in our own comfort and privilege, we have mistaken normalcy for peace. But those who are not so comfortable and those who are without privilege would certainly disagree with us that our normal is peaceful. For some of us, our current COVID exile feels new and frightening. It feels as if forces beyond our control have driven us out of our temple, our home of worship, our businesses, away from family and brought our normal lives to a halt. But far too many among us have long been in exile, struggling for a living wage for their work, fighting for access to healthcare, longing to read their own stories in our white washed history books, waiting to marry who they love, and striving to achieve true equality. Our exile is not new. COVID has simply opened the eyes of many of us to the exile that was already present.
Far too many among us would understand the reality of Jeremiah’s prophecy. Jeremiah did not promise an immediate return to Jerusalem for those exiled, nor did he prophesy an imminent end to the time of Holy Chaos. But, Jeremiah did go on to foretell of a time when life would be disrupted, when powers would be overturned, and when eventually, the relationship between God and God’s people would be righted. Jeremiah promised the end of exile and he promised a time of peace.
Before going any further, I need to pause and make one thing very clear. God does not cause pandemics, nor does God create systems of division, oppression, or exiles in our world. But, God is present with us in them. The same God that fed the Israelites wandering through the desert, that made a covenant with Noah in the form of a rainbow after the exiles and isolation of his time in the arc, that was present with God’s people during the Babylonian attack, and the God that was present in Christ on the cross, is the same God that is present with us now. God is with us in the midst of our exile and our time away from St. Luke’s and from one another. And God is with us in our time of Holy Chaos, just as God was present at the Stonewall Inn 51 years ago, and as God was present with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the thousands and thousands of others who lost their lives to systems of oppression and racism and hatred. God has not abandoned us and God is continuing to offer us peace. Our Christian story tells us that even in the midst of exile and chaos, God is in the business of redeeming and bringing peace to God’s people! So we are challenged to listen for those speaking the language of peace. We are challenged to listen for those speaking truth and to not take the easy path of those prophesying falsely.
We don’t know how long this exile will last, but we are called to be active participants in God’s Holy Chaos and in God’s peacemaking story. We will know what peace looks like, when we recognize in the prophecy or in the action of another, a love for God, a love for one another, and a love of self. Peace involves listening to those who do not yet know peace. Peace requires questioning the status quo. And peace always looks like love. It will require those with power stepping out of their places of privilege and those who have been exiled far too long to step up into power. This kind of peace, God’s peace, looks like all of us working together to create equality and to restructure the social, political, health, racial, and other systems we return to when our exile has ended. And those peacemakers, those prophets of truth, may not look like who we expect them to be. Some prophets of peace wear uniforms, some wear badges, some are in hospitals, and some are in the streets, some carry protest signs, while some tear down monuments of oppression. We will recognize them when we step back from our places of comfort and privilege and witness them loving god and loving neighbor in their work together. This is the work we are called to undertake during this time of Holy Chaos.
I do not know when we will be together again physically as one body at St. Luke’s. But, I do know that whenever we do, it will not look the same as it did one year ago. Signs of peace and loving one another will look much different. If we truly love God, and love neighbor as ourselves…if we truly seek peace, then our signs of that peace will look like wearing face masks, refraining from hugging, not sharing coffee, or even sitting close to one another. Signs of peace and love may even include staying home to protect and love those most vulnerable among us. It will look like small gatherings, handfuls of St. Lukers being together in small amounts of time. COVID 19 has not gone away. Voices of prophecy that tell us to leave our homes and get back to life as we knew it or as we want it to be are nothing more than false prophecies. As peacemakers we must listen for new ways of expressing our Christian love to one another and we must be open to learning new ways of sharing life together, even when it is uncomfortable to us.
If we need an example of what this may look like, I invite you to pay close attention to the movements taking place in our society. Watch and listen to those prophesying peace. We may not have Pride parades this year. But, we do have people in the streets; brown people, white people, queer people, Christian people, Muslim people, Jewish people, all varieties of God’s people coming together demanding inclusion for those who have too long been exiled among us. I’ve witnessed Black Lives Matter protesters marching alongside protesters with rainbow flags, who stand next to protesters carrying Trans Rights Banners with raised brown fists. God’s people are finding new ways to come together to end social exiles. And we are challenged to do the same.
I am grateful for our current prophets; Our Bishops, Sam and Ann, and others from our Diocese who have been working tirelessly to ensure that we will be together again when it is safe to do so. I’m grateful for our clergy and vestry who continue to explore new ways for us to be together and to carry on with our lives of faith as one body, even as we are physically separated. And I am grateful for those out in the streets, in the hospitals, and in their homes reminding us what holy chaos, and love, and peacemaking look like. God is present with us in our time of exile and God will be present with us in the newness of the life we discover when our current exile ends. And I pray God be with you all until we meet again.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.