Sermon, Advent II

Preached by the Rev. Miranda Hassett on Sunday, December 7, 2014. Here are this Sunday’s lessons. 

Good news. That’s what we’re given. That’s what we’re called to share. Good news.

From today’s Isaiah text: Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings!From today’s Gospel:  The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Good news – evangelion in Greek: Ev like the Eu in Eucharist, meaning good; Angello like the word “Angel”, meaning message or news. In Old English, evangelion becomes goodspel – meaning good story, good message. Goodspel gets shortened to Gospel, our familiar word, the word we use for the good news we’ve been given, the good news we are called to share. Good news.

Let’s look at the good news of our lessons today, the second Sunday in Advent. In Isaiah 40, the voice of the prophet consoles a people in distress: Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term.

And a few verses later: God will feed the flock like a shepherd; God will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. Good news!

But lest we forget, the prophet also reminds us: All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. Life is short, folks. We will all wither and fade, maybe sooner than we think. Good news? …

What about our Epistle today? What good news does the second letter of Peter have for us? The patience of God, who longs to give us all time to repent and live lives worthy of the Gospel. The call to live with holiness and godliness, while we await the coming of a new heaven and a new earth where righteousness is at home. Good news! Except possibly for the part about the heavens and the earth being dissolved with fire. Good news? …

And then there’s the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. World’s most concise introduction: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Jesus, the kind healer, the wise teacher, the courageous advocate: Jesus is the Son of God! God’s love incarnate among us! Good news! But Mark’s story doesn’t begin with Jesus; it begins with John, the crazy wilderness preacher. Mark doesn’t tell us much about John’s preaching, but Matthew and Luke do, and by their testimony, John had some sharp words. Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near! You brood of vipers! Who warned you flee from the wrath to come? One who is more powerful than I is coming after me. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. Change your hearts, change your lives, renounce your complicity with injustice, and then maybe you’ll be ready for the new thing that is being born. Bear fruit worthy of repentance! Good news?…

Let me point out that people had to go out of their way to hear John’s preaching. He wasn’t like the typical campus preacher who stands on a busy corner with a megaphone. His pulpit was outside Jerusalem, near the Jordan River, a muddy seasonal stream. People had to seek him out, to take the time to walk out to hear him. People had to decide that this nutcase, who dressed in ragged hides, who ate whatever he could find, including grasshoppers, that this nutcase was speaking to them, their hearts, their souls. That his extreme and challenging words were something they needed to hear. Were, maybe, somehow, good news.

Good news. Good news in the Bible is… complicated. Good news in our Christian faith is complicated. It has that man on the cross at its center –  hardly reassuring or heart-warming. This good news, this Gospel, has at its heart sacrifice, pain, and loss. The good news of Isaiah 40 encompasses coming to terms with our own limitations. The good news of 2 Peter assumes that we can anticipate with joy the the destruction of everything we know, in anticipation of a new and better everything. The good news of John the Baptist calls his hearers to dive into the swirling brown waters of the river Jordan and cleanse themselves of sin and injustice. Good news is not necessarily easy. Good news is not necessarily nice.

My son’s been playing a song on the guitar lately – Rain, by a band called Bishop Allen – and it’s been stuck in my head for the past couple of weeks: “Oh, let this rain come down and wash this world away, oh let the sky be gray, cause if it’s ever gonna get any better, it’s gotta get worse for a day.” Alan Jones, former dean of Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco, said something much the same: “Of all the choices we have to make, there is none harder than having to give up something good for the sake of something better.”

God’s good news asks something of us. Asks us to hold lightly our present certainties and comforts. Asks us to risk the known for the possibilities of the unknown. Asks us to open our eyes and ears and hearts to other voices, new visions, deeper truths and bigger hopes.

And all that… brings me to Ferguson, Missouri. To all the prayer and protest, conversation and debate, reflection and recrimination that has unfolded across our nation since an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by a white police officer last August.

I have felt like two different people, the past couple of weeks. At work, as Pastor Miranda, I was preparing our Advent liturgies, and writing sermons, and setting up our big crafting event, and checking up on sick members, and casting the Christmas pageant. At home, and on Facebook and Twitter, I was aching, and praying, and weeping, and reading, and posting and re-posting. Ferguson, and everything Ferguson stands for, has been so much on my mind and in my heart. But I’ve barely mentioned it within these walls. It’s hard to talk about, so hard.

I know there are people here right now who are itching for me to preach to this, and when I finish, will wish I’d said more, gone further. I know there are people right now who are thinking, Oh, no; who don’t want to hear this, for so many reasons, some of which I sympathize with. Really. If I could convince myself that I could be faithful to the Gospel, to the good news we’re given and called to share, without touching Ferguson from this pulpit,

I would leave it alone. I would. Because I’m a coward. I don’t like making people uncomfortable. I don’t like being uncomfortable.

But I believe that sometimes God’s Good News is uncomfortable. I can’t avoid this. And if I had any doubts, Mike Kinman set them to rest for me. Mike Kinman is the dean of the Episcopal Cathedral in St. Louis. And I’ve come to trust the wisdom and clarity of his voice, in these conflicted and messy times. In mid-November he published an open letter to his clergy colleagues who want to know what they can do. And the first thing he says they can do is, Preach about it. Preach about Ferguson.

Kinman writes, “I need you not to let your congregation pretend that this has nothing to do with you. I need you, in your own words and with your own integrity from your own heart, to preach about race and privilege and the deep brokenness we have not just in Ferguson, not just in St. Louis, but all over our nation. To preach in a way that doesn’t jump too quickly to peace and reconciliation but holds a mirror up to your own congregation and your own city.”

Well. Okay. But, having decided to accept this call, what do I say? I wish I could just do what I do on Facebook: Post links to five or ten amazing short essays and articles that say what needs saying, speak to our doubts and questions and struggles, and point us forwards. But here I have to find my own words. Mostly.

Here is one important thing to say: Racism is a faith issue. Racism must be a faith issue for anyone who calls herself or himself a follower of Jesus, because Jesus consistently reached out to those who were outcast, marginalized or oppressed. Because Jesus, our Friend, Teacher, and Lord, was killed for being rabble-rousing scum. Because the first Christians, guided by the Holy Spirit, came to understand that in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free; that the social distinctions that matter so much to us are nothing in the eyes of our loving God. Because at our baptisms, we promised, or our parents and godparents promised for us, to renounce all the evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God; and every time we reaffirm our baptismal vows, we commit ourselves, with God’s help, to seeking and serving Christ in all persons, and respecting the dignity of every human being.

If you still don’t see racism as a faith issue, then please, reach out to me, and we’ll have coffee and talk it through. But I can’t stand down from this; I just can’t see the Gospel any other way.

Here is another important thing to say. Some of you probably have questions or doubts about what really happened and who is to blame in Mike Brown’s death or any of the other particular incidents that are part of our current national conversation. Maybe the single most important thing that white observers need to understand is that this isn’t about any given incident; it’s about a pattern. What our African-American brothers and sisters are telling us is, This kind of violence, and less deadly, but equally degrading, kinds of violence, are part of the everyday texture of their lives, in ways that we can’t begin to imagine. In ways so subtle and so entrenched that the people who are part of those systems of violence may have no idea, and certainly no intention to do harm. If that even might be true, doesn’t it deserve – demand – your attention, your concern?

So. What can we do? That’s where so many of our conversations end up, feeling confused, overwhelmed, hopeless, helpless: what can we do?

Here are some ideas for what you can do. I hope they’ll speak to you, wherever you are on all this.

First: READ. There’s been so much wise and sharp and cogent written, in the past few weeks, about race and racism in America, past, present, and future. In voices ranging from world-class Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman to comedian Chris Rock, from legal scholars to cognitive scientists, to the voices of ordinary folk, white and black, sharing their hurts and their hopes. Whether you are thinking about all this for the first time right now, or whether you’ve read every article, every commentary, in the past six months, there is something you can read that will deepen your understanding. I’ve pulled together a list of some links to pieces that have touched me, in the past week.

One helpful suggestion I’ve seen is to diversify your media. Read news sources and opinion pieces by people of color. Read The Root, Colorlines, or our local magazine, Umoja. More generally, read news that isn’t from your usual trusted sources, and broaden your perspective – not necessarily by believing everything you read, but by discovering how current events are seen by others whose experiences and perspectives differ from yours.

Here’s another thing you can do: TALK. Have deep conversations with trusted friends, others who are struggling to understand and to know how to respond. We’ll make space for some of those kinds of conversations here at St. Dunstan’s early in 2015. And have tentative conversations with strangers, people you wouldn’t usually talk with. Don’t dive right into the news; just … widen your circle. Think of someone in your life that you see or cross paths with regularly, but don’t know anything about. Another parent or a staff member at your child’s school. A maintenance worker in your office building. A person you buy produce from at the market. Ask them their name, have a few minutes’ conversation. Make your social world a little bigger, a little broader.

Here’s the third thing you can do: NOTICE. Notice the way things are. Notice the things you’ve always taken for granted. This is hard work; I went to graduate school to learn to do this.But you can do it, with some thoughtful attention. Notice patterns, dynamics, assumptions. For example, if you’ve got kids in a public school… what proportion of the students are people of color? what proportion of the teachers are? If those proportions are way off,  how might that feel, for kids and families of color? … Emily Scott, the pastor of St. Lydia’s Church in New York, writes about running a red light on her bike in front of a policeman – nothing happened to her, but a black man just behind her did the same thing, and got pulled over. Notice what’s happening around you. Notice vocabulary – like when we talk about neighborhoods in Madison, and use “bad” or “dangerous” as shorthand for “high percentage of people of color.” Notice what happens inside yourself, too. If you see a group of teenage boys goofing off in your neighborhood park, what feelings or fears rise up inside you – if they’re white? if they’re Latino? if they’re black?

The fourth thing you can do is REFLECT. Reflecting goes hand in hand with noticing. And with reading. And with talking. When something gets uncomfortable, when you find yourself tempted to deflect the issue or blame somebody else, reflect on your own resistance. Dean Mike Kinman writes, “Feel the anger and the pain and ask Why? and don’t be satisfied with the initial answers that you give yourself … answers which will tend to reinforce your existing beliefs and stereotypes. Let your own anger, annoyance, confusion and weariness guide you to empathy  with the great anger, annoyance, confusion and weariness that our sisters and brothers of color experience every day.”

Use your discomfort as a tool for exploration, for digging deeper, for seeking understanding,  for undertaking change. Emily Scott writes, “Embrace feeling unsure most of the time.  [This work] is going to be messy and feel vulnerable and you’re going to see some things about yourself that you didn’t want to see.  … But that’s where the Holy Spirit does her thing. Wade in, because God calls us into the deep water.”

The fifth thing you can do is ACT. There are so many forms that action can take. I’m trusting that your own seeking will lead you to some steps that are right for you. Some big dramatic change needs to happen – but so much of the change we need is change in tiny, mundane, everyday behaviors and patterns and assumptions and choices… Small actions matter. Small change adds up.

And speaking of small change, one action I’ve seen suggested recently is to make a conscious choice to shift some of our spending to minority-owned businesses. The prosperity of the past seventy years of American life, and the recovery of the past five years, have both largely left African-American households behind. Intentionally patronizing minority-owned businesses is a simple way to try and share America’s promise more broadly.

Whatever actions you take, consider well these wise words from poet and blogger Scott Woods: “Look up what the word incremental means (I’ll give you a hint: it means bit by bit, tiny step by tiny step) – because if you’re holding out any hope and are actually working to create any change, you’re going to need it tattooed to your foreheads.”

And here is the sixth and last thing you can do, straight from Dean Mike Kinman’s list: PRAY. Mike writes, “This is definitely last but not least. Pray for us in St Louis, and know that we are praying for you. Pray not for an easy peace but pray for transformation. Pray for courage.  Pray for God’s Holy Spirit to move us in ways that we scarcely believe possible. Pray that all of us may use this moment in time as a great opportunity to show how deeply we trust in Jesus and the amazing things that Christ can do.”

Remember that we are bearers of, witnesses to, God’s good news. And that God’s good news asks something of us. Asks us to hold lightly our certainties and comforts. Asks us to risk the known for the possibilities of the unknown. Asks us to open our eyes and ears and hearts to other voices and bigger hopes. Pray, then, brothers and sisters – pray in the faith that God’s good news, demanding and complicated as is, is nonetheless, deeply, truly, incrementally… good.

Let us pray.

O God who created all peoples in your image, we thank you for the wonderful diversity of races and cultures in this world. Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of fellowship, and show us your presence in those who differ most from us, until our knowledge of your love is made perfect in our love for all your children; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(BCP p. 840)

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth. In the name of Christ we pray, Amen.

(BCP p. 815)