LAMENT with HALLELUJAH
A Sermon by the Rev. Barbara Mraz
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
November 27, 2016
Gracious God, give us courage
Courage to speak the truth
Courage to live the Gospel
Courage to hope
Courage to love.
The First Sunday of Advent, those four weeks of waiting for a promise to be kept, for the angels to sing, for a child to be born. A time of preparation and waiting, of prayer and penitence, of quietness and hope.
While this may be the Advent ideal, the reality for many is that Advent is less about slowing down than speeding up. Less about the quiet acceptance assigned to Mary and more about intensified emotions especially grief and fear in this deeply-divided country.
The Gospel for today does not bring resolution, comfort and peace; it brings anxiety and uncertainty: “No one knows,” Jesus says, “about the day and the hour…. Two women will be grinding meal together and one will be taken and one will be left. The thief will break into the house at an unexpected time. The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Jesus gives only one way to prepare for this uncertainty; that is to stay awake. This is echoed in the Epistle from Romans: “Now is the moment for you to wake from sleep.”
An election with an unexpected result can wake you up and this one certainly has, regardless of whom you voted for!
I woke up to a new respect for the amount of fear present in our country, especially among those concerned with feeding their families.
I woke up to how many people feel that the good life is passing them by and desperately want “change” – even though the form that change may take is unclear.
I woke up to how many people voted against a candidate as for one.
I woke up with a sick feeling of fear for my country and myself that is new to me as I see acts of hatred and racism accelerate nationwide. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that over 700 acts of this kind of bias intimidation and harassment targeting Muslims, blacks, Latinos, immigrants and LGBTQ people have been reported since Election Day.
Some believe that the Church must say nothing to upset its members, do nothing that will make them squirm or distract from the purity of the worship experience. This kind of church is healing at times, but to say that routinely we should be insulated within these walls from what is happening outside them is not Scriptural, and ignores the fact that the Eucharist we celebrate so beautifully with polished silver and fair linen is also the last meal of a condemned man.
As a deacon in the church, I have a special duty: that is to bridge the gap between the church and the world. So I will speak today about how we might re-align our attitudes, behavior and social policies with the Gospel at this challenging time in our history. You will all probably be uncomfortable at some point today, but please honor my intention to be respectful.
The government under which the Jews lived at the time of Jesus was the mighty Roman Empire – and we know how much Jesus upset them. He was crucified for treason, for teaching that the law of God superseded the law of Caesar.
The Jews also were governed by the Torah, Jewish law, overseen by the Pharisees in the Temple. Again and again, the Pharisees baited Jesus with loaded questions, and Jesus repeatedly accused them of keeping the letter of the law but not its spirit.
When the Pharisees criticized the disciples for not washing their hands before eating bread, Jesus said: “Listen to me, all of you, and try to understand! Nothing that goes into a person from the outside can make him unclean. It’s what comes out of a person …Evil thoughts, sexual sins, stealing, adultery, greed, wickedness, cheating, shameless lust, envy, cursing, arrogance, and foolishness.” (Matt. 15:11).
I am trying to come to terms with those who seemingly ignored the outrageous statements of one political candidate and still voted for him. good people who do not routinely behave in these ways themselves. But since I don’t know their reasons, I can make no judgment.
However, personally, I cannot forgive the president-elect for some of his statements and behavior. Last week’s Gospel was Jesus on the Cross when he says to the Father, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We don’t really know if Jesus forgave those who put him on the Cross, but we do know that he asked the Father to do it; as we might have to ask God to forgive when in good conscience we cannot.
We know that Jesus was always on the side of the poor, the widows, the single mothers, the orphans, the homeless and the hopeless. We know that Jesus gave “health care” to all of those who were ill and came to him. Former President Jimmy Carter said this: “If you don’t want your tax dollars to help the poor, then stop saying that you want a country based on Christian values. Because you don’t…”
We also know that Jesus embraced a deep equality among human beings; as did Paul who wrote: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female–for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galations 3:28)
If we are to align our social policies with the Gospel, there it is.
One of the most annoying thing you can say to me is “calm down.” But I have Scriptural warrant for not calming down! When Jesus sees that the moneychangers and dove seller have set up shop inside the temple walls, he is outraged. As he strides over towards them, we can almost hear some of the more anxious disciples muttering, “Don’t do it don’t do it don’t do it” but he does it — and the tables are are overturned and the chairs are kicked across the room and the coins fly everywhere and the doves take off. Then Jesus yells that they have tuned a house of prayer into a den of thieves!
I find this really satisfying. Probably not a model for a staff meeting or family dinner but some times.
We must respect the fact that it may take a long time for some of us to calm down because we are outraged. But we are also scared.
Do not tell the gay woman traveling with her children to calm down when she is terrified she could lose her parental rights if the kids end up in the hospital in a state that has repealed legal same-sex marriage. Three women have voiced this concern to me in the past week.
Do not tell the vicars of neighboring Liberian and Hispanic congregations to calm down when their members are terrified that their families will be split up – -upstanding workers of twenty years who could be deported and separated from their children. I have sat with these clergy and seen their distress.
Do not tell your black friends to calm down when the president-elect will not disavow his support from the Ku Klux Klan and repudiate the atrocities they commit in his name. And when a known racist is given one of the highest offices in the land.
Do not tell your grandson to calm down when he says that he will have to live inside when he grows up because the air will be too dirty to breathe outside – and when he asks why climate change agreements signed by 195 nations will be” cancelled.”
Do not tell the student who was sexually assaulted walking back to her dorm to calm down when she sees sexual assault normalized and laughed about by our leaders.
Do not tell your Muslim co-worker to calm down when he fears he will be asked to sign a national registry because of his faith; best not to reference this with your Japanese-American friends or your Jewish neighbors of this either.
Do not tell me to calm down when I am told I live in a “post-truth culture. That’s the “word of the year” according to the Oxford Dictionary. “Post truth,” defined as “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” And now I must negotiate living with “fake news, “and efforts by Russia to influence political decision-making. I have live in the sanctuary of words and reason for so long….and now it is under siege and we may all be left wondering which words we can trust.
So now we revisit today’s Gospel and this statement: “The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
We do not have to hear this only as a warning, but also as a statement of hope. One time that God interceded in human history was when Jesus was born 2000 years ago in the most unexpected of places at the most unexpected of times, when Rome had its boot on the neck of the Jews. And God can come again, if we are awake to see it and are not blinded by fear and disillusionment. And if we do our part to help it happen, as the Body of Christ in the world.
Serving as Christ’s body may be standing with fierce resistance to oppression and injustice. It may include the discipline and risk of standing together instead of going it alone—even you introverts. It may be in maintaining unfailing civility in the face of crudeness and insult. It may be finding a new source of entertainment other than watching the presidential candidates sparring with each other.
In his last song, called “You Want It Darker,” the late Leonard Cohen plays a contemporary Job, accusing God of letting things get worse and worse in the world.
If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame…
Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning
for the help that never came.
And yet, Cohen is Jewish to the last. The refrain of the song is “hienhi,” which is Hebrew for “here I am, Lord.” It is what Abraham, Jacob and Moses say to God when God calls them: “Here I am Lord. Tell me what to do.”
And this may be the non-sensical two-part refrain for us as well: “I hate what is going on yet …. here I am, Lord.”
Maybe redemption takes root in in the smallest of things. Not withholding a smile or a compliment; the effort to take a chance on people; getting over yourself enough to see who is standing before you, their need in full view; seeing Advent as a time when not everyone is busy with families and social obligations — and how many face a blue Christmas.
Maybe “here I am” begins as a whisper than can scarcely be heard.
In Midway yesterday, my car was caught behind another car where three angry-looking black women were taking their time getting their stuff into the car. I was about to do my usual “are you kidding me?” accompanied by eye roll and loud sigh, “I hate this, but here I am. I hate this but here I am….”
I paused and waited as other cars stacked up behind me.
Then one of the women looked at me and mouthed “Sorry” and I smiled and mouthed “It’s okay.” Then she smiled and waved.
And in that tiny connection, there was God.
It wasn’t much in the grand scheme of things. But it was for me. It was a bright spot in darkness of the sadness I have felt for two weeks. It brought me into relationship with more than myself and my arguments and my fear. With three women right in front of me, struggling to get along, as are we all.
Constant vigilance is exhausting – we cannot remain awake all the time! Eventually we will have to learn again to trust each other again.
Finally, this: The poet Ranier Maria Rilke was asked how he survived the dark days, the times of loss and uncertainty, the times when fear had him and him by the throat and hope was hard to summon. “How do you do it, Poet?” they asked.
And he answered with two words: “I praise.”
And that is what we do here today, together. We praise
“So even though it all went wrong
We stand before the God of song
With nothing on our lips