A prefatory word of introduction
This sermon has been dormant since 2014. It was written the first Sunday following retirement. It has never been spoken from the pulpit, no ears have heard it, no one has read it until now. Noah Bieman’s Los Angeles Times editorial, “The Great Divide” (republished today by the Star Tribune), offers reason to post it. Jesus of Nazareth never heard of Florida or its governor’s description of it: “a refuge of sanity, a place “where woke goes to die.”
First Sunday in Advent, 2014
Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9
It’s hard to stay awake in times like these. To be conscious means grief, helplessness, anger at the state of the world and the stupidity of the human race.
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” is supposed to bring comfort, but it doesn’t, unless the heaven and earth of which Jesus speaks are the ones our pride has created: the imaginary ones, the heavenly and earthly projects that rise out of human insecurity, as in the Genesis story of Babel, the story of what never was but always is, according to which the building of the ideal city is interrupted and the tower “with its top in the heavens” is “left off”. But the Word — the story about it — has not passed away. It endures. As fresh today as it was when first shared around a campfire as a way of teaching a new generation the respective places of God and humankind.
Fourteen years after the World Trade Center Twin Towers collapsed, a new tower, One World Trade Center — taller, stronger, bolder — stands where the old towers crumbled on 9/11. One World Trade Center resuscitates a national myth on life support.
Standing a few blocks from Wall Street, where the global economy is reconstructed every day, One World Trade Center picks up the pieces of the myth of national supremacy, benign goodness, and presumed virtue of the American economic system.
We could have left Ground Zero empty of monoliths. Turned it into a memorial to the error of undue pride, a turning away from national arrogance. A repentance from the economic-military-religious-technological complex that expropriated the oil fields in the Middle East, assassinated the elected President of Iran in 1958, installed the Shah in his place, ignored the human rights of Palestinians, supported and installed western-friendly oligarchies and strong men in Saudi Arabia, Iraq (Saddam Hussein), Libya (Muammar Gaddafi), and Egypt (Hosni Mubarak) until, except for Saudi Arabia, they turned against us.
Instead of listening to the word that does not pass away, we Americans, to the sorrow of New Yorkers like Michael Kimmelman (“The Great Divide,” NY Times, Nov. 29, 2014), opted for the old words and worn-out scripts that had failed us. The Democratic Spring in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia did not do what the NeoCon exporters of Western democracy had imagined. It unleashed a seething volcano of anti-American resentment. Meanwhile, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria became desert quagmires – Vietnams without jungles.
Eisenhower’s last speech to the nation warning of the emerging “military-industrial complex” is a pessimistic memory we ignore as the phoenix of One World Trade Center is raised up…and up…and up out of the ashes, symbol of global dominance to fool ourselves again.
Human scale –truer neighborhoods
What is at issue is human scale, a windswept plaza, or a tower of divine proportions with “its top in the heavens.” Our words will pass away, even the best of them.
Keeping awake is hard. Staying attuned to what is not passing away takes courage in search of wisdom. It takes faith. It takes hope. It takes love.
During this most puzzling of seasons — the Season of Advent, the season of wakeful anticipation of a Coming in fullness — I find myself crying out with Isaiah. It feels as though “you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” [Isaiah 64:7]
The ‘nations’ have always been God’s adversaries, closed in on themselves, puffed up, defensive against intruders, plunderers of nature and other nations, hostile to the foreigner, both human (the other) and Divine (the Other).
Deliver us from ourselves
In this season of ‘economic recovery’ when the poor continue to get poorer, the rich get richer, and the middle class shrinks, deliver us, good Lord, from “the hand of our own iniquity.
”Remember, “O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” [Isaiah 64:8]
This word is the only word that lasts. Stay awake, my soul. Stay awake to the whole of it — all of it: the sorrow and the grief of it, the loneliness of it, the anger toward it, the guilt of it, the finger pointing that points back at me, a nation to myself, and the presence of the Potter — and my soul shall be well, new and fresh every morning.
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2027, Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, November 20, 2022.