Monday, December 1, 2014

November 30 Sermon: Worship Fully

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)

Isaiah 64:1-9
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

Mark 13:24-37
“But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
(This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.)
It is strange, I know, to come to church the Sunday after Thanksgiving and to see the halls decked and the garland strung and to hear scripture like that which we heard this morning—not gentle Jesus, meek and mild, not silent night, holy night, but a confession of sin by the prophet Isaiah, and a reading from the Gospel of Mark in which the Son of Man comes in clouds with great power and glory, and the angels are sent to gather God’s people from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. This is not the stuff carols are made of.
And yet, you know, with the all that has been going on this week as a result of the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, I sort of feel like this stuff fits. I’m not usually big on the Jesus-coming-with-power-and-Glory, God-breaking-through stuff in the Bible, because honestly, that’s just not what my life looks like. My life looks like quiet moments of grace, an act of forgiveness here, a bit of love there, an occasional minor miracle, maybe, but nothing like this. And, you know, usually, it’s enough, to feel like God is with me as I walk through a difficult time, to feel inspired to forgive, to feel God’s presence as we sing on Sunday morning as a diverse body of Christ.
But sometimes, it isn’t enough. Sometimes, it all just feels so overwhelming you want to pull the comforter over your head and go back to sleep until everything calms down, until the world goes away and you can get back to those quiet moments of grace. I suppose this is what Jesus is talking about when he says to keep awake, because what a privilege that is, to only be bothered when things start to spiral. Sure, we all have our stuff, we all have pain and heartache and the rest, but I’ll speak for myself here: my life isn’t that hard. I don’t fear for my life very often. I don’t wonder where my next meal is coming from or how I’m going to feed my kid. I don’t have the powers of empire breathing down my neck, threatening to kill me simply for what I look like or what I believe.
I am talking, of course, of what it was like to be among the original hearers of this passage in the Gospel of Mark. As best as we can tell, this book was written sometime between 66 and 70AD, at least thirty years after the death of Jesus, during the time of the emperor Nero’s persecution of Christians in Rome and the time of the First Jewish-Roman War. This was a revolt against the Romans by the Jews, who had been subjugated, a war which ultimately led to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the killing and enslavement of hundreds of thousands of Jews. If ever there were a time and a people who needed God to come in power and glory, this was it, and this was them. Think of it: now, in these days, we have two thousand years of Christian history to rely on, to hold us up in difficult times, but those first believers were only thirty years out, just freshmen in the grand scheme of things, and they saw their fellow believers and their family and friends killed, slayed in battle or, under emperor Nero, tortured and publicly killed in what today we would call horrendous acts of terrorism.
These are the conditions that the Gospels were written under. It is important to always, always remember that when we read of the birth of Christ we are not reading of any other birth, detached from the history and the culture of the Jews. The birth of Christ was powerful. It created hope from nothing, deliverance from nothing. It rescued a people who were living under incredible persecution. This is the setting for Christmas: not Black Friday, not post-Thanksgiving-nap, but squalor. Destruction. Torture. Death.
I don’t mean to take the sweetness away from Advent and Christmas; I just want us to realize that Christmas doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens in a context; everything happens in a context. And the context for Jesus’s birth was not a peaceful one. There were difficult events everywhere. You understand why the author of Isaiah 64 says, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence.” You start to understand why the hearers of Mark’s Gospel would so desperately hang on to that promise from Jesus, the promise of his return, and cling so closely to this words that “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
In the midst of that kind of suffering, you hold onto anything you can. And so they did. They held onto what seemed like an awfully clear promise, that before any of his followers died, Jesus would return to right every wrong and dry every tear, to deliver them from oppression. If they would just wait, Jesus would return.
And so they waited. And they waited. But justice did not come. And they began to die, one at a time, until it happened faster and faster and still, the promise went unfulfilled. Here they had been promised that justice would come down like mighty waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, but there was only more oppression, more war, more death.
You know, it has been an interesting week to think about this dynamic of a promise so desperately needed and yet unfulfilled. It reminds me of a country that promises freedom and yet included within its founding documents the idea that some people were only worth three-fifths of a human. It reminds me of a movement that promised equal rights for all, but which is not finished.
I remember first hearing about Ferguson, Missouri back in August when Michael Brown was shot and killed following an argument with a police officer, and what I mostly remember at first was that I didn’t think too much of it. You know, I guess, from my perspective, one ought not argue with police officers. That seems pretty easy.
It was only when I started listening to my African-American friends and colleagues that I started to pay close attention, and when I did, I heard people I dearly loved and cared for who were saying things that just didn’t resonate with me, that did not make much sense to me, and yet it seemed like I was hearing much of the same message again and again: Ferguson matters. What has happened is important, because the dynamics involved are larger than this one incident, larger than the security footage that showed Michael Brown before he was killed, larger than this one deal. At some point, when such a large group of people says versions of the same thing, you can either choose to ignore what they are saying and stick with what you know, or you can decide that you actually don’t know everything, that your perspective is not the only one, and you can choose to listen.
And so I want to acknowledge the problems with the fact that I am a white person speaking about this, because I am not someone who has been discriminated against because of my skin. In fact, in all honesty, I’d rather not be preaching about this stuff at all. I know that when I talk about controversial issues from the pulpit, it upsets some people. I know some people think that a preacher should never, ever talk about anything that could possibly be considered political. And yet when I read about Jesus coming with power and glory to deliver a people, I come to the conclusion that Jesus is political, and to be faithful is to listen and respond, even when it makes me, even when it makes us uncomfortable.
I want to acknowledge one more thing, which is that we are a reasonably multicultural congregation. You don’t find a lot of churches that have the kind of diversity we have, and much of the reason for this is that it is not easy to be a diverse body. It is much easier to discuss racially charged topics in a room where you know that everybody is going to agree with you. And yet this stuff is so very important, because if we believe that a) all people, no matter their color, are children of God, and b) a large group of people finds itself on the receiving end of prejudice, all of us—all of us—have a responsibility to listen, to process, and respond. I can’t just say, “oh, it’s all an overreaction,” just because I don’t understand what it is like to be black. It may be my first response, but it isn’t a particularly Christian response, because if I read anything about how we are to treat one another in the Bible, it is that we are all family, and when one part suffers, we are all implicated. Maybe you don’t understand what it is like to experience that kind of oppression. But so what? Since when did we start thinking that understanding had to come before love?
I may not understand what it is like to face that kind of racism, but I am so grateful for those who have told their stories this week. I read the story of a black comedian who talked about the way he intentionally thinks about every single move he makes when he walks into a convenience store, just in case something goes wrong and people are looking for someone to blame. I read about mothers of black sons who have new worries about releasing their sons into the world; I (reed) read about and listen to black men—some of whom are very close friends of mine, people who I deeply admire and respect and hold in great esteem for the brave ways they face the world and speak truth in love—I’ve heard some of them talk about being absolutely terrified in the wake of the grand jury’s decision. Terrified.
We can distract ourselves by only talking about the looting and rioting, which of course is evil. Of course it is wrong. But friends, if we don’t take seriously the terror of our sisters and brothers in Christ, the problem isn’t with terrified ones. It is with the rest of us. The numbers are clear: black men are seven times as likely as white men to spend time in prison, three times as likely to be shot by law enforcement, two and a half times as likely to be sentenced to death. Here in Georgia, non-Hispanic blacks make up 31% of the population but are 58% of the incarcerated population. People of color are more likely than whites to see jail time for identical crimes, are more likely than whites to be sent to adult prison for crimes committed as juveniles, have a much higher arrest rate for drug use, despite being no more likely to sell or use illegal drugs than whites, and receive, on average, prison sentences that are 10% longer than whites for the exact same crimes. Friends, if we don’t look at the dynamics involved and see a clear problem—not a police problem, per se, but an all of us problem—we aren’t looking! This is the very definition of oppression: the exercise of authority and power in an unjust manner.
I’ll be honest, when I look at the news and think about the size of this problem, I don’t know what to do. It just all seems so overwhelming, so intractable, so . . .  hopeless. And yet hopelessness is precisely the environment Jesus was born into. This is who Jesus is, and the kind of world Jesus has come to redeem.
Jesus does not come in a sterile hospital in the maternity ward. He comes in the muck and the mess. He isn’t born in a Christmas card, in some idealized version of the story, on the kind of Christmas we wish we could have. He was born in the real world, where we still deal with racism, where we engage in relationships across racial and socioeconomic lines, where we still have struggles and problems and you can’t even go to church to get away from it all. That’s where Jesus is born, and thank goodness, because that is where we live.
In the final analysis, this is what it means to worship fully: to acknowledge that our hope does not come from just from human progress. It doesn’t come from movements, divorced from the work of God. No, our hope comes from the Lord, who created Heaven and earth and who promises us that we will never be left alone. This isn’t to say, as some as argued, that we ought not work so that all people may experience that love. It doesn’t mean, as some narrow corners of the church have said, that we ought to leave this up to God, as if it is God’s problem, as if we are devoid of any responsibility.
To worship fully is to actively wait in the promise of hope, even when its fulfilment is delayed longer than we wish, longer than we were promised. To worship fully is to work while we wait, to do the work of Christmas, and allow Jesus to be born in the kinds of places that Jesus is always born: in difficult circumstances, among intractable problems, in oppression and hopelessness. It is in this context that Jesus comes in power and glory, and thanks be to God for that.
Let me just say this. This is all so heartbreaking and complex that I don’t even know what to tell you to do. The dynamics of racism and distrust and oppression seem so much larger than any one of us can deal with, let alone sum up in a sermon. I don’t even understand all of it, to be honest.
I don’t have the answer to the festering wounds of racism, of hate, of fear, but if Jesus is any guide, can I suggest that at least part of the answer may be to keep awake so that we may hear the voice of the oppressed, for it was among the oppressed that Jesus was born? Can I suggest that this Christmas, you allow the God of the oppressed to enter the shabby stable of your heart, even if—and maybe especially if—it seems like a place so barren that only farm animals would go there to bed and feed?
For we read in scripture that in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then, then we will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. And thanks be to God. Amen.

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