Voice in the Wilderness: Powerful words by The Rev. Jim Friedrich

(Over the transom and through the breezes of Christmas, this powerful sermon by The Rev. Jim Friedrich landed at Preludium. It is an honor to publish it.  

It stands the test of being fitting even after the Celebration of the Feast of the Incarnation. It was a costly sermon, as sermons that speak truth often are.  It is a Voice in what is increasingly a wilderness within Christendom. Read and be fed. (the formatting is not the same as given in the sermon...I had to refit to the blog.)

Voices in the Wilderness
Advent 3B, December 11, 2011
A Sermon by The Rev. Jim Friedrich

Stir up your power, O Lord.
Come and save us all.

Most prophetic texts look to the future, foreseeing a time
when God shall overcome all the sufferings and evils of history.

But today Isaiah speaks in the present tense –
not about a distant or unimaginable future,
but about something taking place here and now,
in our very midst.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.
God has sent me to announce the time of grace,
and the dawn of justice.

Such a revolution doesn’t happen all at once, of course.
It takes time. God respects our temporal natures.
We stand at the dawn of a long day.
But the great work of salvation has finally begun.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light.

Bit by bit, little by little,
God is beginning to repair the world,
heal the wounds,
recover the lost,
redeem the time.

This passage from Isaiah happens to be the one that Jesus picked for his first sermon back in his home town. And he made the same point. “This very moment,” he said, “this Scripture is being fulfilled.”

That’s right: God is no longer waiting to appear at some future date.
God’s kingdom has come – it’s in your midst – and it’s time to get on board.
No more waiting for some other day.
The Day of the Lord is now.

You’d think that little church in Nazareth would be pretty excited to find out that God was in town. But no.
They dragged Jesus from the pulpit and tried to throw him over a cliff.

Why were they so upset?
I’m sure they felt Jesus was being pretentious or even blasphemous, claiming to be the Messiah. But I suspect that what really upset them was the possibility that the stuff they talked about in church might actually be true. If God’s day were truly dawning, what terrible news for business as usual!  For the coming of God’s world always means the end of our own.

Those folks in Nazareth knew just how disruptive God’s advent can be.
God doesn’t come to comfort the comfortable or to bless the injustice of the status quo.
God comes to tear down the walls of oppression, break the power of the wicked, uproot the invasive weeds of iniquity,
plant the seeds of justice and resurrection.

And who shall abide the day of God’s coming?

We all have some stake in the way things are.
We are all mired in the inertia of history.
We are all afraid of what we might lose.

Lose your life to find it.
Give up everything you have.

We know what God wants.
Jesus told us.
And it’s a little scary.
It would be so much easier just to go back to sleep,
to remain undisturbed by God’s invitation to do everything differently. Let the prophets go somewhere else and leave us in peace!

But still we pray:
Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness …
to heed the prophets’ warnings and forsake our sins,
that we may greet with joy – not fear – the coming of our Redeemer.

One of the beauties of the Advent season is the way it turns us inward, inviting us to stillness, receptivity, expectation. But Advent also drives our attention outward, to look for the eruption of divine love in the struggles of the poor, in the cries of the lost, in the world’s deep hunger.

Perhaps it is no accident that Advent coincides this year with the extraordinary outpouring of protest and vision known as Occupy Wall Street, for Advent and Occupy share many of the same themes of “out with the old, in with the new.”

We hear today about “a man sent from God,” who created quite a stir at Occupy Jordan River with his fiery rhetoric about radical change. So the people in charge of public order made their way down from Jerusalem, into the wilderness where John was camping. Some of them were a little put off by John’s appearance – dried honey in his beard, that ratty camelskin.

A few suggested he take a bath and get a job. But most were sincerely curious. “We want to know who you are,” they said. But then they tried to fit him into one of their boxes.

Are you Elijah? Nope.
Are you the prophet? Nope.
Are you the Messiah? Nope.

He drove them crazy. How could they take seriously anyone who didn’t let them define who he was? How could they trust him if they couldn’t co-opt him? Finally they gave up and said, “OK, why don’t you tell us who you are.”

And he said, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness.”

In the Bible, the wilderness isn’t the Cascades or Olympics on a pleasant summer day. It is the inhospitable expanse of Middle Eastern desert. Its burning harshness and incomprehensible emptiness provide one of the great metaphoric tropes in Scripture. The wilderness, the desert, is the non-place between the world that is and the world to come.

The inhuman blankness of the landscape offers no refuge for normal life. Its vast silence consumes all our descriptions and constructions of reality. Its immense spaces, always drawing the eye to an unattainable horizon,
dissolve our sense of proportion, relation, boundary and reference.

It is the interruption that breaks the hypnotic spell of consensus reality.
It is the void where worlds end.

In other words, wilderness is the non-place where all places, and the habitual ways we inhabit them, are called into question.

The desert questions can be unsettling, terrifying.
Even Jesus found the desert a place of trial.
But the desert questions are also an invitation to abandon the illusions that enslave us, and begin to re-imagine the world.

If you want to make the Exodus from bondage in Egypt,
if you are ready to redefine your life and the way you live together, you have to go out where the old certainties are shattered and the old stories are burned away.

So it was for the people of Israel,
who found the desert questions almost unbearable. They complained, they worried, they wanted to go back to Egypt, where at least everything was familiar. The non-place between worlds was very hard for them. But it was there that God turned them from an invisible rabble of slaves
and nobodies into the people of God, ready at last to receive a new future and a new place, the Promised Land. And when the Promised Land turned out not to be so perfect, but still beset with the corrupting influence of
human sin, God would repeatedly raise up some prophet to remember the desert as the place to be purified and emptied, the place to begin again.

And so the prophets of Israel embodied the wilderness in their message:

Get out of Egypt,
put your slavery and your idolatries behind you,
empty yourselves of your old stories and old demons,
and make room for a future you can’t even imagine:
where the deaf shall have music
and the blind have new eyes,
where the mourners will laugh and the hungry be filled.

And this is why John the Baptist, the last of the ancient line of biblical prophets, tells those people, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness,” as if what is important about him is not his personal identity but the desert questions that find a voice in him. It’s the message, not the medium, that matters.

In paintings of John, he is often pointing, away from himself, toward the new reality that is emerging, embodied either as Christ the babe in Mary’s arms, or Christ the Savior on the cross.

That’s what prophets do. They call to us with the voice of the desert, pointing us toward God’s New Possibility.

Wake up!

Change your life.

And now, this very Advent, a voice is crying in the wilderness again, from Occupy encampments all over this country. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, they have chosen to live as sojourners, wandering the empty
space between the world that is and the world that is to come.

And what do their voices cry? They cry judgment on the many ills of our broken society: injustice, greed, militarism, racism, pollution, all the long litany of familiar systemic sins. All the things we simply accept because addressing them is hard and costly and sometimes even dangerous.
But the voices of Occupy also cry possibility, the kind of possibility imagined by Isaiah in today’s Scripture, or in this visionary poem by Judy Chicago:

And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another's will
And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
And then all will share equally in the Earth's abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And then all will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life's creatures
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the Earth
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.

Dare we entertain such great possibility?
Are we prepared to make room for the world of God
to be born in our midst?
Will we consent to change our lives?
Or will we just put God’s New Story out on the curb
like a discarded Christmas tree,
and go back to sleep?

The powers that be are so not prepared for the world of God. They never are. And they certainly don’t want prophets hanging around to remind us we could do so much better. Thus the evictions have begun. The evictions of Occupy encampments are always in the name of civic
order, health and safety. Certainly there are concerns in those areas – the camps are not exempt from the urban pathologies that most of us are able to ignore in the privacy of our own homes. And these concerns are being addressed by the Occupiers themselves in serious and thoughtful ways.
But I suspect that the powers that be are also troubled by something deeper, more eschatological. Longing for a different world, a better world, disturbs the peace. Dreams are dangerous. But does democratic desire really need to be so feared? A journalist on the scene when protesters
returned to Zuccotti Park after the Wall Street evictions reported that the spirit of the crowd was not anger – it was joy.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, I believe that Advent is really happening out there in the streets and the camps. Prophets are enduring the cold and the pepper spray to be voices in the wilderness, stewards of a great message of judgment and promise.

At the same time, they are carrying out a fascinating social experiment: in the way they live together in community; in the way they provide hospitality to the homeless and misfits, difficult as that may be; and in the way they forge processes to govern themselves, articulate concerns, and
make decisions that are radically democratic and inclusive. As one Occupier said, “It’s a mess. But it’s a beautiful mess.”

Last month I presided at a Eucharist in the Sanctuary tent at Occupy Seattle, along with the Rev. Sally Carlson, a deacon who got us on the interfaith rota for the day. From 3 to 6 p.m. on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, we were the resident chaplains at the Capitol Hill encampment
on the corner of Broadway and Pine.

We set up a small altar with candles, and I led songs with my guitar. We began the Eucharist with a congregation of two, which doubled as we went along. We talked about the Parable of the Talents as a story of risk-taking – choosing faith in the Kingdom's possibilities over fear of what might go wrong, a timely topic for the Occupy movement. Then we shared the Body and Blood of Christ in the Sanctuary tent, while all around us in the camp people were talking, eating, reading, drumming, and just hanging out,
dwelling closely together as few of us do in our cities, towns and suburbs.

And I thought: Was it like this for the children of Israel in the Sinai? These protestors may not have reached the Promised Land, but at least they've said no to Egypt.

After our small eucharist, we let the altar candles burn for the remaining hour of our time there. As dusk turned to dark, various people were drawn into our circle of peaceful light, and soon there were a dozen of us sitting together on the floor of the Occupy Sanctuary, talking quietly, earnestly, thoughtfully about God, hope, community, justice, and social change. The things that matter deeply. Each time some new person peered into our tent, a welcome was issued: "Come sit with us."

Just as in the Exodus, God took a ragtag band of social exiles and strangers and – for a very precious hour – made us into the people of God.

It was the conversation – and the community – that I long for every day, but only find in those unexpected moments when the Kingdom shows up once again, pitching God's tent in the wilderness.

Is the Occupy movement the Kingdom of God? No, of course not. The Occupy people would be the first to tell you that. Like John the Baptist, they point away from themselves to a greater reality.

A woman who helps run the Occupy Wall Street website told a journalist: This could be the greatest thing that I work on in my life. But the movement will have other Web sites. Over the coming weeks and months, as other occupations become more prominent, ours will slowly become irrelevant. We can’t hold on to any of that authority. We don’t want to.” (“Pre-Occupied: The origins and future of OWS”, The New Yorker, Nov. 28, 2011)

There’s no need to idealize the Occupiers. While there are many incredibly articulate, idealistic and thoughtful people doing the hard work of creating community and forging collective actions, a lot of the campers are homeless street kids, some of them dysfunctional and emotionally underdeveloped.  And a number of parasites and pushers
have drifted through as well, creating headaches for the camps.

But Rich Lang, a Methodist minister who has been a faithful presence at Occupy Seattle, sees God at work in even in “the least of these”. In a recent online post he says that

… these kids are not just a bunch of losers. They are full of desire for something new, something more, something not seen but deeply felt. They ache for the New World where everyone [can] not only survive but … thrive.
… They want to be freed  from the Old Story of constant competition and the wars unleashed in competition’s name. They anticipate liberating everyone from this old story and developing a New Story rooted in connection, compassion and mutual aid…
And I looked and I saw that they are doing the best they can with what little they have… These young folk, who have nothing and therefore nothing to lose, are refugees daring to walk the new highway even before it’s built.

Two days ago, Occupy Seattle broke camp on Capitol Hill, in search of some new shelter as yet unknown. They must walk for now a literal Las Posadas, like Mary and Joseph wandering from door to door:

Do you have space to let us lie down?
- No, no, so sorry, no.

Do you know of a place in this town?
- No, no, so sorry, no.

Now you must go.

I hope to God there will be room for them somewhere.
I hope that their desert questions will not be silenced,
nor their prophetic spirit be quenched.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me…
to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners.

God has sent me to announce the time of grace,
and the dawn of justice.
Let every heart prepare him room!

- The Rev. Jim Friedrich


  1. Thank you so much for posting this - I believe it will take reading several times to comprehend and can be a focus for future discussion. Sr. Cassdiliciz

  2. Thanks for posting this.

    In my more limited contact with Occupy, I've had similar experiences. It's hardly the New Jerusalem descending from Heaven, but it is people kicking open a door that has been shut and locked against them.
    I have many friends who are good people who desire everything that this sermon describes, but nonetheless are detractors of the Christian religion, and sadly for good reason. The Church more often than not has blessed the unjust status quo, and has eagerly volunteered itself as an enforcement agency for the establishment and their conventional wisdom. There are days when I think of the Church as nothing more than another collection agency for the banks. I remember Marx's remark about the priest being the landlord's best friend.
    I am heartened by so much religious participation in the Occupy movement, and the welcome they are receiving in that movement. In the face of my good friends who've abandoned Christianity because they are disgusted with it and find it to be morally repulsive, I hope for the rebirth of that original revolutionary spirit of Christianity that dared to hope, pray, and work for a new heaven and a new earth, for everyone, even the least. I hope for a post-institutional Christianity after all of the churches and denominations have thoroughly discredited themselves with their sectarian fighting.


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.