We begin our Advent/Christmas worship theme:
the cries of advent and christmas.
They’re exploring this theme at Park Road in Charlotte at Park Road this season,
and at Richmond’s First Baptist Church too.
What I have in mind when I think of cries—
it’s not just about crying—weeping—tears—
though they’re certainly included,
but it’s the cries that are all the involuntary expressions
of the deep truth of the moment—
the heart cries
in moments of despair and hope, preparation and joy,
purpose and peace, promise and love,
recognition and fulfillment.
A while back I got an email
from a young minister
who asked about being honest and explicit in sermons.
She had heard from a parent who was upset—
whose children did not watch the news—
who did not want her children exposed to this, that, and the other.
And I wrote back: we walk a line, don’t we?
As a congregation, we want this to be a place of truth,
and we want this to be a place where people feel safe—
but never at the cost of turning a blind eye—
of avoiding what’s hard and painful and tragic and stupid.
The last thing I would ever want is to scare children at church—in worship.
Except that’s not most true.
The last thing I most truly want is a world so scary it scares children.
So maybe the first thing I want
is a place where we can acknowledge what’s scary
and offer comfort and reassurance—
Remember I mentioned Bruno Bettelheim’s book on fairy tales last week?
How he claims fairy tales need to be dark
because children know just how dark the world is
and need that acknowledged by those they love and trust,
so they can begin to build the resources they’ll need
to confront what’s hard.
To think children don’t know how scary things are
is to underestimate them,
and to not acknowledge what scares them
in a context of loving support
is to not serve them well.
We walk a line.
And our covenant needs to not be to avoid the line,
but to help each other negotiate it—
to be about creating and sustaining a larger context
of vulnerable honesty and the assurance of love within that.
So now I’m just going to say upfront,
we’re not going to do our marvelous texts justice today.
We’re pretty much just going to identify
what Isaiah and Mark are trying to say—
the logic of the flow of their words.
So, in Isaiah’s words of prophecy
we move from the strongly expressed prayer
that God appear as God once appeared in the stories of old—
the strongly expressed prayer for not just a word from the prophets
not just a faith affirmation—not just a sermon,
but the presence of the living God in power and glory.
Then there’s a shift from “oh if only you” language
to the “we” language of brutally honest communal confession.
We have not been faithful.
We have not been obedient.
So we have forfeited the right to our prayer and to your presence,
and yet (that’s the key phrase)—
and yet, we pray,
And we pray expectantly.
We pray hopefully.
In what’s called Mark’s little apocalypse,
we move from a cosmic, conclusive theophany—
a revelation of God in the manner Isaiah prayed for,
through two quick parables—
the first admonishing us to know the signs of our times—
to understand what’s indicated
in what we see around us,
and the second admonishing us to keep ready.
“You better watch out, you better not cry.
You better not pout, I’m telling you why:
Santa Claus is coming to town.”
And we know when.
And so you spend … what? the two months before December 25
trying to be good enough to get on the nice list?
It’s like figuring out how many weeks you need to floss
before going to the dentist.
How many days you need to watch what you eat
before having your cholesterol checked—
because you know when your appointment is.
No one knows when I’m coming, says God.
Don’t ever be naughty.
Floss every day. Eat your fruits and vegetables.
Work for justice. Love righteousness.
Walk with humility with me.
This week there have been many despairing cries to be heard.
There are every week—
cries of despair.
Cries of despair
have rung out through history.
They’re nothing new.
And there have always been those cries heard …
and all those no ear has heard:
the cries of women, the cries of of minorities,
the cries of the poor.
And for ears that hear
I believe they are cries that say something profoundly important
about who we are.
They are signs of our times.
Do we read them?
Not sure how much y’all might have read
about the publication in Rolling Stone
of the terrible events that unfolded in the upstairs room
of a fraternity house at the University of Virginia.
More of you have probably read and heard
about ongoing events in Ferguson, MO.
The problem in both cases is this:
the University and the grand jury deciding not to pursue matters
is a way of tacitly suggesting—implying—affirming—
beyond the individual circumstances at hand,
that the system’s not guilty.
And it is.
The way things are is wrong.
so we are all guilty,
because no one is innocent
when the system is guilty.
Cries of despair
have rung out through history.
They’re nothing new.
And there have always been those whose cries were heard …
and there have always been those whose cries were not heard.
God hears them all,
Is that enough to constitute a word of hope?
No, it’s not.
It’s true, I believe,
but what difference does that make to the abused child
stifling his cries with a t-shirt hiding in his closet?
What difference does it make to the objectified woman
crying out with no one believing her?
The dead black boy whose cries ring out in silence?
The homeless veteran whose cries come from terrors we sent him to see
most of us can’t begin to imagine?
If we’re not involved in making a difference—
in listening for the cries of despair in the world around us—
reaching into those closets—hearing those silences—
naming people’s desperation—
not in judgment—not in assessment,
but always and only in the memory of our own cries of despair—
speaking and working with them—
learning from them what we know not—
if we can’t do that,
we have no business saying anything to them of hope.
I try to read the signs of the times,
and offer the flow of Isaiah’s logic reworked—reworded.
Oh God, tear open the heavens.
Break through what separates us
to be both unmistakably present and unmistakably powerful
Why do we not see you?
With everything that’s so very wrong in our world and our culture,
why do we not see you?
Why does your presence
not expansively make room for love and grace
and shove small minds and small priorities to the side?
You are present in those who follow your way,
and we, too often, do not.
We participate in the ways of a world that is too much not you,
so we have no call to call on you,
and yet we do.
And yet we do—
in the hope sustained through the mess we’ve made.
My former professor—my friend, theologian, seminary president,
Molly Marshall writes: “Waiting in hope is an active spiritual practice.
It requires a fundamental trust in God’s faithfulness
and the humility to allow the mystery of God’s work to unfold over time.
Trying to force the Holy One to function now, as in prior days,
displays a desire to control God;
it also demonstrates an unwillingness to perceive God
in the surprising ways God may choose to reveal divine intention in the present.
So we act in God’s stead, trusting the guidance of the Spirit.”
So we commit to the hard work of opening our ears
to hear what no one wants to hear—
what we don’t want to hear—
the cries of despair around us.
Because if we don’t,
We are too much a country that hears only the cries of the powerful—
a country that allows elections to be bought
and politicians to be paid for—
a country so scared of corporate power
that we underwrite business costs
and write off taxes on enormous profits
and do not hold them accountable—
a country that allows the fear of losing donations
to justify compromised values—
a fearful country of the brave
that has allowed fear to justify entirely too much that is utterly beneath us—
a country that has allowed those making money on war
to wrap themselves in the language and authority of patriotism
while calling into question the patriotism of those who hold on
to the dream of who we could be.
We are a country boasting of freedom and opportunity for all,
but are truly a land of freedom and opportunity for some—
a country that speaks proudly of equality
in which inequality grows by leaps and bounds—
in which women are demeaned and objectified
in almost every other commercial—
every other movie—every other TV show—
a country that values the skills of a football player who wins on the field
over the women he treats like … spit upon objects—
a country in which a sex slave trade thrives
with I-95 serving as one of its main conduits.
We are a racist country, as we have heard not just from Ferguson and in the news,
but from our own members in our Wednesday night conversations—
so racist that there are multiple realities
many of us never suspect are even there.
We are a country that allows its children to go hungry—
to grow up without adequate resources.
We are a country that has lost the authority of its moral voice
and thinks it can make up for that in the strident volume of its rhetoric.
And I bring this up in the context of worship
not because I think God cares in what country we live in—
certainly not because God values our country more than any other.
No, I bring this up because God cares about how people live
in whatever country they do—
because public policy leads to the cries of people,
and because God’s pretty clear about God’s priorities—
one of them being not lying.
We cannot afford to lie to ourselves and others
about who and how we really are,
and not naming the silent cries amidst the proud proclamations is lying.
I can just imagine a response to this on social media (editing out the vulgarity):
“Well gosh, John, why don’t you just move back to Europe?
As if this all represents rejection of my country
rather than hope for it.
I’m mindful of the words of Desmond Tutu
in a BBC interview with Sir David Frost:
“I’ve never been an optimist.
I am a prisoner of hope, which is different.”
(that’s a reference to Zechariah 9:12, by the way!)
“I am aware as you are, and as so many of us are,
that the world grows and there’s so many awful things—
poverty, Tsunami, the awfulness’s that have happened in Sarajevo,
ethnic cleansing, Rwanda, you go on and on and on
and frequently you will say it is a real mess.
But it is important to keep remembering
that in that mess good things have happened.
And I have no doubt myself that this is a moral universe
and goodness and love and caring
are ultimately what will prevail.
Not the ghastly opposite.”
It’s the idea behind our responsive readings this season.
You read through them,
and they are initially true.
This is the truth of our world and us in it,
but then you get to God with us—God ever born to us,
and it’s not that any of it goes away,
but it unravels—or it’s inverted. It’s transformed.
We don’t always know how.
I’m not an optimist.
I see no reason to be.
I am a prisoner of hope.
I believe God makes a difference,
and I will try and live that way.
I believe the followers of God make a difference.
No one knows the moment.
And yet it’s every moment—
or it can be.
So I hope—
I hope as both spiritual discipline and practice.
I hope we are a country
in the midst of a sea change.
Who would have thought gay marriage
would be recognized where all it is now?
What a sweeping change—as if in recognition of a new reality
focused more on commitment and love than judgment.
I’m sure there will be (already are) challenges,
but we’re not going back.
Who’d have thought it?
So maybe respect—
maybe respect for the lgbtq community is coming.
And the white male majority—that’s on its way out,
will give way to a richer reality—
that will have its own demons, to be sure,
but not these with which we’ve been living far too long now.
And our children and our children’s children
will have traditions and customs and languages
brought to this country from countries all around the world,
and we will be the richer for them all.
They will have skin of so many different shades and hues
and their expectations of people’s behavior—
their sense of people’s potential—of possibility—
will not be determined by the way someone looks.
And moms and dads
will not have to teach their children a different set of rules
by which to live.
Moms and dads won’t have to warn their daughters
about the dangers of our cultural assumptions and practices.
Moms and dads won’t have to worry about their child
not getting enough to eat.
I am not an optimist.
and yet, this first Sunday of Advent,