Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Longing of Advent, The Longing of Ferguson

Sermon preached at St. Michael's Church, Geneseo, New York on November 30, 2014, the 1st Sunday of Advent:  Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Mark 13:24-37

          Advent begins with a longing from the prophet Isaiah,

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…

It is a longing echoed in the psalm,

Hear us, O Shepherd of Israel…shine forth…restore us…show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

          One of the purposes of this strange little season we call Advent is to re-kindle in us this longing, for God not only to preside over the cosmos from some heavenly throne, but to be present and active among us.  Be not only our hope for the future, O God, but be active among us now, bring your reign of peace and justice, faith and love, now, as we have been praying for so long, on earth as it is in heaven.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…hear us, light our way, show us your face, restore us, save us.

          Jesus speaks to this longing this morning, but not necessarily in the way we would have him speak.  He says to us that when our longing is tested by chaos and suffering:  keep awake, be ready, watch.  Yet he seems to speak as if we would not have to keep awake very long, that this intervention of “the Son of Man” would happen very soon.  He says,

This generation shall not pass away until all these things have taken place.

          By now we have lost count of the generations that have “passed away,” and the number of times that “these things” of which he speaks have occurred.  But then we should notice that Jesus himself hedges his bet.  He says,

But about that day or hour no one knows…not even me.

          I hear in those words, Jesus echoing our own longing, and our own frustration that the waiting is too long.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…hear us, light our way, show us your face, restore us, save us.

          This week as a nation we had one of those moments when the frustration at the unfulfilled longing boiled over in Ferguson, Missouri and around the country.  We seem to be dealing with it in what has become a familiar way, to take up sides and dismiss those who disagree.  We seem to get better and better at our divisions as time goes on, less and less willing to do the hard work of understanding each other and going deeper than whatever it is we think is “obviously” going on.

          In Jesus’ language, we are not willing to see “the signs of the times,” the signs that demand of us that we stay alert, think and pray hard, and ask, “Where is God in all of this?” and remembering where Jesus has taught us to look for God, in the face of the other, the stranger, in the chaos and the suffering, in what seems torn open not in heaven but in our own lives.

          How do we prepare the way for Christ to come in this moment, and in the much larger issue of one of our starkest differences, that of race?  We can immediately say that race is a human construct, not a divine one, that everything would be all right if we would just acknowledge that we are all one.  That is a good sentiment, but it wants us to mend the tear among us too easily.

          Those of us who are white and middle or upper class, have to acknowledge that the legacy of a nation founded on inequality is still very much with us.  It is far too easy for us to say that we had nothing to do with that.  That is all in the past.  We must listen to our black and brown sisters and brothers who tell us that in their experience it is not all in the past.

          Sometimes those of us who blindly live in a kind of heaven of our own making, need it to be torn open so that we can see the longing of our brothers and sisters who feel closed out of it.  Let me put it this way—most of us live in the conviction that those glorious words of the Declaration of Independence—that all people are created equal and have the God-given right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—are true.  That is our “heaven.”  We need to allow that heaven to be torn open, to be honest enough to hear those who say that those words were not written to include them and we have not reached the point in our evolution as a society where that promise has been fulfilled.  “All men” still does not mean “all people.”

          I know that I have gone from preaching to meddling.  We claim, however, that the right to equality of life, freedom, and happiness is God-given.  So we are obligated to continue to seek out God in the midst of our struggle for these things to be true.  Those who say that contemporary justice is not righty the concern of the church are neither reading their Bibles, nor the Declaration of Independence.  We cannot invoke God, claiming God to be the foundation of our truth, and then dismiss him from the struggle.

          In our corner of the world we may also think that this does not really have anything to do with us.  We would be wrong.  I have no doubt that many if not most of the citizens of Ferguson, Missouri thought the same thing.  That kind of chaos and suffering does not happen here; we have no need to keep alert on this count.

          That, of course, is an illusion.  So what can we do about it?

          The primary answer is in the impulse of Isaiah with which I began.  The answer first and foremost is in the longing.  One of the things that I learned in my ten years as the rector of the only majority African-American parish in our diocese, is that the first step is the willingness to share all of our deepest longings for something better, not for our differences to be obliterated, but for our divisions to be healed.  And Jesus is telling us today that we can only do that when we acknowledge the chaos and suffering as something that affects us all, and the being ready as something we must learn to do together.

          Our Christmas Eve Service will end, as it always does, with that great hymn, “Hark, the herald angels sing.”  I have been thinking of these words this week from the last verse:

Risen with healing in his wings, light and life to all he brings, hail, the Sun of Righteousness!  Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!

          I do not know about you, but those words stir up a deep longing within me.  Let us sing them this year as our longing and our prayer for all of us, together, now, in this place and time.  It is not the solution to all our problems, but if we do not long together for peace, we will continue to live in a reign of violence, and our children—yes, they are our children—will continue to die for it.

          Let Jesus have the last word in this:

          And what I say to you I say to all, keep awake.

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