View print-optimized version | View pdf of bulletin
First Sunday of Advent, November 30, 2014 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Wisdom: the ability to see the world as God sees it. Try reading the newspaper today through the eyes of a God who was born in a stable, counted to be of no account, hounded by society from one place to another.
Joan D. Chittister, OSB
“Hands up. Don’t shoot. United we stand. Divided we fall.” These were the cries coming from the protest that made its way up Michigan Avenue late Friday morning. And as I sat in my office with these scriptures opened before me and a blank computer screen off to my side, the drums, punctuated by the voices, alongside the occasional police siren warning sound, sure seemed like the fitting noisy background against which this sermon needed to be written.
I had been already struggling with the idea of this sermon for days. On Monday night, as I watched the grand jury decision announced on television and the reaction that followed, I could not shake the reality that Sunday was coming. But not just any Sunday—the first Sunday of Advent, and the first Sunday we would gather in this space after that press conference. As the Reverend Jan Edmiston wrote in her blog last week, if there were ever a Sunday when the preacher sure better stand in the pulpit with scripture in one hand and the newspaper in the other, this was it.
I agree, but what to say. I tried to imagine what you might be feeling. I figured some of you think the grand jury made the right decision. You trust the process. Their conclusion seems justified. And so the protests might seem unnecessary to you. My talking about it in worship also might seem unnecessary to you.
But then I also imagined others of you are utterly undone by the decision. You do not trust the process, and you have reason for your mistrust. You know the pain of the Brown family in your bones. You’ve had the “why” and “be careful” conversations with your own sons. And you get what Martin Luther King Jr. meant when he said “We’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.”
And I also figured some of you in worship this day stand in the space of confusion: confusion about how you are supposed to feel and what you are supposed to do. You trust the process of justice, but you also see and hear the pain of those who feel it failed. So you aren’t sure what comes next.
My guess is all three of these perspectives reside amongst us today in these pews. Yet somehow, as family, we are still called to be joined together, even when—especially when—conversations get hard because pain forces honesty, honesty about what is going on inside us as well as around us.
Years ago I read about a Presbyterian preacher in Georgia who came up with a symbol to use in worship of what honesty looks like. The symbol was a Christ candle that he placed on the communion table every Sunday. It was a beautiful white pillar candle that was surrounded by a holder made of barbed wire. Every Sunday, as the people gathered for worship, they would look at that Christ candle as it sat completely encircled by the rusted wire spiraling up above the flame.
And when the minister was asked why he put such drastically different things together, he replied “It’s a symbol that really spoke to me. See, the light has already come into the world, but there is still work to be done. There is still darkness between us and the light” (as told in Barbara Brown Taylor’s “With Power and Great Glory,” Gospel Medicine, p. 133). That is honest speech. It’s honest about what is going on inside of him, as well as around him.
And I imagine we understand what he meant, don’t we. We understand that kind of dissonant reality to life. And if we have forgotten, all we need to do is bring to mind one of the photographs taken in Ferguson on Monday night: I’m talking about the one that showed police officers in riot gear standing opposite protestors with signs and gas masks, all underneath the town’s “Season’s Greetings” sign lit up in red and green lights.
Like that Georgia preacher, we, too, feel our dissonant truth that the light has indeed already come into the world; yet there is still much work to be done: the work of justice, the work of empathy, the work of prophetic imagination, the work of listening, the work of naming, the work of reconciliation. As people of faith, we are charged to be honest about the truth that we still live our lives between the time of shadows and light. And this truth is precisely why this season of Advent, this season of waiting, is critically important for our faith—today as much as ever.
The coming of Advent jolts the church out of Ordinary Time so we can acknowledge more deeply the ways that we still need God’s anointed to come (John Stendahl , Christian Century, 6–19 November 2002, p 19), acknowledge more deeply the reality that we, as members of God’s family, are still waiting for God to fully inhabit all God’s promises of justice and making whole. It is the season in which we proclaim God has come into the world and is actively at work in the world but God has not finished making all things well. Advent is the season in which we say out loud to one another and to our God that we still see and know the shadows that stand in between us and the light, and we long for that day when it is no longer true.
Isaiah’s people knew about the shadows, the darkness between us and the light. Isaiah 64 was written right in the middle of that kind of dissonance. The Israelites had finally gotten permission to return home after generations of living in exile. They were finally told “yes” and sent back to the place that had held their lives. But once they arrived, they found only ruins. Their sacred space, the temple, was destroyed. Their land, the land given to their ancestors, stood desolate, broken, still bearing the scars of violence. Their hearts ruptured all over again. When would it be enough? When would their suffering ever be enough?
The prophet Isaiah must have seen the looks on their faces. He must have felt the stranglehold of powerlessness around his own throat. His people, God’s chosen people, were still reeling from the fallout of generations of oppression and now they come home to this?! To emptiness? To more destruction? After all those years of suffering—lifetimes of suffering—it made him feel the barbed wire of despair still encircled their lives, and even though they were finally home, all they could see were shadows and darkness. So out of his own anguish, as well as on behalf of the anguish of his people, the prophet decided to do what he knew to do every time he stood on the edge of despair.
He raised his voice to God with loud, honest speech, with poetic speech. Mere prose could not capture the pathos. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” he challenged God. “It is what you used to do, so why not now?” the prophet continued. “Get down here, hurry it up and set things right. Things down here are so broken, so messed up, that we, your creatures, cannot fix it. And we have tried. We have set up truth and reconciliation commissions in South Africa. We have marched on Washington and in Selma. We have passed bussing and legislation and put on diversity workshops, but we have not fixed it. We still struggle to deal fully with the fallout of generations of systemic racism, and things feel as painful and raw as ever. So hurry it up, O God; tear open the heavens and come down, because you are the only one who can make any of this right.”
As Isaiah’s people sat, encircled anew by the barbed wire of despair, seeing such great distance between where they were and the light, the prophet cried out in Advent urgency and with honest speech. He cried out to God on behalf of his people, a people who were feeling desperate from waiting so long in the darkness for God to act, a people who knew in their bones all was not well, not yet.
The disciples sitting with Jesus that day also knew things were not well. They knew about darkness and desperation. Jesus had been honest with them about what was going to happen to him. He told them about the suffering, the denials, the rejection and the death by empire. But on that particular day, he also told them that a day was coming when all the power they saw stacked around them, all the unjust systems of empire, would be destroyed.
With apocalyptic poetry—because prose cannot capture the mystery and power of God—Jesus spoke of falling stars and a darkened sun, of angels gathering God’s people, and the wide expanse of God’s grasp from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. And when the end comes, Jesus told his disciples, he would be the one to return with great power and glory. And though these words have often been proclaimed in our time with the cadence of fear, in that time, for Jesus’ disciples, for the Gospel writer Mark’s community, these words of coming again would have been promises punctuated with hope, good news, and comfort.
For Jesus was reminding them that in him God had already started what Isaiah cried out for God to do. In him God had indeed torn open the heavens and come down—but not just come down a little or halfway. In Jesus, God had made the unimaginable move to come all the way down—all the way down into a young woman’s womb, all the way down into a manger bed, all the way down to the cross, all the way down to the grave. And because God came all the way down, his disciples could see and know God did not just hold the beginning of creation in God’s hands. And God did not just hold their current day in God’s hands either. Rather, Jesus promised his disciples God even holds the end of the world, the end of all time, in God’s good hands.
And for people who find themselves weary of sitting in the shadows or who feel encircled by the barbed wire of despair or who get confused or angry about protests or who want to join in those protests fully—for people like them, for people like us, what Jesus has to say is “be not afraid” news. For that day, with his poetry of apocalypse, Jesus told his disciples God would not let the time of shadows stay loose forever. God had already begun to answer the cries of Isaiah on behalf of his people. God could and would make all systems just. God could and would destroy the barbed wire that still encircled the light, break down the barriers, and restore all creation forever. As a matter of fact, by coming all the way down in Jesus, God had already started that work. Jesus was the face of their justice and healing, and he is the face of ours, as well. God has not finished yet, and the amazing gift of that promise is we can still join in God’s work of making all things new.
And while that does not mean that somehow everything is now magically OK, Isaiah’s honesty and Jesus’ apocalyptic poetry can birth and nurture in us tough Advent hope. A hope that looks and sounds like how the fifth-century African bishop Augustine once spoke of it. He said, “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are” (Robert McAfee Brown, Spirituality and Liberation: Overcoming the Great Fallacy, p. 136).
Indeed, this is the kind of tough, resilient, honest hope expressed by Isaiah and Jesus. It is the kind of hope that will put a Christ candle into a holder of barbed wire until the day comes when that symbol no longer holds true. It is the kind of hope that calls all of us to be in here together, with the desire for honest speech, still wanting to hold on to each other as family, desperate to be tools of God’s healing work in this world.
It is the kind of hope I saw embodied in another photograph this weekend, this one taken at a protest in Portland. This picture is of a white Portland police sergeant and a twelve-year-old African American child. They are embracing, and the child has tears streaming down his face. One of his parents tells the story:
We hit the streets with the intention of spreading love and kindness, and to remind (all) people that they matter in this world. . . . I noticed [my son] was struggling. . . . He was inconsolable. . . . He trembled holding a Free Hugs sign as he bravely stood alone in front of the police barricade. Tears rushing from his eyes and soaking his sweater, he gazed upon them not knowing how they would react. After a while, one of the officers approached him and extended his hand. Their interaction was uncomfortable at first. . . . There were generic questions about his favorite subject and what he liked to do in the summer, but the one that mattered hit straight to the heart. He asked [my son] why he was crying. [My son’s] response about his concerns regarding the level of police brutality towards young black kids was met with an unexpected and seemingly authentic, “Yes, [sigh], I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” The officer then asked if he could have one of his hugs. (http://bit.ly/12hv6YQ).
God, that you would tear open the heavens and come down, Isaiah cried out. God has, Jesus promises. And God will again so hold on to that Hope with all you’ve got. For it comes from the God who came all the way down, and it will not disappoint.
While I saw the Portland photograph as one of hope, another important interpretive voice has emerged about it. You can read a different perspective here: http://bit.ly/12hv96N