Speaker: Cynthia Lapp
The word of God in scripture is very present in our worship today. It is a lot to digest and understand: a beseeching prayer in the Psalm; words of hope from Jeremiah; apocalyptic images and advice from Luke; gratitude and blessing in Paul’s letter to the church at Thessalonica. Instead of trying to tackle all the words, I am going to listen to advice I once got from a preaching professor: choose one text. Let’s take it one step further and choose just one phrase.
Did you hear the Jeremiah passage that Kim and Juan read at the advent lamp lighting? I have been turning that last phrase around in my mind all week. They will call the land “YHWH is our justice.” This advent season, that is a land I want to journey to: a land called “YHWH is our justice.” How do we get there? Can we get there in this beautiful tent/caravan? Is there room for all of us? Is that land a place, or a time, or an event? Is it a destination or is it the journey itself – this land called “YHWH is our justice.”
On Thursday evening Eric and I joined Saundra and Dwight (and 2,300 other people) at the National Cathedral. We were there to hear Yo Yo Ma play all six of the suites that Johann Sebastian Bach wrote for solo cello. Sometimes we get to hear Eric or Daniel Daughtry-Weiss play parts of these suites for prelude. But to play all six, all the way through, without an intermission? It is like running a marathon but without the pit stops or people handing you water as you run past.
Yo Yo Ma sat on the stage, one chair, on a platform usually filled with musicians or clergy. He played from memory, for two and a half hours. It was entrancing, inspiring, — and I thought, “Yo Yo Ma lives in the land called ‘YHWH is our justice.’” Yo Yo Ma knows the suites of Bach so well that he lives in them. And because he lives in the Bach Suites and loves living in them, he knows what a gift they are to the world and he shares that gift with others.
As much as Yo Yo Ma loves and lives in the Bach Suites, he knows that he and the Bach Suites are not the only gift to the world. At the end of the concert, after a rousing standing ovation, Yo Yo Ma called on to the stage, the Howard University Gospel Choir. Not every performer would step aside from so much adulation and allow 20 college students to take the stage, to finish the night out. But Yo Yo Ma must know something about living in the land of “YHWH is our justice.” He must know that when we live in that land, we recognize there are many gifts and many ways to share those gifts.
It took more than a moment for the audience to make the adjustment – from a solo instrument playing 17th century music to 20 voices singing music written 300 years later. The audience had come to hear the one and only Yo Yo Ma, we had come to hear Bach, tested, tried and true. And now here, late at night, we were given an encore by college students, singing gospel music? It may have taken a moment, but Yo Yo Ma led us to this land and because we trusted him, we entered the music too. We experienced beauty, perhaps we even heard YHWH, in the song “Hold on, change is comin,” just as we heard that voice in the wordless cello suites.
So how do we get to this land, “YHWH is our justice?” Do we have to go to the National Cathedral or the Kennedy Center? Or am I mistaken when I say that I glimpsed the land of “YHWH is our justice” at the Cathedral; after all, the only people who were there were those who could afford to shell out big bucks to sit – all evening and some didn’t even stay for the whole thing. Maybe I am way off and an evening of music in the cathedral is not anything like what Jeremiah had in mind. But I’m sure I caught a glimpse. I felt a pull, breathed in hope, wept a tear for the land that I experienced and heard that night.
Jeremiah has his vision while in exile, in prison. What a wild imagination he must have to see a time when Israel and Judah are not at war with each other or the Assyrians or the Babylonians. The people are in exile and despair and Jeremiah sees that one day they will live in the land called “YHWH is our justice.”
Jump several centuries and the Romans claim Caesar is the king, the god in control. Luke’s apocalyptic description is part imagination and part lived experience: nations in anguish; the roaring of the seas; people dying of fright; the powers in the heavens shaken. And yet Jesus proclaims: The reign of God is near.
Though we may be able to buy our way into the Cathedral, we see the chaos of a country led by fear. We watch as the greed of a few leaves many struggling to survive. We hear words twisted so they no longer represent truth. As followers of the One who came proclaiming “the Reign of God is near,” we too look for ways to live in the land of “YHWH is our justice.” We may even dream big and believe that we can offer some hope to those who need it most, who feel as if they may never catch a glimpse of “YHWH is our justice” or the Reign of God.
It is not as easy as wishing it to be true. Yo Yo Ma did not just hope that he would be able to play the Bach Suites. He said Thursday evening that the first time he performed one of the Bach Suites he was five years old. His parents might have caught glimpses of that land when he was five but probably not everyone experienced “YHWH is our justice” when they heard him play. It took many years of practice, of devotion and dedication until his playing could help the rest of us catch a glimpse of that land.
The same is true for us; if we truly want to journey to that land, “YHWH is our justice,” we have to practice. It sounds like a destination and yet it is in the practice on the journey that we can experience that land.
So what do we practice, what do we memorize and internalize? If we want to reach the land of “YHWH is our justice,” what do we carry with us so closely that we know it by heart? We might start with something basic. Many of us who grew up being forced to do bible memory might cringe, but I think memorizing scripture is one practice. You might have some words you already hold in your heart: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God” or maybe “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” Maybe you want to tackle a much longer passage to carry close to your heart. Maybe a song or poem or story guides your heart and mind toward that land, “YHWH is our justice.”
Or perhaps it is a spiritual practice, like taking pictures of the sunrise every morning. Or finding three things to be grateful for every day. Or choosing to laugh instead of yell. Or letting the other person go first at the grocery store. Or cooking for friends and family. Or listening deeply to another person. You probably have your own favorite practice that leads you toward “YHWH is our justice.” As we journey together this advent season, perhaps you want to try on a new practice.
Our journey leads to a land called “YHWH is our justice.” The land is not called “YHWH is my justice.” It is a land of plural pronouns. Which doesn’t mean that we don’t practice on our own.
Jeremiah was alone in prison but he cast a vision beyond himself to include all of Israel and Judah.
Jesus was always going off to pray alone. And his vision of God’s reign stretches to the farthest margins of society.
Yo Yo Ma spent hours and years in practice rooms alone. He still practices. And he shares the results of that practice with others. He even shares the stage with others, who have practiced, who have different gifts and styles – the Silk Road project, the Howard University Gospel Choir. Because this land toward which we journey is not one that we will “discover” or own or colonize or take over. The land to which we journey is one we will inhabit and share together. “YHWH is our justice.”
In this chaotic, violent, turbulent world, we live with deep hope that the Reign of God, the land of “YHWH is our justice” will come and that we will be part of it. So we watch, we wait, we hope, we sing, we care for our neighbors, we amplify the voices that have been silenced, we share our food and money, visit those in prison and work for liberation and use our gifts as best we can. Sometimes, if we are alert, we catch a sideways glance of that land.
Which spurs us to practice and journey some more. So that one day, somehow, somewhere, we will see that time when a righteous branch is raised up from the line of David, who will bring justice and integrity to the land. In those days Judah will be safe and Jerusalem will be secure. And they will call the land “YHWH is our justice.”