In Advent we anticipate the coming of Christ, the Word made flesh. We celebrate that Jesus was born into the muck and ugliness of our fractured world. We remember that, in Jesus, God has walked among us, experiencing the joys and agonies of being human, in all its hungers and passions and struggles. We worship a God who became incarnate, who became more fully known to us in the life of a particular human living in Palestine 2,000 years ago.
What’s the significance of the incarnation, this peculiar Christian idea that God came to us in human form? More particularly, how does this understanding of an “embodied” God shape our understanding both of who God is and of what it means to be human?
This past Sunday, the youth and I were looking at statistics on the website of the American Baptist Churches USA that reminded us that 14 million children live in poverty in the United States and Puerto Rico. We sometimes romanticize the fact that Jesus was born to a poor young woman in an unremarkable village. But what does it mean to follow a Christ born into poverty when so many children are suffering, even here in the richest nation in the world?
We say that the church today is the living body of Christ. But just as Jesus’ own body was broken by the violence of the cross, our news is filled with the stories of other human bodies being broken, terrorized, and marginalized. I think sometimes it’s difficult for us to make the connections between the wounding of Jesus body and the bodies of those wounded by violence today. But when I heard that Michael Brown’s dead body was left lying in the street in Ferguson, Missouri, for four hours after he was killed, I couldn’t help thinking of how the Roman Empire left the bodies of the crucified hanging on display as a symbol of what would happen to those who defy its power. Just as the child of Mary was the victim of violence, far too many of our own children fall victim to violence, especially in communities of color. Following the One who was crucified demands that we share the outrage of those who have repeatedly been treated as if their lives, their bodies, and their children do not matter.
Several years ago, a few months after Hurricane Katrina, the church where I was worshipping took part in a unique Advent celebration. Rather than the traditional Christmas decorations, the front of the sanctuary was “decorated” to look like one of the many makeshift emergency shelters that had sprung up in the hurricane’s aftermath. Blue tarps were draped around the chancel, and several large plywood signs were spray-painted with words like “Help!” and “Save Us,” and “Need Water.” It was a powerful and deeply disturbing reminder that Jesus was not really born into the kind of bucolic pastoral scenes depicted in our nativity sets. He was born into a world of extreme human need, a world in which people were hungry and thirsty and marginalized and homeless and suffering. This is the world God loves.
God became one of us, took on this vulnerable human body, in order that we might know God’s love and might be empowered to live into the fullness of our humanity. And then God allowed Godself to be subjected to the worst our world of sin and death could deliver, in order to show us how these forces might be overcome through love and compassion. The poor child born in Bethlehem, the risen Christ who has unified us as his body, calls us to solidarity with all whose bodies are broken and marginalized,
so that we and our world might be made whole.
In light of disturbing news flashes from Ferguson, Oakland and other US cities, what does one say about Advent, this sacred season in which we wait – with anxiety, hope and wonder – for the transforming presence of the Word made flesh? As we seek to celebrate this baby, born to peasant folk, in an obscure Palestinian village, yet who comes to save the world, how will we also mourn the tragic loss of life on the mean streets of our cities? How will we pair Zechariah’s prayer of blessing with the outrage of grieving fathers or Mary’s song of praise with wail of grief‐stricken mothers?
If you move in any of the same circles as I, your social media outlets and television screens have been flooded with news “coverage,” op ed pieces and laments in the aftermath of the grand jury decision in the case of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. The struggle for me has been to understand the depth of the rage without letting that cloud the crying need for change in the social order. Where will the demonstrators and the pundits be when the tear gas clears, the smoke settles and the broken glass is replaced? Will it be business as usual, one more opportunity for transformation drowned in feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that overwhelm people of good will everywhere?
I have shared this before but it bears repeating, perhaps every year as we approach Christmas. It is from a Christmas card produced by the Fellowship of Reconciliation back in the ‘60s. The cover has the image of child of color, sitting naked in the dirt, tears streaming down its face. Inside, the greeting contains these words from Thomas Merton,
Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it, because he is out of place in it, his place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of person, who are tortured, bombed and exterminated. With those for whom there is not room, Christ is present in the world.
I suppose these words were penned during the Vietnam War, yet they ring true today when we consider the proliferation of refugees, the debate about immigration in this country, the “New Jim Crow” and the deep‐seated institutionalization of racism in our social order. Once again, the Christ enters this world in which there is no room. That is to say, we sing our carols, decorate our space, join in the feast, sentimentalizing the sweet little Jesus child and leaving no room for that baby’s power to transform us or our world.
My friend Betty Wright‐Riggins, posted this comment on Facebook, which raises a crucial question for people of faith as we once more enter the season of Advent, to watch and wait for the birth of the Christ. She says, “I, like many, am saddened and yet not surprised by the results of the grand jury in Ferguson. Wondering how do we minister with great hope to so many who are hopeless. This sense that the lives of our people and other persons of color are ‘less than’ is gaining credibility. A community leader in Ferguson last night said, ‘People across this country will see all of this violence and anger seemingly out of control behavior and dismiss us. But this is what hopelessness looks like. When your voice refuses to be heard.’” I imagine the leader is referring to Martin Luther King Jr’s observation that “A riot is the
language of the unheard.”
The unheard, the unseen, the unwelcomed – with Betty I wonder how we minister with great hope to so many who are hopeless. How do we let people know that they matter, and I don’t mean just shouting the watchword but preparing the way for that word to become flesh and dwell among us. Betty concludes her comment by quoting Richard Rohr, ʺWhen all appears to be out of control, thatʹs when God does a new thing.” Do you think so? Can you see it, feel it, touch it, taste it – God’s new thing coming among us, not so much in power and glory as in grace and truth? Betty urges us to “pray for the ‘new coming.’ Let us pray, our eyes wide open to see God in the midst of all of this chaos.” And if we see, let us also follow, dig in, get to work to bring in the justice‐bearing, peace‐making, relationship‐building of the God’s beloved community – in Ferguson, Oakland and our own backyards.
Come, Thou long expected Jesus
born to set Thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in Thee.
But before we rest, let us find first our hope, our peace, our justice, our joy, our compassion and our love in you. Come, Christ, set us free and transform our lives as we seek to serve you and walk your way. Amen. Pastor Rick
“Comfort, comfort ye my people…” With these words George Frederick Handel begins his great oratorio, Messiah. As I quoted last week, the masterpiece ends with a grand chorus proclaiming “Blessing and honor, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, forever and ever. Amen.” (Revelation 5:13). But long before we get to that triumphant conclusion we hear a lone voice, crying in the wilderness tender words of comfort and forgiveness, hope and salvation. The story of the Christ who reigns with glory and power begins with words of comfort and compassion
The writer of Second Isaiah, addressing his people living in exile, proclaims that their days of distress are about to come to an end, that God has forgiven them and desires to bring them home. With surpassing irony he declares, “’Here is your God!’ See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.” Ah but is this reward and recompense what we might expect – harsh judgment, further punishment, more distress and destruction? No, the prophet promises, “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” The word is one of restorative rather than retributive justice. God’s steadfast love surpasses all judgment.
These are beautiful words expressing lovely sentiments. But really, can we honestly claim to live with such hope, given the distress and destruction of our own existence? True, we are people of privilege with little or no thought of living in exile. We are blessed far beyond the average citizen of the world today. Still, we live with the threat of violence and terror, the rage of our sisters and brothers, the specter of poverty, the bloat of consumerism, the destruction of the planet. Our peace is uneasy. In truth, do we not live as far from the commonwealth of God as the Judeans lived from Jerusalem during their Babylonian exile?
“Comfort, O comfort…Speak tenderly…cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.” Don’t we sometimes long to hear such words spoken to us? Would we not like for someone, our father perhaps, to sing such a song of comfort, of tenderness, of forgiveness and restoration to us? Maybe it’s not such a stretch to hear Isaiah’s song sung on our behalf. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” This is a word for you and me.
The news this week has been filled with Ferguson and the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson. While we may have a variety of thoughts, feelings and opinions about this matter, we cannot ignore that those who have taken to the streets, who have lashed out in anger are still our sisters and brothers, as are those who have protested peacefully, those who have had to police the protests and those who have upheld the judgment and opposed the protests altogether. How are we to respond in compassion to such a range of expression? I have no easy answer, except to remind us that, as the body of Christ, we are called to compassion, to feel with others as we also utter words and engage in works of comfort, justice, healing and peace.
Here is one father’s song. How will we receive it? “’My emotions are all over the place. I don’t know what to feel. I’m just, I’m just here. I’m empty off of what happened,’ Michael Brown Sr. said in a back room at Greater St. Mark Family Church on Tuesday afternoon. ‘The whole thing with the death of my son and the verdict. I’m just crushed.’ The Rev. Carlton Lee, Michael Brown Sr.’s pastor, said the last three months have been extremely tough for Brown’s parents. ‘Right now he still wants peace but at the same time he’s full of pain, full of hurt.’” Can you hear, can you imagine the hurt, the pain? Where is the word of comfort, the work of compassion, the measure of healing? Ironically, such words of hope are part of Michael Brown’s father’s song, uttered before the grand jury verdict.
“My family and I are hurting, our whole region is hurting. I thank you for lifting your voices to end racial profiling and police intimidation – but hurting others or destroying property is not the answer. No matter what the grand jury decides, I do not want my son’s death to be in vain. I want it to lead to incredible change, positive change, change that makes the St. Louis region better for everyone. We live here together, this is our home. We’re stronger united. Continue to lift your voices with us and let’s work together to heal and to create lasting change for all people regardless of race. Thank you.”
Remarkable words of hope. As we embrace Isaiah’s words of comfort, tenderness, forgiveness and restoration, could we also join in this father’s song of hope for a day when racial profiling, police intimidation, destroying property and hurting others is left behind us? In compassion, could we commit ourselves to bringing about incredible, positive change that would make the world better for everyone, everywhere?
I was struck by a story shared on Facebook yesterday. It showed this picture, along with the following caption. “Peace among protest: A Portland police officer noticed a 12-year-old boy holding a sign that read ‘Free Hugs’ during a Ferguson demonstration in Oregon. The officer started talking to the boy about the demonstration, school and life. When they were done talking, the officer asked if he was going to get a hug. The boy teared up — and obliged.” Silly sentimentalism, like the cover of today’s bulletin? Maybe so, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to believe that these kinds of tender, comforting, forgiving, healing embraces are possible – for all of us.
Another father, centuries ago, sang a song over his infant son. It, too, was a song of hope. Old Zechariah, the priest, had been struck dumb for questioning the angel’s promise that a child would be born to him and his wife in their old age. At the time of the child’s naming, his speech was restored so that he could confirm God’s name for this special child. His song is sung to a people living in oppression instead of exile. The Romans ruled the land and his people chafed under the bitter yoke.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” Has the old man gone mad in his time of silence? What is he talking about? It’s one thing to read from the scrolls of the ancients, but he’s talking like this is happening today, in our presence. Does he think he knows something we don’t? It all sounds pretty unrealistic, don’t you think?
One by one they slink away in embarrassed silence, leaving only a handful of stalwart believers to hear his quavering voice come to the climax of his aria. “…you, child, my sweet baby boy, miracle of my old age, you will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.” Such tender words of promise, such powerful words of hope, such amazing words of vision! Could it be so, that little John was to be the forerunner of the Messiah, the one to announce God’s miraculous coming among his people? Then the coda, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
As with Isaiah and Michael Brown, Sr., God’s reward and recompense is not harsh judgment, further punishment, more distress and destruction. It is restorative rather than retributive justice which breaks like the dawn upon us, guiding our feet in the way of shalom, of peace and well-being, of healing and wholeness and home.
Well, if they had stayed they probably would have laughed at Zechariah’s vision, disdaining his silly sentimentality, mocking his song of hope. But, for some reason, these songs of fathers past and present keeping coming round. Somehow we can’t quite let go of them. As Desmond Tutu reminds us, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” There is something deep in us that longs to see through the shadows, even the shadow of death.
For us who claim to be followers of Christ, the promised one who comes to bring tender comfort, compassionate forgiveness, salvation and shalom, Brian McLaren writes this: “To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to have a dream, a desire, a hope for the future.” However, it is not enough to just hold hope. He says we need to “translate that hope for the future into action in the present and to keep acting in light of it, no matter the disappointments, no matter the setbacks and delays.” He concludes, “…let us begin this Advent by lighting a candle for the prophets who proclaimed their hopes, desires and dreams. Let us keep their flame glowing in our hearts, even now” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 66). In the light of that candle’s glow, let us sing the songs of fathers who have held hope in their hearts, proclaimed hope with their lips and lived hope in their lives that it might be so with us as well. Amen.