Thursday, December 4, 2014

Sermon for November 30, 2014

Jesus said to his disciples, "In those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
    and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see `the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake-- for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."
Mark 13:24-37
I can see it now: a church into which people with that satisfied glow of post-Thanksgiving feasting come to welcome Advent and trudge away with heavy hearts after hearing a sermon about the apocalypse. Hooray for Advent!

The reading begins ominously.  The sun stops shining.  The reflective light of the moon disappears.  Stars fall.  Right before the Savior returns, creation waits in perpetual, horrifying night.

As I prepare this meditation I’m mindful of recent events that have taken place under the cover of darkness.  A prosecutor choosing to make an announcement that a grand jury voted no indictment on a police officer who shot and killed a young African American man.  We don’t know all the details.  They are fuzzy.  The way the information was set out is meant to keep things fuzzy.  The choice of timing seems to be craven.  The verdict could have been just easily read at 8 AM as at 8 PM.  But the prosecutor chose to issue the report at night, when such a response could be predicted. The announcement stirred anger. Grief. Tears and Prayers. Some chose violence as a way to respond.  This is nothing new.  Violence is always an option. Others have chosen nonviolent protests. Why do we never learn? Why do we try to hide under the cover of night?  What is required of us instead?

The Gospel of Mark emerged out of similar feelings and questions. Mark writes around the time of the great Jewish War that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the demolition of the Temple walls. When Mark writes about great suffering, he knows what he’s saying. Can any hope be found in the midst of all of this destruction and death?

At some point, each of us has to face this question. Can hope be found in the face of death? For Mark, death isn't a threat. It's a challenge. He knows that the bad things that happen under cover of night will be exposed and overturned. The current social order will die. God’s new order will come.

Can hope be found in the face of death? You don't have to be religious to see the historical evidence that humans have a natural bent towards self-destruction. Those of us who are on the more liberal end of the spectrum have a hard time with this. We want to be part of a world that’s been created good and make it even better. We call it progress. But I think we do harm when we fail to take seriously the human capacity for destruction. I am uncomfortable with those who want us to learn our lessons from Ferguson and move on. We can’t just move on. There’s no moving on when a young black man, after a lifetime of living in fear of the police, makes a terrible choice and ends up dead.  There’s no moving on when a young white police officer who carries a gun for a living makes a terrible choice and kills that young black man. There’s no moving on when a grand jury, bound by imperfect laws, makes a decision that devastates the families and communities of the victim. There’s no moving on when a group of people get so fed up with the way things are, they take to the streets to exact vigilante justice that devastates community businesses.  There’s no moving on when hearts are broken again and again by bigotry, injustice, violence, and hatred. There’s no moving on until we finally  change cycles of demonization, anger, violence, and venom that perpetuate broken systems. There’s no moving on until we, as individuals and communities, finally learn what it means to be a force for justice, peace, and restoration and hope. Too often, in the emotional aftermath of an event like the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, we in the Church forget this call. Justice, peace, and restoration and hope: This is our job. The Church’s job. And I know clergy who are putting their own safety on the line in Ferguson, especially some from the United Church of Christ who are on the streets trying to make it happen.

The cultural critic and dissident feminist, Camille Paglia, says that liberal societies put themselves at risk when they fail to teach the young about evil. A nation composed of innocents is more likely to be exploited by the guilty. She's absolutely right. The job of stories, like the text we read today, is to remind us that it is human nature to do evil and that we have to constantly keep watch against it. The greatest threat to justice and mercy is complacency.  We become immune to the cries of those suffering.  We might not even hear them or understand the nature of the cry.  We fall asleep.   

So keep watch! Listen to Jesus’ warning again: Beware. Keep alert. Keep awake. He says we don’t know when the Master will return: evening, midnight, cockcrow or dawn. In Jesus’ day, there were only two groups of people who had any business being out and about during the night: Roman soldiers who kept the watch, and shepherds who tended to their flocks. The most scrupulously kept regimen of the Roman Army was the night watch. Lack of courage in battle was a terrible offense, but it could be remedied. Lack of disciple on a night watch was unforgivable, and soldiers could be tortured for sleeping while on guard.

Jesus borrows from this tradition, telling followers to stay awake at all costs. Don’t let yourself slip back into a dream. Times of fear call for vigilance. Just as a Roman sentry keeps watch all night long, the follower of Christ should be just as vigilant in keeping watch for signs of hope. We all play in this apocalyptic drama. The final act is dependent on keeping awake.

We surly could use hope at the dawning of this Advent season. And we need a brand new truth!  We need something better than a grand jury truth, better than an assumption that real justice can be rendered in a setting where privilege and disadvantage go unremedied and unseen. We need something better than all the efforts to find someone to blame. There is great sorrow for the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, but the greater sorrow is for the many young men who live today in hopelessness because their future is bleak in the cities of America. The greater sorrow is neighborhood businesses destroyed by a rage that is nurtured in people convinced that they have no place, and nothing to lose, within the economy of their urban setting. The greater sorrow includes those law enforcement officers who walk their beats with fear because they are assigned to patrol hostile streets where they do not live that are created by years of social neglect.

My heart breaks for the family of Michael Brown. My also heart breaks for Darren Wilson and his family. My heart breaks for every African American and any person of color who lives in fear of the police. My heart also breaks for any police officers who live in fear of every young black man they see. My heart breaks for Ferguson, and for every place where the Reign of God, where all are united to another and to God, has yet to be realized.

It has yet to be realized, but it’s coming. Yes, bad things happen in the night. Like that terrifying text from Mark’s Gospel, life is scary and dramatic and confusing. But Jesus promises a total remake of the world. Everything wrong will be set right. All of the powers that work in the night will be brought to justice in the day. Those who struggle will be lifted up. God’s Reign will replace the tyranny of the earthly authorities. Don’t we believe that the world needs God to turn it on its head? Beware. Keep alert. Keep awake.

I want to share a poem written in horrifying circumstances.  Its author, Miklós Radnóti, was a Hungarian Jew who, after working in a Nazi forced labor camp in 1944, was sent on a forced march with three thousand men. Only a few survived the Nazi’s cruel treatment. Radnóti himself died near the end of the march, shot by his captors and buried in a shallow mass grave. He was thirty-five years old. When the bodies were exhumed the following year, a notebook full of poems – some written within days of his death – were found in Radnóti’s coat. This one is entitled "Forced March":
A fool he is who, collapsed,       rises and walks again,
Ankles and knees moving          alone, like wandering pain,
Yet he, as if wings uplifted him,          sets out on his way,
And in vain the ditch calls him           back, who dares not stay.
And if asked why not, he might answer     - without leaving his path -
That his wife was awaiting him,         and a saner, more beautiful death.
Poor fool! He's out of his mind:          now, for a long time,
Only scorched winds have whirled       over the houses at home,
The wall has been laid low,                the plum tree is broken there,
The night of our native hearth             flutters, thick with fear.
Oh if only I could believe                   that everything of worth
Were not just in my heart -                 that I still had a home on earth;
If only I had! As before,                  jam made fresh from the plum
Would cool on the old verandah,        in peace the bee would hum
And an end-of-summer stillness        would bask in the drowsy garden,
Naked among the leaves                would sway the fruit-trees burden,
And Fanni would be waiting,             blonde, by the russet hedgerow,
As the slow morning painted            slow shadow over shadow -
Could it perhaps still be?               The moon tonight's so round!
Don't leave me friend, shout at me:                I'll get up off the ground!
15 September 1944         
Radnóti knows that all of the marching, step after exhausted step, is crazy. But if you were to ask why a man gets up after falling, he’ll tell you that his love is waiting for him at home, and a calmer death, a death of old age, is preferable to dying by the side of the road. He gets up and walks, even though he knows hope is crazy. The world is at war. Everything is wrecked, destroyed. But hope does not give up that easily. That’s how we are, we humans. We want to hope, to believe that a new and different reality can take hold. We want to hope that there is a safe place for us to return to. When we are tired and broken, when we fall in despair, we rise and walk again, ankles and knees moving on. In the dim light of night, the moon shouts, “Get up!” And when we hear voices calling out for justice, we also arise and walk with those who grieve, and mourn, and suffer.

Yes, bad things happen in the night. We live in turbulent times. So, to paraphrase another poet,
Let evening come.
Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.
Let evening come, and let us see whether we can choose to live as brightly and rightly as possible.


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