A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”
On this second Sunday of Advent, we are back at the beginning. The beginning of the good news; the beginning of Mark’s Gospel; the beginning of John the Baptist’s prophetic ministry; the beginning of a healing word to God’s people from the ancient prophet we call Second Isaiah.
It seems we are back at the beginning in our present-day world too. The nationwide cries of protest at the deaths of unarmed citizens at the hands of police officers force us to reflect on how far this country has come, or rather not come, from the civil rights movement of 50 years ago. How can it be that after all that, here we are today, still struggling to live a vision that can be embraced by all people together?
In Advent we proclaim good news: the Savior of the World is coming; a new creation is promised, and we are waiting with hopeful expectation for that new thing. But waiting is something most of us find difficult. Why do you think we listen to Christmas carols the day after Halloween? Because we don’t want to wait. Waiting allows a space where sorrow can enter in. Waiting opens our hearts to the reality of a suffering world, opens our ears to the cries of those in need. The busyness of the shopping season, the happy, happy, joy, joy refrain of the popular Christmas songs drowns out the other voices around us, the voices of lament. What shall I cry? What shall I cry about a world where children are murdered because their parents are Christian, where young men are summarily executed in the street by officers of the law, where those who suffer mental illness are ostracized?
What shall we cry about the centuries-old scandal of racism in this land of the free? Last week my friend Mike Kinman, Dean of Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis, challenged the cathedral deans throughout the Episcopal Church to initiate conversations about race in our communities. The death of Michael Brown in Ferguson was the flashpoint, but the cases of 12-year old Tamir Rice in Cleveland and of Eric Garner in New York, and of others coming to light day after day, demonstrate that such deaths are not confined to one city or one part of the country. Tomorrow it could be San Diego in the news. It could be your co-worker, or the child of your next-door neighbor. And the news is becoming less and less about individual cases, and more and more about an endemic disease, a deeply-rooted culture of prejudice that grieves the heart of God.
What shall I cry? I am no expert on race relations. Having spent the first half of my life in another country and then nine years in lily-white New Hampshire, I feel peculiarly unqualified to speak to this issue. I think the first time the question of race in America really entered my consciousness was the day in 1995 when OJ SImpson was acquitted of murder and one of my African-American neighbors in New Haven, CT, came out into the street and cried out, “OJ!” I remember the discomfort of realizing that a news story I had kept at arm’s length – another part of the country – another community – had penetrated my neighborhood, had ceased to be just a story and had become a reality that might affect my ability to walk down the street in safety. But that is what millions of our neighbors live with every day of the week. The mayor of New York City spoke this week of the fear he and his wife carry on behalf of their teenage son, who is black, every time he leaves the house.
A voice says “Cry out”. And I say “What shall I cry?” I don’t know what to cry. I don’t know what words I can usefully employ to express the guilt and grief I feel, because our justice system is apparently weighted against minority populations, because we and our neighbors can expect different treatment from the institutions of our society based on the color of our skin or the way we speak or the way we express our sexuality. How shall we heal the rage, the frustration, the fear that seems to rule so many hearts? How shall we answer the prophet’s call?
Last week I joined a new gym. During my orientation, I learned the rules, which include no leaving my stuff in the aisles, and no grunting at the machines. I found that mildly amusing, but it reflects a larger reality: we are not supposed to leave things untidy or to grunt and groan in our society. Order is important. An impression that all is well is important. Disorder and protest are threats to our comfortable lives. And Episcopalians, more than most people, appreciate order and peace, even and especially in our worship. We don’t want to hear people groaning aloud in church. We don’t want the embarrassment of public grief that the prophet expresses.
The prophet upsets the social order. The prophet always disrupts our comfortable way of life because there is always injustice and oppression in our world. The prophetic voice disturbs our peace, but only because that peace is a fragile illusion, an illusion available to us because we at St. Paul’s are not for the most part representative of a minority population in this city.
We can pretend that all is well: my refrigerator is full; my front door is securely locked; my children are safe. But what about my neighbor? What about the black teenager who is afraid to walk the city streets? What about the female college student who is more likely to be raped on campus than off? What about the Mexican child who treks through the desert and across the border to escape being recruited by a drug gang? What about the LGBT senior who lives alone on social security, depressed and isolated from the larger community? The prophet calls us to pay attention to their suffering, to embrace their pain as our pain, for, as long as one is in chains, we are all in chains. What shall we cry?
The prophet speaks to the city, because it is the city that needs most urgently to hear the prophet’s word. 2nd Isaiah addresses a people who have been exiled from God. They have forgotten who they are. They have stopped listening for God’s voice. They have not been living, only existing. This prophetic voice seeks to bring them back to life. These are people who have been deported from the land of promise and who live under constant fear of death and obliteration. Can we see South American deportees among them? Can we see Palestinian and Iraqi Christians among them? Can we see veterans who have been rejected by their families and communities among them? What shall we cry out for them?
The prophet speaks tenderly to us, offering good news, news that God’s people long for. Comfort my people: strengthen and heal them in a time of despair, of fear, of denial and guilt. The valleys shall be raised up and the rough places made plain. The playing fields will be level. The injustice that is rife will be washed away by God’s righteousness. All people will be treated with respect and compassion. This is how the glory of the Lord will be revealed, the Lord who loves the stranger and cares for the orphan, the Lord who is zealous for righteousness, who holds all lives in the palm of a hand, whose breath gives life and takes it away.
How shall we who are part of the oppressive structure enter into the pain of those who are oppressed? What shall we cry? The prophet’s first task is to awaken us, to rouse us from our anesthetized stupor, which is caused by too much comfort, too much consumption, a spiritual version of the Thanksgiving food coma. Once we are awakened to outrage at the current state of affairs, we must grieve, and we must confess our own complicity. Only then may we hear God’s call to action, to take a revolutionary stance. This is the stance that believes that new creation is possible, that we have not already experienced everything there is or could be. The revolutionary stance is a stance of hope. The prophet dares to proclaim that God takes sides, that God is on the side of hope and change, the side of justice and righteousness.
There is good news for the hopeless. There is food for the hungry and a home for the outcast. This is the promise of Advent. This is the beginning. The beginning of the good news of Jesus, the anointed one, the son of God, who is bringing a new thing into our world, a new way, the way of righteousness and peace for all people; and all people shall see it together. But how can all people see anything together? Our perspectives are so very different. How can I, a middle-aged, white, European woman, see God’s justice in the same way as a young black high-school dropout? How shall we come together to see God’s justice with the same eyes? We begin by raising a common voice in lament at the status quo. The voice that cries out.
The prophet calls us to set out together on the journey to liberation. It isn’t a short or straightforward journey. It leads through the wilderness. It involves twists and turns. It might even lead to death. The prophet calls us to travel in the company of those we don’t know, don’t like, don’t want to recognize as fully human. The prophet calls us to go to places we hadn’t imagined with people we never imagined could be our friends.
Advent is all about the new thing that is possible, that we cannot imagine, that will disrupt the order of things. Advent is a subversive season, a time of disorder, as we lament the wrongness of the world, as we grunt and groan in agony for our neighbors who suffer, as we wait in hopefulness for something we do not know and cannot control. Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
December 7 2014, 2 Advent
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges