Careful What You Hope For

Sunday sermon from November 30, 2014
Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37
Given at Amherst Presbyterian Church, Amherst, Virginia

And so it begins.

Thanksgiving is over. The Advent journey begins in earnest. The Christmas shopping season begins in earnest. One of the nice things about having Thanksgiving so late is that now all of it begins roughly at the same time, roughly right now. I feel like this morning’s service should come with a starting pistol.

Less clear to me, however, is when all of this ends. Theologically, our Christmastide ends on Epiphany, the celebration of the arrival of the Magi, but you know as well as I do that by time January 6 rolls around we will have long since lost our taste for “We Three Kings.” By then it all will feel very much like a party that everybody else has already had had the good sense to leave. Because you know as well as I do that Christmas really gives you a couple of days, and then a few more as a grace period, and then it’s New Year’s, and that New Year’s is the unofficially approved end to the Christmas Season, and on January 2, everything goes back to normal.

Well, almost everything. On January 2nd, everything will go back to normal, except, of course, that we all go into that new day still clinging to whatever New Year’s Resolution we have chosen for 2015. Which is to say that everything goes back to normal on the outside – we go back to work, we go home from vacation, schedules resume, meetings continue, classes reconvene – everything goes back to normal except that next year I am going to the gym fifteen minutes a day. Next year I am turning off the television an hour before bedtime. Next year I am going to McDonald’s no more than once a week. And as a secular end to the Christmas Season, New Year’s makes worlds of sense — you’ve just spent six weeks stuffing yourselves with every indulgence you can think of and it makes sense to land on a spot of self-imposed purgatory.

But theologically — and I know, it’s just the first Sunday of Advent, and I’m asking a lot — but theologically, it seems a very strange thing to exit the Christmas Season on a note of personal discipline and suffering. The Gospel we proclaim on Christmas Eve is not that God only came into the world for those who promise to lose that extra ten pounds. The Gospel we proclaim on Christmas Eve is that the world so overflows with God’s grace and therefore who wouldn’t want to eat an extra piece of cake? And then New Year’s comes — and mind you, we’re still waiting on Epiphany, we still have left in our theological calendar kings bringing more presents — and in the meantime, everybody else wakes up a bit hungover from all that grace, and everybody else dusts themselves off, and everybody else goes to work. Or the gym.

All that in mind, what I want to this morning is make a theological case for New Year’s Day as the theological end-point of the Christmas season. And this is not as superficial or as clerical as it sounds. It asks a fundamental question about what we are doing as pilgrims on this Advent walk. It asks a question, as we go through these Advent Sundays and as we see the banners unfurled on the walls, it asks a question on this first Advent Sunday about hope itself. What is it that we hope for this Advent season? Are we are on this journey hoping for the bounty of Christmas morning; if we’re here for the presents, and here for the decorations, and here for the carols, and here for the gluttony of it; are we on this journey hoping for all the things we get out of it? Or are we hoping for something more personal? It’s the question I ask to each of you this morning: are you hoping towards Epiphany, a hope based on receiving God’s grace as you are, or are you hoping towards New Year’s, a hope based on transformation?

In some ways I think this is the question asked by our scripture this morning. You will notice that the lectionary for the first Sunday of Advent, as it often does, selects for us a pair of texts deeply concerned with the future intervention of God. They are both examples of what we would call Biblical apocalyptic, which is to say, they imagine and beckon some future in which God’s invasion of creation is all the more manifest. In the Gospel text Jesus describes something like the second coming of the Son of Man, and we hear the familiar invocation, “Keep awake, for you know not when the master of the house will come,” and again, it’s no coincidence that we read this as an opening into the season of Advent, a season which is of all times in the Christian year the most apocalyptic in focus, which is to say, we sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” and we mean it, and we hope fervently for a coming both symbolized on our every Christmas morning and realized in the promise yet to be fulfilled, a promise of peace on earth and goodwill towards all, a promise of charity and unity and abundance.

But before we get there, I want you to observe that while these apocalyptic visions may imagine a future of peace and goodwill, the mechanisms they employ sound pretty painful. “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from Heaven,” Jesus says. And the Isaiah text is even more remarkable because in this one Israel’s literally asking for it. “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” the people say, “so that the mountains would quake at your presence. We have all become like one who is unclean.” And it’s all the more radical because Israel has been down this road before. Not twenty-five chapters ago Isaiah addressed a people lost in exile: “Comfort, comfort, my people, says your God; speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” and from then it told the good news that God was coming to rescue God’s people from Babylon, that God was coming to rebuild the lost the city of Jerusalem, it told the good news that is so central to the good news we celebrate this Christmas season: that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, that we can now live in hope, hope based on the deliverance of God.

But now, in the sixty-fifth chapter of Isaiah, Israel’s faith has moved past deliverance to a hope based on their own personal transformation. “We have all become like one who is unclean,”  they confess, —and now Israel needs God to come back again but it’s not for deliverance from some opposing army. It’s not for liberation from some outside evil. Israel’s hope is that God will come back and save the people from themselves. This is hope based on transformation – “We are the clay; you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” That’s the apocalyptic hope: that we might not always remain the sinners we have always been. That’s what we hope for on this First Sunday of Advent: transformation. But for Israel, if it’s gonna come true, it’s gonna hurt. “Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence, as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—”

You hope to change the world?, the text asks, with the deep wisdom of experience. You hope for peace on earth, goodwill towards all? God can do it, the text replies. But it’s gonna hurt. Hope, based on transformation, based on pain. God can do it, but it’s gonna burn.

Of course, transformation always hurts. We get comfortable in one shape and it’s no fun becoming a new one and anybody who’s ever kept a gym membership into February can tell you that. But of course this text doesn’t really care whether or not you keep off those extra ten pounds. This text is in for the big stuff. This text is in for Israel’s big sins, the stuff they do time and time again, their greed, their selfishness, their failure to protect widows and orphans and foreigners living within their communities, their failure to obey the basic social contract that lives at the heart of the Biblical covenant. This text is about the deep historical sins that Israel cannot seem to escape, exile or no exile, deliverance or no deliverance, sins of discrimination and injustice that follow them at every turn. This text is about how to hope for peace and goodwill when and if hope requires transformation by fire. In other words, in December of 2014, in this time, in this place, in the United States of America, of course, this text is about Ferguson.

Last Monday St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch stood behind a microphone and announced that, after a months-long investigation, a grand jury had declined to bring any indictments against white police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting of an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown. You probably know most of this. Brown’s death has become a flashpoint for national conversations both about race relations on one hand and about police brutality, militarization, and authorizations for lethal force on the other, and while few observers expected the grand jury to produce any indictments, the curious ways in which they failed to do so has added to the conversation questions about due process and legal transparency. In the aftermath of the verdict, sections of Ferguson were overwhelmed. In some cases looters broke away from the crowd and took to violence. In other cases the police lobbed tear gas into peaceful gatherings.

It has been a brutal week.

And the brutality of the week is compounded by the fact that it is incredibly difficult to talk about, everywhere, and perhaps most of all here in this room. It is easy and almost inevitable in these moments to get bogged down in questions and doubts about facts which we do not know in full. We have substantially differing eyewitness accounts as to the shooting of Michael Brown and it may be the case that we never fully know the events that led to his death. We may never fully know the Grand Jury conversations that kept indictments off the table; we may never fully be able to trace the actions and counteractions of police and protesters, peaceful and violent on both sides. But do not hear me in this moment say that I think the reality is therefore somewhere in the middle or that we can therefore just write it off. Rather what I want you to hear from me this morning is that we are sinful people, and we bring our sins to the table, and it makes the conversation hard.

But I believe this: we are also hopeful people. Our prejudices may divide us but our hope unites us. We are, of all things, Advent people, who hope for God’s promises yet to be fulfilled. We in this room and throughout this country are people who hope together especially in this season for peace on earth and goodwill towards all, and God can do it, I believe it, you believe it.

But this is no cheap hope.

It is the great apocalyptic hope of Advent: hope that we might not always remain the sinners that we have always been, hope that God the potter can mold us into something new, hope based on transformation, based on pain. So for all of us who look towards Ferguson and hope for a country whose racial wounds are a thing of the past, we should be careful what we hope for. Because God can do it. But it’s gonna hurt.

In South Africa, we met with an organization called the Khulumani Support Network. Khulumani is a network of survivors of Apartheid violence numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Khulumani is the most prominent national voice keeping alive the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the TRC, that worked after the fall of Apartheid to give voice and justice to victims of the brutal regime. The TRC had officially recognized several thousand Apartheid victims to the government for the purpose of receiving reparations, and the government paid them far less than what had been recommended despite having more than enough money in a specific account for the purpose of those payments, and part of what Khulumani does is to both acknowledge Apartheid victims far beyond the scope of what was originally allowed by the TRC — victims that could not bring themselves to testify at the time, victims who didn’t understand the questions, victims who didn’t understand the process — and to level pressure against the current government for access to reparation money that has, fifteen years later, gone largely untouched. The central conceit of Khulumani is that these victims still have voices that need to be heard. That’s what the word means in Zulu: Khulumani. We are still speaking.

But the thing that shocked me most about Khulumani was this: that among its hundred-thousand-plus-membership you will not find not only Apartheid victims but also its perpetrators. Members of the Apartheid police. Prison guards. Government officials. Perpetrators of one of the worst systems of racial injustice in modern times who were themselves so victimized by their own actions, so traumatized by the violence of the system they served, perpetrators so victimized that they still need to tell their story. And so they sit in support groups and tell their stories. And so they sit in conversation with their victims and tell their stories. And so they live to tell their stories, stories of brutality beyond our imagination, stories whose telling rests on the conviction that the legacy of the TRC still matters, that the truth still matters. With thousands upon thousands of their fellow South Africans they proclaim year in and year out – they are still speaking – that their hope for transformation, their hope for no longer being the sinners they always had been — their hope rests on the painful acknowledgement of what came before. It hurts. It’s got to hurt. But then, that is the Advent hope we proclaim so loudly this day: a hope based on transformation, which is based on pain, which is based on truth. The truth hurts.

It is, of course, the language of confession — we have all become like one who is unclean. The truth hurts. And it is the only way through.

So now, this Advent, after Ferguson, who will tell the truth about race in America? And I don’t mean the truth about what happened on that Saturday afternoon or what happened inside that Grand Jury chamber. Those answers matter but they are not the big truth. The big truth is that America’s racial wounds have never had a chance to heal because all we have ever wanted to do was move on. The big truth is that this country was built on the original sin of racism, and continues to be traumatized by its effects. The big truth is that this country was built in large part by Africans and Native Americans, children of God whose lives did not matter in the eyes of my white ancestors, and whose lives continue not to matter as long I refuse to tell the truth.

The truth is, I can move to any city in this country and be reasonably sure of finding a place to live. The truth is, I can be pulled over for a traffic stop and be reasonably sure of my own physical safety. The truth is, I can go to the movies, or open a history book, or turn on C-SPAN, and see people of my own skin color (and gender and sexual orientation) widely represented. The big truth is that I was born into a system of privilege that was built on the backs of those it continues to oppress.  So were most of you. We did not build it; in fact we are both its perpetrators and its victims; that’s how trauma works; but, there’s no moving on for any of us until we tell the truth. The big truth is that any violence undertaken by protesters on the streets of Ferguson pales in comparison to the violence recapitulated against black and brown bodies every time we do not tell the truth.

But the lie is comfortable, because it is the shape that we know how to be.

Lord, that you would open the Heavens and come down. We have all become like one who is unclean. Last Sunday Michael Brown, Sr., father of the deceased, walked into a four-hundred-gallon pool at Flood Christian Church in St. Louis and emerged newly baptized. It was not timed around the grand jury deliberation; in fact, the baptism had been planned months in advance; in fact, it was intended that father and son be baptized together, but of course that was not to be. And then, Monday night, when violence struck the streets of Ferguson, Flood Christian Church was burned to the ground. The ATF is investigating. The pastor suspects white supremacists. Why would protesters burn a church? I don’t know that truth.

But I know this one: this week the baptismal waters of God are too full of the blood of God’s children. This week we who have on our hands the waters of the covenant of grace also drown in the blood of the ones who have died for our sins. This week we who have already massacred one son rush towards the manger to massacre another. We can say we’re in it for the presents, or the decorations, or the carols, or the general gluttony of the season. Or we can tell the truth. And it will hurt. But it will transform us. And it will leave us changed. And it will send us into the New Year more resolved than we ever have been.

So I hope.