Twenty-eight and fresh out of seminary, I was called by a medium-sized town in the heart of Appalachia. I stayed there almost nine years, and loved it . . . well, not all of it. As with any young minister in a new church in a different culture (much of which suited me just fine; it was just different), I had my share of hiccups. Learning the story of a congregation—almost all of it unwritten—the relationships between people, who to trust, where the skeletons are buried, local politics and customs. It’s something every minister has to do.
But eight months in the stuff hit the fan, and I just happened to be standing directly in front of the fallout. Our denomination had been having intense discussions about how we were going to treat LGBTQ people in the church at the time. Specifically, two years prior, the denomination had had a bruising election in which the candidate for the top executive position had announced his unwavering support for full inclusion of LGBTQ people. He lost the election after a rancorous vote, where recriminations on all sides flew. The denomination and many of its congregations found themselves reeling in the aftermath.
Since the rejected candidate also happened to be my friend and professor, some of the folks in my new congregation began to speak ill of me. One wealthy and influential couple in particular—let’s call them “Kevin” and “Janice”—started a small raging dumpster fire, questioning not only my theological pedigree but my fitness for ministry.
I was floored. Kevin and Janice had treated me so kindly and thoughtfully that when I heard what was happening, I felt like the world had turned sideways. I didn’t know what to do. I immediately thought, “If I get fired after only eight months on the job, I might as well go back to being an assistant manager at Speedway for all the potential my career will hold.”
The conflict tore at my insides. Then I remembered that another man in the congregation—let’s call him “James”—who had everyone’s respect, and was himself even wealthier and more influential than the couple taking a lead pipe to my vocational aspirations—had said to me early on, “I want you to feel like you can come to me if you have any problems. I know your job is difficult, and I want to help you succeed.”
So, I called James and told him I needed to talk to him about a problem I didn’t know how to deal with. He invited Susan and I over for dinner. After we ate, he took me into his office. I sat across from him on a blue leather chair. “All right, tell me about this problem you have.”
I proceeded to lay it out for him, and how I was afraid I would lose my job, and I hadn’t even done anything. I babbled on for ten minutes or so, and he finally held up his hand and said, “Let me ask you a question. Have you ever had a conversation with the leadership of the church about what you believe about this?”
“No,” I said.
He nodded his head, thinking. “Let me be honest with you, I have some history with Kevin. I’m not going to go into it with you, but I think I can reason with him.” But the way he said it made it sound like he should have put scare quotes around “reason,” like “put on the gloves; you and I are going to ‘reason.’”
James said, “Do you trust me?”
“Here’s what we’re going to do. First, you’re going to write down what you believe about LGBTQ people and share it with the leadership. There can’t be any secrets, no playing fancy. You just be honest. I don’t care what you believe, if you want to know the truth. I’ll back you either way. I just want you to tell them straight up what you believe. You owe them that.”
I hesitated, trying to game out how that conversation was going to go. Finally, I said, “Ok. I’ll do it.”
“Here’s what I’m going to do. Are you going to be out of town anytime soon?”
“I’m going to my high school reunion in two weeks. Why?”
He sat back in his chair, rubbed his brow, and said, “Because I don’t think you should be in church when I do what I’m going to do.”
“What’s that?” I asked, desperately curious.
“I’m going to get up in front of the church and say a few words. And then, I’m going to have a conversation with Kevin.”
“What are you going to say?”
“You leave that to me. I’ll take care of it.”
When I got back home two weeks later, after my high school reunion, I had two older women in the congregation show up at the door an hour or so after we’d pulled in. Breathless, one said, “Did you hear what James did at church on Sunday?”
The other woman said, “I’ve never seen anything like that in church.”
Anxiety-ridden, I said, “What did he say?”
“Well, during the invitation hymn, James walked up to the front of the church turned around and just stood there, waiting for the the music to end. We didn’t know what he was doing. Finally, he said, ‘You know I love this church, love all of you. It’s not a perfect place, but it’s been good to me and my family, and I’ve tried to be good to it. So, what I’m about to say isn’t easy for me. I’ve heard there are some people in this congregation who are giving our young minister a hard time.’”
One of the women said, “Then, he didn’t say a word, just looked around the congregation—person by person. Stood there saying nothing.”
The other women chimed in, “After what seemed like four minutes less than eternity, he cleared his throat and said, ‘And I want it stopped . . . today.’”
Then they held out a cassette tape. “Terry recorded the service. It’s on there. You can listen for yourself.”
Dumbfounded, I said, “You’re kidding me. What did everyone do?”
“That’s the best part. Some of the people got up, walked down front, and stood next to Frank. Craziest thing I ever saw I my life.”
The other woman, about to burst said, “And that’s not even the best part. He walked back and whispered in Kevin’s ear. Kevin got up, and he and James went downstairs. Some folks went to lunch and drove by just as Frank and Kevin were leaving. They were down there for two hours.”
My eyes wide and a lump in my throat, I said, “What did they talk about?”
“Nobody knows. But I reckon you won’t have to worry about Kevin and Janice anymore.”
And she was right. Over the next eight years, I never heard another word about Kevin and Janice running me down.
When I’ve told that story to my colleagues, without exception they say, “I wish someone would have done that for me.”
I know. If there were such a literary genre as “clergy fantasy” this story would be a best-seller.
But it’s not just clergy who dream of “evil” being vanquished by a heroic champion. It’s a common escapist fantasy. Take out “clergy” and plug in “middle management,” or “bullied children”, or “undocumented immigrants.” The principle is the same: those who feel like the world they’ve longed for is about to chew them up, urgently want someone to take their side, to refuse to remain silent in the face of despair and injustice.
Israel had been exiled in Babylon for years. They felt abandoned. God will save us. Yeah, that’s a good one.
Then came the word that their God was readying to take them from the hands of the Babylonians and return them to their homes.
How could they not be?
They hadn’t been forsaken. God had heard their cries and come to their rescue. God had brought them home.
But as they came trudging back, only a handful compared to the legions that were exiled, they stumbled to the gates of the city of God only to find the gates torn down, the city a wasteland. Zion lay in ruins, Jerusalem in desolation.
The temple, the house of God, only rubble and wreckage. So many people they were anxious to see—most of them now dead. Their glorious homeland—now a wilderness. And they sat down on the rocks and wept.
Maybe it wasn’t God who had freed them from the hand of the Babylonians, after all. Maybe they’d just gotten lucky. Maybe they were still forsaken.
Same familiar hollow feeling in the stomach that God had left them high and dry.
But in our text for today, we get this:
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married, for the LORD delights in you and your land shall be married (Isa. 62:1-4).
It’s important to point out that there’s some scholarly disagreement about just who it is who is speaking in this passage. Some commentators believe that these words come from the mouth of God, promising to restore Jerusalem to its former glory.
Which makes sense, right? God has promised to deliver the exiles in Babylon to their home. Now, according to this interpretation, God is promising to make home … a little more homey.
But other commentators see this passage as Isaiah reassuring the people that he will not remain silent while they suffer—that he will continue to cry out to God about the injustice of being liberated and returning home … only to find that home looks like the aftermath of an earthquake.
I find the second explanation in which Isaiah promises to remind God of the the people’s dire straits persuasive. Listen to verses 6 and 7 with this second interpretation in mind:
Upon your walls, O Jerusalem, I have posted sentinels; all day and all night they shall never be silent. You who remind the Lord, take no rest, and give God no rest until God establishes Jerusalem and makes it renowned throughout the earth (62:6-7).
Isaiah stands between God and the children of Israel and promises that he won’t shut-up until God hears the cries of the those who feel like God has once again left them holding the bag.
Pretty gutsy, right? Who hasn’t dreamt of that kind of advocate?
Because the need to cry out on behalf of people who feel like their world is about to chew them up didn’t die with Isaiah and the children of Israel. There are still people—many who live here among us—who urgently want someone to take their side, to refuse to remain silent in the face of despair and injustice—not so much as a white knight coming in to save the day, but often just as a reminder that they’re not the ones always left holding the bag by themselves.
Part of what it means to follow Jesus is to take our place upon the walls with Isaiah, refusing to remain silent, giving God no rest until God establishes the reign God promised and makes it renowned throughout the earth.
So the question to us who care about being faithful to the witness of the prophets—of Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah, Hosea, Zechariah, John the Baptist, and ultimately of Jesus of Nazareth—is: what forgotten and desperate people are we willing to cry out to God on behalf of?
Transgender people once again being threatened with an all too familiar push to the back of the line, little ten year-old kids ready to give up on life because of the bullying they face, women who have to put up with one more day of harassment and violence from the men in their lives, people running away from the violence and dehumanization of their homelands, seeking shelter, only to fall into violent and dehumanizing hands in the very place they thought would offer them safety—all these people and so many more are waiting for someone cry out on their behalf: “I will not keep silent, I will not rest until their vindication shines out like the dawn, and their salvation like a burning torch”—hoping agains hope that someone will “remind the Lord, giving God no rest” until their dignity and humanity is restored.
To people despairing that their worlds are about to devour them, there aren’t many words more beautiful than “I will not be silent.”
Will we find the courage to be that for others?
There are a lot of hurting people who are heavily invested in how we respond.