November 30, 2014
1st Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 64, Mark 13
Most years we light the “hope” candle on the first Sunday of Advent and then move on to peace, joy, and love. And, while I certainly hope you do experience peace, joy, and love in this gathered community over these next four weeks, the Worship Committee has decided to particularly focus on hope all four Sundays. I couldn’t really tell you why we chose to focus on hope, but I can tell you that right now, with everything going on in our country, it seems like a good place to rest–in hope.
This week, as I’m sure you’ve all heard, there was a grand jury verdict of “no indictment” for Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American youth. The verdict makes me angry. The fact that I wasn’t surprised by the verdict makes me sad. The entire situation drags me into a place where I desperately need hope.
I don’t pretend to know what exactly happened between Wilson and Brown the day Brown was killed. I don’t know who said what to who; who threw how many punches; who did or did not feel threatened and why.
I do know that a teenager is dead. And he shouldn’t be.
I do know that black men are shot by police at higher rates than white men.
I do know that black mothers–dressed better than I ever dress–get their bags “randomly” checked at stores more often than I do. (Which is never.) And while these moms could refuse the check and press charges, they have children to pick up from school and it’s just easier to go along.
I do know that black men–who drive more carefully than I do–get stopped by police much more often than I do. And when they are stopped, they do not assume a friendly interaction.
I do know that when I was growing up my parents told me that if I ever was lost or needed help I should find a police officer. This is not what parents tell their black children.
The case of Michael Brown has shone a light on the ugly issue of racism in this country. And it feels so big and real and overwhelming, it is hard to know how to even begin to hope for healing.
O God, that you would tear open the heavens and come down.
In addition to the racism, Brown’s death has made us pay attention to the problem of police violence. In the few days leading up to the grand jury announcement in the Michael Brown case I read about a white teenager who was in critical condition in a hospital after being tazered by police when he failed to comply with orders to roll down his window–which turned out to be broken. And a black 12-year-old who was shot and killed while playing with a pellet gun.
Honestly, it feels like an epidemic as story after story pops into the news about police harming or killing unarmed, sometimes mentally ill, citizens. Maybe you’ve seen the charts showing how many people in the US are killed by police each year compared to how many people police kill in other Western countries. Just one jarring statistic: in 2012, police killed 410 people–legally–in the U.S. British police fired their weapons once–resulting in no deaths1.
In Utah over the past five years, more people have been killed by police than by gang members, drug dealers, child abuse, or domestic disputes2. Those who are supposed to protect people have become a threat to many.
And what can we do about that when police are so rarely indicted for the violence they do? When there is a tacit acceptance of the fact that some lives–white lives, wealthy lives, respectable lives–matter more than others? How can we possibly confront the powers and principalities that enable this culture of violence?
O God, that the mountains would quake at your presence.
Some of you know that this past weekend I was in Chicago for the Fierce, Fabulous and Sacred conference. This was a gathering of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) Mennonites and allies–a time for us to learn and worship and talk and pray together.
A time for allies, like me, to listen; to gain a deeper understanding of the struggles faced by sexual minorities in the church.
I ate lunch with a 20-something young man who did not have a good experience growing up gay in his rural Mennonite community. He felt like he had to choose between being gay or being in the church. So he left the church.
One young woman spoke, with tears in her eyes, about being verbally abused and harassed at an MC USA convention when she was walking through the convention hall with her girlfriend.
And I heard heartbreaking stories about families who have rejected their queer children. One woman told me that her wife’s parents won’t have anything to do with their daughter. This woman’s own parents will still speak to her, but she is not allowed to bring her wife into the house.
And beyond these individual stories, of course, are the systemic oppressions. City-wide equality ordinances that don’t pass because people say they will allow child predators to hide out in public bathrooms. (True story.)
Disproportionate numbers of LGBTQ people experience homelessness: it is estimated that 5-10% of youth are LBGT, while that population makes up 20-40% of homeless teens. 3
Bullying, depression, and suicide rates also disproportionately high for sexual minorities.
There is so much that needs to be done–we need renewed theology and biblical understandings, new laws, new cultural openness, massive public education. It’s hard to even know where to start.
O to see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great glory.
I imagine the authors of Isaiah and Mark also felt overwhelmed by the troubles of their day.
In Isaiah’s time, the Israelites had been conquered by the Babylonians. They returned to their home country only to find it devastated and the holy temple destroyed. How were they going to rebuild their structures, their national identity, their faith?
In Mark’s day most of the people lived at the subsistence level and were continually oppressed by the occupying Roman government. How could people establish a life, care for their children, when the Romans were demanding more and more from them every time they turned around?
O God, that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.
O that the Son of Man would come in clouds with great power and glory. That God would send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
In the midst of seemingly hopeless situations, these are compelling images. This is a tempting hope: that racism, violence, oppression of sexual minorities, national decline, income disparities, environmental disasters–that God would just swoop down and fix it all. Today. Maybe tomorrow. Definitely soon.
In Chicago, I was talking shop a bit with Samuel Voth Schrag, pastor at St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship. I asked about his sermon for the first Sunday of Advent. “Oh,” he said, “I’m going to talk about Dues ex machina.”
“Yes!” I thought. “That’s it!”
Deus ex machina (in case you’ve forgotten your English classes) is a literary device: It is when an author gets her characters into a very difficult situation and then solves the crisis by having some external force swoop in and fix everything. (This, by the way, is considered cheating.)
That is what these two passages are about. Our human desire to have God swoop in and suddenly fix all that is wrong. When we, the characters in God’s drama, have gotten ourselves into a difficult situation–a seemingly hopeless situation–we cannot imagine how things will work out without a dramatic intervention by the Divine hand.
Deus ex machina.
It’s what Isaiah wanted: O God, that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.
It’s what Mark wanted: Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.
It’s what I want.
One of my friend’s Facebook posts yesterday said: “All I want for Christmas is the abolition of imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy.” (Yes, I have a peculiar set of Facebook friends.)
It’s true. I would love for the end of all oppressions and injustice to just be handed to me all wrapped up with a bow.
When the racism, the violence, the misunderstandings, the oppression . . . the fear, the pain, the anger . . . when it all seems too much, too difficult, too overwhelming, we, too, want God to swoop in and make all things right.
But it seldom happens that way. Even the Exodus, that great story of dramatic Divine intervention, takes place over decades.
And the coming of the Messiah, the One people expected to defeat the enemies of Israel and redeem the people, proved rather anti-climactic. God came to us, but there were no torn heavens or quaking mountains or clouds of glory. There’s just this little squalling baby. Most people didn’t even notice.
Biblical commentators point out that, while this passage from Isaiah begins with a vision of God’s powerful intervention, it ends with a different image: the metaphor of God as the potter and people as the clay. A very different image indeed.
Mark, too, moves from the apocalyptic imagery–the darkening sun, the Son of Man coming on the clouds, the angels–to a very earthy parable: a man goes on a journey and leaves his slaves in charge of the household. The slaves know the master will come back home, but they do not know when, so they must stay awake. They will not be awakened by the celestial spectacle; they must stay awake so they can be ready when their weary master trudges through the door.
When so much is wrong in the world, it is tempting to fix our hope on a god who will swoop down and fix it all. But it seems that is not how God generally operates. God did not swoop down and re-build the temple. God did not swoop down and overthrow the Roman government. And, so far, God is not swooping down to abolish imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. We still live with oppression and injustice.
But God’s failure to swoop down does not mean that God is not at work. The skies may not be opening up any time soon . . . but there are subtler signs of hope all around.
Yes, the structures of racism are still in place. But I sense that many white people are listening more closely to the stories of people of color. That some of us–maybe even enough of us–are starting to get it.
Yes, the culture of violence in our country is still strong. But there are many–so very many–who are protesting police violence peacefully.
And yes, the structures of heteropatriarchy are alive and well–our laws, our churches, many communities, still discriminate against LGBTQ people. But I didn’t just hear sad stories in Chicago. There was the young woman who said, “I came here to see if I could be queer and still be a Mennonite. And I can.” There were the parents who had not rejected their children but had traveled to Chicago to support them, who are working hard and speaking loudly, calling the church to more full inclusion.
The heavens are not torn. The sun is not darkened. But nevertheless, God is present and at work within us and among us. It’s just that we have to stay awake to see the signs of hope that surround us.
Because our Advent hope is not in a god who swoops down. Our hope is in a God who, in Jesus, stoops down.
In our moments of anguish and fear and anger we may long for God’s swooping, but it is God’s stooping that is truly remarkable–the willingness of the almighty to take on our flesh and take us by the hand and lead us in a better way.
It is God’s stooping that we anticipate and celebrate this Advent season.
Thanks be to God.