Today, I’m on the wrong side of something I care about.
After church, kathrynzj and I are headed out in a hurry to drive the 350 miles to Smith College, attempting to arrive in time for Smith College Christmas Vespers tonight at 7:30, the second of two opportunities today for the campus and community to enter liminal space while hearing beautiful music from the choral groups, pondering meaningful interfaith readings of scripture and poetry offered by students and faculty, singing carols together and generally experiencing the season of Advent through word and music. It’s a cooperative effort of the music department and the Dean for Religious Life. It’s a service, not a concert, so there is no admission fee, but a significant free will offering is collected each year, all of which goes to support the local homeless shelter, the Hampshire County Interfaith Winter Cot Shelter Program.
If you want to know whether there is a homeless issue in that area, walk down the main thoroughfare of Northampton any day of the year.
Every year at Vespers, the student choirs sing “O Holy Night” by candlelight (video from 2011). Vespers is religious and highbrow, and attractive to adults and families in the surrounding area, and alumnae around the world watch it on livestream, so I suppose to students who aren’t directly involved, it just seems like the thing at JMG Hall that draws a big crowd. Therefore, this year, it’s an opportunity to turn attention to other matters.
Because “you can’t sing carols if you can’t breathe,” words written on a Facebook event page announcing an action at both services today (4 and 7:30). I am torn. I support protests as a tool for drawing attention and creating conversation where it is most needed, and I also support them as a vehicle for expressing deep anger and grief. I look at pictures of protests in big cities, and when I read that local people complained about traffic being tied up, I wish they would be quiet.
I also want to get there and hear LP sing, and I’m well aware of the limited routes in and out of Northampton, as well as the way a protest before Thanksgiving shut down traffic for hours.
A Smithie posted a caution to white students on Tumblr, urging them to stop clutching their pearls over Vespers. That’s exactly what some people would say I’ve been doing. I’m struggling with being a poor ally. I feel positioned against a movement I support despite my highbrow Christian white girl appearance. I want to see my daughter and to sing and hear beautiful music that speaks of the world’s need to change and be changed. But the world at large doesn’t know what Advent is or see it as meaningful. They hear Fox News complaining about the War on Christmas and believe it sums up all Christians. On the other side of things, law enforcement no longer regards religious institutions as protected either, raiding churches and threatening protesting clergy.
I know the four hours LP and other students spent rehearsing yesterday sounds like a big commitment at the end of the semester only until compared to the four-and-a-half hours Mike Brown was left lying dead in the street. I am convicted by the statement that young people want “freedom songs not choir songs.” It doesn’t matter that I have a spiritual understanding of Advent as a time when we call on God, waiting for the incarnation to show God’s care for this messed-up world, both the one Jesus came into and every iteration of it right up until the one we’re living in now. I grieve that faith plays no part in the lives of young people who care about the world so deeply. I regret that Christianity in particular has become so distanced from real people’s lives that a religious service can be compared, as it has been by today’s organizers, to the secular lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree as a venue for protest.
I’m not arguing that a religious service should be exempt from protest. I’m grieving the fact that a religious service is not perceived as allied to the cause the students promote. I don’t know what’s coming as we walk through this Advent, but I hope it’s an awakening and not a further separation of our society into color-coded boxes. It may be what the white Church deserves, but I pray it is not the end of the story.
Last Sunday, long before the sun rose, our Boy was up and conducting an early-morning Google search for the amount of sales tax that would be added to the cost of a $30.99 video game he wants. Despite our efforts the day before to coax him into waiting for Christmas, to see what presents might be under the tree, he wanted to make the case that he had enough money to buy Skylanders right now.
As he Googled in the early morning dark, he hoped.
Advent hope has its genesis in the dark. Advent literally means coming into being, and for the church it marks our anticipation of the incarnation, of God’s own self becoming one of us. We prepare for an amazing event. We await new life as the days grow shorter. At first it feels like keeping a secret, like a pregnancy in the first trimester. Even before the mother suspects, life is taking new form in the dark of the womb.
All the way to church last Sunday, our Boy tried to convince us that Christmas was still very far away. Meanwhile, he calculated 7 cents times 31 dollars, and 31 plus 2.17, minus 1 cent equals $33.16. He is good at math. Later in the day, he counted out $35 from his careful savings and put it in an envelope, writing “Skylanders” on it.
We continued to put him off, even as he told us, “I will have $35 to give them at the store, and then I will get change.” $1.84 to be precise. Still, we said to him, “It’s almost Christmas. Why don’t you wait?”
We had a break from the discussion when he went to his dad’s house for Thanksgiving while we got out of town for a couple of days. By the time we were headed back, we were of course discussing Christmas presents, as parents do, and also what to say on Sunday, as preachers must.
On the way home from Maryland,
we passed a white church,
with that sign you sometimes see,
“We preach Christ crucified.”
And usually I smugly comment,
*I* preach Christ resurrected.
So I did.
But as the road continued to bend,
as we moved from the coastal highway
to a land of strip malls
and onto park land we admired,
then to cornfields seemingly unending,
and to the crossroads where
a young Amish man stood
on an old-school Segway,
a primitive chariot,
pulled by horses
dragging a sledge of hay –
two horse power said my wife –
I thought about that sign.
“They” preach Christ crucified,
and I preach Christ resurrected, I claim, but
crucified and resurrected are both ways
Jesus leaves us,
moments that disconnect him by taking him down into the dark of death,
or raising him beyond our limits.
They take him beyond our capacity to touch and know.
We need to know Christ incarnate, I thought.
We need him badly right now. Where else can we find hope in a week full of images of fires burning, and local police dressed out in riot gear standing under a lighted city sign proclaiming, “Season’s Greetings” – where else? Because there has to be some way to make sense of all this violence and hatred and just plain meanness directed at people we think are different from us.
One day last year we took two of our boys to Washington, DC, for a day of touring the Smithsonian. The American History Museum was our last stop, where I was eager to see America’s Doll House. After my patient family watched me ooh and aah over the contents, I took off on my own to look for the book.
In the gift shop, I approached the cash register and waited while the person ahead of me made his purchase. He was about my age, or a few years younger, dressed, like me, for a day of sightseeing, in nice but casual clothes. He had grey in his hair, but not as much as in mine. He bought a shot glass decorated with a TV show’s logo.
When he handed over his credit card, the clerk solemnly asked one thing, to see his ID. He hesitated for a moment, and then he complied.
Immediately, I opened my wallet, readying my driver’s license, which surely I would be asked to show alongside my Disney Princess Castle-themed credit card.
Shot glass wrapped and bagged, the gentleman departed. I presented my book for purchase, and my credit card, and got ready for the ID question, but the young lady smiled broadly and asked something entirely different:
“Are you a Smithsonian member?”
“Oh!” I responded, surprised. “Well, yes, but we just joined–“
“So you have one of those cards that will give you the discount today,” she prompted.
“Yes,” I replied, looking around vaguely, “but I left it with another family member.”
“No problem!” she enthused. “I’ll trust you.”
She rang up the purchase, with the discount, as I reflected on the fact that the grey-haired gentleman in line ahead of me was African-American.
And I know the world is like this. I read up on it; you know, in the newspaper and on blogs. I am here telling you I know it happens. But I rarely see it play out so close up to me, in the flesh like that.
In Mark, we hear Jesus trying to get the attention of his closest disciples. It’s a real “Come to Jesus” moment, a shoulder-shaking truth-telling. The time is coming, and no one quite knows when, he says, and God is going to set things straight. It’s the same hope Isaiah spoke. It’s the same wish the Psalmist cried out to see. Restore us, O God, let your face shine and light up the world again, because it is dark here in the 21st century wilderness, with tanks on city streets and wartime gear on cops and protesters throwing stones and setting fires to get us to take their pleas seriously.
It is dark here. Where is our hope?
We need to know Christ, incarnate,
touchable, knowing, enfleshed.
What other hope do we have?
Some say they preach Christ crucified,
Focused on the death he suffered and the belief it somehow paid for our sins.
But is our hope in forgiveness of the long lists of wrongs done by us, done to us?
I’ve said I preach Christ resurrected,
Focused on cycles of renewal and God’s victory over death.
But is our hope in the vision of life renewed, or life beyond this world?
How do these hopes help us in a season of darkness, of grieving our losses,
despairing of our future, identifying our wrongs against God and each other?
This week, all week, voices have been calling out for justice. My friends both black and white who are the mothers of black boys fear for their sons: babes in arms, little boys of 6 and 7, young men of 15 and 20. A powerful image circulated in social media, an infant boy on the pavement with a chalk outline around his body. “When does he stop being someone’s baby?” asks the caption.
If you have children, you know the truth. They never stop being our babies. Yet “Black boys as young as 10 may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their white peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime,” according to published earlier this year by the American Psychological Association.
I live in a world of privilege. My grown sons are out in the world; my stepson walks to school every day. I never wonder what a policeman will think of them. I never worry they are at risk from the people who I expect to serve and protect them. I can take it for granted, but I am trying not to, because I have too many friends, I know too many mothers, who are afraid for their sons to leave the house.
I cannot believe this is what God wants for the world.
We are still trying to convince our Boy to wait and see if he doesn’t get that game for Christmas. That’s a waiting game he can win; we won’t let him down. But if our Boy insists, and he goes to the store with his $35, to buy his own video game and collect his change, no one will wonder where the money came from, or whether it is really his. No one will ask a question.
It is dark here. Where is our hope?
We need the embodied God who walked the earth, who healed the lame, who ate with sinners, who broke down barriers, and electrified the crowds but alarmed the authorities, and turned the world upside down without wielding a sword, or carrying a gun. We need the embodied God whose life was an action, political and spiritual, but most of all human.
We are waiting for God, but it is not enough to dream or pray away the time. Jesus cautions us to keep alert, to be aware. Are we? Can we see the ways our lives would not match God’s desire? How can we make things better while we wait?
We need to know Christ,
“Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the LORD. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.”
My quarry was the American South of the mid-20th century, a racially-mixed city where I grew up in a neighborhood so oddly quaint that it felt more like the setting for a 19th century novel written by a maiden lady with keen skills of social observation. My childhood memories skew to the excessively genteel. I can see my mother sitting at her desk, writing thank you notes, and have few memories of my father not wearing a necktie, unless he was playing tennis or in his pajamas. We lived in an old city, and both sides of the family had been there for many generations. One of my grandmothers was President of the Historical Association and an avid preservationist. Therefore I almost cannot help looking back and pondering how we all got to where we are.
There are a lot of influences in each of our lives that form us.
Location – where were you born, and how did the climate and the environment impact you?
Ethnicity and Nationality – what are the cultural influences that mattered in your early life?
Religion – what stream of faith formed you?
Isaiah wrote these verses for a people returned from exile in Babylon to take up living in Jerusalem again. Their faith tied them to a location their ancestors had left behind unwillingly, but by this time not only had that place been changed by years of occupation, the people coming back were not the ones who left in the first place. “Returned” is a term that applies to their race, but not to the individuals making the trip. They went back to the location of the Temple, the place where God could assuredly be found – but the occupying forces had destroyed the Temple, too.
Look to the rock from which you were hewn – look to the ancestors, says Isaiah, and to the way God dealt with them. Abraham was only one person, but from him came many. The heritage of the returned exiles included many people who felt like they lived at the end of the line, but God delivered them. Isaiah wrote a word of encouragement:
This land may feel unfamiliar, but no matter how complicated things seem, God is with you.
Look to the Rock.
Peter, the gospels tell us, grew up by the Sea of Galilee. He worked beside his brother, Andrew, casting the nets and supporting their families. He grew up in a family-oriented time, but he left both boat and family to follow Jesus. All the gospels suggest he had a strong, impulsive personality. When Jesus asked the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter never hesitated. “You are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus called him the Rock; “On this rock,” he said, “I will build my church.” We remember Peter for his denial on the night of Jesus’ arrest, but we also remember that he went on to lead the early church, preaching and teaching and eventually being crucified himself.
Look to the rock from which we are hewn, to the quarry from which we were dug.
My childhood home may have been quaint and genteel, but it was also segregated. The African-American women I knew were all maids in our neighborhood. The one I remember best took care of my brother and me. No one thought it was strange for me to call her by her first name, Catherine. The one man of color I knew worked at my church; he was the janitor. No one thought it was odd for a very little girl to call him by his last name without a “Mr.” in front of it.
That’s been on my mind the past few weeks, as we’ve watched some terrible scenes unfold on television, scenes of armored vehicles on the streets, cell phone video of what amounted to an execution. I don’t like to see these things when they take place in Syria. I hate to see these things when they take place in our country.
I wish that scenes of violent oppression and stories of racial prejudice were ancient history, or at least as far away as my childhood. I was sheltered from the violent reaction to the Civil Rights movement – the violent reaction of white people, my people. I could hide behind the memory of the times we made sure to visit with Catherine after we moved away, because it’s a true story, and I could tell you about how my mother was one of a minority of white women employing help who bothered to do the Social Security paperwork, but the truth is we lived in a segregated and oppressive time and place, where the drug store counters and the water fountains had signs saying who could use them and who could not.
And what do we have now, fifty years later?
We have armored vehicles on the streets, deployed against our citizens. We have flash-bangs and tear gas canisters being used on our citizens. We have a church being raided in an American city – an AMERICAN city – for the sin of offering protestors first aid and water bottles and a place to gather.
We see scenes that look like the gates of Hell.
Jesus said, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” It’s too easy to read the gospel lesson this morning and pretend it refers to some far-off confrontation between metaphysical powers or imagine it as an apocalyptic IMAX summer blockbuster with Biblical figures instead of comic book characters.
The truth of these past two weeks has been a grindingly every-day hell. It’s as horribly ordinary as the delay of the first day of school, or a trip to the convenience store interrupted by a shooting, or a deadly walk home on a residential street. In big cities and middle class suburbs and small towns there is hatred and fear and cruelty. Mistrust feeds on mistrust. People get righteously angry. People speak painful truths. People do things we wish they wouldn’t. People on all sides do all these things. We – collectively – commit the sin of treating God’s beloved children as “other.”
Even without the tear gas, it’s hellish.
If it feels unmanageable to you, you’re in good company.
Listen to these ancient words, from Psalm 138:
Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies; you stretch out your hand, and your right hand delivers me.
The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands. (Psalm 138:7-8, NRSV)
The Israelites coming back from Babylon didn’t know how they were going to manage in Jerusalem. Peter had no idea how to be the person Jesus claimed he would be. I grew up and through many awkward relationships with African-American classmates and co-workers before I could be a real friend to any of them. I’m pretty sure most of the faithful sitting in churches this Sunday morning have a feeling we ought to be doing something about racism, but just don’t know where to start.
I don’t like to use “we” here. I want to say “they” and make it someone else’s responsibility, someone else’s problem. We are afraid we don’t know what to say, or what to do, or we tell ourselves these things only happen far away from us. We could turn our heads away, but the trouble is, we read Isaiah this morning.
“Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the LORD. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.”
We want to be those people, don’t we, to have that kind of persistent faith? That quarry from which I was dug had some pretty faithful people in it. They couldn’t shield me entirely from the unconscious racism of our culture, but they could point me to the rock from which we were all hewn. God is that rock, a God of steadfast and enduring love for all people. God is that rock, who loves all people *so* much that God became one of us to make sure we knew it.
Peter knew. He knew God was in the world, even before the world was ready to know it.
That’s how every new movement starts. Someone listens to God, even before the rest of the world is ready. Someone puts it into words. People start to listen. The world begins to change.
We can see it some places. But we aren’t all the way there yet. It seems like it should be simple, but when we turn on the TV, there they are again, the fiery gates of Hell, in the middle of a neighborhood.
In that neighborhood, the raided church continues to offer first aid and water bottles and a place to gather.
We can do it in any neighborhood when we open out with healing and nurture and community for all beloved children of God. That’s the way to be Christ’s church, founded on a rock, hewn from the quarry of God’s steadfast love.