Sunday, November 27, 2016

We Cannot Afford to Be Timid (Advent 1)

A Meditation on Isaiah 2:1-11
Sunday, November 27, 2016
Dave Grishaw-Jones, Peace United Church


Rabbi Heschel
“Few are guilty,” said Abraham Joshua Heschel, “but all are responsible.”  There’s a line to keep you up all night.  What do you think about that?  “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”  Abraham Joshua Heschel was a great Orthodox rabbi, a survivor of the European Holocaust and a teacher for many years at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.  He marched joyfully and resolutely with Martin Luther King in the 60s and spoke out boldly for human freedom and peace among the nations.  His special interest—his theological passion, really—was the rich testimony of the Hebrew prophets.  Hebrew prophets like Isaiah.  “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares,” Isaiah says.  And “neither shall they learn war any more.”  Abraham Joshua Heschel believed that prophetic language awakens prophetic imagination, and that prophetic imagination shapes morality and ethics.  And he heard in the Hebrew prophets a relentless and urgent call to justice: “Few are guilty,” he said, “but all are responsible.”

Advent begins today with these words of the prophet Isaiah.  “In the days to come, the mountain of Yahweh’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.”  Just words, maybe.   But words arouse imagination; and imagination suggests action.  “Yahweh shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks...”  God’s commitment to human wellbeing, God’s commitment to many peoples aims to inspire our efforts to heal what’s broken and repair what’s torn and disfigured in the world.  Words arouse imagination; and imagination suggests action.  No, imagination insists on action, specific action, embodied action, yours and mine and ours.  “You shall beat your swords into ploughshares,” Isaiah pleads, urges, insists, “and your spears into pruning hooks...”

And neither shall you learn war, or study war, or invest in war, any more.  Pretty specific.  And this is how Advent begins.  This is the chord the prophet strikes at the beginning of our new year.  And I think Rabbi Heschel would approve: “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”  Not because responsibility is a curse, and not because it’s our punishment.  But because God chooses to partner with us in the healing of the nations, in the blessing of our many differences and dreams.  Our responsibility is our capacity to heal and to bless.  It is our ability to respond—see how that works? response-ability?—to one another, and to God, as partners and friends, as sisters and brothers, as companions in the great circle of life.  You bet, we’re all responsible.  That may be the greatest gift of all.  “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,” Isaiah says, “neither shall they learn war any more.”  That’s not just our vision; it’s our responsibility.  And that’s a good thing.


So here’s a story about responsibility.  And it goes back 45 years to the early days of the international movement to end apartheid in South Africa.  In Boston, Caroline Hunter and Ken Williams were young employees, rising employees, at the Polaroid Corporation.  Caroline Hunter was a chemist, Ken Williams a photographer; and both were African-American and proud to have broken through the color barrier in a successful American company.  Remember those instamatics?
Caroline Hunter, Center

But in 1971, Caroline Hunter and Ken Williams discovered something about their company that rocked their worlds and changed their lives.  They discovered that Polaroid’s instant photograph technology had been sold for profit to the South African regime, and that Polaroid’s technology was the linchpin of apartheid’s passbook system, used to control the movement and advancement of blacks in that racially divided country.  For telling that story, they were fired by Polaroid and immediately launched a group called PANIC: People Against National ID Cards.  That group quickly exposed Polaroid’s investment in South Africa, and in apartheid, and went on to encourage cities and universities around the world to divest from companies doing business in South Africa and benefiting from the misery of racism and the oppression of so many.

Polaroid was at the top of that list.  And so too was Hewlett Packard, who sold thousands of computers, even then, to the racist regime.  And you probably know how it was that that international movement—through boycotts and divestment—helped South African blacks win their freedom, turn the tide on apartheid and create a new South Africa for all its citizens.  It began, in many ways, with Caroline Hunter and Ken Williams, two Polaroid employees in Boston, who figured out how the system worked and risked their futures to do the right thing.  Few are guilty, right?  But all are responsible.

And that’s what Isaiah’s talking about, I think, when he calls on folks like you and me — folks with power and privilege, connected to institutions, sustained by investments; that’s what he’s talking about when he calls on us to beat our swords into ploughshares and our spears into pruning hooks.  God’s passion for peace can’t be satisfied with Christmas carols and crèches.  God’s passion for peace insists on partnership and discipleship.  And that means—at least this morning, at least for Isaiah—that means actively transforming war-making technologies into instruments of justice and peace.  Isaiah couldn’t be much clearer: beat your swords into ploughshares and your spears into pruning hooks.  And if you’re not breaking a sweat in the process, you’re not doing it right.


Over the next couple of weeks, you and I have an opportunity to break a sweat of our own and do something significant.  Maybe even something prophetic.  And it builds on the tradition and legacy of peacemakers like Caroline Hunter and Ken Williams.

The week after next, our Church Council and Vision Team will vote on a proposal to make Peace United Church the first Hewlett-Packard-Free congregation in the country.  And an example for many others.  This proposal has taken shape around two key events: a United Church of Christ action to divest from the company in 2015 and our own “Justice for Palestine” conference, right here, last April.
In both settings, we learned that, like Polaroid in the 70s, Hewlett-Packard profits off the misery and occupation of a racial minority.  In this case, Palestinians in the Holy Land.  We learned that HP develops and maintains a kind of ‘nervous system’ of state oppression, helping the State of Israel in its surveillance of Palestinian civilians through sophisticated biometric technologies and facial recognition equipment.  State-of-the-art stuff, expensive, and for HP, very profitable.  We learned that HP’s contracts assist Israel’s military in its bombing of civilian sites in Gaza.  And we learned that HP contracts with two of the largest Jewish-only illegal settlements in the West Bank.  What Polaroid did for South Africa, HP is doing today for Israel.  And then some.

But organizations like the Jewish Voice for Peace, and Friends of Sabeel, and CODE PINK, and colleagues in our own United Church of Christ are speaking out and acting up.  Divesting from HP—as a denomination—was a first step.  Boycotting HP products—printers and ink cartridges and the rest—is a next step.  We believe that this kind of nonviolent action will mark a turning point in the struggle for Palestinian liberation and, just as importantly, for peace among all the peoples of the Holy Land.  If HP feels broad international pressure, and if the company withdraws from its complicity in the occupation of Palestine, the company impedes Israel’s ability to enforce a system of segregation and intimidation.  But we know—because history has taught us—we know that HP won’t withdraw without significant public pressure.  Polaroid didn’t in the 70s.  No company did then.  And HP won’t now.  Unless we act together.  Congregations like ours.
So here’s what you can do, here’s what we can do, to become an HP-FREE congregation:

First, we can pray about this.  Really.  I hope you’ll take a packet from the table in the
narthex this morning, read it carefully and pray on it.  Then make a commitment to participating in one of two events next weekend, highlighting the Palestinian call for solidarity and action.  You’ve all got a copy of Still Speaking in your hands this morning; and you’ll see all the information on page 6.  Think about attending the unique retreat we’re hosting next Saturday with Tarek Abuata.  He’s a Palestinian American lawyer, a civil rights activist, and a leader in peace movement.  You’re going to hear about nonviolence and why it’s so important in this struggle, and why boycotts and divestment efforts are legitimate strategies employed by sincere and profoundly oppressed peoples.  And if you can’t make it on Saturday, plan to stay next Sunday, after worship, from 12 to 1, for a shorter forum exploring the initiatives before church leadership and the kind of difference they might make.  Again, all the information’s right there on page 6.  This is a chance for us to take action, together, in response to Isaiah’s call and Jesus’ teaching.  It’s a chance—as I say—for us to break a sweat.  Together.


In the most difficult days of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King lamented the American church’s resistance to action and courage.  He had especially strong words for white clergy and white congregations, and for our tendency to talk a good game but risk very little.  “There was a time,” said Dr. King then, “when the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”  You see the difference?  Between a thermometer and a thermostat?

Daoud Nasser, Tent of Nations
Right now, I’m thinking of the brave Palestinian and Israeli peacemakers we’ve hosted—right here in this sanctuary—over many years.  They urged us, every one; they urged us to be a thermostat, not a thermometer.  I’m thinking of Daoud Nasser, the Palestinian Christian, the farmer who endures weekly threats to his and his family’s safety and regular raids by settlers who burn his trees and menace his property.  I’m thinking of Issa Amro, the Palestinian Muslim, the nonviolent activist who was here among us just last month, and who this week stands trial for simply calling out Israeli soldiers and settlers for intimidation and violence in his city of Hebron.  I’m thinking of Israeli Professor Ilan Pappé—an eloquent and daring Jewish academic—who spoke at our conference last April, and Israeli peace activist Nomika Zion who insists on honoring her Palestinian neighbors in spite of the bombs that fly out of Gaza toward her home.  All of these folks have stood right here, where I stand this morning, and asked for our help, asked for our companionship, asked for our courage.

I’m thinking of them now, all of them, Daoud and Issa and Ilan and Nomika.  And I’m wondering if perhaps the same spirit that moved in Isaiah, twenty-eight centuries ago, isn’t moving in them today.  Beat your swords into ploughshares, they say.  Beat your spears into pruning hooks.  Risk something for love.  Risk something for justice.  Risk something for us, they say.  This initiative—this HP-FREE initiative—is something we can do.  A faithful response and an act of peace.

Friends, is this the only justice issue of consequence in our community?  Of course, not.  In the disorienting aftermath of this month’s election, we know what’s ahead of us.  And we know what’s at stake.  Immigrants are at risk.  Climate change is at a tipping point.  A woman’s right to choose.  Safety for Muslim friends and LGBT friends.  All of this is up for us.  And Standing Rock.  And Black Lives Matter.

But I want to say this carefully.  In a church like this, in a community like ours, we cannot afford to be timid.  We are so privileged, and in so many ways, that we sometimes worry about sticking our necks out, about taking on the role of the thermostat in important issues of the day.  We worry about offending some, about miscalculating impacts, about making mistakes.  But we cannot afford to be timid.  Jesus didn’t come to make us timid.

So again this morning, I hear Isaiah.  And again, I hear Daoud and Issa, and I hear Ilan and Nomika and so many others.  And I hear so many prophets—Jewish and Christian and Muslim—crying out to the church, crying out to you and to me.  Beat your swords into ploughshares, they say.  Beat your spears into pruning hooks.  Don’t be too timid.  And don’t be too sweet.  Do you hear them too?  Daoud and Issa; Ilan and Nomika; Caroline Hunter and Ken Williams; Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King.  Risk something for love, they say.  Risk something for justice.  Risk something for peace.  Risk something for us, they say.

And we will.  Because few are guilty, as the old rabbi said, but all are responsible.  Few are guilty, but all of us, all of us are responsible.

And that’s good news.