Sunday, November 30, 2014

SERMON: Watch for Tenderness (11.30.14)

An Advent Meditation on Mark 13:24-37

12/1/14 NOTE: I've been reminded, over the past couple of days, that language matters, that vocabulary matters, that we should all be careful in the way we describe monumental events and movements.  In the first part of my sermon (below), I refer to Michael Brown's being "gunned...down in the street."  While there was certainly tragedy and painful prejudice in the street that day, I should have been more careful with the way I described what happened.  Officer Wilson has his own story, and we need to exercise all kinds of sensitivity and wisdom where that's concerned.  That's not to say we avoid talking about race and racism, power and its abuses.  But all involved are human; and we will not move forward so long as we're tangled in a cycle of easy blame and finger-pointing.  The point in this is to look at OUR culture, OUR choices around force and power, and OUR racism.  DGJ (12/1/14)


Protests This Week
Tuesday morning, a high school in New Mexico, and a cafeteria of 225 students. 225 students trying to make sense of young Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, and a grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer who gunned him down in the street last August.  There are a lot of us trying to make sense of Ferguson and racism and violence this week.  What makes this school in New Mexico interesting is its international demographic: the 225 teens come from 80 different countries, places like Nigeria and Sierra Leone, places like Palestine and Israel, places like Columbia and Guatemala.  It’s an international high school, and these are kids who’ve seen violence and anguish and death in their own neighborhoods, on their own streets.  So they’ve been following the news out of Ferguson with a particular kind of concern, with anguish born of painful experience.  Michael Brown was, in many ways—in many, many ways—one of them.

Now what usually happens when 225 teenagers take over a cafeteria at lunch time?  Energy, right?  Noise and catharsis and energy.  Anxious energy as lunch tables are sorted out, who’s sitting with whom.  And exuberant energy as friends launch themselves at other friends, bear hugging one another while simultaneously balancing lunch trays and book bags and all the rest.  But Tuesday morning was different.  And two brave students stood in front of all the rest. And they tried to explain their anger around a system that seems to have exonerated not only an officer who shot a black teen, but racism itself.  They tried to explain, but they couldn’t.

Because on Tuesday, for two students at least, there were no words.  Instead, their voices shook as they asked their classmates to join them in four and a half minutes of silence.  Four and a half minutes of silence, they said, remembering the four and a half hours that Michael Brown’s body lay in the street that August night in Ferguson.  That’s all they said: and a deep and soulful silence blanketed the cafeteria; it fell soft and hard on 225 students and their teachers.  For four and a half minutes.  No one said a word.  No one lifted a fork.  A tender and devastating silence.

Late in the week, I came across the reflections of a teacher who was there on Tuesday.  She was there with her own grief and her own anger and her own broken heart.  And what those 225 kids did—or didn’t do—moved her beyond her own expectations and hurts.  Here’s how that teacher describes what happened on Tuesday: “On this sacred day, November 25, 2014, at 11:34 MST, in Montezuma, New Mexico, 225 kids resisted the impulse to organize their grief and instead sat with it.  The fact that they originated from so many far-flung places made the moment even more textured, even less political.  They were silent for one boy, from one town, but, no doubt, they were silent for so many boys, for so many girls, teenagers who could have been them that were no longer yelling in cafeterias and drinking chocolate milk and dreaming impossible dreams.  They were silent for teenagers whom they had known or not known.  They were silent for themselves—for the reality that they are growing up in a world that terrorizes some humans while letting others slip out of consequences.”

They were silent for one boy...They were silent for teenagers they’d known or not known...They were silent for themselves.  If you’re interested in reading more of the teacher’s reflections on that experience, you’ll find them on the site “”  Krista Tippet’s wonderful site.  It’s a powerful and provocative read.  And a reminder of how often teenagers lead us, sometimes painfully, sometimes awkwardly; but they lead us where we so desperately need to go.


We’ll come back to those four and a half minutes and I’ll even ask that we do something similar in our own prayer time this morning.  But first I want to look again at Jesus’ strange teaching in the thirteenth chapter of Mark.  Almost every year, we kick off Advent (and a whole new church year) with this odd reflection on patience and watchfulness and fig trees branching out and bearing fruit.  Almost every year, we begin our Christmas journey at the very end of Jesus’ life, at the tail end of his teaching.  Why?  Why this attention to falling stars and blooming fig trees?  Does it really prepare us for Christmas in any meaningful way?

I have a hunch that it does.  I have a hunch that what happens at the end of Jesus’ life has everything to do with Advent and the renewal of our faith.  So let’s check it out and read those first couple of verses again: “In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be failing 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...”  Now here’s the thing.  As long as we read these verses as literal predictions, as apocalyptic hallucinations, as the religious fantasy of fundamentalists, we’re going to miss Jesus and where he’s going here.  Jesus has absolutely no interest in forecasting the implosion of the sun, or the moon’s disappearance from the night sky, or the literal showering of stars from heaven.  That’s simply not his gig.

What Jesus is interested in, very interested in, is power.  It’s one of the primary, provocative themes of his teaching, from beginning to end.  Power.  He’s interested in the ways ignorance empowers bigotry.  He’s interested in the ways greed empowers empire.  He’s interested in the ways legalism empowers selfishness.  And he’s interested in the ways fear empowers violence.  What Jesus is interested in, always interested in, is power. 

And it’s so important that we recognize in this morning’s text the ancient language of power and its influence on human communities and especially the early church.  Again, if we think Jesus is talking about the implosion of the sun and the falling of stars, we miss the meat and potatoes of this teaching.  And the deep, challenging importance of Advent itself.

Instead, for Jesus and his contemporaries, the lights in the sky so often symbolize the great and persuasive powers in their lives.  We see this in all kinds of Jewish poetry in the same period.  The sun, moon and stars represent deities, forces, powers influencing human institutions and spiritual behavior and international forces.  We’re talking about violence and its devastating grip on human hearts.  We’re talking about bigotry and its perverse impact on communities and relationships.  We’re talking about fear and the way fear breeds through institutions and across generations.  Jesus and his contemporaries believe that these social realities have spiritual substance.  They exert power over hearts and communities.  And their impact is spiritual and deep.          

This is where Advent so often begins because this is the world we so desperately inhabit: the Ferguson, Missouri world of racism and institutionalized bigotry; the Black Friday world in which economy is synonymous with greed; the ISIS world in which violence is always justified and rage is holy.  Advent has something to do with shaping a church, encouraging a church that resists these many powers and embraces only the Great Power of the Son of Man.

Now if that sounds a little evangelical this morning, it’s intended to.  Because the Gospel, our Gospel, judges all these other powers—bigotry, greed, fear, violence, legalism—by the one holy power of God’s love and Jesus’ mercy.  In the thirteenth chapter of Mark, the one we’re reading this morning, Jesus is moments away from his own arrest, his own last gasp, his own loving sacrifice.  In the Gospel, our Gospel, his loving sacrifice is the only power that saves and heals and renews lives and communities.  Not violence.  Not bigotry.  Not fear.  But Jesus choosing to live in love, despite the cost.  Jesus choosing to forgive his executioners, despite the extravagance.  Jesus choosing to suffer for his friends, and even for his enemies.  Because that’s what love is.

“So beware,” Jesus says to his friends at the end, and to us at the beginning.  “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”  The point of all this, Jesus insists, is not some apocalyptic end time, not some holy war between the soldiers of good and the soldiers of evil.  The point of all this is not some crazy religious vision of suns literally incinerating and stars literally falling from the sky.  The point is that you and I are to keep alert to the true meaning of discipleship and faith: the opportunities we have every day to love and forgive and suffer for one another.  Keep alert, Jesus says as Advent begins.  Keep alert!

In my studies this week, I discovered that the Greek word Mark uses for ‘keeping alert’ is literally translated in English as ‘shaking off sleep.’  AGRU-PNEITE!  The challenge of Advent, then, is shaking off sleep.  AGRU-PNEITE!  And paying attention.  And choosing love over and over and over again.  AGRU-PNEITE!  The challenge of Advent is opening our hearts to the pain of our friends, and opening our hearts to the pain of Michael Brown and those 225 teenagers grieving for him in New Mexico.  The challenge of Advent is learning to trust not in our fears, not in our weapons, and not in our own wizardry and sophistication—but in the power of love itself.  That’s how we get ready for Christmas.  That’s how we fix up the church for the holiday.  That’s how we watch for the coming of the Christ.  By shaking off sleep.  AGRU-PNEITE!  By shaking off every illusion of impotence.  By shaking off despair itself. 


All week, it’s seemed to me that we need a different way to celebrate communion or observe communion or practice communion together this First Sunday in Advent.  After all, Advent marks the beginning of a whole new liturgical year: and today’s New Year’s Day in the church.  So what could be different?  What could we do differently, today, by way of keeping watch, by way of shaking off sleep?

Well, it strikes me now that those 225 teenagers in Montezuma, New Mexico, offer just the right way, the soulful and honest way into an Advent communion.  They see, with their hearts, that Michael Brown’s life is their life too.  They feel, in their depths, that his family is their family.  And they know, in their guts, that we’re all in this world together, that we live and suffer and heal and struggle together.  And only love makes us strong.

So in just a bit, during prayer time, we’ll take their lead and sit together and pray together and grieve together and hope together.  And we’ll do this for four and a half minutes in remembrance of Michael Brown and his suffering in Ferguson.  And we’ll do it in remembrance of so many others.  The teen who was shot and killed on his bicycle in Watsonville this week, the 43 college kids abducted and killed in Mexico this fall, and on and on and on.  And this will be our communion, and this will be our grief, and this will be our opening to the very special and very particular spirit of Advent.  Advent isn’t magic.  Advent isn’t all tinsel and glitter and pyrotechnics.  Advent is compassion.  Advent is prayer.  Advent is keeping watch and shaking off sleep and walking the walk.  By the power of love we will be healed.  By the power of mercy we will do justice for the poor and the beaten and the broken.  By the power of God we will see the Child of God born in our midst. 

“From the fig tree,” Jesus says in our reading, “learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer near.”  This is one of Jesus’ shortest and most important parables.  Revolutionary hopefulness in dangerous times.  Because weeks like this week test us in so many ways: they test our faith and tempt us to give up and give in to despair and rage and even cynicism. 

But Jesus insists that the fig tree’s branch becomes tender again.  Jesus insists that tenderness is the sign of grace and abundance and the power of God.  All is not lost.  The world is not tangled forever in a web of meanness and cruelty and bigotry.  The Child of God is coming with power and love. So let us watch for tenderness.  Let us watch for tenderness in the hearts of high school kids grieving for one of their own.  Let us watch for tenderness in the simple kindness of friends who call at just the right time and visit when we need them most.  And let us watch for tenderness in the brave activism of those who will not rest until justice is done.  Christmas is coming.  Love is putting forth its branches.  Let us watch.  Let us watch.  Amen.