For the past ten years, I have had the privilege of being an adjunct professor here in the philosophy and religion department. Perhaps it’s because both of my parents were teachers that it’s kind of in my DNA and I love doing it. And at times, when I’m teaching, I feel like I’m in a movie. Unfortunately, that movie is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and I’m Ben Stein standing in front of the classroom asking, “Anyone? Anyone?”

About this Sermon: "For Zion's Sake I Won't Keep Silent"
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
January 17, 2016
Isaiah 62:1-5; Luke 19:37-40

Getting students to speak up is not always an easy task. Oh sure, there’s usually that one student—you know the one I’m talking about—who always has their hand up and is ready to chime in, but beyond that, sometimes getting students to participate can feel like drawing blood from a stone. My favorite professor in law school had this habit of asking a question and then when there was an awkward, deafening silence would eventually cave in and say, “Well, I can’t stand the suspense…” and would answer the question himself. I know how he feels.

There is an awkwardness to the silence that attends an unanswered question.

But it is a silence that is often born out of awkwardness. There are all kinds of reasons why people don’t speak up: they’re afraid of embarrasment, they don’t know the answer, they don’t want to come off as a know-it-all, they’re reluctant to get involved and just want to lay low. And that’s just in the classroom. It’s worse in the world at large. There are all kinds of times when people remain silent when they should speak up.

Perhaps you’ve experienced a situation like that. You’re hanging out with some guy friends and a woman you know walks by. She’s in a bad mood and when greeted by your friends she mutters something and heads away. And one of your friends says, “She’s probably on her time of the month.” And you say nothing. Perhaps you chuckle somewhat embarrassedly, but there is no direct challenge to what your friend has said.

Or you’re at home over the holidays, and a relative says, “I’ve got a great joke for you! A Chinaman, a Mexican, and a Jew walk into a bar…” And you bear it and smile politely, but don’t say a word.  Or a supervisor shows you a new novelty t-shirt that answers the question: “What do religions believe?”—perhaps you’ve even seen this one—with such insightful phrases as “Taoism: Shit Happens. Hinduism: This shit has happened before. Catholicism: If shit happens, you deserve it” and then “Islam: If shit happens, take a hostage.” You wince at the blatant bigotry, but because this person is your supervisor, you say nothing.

I’m not going to pretend that it’s easy to speak up when you should. It’s not. I have been in some version of every one of those situations and all you can think is, maybe if I ignore it, it will just go away.

There’s a reason we don’t speak up: the social costs of doing so are really high—loss of friendship, unpleasantness around the dinner table, awkwardness with one’s friends, and conflict. Those of us who are conflict-avoidant usually opt to just let it go. Don’t push it. And to be fair, it’s completely understandable. The costs of breaking the silence can be really high. Especially in that moment.

II. THE TEXT: For Zion’s Sake

But what often goes overlooked is the costs of not breaking the silence.

In the passage from the book of Isaiah we heard read earlier, the prophet makes a powerful declaration:

For Zion’s sake I won’t keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake
I won’t sit still
until her righteousness
shines out like a light,
and her salvation blazes like a torch.

“For Zion’s sake I won’t keep silent…”

It’s a passage that sounds great on its own, but of course, comes with an important context. It follows up on the oracles of the previous chapter that begin:

The LORD God’s spirit is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me.
He has sent me
to bring good news to the poor,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim release for captives,
and liberation for prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor
and a day of vindication for our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
to provide for Zion’s mourners,
to give them a crown in place of ashes,
oil of joy in place of mourning,
a mantle of praise
in place of discouragement.

This oracle contains a powerful vision: good news for the poor, the binding up of the brokenhearted, release for the captives, liberation for the prisoners, the year of the Lord’s favor and vindication for God, comfort for those who mourn, the oil of gladness, not of mourning.

It is an incredibly powerful vision for a people who had just been through the humiliation and devastation of exile and captivity. It was a powerful vision a few centuries later when Jesus read this very passage in the synagogue at Nazareth during a time of Roman occupation and oppression. It remains a powerful vision today with so many around the world languishing in exile, alientation, victims of injustice and oppression. It is a vision that speaks to the awe inspiring purposes of God.

When the prophet then says later, “For Zion’s sake I won’t keep silent…” he is not speaking solely of the sake of the city of Jerusalem; he is speaking for the sake of the vision of Jerusalem: renewed, restored, redeemed, and set free. In order to effect that vision, the prophet knows he can not remain silent: he must proclaim, he must speak out. He can’t just sit still and do nothing.


It doesn’t mean that the speaking out will be any easier. In fact, everything we know about prophets reminds us that they were all too keenly aware of the consequences of speaking out. It’s why they usually told God that they were the wrong person for the job. Surely, Lord, you mean someone else! Someone older, a better speaker, who is more morally upright than me! Someone less fearful, less unsure. God’s answer is usually something like, Nope. I’ve got the right person. You’re it.

The prophet speaks out not because it is easy, not because they feel that they are the right person to do so, but because if they care about the vision they have seen—a vision of the liberating, redeeming power of God—they have to speak out.

It certainly would have been easier for Martin Luther King, Jr. to not have spoken out. He could have lived a quiet life as the pastor of a Baptist congretation, preaching inoffensive sermons, and praising the women’s group and the choir.

And there were certainly times in his career when the consequences of his speaking—threats, violence, harassment, including one particularly terrifying late night phone call—would have persuaded most people that perhaps the time had come for a little silence.

A. For Zion’s sake I won’t keep silent

But Martin Luther King, Jr. had seen a vision. A vision of justice for his people, a vision of peace, a vision of hope, a vision of loving community for all people, a vision in which people would no longer be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. He had been to the mountaintop, he had seen God’s purposes; he had seen Zion and for Zion’s sake, he would not remain silent.

In fact, he saw silence in the face of injustice as more troubling than the vocal supporters of injustice. He said:

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

He would view such silence as inimical not only to the calling of a Christian, but to a genuine and authentic life.

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

For Zion’s sake, he believed, we all must not keep silent.


word cloud of the text of the sermon "For Zion's Sake I won't keep silent"
Image courtesy wordle.net

Tomorrow is a national holiday that honors Dr. King. It is a remarkable achievement on one level that the country that King worked so hard to bring racial justice to should honor the man and his legacy. It is a remarkable thing that there should be a great stone monument to him on the same Tidal Basin that the monument to the architect of the Declaration of Independence stands, and the monument to the president who saw the nation through the great economic collapse of the Depression. It is a remarkable thing that these testaments to the man exist.

But they can also lull us into a false sense of safety. If the agitator is now celebrated by officialdom, then surely the work is done, right? MLK becomes just another member of the American Pantheon, esteemed and honored, but remote and safe. The danger in our memorializing is that we can come to view MLK as someone respected by society and the state, when his ministry to proclaim the gospel put in jeopardy that very respect and his own safety and well-being.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a prophet in every sense of the word: endowed with a vision from God of the world that could be—of the ruined city that would once again sing with joy and prosperity for all—he had no choice but to speak out, to ensure that the vision became a reality.


Last week, as part of our commemoration of the Baptism of the Lord, we recited the liturgy and our baptismal vows. One of the things that we vow is to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever form they present themselves.” We needn’t be prophets to be called to a prophetic task.

As Christians we are called to speak out, to break the silence, to articulate the vision of Zion, the New Jerusalem that God calls us to.

We know what that vision looks like. We know what it is we’re hoping for. And we know the costs of speaking out.

There is a phrase associated with fighting terrorism that implores us “If you see something, say something.” It’s meant to prod us to call the authorities of we see an unattended backpack in the subway. Keep your eyes open and report on what you see.

But that instruction is more appropriate to our purposes than we might realize. If you see something, say something.

If we see an injustice: say something.  If you see abuse, physical, emotional or otherwise, say something. If you see harassment, say something. If you see someone being marginalized, say something. If you see racist, mysoginist, bigoted, hateful attitudes being expressed, say something.

But more important than calling out wrong is lifting up the vision.

If you see a vision for a world of peace, say something.

If you see a vision for a world of racial reconciliation, say something.

If you see a vision for a world of justice, say something.

If you see a vision for a world of inclusion in which no one is marginalized or excluded, say something.

If you see a vision for a world in which human dignity is not reserved for the privileged but exteneded to all, say something.

If you have a vision of the Kingdom of God lived out among us, say something.

We have been given this vision, a vision of Zion, city of our God, a city of justice, of peace, of righteousness, love, and hope. And we have been given the example of those who have gone on before us. The prophet had a vision of Zion restored, and spoke out. Jesus had a vision of the coming Kingdom of God, and spoke out, and declared that the rocks and stones would sing out. Martin Luther King had a vision of a nation transformed, and spoke out.

We have been given a vision of Zion. For Zion’s sake, we cannot keep silent.

The Texts

Isaiah 62:1-5

For Zion’s sake I won’t keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake
I won’t sit still
until her righteousness
shines out like a light,
and her salvation blazes like a torch.
Nations will see your righteousness,
all kings your glory.
You will be called by a new name,
which the LORD’s own mouth
will determine.
You will be a splendid garland
in the LORD’s hand,
a royal turban in the palm of God’s hand.
You will no longer be called Abandoned,
and your land will no longer be called Deserted.
Instead, you will be called
My Delight Is in Her,
and your land, Married.
Because the LORD delights in you,
your land will be cared for once again.
As a young man marries a young woman,
so your sons will marry you.
With the joy of a bridegroom because of his bride,
so your God will rejoice because of you.

Luke 19:37-40

As Jesus approached the road leading down from the Mount of Olives, the whole throng of his disciples began rejoicing. They praised God with a loud voice because of all the mighty things they had seen. They said, “Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens.”

Some of the Pharisees from the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, scold your disciples! Tell them to stop!” He answered, “I tell you, if they were silent, the stones would shout.”

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