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Bigger Signs

Sometimes I feel that the church has lost the art of lament. Lament. Lament is a prayer for help coming out of pain. It is often mournful. The Bible is full of lament. Job lamented, “Why did I not perish at birth. Why did I not come forth from the womb and expire?” Jeremiah laments, “Why is my pain continuous, my wound incurable…?” One third of the Psalms – the Bible’s hymnal – are laments. Psalm 130 “Out of my depths I cry to you, O Lord.” Jesus, himself, was quoting a Psalm of lament on the cross; “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

I fear we have lost the art of lament. All of worship must somehow be happy, clappy and we all must go home with an earworm which goes, “I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I think our worship should be more somber and depressing. It’s that I think we don’t actually lament things about us which should be lamented.

This morning we heard from a prophet who’s name sounds like someone is clearing their throat: Habakkuk. I don’t preach much from the minor prophet Habakkuk. I should. In this morning’s Old Testament lesson Habakkuk is feeling outrage over things that you and I should feel more outrage. His lament begins, “O Lord how long?!?!” “How long shall I cry for help?” How long before something is done about violence? … about wrongdoing? … before division is ended? How long before justice prevails?

Habakkuk is outraged and wants to know how long?

2500 years after Habakkuk, Martin Luther King Junior stood on the steps of the state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, at the end of the civil rights march from Selma, and said, “I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?’ Somebody’s asking, ‘How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?” King lamented, “How long will justice be crucified?”

59 years after King delivered this speech we, today, should be as outraged. We should be outraged at those things which outraged Habakkuk and Dr. King. We should lament violence, wrongdoing, injustice, prejudice, and corruption. Our government wants to get the homeless off the streets of Los Angeles – not because they need shelter – but because they are unsightly. We should be outraged by that. Our government wants to sue automakers for voluntarily biding by stricter clean air standards. We should be outraged by that. So far in 2019 there have been more mass shootings than there are days in 2019. We should lament that. We don’t just downplay poverty in the United States, we make a crime out of it. Poor people are arrested for minor violations at a much higher rate than you or I and either wind up in prison or in debt. We should lament that. Our prisons are full of persons of color who were charged with offenses white people would not have been charged with. This is injustice and we should be outraged. We should lament. And then there are the lies. The lies! Do these drive you as crazy as they do me? They should!

When Habakkuk asked the Lord what he was going to do about all this injustice, the Lord said, “I’ll tell you what you are going to do. You are going to write what you see on signs. God says to Habakkuk “Write the vison; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time.”

Signs. Big signs. How many here remember Burma Shave signs. I do. They were red, about 2 feet by 5 feet in size, and were placed about 100 yards apart. There were usually five of them and they formed a poetic message. Many had to do with road safety. They said things like: “Hardly a driver/ is still alive/ who passed/ on hills/ at 75.” Or “Past/ Schoolhouses/ Take it slow/ Let the little/ shavers grow.” They all ended with “Burma Shave.” The thing that put these signs out of business was the advent of Eisenhower’s interstate highway system. The signs were meant for slower traffic. 45 miles an hour. Now, at twice that speed or more these small signs would not work.

Like that famous line from Jaws, “I think we’re gonna need a bigger boat.”, God told Habakkuk, “You need bigger signs. Big enough for a runner to see.” Sometimes I think the church, like Burma Shave, does have a message to proclaim. But it is still putting the message out there on small signs at a time when culture and society has sped up. The church is like those old signs or old motels rotting away along some abandoned byway. When we to get outraged, when we do lament, our signs just aren’t big enough. Maybe, when I say, our “church” needs bigger signs, I mean our “congregations” need bigger signs. Our ELCA actually did a pretty good job this summer in Milwaukee with signs. At our churchwide assembly our Presiding bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, led the delegation in a march with signs to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters – ICE. Upon arriving there they took a cue from Martin Luther who nailed 95 thesis to the church door at the beginning of the Reformation. They taped 9.5 thesis to the door of the ICE headquters, each of which lamented and condemned the mistreatment and separation of families at our southern border. The protest garnered statewide tv and print coverage. Now, there was a sign even a runner could read.

At the end of his speech on the courthouse steps in Montgomery, after asking (as did Habakkuk), “how long?”, King answered the question. “Not long,” he said. “It will not be long because ‘truth crushed to earth will rise again.’ How long? Not long, because ‘no lie can live forever.’ How long” Not long, because ‘you shall reap what you sow.’ How long? Not long, because the ark of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Maybe it would be good to begin more of our worship with lament and then end with joy simply because, in the end, God’s love and justice will prevail and the Good News will reign victorious over the bad news. The arc does bend toward justice.

We are going to end our service today with a hymn of joy. It is one we sang not too long ago … one which comes from our ELCA African American Hymnal which has the same name as the hymn, “We’ve Come This Far by Faith.” Susan will introduce it when the time comes. It is a lively one and Susan will tickle the ivories until they beg her to stop. But I’d like to tell you the story behind the hymn.

The author of the hymn is Albert Goodson who wrote 16 hymns. This is the only one which became famous. Goodson is of African American decent. Here is the story in his own words: “I was living in Chicago alone. I was never married, and I didn’t have a relative or a close friend in that city. I became very discouraged. One day, during a depressed state, I sat down at the piano in a friend’s home and began to play a melody running through my mind. As I played, the Lord seemed to speak to me saying,

‘We’ve come this far by faith, Leaning on the Lord, Trusting in his holy word, He has never failed me yet.’ ” Goodson says, “I immediately knew that I had found words for my melody:”

We should not be afraid to lament. We should do it loudly and proudly like Habakkuk and Dr. King. We should express our outrage even through our worship. But we should always, always, end with the joyful witness that, “We’ve come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord, trusting in his holy Word, He has never failed us yet.”

Text: Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4

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