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Second Sunday of Advent, December 7, 2014 | 8:00, 9:30, and 11:00 a.m.
Seeing the Light
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Psalm 85:1–2, 8–13
Repentance is not passive waiting but active expectancy characterized by the alignment of one’s whole being with what God is doing in the world.
Richard D. N. Dickinson
Some of the things I love about living here in the city of Chicago are the energy, the diversity, the constant activity, the hustle and bustle I see all around. I enjoy being a part of the city. One thing I do miss, though, about living in the mountains is the ability to really see the night sky. On clear evenings in North Carolina, we would often pull up into our driveway, get out of the car, and just look up—look up at all the stars reflecting their brilliance back to us.
Thinking about those mountain night skies made me reflect on a conversation I once had with my father. At the end of one November, he and my mother drove from central Texas up to southern Oklahoma to see family. But since they had a late start, they did not make it into the emptiness of that red clay land until around 9:00 p.m. As they drove along, my father told me, they became startled by the sight of all the bright stars dominating the sky. My parents had not realized how long it had been since the last time they sat surrounded by the beauty of a deep, dark night punctuated by the brilliance of stars. Until they saw it, they had not known they were missing it. “It is interesting,” my father reflected with me later, “we spend so much of our time avoiding the darkness. And yet the only way your mother and I could see the brilliant light of those stars was precisely because of that darkness, not in spite of it.”
His reflection made me wonder—was that part of the reasoning behind all of those people who streamed out into the wilderness to hear John the Baptist preach? The Gospel of Mark reports it plainly. He claims people from the whole Judean countryside and all of Jerusalem headed out to hear John. Women and men and children, from places like Lebanon and Israel, Syria and Jordan. All of them purposefully converged on the dry wilderness land, the land of un-creation, the place far away from artificial lights and big booming cities.
But why? Why were they going to the place people usually steered clear of? Might they have felt compelled to go because they realized they had avoided the wilderness and the darkness for too long and that might have affected their ability to perceive the light? Did they go because they had grown weary of the way things were in their artificially lit, artificially happy, artificially “just fine” lives? What drove all of those people to leave behind the familiarity and safety of the hustle and bustle of their cities, to travel along dusty paths into the dark wilderness land, that place people usually avoided, the space of emptiness? What did they hope to see? What did they hope to hear as they purposefully went to be in a space they normally did not choose to be? What did they long for?
I have held those questions in my imagination this week as the news has continued to unfold, as more protests calling for deeper conversations about justice shut down more streets, as the refrain of “I can’t breathe” has resounded with such power that both the President and the Republican Speaker of the House have proclaimed Garner’s death a serious tragedy, and Speaker Boehner has opened the possibility of congressional hearings to investigate it.
With those events swirling all around in our world, I have wondered if those people in Jerusalem and all of Judea might have felt the way I have been feeling, perhaps how you have been feeling: desperate, starving, thirsting to hear a word from the Lord that might speak the gospel truth of life amid so much pain—so much so that they were willing to leave behind all that was comfortable, all that they knew, all that made them feel safe, in order to go out into a strange space, a space that felt like chaos, a space that challenged their vision, a space they usually avoided. Was that why they went to hear John preach?
That desperation, that sense of starving and thirsting for a word from the Lord, is why I am planning on going to our neighborhood faith communities’ protest this afternoon, joining with folks from Chicago Sinai Congregation, Holy Name Cathedral, St. James Cathedral, and others. You may or may not approve of it. You may or may not feel called to participate. Those decisions are up to you. But for me, today, I feel it is something I need to do even though I am anxious about it. You see, I am not a protestor. It is not my normal way of going through life. So for me, going to a protest, especially knowing full well some of you will disagree with it, is a decision to purposefully put myself into a strange space, a space that might feel like chaos, a space I hope will challenge my vision, a space I usually avoid. I am going because I wonder if that is the kind of space I need to occupy for a while in order to hear a word from the Lord, a word that might speak the gospel truth of life amid so much pain.
Let me state the obvious: as a white woman, I will never know what it is like to be a person of color in this country. And while I can empathize, I cannot understand the mistrust of the system. I have never had to have it, and I never will. But my lack of understanding does not mean the reality of people of color is not real. That does not mean I get to discount their experience as somehow exaggerated or not true. I don’t get to do that. So I’ve been wondering if I need to stand in a space where I have to admit those things and own them and let my physical presence be a testimony that something has to change and the status quo of “I can’t breathe” can no longer be acceptable. So given all that, I sure hope I would have been one who joined in with that crowd of people from Jerusalem and all of Judea who headed out from what was familiar, comfortable, safe, into the wilderness space, a space they usually did not choose to go, in the hopes of hearing a word from the Lord. Perhaps you would have joined in too.
I imagine our former Pastor Harrison Ray Anderson would have come along. During World War II, after a group of Japanese American Christians lost their place of worship and restrictions were placed on their gatherings, he led the effort here at Fourth Church to open our doors for them. He was a World War I veteran, a strong patriot, and knew that kind of decision would not be without controversy. He was right. I have read accounts of that Session meeting. But he must have also known that this congregation needed to step into that unknown, unfamiliar space in order to hear and live a word from the Lord—a word that would speak the gospel truth of life amid so much pain. I bet Dr. Anderson would have traveled with all of those people out to hear John preach.
It is a decision the Reverend Russell Moore might have made as well. Reverend Moore is a white Southern Baptist evangelical pastor from Mississippi and head of the Religious Ethics and Civil Liberties Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He is someone whose theology is usually about as different from mine as you can get. But from what he has written, it seems to me he is also feeling called to make a trip into the wilderness, into unfamiliar terrain, into emotional places he usually avoids.
He wrote this week about the decision in Garner’s death:
I’m stunned speechless by this news. We may not agree in this country on every particular case and situation, but it’s high time we start listening to our African American brothers and sisters in this country when they tell us they are experiencing a problem. For those of us in Christ, we need to recognize that when one part of the Body of Christ hurts, the whole Body of Christ hurts. It’s time for us in Christian churches to not just talk about the gospel but live out the gospel by tearing down these dividing walls not only by learning and listening to one another but also by standing up and speaking out for one another. (http://bit.ly/13gSHKI)
I imagine Reverend Moore would have joined in the crowd of all those in Jerusalem and from all Judea who streamed out to hear John preach.
But do you know what they all heard once they arrived? It might not have been the word from the Lord they hoped for. For it was not a word of immediate comfort or peace. It was not a word that said, “Hush, just hush, it’s all going to be OK. Just hold hands and sing ‘Kum ba Yah.’” Rather, when all those people got out into that uncomfortable space of the unfamiliar, out into that place that felt like chaos, out into the physical and emotional terrain they typically avoided, they heard John call out, “Repent.” Repent.
The word from the Lord on John’s lips as he stood out in that barren wilderness was a word about repentance, about changing, about turning from the way we have been into the way we can be. That is what the word repent means: to turn, to change one’s mind or purpose. John told all of the people who decided to follow his voice out from the places of security and familiar, into the place of discomfort and strangeness, that guess what: It was time for a new day. It was time to learn a new way or to reclaim God’s way of being human together. It was time to get ready because the Lord was coming and things were about to change forever. John’s message was confess, receive forgiveness, repent, turn, change your direction, change your purpose, be baptized into newness. Get ready. Prepare for the reign of God that is on the way, that will be set loose in this world through Emmanuel.
And though the verb repent certainly carries its own tired baggage for us, I cannot help but think this is precisely what all those people from Jerusalem and all of Judea wanted to hear, needed to hear, even if they did not realize it at first. After they got over the shock of being told they needed to change; after they wrestled with John’s call to be honest about the ways they kept falling short; his invitation to admit to themselves and each other the myriad of ways they were complicit with broken systems of being and doing; after they moved beyond feeling defensive or attacked because someone else’s viewpoint was drastically different than their own and they just could not understand it; after they moved through all of that—surely, surely his invitation to repent started to feel life giving. Surely it felt like really good news to hear the promise they did not have to stay stuck; to hear the promise that God loved who they were, absolutely, but God also loved them too much to just let them stay who they were as a broken people. God dreamed of more for them than just that. Surely it slaked their thirst to realize they could finally stop running away from the wilderness, the unfamiliar and uncomfortable terrain of emotions and questions they typically avoided. I wonder if when John told them it was time to stop anesthetizing themselves against their own pain, or the pain of others, or the pain of their world, they finally started to taste anew the grace and mercy of their God. They no longer had to live in such an artificially lit, artificially happy, artificially “just fine” kind of world. They could be honest about the brokenness in them and around them, and then they could open themselves up for change, for transformation, for new life. I wonder if as they stood in that uncomfortable space and heard the uncomfortable call to repent, if it started to sound like a word from the Lord—a word that spoke the gospel truth of life amid so much pain.
It is what I hope might happen throughout this spring as members of this congregation join with members of Trinity UCC’s congregation to plan and to prepare for our joint music ministry mission trip that focuses on racial reconciliation. I hope, I pray, that the kind of honesty John called for might be able to be present, even though that will certainly take a lot of time, effort, and longed-for trust. What would it be like for people from our two congregations to sit at table together and to get really honest about the brokenness in us and around us? What might happen if we are able to talk about the possibility of repentance and transformation? What might God do in that space, a space that might be unfamiliar for some, uncomfortable for others, a space around a table with folks they might not normally choose? Might that be one way to prepare for the reign of God that is and is also on the way, that has been set loose in this world through Emmanuel? Might it open space to hear a word from the Lord that speaks the gospel truth of life amid so much pain? What might God be doing in and through us as we make our way together in the hopes of seeing the Light more clearly?
I wonder. I pray. I long for it to be so.