Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

‘Hood Theology

You shall be called the repairer of brokenness, the restorer of neighborhood streets.

Let us pray: Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see. Amen. (sermon audio here)

Free at last! Free last! Thank God almighty we’re free at last! Our people are free. We have the right to vote. One of us is President of the United States. But, freedom doesn’t seem like what our ancestors struggled and died for, marched and died for, voted and died for. Slavery was replaced by sharecropping, Jim Crow and Jane Crow, lynching, denial of voting rights, segregation, work place discrimination, police brutality, economic disenfranchisement and discrimination in every facet of life, often reinforced with lethal violence. And now our right to vote is under attack again, schools in our neighborhoods are falling apart, understaffed, under-resourced and overcrowded, and folk are shooting our children like dogs in the street and getting away with it. Adding insult to injury, all of those killing us and our children are not other folk. There is brutality in our own house, in our own neighborhoods, in own our schools. Blood is on our hands. How is this freedom? Our neighborhoods are broken. We need some ‘hood theology.

The people of Judah in our first lesson were also asking: How is this freedom? Isaiah’s people had returned to their holy land; the Babylonians who exiled them were crushed by Persians and they were free at last, free at last, thank God almighty they were free at last. But freedom didn’t look like what they expected. Times were hard. They were not prepared for the wreckage they found when they returned home. The temple, the palaces, the government buildings and their homes were all scorched piles of rubble. Their fields were torn up, overrun, unproductive. There was no milk and honey. They were poor and hungry. Some were poorer and hungrier than others. Some turned on their own. They bought and sold each other and, to get their money’s worth, some took what they wanted from the girls sold to pay their family’s debts before their fathers’ could buy them back. Blood was on their hands. How was that freedom? Their neighborhoods were broken. They needed some ‘hood theology.

To them and to us, God speaks through Isaiah’s seminary students writing in his name and says:

You shall be called the repairer of brokenness, the restorer of neighborhood streets.

But first, God and Isaiah’s disciples say: Tell my people they’re rebellious sinners. That’s kind of harsh. The folk are already beat down. It certainly doesn’t make me feel any better. It sounds like God is blaming me and you for everything that’s wrong in the world. Sin language is hard. It is so easily corrupted into blame. Some folk have made a career out of blaming folk for the terrible things that befall them. Others unravel every social contract and support system and when desperate, frustrated, undereducated, underemployed people make terrible choices they are there to point fingers.

But that’s not what God is doing. God is not saying it’s your fault you’re poor, it’s your fault you’re hurting, it’s your fault you’re struggling. God is not saying it’s your fault violence came to your home. God is not saying it’s your fault federal and local government are dysfunctional. God is saying sin poisons the world, corrupts the nation and destroys people and, we are part of that sinful world. God is not talking about personal, individual sin here. God is talking about national sin.

Me they seek, day after day and delight to know my ways, just like a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the judgments of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments.

As Episcopalians, we know something about communal sin. We confess our sin together, saying the same words. We don’t say, I don’t have to say this part right here – I haven’t done any of that, but brother, you need to say that line right there twice. We understand that by virtue of being human we are prone to sin and when two or three of us are together in any community or institution that society reflects and magnifies our human, frailty and failings. We are broken and broken down and some of us are just plain broke.

The text seems to be written specifically for folk like us, good religious folk who honestly wonder why the world is as bad as it is. It is an especially timely word before Lent:

Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why do we humble our souls and you do not know?

We and the Judeans have the same issues. All too often religion is something we do – especially when folk are looking – when it should be who we are, whether there’s anyone around to see or not. Who are you when nobody’s looking? What’s your religion look like then? What’s your prayer life look like then?

Here is what God observed:

Look! On your fast day, you find your own delight, and oppress all your workers.

Here’s where the comparison breaks down, right? We don’t do that. We’re not all bosses, ballers, business owners, job creators, shot callers. Isaiah and ‘em need to go on over to the First Church of the Tea Party Patriots. I know that’s right. But the words of Isaiah 58:2 keep coming back to haunt me: You act like a nation that practiced righteousness. The state of your ‘hood is directly related to the state of your nation. That’s ‘hood theology 101. Whether you live in a gated community or a garbage dump, we’re all in this together.

What’s going on in your ‘hood? Is there crime in the streets? Are brothas and sistas slinging on the corners because they’re desperate and don’t have any other opportunities or because they just don’t care about anybody or anything but the Benjamins? Maybe that’s a little too downtown for your ‘hood. Is your ‘hood is a historic neighborhood with manicured lawns and gardens but you wouldn’t go for a walk there after dark? Maybe your ‘hood is picture perfect, but behind the immaculately painted shutters is lovelessness and loneliness, violence and addiction, depression and family secrets.

And don’t get me started about the neighbors. Do we even know our neighbors? How are you going to love your neighbors if you don’t even speak to them? If we do know our neighbors, do we do more than nod and speak? Maybe we can’t end gang violence in Chicago or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but we can forge links in a chain of communities to anchor our neighborhoods during storms. Many have done just that in this here winter of our discontent, but too many will return to indifference once the crisis passes. This entire nation is also our ‘hood, and its brokenness is our brokenness. As we go to church week after week, observe Lent year after year, sometimes praying for our ‘hood, sometimes not, the text calls us to account by asking what are we doing to heal and transform our ‘hood ourselves. The power is in our hands. We are the salt and light of the gospel. We are agents of change and transformation. What are we doing with our power? Are we sitting on it like so many sit on the power of their vote?

That we are responsible for the state of our nation – not to blame, there’s a difference – ought not be a surprise. After all we live in a participatory democracy where the right to vote is a right, and a responsibility, as is serving for jury duty. But the text is talking about more than that. The national sin that God and Isaiah are talking about is not simply a matter of public and foreign policy. Then we could wash our hands and say we’re not responsible. Judah could say the king used to make all those decisions; now we have a Persian governor. None of this is our fault. We could say I can’t stop drone attacks under Obama any more than I could keep Bush from invading the wrong country or one with no WMDs. See, it’s not our fault either. But the text doesn’t let us off the hook.

Isaiah describes a situation where instead of being focused on God – in the text it is a fast day – the people were focused on themselves and as a result were unjust in their dealings with others but never missed fast or feast day. It was as though they thought they could do whatever they wanted to anybody all week long then come and say a few prayers, erase the slate and go back to doing the same old things with no intention to change, no attempt to try to do better. God says I’m not interested in those prayers; I’m not interested in that kind of Lent:

Your fasting, just as on today will not make your voice heard on high.

It’s not enough to fast and hope the world changes. It’s not enough to fast and pray somebody else does something about your ‘hood. It’s not enough to go to church, pledge and tithe, serve on committees and neglect the world around us, lest we forget that there is no one who is not our neighbor. God says:

 Is not this the fast that I choose: to open the shackles of injustice, to release the straps of the imprisoning-yoke, to set the downtrodden free, and to tear off every yoke?

Where is the injustice in your ‘hood? That’s where we should be. In addition to celebrating our Civil Rights sheroes and heroes, we should be making our own black history. We are called to tear off every yoke, every shackle that imprisons. In our lives, the old Jim Crow has been replaced by the new Jim Crow, with prison shackles replacing slave shackles. We’ve got work to do opposing the criminalization of black boys from the third grade, targeted to fill up prisons being built instead of schools. Let’s clean up our ‘hood.

Is not this the fast that I choose… Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the vulnerable poor home; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide from your own flesh-and-blood?

God, can’t I just write a check to fix my ‘hood? No baby, you’ve got to get some skin in the game. Every homeless person is related to somebody. And yes, there are often difficult, complicated situations. It’s one thing to try and help someone and have it fall apart and another to never even bother make the effort. We’ve got to share what we have because it’s not even ours. Everything we have, we have been given by God for maintenance and restoration of God’s ‘hood on earth. The earth is the Lord’s. The world is God’s ‘hood, and she’s sweeping the streets, cleaning the curb and taking out the garbage whether we help or not. But if we work with God, partner with God, then we will experience God in a whole new way. We won’t have to go looking for God because we will be where God is, doing the work of God with God. We are the ones we are waiting for. We can heal our nation and our world. One broken neighbor, one neglected street, one decimated ‘hood at a time.

You shall be called the repairer of brokenness, the restorer of neighborhood streets.

Let’s get to work church.

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