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.

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.

 

 

 

 

Surely God is in this Place: Jacob’s Ladder and Unlikely Spiritual Geography

Jacob’s story today is a claim of unlikely sacred geography. Jacob finds himself on the run. He’s tricked Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing, his birthright. Essau, as we heard last week, isn’t someone to be messed with. So Jacob, the trickster is on the run. Away from home, away from the lands of his grandfather Abraham, he has a dream and declares. “Surely God is in this place.” The claim is surprising. God is in the “place,” the “holy place,” of people of Haran. What, we might ask, is God doing THERE?

Jacob’s dream becomes one of the most lasting and captivating images of the connection between heaven and earth. Jacob’s ladder has been painted, carved into stone, and set in stained glass. We sing old of the ladder in old spirituals, and have you ever been in a guitar store and not heard someone learning Led Zeppelin’s stairway to heaven? Jacob’s Ladder is even a popular wooden toy. How many Bible passages have their own toy?

We are fascinated by this image of Jacob’s dream, Jacob’s ladder, this sense of God’s connection to earth, that in some places, the infinite and the finite touch. “Thin places” the Irish call them. Some of us have experienced the thinness. Do you have a sacred spot? A place you return to? I have a few. There’s a certain sage field at a camp I worked at in my early twenties in Colorado. I made it through a lot of angst spending quiet time in that field. There are places in our lives, old-worn paths that lead us to God.

But don’t miss what Jacob says when he wakes up. Surely God is in this place and I, I did not realize it. Our English translation misses a point of emphasis in the original. For you language nerds out there, we have an unnecessary pronoun: “I, I did not realize” Jacob says. The grammar of the Hebrew points to his realization that he, he has missed something. He has missed the presence of God. The responsibility for not noticing God in this territory belongs to Jacob.

Which leads me to ask: “How often do I, I not realize?” How often do we, we miss God? One of the biggest blunders in the spiritual life, and one I commit with great regularity, is assuming I know where to find God. God however, keeps ignoring my maps, showing up where I least expect. Jacob’s ladder touches down in unfamiliar territory.

Many of you know that I spent a year after college living in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. As a freshly minted Bachelor of Liberal Arts, I was convinced that I could make a difference. I came to Honduras fully expecting to find God, and I did, eventually, but not where I was looking.

You see, I believed fully that I would find God in my work. I was convinced that I had a great deal to teach, a great deal to offer. I was giving a year, I thought, maybe even more, to serve God in “the least of these.” I was sure to find God.

I arrived to El Hogar de Amor y Esperanza, the Orphanage that would be my home to discover that the job I had come to fill did not exist. I thought I would be teaching English and helping to orient short term volunteer groups who came to visit from the states. I arrived to discover El Hogar had an excellent English teacher, and no volunteer groups were scheduled to arrive in the next six months.

To complicate matters, my Spanish was not nearly fluent enough to manage over 100 boys between ages six and 15. I had been reading Thomas Merton, the famous 20th century monk and mystic who described with such poetry his encounter with God’s presence. I had not found God in my work. I spent most of the first six months in Honduras feeling frustrated, bored: useless.

I said as much in an email home to a priest in San Diego, the rector who had sponsored me for the volunteer program. I told him that I had applied for some jobs that would take me home early. His response came like as a wake up call. He said, in three sentences: “Thomas Merton had a lot to say about usefulness. None of it was positive. Stay in Honduras.” I did.

And somehow I let go of my crippling need to find God in “meaningful work” at El Hogar. I discovered that, for the sake of trying to find God in serving others, I had missed God in the laughter of the kids around me, in games of soccer, in shared meals, in simple conversations, and hugs. Surely God was in that place and I, I did not realize it. Until I let go of my expectations, my assumptions about where God was to be found.

Sometimes we don’t make the best judges of God’s presence. I think there is wisdom in Jesus’ parable about the weeds and the wheat today. I think he may be trying to tell his disciples not to go weeding before they learn the distinction between the wheat and the weeds. I could have easily uprooted myself too early from Honduras, and if I’d done so God’s presence to me in that place would never have blossomed.

Sometimes we can be so sure where we are to find God, so expectant about how God is supposed to act, that we miss where God is present. Wearing blinders that we’ve constructed, we pass through life looking for the God we can’t see, until we trip over the rungs of a ladder connecting heaven and earth.

I have a secret to share with you. Don’t tell anyone I said this, but I don’t think God is just an Episcopalian. Years ago, because of some crazy friends at seminary I had a profound sense of encounter with God while whirling with dervishes in a Sufi muslim mosque. Over the last months and years, I’ve prayed with Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and Presbyterians as we work for justice in our region. I think God has been getting around. I think this story of Jacob encountering God in the pagan temple of a strange people has something to say to those of us who live in a religiously plural world.

If you’ve tried meditation with the Buddhists, read some of Rumi’s poetry, been to a yoga class, or experienced a seder dinner with Jewish friends, you may also have a sense of this. Episcopalians, even Christians may not have a monopoly on the divine. God can be found in the most surprising places, the upstairs room of a bar, or even in a laundromat.

As Jacob, that trickster, discovered, sometimes the best adventures occur when we venture into unmarked terrain. When we find ourselves out of our comfort zones, when we try the unexpected. Sometimes what makes a “thin place” thin is the loss of our sense of security and surety. If you find yourself somewhere unexpected, keep your eyes out. Pay attention to your dreams. Surely God is in this place.