As usual our most recent Sunday 10 AM service was filled good spirit and amazing members of the Calvary community — as well as guests.
‘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.’
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 for ever.
Now consider, we are all your people.
THESE DAYS, IN OUR CULTURE, AS SOON AS THANKSGIVING ENDS, Christmas pretty much begins. In some stores and homes, it starts even earlier than that, putting up Christmas decorations and playing Christmas music as soon as Halloween is over!
And I get it. Christmas feels good. As the days get shorter, the nights longer, and the weather colder (although in the Bay Area, just barely), there’s something about the glitter of tiny little lights adorning trees and windowsills, the sparkle of tinsel and greens hung with care, the bright reds and greens of the holiday season that just make it all a little more bearable. And every year there is a huge part of me that just wants to dive in head-first into the sheer joy and “fa-la-la-la-la-la” of it all. I want to sing all the Christmas carols, drink hot chocolate by a fire, and I so very much want to be “merry and bright.”
But then you read the lectionary texts for this Sunday, the Sunday when, for everyone else, Christmas has already begun, and you think, wait, what? The gospel lesson talks about lights being extinguished, not hung on trees and decorating homes. And then there’s the prophet Isaiah talking about earth-shaking catastrophes and our sins?
People of God, welcome to Advent.
You see, Christmas is great. And the church loves Christmas and does it well.
But the church also challenges us to slow down and implores us to not rush into Christmas. Because sometimes in our rush towards Christmas, in our rush towards that which feels good, what happens is we all too often forget why we’re doing all this in the first place, and we stop paying attention to that which matters.
We get so caught up in our unending lists of things to do and buy, in our gift-giving and receiving, in our general “holiday merriment” that usually ends up resembling “holiday frazzle or stress” that we forget to pay attention. We go through the whole season able to ignore the deep pain, hunger, and anger of a world that seems to live not in Christmas, but in an unending, unrelenting season of Advent.
In the Christian Calendar, Advent is the season of waiting and watching and keeping vigil as we await the birth of the Christ child into the world and into our very hearts. It is the season before Christmas, the season that leads us into Christmas. Advent is a time of waiting and of preparation for the joy that is to come.
And each year, during this season, while most of the culture around us falls into a holiday frenzy, the church takes the time to pause, to slow down, to take a deep breath, and, hopefully, as the Gospel lesson says, to “Wake up!” To keep watch and to pay attention; to look around and to notice all the places in the world and in our lives where the joy and culmination of Christmas seem to never come and a perpetual state of waiting is forced upon them.
I believe in Advent and I believe in waiting, but I don’t believe that people should be forced to wait indefinitely with no justice, no peace and little hope for any change.
Advent is the season that helps us to be not just “merry and bright,” but to find hope in the midst of hopelessness, to find light in the depths of darkness, and to find a deep, resonate joy, not merriment, not even happiness, but joy in the midst of sorrow and pain. And how are we to do that unless we stop and take the time to go to our places of hopelessness, darkness, sorrow and pain?
C.S. Lewis once said, “The Christian faith is a thing of unspeakable joy. But it does not begin with joy, but rather in despair…”
And the sad truth is, we don’t have to go very far to find that despair. If we’re paying attention, if we’re keeping awake, we’ll find enough pain in the world to break our hearts again and again.
You find it in the stories of young people who are bullied at school and choose to take their lives or the lives of others as a result. You find it in the stories of families who are homeless and who can’t find affordable housing despite the two jobs they work. And you find it in the stories of communities like Ferguson, Missouri where the shooting and killing of one of their children is all too commonplace, but heartbreaking each and every time nonetheless.
Karl Barth is known to have said that, “The Pastor and the Faithful (that’s all of you) should not deceive themselves into thinking that they are [just] a religious society, which has [only] to do with certain themes; they live in the world. We still need the Bible [in one hand] and the Newspaper [in the other].”
If you’ve been carrying in your one hand a newspaper, or smart phone, or tablet with you this week, I’m sure you’ve read and seen how protestors have gathered all across the country and even here in the Bay Area to give voice to the lament and anger that came from the Grand Jury decision in Ferguson. Most of the protestors were peaceful, even the media admitted to this as they continued to loop only the footage of the fire, smoke, and the looting. And indeed the violence that has ensued is tragic. All kinds of people, from the family of Michael Brown to the President of the United States have asked for non-violent demonstrations. Most of the people who gathered in Ferguson and elsewhere have done exactly that. They’ve wept, hugged, and walked peacefully together, but that’s not the kind of stuff that makes it onto the news cycle.
Now I wasn’t there in Ferguson on August 9th when Michael Brown died, so I don’t know exactly how it went down. And I didn’t sit on that Grand Jury to hear whether or not there was enough evidence to take it to trial. In fact, there is a lot that you and I simply do not and cannot know.
All week long, I’ve tried to know, carrying in one hand some form of news source. But to be honest, I’m not sure, after all that reading, I still have a clear handle on the “facts” of what went down or of what went wrong.
But here’s what I do know:
I do know that this young man died much too soon. I do know that his body lay there on the ground for four and a half hours after he was shot. I do know that his mother and father grieve their loss just as any parents would. And I do know that the outcry and outrage of communities all around the United States is not just for this one isolated incident, but for this country’s history and legacy of devaluing and dehumanizing black lives which began hundreds of years ago and continues still today.
Sharonda Huff, an African American woman living in the United States, puts it like this:
“I don’t really think it’s really about Michael Brown at all. I think it’s about our collective experiences as blacks in America. It’s about our repeated experiences of injustice. It’s about the grade school teacher who treats you like you are nothing when you’re 7 years old, and you don’t know why. It’s about getting handcuffed, frisked, and put in the back of a police car while your 9 month old screams in his car seat, because you ran a yellow light. It’s about being blocked for 4 miles on the freeway by a guy on a motorcycle with a confederate flag on the back of his jacket. It’s about the automatic suspicion when you walk into a store. It’s having someone be so afraid of you, when they don’t know you at all. It’s hearing that Michael Brown’s body was left in the street, uncovered for hours.”
“It eats at you,” she continues. “It is a daily struggle to not let it ruin you… So, no, it is not about Michael Brown. It’s about facing a world that is so brutal, and you not having the ability to do a thing about it.”
Ms. Huff ends by saying this: “I won’t let it ruin me though. I won’t give in to hate. I will continue to love all people…”
For Sharonda Huff and others like her, it’s not about this one incident in Ferguson. It’s about a lifetime and legacy of brutality.
As people of faith, then, Karl Barth challenges us to carry the news in one hand, but also the Bible in our other hand. And our biblical witness lifts up again and again those who are marginalized, those who are disenfranchised and challenges us to listen to those stories and then to help work for justice and liberation.
God is found in the lives of the poor, the oppressed, the orphan and the widow, the lost, the last, the least, and the lonely. God is found in Ferguson, in Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, in all the parents who bury their children much too soon, in all whose voices are not only unheard but silenced.
So, yes, while it is important to try and understand the facts of this one particular case in Ferguson, it is equally as important to simply allow ourselves to hear the cries of our sisters and brothers who stand at the margins of our society pleading to be heard.
Martin Luther King Jr., who never once condoned violence, still understood the roots of it saying this, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
If we’re honest, though, here in San Francisco, it’s also the language of some Giant’s fans.
But for those whom it feels like our current system was never meant to protect them in the first place, for those who have been silenced again and again, any means of being heard will be employed.
So what have we heard this week? What have you heard this week from our sisters and brothers whose laments have overflowed into tears and anger?
For me, a voice of truth and pain came through my friend and ministerial colleague, Kerri Allen. She and I both served as pastoral residents at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. And after she heard the decision from Ferguson, she wrote this, “Open season. Open season.” That’s how she feels about being black in America today, like it is open season to be hunted and killed with no repercussions.
We can argue the facts of the case, argue the law all we want, argue the different eye witness accounts. We can even take sides, although how in this situation can there be any winners, no matter which side we take? Darren Wilson’s life will never be the same, and Michael Brown’s life was taken. But if we must, we can do all of that. Fine. But know that when we have sisters and brothers who feel like it is “open season” on their lives, something is horribly broken; something is horribly wrong.
Friends, black lives matter; all lives matter; your child’s life matters, your parent’s life matters, your neighbor’s life matters, your life matters. And no one should have to be afraid that they might be killed as a result of how they were born- be it the color of their skin, the socio-economic standing of their family, their sexuality, where they born, or who they were born to.
Beware, keep alert, keep awake says Mark. Because people are still waiting…waiting for justice, waiting for equality, waiting for their lives to matter.
And in this season of Advent, we all have the opportunity to stand with those who continue to wait, to enter into the despair of the world, to delve in the depths of desperation and to call out to God like Isaiah, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”
This morning, we lit the first Advent candle. The candle of hope.
For so many people it seems that the Advent waiting will never end. For so many people, hope is but a flicker on one small candle threatening to be extinguished.
But even as we wait, we know that God did tear open the heavens and come down. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Emmanuel, God with us, came and walked along side us.
So maybe a flicker of hope is enough. After all, the way God came to us wasn’t quite what people expected. It wasn’t quite the fire of immediate salvation and freedom. But God came to us in the tiny, fragile body of a new born baby. And God came to us to bear with us all of our burdens.
So perhaps if we all join together in that Advent waiting. Perhaps if we all allow ourselves during these next four weeks to fully embrace the pain of a hurting world, rather than turning away, rather than being too busy for it, rather than numbing ourselves with eggnog and holiday cheer, than perhaps something can change in unexpected and surprising ways. Perhaps God will enter in and actually be born among and within us.
Because our Advent waiting is not a passive exercise. It is a vigilant preparation to make room for God in our lives, so that when Christ is born, love may grow and flourish.
This year, in light of what has transpired in this past week, here’s just one way we might do that. Examine your fears.
It is fear that undergirds our society and allows for racism, xenophobia, and hate to be perpetrated again and again. When grown men who are armed shoot and kill unarmed boys, that’s fear. When immigrant families are torn apart and children left without parents, that’s fear. It is fear that divides us and keeps us from working together for a more just and compassionate world.
99.9% of people aren’t just plain hateful; 99.9% of people aren’t seeking to devalue human life or strip someone’s dignity. But nearly every single one of us is afraid.
Examine your fears. What are you afraid of, and what have you been conditioned to be afraid of in our society? Because our fears can dictate our actions.
On a BBC series I’ve been watching called, “Call the Midwife,” one of the nuns states that nearly everything we do is motivated by one of two things: fear or love.
As God’s people, examine your fears. In what are they based? And why are they held? And then hear God say to us, again and again throughout scriptures, and especially during this season, “Fear not, fear not, fear not.”
Nearly everything we do is motivated by one of two things: fear or love. Fear not. This Advent season, let us let love shape us.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Advent creates people, new people.” Let us be willing to be created anew. As clay wields to the potter’s gentle and sometimes not so gentle touch, may we wield to a God who loves each and every one us. May our hearts be soft enough to be formed and shaped by the injustice and the heartbreak of our broken world. And may God the potter through that loving touch create something new from within us this season of advent.