Alert and Awake to Hope

November 30, 2014
Mark 13:24-37; Isaiah 64:1-9; I Corinthians 1:3-9

On this first Sunday of Advent – and this last Sunday that I am with you for three months, I want to say something joyful and profound, memorable and inspiring. In fact, I almost had the perfect sermon prepared, in my mind, a sermon that I hoped would uplift and comfort. Then the announcement came of the non-indictment of police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. The advent scriptures came to life in a way that could not be ignored.

The immediacy of Isaiah’s cry to God, “Rend the heavens and come down!” no longer sounds like the far-off call of a long-dead prophet. “Tear open the heavens and come down, make your name known to your enemies” is now the gut-wrenching cry of a parent who has lost their child to violence. “Rip open the heavens and show yourself.” Don’t leave us here alone in this evil world, crushed under deception, destruction, and death.

Similarly, the text from Mark has new meaning if we try to read from the perspective of the folks in Ferguson whose voices are not heard, whose bodies are not respected. The writer describes a reality where all that is known is darkness. The sun does not shine, the moon is dark, the stars have fallen, heaven seems to have cut itself off from earth. Is there any reason to keep on keeping on?

The writer of Mark tells us that at the darkest hour, when all the known sources of light – the sun and moon and stars, when all is dark, then we will see the light of hope coming on the clouds. Then we will see Christ the light. Yet, we must look for that light, we have to keep our eyes open with hope. If we keep our heads down and are not alert we may miss it, just as easily as we fall asleep.

As a person of privilege, a white woman who does not have to worry when her teenage sons walk down the street at night, who stays home to bake bread and pies for Thanksgiving dinner instead of taking to the streets to protest injustice, who am I to talk about despair? Who am I to hold out hope? Isn’t life a little too easy? Do I have any right at all to speak into a sense of futility, to call on a God of justice? If I believe that God has a “preferential option for the poor,” as our Catholic friends say, how do I know that I am not calling down my own destruction?

But those who are white must start somewhere, we must take a risk. African Americans and other people of color take risks every day in this country. The risk of making a mistake, of looking foolish, of getting it wrong, these pale in comparison to the risk of “driving while black,” of “stop and frisk” and worse. Do I dare to step out of my warm kitchen and into the chill of the street, move from the safety of my home to the porch of my neighbor, holding my loaf of bread?

During advent we prepare ourselves to meet Christ again. It is the season when we celebrate that God did not stay in “some heaven light years away” but came to be among us, “here in this place,” in the midst of those who long for light. We remind ourselves that the Holy is still present, the body of Christ incarnate.

How is God tearing open the heavens and coming among us? even when there is injustice – especially when there is injustice? How is God among us, even when there is destruction – especially when there is destruction? When the darkness overtakes us, where do we look for light? When the despair is ever-thickening, where do we see hope? Can we allow ourselves not only to see hope but to be hope for others?

Though I did not take to the streets last week, my daughter, Cecilia, did as usual. Goshen, Indiana, where she is in college, has not historically been a friendly or safe place for African Americans. It takes a long time for the soul of a community to change. So it has been important that Malcolm, an African American student, has organized vigils in front of the Elkhart County courthouse in downtown Goshen in August and again this past week – to remind the town that “black lives matter,” that “this is about Goshen too!”

While some negative comments were hurled at the group from passing vehicles during the three hour vigil, there was also much affirmation. One car drove by and a man stood with his head out the window shouting words of support. Within a few minutes he had joined the vigil for the rest of the evening. He was new to the town of Goshen, a young African American, not sure how things would go for him as a resident. Was this gathering of African American, Latino, Asian and white young people a sign of hope for him? A glimmer of light in the fog of unknown?

Events like this were happening all across the country. My friend, Erica, attended the march in downtown Washington. She says: I was struck by the number of folks who were visibly from a variety of faiths. Women in hijabs, men in yarmulkes, I wore my (clerical) collar I was also struck by the demographic variety with race, gender, orientation, age, income, ability, nationality, etc. Folks from all kinds of backgrounds came together on a chilly November night because they felt so strongly about speaking out and/or supporting loved ones. Putting physical support with words trumped the particulars of the differences among us.

Is this a sign of God tearing open the heavens and walking with us? When we come together across the usual boundaries that separate us there is a spark of light that ignites. What will it take to fan that into a flame that gives light but does not destroy? Is this part of God incarnate?

A very different venue was another sign of hope for me recently. It happened on our recent trip to Goshen. Some of you may have heard about the “marathon hymn sing for peace” at Goshen College two weeks ago. People gathered with the goal of singing all the way through the blue hymnal, starting with #1 What is this place, and ending with #658 All praise to thee my God this night. (I got to sing for two hours in the “affirming faith” and “praying” sections.)

The hymn sing took thirty hours and over 300 people participated, students as well as community members. Children and nonagenarians and all ages in between joined in song throughout the night and day and night. One elder statesman informed me, “It is hard on your voice to sing at 4 in the morning.” The “Sing for Peace” was live streamed over the internet; people in 37 countries tuned in and sang along. In the end it raised over $10,000 for the work of Christian Peacemaker Teams.

When Cecilia told me that she signed us up to lead hymns for an hour at the hymn sing I was excited but not sure what to expect. What would our role as song leaders be? How many people would be there? Would the singing be any good? It didn’t take long to realize that this was not about song leaders or numbers or the level of trained singers; it was about the gathered body singing and listening to each other.

I saw clearly that the hope of the incarnation is not dependent on great leadership skills, perfect pitch or superb oratory (heralding angels notwithstanding.) The hope of the incarnation is not dependent on the brilliance of the people. The hope of the incarnation is not even dependent on the magnificence of the place. The hope of the incarnation, the light of Christ, depends on us – showing up to sing when it is our turn, and to join the continuous song.

My friends, the Holy is at work, in the places that seem to have been abandoned by sun and moon and stars. And in the places where the light shines brightly. As seekers of that holy hope, as followers of the Incarnate One, we must be there, in those places that seem to be abandoned. Because the amazing thing about the incarnation is that the light of God does break in – we must be there and awake to it. And the genius of incarnation is that we can “hold the Christ light [for each other] in the nighttime of our fears.” We hold the light and we share the light so that it grows brighter and stronger.

In this season of preparing ourselves once again for the hope of the incarnation, let us be alert in the darkness and rejoice greatly when the light breaks in.