Advent Action: Stepping Up
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 14, 2014
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24
Our lectionary text from the book of Isaiah is about stepping up. In it we read of a person who, having sensed God’s call, takes responsibility for enacting justice in the broader community. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,” proclaims this empowered agent, “because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God.”
The speaker is not a bystander watching horrors unfold but a believer who announces change that she is prepared and acting. The human speaker is the one who will act with compassion and justice that mirrors God’s own jubilee (the year of God’s favor) where debts are forgiven, land is returned and slaves are freed. This moment is also one of God’s vengeance which redistributes resources that have been wrongfully accumulated by the powerful, until they are shared as God intends. Many will recall that Jesus read just this passage from the scroll of Isaiah when he inaugurated his own ministry, insisting that God’s justice was not something of the past or future but something to be lived now.
As the passage continues we see God honors this “stepping up,” revealing God’s own deep longing. For God is not sitting idly in the heavens, cold and unmoved by human suffering and injustice. No! God is a lover of justice and the faithful ones who dare to act are the ones who will hear and know God’s promise of everlasting covenant. The speaker responds in joy, because the whole earth shall be like a garden where justice and praise spring up. It is not only that the speaker casts aside any despair herself, it is that God’s promise is for the whole earth – all the nations shall see it.
The words of Isaiah are not facile, inflationary oratory they are words that were written following the people’s exile in Babylon. The people had suffered greatly and now that they had returned, they faced the challenge of how they would build their society anew. Would they again build it on the backs of the poor? Or would they dare proclaim and enact a whole new world. These words from Isaiah reminded the people of their commitment to a fundamentally just society, marked by regular redistribution of resources and covenant care in times of need.
Last Sunday during my sermon reflecting on the outcry after the grand jury did not indict the police officer responsible for the death of Eric Garner, I extended an invitation for members of the congregation to join me at a meeting of the Westchester Coalition for Police Reform. And three people “stepped up.” We connected with our neighbors and are planning next steps together.
Last Sunday night, nearly seventy people gathered in the church house to pray and recommit ourselves to reversing Climate Change. Following a moving interfaith service of song and prayer we went out onto the sidewalk on North Broadway with candles. Praying for the negotiators of the Climate talks in Lima, and witnessing to our dedication to step up to make a difference.
Last week we also celebrated an Advent brunch together with families who have a parent in prison as an extension of our Angel Tree program. Through that program members of the congregation purchased over 35 gifts on behalf of parents who are in prison, for their children. Now these weren’t gifts we thought would be good, but rather, they were the gifts that the parents would buy for their children if they could. Many hands worked hard to setup the brunch, to make and serve the food, to purchase the gifts, and to clean up. So many of you stepped up.
And these steps lead to others – because when you’re on God’s journey of justice and compassion, the road unfolds as you walk it together. This week members from the mission committee stepped up, criss-crossing Westchester county as they delivered Angel Tree gifts to families who were not able to come to the brunch.
In preparing to travel to one home, they called ahead only to discover that a little boy Jeremiah who was to receive a gift has been diagnosed with a brain tumor and is having surgery on Wednesday. After speaking with the family, several members will be visiting the hospital this week. They are stepping up.
This Advent there is much to lament in our world. But the prophet Isaiah reminds us that God has not thrown divine hands up in despair with our world. Rather God is looking for partners who are ready to step up. And people are. Health workers and volunteers are stepping up in the wake of a paltry response by governments, risking their lives to help Ebola stricken communities. This week there are members of the armed forces who are speaking out publicly at risk to their reputation and careers about the unconscionable use of torture by our government following the release of the Senate’s report on the CIA. They are stepping up.
In ways that we can see and in ways that we don’t yet know, people are stepping up. And when we step up, heeding God’s call to justice and compassion, we also, necessarily step out and toward one another, we experience what is most human in ourselves and others, we break our isolation and desperation, and find the animation, the motivation of the spirit that sustains us.
So let us keep stepping up! Let us keep stepping out! Let us keep faith with one another, with God and our neighbor. For as we continue to step up, will see upon the ground before us, shoots of justice springing up. This is the promise of God.
NOTE – My three Advent sermons are connected through the ministry of the Prophet Isaiah and function to describe a particular kind of advent longing through the experience of protest, grief, and action. They are usefully read together and in order: Advent Protest: The Court of Last Resort; followed by Advent Grief: Enough is Enough; and Advent Action: Stepping Up. Thus may we prepare the way of the one who is always coming.
 The exegetical material here was prepared by The Rev. Noelle Damico for the International Interfaith Weekend of Prayer and Action Against Ebola, organized by the U.S. – Africa Ebola Working Group. Used with her permission.