Silence and One of Unclean Lips – A Sermon Given to Wesley Theological Seminary’s Plumbline

The following is a sermon given to Plumbline, “an interfaith social justice organization dedicated to service, education, and advocacy.” See more from Plumbline here.
Special thanks goes to Grace Milliken for help in editing and making sure appropriate language is used throughout. Please consider supporting their gofundme campaign here.

Isaiah 6:1-8

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

Luke 5:1-11
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets.
He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.
When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who are partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

Sermon Text

What Justice for all means, is that we admit we are a people of unclean lips. Unclean not because of what we say, though we have said more than our fair share of evil, and done even more. And while it is easy to find someone who is openly hateful and violent toward other people, it is hard to find people willing to speak against them when the rubber hits the road. The source of our unclean lips is our silence in the face of evil.

When we see Isaiah in the temple, modern readers usually see it as a statement of humility that Isaiah shouts out, “Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips!” However, from the beginning, we have commentators writing that the uncleanliness of Isaiah comes from having a message, not sharing it. Oh, he was speaking, but not the full truth he was called to speak. We have five chapters of prophecy before he is called, and in terms of literature we can call that a prologue, or we could take something a bit more spiritual from our reading.

If Isaiah was ritually unclean, he would not be in the temple. If his words are unclean, what do we make of the opening prophecy? What must be understood then is that Isaiah is not afraid of God showing up because of what has been done, but what has been left undone? God comes down, bending the heavens to speak to his people and at the moment that Isaiah sees the Lord he has only one thought. I have not done my job!

It is an easy thing to quote MLK and say that those who stand silent in the face of evil essentially have committed it themselves, it is something else to actually break that silence. To call out against the violent forces in the world, not from the distant comfort of home and hearth. Can we stare the oppressors, the rich, the violent in their eyes and prophecy to them? Can we be Nathan and shout down David from his place of power?

There is, of course, a practical consideration to this. Namely, that to prophecy like this is more dangerous for some people than it is for others. Look no further than Standing Rock, than Fergusson, than anywhere where people stand up against power, power responds with force. The result is that people get hurt, people whose only crime is the desire to see justice done, and for abuse to stop.

What is absent in many of these protests, plain as day, is for the unaffected to take part in fighting against the evils of the world. When unarmed black men are killed, why is there so much silence from white America? When Native Peoples are struck with water cannons and tear gas, why do we focus on anything but their struggles? When women come forward and name the people who have hurt them for years and years, is it worse that people defend the abusers or that even more people are willing to sit with their mouths shut? Let’s just go there and say, when a Church Conference deemed a whole population of believers unfit for ministry, a ruckus was raised, but how were more not openly fighting for them to begin with?

In each of these cases, power would have likely responded with violence no matter who was participating. It is also untrue, and frankly patronizing to say that the problems of the oppressed would be fixed if people of privilege joined in the cause. No, this is not the case, and if we are honest, people of privilege often choose not to speak for but speak over the people they claim to be helping.

Let us not forget that the movement to ship African Americans overseas rather than consider them equal was a movement begun by “well-intentioned” people. The decision to keep schools and facilities, “Separate but Equal” was an insidious doctrine, but one that many well-meaning moderates supported wholeheartedly.

Even today, we see supposed “allies” fighting for things that would ultimately hurt the people they claim to be helping. Advocates who believe that the way to stop school shootings is to put armed police in schools, that it would be better for there to be a new Central conference for LGBTQ individuals to have, separate but equal from the rest of the Methodist Church, and of course all people who, only ever respond to tragedy with thoughts and prayers and not by voting or working for and with those who work against such evils.

No, the solution to our problems in this country is not for people of privilege to ride in on a white horse and save the day, but by them joining forces with existing work. Not seeing themselves as heroes or martyrs but as people sharing the works of righteousness. The work against injustice in the world is not the work of one group, but the work of all people and the Church – black, white, Latinx, Asian, Gay, Straight, Trans, or otherwise – should be leading the charge of righteousness at all times and in all places.

Since I keep using the word, let’s take a moment to unpack privilege. It is a word that makes many people uncomfortable because they see it as something which erases their struggle. Coming from West Virginia, I’ve had many people tell me, “I am as poor as anyone, how can I be privileged?” The answer to this, from one poor Appalachian to another is that we face our hardships in life, just like anyone else, and we work for our bread, just like anyone else. However, for the White Appalachian man, or white men anywhere, we do not face hardships because of our skin color. We do not face hardships for our gender. If we are straight, we do not face hardship because of who we love.

Perhaps, though, because you entered into Academia you had to change your accent, perhaps you grew up in an area without proper school funding, or perhaps you grew up in a town where the only affordable food you could buy was from Ronald McDonald or Colonel Sanders, in this, others may be more privileged. Privilege is not saying that a person has never faced hardships. No, privilege is not having to suffer particular systemic hardships that others do. It is not a way to shut down a conversation, but a consideration necessary in going forward with one.

Which is why it is necessary to call a spade to spade. When we see crimes of minorities plastered online like they prove they are violent by nature. When we see white “pot moms” lauded as entrepreneurs while men and women of color suffer in prison over a few grams in their pocket. We should not say that privilege is at work, we should say that the people propagating these systems are not acting from a place of privilege but a place of racism given power by existing systems. It is hate and not being born to different circumstances that cause these evils. Let us not treat them as things that can merely be taught away, but as things, that must change in the innermost part of a human being.

The circumstances of our birth and our upbringing give us innate power that is reinforced socially and systemically in our day to day. The choice for every individual is then whether they will take that inborn power and actively oppose those who abuse it. Power and privilege are not the same things, neither is racism identical to either, but the three work together – one will beget the other will beget the other. It is the duty of every person to see in what ways they have power and to use that power to stand up against the evils that threaten those around us.

In dismantling these systems born out of hate, we must be aware of our contributions to them. When we speak on behalf of anyone, we should speak with their lived experiences informing our words. When I listed earlier the cases of Standing Rock, Fergusson, General Conference – it is easy for someone to say, “Well I would stand with them, but I do not agree with them.” Be that as it may, did we listen to them? Did we look at their lived experiences and give it equal regard to ours? Listening and learning are things that we as a culture are not overly good at, but it is an absolute necessity in working toward justice. We should not put words into the mouths of anyone, but like Aaron relay what they have taught us in a language that the listener may understand.

We must clean up our language of those words which are ultimately harmful to the causes we claim to defend so that in arguing for the rights of another person we do not become party to the language that has constrained them. This means that we have to keep up to date with our terms, work constantly to know the situation and the appropriate way to speak to it, and while changing the very way we speak about others can be difficult, it’s one small thing we can do to be compassionate to those who have been forced to change the very essence of who they are to get by or even to survive

If we look at how Jesus calls Peter and the Sons of Zebedee, we see a perfect example of what it is to preach to those who are actively hurting others. It is a call in which Jesus sends us into the waters where we, the good preachers that we are, know that nobody is gonna wanna hear us. We cast out the net of our words, and pray that we are going to catch something. The question is, did we clean our nets before we threw them out? Did we have the coal of understanding put to the quiet prejudices of our lips that we would speak only what truth God has called us to speak? The disciples had cleaned their nets, had patched any holes in it, and when they threw it into those dangerous waters… They caught fish.

They caught so many fish that they needed other people to come and help them so that the fish did not drag them under. It is dangerous it follow the call that Christ has put in our hearts, it is dangerous to call to repentance those in power, but we are called to do it nonetheless. If we have done our due diligence in preparing our nets, we must trust that God will give us the haul. If we go forward – all of us, from all walks of life – and join together in championing our causes, then the body of Christ can, at last, be whole and bring into the Kingdom multitudes of people.

Because at the end of the day we are not just seeking Justice on this earth. No, we are also seeking to save the lost, to erase hate from human hearts. So that, having done all things we can stand together as one people, with one God. We call out against those who do evil, we tell them “Repent and believe the Gospel!”

Because we believe that Christ wants them, but Christ does not want their hate, their malice, their greed, their violence. We must not be afraid to face evil eye to eye, whether it be evil in our president, evil in our senators, evil in our bishops, or evil in our very own family. Because at the end of all things, Justice means that we speak out, we rage, we move heaven and earth. We do all things but remain silent. – Amen.

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