ADVENT SERIES: IN THE FLESH
The God Option
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC December 7, 2014, the second Sunday of Advent.
Texts: Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is in the wilderness. For Mark, there are no angels, no star, no stable, no Mary and Joseph, no temptation dangled before us to hold the baby Jesus in a perpetual state of innocuous cuteness. Mark’s drama is less Hallmark Channel and more independent film. The scene opens in the wilderness with an intensely odd character named John standing at the river, crying out for things to change, for hearts to change, for lives to change, and baptizing people who come to confess.
This is not our familiar Christmas scene, this wilderness place with a wild-eyed prophet “screaming purple-faced at us about our sins.”[i] But for what is widely believed to be the oldest telling of the story of Jesus—the Gospel of Mark—this is the beginning. This is where we start. We start in the wilderness. We start in our sinfulness. We start in our brokenness. We start by being confronted by the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, one who doesn’t mince words, who names names, who won’t back down even when his life is in danger, who very quickly gets arrested and ultimately killed for naming the unlawful abuses of power by the King (Mark 1:14, 6:17 ff.).
We don’t want to hear any of this, I’d wager. Not during this season…or ever, if we’re honest. We’d prefer to change the channel. It is painful to be confronted with our sins, but it is only when we allow ourselves to really look with eyes wide open that we begin to acknowledge that something might need to change. And when we drop the distractions of our daily lives that keep us inert and numb to the truth, we begin to see the beautiful and terrible paradox of our human condition, the reality that we are, each and every one, a complex mixture of light and darkness, of brokenness and strength, of generosity and selfishness, of courage and fear, of grief and joy, of the capacity for great evil and also for extraordinary good. At every moment, we must choose how to be, what to do, when to respond, even the perspective from which we will try to experience life.
Last Sunday evening, my weekly covenant group read “The Grand Inquisitor” from Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. Among the provocative ideas proffered by Ivan the atheist brother in the novel who writes the story of the Inquisitor, is the claim that Jesus was wrong to believe that human beings were capable of using their free will for good. In essence, Ivan suggests that we can’t handle the responsibility of being truly free and that human beings are infinitely “weak, vicious, worthless, and rebellious”[ii]—that we are incapable of truly following Jesus or becoming more like Christ. It isn’t difficult to see how some might be so persuaded. I imagine that many in our world would agree that Jesus had too high an opinion of our kind. And they would base their position—as Ivan does—on the evidence. Wars and violence, greed and corruption, objectification and abuse are prevalent. Human freedom—this great and terrible gift from God—allows for so much suffering. And I must admit that in my praying with Isaiah 40 this week, I kept coming back to the line in verse four that says “uneven ground will become level” and I wasn’t hearing it in its context of hope. I kept thinking that the only level playing field we human beings have managed to create is sin—our capacity for doing harm and for suffering. We are equal-opportunity sinners. We do violence to one another and to ourselves in all sorts of creative ways. We’ve got it all: homophobia, xenophobia, religious intolerance, sexism, ageism, elitism, and on it goes… We human beings kill one another across every racial line and within every family and tribe from generation to generation.
And today we dwell in the capital city of a nation whose eyes are turned toward or averted from violence of a particular kind. The violent deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner at the hands of white police officers—and much that has happened in the aftermath—highlight the deep brokenness of humanity and the long history and reality of racial oppression and tension in our land. In the days and weeks just passed, so many powerful words have been written and spoken and sung—words of conviction and pain, words of outrage, words of lament, words of weariness, words being cried out in the wilderness calling for repentance, for change, for justice. And then there are the other words…words that focus on the “criminality” of young black men and how whatever happens must always be their fault. I fail to see how anyone will suggest that 12 year old Tamir Rice was at fault. Though I’m on FaceBook…I’m sad to say I will see such a suggestion eventually. And there are words of hate and demonization. In the midst of so much brokenness, it may be emotionally satisfying to resort to easy labels, but it is emotionally and spiritually devastating—to all involved. Hate speech directed toward any group—protestors, black people, white people, police officers—is violence. And, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence… Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”[iii]
What I observe is that many well-meaning and thoughtful white Americans look at the deaths and trials as single incidents, in which the central issue is whether the white police officer was illicit in his behavior or not. There is much talk about the evidence and the process and the system. The analysis of these questions are then used to determine whether the events are worthy of public outcry or are simply a personal tragedy among so many others. On the other hand, it seems to me that black Americans see these events “as part of a larger pattern of violence in which young black men in America are caught, a pattern that has not changed since the days of Jim Crow. And so the issue for them has not been focused on ‘what did Officer [So and So] do and why did he do it’, but [on the deep injustice of the event and the question]‘why does this event keep on recurring and how do we change this pattern?’”[iv] These different perspectives between the black and white communities are based on the fact that, as one black member of Foundry said to me, “we live in the same world, but different universes.” We see things differently based upon the experiences we have. Of course this is true for all people, but it is certainly true in our experiences of race and culture. It’s like the proverb that teaches that fish don’t know they’re in water. If you tried to explain it, they'd say, “Water? What's water?” They're so surrounded by it, that it's impossible to see. They can't see it until they get outside of it. But this is where the tragedies and outcry of these past weeks may be able to help: perhaps all that is happening will stir the “water” of white privilege in such a way that those previously oblivious to the other universes around them may begin to see or feel that there are, after all, different experiences that matter and other voices that need to be heard. But this will only happen if, instead of immediately lashing out, people—even some listening today—try to acknowledge and just sit with the defensive feelings and anger and frustrations that arise within, and listen for what the Spirit might be saying… Comedian Chris Rock has pointed out—in his inimitable style—that some data shows significant “white progress” in racial attitudes over the past forty years.[v] But when twenty percent of white Americans still believe they are more intelligent than blacks—just as one example—it is clear there is still a long way to go before the uneven ground becomes level.
In the weeks following Michael Brown’s shooting and death, I participated in a panel at the National Cathedral to discuss “racism, violence, and the church’s response.” Gary Hall, Dean of the Cathedral, shared that following the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, he was confronted by an African-American colleague about his silence on the event and forced to come to terms with the ways that he and many white clergy and churches choose to “opt out” of engaging issues of racial injustice. That statement hit me at my core. Because, while I have a long-standing and passionate desire for racial justice, I have been silent on Sundays when my voice should have been raised and have surely missed opportunities to engage in concrete acts of solidarity. The truth is that part of the “privilege” of being white is that white folks can choose to “opt out,” we can say we are tired of talking about race or of people making things about race. And we can do those things because when we wake up in the morning, we generally don’t look in the mirror and think “I’m white.” We can “opt out” because we don’t have to deal with the daily subtle and not-so-subtle indignities of racial bias. Our sisters and brothers of color don’t have the option.
So how can you “opt in?” First, ask God to give you the courage to be honest about your own attitudes and practices and then repent of anything that is not grounded in love and compassion. And to repent means not only to say something, but to do something. To repent is to change. You can also “opt in” by coming together with others who feel a call to address issues of racial injustice. There are two opportunities I want to highlight. This Thursday, we will meet here at Foundry to share, to pray, and to begin a conversation about how we can be advocates and allies in the work of racial justice in our city. And on Tuesday, December 16th, at Capitol Hill UMC there will be a district-wide conversation and strategy session, facilitated by our District Superintendent, the Rev. Dr. Joe Daniels. These are just a few ways that you can choose to “opt in.”
Today, I stand before you and simply say: black lives matter. The racial oppression happening in so many communities across our country is wrong. Racial bias is real and infects our culture like a cancer. It is not a “black problem.” It is a human problem. Racial justice is not a “leftist” or “progressive issue.” It is a Christian issue and an issue of conscience for all people of good will. Racism’s insidious power affects us all. We are broken. We stand in need. We are in the wilderness.
And this is where the good news of Jesus Christ begins. And a voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord. Because God is coming. Help is coming! God is coming into the places that are broken beyond our own capacity to repair, into the tangles too tight for us to liberate ourselves or others, into the dry and dusty ground of our own need. When we go into the wilderness, God will meet us there. God doesn’t “opt out.” God comes in the flesh and gets all up in our business, unwilling to settle for a long-distance relationship or to put up with just being polite or to settle for the uneven ground remaining uneven. God knows that we struggle to build that lofty runway in the desert and so chooses to make a crash landing right in the middle of it all to help us get the job done. God, in Jesus Christ, comes into the open wound of the broken places of our lives and of our nation and of our world and dwells with us there. And why? Because our God is a fool for love. Because, contrary to the Ivans of the world, our God believes that we CAN use the gift of our freedom for good, that we can be and become more like Jesus the Christ. God believes we can be better, do better, love better than we do today. God looks at our world today and sees the young people in Ferguson who are not in the news but who are prophetically preparing the way of the Lord through their non-violent vision and leadership. Our God sees the ones who have been tirelessly toiling for years in schools and non-profits and governments and grass-roots organizations in order to level the playing field for all God’s children. Our foolish, love-sick God looks upon the human condition and sees our light, strength, generosity, courage, and love. And because God loves us so much, Jesus came into the wilderness place and faced the demons we all face and lifted his voice and opened his heart and gathered his flock and cradled the little lambs and gently cared for the mother sheep and stretched out his arms and allowed the wound of the world to wound him, even unto death. And his dying act was love. And his dying breath: forgive.
[i] Scott Hoezee, http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php
[ii] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Part II, Chapter V.
[iv] Nancy Rockwell, http://biteintheapple.com/voices-in-the-wilderness/