Advent: “In Times Like These”

“In times like these.” I’ve found myself reading, writing and preaching that phrase a great deal over the past year. “In times like these.” Since the election last year many of have used these words. We’ve used them to name, without naming, the sorrow, the hurt, the fear we feel at our social and political reality. The world can feel unsteady and unsafe. “In times like these,” how do we practice hope? What does it mean to hope?

The Sunday after the election last year, I offered a poem. The writer, Nayirrah Waheed is a young black queer woman from Muslim heritage. This is a very short poem from her collection *Salt*:

i don’t pay attention to the
world ending.
it has ended for me
many times
and began again in the morning.

It has ended for me many times, and began again in the morning.” I thought of this poem, and this past year, as I read Jesus’ words from the Gospel.

 

Jesus’ words about the end time seem fitting today. Wherever you are on the political spectrum, I suspect this year has been difficult. Friends from both political parties are doubtful about leadership. Our world seems more divided, more hateful, and closer to nuclear war than it has been in a generation. My friends who are therapists and social workers, everyone I know in the mental health field, is barely keeping up with the needs of their clients.

In times like these, what does it mean to hope? How do you practice hope? 

This passage is known as Mark’s little apocalypse. Jesus describes the end of the world. “Lo he comes with clouds descending,” as we’ll sing at the end of our service. This passage is set in a wider warning for Jesus’ disciples. “beware…they will hand you over to councils, and you will be beaten…” Jesus warns of suffering, then he does something fascinating. Jesus quotes Isaiah.

“In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened.”

Jesus does not invent his own signs. He reaches back into his haftarah, back into the prophets. His people have been through this kind of suffering, this kind of dread before. For us the world has ended many times. Jesus looks to his spiritual ancestors, and he finds a way to hope. So he says to his disciples “Keep awake.” 

As I said to you a few weeks ago when we read Jesus’ story about the Bridesmaids and their lanterns, when he says “keep awake” I don’t think Jesus is talking about sleeplessness. We know enough about that kind of wakefulness. Jesus isn’t telling his disciples not to rest. This isn’t a literal “awake,” but a way of speaking about hope and awareness.

In the week following last year’s election, the New Yorker published a series of responses by famous writers. Junot Diaz, a black Dominican Pulitzer Prize winner wrote a letter to his God-daughter. It was titled: “Under President Trump, Radical Hope is our Best Weapon.” I want to read just a few of his words:

Colonial power, patriarchal power, capitalist power must always and everywhere be battled, because they never, ever quit. We have to keep fighting, because otherwise there will be no future—all will be consumed. Those of us whose ancestors were owned and bred like animals know that future all too well, because it is, in part, our past. And we know that by fighting, against all odds, we who had nothing, not even our real names, transformed the universe. Our ancestors did this with very little, and we who have more must do the same. This is the joyous destiny of our people—to bury the arc of the moral universe so deep in justice that it will never be undone.

Stay awake, Diaz says. These powers must always be battled because they never quit. Stay awake. Keep fighting. Our people have been here before.

We find ourselves again today in Advent.

Advent is a time to practice hope. Hope needs practice, especially if that hope is going to become radical. Today most of us experience Advent as a busy season. We rush around getting ready for Christmas. Most people, when they think of the word Advent immediately think of the word “calendar.” We experience Advent like a ticking countdown.

But in the earlier church Advent was a time for slowing down. We didn’t rush to Christmas. We sat in these stories. This year could this Advent be one of prayer, breathing, and slowing down?

I would argue that this year, more than most, we could use a good Advent. In the calendar of Bible readings we encounter stories and poems from a people in exile. We remember the angst, the frustration and the longing of God’s people across time. The season helps people to hope.

Like Jesus, we also read from the prophet Isaiah this morning. He writes from exile in Babylon. God’s people have been torn from the promised land. They are enslaved, alienated, and far from home. They have left behind the world they have known. In that strange land Isaiah laments that his people fade like a leaf. And the prophet cries to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” What an image.

Isaiah’s hope is not pretty. Isaiah’s hope is big. The prophet names a holy longing. Isaiah transforms his suffering into a longing for God, for God’s justice, for God’s city. Isaiah wants to see the powerful overthrown, the people set free. Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down. Isaiah pours his anger into desire. Isaiah longs for god. Longing can be holy. Longing reminds us from where we come. Longing reminds us that we are not at home. Longing is an important form of hope.

The community organizer Ed Chambers says that the work of justice lies in a single recognition.

That recognition is simply knowing that “the world as it is” is not “the world as it should be.” The work of the organizer is to help people hear, and feel, and work in the tension between the “world as it is” and the “world as it should be.” Staying awake, hoping, means recognizing, knowing where we are, naming injustice. And hope means orienting ourselves toward the world as it should be.

Advent bids us forward, ever forward. Advent is a kind of teacher. There’s a reason the Advent season is longer than the Christmas season. We look forward to Christmas, but Christmas is just 12 short days. Advent reminds us that in this world Christians are a people of hope. We aren’t yet satisfied. We have not reached our destination, not fully. Christians are a people with a direction.

Advent is not simply a countdown to Christmas. The stories we read are not just about waiting to remember a cute babe in a manger. Advent is not just about recalling the past. The prophets and stories also point us toward the second coming of Christ. Advent points us to the little apocalypse. We will go through the world ending, again and again. For Christians, these dreadful signs and inevitable, but they are also hopeful signs. This season reminds us that we live in hope of God’s world, God’s kin-dom, God’s reign on earth.

“Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” God will tear open the heavens and come down.

Every time we gather here in the church, no matter the season, we celebrate a little Advent. Christians are always a people of hope. We come to this table not just to celebrate the past, but to mine our sacred history for the courage to move into our future.

In one of our Eucharistic Prayers, in the Book of Common Prayer, the people ask God to “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.” We gather around this table because here Christ offers food for the journey. Here we find strength to live in to our “joyous destiny.” From this table we walk ever forward.

“In times like these” may be shorthand for the frustration and the disappointment we’re feeling collectively. But the good news is that we do not have to stay in that disappointment. We do not have to inhabit our dread and our fear. Our ancestors have been here before, and they brought us this far by faith. Even in the dark a candle burns. We can keep on fighting. We will keep on going until the heavens are torn open and God’s reign has come.

In times like these, I invite you to observe this season of Advent. If this year, if recent days have been difficult, take up Advent’s practice of hope. Take a breath. Read some prophetic words written in exile. Join us for prayer. Join us in song. Join us in hope. Christ is coming. The world as it is won’t last much longer. As Arundhati Roy put it: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.” Keep awake. Keep the faith. Keep hoping. She is coming.

The Jesus Movement has a Direction: Out to the Lost, the Least, and Left Out

In 1982 Pope John Paul II became the first Bishop of Rome in over 500 years to set foot on British soil. For five centuries or so the visit would have been unthinkable. At the height of the Reformation the Archbishop of Canterbury was prone to referring to the pope as the “antichrist.” Rome had similar words for the English usurpers.

A few centuries later, on a crisp May morning in 1982, Anglican Archbishop Robert Runcie and the Polish-born pope met outside Canterbury Cathedral, and processed inside for a service of common prayer. There at the site of Becket’s martyrdom together they led the gathered faithful in a renewal of baptismal vows, those promises we are about to make today.

We don’t talk about the Pope much in Episcopal churches. So why bring him up today? The action John Paul II took, on that first papal visit to post-Reformation England, signified a great deal. The Archbishop of Canterbury, titular head of the Anglican Communion, and the Bishop of Rome stood together and recalled their baptismal promises.

Over against all the divisions between these two leaders, divisions of history, nation, culture, language, and the nuances of faith, they stood together. They said, “we acknowledge one baptism.” We all, all Christians, share in one baptism. We aren’t baptized Catholic or Episcopalian. There is one baptism. The movement in which we participate, this Jesus movement, is bigger than any one church, any one communion, any one denomination. Our baptism doesn’t brand us for any human organization or ethnic group.

Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Runcie’s commitment to baptism as a sign of unity was radical because so often in human history we have pretended that we, we were the ones who got to separate sheep from goats. So often we want to make the divisions. We want to count who is in, and who is out. All of us practice this separation. We all form clubs for the purpose of keeping some people out.

Let’s be real for a moment. A number of us just survived another Thanksgiving with family. Even in our own families we pretend we get to decide on sheep and goats. Too often hold on to old grudges. Too often we roll our eyes at the family member who “always has to act this way.” Too often we have already decided that this sibling, or that uncle, is a goat. We like to pretend we get to distinguish.

Baptism reminds us, we don’t get to choose between sheep and goats.

A moment ago I mentioned the “Jesus Movement.” This is the name our Presiding Bishop in The Episcopal Church uses to describe our church. “We are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement” he likes to say. I find the name fitting for these days. For too long the Church felt static, like a building you visited, or a club you joined. “Movement” gives a different sense of Christianity all together. “Movement” makes us sound dynamic, helps us to understand that following Jesus means getting up off our duffs.

“The Jesus Movement” also reminds us of the ancient church. Before Christians were known as “Christians” they were called simply “the followers of the way.” Our faith is about motion, it has direction. We follow a leader.

In the Gospel today Jesus makes the direction clear, his movement isn’t random. Both the blessed and the condemned in the story are confused. They ask Jesus “When did we visit you, feed you, clothe you? When did we minister to you?” or “When did we fail to see you?” Jesus says, when you did so to the least of these, to my brothers and sisters.

Jesus’ movement is purposeful. Jesus’ movement has a direction. The Jesus movement is headed out, out toward anyone who has been excluded, anyone who has been abandoned, anyone who has been left hungry, anyone who is ill, anyone who is in prison, out to those who have been judged. When a human wall goes up to separate, Jesus’ direction is out past the wall to the excluded. Jesus’ movement is inclusive, breaks down barriers, goes to those who are lost, least, and left out. God is concerned with all of those hungry sheep.

The Jesus movement leads us out beyond our comfort zones.

Sometimes the Jesus movement can be downright inconvenient. Pastors can talk big. We can preach about inclusion until we’re blue in the face. We can write “all are welcome” again and again on our signs, but meaning these words, living Jesus’ movement to the excluded, can be inconvenient.

Just Monday I had a phone call. Holy Communion, since before I got here, has observed St. Louis’ local custom on Mondays. This was new to me moving here from Washington. Mondays the church office is closed. The phones are usually on Do Not Disturb. It used to drive me nuts that nothing is open on Mondays. Now, I love it. I tend to take Fridays off, so Mondays are often my day in the office to get things done when no one else is around. It’s quiet. But this past Monday I was waiting for an important call, so I was picking up the phone. An unlisted number came up on caller ID, so I picked up.

The woman on the other end of the line was a bit confused. She had to stop and start again a few times. Finally I understood, she wanted to ask about details for our laundry love ministry. The caller must have heard frustration in my voice, because she said, “I’m not trying to be rude, I had a stroke and I get confused.” I waited for her while she went to find a pen and paper. I repeated the name and location and time of our Laundry Love ministry over and over. 7200 Balson, Classic Coin Laundry, 3rd Tuesday of the month, 6:30pm. I told her the details. We provide pizza, conversation, soap, and quarters. You do your laundry. Again and again I repeated.

My phone has a little timer on the caller ID screen, so I can see the length of a call. I know we hit the 18 minute mark around the time she was searching for a second pencil. At one point in the call I found myself thinking, “Maybe Laundry Love was a bad idea. This ministry might mean I spend more time talking to people like this, people who are disorganized, and needy, and who take up a lot of my time. I am supposed to be on an important call. Should we re-think this ministry?” Then I heard myself with those thoughts, and I rolled my eyes at myself. Have you ever had a moment like that? Where you see what you’re doing and just think, “oh self…”

“As you do unto the least of these…” Jesus’ movement can be an inconvenience. The Jesus movement will lead you out among those who are a mess, who are disorganized, who are unable to care for themselves. Jesus movement always pushes us out beyond the walls of our clubs, our churches, our safe spaces. Jesus’ movement has a direction.

And today we are initiating Katelyn Elizabeth (Kate) into this movement. We will promise to support her in her life of faith. Her godparents and parents will promise to help her grow into the “full stature of Christ.” Kate, I love you, and you’re doomed. We’re setting her up for an inconvenient and uncomfortable journey, out to the lost, out to the least, out to the people who take up too much time. And we’ll renew our own promises to resist evil and to follow Jesus. Because out with those we would count as goats, that is where Jesus is to be found.

Baptism reminds us that we are caught up in this work together. Before we can make decisions for ourselves, God has chosen to love us. We don’t do anything to merit God’s love. We can’t merit God’s love. God loves all the wrong people. We don’t get to choose who God loves. But we can come along for the ride. God’s love has a direction in which we can participate.

On that crisp May morning in 1982, when the Pope and the Archbishop renewed their own baptismal promises, their prayers mattered. Standing together mattered. Britain was in the midst of a petty little war with Argentina, a Catholic country, over the Falkland Islands. In Northern Ireland, Catholics and Anglicans were actively killing one another. In his homily the Pope talked about the importance of renewing our baptismal vows:

Christ’s promise gives us confidence in the power of this same Holy Spirit to heal the divisions introduced into the Church in the course of the centuries since that first Pentecost day. In this way the renewal of our baptismal vows will become a pledge to do all in our power to co-operate with the grace of the Holy Spirit, who alone can lead us to the day when we will profess the fullness of our faith together.

Baptism is not a mark for insiders. Baptism is bigger than the walls of this church. The Jesus movement is bigger than any one denomination. Without our sisters, brothers, siblings from other walks of life we are not whole. Baptism is incorporation into the least exclusive body in human history. Baptism brings us into a movement, initiates us for following Jesus out beyond our comfort zones, to the lost, the least and the left out. If you take it seriously, baptism will inconvenience the hell out of you.

Chaos or Community?

In ancient times waters stood for chaos. In the first chapter of Genesis the Spirit of God hovers over the waters. God brings life out of darkness, out of the waters, out of chaos.

God parts waters. And God brings life and freedom out of human chaos as well. Scholars tell us Exodus is partly an “origin story” for God’s people. When that Red sea parted, when the people marched out of Egypt, escaped slavery, when God’s people walked through on dry ground, they wrote their origin story. Salvation was an act of creation. The people of the bible became the people saved by God.

That night, with the fiery cloud and Egyptian army at their back, and with the sea ahead of them, God’s people learned who God would be to them. God is a God who saves. Our God sees us through the chaos to freedom.

It’s been a long weekend.

Friday morning we learned that former police officer Jason Stockley was found not-guilty of the murder of Anthony Lamar Smith. Perhaps this verdict feels most painful because it feels like nothing has changed. Hundreds of protests happened after Ferguson. We marched. We met. We prayed. After countless dialogues, discussions, and trainings, it feels like nothing has changed.

Earlier this week I had coffee with a colleague, an attorney who spent most of her career working pro-bono or legal aid cases. She practiced what is sometimes called “poverty law.” This was several days before the verdict came out, and my friend was sure the officer would be found “not guilty.” Missouri law, in her experience, gives some of the broadest authorization to use force of any state law. She said it would be almost impossible to prove premeditated murder, even with the evidence so many of us have seen and heard. I told my colleague that I was still holding out hope there would be something other than a not-guilty verdict, some continuance or lesser charge. Sadly my colleague was right. She knew this history, knew the law, and knew the judge.

In the last few days we have seen pain and anger erupt again in St. Louis. We’ve seen some chaos this weekend: Streets and businesses shut down. Tear gas has been sprayed. Rubber bullets have been shot. Bricks have been thrown. Windows have broken. Protesters have been arrested. I know a number of us are feeling sad, angry, frustrated.

I know a number of you here had tickets for the U2 concert that was cancelled. I know that’s one of our demographics. I know some of you are upset Ed Sheeren’s show was cancelled, that’s one of our demographics too. I know some of you were upset you missed seeing Nick Cannon who was out protesting last night, that’s another demographic. And I know a number of you have no idea who any of those folks are. That’s another demographic here at Holy Communion as well.

I know that many of us wish this would all just go away, just calm down.

I want to invite you to pause.

Over and over again we’ve heard these protests are about the verdict that was released Friday. Newscasters and neighbors have debated evidence, talked about whether this man’s death serves as a worthy cause to protest.

I want to ask: is this verdict really the reason for the protest? Is the death of Anthony Lamar Smith really at the heart of what we’re seeing in St. Louis? I ask that question because so much of the debate seems centered on the evidence in this particular case. So much of the news coverage switches between talking about the latest action on the streets and debating the merits of the case.

Now, I have hangups about what the judge decided. I do not have a law degree, but I have a hard time when a judge introduces conjecture into an opinion, and particularly when a white official uses words like “urban” to describe his bias in the case. The verdict reads with such a double standard. The judge starts the opinion with pages about how he is bound to find the facts of the case, not to be swayed by public opinion. Then he tells us that in his opinion it would be an “anomaly” for an “urban heroin dealer” not to have a gun. Let’s talk about anomalies: it would be an anomaly for a white judge to convict a white police officer for killing a black person.

Beyond that I promise I’ll leave the questions of legality and judicial analysis to the attorneys.

This weekend I kept coming back to something I heard from our friend Noah Bullock, when we were down in El Salvador. Noah is the executive Director of Cristosal, an organization we partner with fighting for human rights in Central America. Noah talked about how often human rights abuses are committed against people who are labeled as “criminals.” Noah said, “even if someone has a criminal record, they have human rights.” That’s what we mean when we call rights “inalienable.” Christians only believe in one “blameless victim.” (That’s Jesus). Moses didn’t have clean record. He lead God’s people out of Egypt, but before that he had killed an Egyptian. Moses wasn’t clean.

So I want to ask, is the best use of our energy debating the facts of this specific case, or should we see what is happening in St. Louis as one facet of a larger question? Is all of this anger part of a larger story? Can we see the pain and anger as part of something bigger, something systemic? If we spend our energy defending the verdict, our we ignoring the system? The systemic racism so many encounter day in and day out? Is this all about one verdict? Really? Ask yourself. Question your newscaster, your co-worker, is one verdict all that’s at stake, or is the verdict a symptom?

A small group of us from Holy Communion tried to join in an action at Kiener plaza yesterday. I say we tried, because we found out once we made it to the plaza that we were in the wrong place. So we drove up to Delmar. After marching just a few blocks, I got a phone call from organizers asking if Holy Communion might serve as a sanctuary in case the action turned into a massive confrontation. I spent most of the evening standing at the door of University United Methodist Church, waiting to see which way the march would move. The stoop outside University United Methodist turned into an interfaith pastors meeting as Orthodox Jewish, Presbyterian, and UCC colleagues all showed up and talked as we waited to see if we were needed.

I know not everyone in this congregation feels comfortable joining in the protests. I personally have struggled with how to engage. I struggle with the protests. I really do. Seeing all of the broken glass in the loop this morning after I listened to the organizers pleading with folks to leave peacefully, it makes me angry.

I trained as a community organizer in my last parish, and I find the kind of protest we’ve seen in St. Louis frustrating. I want planned direct action to provoke some specific reactions. I want a list of demands. I worry that the statements we heard from the governor and the mayor about “protecting the right to protest” mean that many of our officials don’t plan on making any changes. They don’t see the organizers as a body that can make change, but rather as a problem to manage. The government is simply planning to wait out the activists. I feel frustrated, and and, as a white cis-gendered clergy person, I know that part of my job, especially on these issues, is to keep listening.

But even as I struggle with how to respond to the calls to clergy and people of faith to show up, I keep thinking about this story from Exodus. That next morning, after the walk through the sea: the Egyptian army is no more. Israel is no longer in Egypt’s land, but the work has just begun. God’s people don’t cross through the Red Sea and march straight into the promised land. It’s not that easy. They march into the desert, into the wilderness.

Back in February Dr. Howard-John Wesley, the pastor of Alfred Street Baptist Church in the Washington DC area preached about Dr. King’s time in Jamaica after the passing of the Civil Rights act in 1964 and the Voter’s Rights Act of 1965. Brother Martin took some time after these landmark wins to contemplate what came next, after these two landmark laws. After the laws were passed there were still riots in Watts, California and worker strikes up in Detroit, Michigan. So Dr King took some down time in Jamaica to think and to pray. And he wrote his fourth and final book: “Where do we go from here?: Chaos or Community.” Dr. Wesley argues that we are still asking that question in America. Where do we go from here?

That’s the question facing God’s people who have just crossed the sea, isn’t it? Where do we go from here? After this verdict, after this weekend, after these three long years in St. Louis Missouri, where do we go from here?

In Dr. King’s eyes there were two potential destinations: chaos or community. You can wander around the desert lost forever, or you can start making your way to Jerusalem.

Over the next days I will continue to turn up for actions, because I believe it is important to witness the pain and the anger in the black community, and I believe it is important to witness the moments like I did last night, hours before any property damage occurred, when the leaders told folks to go home. I believe I have listening to do. And I will be taking my own safety, and the safety of anyone who comes out from Holy Communion very seriously. I would rather err on the side of caution.

But I want to make another commitment with you today. That commitment is this: Our work won’t end when this season of protests quiets down.

A few weeks ago your senior warden Scott Ferguson and I hosted a small gathering of clergy and lay church leaders from around the St. Louis Metro area. We met with an organizer friend from Washington DC who talked about the work that has been done in Baltimore and Cleveland over the past three years. Cleveland and Baltimore saw similar protests following officer involved shootings in 2014, but there is an important difference between our city and those cities. Both Baltimore and Cleveland have elected new prosecutors in the last two years. and in of those other cities every candidate who ran for county prosecutor promised to engage a special prosecutor for every officer involved shooting. Both cities have a coalition, led by people of faith, that demanded action and sustained attention after the protests were through.

Interfaith coalitions with that kind of power take a long time to build. Faith organizations that can win protections for human rights, for human dignity, they take time and energy. My friend Martin Trimble, the organizer who was with us a couple of weeks ago described those years of building relationships, he called it “slow patient work.”

I keep coming back to that phrase. I have a feeling that what’s next involves a mix of listening, of witnessing, and if we want to see a change, it is going to take a great deal of slow patient work.

So today, I finish this sermon with an invitation to pray. Pray for the St. Louis region. Pray for the days and nights ahead. And, if you can, pray with your feet. But after these nights pass, keep praying. Build relationships. Question the narrative your receiving, and listen. The road to the promised land is long, and we will only get there together. We are seeing these days that it will take a great deal of slow patient work to follow God out of the chaos and into the beloved community. May God bless us on the journey.