What are We Waiting for? – An Advent Sermon

What are We Waiting for? – An Advent Sermon

Luke 3:7-18

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with[a] water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with[b] the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.

John the Baptist is the character in Advent who reminds us that Jesus’ coming is political.

Not Republican or Democrat political – though it certainly has implications for how we vote – but political in the sense of how we choose to construct life together, how we engage our responsibilities both as those governed and as those who do the governing, how we recognize and understand the power we have over others and the power others have over us.

John the Baptist was the ultimate outsider. His life itself was a protest against the powers of his day – the power of the Roman Empire and of local authorities, even the influence of the religious establishment. He lived a life in the wilderness – “off the grid” we might say – disentangling himself from the marketplace and the basics of everyday society like housing, clothing, and even food. He lived in the wilderness, wearing rough camel-hair garments like the ancient prophets, and eating a diet he could gather in the wild.

John was popular – crowds came out to hear him, and his message was clear and unsparing. “Get ready! The Messiah is coming, and he’s bringing God’s judgement on all of us! It’s time to repent! Things need to change!” That’s why John baptized people – as a sign that they were repenting and changing their lives.

And all kinds of people came to John to be baptized, Luke tells us: ordinary people, tax collectors, even soldiers. John was not easy on those who came – he called them a bunch of snakes and accused them of using baptism as a “get out of jail free” card. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” he told them – you’ve got to show you’re actually changing your life, not just talk about it!

But apparently, these folks were serious, because they ask John what they needed to do.

He told everybody, “If you have more than you need, give it to someone who needs it.” But there was more…

The tax collectors were Jewish sell-outs to the Roman Empire, and when they collected taxes, they had the discretion to take a cut for themselves. That’s the way it worked. John didn’t tell them to quit their jobs, though. Instead, he told them not to collect any more than they were obligated to – to take the system Rome used to manipulate Jews into oppressing Jews and flip it on its head.

And even soldiers came to John, most likely Jewish soldiers working for Rome as something like a local police force. They were apparently throwing their weight around and acting like the mafia, since he told them to stop extorting money from people with threats and intimidation and false accusations. They were to be content with their rations and pay – which wouldn’t have been much for non-Roman citizens, and much like tax collectors, soldiers usually supplemented their pay by using their position. John tells them to stop.

In a system that thrives on injustice, legal and illegal, John is telling people to do something different. To act with justice and compassion towards each other.

No doubt, these people were a lot like us. No one else was going to take care of them or their families if they didn’t, so they only did what they had to do. They were trying to survive in a system they didn’t create – who could blame them for taking advantage of it? And Jewish revolts were common – the soldiers probably thought a lot of the people they harassed and accused deserved it, and that some of them might turn around and kill them if they had the chance.

The Jews were divided. Extremists planned revolts, while others did their best to make friends with Rome. The soldiers were policing people who’d probably been their neighbors, and most of them thought the soldiers and tax collectors were traitors to be working for Rome.

And here comes John, and he doesn’t fit with any of them. He doesn’t tell the tax collectors and soldiers to quit their jobs, but he does tell them to quit playing the game – working the system. And he tells everyone with even a little more than they need to be generous and share what they have.

John is telling them – and us – that repentance means seeing everything differently. Instead of looking at the world and seeing how we can take care of ourselves, he wants us to look at the world and see how we can take care of somebody else. Instead of looking at the world like the tax collectors did, and seeing a system we can use to our advantage, he wants us to look at the world and see how we can seek justice for others. And instead of looking at the world like the soldiers did, and seeing threats and enemies, he wants us to look at the world and not be afraid we won’t survive without violence.

John knows that repentance means much more than saying we’re sorry. Repentance means seeing a new way to live with each other and with the systems of power that shape our world and manipulate what we see.

For most of us, Advent is about waiting for Christmas. When we’re kids, we’re waiting to open those presents! When we get older, we’re waiting for the family to gather, for the shopping and decorating and getting ready to be done, for something that will make us feel that special Christmas feeling we remember. And maybe some of us are really just waiting for it all to be over and hoping we survive it!

But for Christians, Advent is about waiting for Jesus to come. Waiting for the day we celebrate how he came the first time, as a tiny, crying, baby in a manger; and waiting for him to come again as the King of All Creation. We are waiting, and while we wait we are making our way in the world and doing our best to get ready. It’s a little like waiting for a child to come home from college – we just want to see them and be with them!

But John’s kind of waiting is less about anticipation and more about that getting ready part. “He’s nearly here!” John yells at us. “What are you doing??? What are you waiting for???”

And that’s the part of John’s message that gets me – What are you waiting for? What am I waiting for?

I spent the first forty years of my life waiting – waiting for God to tell me what to do with my life, waiting for God to tell me it was okay to do something I wanted to do, waiting – in a way – for my life to start, for things to get going. It took me forty years to realize that’s not how God works – at least not most of the time. God’s already told us what to do – “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God,” is how the Prophet Micah puts it. John the Baptist says, give what you have to help others, don’t take advantage of power, and don’t hurt others to help yourself. It’s not okay to just go with the flow – look beyond the system and what it wants you to see. Jesus said, Love God with everything in you and love your neighbor as yourself.

Where we live, what job we choose, who we marry (or don’t) – all of those things are important, but they’re context, not core. It took me forty years to realize that, and then I started making choices and doing things. One of the first things I did was start going to a different church, one closer to the community I lived in. I changed jobs so I could work somewhere I was freer to stand up against the oppression of LGBTQ folk, especially in the church. I bought my first brand new car, I moved into the City, I started giving a lot more away.

I did a lot of those things because I started looking for how I could do justice and love mercy and walk humbly, how I could love God and love my neighbor better instead of being afraid of what I might get wrong. But I’ve barely scratched the surface.

I have one friend, a Baptist pastor in Tennessee, who has accidentally become a one-man Facebook hotline for Christian LGBTQ kids whose families and churches can’t accept them. He gets at least one new private message every night from a kid asking him for help – often asking him to talk to their parents who might listen to a pastor.

I turn on the news and every day there are more kids fleeing for their lives from Central America and getting locked up as soon as they cross the US border. They’re scared and they need a safe place to grow up, and they don’t have lawyers or anyone to help get them through our broken immigration system.

I have another friend, a black man in his early thirties who grow up in Chicago. A few weeks ago on of his childhood friend’s big brother was shot and killed by a police officer while he was doing his job as a security guard and restraining a man with a gun who’d started shooting in the club he worked at.

There’s a sense in which Advent is less about what we are waiting for, and more about what and who is waiting on us. Waiting on us to realize what we can’t afford not to give. Waiting on us to see the justice they need from us. Waiting on us to vote for their good instead of our own. Waiting on us to do the right thing.

The world is messed up, and it can be confusing. And there’s so much more justice to do, and mercy to learn to love. I’m trying to figure out, what is it I’m waiting for? What are you waiting for?

What are we all waiting for?

(Audio)

Cursing a Vigil

Cursing a Vigil

It was a vigil. A candlelight vigil for a seventeen year old black young man who was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer.

The week after the verdict came back guilty in the officer’s trial, a friend of mine hosted the vigil at her small church in the Norwood Park neighborhood on Chicago’s northwest side. Her church is part of a coalition of churches in the area who came together to promote racial justice when a woman with a Puerto Rican flag on her shirt was harassed at a local park. They wanted to remember Laquan McDonald as more than a symbol, and stand with his family and friends in their grief at his loss.

No verdict can bring him back.

The church where the vigil was held meets in a train station in the heart of the neighborhood. It’s a lovely spot in the center of a small park filled with trees with a picturesque wrought iron fence around it. I arrived early and was startled to see bright royal blue plastic bunting tied to every post in the fence and an apparently semi-permanent sign firmly attached next to the sidewalk that said “Blue Lives Matter.” I wondered if all this was normally there (it wasn’t), or had just been put there because of our vigil (it had). As I walked up the path to the train station, every tree was wrapped in the blue plastic bunting.

It wasn’t subtle. Far from it.

Laquan McDonald had just turned seventeen when he was killed. Raised mostly by his great-grandmother until her death, he’d talked of becoming a nurse. He was back in school and had a part-time job learning to rehab properties. He liked working with his hands. He loved his little sister fiercely.

He was like my brothers, yours kids, our nephews – if they had the early childhood trauma of a mother struggling with addiction and abusive foster homes, if they grew up in a violent neighborhood with poor schools and few opportunities where people survive by self-medicating with readily available street drugs, if they had the symptoms and struggles common to those who suffer with PTSD.

His family loved him like we love our kids – by age five he was living with his great-grandmother, with a large extended family nearby. His mother worked to get her life on track and built a loving relationship with her son. His family misses him – like we would miss our kids.

In the face of obstacles I can barely imagine, Laquan was a kid trying to survive and find his way to a good life.

We met to remember Laquan, to pray for his family, and to pray for change in the system that resulted in his death.

And that was something part of the community could not stand.

When we walked outside with candles lit, the men (I saw no women) gathered along the edge of the small park began to yell. “SHUT UP, B****!” I heard that more than once above the blare of truck horns. They’d lined the block with trucks (some had more signs) and set of all their alarms. It was meant to be threatening, and it was. Particularly to the handful of black women who drove in from their neighborhoods to join us.

I kept wondering, what are these men so afraid of?

When I listen to friends who are concerned that “Blue Lives Matter,” they are worried that we are minimizing the risks police officers take in the course of doing their jobs. But our society clearly believes that the lives of police officers matter. We protect them with body armor and armored vehicles. We give them weapons to use and latitude to use them – batons, Tasers, guns. And when officers are killed in the line of duty, we honor them with funeral parades, salutes, and memorials.

(Where are the memorials for young black women and men who should still be alive?)

In the only interview he has given, the officer who killed Laquan McDonald said something that gave me chills. He said, “I might be looking at the possibility of spending the rest of my life in prison for doing my job as I was trained as a Chicago police officer.”

It’s something I’ve heard again since the verdict in interviews with other officers and representatives from the Fraternal Order of Police.

It’s part of the reason for our vigil after the verdict.

I suspect it’s a large part of the reason those men yelling expletives at us are so afraid.

Norwood Park is 80% white (down from over 90% in 2000) and home to many of Chicago’s police and firefighters. They see a colleague convicted and going to jail for doing what they consider to be his job, and it scares them.

The power to kill makes them feel safer (and we wonder why gun violence is so prevalent on Chicago’s west and south sides), and that power is being threatened by outside accountability and consequences.

And so they cursed a prayer vigil. They beat their chests and roared their roars and blared their horns and tied their blue bunting in a message that could not have said more clearly, “Our lives matter more than Laquan McDonald’s.”

Which is why we must continue to insist – Black Lives Matter, too.

Laquan’s life mattered.

What I Saw

What I Saw

It’s been a week.

Most of us watched something this week that traumatized us in some way.

Whether we saw a brave woman, terrified as she described what happened to her when she was fifteen years old, or whether we saw an angry, belligerent man, terrified at being accused of something he has no way to conclusively disprove, or whether we saw a group of politicians trying to score points against each other, or whether we saw some of all of those things, it wasn’t easy to watch.

Personally, I’ve seen too many women who have not been believed when they screwed up the courage to tell someone what happened to them, or possibly as bad, women who have been believed and told that they should just keep quiet, that other things are more important. And I’ve seen too many men who either knew they were guilty or did not want to believe they had done such harm fight and belittle and lash out to defend themselves. And that all came very present to me this week.

Something else came present to me as well, the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas hearings that I watched twenty-seven years ago. It was a different time, a time when we hadn’t been talking about sexual harassment as clearly or as long. Dr. Hill’s allegations were confusing to a lot of us. We had trouble seeing and understanding the power dynamics at play. And for a young woman from a very conservative context who only knew what pornography was because of how I had heard it condemned, the details sounded like something from a farce more than real life.

But I remember Anita Hill’s calm relating of even the most demeaning details, and I remember Clarence Thomas’s calm declaration that it was all a race-based attack on a black man who had risen too high.

Both were unerringly composed.

They had to be.

Both had a lifetime of experience in not being believed, in being dismissed or discredited or thought dangerous if they freely displayed emotion (and often even if they didn’t). Both knew that even (especially) the truth would require great care and deliberation from them.

I though about that as I watched the hearings this week. As I saw Dr. Ford’s careful preparation, deliberate words, and attempts to keep her emotions in check.

And I thought about it as I watched Judge Kavanaugh give his anger and frustration free reign, with little regard for protocol or maintaining order.

Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill, Christine Blasey Ford – none of them expected to be believed simply as a matter of course. Their experience had taught them not to expect that.

In America, only a white male would be incensed that he is not believed as a matter of course, as Brett Kavanaugh clearly was. Only a white man can afford to be incensed about it. We may all be angry and frustrated when the truth we tell is ignored or dismissed or denied, but only a white male can so readily display that he is incensed and offended and belligerent and expect that he will continue to be taken seriously.

It’s the American way, after all. Every right American citizens have was originally granted only to white men. As others have gained formal access to those rights, they (we) still have to fight for what white men have ready access to, because the whole experiment was constructed to work exclusively for them.

Part of the work of patriotism is to change that, to work to see the promises of America fulfilled equitably for all. It’s hard work, and made all the harder by those who, like Judge Kavanaugh seems to, take advantage of every advantage they already have, in the full belief that they have earned that right.

May we all be given eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to respond to to reality, however much it is not what we would like it to be.

And for the record, I believe her.

Feeding the Lions

Feeding the Lions

Several years ago I had the opportunity to accompany a class of seminary students on several field trips to meet ministers working in different ways on the south and west sides of Chicago. They were eye-opening days, and I came away with a deep respect for the people in these communities and the pastors who work with them. It changed the way I listen to the news, the people I follow on Facebook and Twitter, and the assumptions I’d always had about violence in “bad” parts of town.

There are few things that make me angrier on social media than people who live in the suburbs and across the country saying something along the lines of “If ‘black lives matter’ so much, why aren’t these people doing anything about black-on-black violence? Just look at Chicago! Where are the protests about that?”

They have no clue how many vigils and protests there are in these communities, or how hard pastors and other community leader work to redeem their neighborhoods. And beyond their ignorance about what is or is not actually happening, they betray a deep ignorance about what exactly these communities are up against.

The racialization of Chicago neighborhoods has a long history marked by racist real estate and lending practices (supported by federal policies), preferential treatment of white neighborhoods and constituencies, and police brutality against black people. Reduced legitimate opportunities and choices creates an increase in illegitimate options, and an illegal, shadow system breeds violence.

Chicago has its own unique factors, but the overall dynamics are no different anywhere else in the country.

Individual responsibility matters. But it isn’t the only thing that matters. Social responsibility matters, too, and sometimes, more.

The Bible is full of this reality. We are called to recognize and help the individual in trouble – someone robbed and beaten and left by the side of the road. But we are also called to care for and support “the poor” – a whole class of people who, Jesus said, we will always have with us.

Can we help the whole class by ignoring the individuals? No, of course not, and that is the pitfall of the distant-humanitarian (or politician or bureaucrat) who is content to support an abstract idea even if (perhaps because) it hides the reality of people’s lives.

But can we help the individual and ignore the whole class? Yes, and many of us do it every day – some because the problem of the class seems overwhelming and unsolvable to them, and others because they refuse to believe the class even exists. To these, there are only individuals who are poor, no class of “the poor” or “the oppressed.”

Both are ways to avoid social responsibility.

Social responsibility recognizes that, while individual have real choices, the choices available to any given individual are shaped and limited (or expanded) by societal (social) forces beyond their direct control. Social responsibility recognizes that “status quo” societal forces are perpetuated by default by those individuals who are unaware or in denial of them, in addition to those who are consciously complicit. And social responsibility recognizes that it is individuals, aware and choosing to work together, who can change the possibilities for a given disadvantaged group of people.

One of those field trips I went on took us to a rally of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition on Chicago’s Southside, and after the rally we had a meeting with Rev. Jesse Jackson. That meeting was not what I expected. We didn’t meet a politician or public persona (though he is both of those), we met a pastor. “We need your help,” he told us. “When these families lose a child, and they don’t have a church, we’re the ones they call.” We don’t have enough pastors for them – there are too many families and too many funerals, he told us.

But we need to do more than bind up their wounds, he continued. The church is good at binding and healing wounds, but we send them right back out for the same lions to keep devouring them. We’ve got to deal with the lions, too.

I haven’t used quotation marks because I don’t pretend to remember his exact words that day, but I will never forget what he told us, or the pastor’s heart he opened up to us.

Individuals need their wounds tended, and that is our responsibility. But it is also our responsibility to fight against the lions that savage their lives.

There’s more than one way to fight those lions – racism, sexism, economic oppression, discrimination against people because of who they are or who they love. But we will never defeat them if we cannot even acknowledge they exist, and if we cannot admit the many ways we have knowingly or unknowingly fed them.

For some of us, those lions are harmless pets, or mythical monsters, or species that are rare and exceptional to encounter. Some of us even see them as protectors against the pests that would destroy our hard work, like the mousers on the great-grandfather’s farm. We see them as essentially separate from ourselves, rather than as extensions of our lives and choices.

The truth is harder. It requires us to accept a responsibility that is both individual and social. And that responsibility requires a response.