What Is Your Flagpole?

What Is Your Flagpole?
Isaiah 50:4-9
Longview Presbyterian Church
September 12th, 2021

4 The Lord God has given me
   the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
   the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
   wakens my ear
   to listen as those who are taught.
5 The Lord God has opened my ear,
   and I was not rebellious,
   I did not turn backwards.
6 I gave my back to those who struck me,
   and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
   from insult and spitting.
7 The Lord God helps me;
   therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
   and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
8   he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
   Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
   Let them confront me.
9 It is the Lord God who helps me;
   who will declare me guilty?
All of them will wear out like a garment;
   the moth will eat them up.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 

What do you do when it feels like there is less and less in this world that you can change? Who are God’s people called to be as crises continue, as chaos multiplies, as trauma compounds? How do we follow God’s way of liberation when the world is falling apart? 

These questions were familiar to God’s people living in exile in Babylon, the original hearers of these words from Isaiah. God’s people have been living away from all that they find “normal” for so long, that even saying that phrase felt like a cliche. Hope for God’s people in these later days of exile felt distant. And in the meantime, with the pressures of the Babylonian empire pressing in on all sides, figuring out the “next right thing to do” on a day to day basis likely felt hard to discern. If you are anything like me, this all sounds incredibly relevant to this moment of being alive in our pandemic-ravaged, war-torn, crisis-overwhelmed world. 

Isaiah speaks into this context with an image sometimes called “the suffering servant”. Theologians have long debated if it refers to a specific person, but the current wisdom is that the servant leader described here is a metaphor, modeling how every member of God’s community is called to live when the going gets tough, and in this case, remains tough after a long season of exile-living. What called to me as I sat with this image is the way it invites us to move our bodies with intention. Isaiah could have crafted many metaphors to speak to the people of Israel about how they were called to be in the world, but he chose to describe an ordinary human person and the intentional movement of parts of their body to show us the way: a tongue that sustains the weary with a word, ears that wake up from slumber to listen, backs and cheeks that resist violence by refusing to yield to it, a face that sets itself like flint. 

I wonder if Isaiah’s use of this metaphor was a way to cut through all that overwhelms us with a reminder of what we do have control over: orienting and moving our bodies with intention each and every day. It is so easy to drown in all that is out of our hands instead of recalling that many of us do have hands for the work of being alive. Yes, we are called to lament how much all of it is and how all of it really is too much. And also, we are called every day to choose the words we speak with our tongue, the voices we listen to with our ears, the direction towards which we set our face, and the intention with which we orient our bodies to the forces of this world. Individually, we do not have a choice about many of the frightening storms around us, but we do have a choice about how we respond in the time of storm.

The Rev. Jessica Vasquez Torres, a Presbyterian pastor and antiracism educator who has been leading many of us in a church-wide antiracism training, told a story at an event I attended about a pair of activists: Bree Newsome and James Tyson. You may remember Bree as the Black activist who climbed a 30-foot flagpole in front of the South Carolina state house back in 2015 to remove a long-time symbol of white supremacy: the Confederate flag. Her accomplice, a white man named James Tyson, walked inside the fence line of the flag pole area with her so that she would not undertake this direct action alone. As Jessica told us this story, she showed us a picture of Bree returning to the ground with the dismantled Confederate flag and James’ hand on the flagpole as she descended. I’ll show you a 3-minute video now of the encounter, as it unfolded.

Jessica discovered that the reason James had his hand on that flag pole was that the law enforcement officers present had been threatening to use tasers on Bree, which would have caused a potentially deadly shock to her via the metal flag pole as she removed this symbol of white supremacy from state property. James had Jessica discovered that the reason James had his hand on that flag pole was that the law enforcement officers present had been threatening to use tasers on Bree, which would have caused a potentially deadly shock to her via the metal flag pole as she removed this symbol of white supremacy from state property. James had intentionally placed his hand on that metal flagpole and said that they would have to electrocute him too if they decided to tase Bree during her descent. “It’s become common to hear social justice advocates say that they don’t need white allies, they need white accomplices,” Bree said in an article I read about this event. “An accomplice is what James was that day. History will rightly remember him alongside the many white accomplices over the centuries who have risked their own safety and in some cases spilled their own blood in defense of black life and in the name of freedom.” (“Activist calls for resistance to ‘backlash’ of white supremacy marring MLK’s dream”, by Susan Gonzalez, January 25, 2018.)

What I noted in the article I was reading about this direct action was that, before the action was described, Bree spoke to the bleak context in which she and James had put their bodies on the line together. “…[t]he ideals of freedom and justice and equality are under relentless assault in the United States,” Bree said. “Here we are 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, 50 years after the violent interruption of his peace mission, 50 years after he launched the Poor People’s Campaign, and the poverty rate for black children is the same as in 1968. Even though the total number of children living in poverty has declined, the percentage of black children living in poverty has remained the same.” (Ibid.) In these words from Bree, I hear the exhaustion of someone who has been fighting a long time, and through her precursors, for generations, to find a way out of the human-created exile of white supremacy. I hear the overwhelm of powers and principalities that are stacked against the movement for justice. But then, when I watched this video, when I heard about her and James intentionally moving their bodies together against this overwhelming tide, I remember that all of us have a choice. In their movement, I see the outline of that person the prophet Isaiah envisioned. Neither Bree nor James had any choice about the frightening storms of white supremacy that have engulfed our nation since its inception. But they did have a choice about how they responded to the time of storm, and they responded with the intentional movement of their bodies: arms and legs straining to climb 30 feet to the top of the flagpole, a hand reached out to share the risk of electrocution with a co-conspirator, faces set like flint, determined to embody God’s promise of liberation for all people even as agents of the empire waited below to lock Bree up for her embodied resistance to injustice.

There is much that is out of our hands in these times, dear ones. But a miracle happens each day that we wake up and take in another breath. We are alive. We have bodies, some more beaten down and bruised than others, but resilient bodies all the same. We have tongues to call out and call in our elected leaders and tell them now to act for justice, and especially to speak a word of encouragement to those most impacted by the weight of this world, the weary ones among us. We have ears to listen to voices speaking from the margins about the pathway that leads to freedom. We have hands to meet the tangible, everyday needs of our neighbors and to place on flagpoles to share the risk of facing up to injustice. And most importantly, we have the presence of our powerful and present God. I don’t know if you could hear her, but Bree was quoting Scripture passages about God’s presence and power on her way back down the flagpole. It reminds me of the servant in this passage who says: “The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; …I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?” This is the reason that we can move our bodies with intentional courage every day in small ways and in big ways: because it is our almighty God who is at our side empowering us. What is your flagpole to climb? Who are the co-conspirators around you who you might share the risk of following Jesus with? As you answer those questions for yourself, remember that you are never alone with the God of the universe at your back. Imagine how the body of Christ could move in this world if each one of us said ‘yes’ to our part in the movement towards liberation. Amen.

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