Better Than a Hallelujah–Covenant Network Conference Sermon

Here’s a video of the sermon:

Here’s the video of the entire worship service:

A sermon preached at the closing worship service of the Covenant Network Conference, Unity Matters. Nov 7, 2015 at Central Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colorado.

2 Cor 5:16-21; 6:1-2

Isaiah 65: 17-25


You’ve come a long way, baby.

Many of us remember those ads for Virginia Slim cigarettes, which had the “advantage” of being the first cancer sticks marketed directly to women.
Why should women have to use those shorter, stubbier cigarettes designed for those meaty paws of men?

And if you can smoke something that says “slim” on it, that seems you’re halfway to actually being “slim”, ammIright?

Thanks to this ad, I now know that women are less inclined than men to congenital baldness, albinism of the eyes, improperly developed sweat glands, defective hair follicles and defective tooth enamel, among other horrors.

You poor men. How do you even make it through a day with all of those disadvantages? It must be awful.

Many of these ads contrasted a happy, modern smoking woman with her un-liberated ancestor,  who didn’t have time to enjoy a good cigarette because she was chopping wood or churning butter.


They often  showed women in very fashionable clothes, connecting beauty to lung cancer in a sneaky way. By using feminism, and even the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, to sell cigarettes, these and other ads functioned, oddly enough, to expand cultural images of beauty by including women who were not caucasian and blonde.

I would wear this dress in a hot minute.

I would wear this dress in a hot minute.

Looking through those old ads, I realized a few things. One is how successful the campaign was. I never picked up the smoking habit, but we can blame/credit that on growing up with two, pack a day smokers . Even as a non-smoker, though, I bought into the narrative—that things are better now than they were then. “You’ve come a long way, baby”

I look at a picture of my suffragette sisters from 100 years ago and am thankful to stand at this particular moment in history, when women have the right to vote and the right to control their own health care decisions without the interference of politicians.

Oh wait.

Maybe we haven’t come quite as long a way as we’d hoped.

I see the pictures of my 1970’s sisters celebrating their rights to smoke skinny, lady-like cigarettes, and I think, phew, we’ve come a long way, baby. So glad advertisers, in 2015, don’t need to objectify and sexualize women to sell hamburgers or something.

oh wait.

Maybe we haven’t come  quite as long a way as we’d hoped. Sadly, this was not the most offensive ad I saw. This was the least pornographic of the offensive hamburger ads.

For every moment of “we’ve come a long way, baby”, I experience many more moments of “the more things change the more they stay the same”.

I see it in the culture around us.

For every non-discrimination ordinance passed by cities in conservative states, like my home in Idaho, giving hope to residents that they will be able to be judged on their merits and not their sexual orientation or gender identity, there’s yet another story of violence and exclusion faced by people who are gay, lesbian, and trans. Housing denied. Employment terminated. Safety threatened. Follow the news from Houston to see this in play.

For every moment of racial reconciliation, when I think, ‘maybe, just maybe we’re turning the corner’, there is yet another story of fear, violence, and death—as people suffer for going to church while black, or sitting in class while black, or for swimming while black, or for driving a car while black. I recognize my complicity in the systemic racism that pervades our society, knowing my privilege clings to me even as I decry its existence.

I see it in the church too. Women, in the PCUSA and other mainline denominations at least, have come a long way and are able to be ordained and serve in all sorts of congregations and other ministries.

At the same time, I continue to meet people who tell me, in 2015, that I’m the first woman they have ever seen preach. I continue to have people ask why I need to make “so much” money when my husband has a good job. A study by Church Law and Tax report shows that in a senior pastor position, men make an average of $25,000 more a year than women in similar pastoral roles.

We still have a long way to go.  While I, as a straight white woman have lots of opportunities, relatively, to use my gifts in service of the church, I recognize that my race, my sexual orientation, and my gender identity all contribute to expanding opportunities for me in ways that my brothers and sisters of different racial ethnic groups, or who are LGBT do not have.

And we want to acknowledge the “already” part of how real improvements have been made, without denying the “not yet” real lived experience of people who are struggling. Today. And suffering. Today. And even dying. Today.

There is even a tension between the already and the not yet in the beautiful poem from Isaiah. God is both “about to create”  and “is creating”.

At the end of the Book of Isaiah, God offers these words of comfort:

For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.

The people of Jerusalem knew of already, not yet.

They had come a long way, literally, after Cyrus had allowed them to journey home from exile in Babylon. The promise of building homes and living in them, of planting vineyards and making their own wine—how appealing must that have been, at first, to people who knew more of the pain of exile than they remembered of the joy of peace?

The people hearing Isaiah’s prophecy, though, weren’t the first generation at home in the supposed promised land. They were the great grandchildren of the returned exiles. Time has passed and the dream of the future is still lying in rubble on the dusty streets. When God told them the former things would not be remembered, I wonder how many of them thought, “you might forget, but I remember”.

It’s easy for me to hear God’s promise, and then to not see evidence of it in the world around me, and then conclude that somehow God is the one at fault, who hasn’t done what he said he would do.

And yet, I know, we know, that the world is not this way because God has made it this way….but because we have made it this way.

“And so we cry out all the more at what we have lost, indeed, at what we have given away to our own selfishness, to our own pride and arrogance. And we collapse under the weight of that guilt.”

And God responds with

I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth.

“….These verses are more than beautiful poetry. They are a profound confession about the world, indeed about the very nature of God as its Creator. This is a confession grounded in the most fundamental understanding of who God is, and what kind of God he is.” (commentary here)

As I’m often reminded, this is not about us. It is about God. We are called, in this passage to to trust God with that future God is about to create, realizing that we cannot make it happen any more than we can make the sun rise tomorrow.

The Belhar Confession reminds us that we are called to proclaim this new heaven and new earth that God is about to create. But we can’t do that in a way that tells people to be okay with the pain they are experiencing NOW, or with the injustice that is breaking their backs and their souls NOW.  We aren’t called to be pollyanna and deny the truth of people’s lived experience. As Paul said the other night, we are not called to just be nice. We are called to disrupt.

We are called to proclaim HOPE in a way that leads to HEALING. And I suspect that our proclamation will need to have a fair amount of lament and heartache and loss to keep the hope and the joy from ringing false.

A few years ago Amy Grant released a song called Better than a Hallelujah. And she speaks to the faithfulness of lament:

We pour out our miseries,
God just hears a melody.
Beautiful the mess we are,
the honest cries of breaking hearts,
are better than a hallelujah.

Friends, we are called to pour out our miseries. To testify to the pain and brokenness in the world. To testify to the things that are fractured, things that are disrupted, as the new creation is breaking forth into our world. To testify to the grace and the presence of God in the midst of it all.

And NOW is the acceptable time.

Like Isaiah, the Apostle Paul also saw a world longing for freedom, a world under a different occupation and desperate for sign of God’s new creation. Paul recognized God’s action on behalf of humanity in the person of Jesus. It was clear to him that the act of reconciling us to God was the work of Christ, not our work. Our work is the proclamation of the new heaven and the new earth, where all is made new in Christ Jesus.

The world needs to hear our cries. They need to know the church sees a better way, knows of a new heaven and a new earth, and has seen reconciliation already in the person of Jesus Christ. We both yearn for the new creation and we are the new creation. We live it out in ways big and small.

I have a friend from seminary who is here at this conference and who led a workshop yesterday. Meghan Foote, because of our ordination standards back then, was unable to be ordained. It was painful for me, as a woman whose ordination faced no obstacles, to go forward in the process knowing Meghan and many of my other friends would not have the same privilege, despite their gifts. But go forward I did, deciding once I was ordained that I would work to change the restrictions in the Book of Order.

When I was ordained in First Presbyterian Church in Albuquerque, NM, Meghan was there, celebrating with me in my ordination, witnessing to what a new heaven and new earth will look like, when gender identity and sexual orientation would no longer be a barrier between people of faith and their Call. That day was made even more sacred because of Meghan’s presence alongside me.

Each time I celebrate communion, I think of Meghan. Her gift to me at ordination, in addition to her presence there, was a communion chalice and platen.

Each time I celebrate communion, that chalice witnesses to the new heaven and new earth, where all will be welcome at God’s Table. We remember the words of Belhar and dare to claim we are “filled with one Spirit, are baptized with one baptism, eat of one bread and drink of one cup, confess one name, are obedient to one Lord, work for one cause, and share one hope”.

Thank you Meghan, for witnessing the New Heaven and the New Earth for me.

On June 16, 1976, students in the township of Soweto, South Africa rebelled against the policies of the apartheid government. They walked out of school, on strike against having to learn in Afrikaans, the language of their white oppressors. South African Defense Forces came in to end the gathering of the  20,000 students.

First they let dogs loose on the children.

Then they opened fire.

One of the first students killed was 12 year old Hector Pieterson. The number of deaths is not known, but accounts range from 150 to 700 children. Thousands were injured. The police took the cameras of the press who were there, witnessing the carnage.

One photographer, Sam Nzima,  however, had just changed his film cartridge and put it in his pocket before the police took his camera and smashed it.

photo by Sam Nzima, 1976

photo by Sam Nzima, 1976

On that roll of film in his pocket was this picture of Hector’s lifeless body being carried to a hospital by Mbuyisa Makhubo. Hector’s sister, Antoinette, stands next to him. You can almost hear the sound of her keening as you see the picture. The photo was published the next day in the World newspaper and was then picked up by news outlets around the globe, giving a face to the horror being perpetrated by the South African government against its own children.

In 1999, I went to Soweto, and I went to a little museum that was in a few repurposed shipping containers, called the Hector Pieterson museum. It had this image of Hector from newspapers around the world, showing how that one image, with the honest cry of a breaking heart, had taken their cause to the world. It was a sacred and a holy place, that little shipping container on the streets of Soweto.

I asked our tour guide, a black Sowetan named Juba, what had happened to Hector’s sister.  He pointed to the woman guiding people through the museum, and said, “she’s right there.” He then pointed to the woman who had taken our rands and sold us tickets to enter the museum, “that’s Hector’s mother”.  Even remembering that moment, 16 years later, chokes me up and brings back the visceral response I felt in my body that day.

Here’s a photo of Antoinette giving then senator Barack Obama a tour of the museum in 2006.


Witnessing to the new heaven and new earth doesn’t have to be loud.

It can be a sister surrounding herself with images of her own pain and loss every day, in order to make sure the world doesn’t forget.

It can be the act of putting your arm around a woman who has given her life to witness to the new heaven and new earth through her own pain.

It can be a communion chalice, given in love and hope for a church as generous and just as God’s grace.

It can be the church, willing to stand up to injustice when we see it, willing, as Belhar calls us, to “therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream…

Friends, now is an acceptable time. Friends, the day of salvation is here. Let us go witness, in word and deed, to the new heaven and new earth.

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