Yesterday was my first Sunday serving as a full-time pastor of my congregation. It was our first Sunday without the pastors who had led the congregation for 19.5 years. It also provided my first opportunity to preach to the congregation in many months. This is what I told them.
I don’t know about you all, but I was completely spent after last week’s service and celebration of our pastors. It was a beautiful celebration, not only of the incredible years of ministry they gave us, but also of new life and growth in the church. I left sad and happy and grateful, and I did not have energy to feel more.
I did not believe I could have any feeling let to process the mass shooting that had happened the night before at a gay club on Latin Night in Orlando. A shooting that took the lives of 50 beloved and precious children of God. I did not think my heart had the capacity to take it on and take it in that day.
But then the reflections started pouring in. Across the board, all of my LGBTQ friends had been deeply, profoundly shaken. Grief reverberated across my Facebook feed in posts full of fear and anger and sadness. My LGBTQ siblings clearly had not had a choice of whether or not they could take on this tragedy. It had taken their hearts by force.
And I knew then that I also had no choice. When those we love are grieving, we grieve with them. Attention must be paid. On Monday, I reached out to my best friend to ask how she was doing with all this.
She said she and her wife were profoundly shaken. She said she had always taken for granted feeling safe and comfortable in a space with relatively few LGBTQ friends. But now, she found no one around her who understood the visceral reaction, the fear and the disquiet of seeing this community of LGBTQ people of color explicitly targeted and murdered in their own gathering space. She suddenly felt very alone.
One rabbi quoted a queer friend and colleague who said: “I feel completely burned, charred, incinerated, like my life has been destroyed, like the world was not created for me.” Attention must be paid.
And so this week, I sought after God in their words of sorrow, pain, and anger, in the grief that was being poured out like water for the lives of these children. I found God in the words of Vincent Cervantes, a queer Latino theologian, when he said:
“An elementary school, a church, a synagogue, a mosque, a gay nightclub: what these spaces have in common is that they are presumed to be safe spaces for the people within… When I came out as gay, I found community and safety in Latin@ queer spaces. Through the rhythmic sounds of cumbia, merengue, reggaeton, and hip-hop that roused the core of my inner brown being, I found a space where I could dance through the traumatic history of growing up as femme brown boy, isolated in the borderlands between being called [vulgar Spanish epithets] on one end and living in a white man’s world on the other….Latin@ queer spaces were always spaces of healing—migratory spaces we journeyed to, to be in solidarity with one another in our shared pain and suffering, but also in our shared joy and triumph. The Spirit lived and carried through each and every one of us.”
One of the deep tragedies of that night was that the club had carved a space out of a world of violence for these queer people of color to seek refuge, to rejoice in their being. When the shooting happened, a sanctuary was violated.
In Cervantes’ words, I heard echoes of the prophet Habakkuk, who fiercely proclaimed:
“Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord.”
In the face of danger, in the face of death itself, I will dance. I will dance with joy. This defiant, incomprehensible joy is one of the reasons that Habakkuk has become one of my favorite prophets. Only three chapters, but they are three mighty chapters.
Habakkuk’s voice is the voice of a people ripped from their homes, and exiled in a foreign land called Babylon, where they lived under a powerful empire that, according to chapter 1, “slayed nations without pity.” Habakkuk gives voice to the experience of injustice. Habakkuk lifts up the anger, the lament, and the hope of one living under imperial rule, far from home.
Now Habakkuk is an unusual prophet because of how much his text consists of human speech. Normally, a prophet conveys the direct speech of God to the people. Most of the prophetic texts include some version of that classic line: “Thus saith the Lord.” Habakkuk does not. Habakkuk relates no direct speech from God to the people. Instead, Habakkuk speaks to God and about God, from a place of profound powerlessness. Rising from that place of powerlessness, his words become sacred truth. Alongside Isaiah, Jeremiah, alongside all the prophets who say “Thus saith the Lord to the people of Israel,” stand the prophetic words of an oppressed man crying out against his oppressors, crying out to his God.
The voice from the margin reveals God to us. Whether that voice belongs to Habakkuk, or Vincent Cervantes. In Habakkuk’s case, that voice from the margin says, “Even though I am crushed, even though I am dying, I am still rejoicing. I am still dancing.”
Where does this joy come from? What propels Habakkuk’s rejoicing in the face of a nation that slays without mercy, in the face of trees that yield no fruit? If we back up a bit to verses 8-15, we see that it comes out of anger. Right before he declares his incomprehensible joy, Habakkuk invokes a God who is furious. A God who “treads the earth in rage and tramples the nations in fury.” A God whose wrath causes the sun and moon to stand still and mountains to twist in pain. According to The Message translation, “The nations of Cushan and Midian, were terrified, hoping God wouldn’t notice them.” I do not blame them. The depth of God’s anger in this text is deeply unsettling.
And yet somehow I do not think Habakkuk could rejoice if he did not believe that his God was thoroughly and utterly outraged at what had happened to God’s people. God shares the anger of the oppressed in the face of injustice. And Habakkuk’s joy, his defiant joy in the face of death, rises out of this holy anger. The holy anger that pushes back at the pain, that pushes back at the violence, and carves a space, if only for a moment, for defiant joy to enter.
As the friend I mentioned earlier put it, “You rejoice in who you are, because not having joy is unlivable. You dance because you can’t do anything else.” As Cervantes says, “[In those spaces], I learned to love myself. I learned to be a healer in my community.
So where does this text leave us?
Habakkuk may be rejoicing, God may be angry, but at the end, the people of Israel are still in exile. And in our present time, those 50 people killed in Orlando will never return to their families, to their sacred spaces. How can joy, even fiercely defiant joy, last long if justice never comes?
To respond to that question, I want to remind you that today marks the celebration of Juneteenth. On this day, in 1865, the Union Army arrived at Galveston, Texas with the news that all the people who had been enslaved in the United States were now free. Union General Granger proclaimed to the people Order Number 3, which stated that:
“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”
This proclamation happened two and a half years after Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed those who had been enslaved. One hundred fifty years later, the fight for that “absolute equality of rights” still continues. But on that day, 150 years ago, justice broke through. Justice made an advance. As we try to find a place for our anger, try to carve out space for joy in these difficult times, we can take hope in recalling past victories.
A mere 35 years after that proclamation at Galveston, in the year 1900, the African-American poet James Weldon Johnson wrote the words we heard sung just now. In the face of poverty and violence, under racist and oppressive Jim Crow laws, Johnson wrote, “Lift every voice and sing ‘til earth and heaven ring. Let our rejoicing rise high as the listening skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea.”
Those words echoed in the sounds of reggaeton, cumbia, and merengue that played in Pulse that night. And his words echo in every voice that rises in anger in the face of injustice, and in every heart that refuses to let anything or anyone kill its joy.