Sunday, December 7, 2014

Waiting for word

Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr. was a retired Marine Corps veteran whose Life Aid medical alert bracelet went off accidentally at about 5 o’clock in the morning on November 19, 2011.  Police officers responded to his home in White Plains, New York and he told them through the door of his apartment that he had not called them and did not need them, and he asked them to leave.  The Life Alert device in his home made an audio recording of what happened next—the officer’s curses, and shouts of “nigger”, the breaking-down of his door, followed by the use of a taser on a 68-year old man with a chronic heart condition.  The officers then shot him with a bean-bag round from a shotgun, before finishing him off with a revolver. 
A secret grand jury convened to review the case and on May 3, 2012 announced it would not bring criminal charges against the police officers involved in the shooting.  Two days later the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York said it would review the case for possible violations of federal civil rights laws.  The family of Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr. is still waiting for word. 
Another family in Ferguson, Missouri now waits for word on the case of the man who shot young Michael Brown; just as they are waiting for word on Staten Island about the policeman captured on a cell phone video choking Eric Garner to death.  They waited for grand juries to conclude their secret proceedings, only to hear the word of no criminal indictment, and now must wait for word of possible federal civil rights cases.   People of color all over this country are waiting, waiting to hear the word that the life of a black man in America is not something cheap, that can been thrown away with impunity, but that word never seems to come. 
Words are being said, words like “Justice Department investigation,” and “officer re-training program” and “restoring trust in the police,” but those of us for whom the police represent protection and service do not know what it’s like to live in communities where there is no trust to restore.  We are not black and brown people in Ferguson, Missouri or one of the other neighborhoods all over this country where the police historically have been and all too often remain a presence of constant harassment and intimidation, and occasional murderous violence.  Those people do not take comfort from such words. 
The carefully calibrated statements of the state’s attorneys and federal officials are inadequate to their longing for justice.  The politicians’ vague promises of reform are not enough to sustain their hope.  But, though it might not be my place, I will say that neither will it be enough to punish individual police officers.  Some, no doubt, are filled with racist hate, but others are simply men in a dangerous occupation reacting as anyone would to their perception of a deadly threat.  Either way, they are products of systemic violence and institutionalized prejudice, oppression, and fear.  They also are victims.  
So putting a few more people behind bars, even white police officers, might give momentary satisfaction to the thirst for justice.  But it won’t be enough.  It won't be enough to end the folly of treating our nation’s social sickness with a militarized remedy.  This has already given us the second-highest per capita prison population in the world and turned Mexico, Colombia, and Central America into a killing field.  But it has not made us safe, or free—not even drug-free.
Sending Darren Wilson or Daniel Pantaleo to prison might signal that it is still a crime to kill an unarmed person even if that person is black.  And that would be something.  But it will do nothing about poverty and the lack of vocational and educational opportunities that forces people into the underground economy.  It will not rid our streets or our homes of the omnipresent cheap weapons that turn every routine traffic stop, and neighborhood party, and domestic quarrel into a potential firefight.  It will not end the school-to-prison pipeline that begins downgrading the academic expectations of black and brown males, and disproportionately singling them out for disciplinary punishment, in the lower grades  of elementary school. 
More long prison sentences will not heal the lingering wounds of the devastating trauma of slavery—of nearly four hundred years of systematic kidnapping, murder, rape, assault, torture, theft, and other mass crimes against humanity that were never indicted, and to this day are still hardly even acknowledged.  In the face of such sin and evil, and its ongoing denial, no indictment, or verdict, or punishment will be the word we long to hear. 

There are times when only the voice of God is enough.   There are situations where only God’s word can move the people who are hopelessly stuck, or comfort those who are utterly desolate. It’s times like these that call for voices that make a straight and level highway for the truth.  We need words of judgment and of comfort, words that will stand firm forever.  The families of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, of Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant, Andy Lopez and Kenneth Chamberlain, Jr. need to hear that they have served their term, that their penalty is paid, that they have received from the LORD's hand double for all their sins, but now the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.  Darren Wilson needs to hear this too, and George Zimmerman, and Daniel Pantaleo.  We all do.
The Gospel of Mark begins with someone who speaks those kinds of words, with a voice like thunder in the wilderness.  John tells the people to prepare a way, so God can come and set them free from their hopelessness and violence.  He does not call them out to the Jordan one by one, for individual acts of repentance.  The power of John’s voice inspires a mass movement.  They all go out to him together, rural people from the villages of Judea right alongside city dwellers from Jerusalem, a national movement of repentance and hope for forgiveness.  They all go out together to the Jordan, to the place where their ancestors crossed over from the wilderness and took possession of the land.      
John tells them that if they will stop denying what they have become, and admit the truth, they can become a new people. They have a chance to start again.  It is God who is giving them this chance, because God’s has come.  God is not delaying any longer, but is coming to them, and will do a new thing.  “Someone is coming,” says John, whose voice was able to get them all up bring them en masse to the banks of the Jordan, “someone more powerful than I.  I am not worthy to stoop down and untie his sandals.  I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Every year in this season of Advent we hear the voice of John, crying out in the wilderness, because this is the season of hope for the chance to start again.  This story offers us an extraordinary and powerful vision, the kind of word that can save a nation from itself.  It is a vision of our whole people going out together, going down to the waterside, going back to the shore where we first came into this land.  And whether we came here in the first class cabin or in steerage, or as cargo in the hold of a slave ship, we all strip down together.  We shed the entitlements of our color, be they entitlements of white privilege or of black grievance.  And standing there together, in our underwear, each of us confesses our part in the sins that have turned our nation into a place of hate, of violence, and fear.
We tell this story every Advent, and perhaps this year we tell it with a heightened sense of sorrow.  But in that sorrow there is hope, hope for the coming of God.  The story tells us to prepare the way, because the Lord will come.  If we can stop blaming and stereotyping one another and listen to each other speak the painful truth, God’s coming will not be wrathful judgment, but consolation.  God will make a new beginning.  He will forgive us, and more than that, his Holy Spirit will clothe us.  She will give us power to heal and restore. She will give us new visions, new voices, new words to speak.  She will make us a new people, no longer Black nor White, male nor female, slave nor free. 


Thursday, December 4, 2014

The new word of light

Last Tuesday, after work, I picked up my daughter from swim team, and we drove home.  My wife was seeing clients that evening, so I made us all dinner.  Meg arrived and we ate, and while she was cleaning up the kitchen, I took the dog out into the dark for a walk.  We went to our favorite place, a large, undeveloped field behind Casa Grande High School.  I had the bill of my baseball cap pulled down low, and I guess I’d been walking with my eyes on the ground, thinking about all I had to get done before the Thanksgiving holiday, and maybe there were some low clouds or haze on the horizon—I’m not really sure. 
But, for whatever reason, without even really thinking about it I had gained the impression that I was trudging along under an overcast sky.  Because when the dog and I came out into the open field I happened to glance up and was surprised—no, I was actually startled, to see stars.  There were Auriga and Taurus and the Pleiades, and Orion just rising in the southern sky.  I’d been out walking for ten minutes when I looked up for the first time, and when I did it was as if the lid was lifted off of my mind, and I was pulled up out of myself into a larger, more brilliant and beautiful world.
The scriptures and hymns of Advent tell us that something like this is going to happen, to all of us, on a cosmic scale.  It is a somber message, in a way, because it says that our present state, the conventional viewpoint and collective assumptions that we take for granted and that color everything we know and do, are astray in a shadowland of ignorance.  But is also an image of hope—the hope that, as if out of nowhere, God will come, bringing a new light to reveal a new world. 
The idea that God is coming is a bit frightening.  Because whatever it would be like to meet God, it isn’t a possibility we have taken all that seriously.  Now by “taking seriously” I don’t necessarily mean being stiff and pious and uptight.  Not if you take Jesus as a guide to what it means to be centered in God.  It might actually involve being a lot less anxious and driven and a lot more open to just hanging out with all different kinds of people, sharing a table and conversation about the things that matter most.  After all, in the Gospel stories the enemies of Jesus are the ones who think he doesn’t take God seriously enough.  And, as he demonstrates, they are really just taking themselves more seriously than they should.
Nevertheless, Jesus was in the line of the Hebrew prophets who spoke on behalf of God to make certain demands.  There were ethical demands for a high standard of generosity and truthfulness, of compassion, and justice.  And there were what you might call devotional demands, because God loves her people passionately and cares for them tenderly, said the prophets, and desires their love in return.  So the prospect of God’s coming in power and majesty has to make us stop for a minute and ask ourselves how wholeheartedly we have responded to those demands.  And I venture to say many of you would probably have to join me in saying, “not very.”
But this isn’t merely a symptom of our secular, materialistic age.  Isaiah says to God about the Israelites in his day,
                      “We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;”

Isaiah knows that the presence of God brings with it the painful recognition of how tenuous our faith really is, of how easily we can be blown off our deepest intuitions and noblest intentions.  But for all that, Isaiah hopes with all his heart that God will come, because the presence of God, even in awesome judgment, is a thousand times better than an endless absence that would leave us forever as we are.  Because it is God alone who has the power to inspire new faith and commitment in his people; it is God alone, the potter who formed us from the clay, who can reshape us into something new.

And from one perspective the New Testament says pretty much the same thing.  It is full of a heightened sense of hope and expectation of the decisive coming of God.  This will be a trial for which only the grace of God can prepare and strengthen us, but it will also be a day of deliverance.   It will be fearful and awesome, but only because God will be personally present, forgotten and forsaken no more.  The New Testament gives the same summons that prophets like Isaiah gave, to be ready for an overwhelming, transforming encounter, and you could say it doesn’t really change the basic message to say that the redeemer we are expecting is Jesus Christ. 

But in another sense it is completely different, because this Jesus has already come.  In his brief ministry to Israel the Gospel writers perceived the decisive intervention of God in history, which shook the powers of the present darkness and filled the world with the new word of light.  And yet even as Jesus proved their faith and joy in the fulfillment of God’s promises, they had to account for the deadly opposition of the leaders of their own nation.  They could not help but notice how their good news left many people cold.  They saw how the world ground on, with the same dogged resistance to its own healing.

For a century or more New Testament scholars have been having an argument about what the first Christians thought about the future, about where it was all going, and how long it all would take.  As near as I can make it out, it has been such a struggle to interpret because the authors of these texts were also struggling.  They were wrestling with words and with the Spirit, searching for a way to describe their unprecedented relationship to time.  Because how do you speak about living at the intersection of thanksgiving and expectation, of remembrance and hope?

Today’s lesson from the Gospel of Mark stitches together different traditions that seem to say different things about what to expect.  You might read it as describing an apocalyptic event, something cosmic and glorious and final.    But then again, it might be silent and subtle as the yearly swelling buds of a fig tree softening toward summer.  And the passage closes with the repeated theme, as insistent as a drumbeat or a ticking clock—stay awake, keep alert, be vigilant, be watchful, keep awake--as if there’s a danger that the climax of history will arrive and you’ll sleep through it, never knowing that it came.

As I searched in my own experience for an analogy, to put into my own words this paradoxical existence in time, the best I could come up with was childhood.  A child has already arrived in the world.  Its very being is the fruition of a miraculous and improbable journey.  She already is completely who she is, utterly singular and unprecedented.  A child lives in an immediate present, in a “now” that is only dimly aware of the enormity of the past, and the onrushing future.  And yet a child is also a promise of the adult, of the fully mature person he will become.  He is the hope that the world can still be something new.

And as I thought about this, it struck me that each of our scriptures today contains an emphatic statement about the Fatherhood of God.   They could as easily say “mother” because the emphasis is on parenthood, not gender.  And our great model, our redeemer, is a Son, into whose brother- and sisterhood God has called us.  The great “waking up” that Jesus makes possible is a life in which taking God seriously is a kind of play.  It is a life completely immersed in the moment, in all the suffering and wonder, hard lessons and joyful discoveries of childhood.  At the same time it is trusting that someone older and wiser, who loves us, is taking care of the big picture.  And it means knowing, with a sense of awe and mystery, that we are growing up into God.   

After all, isn’t that what we’re expecting, on this first Sunday of Advent—the birth of a child?

About Me

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Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.