Our dining room table is piled high with seasonal decorations, most still in boxes, but we did manage to hang a string of lights around the kitchen window.
It feels like a slender thread, electric wire and bulbs, a pop of color with a little shine, casting a warm glow inside our home.
And it offers a moment of respite from the things still to do, the list of sermons to preach and prayers to offer and church decorations to find, not to mention the things left to do at home.
It’s not the first First Advent when Christmas has seemed impossibly distant, not in days (those will speed by, I know), but measured in hope. Less than a week ago, I wondered what bad news would come, would require mention in today’s sermon, and the world, as it does with sickening regularity, complied.
This week a man in Biloxi shot and killed a woman at the Waffle House when she told him to put out his cigarette. What is wrong with people? What makes us think a gun is the solution to a disagreement?
Other first Advents, I’ve preached about trampled shoppers, and hostages in Mumbai, and natural disasters, and the execution of young men, and the pervasive sin of racism, and acts of pure terror delivered not only by strangers but by our own countrymen. And it is hard to know where to find hope after this week’s additions in Minneapolis and Colorado Springs, this week’s reminders in Chicago, this month’s violence and terror in Mali, Beirut, Paris…
Where is our hope?
Our hope is in the Lord.
The words feel trite until we look deeper, uncover the stories, the stories of all the days Jesus walked among us, the subtle forms of threat used against him by the authorities. It feels trite until we remember that nothing they said or did stopped him from being the truth, the light, the hope that you will have ultimate victory over the death-dealers.
It feels distant, but I am holding on, even if a string of lights is all I have to bind me to your hope this morning. Help me preach it, Lord, I pray. Amen.
It’s Sunday morning, early, and I am second-guessing my sermon.
Word-smithing cannot help me.
I am second-guessing,
calculating the day of the cycle,
wondering where my words will fall within it.
While I read think pieces
by people who got a day ahead of me,
and monitor the backlash,
the predictable cycle continues,
with a dash of conspiracy theories
and notes of white supremacy,
and fresh outrages of people stalked
by officers of the law.
How is every day *not*
a day of outrage?
I backspace, rearrange,
try to land somewhere
because you did not
create us helpless,
and the power
to break the cycle
When I first heard they forgave him, I flinched. Why should they have to do that? So quickly?
My visceral response gave way to self-examination. Maybe, like the Amish families who lost their children to a shooter a few years ago, these families are better Christians than I am, with a deeper faith, a less questioning theology, a more profound relationship with God.
I’ve been linking on Facebook to these essays and blog posts by African-Americans on the subject of shame and forgiveness and the trap created for the Black church simply by the attempt to survive in a majority white world. Wherever I read the ensuing conversations, the majority white participants, and particularly the Christian ones, resist the idea that there is anything multi-layered about the forgiveness offered by the families of the victims of the massacre in Charleston last week. They remind me that forgiveness is about letting go of things so you won’t be burdened by them, a psycho-spiritual approach popularized by Lewis Smedes in his book “Forgive and Forget,” a book I have recommended and handed along to many people.
One of the things on my mind is how disconnected our experiences as white people can be from those of others. I think it’s harder to ask people to apply that to massive, longstanding cultural wrongs.
And for white liberals of a certain age, this is a horrible time of reckoning as they – well, honestly, we – realize the dreams we had for a better more equal world, and the work they or their parents did in the 1950s and 60s was a drop in the bucket. I’m a little younger and better in tune with wider conversations about race, yet I am still having to tell the voice in my head that says “But really, things are better!” to shut up.
It’s not just that there is still a ways to go. It’s that we congratulated ourselves for making the three-point turn to get out of the driveway and never went further, and now we’ve backed down the street into eroding the Voting Rights Act and allowing police brutality instead of putting the car in Drive and actually making a difference.
We have been in denial, and especially for those of us who came up through religious communities, and maybe even had relationships with churches of not primarily the same racial makeup, or glad-handed or even genuinely welcomed the non-white visitors who stopped into our churches, we’re finally looking at how much more needs to be done. It’s uncomfortable, and we resist it, and we can’t figure out how to be allies and thought we already were. No excuses, just noting that there is a lot of reckoning occurring here.
I hate like hell that it took a shooting in a church to bring us to this moment – both because I hate that it happened in a church, and because I hate that putting the spotlight on “respectable” victims makes it more likely that white people will have to face the truth. It seems like we have had plenty of chances already.
And this is not the problem of our friends in the Black church or in the more secular anti-racism movement. This is *our* problem. We need to listen and hear the truth and figure out how we are going to help make the change. We are complicit in it, and we need to suck up our disappointment, listen to other people’s stories, and stop telling them they are wrong about the White church simply because we’ve never seen anyone be discriminatory or spoken or heard anything terrible from our own pulpits.
I don’t want to hear that I am forgiven for these things; I flinch at the notion, although I need forgiveness for the ways I am part of the problem.
Let me, let us, sort that out with God. And Lord, my Lord, help me to see the ways I can make a difference.
I grew up in a house in which hung a print of “The Last Meeting of Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson Before the Battle of Chancellorsville” (engraved by Frederick Halpin, after Everett Julio), that classic emblem of the Lost Cause. This was common then in my neighborhood in Old Town Portsmouth, Virginia. My father, a Civil War buff who would tell me about the battles as we drove around Virginia, never indicated that the cause was just, but honored both men as soldiers, tacticians, human beings, Virginians. Yet in his political life he angered people including his own political party, to the point of death threats, by his political stands against the institutionally-protected racism of Massive Resistance.
I’m not sure how to reconcile these things.
I still have the print, no longer hanging anywhere, but I don’t quite know what to do with it. I don’t want to send it out into the world, nor do I want to destroy it, simply because it reminds me of my dad. Let me be clear; he was a soft-spoken intellectual, not a gun-toting guy with a truck bearing Confederate flag decals. I told you, in his time, he was considered radical in his politics. Well, radical for Virginia.
Yet, we have this heritage, this culture of remembrance of the men who gave their gifts to what was in every way the wrong side of a terrible war, evil as war always tends to be and doubly evil in pitting, as I learned in school, brother against brother, and even brother against sister in the case of the Jackson family, and ultimately evil in the lies people told themselves and the world about the reasons, praising chivalry and states’ rights, denying that the profit to be found in owning other people and considering them to be less than human drove the cause so rightly lost.
Somewhere among my books is a large pictorial biography of General Lee, awarded to me for outstanding work in Social Studies in the 5th grade at an Episcopal girls’ school, St. Agnes, in Alexandria, Virginia. It was presented by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. What about the stack of Lenox commemorative dinner plates sold in the 1970s to fundraise for the restoration of the White House of the Confederacy? I never saw them used, never knew they existed until after my parents were dead. I can picture him writing a check for the sake of historical preservation.
Is it defensible because we should not forget?
Can we remember without glorifying?
What to do with these things?
As a child, I remember sitting on the rug, playing with a figure of Lee seated on his horse, Traveller. That at least is long gone.
I am not the only one who doesn’t know what to do with all the things that carry the taint of revolution and racism. I don’t want to get rid of them and thereby circulate them.
I do know what *not* to do with them, not to celebrate them, not to display them in our homes or our cars or our public monuments, not to imbue them with some holy power.
Lucy is babysitting about a six-minute drive from our house, for a family living on the hill that looks out toward the Upper Allen ball fields and beyond, a place where you can see the storms coming in from the West. As I felt a storm building up last week, I hoped her employer would be home soon, and sure enough a text came saying she was on her way. I hurried over to their neighborhood to get Lucy, watching the sky get darker and feeling the thunder rumble across the valley.
And on the way home we saw the jagged brilliance of lightning, close to home.
It’s happened to me. Well, not actual meteorological lightning. Sometimes it comes in words we read, or a song we hear, or in prayer, or in conversation, or in the touch of a hand.
Sometimes the shocks are more palpable. This past week the house where Lucy babysits was hit by a car missing a turn in a middle of the night rainstorm. A few days before that, a Little League mom we know died in a car accident in the same neighborhood.
Suddenly the world is changed, illuminated, as full of electricity as a bolt of lightning.
That moment when you realize you can’t stay ahead of the storm.
It was a dark and stormy night at the end of a long, tiring day. In these first chapters of Mark’s gospel, Jesus draws more and more attention to himself. First he creates a stir in the synagogue in Capernaum. Then he heals people: Peter’s mother-in-law, a man with a withered hand, a leper, a paralytic. He casts out demons. He argues with the Pharisees and even the disciples of John the Baptist about fasting. He flouts the Sabbath laws.
At the end of Chapter 3, his family comes to take him home, fearing he is possessed by demons. He rejects them and claims a new family, those who do the will of God.
At the beginning of chapter 4 of Mark’s gospel finds Jesus teaching a crowd so large that he gets into a boat and teaches from the Sea of Galilee. People are following him. In today’s lesson we read that other boats were with him, so we can picture a scene with crowds on the shore and boats gathered around, everyone listening to the man who has done such amazing things.
They must wonder what will happen next?
After a long day of trying to teach the people through parables, Jesus withdraws with his disciples. And the other boats follow. Exhausted, he goes to the back of the boat and falls asleep.
And that’s when the storm comes. Maybe the disciples see they can’t get ahead of it. Certainly the waves break up and into the boat, because they are swamped. The wind and the waves may have been enough, but I have to think the next moment that came was electrifying.
That moment when the storm is upon you.
His middle name is Storm, not a name his parents gave him, but a name he chose, calling himself Dylann Storm Roof. He walked through the door of Emanuel AME Church last Wednesday evening and asked to see the pastor. He was invited to join with the Bible Study, and sat with them for almost an hour, before the storm of violence would break. They were pastors, teachers, a librarian, a young man, an elderly lady, a coach, a recent college graduate, the faithful among the faithful who stayed after a long meeting to have a regularly-scheduled Bible Study.
Together they read verses from the Parable of the Sower found earlier in Mark, Chapter 4:
“Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.”
I’ve thought a lot this week about the group of people who used to meet with me on Wednesday evenings, in my upstairs study at the first church I served, seven or eight of them each week: two nursery school teachers, a member of the Air National Guard, a young woman who grew up in the church, a mechanic, a retiree, a medical devices salesman. What would they have done, what would we have done, if a stranger had appeared and asked for the pastor, as Roof did on Wednesday night? Would we have invited him in? Knowing that particular group of faithful people, yes. They had a gift for welcoming people, a warmth that sometimes ended in advantage being taken, but we all agreed we would rather be kind than cynical. I feel safe in saying the race of the person coming to the door would have mattered less than the neediness of spirit.
Of course I can’t know this for certain, but isn’t that who we want to be as Christian people? It’s who the men and women gathered at Emanuel AME were.
Many of the reports and leaked quotes may turn out not to be true, but one I heard on Friday was that Dylan Storm Roof said he almost didn’t fire his weapon, because the people were so nice to him.
But he had a mission to complete.
We’ve heard that one young man stepped in front of his elderly aunt to protect her, while the other fired a weapon at people he never knew before, who were kind to him, who welcomed him.
What happened in that room will be reconstructed for the courtroom and the media, and yet we will never know fully how these faithful people responded to the violence unleashed upon them. We may hear the specifics, as we did in the Boston Marathon case, about injuries and causes of death and the order in which things happened, but we won’t know what was in the hearts of these new victims of domestic terrorism: fear, disbelief, a desire to protect those around them, an unyielding faith in Jesus Christ. We cannot know for certain what was in the heart of Dylan Storm Roof. The closest we can come is murderous anger, and the terrible sin of a cold, calculated and death-dealing act of racism and terror.
God cares that people have perished, are perishing. Do we?
That moment when you realize who was sleeping in the back of the boat all along.
“Peace! Be still!”
Once he’s awake, Jesus solves the problem of the storm, but the disciples are still afraid. And who wouldn’t be? After all, what do they really know about Jesus? They’re still fairly new to each other. They know he’s smart. He can out-argue the scribes and Pharisees. They know he’s gifted. He can heal the sick of all sorts of ailments. They know he’s committed to his purpose. Even the arrival of his family does not deter him. He is breaking all the accustomed boundaries. He assures them they are his new family, if they do God’s will.
And he is sleeping through the storm, so they plead with him to do something.
“He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.”
He scared them more than the storm did. “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
No wonder they were frightened. It’s a lot to take in. Their teacher wasn’t just a religious revolutionary. He wasn’t simply a shaman with a good sense of timing. The disciples begged Jesus to wake up and save them, so they must have believed he could do something. Sail the boat better than they could? Keep them safe from life-changing lightning and the heart of the storm?
Instead he showed them his real power.
Who then was this? This Jesus was God.
That moment when you realize God is in the boat with you.
I wish I could say the disciples had a lightning bolt moment in the boat that day.
I wish I could say that from that moment forward the disciples understood Jesus completely, and that they then collected stories and writings that made him perfectly easy for us to understand today.
I’m afraid we know better. The gospel has forever been subject to human interpretation. Some read it and see a list of rules that shut people out; others read it and see a savior who invited people in, if they were willing to come.
Sometimes opening the door sounds easy, but more often it challenges our sense of who we are and even our sense of safety. It has to be true that in many African-American churches today, worshippers will look around carefully to see who is unfamiliar. Some have called for security to be put into place after bomb threats.
But our strength does not come from guards or guns. Our strength comes from Jesus, whose power is God’s power. It is the power of embrace, of love, of mercy, of forgiveness. Above all, it is the power of grace, God’s desire to be in relationship with us, a desire so deep and real that God lived into it, literally, in the human body of Jesus.
We are deeply tied by that desire for relationship, tied to other people who live in that relationship with God, and tied to all the people God loves. The color of their skin means nothing. We are all in the boat with Jesus. I wonder when we will let him quiet the storm instead of stirring it up ourselves. I wonder when we will let him still the thunder instead of throwing each other overboard.
Why are we afraid? Have we still no faith? The wind and the sea obeyed. When will we?
That moment when we all finally believe it.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.