Keep Alert!

A sermon preached by the Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson

On Sunday, November 29, 2015

At Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church

Saint Paul, Minnesota

It is Advent once again. That season of the Church often overshadowed by the otherwise sparkly secular “Holidays” that stretch from the feast we have just consumed to that even greater feast of presents and tinsel presided over by a jolly fat man in a red suit. Advent – when our religious calendar turns over a new page and we begin anew – blowing briskly into our lives with a cool edge, inviting us to self examination and clear-eyed watchfulness. We arrive here today no doubt with our minds already dreaming of a White Christmas, fingers sticky with pine sap, and looking eagerly to find that sweet beatific baby in a manger. And, instead we are greeted with dire pronouncements of the end! This Advent, as with each past, we begin with the promise of apocalypse, the end of all things. And, each year, the description of the end times sounds eerily like our times – blood moons and bombings and terror abroad and white supremacy at home. So, naturally, it has been the church’s predisposition to wonder with the religious nuts of the world, “when will the end come?” When is calamity coming upon the world that I might avoid it? When should I have my affairs in order so that I am not caught unawares?

Of course, it is just like us modern westerners to assume the story is about us, is directed to us. But, many scholars believe that these predictions of Jesus were not about some time to come, but are in fact historical truths being inserted into the sayings and teachings of Jesus. The gospel of Luke comes some decade or more after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and a siege that laid waste to the city, and Jesus’ words here can be seen as a “prediction” that these things shall come to pass. In 66 A.D. Jewish Zealots were able to expel Rome and occupy the city for about 4 years before Roman legions returned in a cataclysmic and decisive battle and reclaimed what they had lost. You can imagine, the destruction of the Temple, the loss of life, the desolation of their city – the Jews likely saw something of the Apocalypse in these horrific events. It must have seemed like the world was coming to an end. And, in many ways it was.

Yet, even then, amidst something so final, Jesus did not return and has not yet.

Or has he?

Jesus exhorts us in this morning’s gospel, that amidst these terrible and destructive events, his disciples should remember his words. Bricks and stones and shining towers may pass away – heaven and earth may pass away –  but his words will remain. And, what were these words but an invitation to see God’s promises at work – I will never leave you nor forsake you…for lo, I am with you unto the end of the age. Jesus, in his preaching and teaching invited us to take notice how God rarely arrived at the center of power, or at the heart of an empire, but on the margins, among the least and the lost. God shows up in the lives of the marginalized in those abandoned places of empire – God shows up in the midst people who dwell in the places where the powerful and the elite have left them to be forgotten. God shows up in these places and he promises he will never leave. Jesus is there, in Kayoro and Rondo and North Minneapolis – in places we would rather, most days not have to think about or pay attention to. And, Jesus exhorts us this morning to keep alert, to not be weighed down by drunkenness and dissipation.

We have, as the sociologist Brene Brown keeps teaching us of late, become a nation of self medication and escape. We numb ourselves through distractions and substances – food and booze and shopping and our gadgets – and we do it to avoid facing into the often painful and vulnerable feelings of our lives and the suffering of the world. But, as Brown has also been teaching us, as we use these things to escape anxiety and pain, slowly and incrementally we also numb ourselves from feeling joy and love, and we curb and dull our hunger for justice in the world.

In the excellent biography of the world renowned humanitarian doctor, the founder of Health Partners, an NGO that is bringing healing on an unprecedented scale in the poverty stricken global south and most especially Haiti, the author describes Paul Farmer as someone who has built his life to avoid ambivalence. Ambivalence, says Farmer, is an anxiety that afflicts particularly the privileged of the world. And, coming from that place, he has intentionally pushed his life and his talent out of the center of power, particularly North America where he grew up and Harvard where he was trained, toward the margins, to places where he has had to make immense sacrifices of creature comforts and privilege, to serve the least.

His biographer writes “I wondered aloud what compensation he got for these various hardships. He told me, ‘If you’re making sacrifices, unless you’re automatically following some rule, it stands to reason that you’re trying to lessen some psychic discomfort. So, for example, if I took steps to be a doctor for those who don’t have medical care, it could be regarded as a sacrifice, but it could also be regarded as a way to deal with ambivalence.’ He went on, and his voice changed a little. He didn’t bristle, but his tone had an edge: ‘I feel ambivalent about selling my services in a world where some can’t buy them. You can feel ambivalent about that, because you should feel ambivalent.’”

This morning’s gospel calls us out of our ambivalence and away from those things that would dull our senses to the pain of the world. Advent will not soothe our existential angst like the panacea of Black Friday. Rather it urges us to wake up, to not get too cozy, to examine what fears and worries motivate us, and to live with expectancy, always watching for the redemption of God coming amid the calamities of the world, to those on the margins.

A few days ago Black Lives Matter Minneapolis put out a call on social media for donations of children’s winter wear. It would appear that as the protest at the 4th Precinct goes on, there are not only people of all ages and means in attendance, and in need of appropriate winter wear, but so too, the encampment there has become something of a place of hospitality and relief to the neighborhood. Of course, they say never read the comments. But, forgive me Lord, I did. A common and understandable response to the request was to wonder why in the world would anyone bring a child to such a decidedly dangerous protest. One mother’s response made it abundantly clear – she takes her children she said to teach them about love in community, to “stand beside those who are being treated unjustly.

God’s power is made manifest in the lives of the powerless who speak up and stand up and will not be kept down. God’s redemption is made known through such as these. God is with them, and so must we – not as ones who have come to save, for their salvation is already at hand, but for our own redemption. Our redemption is inextricably tied to the redemption of those who are oppressed, for these are the ones with whom the Incarnate One stands, these are they to whom God is coming. We cannot bury our heads in the sands of a cozy winter holiday when Advent urges us to lift up our heads. Lift your heads, stand with the oppressed wherever they are, in your neighborhood or in North Minneapolis – lift your heads and see there, out in the abandoned places of empire, your redemption is at hand.

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