“Mercy, have mercy on me!”

Proper 25B, October 25, 2015 – by The Rev. Linda Goertz

 “Mercy, have mercy on me!”

Sometimes it feels like life just pummels us, simply squeezes every ounce of stamina, joy, and hope, right out of us.  Sometimes it’s huge — a hurricane, earthquake or flood; the warfare and chaos that Syrian refugees are fleeing; Job reeling from one disaster after another.  Sometimes it’s simply the drip, drip, drip of nothing going right day after day, a constant critic, an aching emptiness, a dull, tired hopelessness.

We cry out in pain, “Why is this happening to me?”  Where is goodness in all this?  Where can I find relief?  Is that Good News ever going to come?

We ask this at times in our own lives, the lives of those we love, and the lives of others we see suffering all around us.  How I wish I had some easy answers or tidy explanations for all of us.  But I don’t.

Job’s so-called comforters and friends thought they had answers: he must have sinned, they said; he needs to confess his wrongdoing; this is all to teach him some lesson; God needed another angel in heaven, and on and on.  Some people think – and unfortunately proclaim to the world — that natural disasters or illnesses are punishment for this or that sin.  Some people even feel they deserve bad things – and that’s a sad and terrible – and untrue – burden to carry.

What’s worse, some of us don’t even think we have a right to cry out about it.  “Oh, it’s not THAT bad; others have it worse; who am I to complain; God — or my family or my country — expects me to suck it up, be brave, suffer silently.”

How I love Bartimaeus!  He’s brave enough to actually put it all out there.  There he is, begging at the gate, knowing that every passerby believes – assumes! – that he’s got something really ugly and WRONG inside him: why else would he have been afflicted with blindness?  He must deserve it.  Bartimaeus gets this every single day, over and over, and yet he still can hear the news that Jesus is near.  The faith that’s somehow managed to stay and grow inside him is the thing that helps him see his chance to meet Jesus.

And he starts yelling.  Savior Messiah Rescuer save me!  Have mercy on me!  I’m in misery and I need help!  And all the Nervous Nellies around him, the “good” citizens who would rather die than make a fuss and who are just so EMBARRASSED on Bartimaeus’ behalf – they all try to shush him but he just keeps on calling out, Have mercy, have mercy, have mercy.

That’s what Jesus pays attention to – the absolute truth of just where we are.  If we are drowning, if our world is ending, if we are in bitter anguish, do you think God doesn’t want to hear that?  Doesn’t want to be with, to suffer with us?

Isn’t that what Job, too, does all through that long, long book of his?  God, speak to me!  Help me know!  I’m suffering.  And God DOES speak to Job, does show him something so profound and mighty that Job has no words for it, only a deep yielding to that mystery.

Many of us struggle with Job’s yielding – why is it enough that God’s immensity is revealed?  Why are there no answers given?  Is Job giving up, or did something beyond explanation, beyond words, happen when Job was face to face with God?  All you can tell is that everything has changed.

Everything changes for Bartimaeus too; Jesus hears his heartfelt cry and stands stock-still, invites him close, asks him face to face, what do you want?  Let me see, says Bartimaeus.  Let me see, said Job.  Let us see you.  Let us know with the clarity of light that you are here, that you are WITH us.

And that part-hope, part-belief, part-insane and painful honesty is what transforms and heals Bartimaeus and Job and us and, please God, somehow, some way, our shattered, grieving, world.  Heals us so that we can finally see the Holy One before us, inviting us to follow.

“Following” means that we may need to begin crying out again over new ills and pains – the ones we can finally see in the world.  We’re going to be called to demand light and healing for others.  We’ll have to unseal our silences, stand before the gates of power, wherever they are, and demand justice, demand an end to violence and oppression and manipulation.  Because once we start following the Healer, we are on that mission.  And it will – He will — transform us.

Now this is the moment where, for the past several Sundays, we’ve had someone from the congregation share words about stewardship.  But that isn’t happening today – even though next Sunday is when all our financial pledges are being gathered in.  I’m not going to talk about the money you could be giving for the sake of the budget.  I’m especially not going to be one of Job’s dubious friends who might assure you that if you give sufficient money, you will receive Special Blessings from God personally.  It doesn’t work that way.

When we follow Jesus, we are asked to give in other, more demanding ways.  No-longer-blind Bartimaeus may have had a few surprises ahead as he followed Jesus.  It turns out that we’re going to be asked – by God’s own self, in God’s own way – to give of our true selves in concrete and possibly even tedious ways, to shout out for mercy for others and then to deal with the consequences of those demands for mercy.  We’re going to be asked to wash other people’s dirty dishes and to pay attention to the quiet person who doesn’t know how to cry for mercy herself yet; asked to sit with someone who doesn’t smell very good and is confused; to faithfully attend government meetings that go on too long and maybe accomplish only a tiny bit of good, or even none, and church meetings that are much the same.  To cook a meal for the shut-in who’s not very rewarding to visit; to listen with the ear of the heart to the complainer; to get up a little early when we just want to sleep in to make the coffee that welcomes the newcomer.  We’re asked to visit the prisoners, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, AND stay late to lock the doors in the building.  Because sometimes – sometimes —that’s what mercy looks like.  That’s what healing looks like.  That’s what giving really looks like.

Yes, let’s give money as we are able, so the good work can keep on growing.  But don’t let’s stop there and call it good.  Let’s give ourselves.  Amen.

Proper 14B, August 9, 2015 – The Rev. Linda Goertz

Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

Being hungry, even for a day, is mighty unpleasant.  I know when I’m really hungry, I can’t even think straight.  Sometimes, when we’re hungry for things other than food, we make even less sense.  The Old Testament story for today is about a violent and painful mess that comes from being hungry for the wrong things – the story of Absalom.

Absalom isn’t the sole creator of his mess, of course; he was born into it.  His father David’s first six sons have six different mothers – and not all of those women, I suspect, were completely willing partners.  David used people.  When David’s sons are grown, Absalom’s oldest half-brother, Amnon, rapes and then abandons Absalom’s sister Tamar, shaming her, ruining her life.

Absalom finds revenge for his sister; he broods and plans for two years, but finally he traps Amnon and has him killed.

After the murder, Absalom flees.  He comes back three years later, but his father still won’t see him; so he just hangs around and lets his resentments fester.  Pretty soon, a plan emerges, which I’ll paraphrase as, Dad won’t love me, but I’ll get everyone else in Israel to love me and THEN he’ll be sorry!

So first he lets himself be seen and talked about – kind of like a politician or rock star.  He even makes a public spectacle out of his yearly haircut.  Oh my, he’ll say, giving his head a Miss-Piggy sort of toss, my luxurious hair is getting so HEAVY, I simply must have it cut.  And when it’s cut, he has the trimmings WEIGHED .  (Because apparently, having a whole lot of hair is politically cool.)  The point is, he’s gorgeous and people are fascinated with him.

But two more years go by and King David still won’t pay attention to him.  Absalom asks for help from Joab, the general of David’s army, but Joab ignores him — twice.  We’ll see about that! says Absalom, and has his people burn down Joab’s barley field.  (Not really a clever move, making the army general your enemy.)  Joab does intervene, and David finally forgives Absalom.

But Absalom isn’t content.  Old wrongs are still going around and around in his head and he’s still hungry – for who knows what.

So he starts hanging out at the crossroads with his chariot and horses and royal garb and just being gosh-darned SINCERE with every passer-by.  Nobody listens to you, he says to each of them, except ME.  “If only I were judge in the land!”  The text reads, “so Absalom stole the hearts of the people of Israel” – the people who had their own hungers for security and attention.

There’s more plotting, more conspiracies, and finally Absalom gathers an army.  David flees for a time, but readies his own army.  David’s parting command to them as they march against his son is, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.”  Somehow, despite all Absalom’s posturing, deceit, ego and malice, David still sees the son he loves.  If only Absalom did.

You know the end: the battle rages, 20,000 men are slaughtered.  Absalom is galloping through an oak grove and forgets to duck.  His head gets caught fast in oak branches, and he’s left hanging “between heaven and earth,” while his mule runs from under him.  What a terrible image.  Our rage and revenge and sickened hungers eventually get us so stuck that we hang between heaven and earth, vulnerable and alone.

The soldiers remember David’s command, so they don’t kill Absalom, but Joab – possibly remembering his barley field burnt to a crisp – plunges three spears into Absalom and lets his own “special squad” finish him off.

When David hears that Absalom is dead, he goes up to his chamber, weeping, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom!  Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

This is one of those moments where, despite all his misdeeds, David shows his truest self.  Broken and flawed as he is – and as wretched and conniving and twisted as Absalom had become – David loves Absalom with a father’s love.  In this moment of profound grief, he wishes he could have died in Absalom’s place.  Frederick Buechner says, “If he could have given his own life to make the boy alive again, he would have given it.  But even a king can’t do things like that.  As later history was to prove, it takes the King himself.”

So let’s come back, finally, to our Gospel passage.  The Good News about the kingdom of Jesus is that Jesus’s love for us is far beyond that of an ally or a friend or even an earthly father.

Jesus, even knowing who we are and what we’re like, loves us with his whole self, his full, incarnated being — and that love is the deep, truly-satisfying love that’s like bread to the starving.

We, like Absalom, may feel famished in the midst of a tortured and empty landscape; at the worst of times we hang helpless between our ambitions and our desires, and we despair.  And in that achingly vulnerable place, are we met with holy rules or conditions or tepid toleration?  No, no, no.  Listen to what Jesus says here:

“…anyone who comes to me, I will never drive away.”  It makes me terribly sad when I see and hear people who think they speak for God, but whose words and actions drive away hungry souls like you and me.  Those folks imagine there’s some necessary standard of purity that they’re living up to but others aren’t.

I know I’m not meeting any purity standard.  I’m dangling from that oak tree along with everyone else, all-too-aware of how I bring myself and others pain, how I get myself into messes and how I’m so not in control of fixing myself or others.

Yet into that very emptiness and pain comes Jesus.  Jesus, whose freely-given life is living bread to the starving, the source of life and restoration we’ve been longing for all our lives.  Jesus, who will never drive us away.  Jesus, who says, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Whoever believes in me. . . Let me end with a word about believing.  In our 21st-century worldview, we think of “believing” as a mental operation: we weigh facts, discard untruths, and enter into agreement with an intellectual conclusion.  That contemporary understanding makes it hard to approach the ancient outlook of metaphors, stories and relationships.

My concordance tells me that the word translated as “believe” here was more like our word “trust” or “entrust.”  Jesus is asking for us to trust him — not by ignoring the evidence of our senses and intellect, but by coming to know him so well that we can rely on what he offers us.

Jesus doesn’t ask us to sign a letter of agreement filled with theological terms.  Jesus simply OFFERS himself as living bread – here at this table this morning and every day — and asks us to feed on his unending love.  May we always say yes to this gift.  Amen.

Palm Sunday 2015

“If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'”

Theatre was cathartic for the ancient Greeks. Tragedy was a very public way to gather everyone in the whole village together in the same holding space to collectively witness some of the darkest, most gruesome realities of the human condition and grieve together out loud. When a citizen went to the public theatre she may have wept, she may have recognized something from her own life on the stage, she may have fought against shock and horror. She may have witnessed the story of a family go horribly, pathologically wrong. She may have witnessed the story of a soldier whose time at war left him enraged and suicidal. The most important thing for the citizen, however, was that she was not left to bear through all these difficult emotions alone. Her neighbors were beside her weeping also. When a citizen went to the public theatre he was released from the isolation of shutting all the dark terrible secrets which come part and parcel with fragile flesh and fickle blood behind some locked door in the back corner of his heart. When a citizen went to the public theatre, the power of truth in community transformed her by giving her back to belonging to a people who bore their pain together.

Thankfully this cathartic, transformative power is not relegated to ancient history. When I was working with the Veterans Administration I became familiar with an organization called Outside the Wire which brings this kind of theatre to veterans with combat-related psychological injuries. The group began by taking veterans who had been traumatized in combat, gathering them together in the same room, and performing some of the great Greek tragedies for them, like Oedipus Rex and Ajax. These ancient stories of trauma and violence and self-harm were immediately recognizable to the combat veterans. After each performance or reading, the group guides the audience in a discussion of their personal reactions, memories, connections. The group also provides sources of support for the veterans, community resources for counseling, some new perspectives for examining their trauma. Now, Outside the Wire has extended their mission to other populations as well, they’ve performed inside of prisons, for homeless folks, for survivors of domestic abuse. With each group they’ve found the same to be true: that wherever folks can come together to collectively see the trauma of their daily lives mirrored back to them, healing can occur.

Of course, our own people know something of this truth. Every year at about the same time each year for the past two thousand or so, we gather where we are and act out the same old grim charade which was first committed against the one we strive to love above all others, the one who first loved us into being. Every year we come together, all over the world, to tell the story of how the one who’s always teaching us -always confusing us with some parable or embarrassing us with some public confrontation- was suddenly the victim of a confusing, embarrassing, terrifying act of torture and public execution. We know something of what it is to witness the darkest parts of ourselves portrayed in the public square. The part of ourself which runs away when the going gets tough. The part of ourself which would gladly trade the confidence of a friend and mentor for a few quick bucks. The part of ourself which shouts, “Crucify him!” along with the rest of the crowd, one which wants to see another self-appointed upstart prophet knocked square off the platform he has created for himself. We know something of what it is to come face to face with a mirror that can reveal the worst of ourselves before it shows the best.

“Why are you doing this?” Jesus prepares his disciples for this question. He has asked them to go and find a colt that has never been ridden. This bizarre request could generate any number of questions. Why an unridden colt? Why would you want to ride some juvenile beast which hasn’t even been broken in for labor yet? The ride will be wobbly at best, perhaps veering in more than one undesirable direction. And why ours? Can’t you find your own? If you needed this couldn’t you have purchased one yourself? Why are you doing this? Jesus’ answer is simple: he needs it. He is about to create some public theatre of his own. He is about to enter the city which he knows will kill him, not under a cloak of secrecy, but in a public display of absurd humility which flies in the face of our loftiest notions about victory and triumph. He needs everyone there, he needs them to shout his name out loud, to strip the coats from off their backs, he needs them to make noise and wave their palms and dance wildly to let the whole wide city know he has arrived, that he is present. Not upon some chariot of worldly glory; but lowly, sitting on the foal of a donkey who has never seen a crowd before and is probably terrified by the noise.

Why are we doing this? Why are we gathering to tell this same old story yet again, for perhaps the one thousand nine hundred eighty fifth time? Not only that but why must we tell it in so many ways? Why hear the whole thing now only to show up on Thursday and Friday to hear the same parts hashed out yet again? Why Bach cantatas? Why the saddest hymns? Why stations of the cross, why seven last words? Why processions and prayers, why Mel Gibson, why biker shirts with outstretched bloodied arms under captions like, “He loved you this much”? Perhaps the Lord needs it. Perhaps God is as traumatized as we are. Just when our humanity had been perfected we nailed it to a tree. From the way we live our lives it seems that we have been traumatized ever since. From the way we continue to perpetuate this kind of violence against God and one another and ourselves, it would seem we are still living out the same crisis together over and over and over again. Perhaps the Lord needs us to see how much we’re hurting still, and how much he’s hurting with us. Perhaps the Lord needs us to remember this for as many times it takes, until all the crosses which remain in our world -from the cross of poverty to the cross of racial inequality to the cross of violence against women’s bodies to the cross of adolescent militiamen- until all of them have been dismantled for good.

This is not a theatre. We are not an audience. This story is not preformed by professionals. We are as juvenile as a foal that has never been ridden before. The Lord needs us, our bodies, our ears, our tears, our horror and our shock; if we give them to God, they will be returned in time, and we shall find ourselves transformed for the healing of the whole world.

What does God’s call to us look and sound like now?

Our church calendar and Sunday readings are full of stories of “call” these days, between Andrew, Peter, Nathanael and Samuel last week and with James and John this Sunday right next to the feast of Paul’s conversion, we’re hearing lots of stories of how folks first heard and listened to God, particularly God in Jesus. It can look and sound like many different things. A boy hearing voices in the night. Adults leaving their work behind to follow something else. Doubt turned to awe. A message from someone persecuted. What does that call look like in your own life? What does it sound like for St. David’s? As a fun way to get a sense for our collective response, try answering one or both of these questions in 100 words or less and paste it as a comment under “Leave a Reply” below.

“For nothing will be impossible with God”

—By Linda Goertz

Last year at Advent time, I went to an evening service at St. Paul’s in Oregon City, where they had laid out a labyrinth pattern on their parish hall floor, and we walked that path in silence.  Beforehand, each of us had received a little piece of paper with a message.  Mine, which I still have tacked up on the wall at home, said, “I want to be born in you this Christmas.”

Those words went straight to my heart that night.  It’s been decades since LeRoy and I had to face my inability to have children, but that loss is still part of who I am.  So that loving reminder that Christ longs to be carried in and birthed through each one of us was, for me, a miracle that is both old and new.

I’m astonished at Mary herself.  I don’t think she, as a young, not-yet-married woman, was saying to herself, Oh, I sure hope I get pregnant soon! – let alone, I hope a messenger from the Most High God suddenly appears before me!  The Scripture translation we have says she was “much perplexed,” but I think that must have included an element of terror; because right away the angel says, “Do not be afraid, Mary.”

Throughout the story of Jesus’s arrival in this world, angels are always telling people, “Don’t be afraid.”  They tell Mary, they tell Joseph, they tell the shepherds, “Don’t be afraid.”  Because, really, a Word from God, a message, a call from God is scary; it can sound impossible.  “How can this be?” we say along with Mary, “since I’m” . . . since I’m just ordinary me, not smart, not powerful, not someone important in the world.  Since I don’t know what to even say when hatred and violence are screaming; since I feel powerless in the face of systemic oppression; since the bad guys sometimes seem to be winning.

So the angel, the messenger from God, tells us that the Holy Spirit will come upon us, will overshadow our inadequacies and the world’s failings, with a power that’s not our own.  That nothing is impossible with God.  Nothing.

God’s desire, God’s intent for us is always healing, always a wholeness beyond our imaginings.  Not just, “We’re going to get some encouraging information from God to improve our lives,” but we will be transformed.  Mary was never the same after this – she lived out exponentially more joy and more great sorrow than the little just-betrothed Mary of Nazareth ever dreamt of.  Because God intended her to be fully herself, and she had the boldness to say YES, to say, Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.  Not according to her best imaginings and plans, but according to God.

In our Old Testament reading, King David had a plan ready, too.  He was grateful for his victories, he loved God, and he proposed creating a sign of that love and gratitude: he decided to build a temple for God.  And his trusted advisor Nathan — the prophetic Nathan who doesn’t hesitate to tell David when he’s sinning – agrees.  What a great idea, a dwelling for God; it’s so totally what good people of faith all over the world have been doing, in honor of the God who saves and guides and loves us deeply.  Build a beautiful sanctuary for God.  Right?

Not according to this story.  God tells Nathan – who then has to go tell the king, remember – God says, I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about . . . did I ever speak a word . . . saying. ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’

What we think God wants of us may not always be what God wants most for us.

Creating a place of beauty where we can come and worship God is good; I believe that God loves it when sisters and brothers come together and celebrate our joy at who God is.  I think the delight and awe we express when we prepare for a feast like Christmas, when we decorate the church and make it lovely – like some folks are going to do after church today – I think that’s a good and delightful thing to do.  But we can’t be only in this building – not while God’s own Self is moving in the world.

In the passage from Samuel, God is so emphatic: I took you from the pasture…I have been with you wherever you went…I will make for you a great name…I will appoint a place for my people…I will give you rest.  And then the biggest declaration: the Lord will make you a house.

God receives our love and our homage and our worship – but not our trying to place the Holy in a box with a roof.  God makes the dwelling place by being God.

At St. David’s, we’re going through a transition in leadership and many of us have that wild mix of feelings that comes with change.  We have new ideas and plans and hopefulness but sometimes we feel anxious enough that we really, really just want to nail things down.  Maybe we want certain things in our worship or our outreach work to change, or certain other things to stay exactly the same, or that one person on the committee to do what we want . . . we can get pretty busy building God’s house according to our own ideas.

But meanwhile, God is moving around, here, there, outside, in unexpected places.  God is sitting on the curb beside a man who smells bad, God is at a used car lot with the woman who doesn’t have enough money for even an old clunker.  God is in Syria and North Korea and Sierra Leone and Jerusalem, in downtown Portland marching and in the solitary confinement cell of a prison, and out on the mortgaged family farm and with the student whose loans are due and the teen who feels life isn’t worth living.

God is moving, and our privilege is to step outside and join God as we hear the call.  There will always be time to gather here, and we need to do that regularly, but that messenger of God – the one who tells us not to be afraid – is calling us now, calling us outside, telling us that nothing is impossible when the Holy Spirit empowers us.  So if you’re feeling a nudge, listen to it, for it may be God’s call to come outside.

And you know what we say in reply to that call, don’t you?  We say, Here am I; here we are, servants of the Lord. Let it be with us according to your word.  Amen.

What Shall I Cry?

-Sermon by Lindsay Ross-Hunt

“Grant us stillness of heart, oh God, that we might have eyes to see and ears to hear the moving of your spirit among us.  Amen.”

I want to talk this morning about waiting.  After all, Advent is supposed to be about waiting, right?  But waiting for what?  The chance to officially have permission to sing Christmas carols instead of Advent hymns?  To open that one package under the tree that has captured your attention? To gather with family and friends whom you may not always get to see?

These are all lovely things to look forward to, but they are not what we are waiting for during this season of Advent.  The waiting of Advent, as we see in this morning’s readings are not a passive “can’t wait” sort of attitude, but rather an active preparation for what is to come.  Because what is to come is beautiful.  And hard.

I was a little worried about what to preach this week.  After the ruling (or lack thereof, really) in the Eric Garner case, I saw a friend on post on Twitter, “preachers, if you didn’t preach last week on how #blacklivesmatter, you now have another chance.”  The weight of yet another situation where an unarmed black man was killed by a police officer–an agent of the state–and this time entirely on video, left me at a loss for words.  And not just a loss for words, but almost a kind of inability to even understand what I was feeling.  I felt full of emotion and yet empty at the same time.  And so I found myself asking, along with the individual in Isaiah, “What shall I cry?”  Everything I could come up with felt inadequate in the face of such injustice and pain.

To the individual in Isaiah, God says, “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breathe of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass.  The grass withers the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.”  This may seem strange comfort to us, who live in a culture where we’re told we can be and do anything–and we believe it!–and that we as individuals matter and have an impact on the world.  Being told we are like grass doesn’t seem like much comfort.

But imagine you are in exile.  Imagine your conquerers have told you your God has been defeated and is dead.  Imagine you are a stranger in a country where you are different from everyone else and where those who destroyed your home continue to endeavor to destroy your culture and identity by trying to make you more and more like them.  Where you are subject to the rules crafted by those in positions of power, not those who understand what life is like “down here.”  Perhaps, in a place like this–in a place like the Israelites in exile in Babylon, in even here in Black or Native America, these words may sound different.  Equalizing.  Because if we are all grass, then that person in power is not so powerful after all.  In fact, the only true power is the word and promise of God to bring salvation and shalom.

This is what we hope for.  This is what we wait for.

In our readings this morning, we are drawn a spectacular vision of just what this salvation of God looks like, and especially in the Psalm.  We chanted this morning, “Truly his salvation is very near to those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.  Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.  Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.”  Wow.  Did you catch that this morning?  I think this is one of the most beautiful passages in all of scripture.  “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”  And God is in the midst of it all.  God’s presence dwells in the land among God’s people.

But while this picture is beautiful poetry, it is also a profound statement on human society.  God’s shalom involves not just mercy, but truth.  And not just peace, but righteousness–or right relationships.  This is super important.  Because the absence of conflict without right relationships is empty–in fact, it may describe any number of oppressive societies throughout our history.  And mercy without truth is incomplete.  In the New Testament reading this morning, Peter says that on the day of the Lord, “the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.” Again, another reference to how the salvation of God involves transparency.

Why is that transparency so important?  Why does mercy also need truth?  We don’t like to talk much about sin anymore, it’s loaded with all sorts of theological and emotional baggage for many of us.  But in our efforts to distance ourselves from those seemingly judgmental religious systems we throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water.  We can’t escape the reality of sin in our world, and the way in which we are tangled up in it, the way we are involved and perpetrate it, the way it impacts and harms us and those we love.  This is a part of the active waiting of Advent: looking with fresh eyes at the truth that needs to be identified so that right relationships, mercy and peace can move forward.
I heard Cherokee theologian Randy Woodley, a professor just down the road at George Fox say once that, “Shalom is always tested on the margins [of society]–if it’s not working on the margins, it’s not working. Repentance is choosing to use your power for the benefit of others.”

Ten minutes on any news broadcast can tell you that it’s not working.  People are afraid.  People are dying.  People are taking to the streets all over this county desperately asking to be heard in whatever way possible, crying out all over the land for truth telling and right relationship.  For shalom.  When I heard the text in Isaiah say, “God will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep,” I couldn’t help but think of the countless images of these heartbroken and outraged mothers calling for change.  Of the letters going around Facebook from one mother to another pleading for white folks to have eyes to see and ears to hear . . .

Isaiah’s words this morning are both words of comfort in the midst of this pain and words of challenge.  Let’s remember that to be comforted is dramatically different than being comfortable.  We are not called to be comfortable. On the contrary, as Advent people we are called to step into all the broken and messy places of this world and work towards the salvation and shalom of God.  Theologian Debra Dean Murphy says, “hope is not wishful thinking; it is risk and action and the courage to undertake both.”

So how will you wait this Advent season?  How will you, in your own way, “prepare the way of the Lord through the wilderness” and work towards the mercy, truth, righteousness and peace that is God’s promise of salvation? There is no shortage of opportunity around us.  Saint Augustine once said, “it is solved by walking.”  Let us walk together.

Awake & Listening

Preached by James for the First Sunday of Advent:

“And what I say to you I say to all: keep awake.”

This week, some of us have been trying to do a better job of listening to the voices of black people. This has less to do with how racist we may or may not consider ourselves, or how many black friends we have, and everything to do with how white people publicly engage the conversation on race. Last Monday, when a Grand Jury declined to pursue charges against the white police officer who killed an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson Missouri, the volume on a conversation about race in America which has been going on for some time was once again amplified by demonstrations of prophetic witness. We remember that the biblical prophets proclaimed their message by acts of public theatre and spectacle, taking to the streets with strange, symbolic gestures meant to disturb the routines of photobusiness-as-usual into seeing something true. This week, the prophetic witness and theatre has included box cut placards, multi-racial assemblies of attentive listeners, chanting, fire, the stoppage of traffic, a 150 mile march to the state capital of Missouri, an attempt to derail the Macy’s parade and interrupt Black Friday shopping. The voice of prophetic protest has been amplified by tweets, posts, blogs, hashtags, shares and likes, by awkward conversations over Thanksgiving dinner, on public transit with strangers en route to rallies, and in the Facebook comment threads of friends of friends.

The voices of this conversation are not only being amplified for their own sake. They are amplified, in part, as an address, at least one of the objects of which is us. They are amplified, in part, for the sake of witnessing to white people about black experience in America. Now, when we are addressed, in any kind of situation, we have a variety of responses at our disposal. Imagine two people sitting face to face in conversation. One of them is sharing a story about something that has been very painful. How do we know that the other one listening? There are certain signals we might pick up on to know that the listener is engaged. She might lean in, she might nod her head, at certain points she might repeat certain key phrases, or ask clarifying questions. All of these cues send the message of being heard and supported. Similarly, we’d know if the listener was disengaged. Her eyes might be cast down to the floor, her arms crossed, her comments disconnected or dismissive. She might simply be silent. From her cues we might think that the listener feels defensive, uncomfortable, attacked, or ill-equipped to respond.

If we magnify these dynamics to the public sphere, we’ll note that we’ve seen signs of both engaged listening and willful disengagement in the past week. We’ve seen police embracing protesters and we’ve seen police lined up in a barricade to prevent peaceful assembly in public arenas. We’ve seen folks complaining about having their shopping interrupted by peaceful protest and we’ve seen mall employees leaving their work behind to join in. We’ve seen white folk wade into conversations that make them uncomfortable, we’ve seen white folk get defensive, and we’ve seen white folk silent out of fear or dis-ease or a sense of this not being a conversation they’re a part of. We’ve seen white folk with their eyes down to the floor while their black brothers and sisters speak about their pain.

When faced with the voice of witness, and complaint, and pain, the way we choose to engage matters to our life in God. Isaiah does not cry to God this morning for immediate peace or silent presence. Isaiah calls on a God who can turn the world upside down. Isaiah calls on God to rend the heavens, topple mountains, and rouse fire strong enough to boil the sea. Similarly, we spend lifetimes of worship singing to a God whom we wish would draw nearer to us, whom we wish would speak more clearly in our midst. Yet what do we do when God does speak? How do we respond when God’s word unsettles us, strips us of our comforts, or shows us a truth about our lives that we’d rather not see? When God speaks of pain in the world, of systems that stifle some lives while rewarding others, do our bodies lean in to hear more, or do our eyes drop to the floor? Is our posture towards God defensive or engaged?

For a long time we’ve been used to hearing the story of black lives in America as one of Exodus. We’ve heard of black history as one of breaking free from systems of slavery and legally sanctioned segregation in the same way the Hebrew people were delivered out of Egypt. I wonder if this is the narrative some white people have in mind when I hear questions about what more black people could want having already come through the victories of abolition and desegregation. While I can imagine a great many other things that black people may want to be delivered of, it also seems to me that the conversation at hand is not only about Exodus, but also about apocalypse and eschatology. Apocalypse is a word of Greek roots which speak of uncovering that which has been hidden, eschatology is speech about the end of the world as we know it. The current conversation about race in America is apocalyptic in the way it uncovers a reality which can too easily remain hidden: incarceration rates for black men which are triple the national average and disproportionate to the rates of black crime, prosecution of drug-related charges which are disproportionate to the rates of black drug traffic, and story after personal story of experience of racial profiling by those in authority. In apocalyptic speech, veils are lifted revealing greater, clearer realities beneath the business-as-usual we’ve been conducting. In the unveiling, God’s power is disclosed, and God’s preference for the disadvantaged is made clear. In eschatology, we hear of the end of our world and the beginning of God’s. In black voices, we hear a hope of ending one world in which empowered black bodies inspire dismissive suspicion, and the beginning of a new one where they inspire solidarity and respect.

Jesus has one word of advice for apocalyptic end times: keep watch. It makes a certain kind of sense. When the familiar world we’ve known changes, when the curtain is pulled aside to reveal ugly truths and patterns of privilege which can only pass away in the light of God, when the things that have made us strong in the past are shown to be weaknesses, vigilance is key. Keeping watch as if the lives around us depended on it is key for learning the new patterns of power and leadership in the kingdom of God now dawning among us. The opposite of keeping watch is sleepy satisfaction. When we get accustomed to a world that keeps us comfortable we risk blindness to a new way which is being revealed. I want to leave you with one practice for keeping watch this week: talk with someone different from you about race in America. Maybe the difference is between white and black. Maybe it’s the difference of thinking race is an issue worth protesting and thinking that it’s not our argument to enter. Maybe it’s a difference of opinion about how to best proceed. Whatever the difference, engage the conversation fully, and in person. It may be that you find yourself up against something uncomfortable, something difficult to articulate, something painful. It may be that you have the opportunity to uncross your arms, lift your eyes up from the floor, and lean in closer to listen for more. If you do, you will find yourself nearer to the God who comes to dwell among all of us, the advent of justice and true peace.