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)

Lemonade and Sponge Cake

Lemonade and Sponge Cake

When I was a child, a terrible thing happened to me. It wasn’t my fault and I had no control over it, but I was still left to find something to do with it – some way to survive. In my childish wisdom I decided that I could refuse to let it define who I was and that I did not have to let it affect my life. So I set it aside and ignored it, trying to live my life as though it had never happened.

That instinct wasn’t all bad – what happened to me indeed did not define me – but it was like trying to pretend I didn’t have a bad sprain, while the injured tendons and muscles continued to tear and never had the opportunity to heal. I ended up living a life adapted around the injury, designed to ignore the reality that something wasn’t right.

And that worked, until life required more of me than the damaged muscles or my work arounds could handle. I don’t know if my path of healing at that point was harder than it would have been when I was a child, I just know it was necessary, particularly if I was going to live a life that truly isn’t defined or restricted by my traumas.

I thought of that this morning as I listened to an interview on the radio and the woman being interviewed said something: “Life is full of suffering and disappointments; the art of living is to use them to make something that nourishes others.” (Those may not be all her exact words, but that was the gist of it.) She was explaining something she’d learned from her grandmother who, when an egg fell out of her overstuffed refrigerator and broke, would respond by exclaiming, “Ah! Today we will make sponge cake!”

I like the story, and the lesson the granddaughter took from it. It’s a better metaphor than the one I’m more familiar with, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” That one has never worked so well for me, the lifelong lover of pickles and lemons and things tart and sour. Lemons aren’t necessarily bad; lemons keep things interesting. And the downright bad things? The “manure” of life? I realized a long time ago that while it might be useful to help flowers grow better, it’s no less manure for that and it’s only helpful to name it as such.

But broken things, lost things, things I had hopes and plans for? Those I’ve had to work on what to do with.

That egg I’d meant for breakfast, with bacon, now I need to learn how to make sponge cake with it.

And I’ve worked at that – with a good deal of success. There’s little in my life today that looks anything like I dreamed years ago (though I do get to live in a wonderful city, and I always dreamed of that!), but I love my life and the people in it. As my dreams broke or disappointed me, I learned how to make new dreams. They don’t feel like settling, either.

While I don’t have children of my own to invest in and pour my life into, I’ve discovered that gives me a freedom to invest in others and their children, sometimes in ways that are riskier than those with families can afford. And my perspective on what is good for all children doesn’t have a trade-off with what’s “best” for my own, even theoretically.

Is it the same? Of course not. But that’s the point – it’s a different kind of purpose with its own meaning.

There are ways this world expects us to use our lives to nourish others. Mostly, it expects us to nourish those who are our own – our children, spouse, parents, siblings. I don’t have the first two, and the later are doing well without much help from me beyond a listening ear. And so I am free to use my life to try to nourish those who are not already mine. Those who are different from me in all kinds of ways.

The LGBTQ+ community calls this “chosen family,” and that gets at some of it. But it’s something beyond that as well. I can risk what I have for the friend who is working to change the world, and I can risk for the stranger as well. Of course I have chosen family, people I’m close to and share life with, but I am free to give beyond that circle. I actually believe we can all be free to give and risk beyond us and ours.

The lemons and broken eggs of life can either cause us to double down on protecting our own, or they can give us an opportunity to make something nourishing for others.

And lemonade and sponge cake sound like a wonderful offering for company – neighbors, strangers, maybe even new friends.

Finding Justice in Voting

Finding Justice in Voting

I don’t think we have a vision for what racial justice in America would actually look like. At least, I haven’t, and I’m sure I’m far from the only one.

I always believed racial justice looked like each person accepted and judged for who they are and what they’ve done regardless of the color of their skin. And maybe that particular vision would reflect justice more accurately if it’s where we’d started from – if that’s how it had always been.

But it’s not. And that vision of justice tries to erase history, as if each day and each person starts with a clear slate rather than one filled with the scribblings and scratchings and scriptures of those who have gone before.

The history that’s gone before – the good, the bad, the biased, and the bigoted – is part of each of us. We bring it with us into community, faith, politics, family. And because we’ve always carried it, we can’t see it clearly – or sometimes at all. But it still shapes (determines, even) what our ideas about justice and fairness look like.

As I was taught is true of the Bible, “Context is king” for justice as well. I’ve been asking myself what would a context of justice in America look like?

We would need black and Native American and Asian and Latinx voices and decisions in the foundations – in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Black and native men and women would have been shaping education, finance, industry, religion – all the structures of society. But instead, they were silenced, and what we have was shaped and prescribed almost exclusively by centuries of white male voices and decisions.

That foundation matters. Inviting people of color and women to participate in white male systems isn’t justice. The rules are already set, and they were designed for white men to flourish. Everyone else starts the game at a disadvantage. If it were Monopoly, white men would already own all the property on the board before anyone else even started to play. They set the terms for admission, they wrote the rules, they decided how the game is won.

Where’s the possibility of justice in that?

The rules of the game have to change, and the way it’s played. New voices need to write new rules, and new players need a real way to catch up. The board has to change if there’s going to be a chance for justice to take hold.

And some of us are going to need to step back, shut our mouth, sit on our opinions, and listen to those who have been silenced if we’re ever going to cleanse the windows of our souls enough to even see justice for what it should be, much less contribute to it.

Maybe if, for the next fifty years, no white people could vote. And then white women could vote, but white men would need to wait another hundred years. Maybe then we’d have a shot at an America that would be truly just. An America actually shaped by all her people.

Can you see it? I’m trying to, but it’s not easy. It flies in the face of everything I was taught to value about my voice, my vote, and how important that is – critical, even.

But I can’t get past the need to at least see – to have a vision for what actual justice in America would look like. It’s not a utopian vision. It’s not Dr. King’s dream, as beautiful as that vision is. It’s not all about achieving a particular outcome. It’s about the justice of the journey. It’s about giving those who had no choice in what they were forced to build for others a chance to rebuild for themselves, for all of us.

And it’s not going to happen. I know that. White men and women are not going to give up their votes en masse for generations. And in light of that, the best thing I know to do is to give my vote to a person of color – to vote the way they direct me even, especially, if it makes me uncomfortable.

The highest thing I can do with my vote as a white woman is to use it to represent the voice of someone other than myself, someone whose voice has historically been silenced, discredited, devalued.

So I’m listening to native people, and Asian and Latinx and black people – especially to the women. I’m listening to particular people, some I know personally and some I do not, and I’m voting for their concerns and interests as they themselves understand them. I’m supporting the candidates they are supporting, with my money and voice as well as my vote.

It’s what I can do.

It’s what you can do, too. It’s not easy, though. It’s not easy to let go of something we were taught is sacred. But I think perhaps my vote may only become sacred if I can loosen the grasp my own interests have on it and let it truly serve justice.

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.