Monday, December 15, 2014

stitches and seams and the poetry workshop's cutting room floor.

JOHN 1:6-8, 19-28
6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
19This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23He said,  
     “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 
          ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” 
as the prophet Isaiah said.
24Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

I am totally uninspired by this passage today.
I was even thinking that I might find some inspiration if I dragged my husband and kids out into the cold this past Friday night to attend a protest for Leon Ford and all the other victims of police brutality. But I really didn’t find any. We held a sign. We watched. We shouted that “black lives matter” along with the rest of the crowd. And then the kids got really cold. And Jonah had tons of questions. And we needed to stop at the Home Depot. And so we walked back to the car.
And then we woke up the next morning, and the house was still a mess, and the boys were still fussy, and I have no doubt that a bunch of black citizens were harassed by police officers all over this country while we slept.

This passage is like that - it’s that witnessing and testifying and proclaiming and hoping that things will change, but really, as John says, we’re all in the place where “Among you stands one whom you do not know.”

I guess too that this is really uninspiring because it’s just a bridge passage. It’s a bunch of verses cut and pasted to connect the beautiful hymn about Jesus being at the beginning of creation to the actual narrative of Jesus’ earthly life.

The very first verses of John’s Gospel are a hymn, a beautiful poem meant to mimic the first words in Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” And the song goes on. Jesus was at the beginning of Time, co-creating with God. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” Beautiful. Inspiring, even.

But then these verses are interrupted. Like a commercial break we are suddenly returned to the immediate, the now, the current, the action. “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.” And then lots of backflips and somersaults and pontificating about how John - like the droids in Star Wars - isn’t the one we’ve been looking for. He’s just a guy. A guy with a voice.

But then the commercial break is over, we’re on to Act 2, how “Jesus is the light of the world.” And “he lived among us, full of grace and truth.” 

And then, we’re interrupted by real life again. The night comes and John testifies. 
Wash. Rinse. Repeat. 

These beautiful verses about Jesus and light and creation and beginnings and hope keep getting interrupted by this testimony about John. By this ordinary guy who probably smells a little wilderness ripe and is wandering around looking a little bit crazy.

But these stitches are the verses we get this week, this third Sunday of Advent. We get the commercial breaks. The verses about the real life that is going on while some poet pontificates about truth and light and the Word and life.

This Sunday, we get the remnants, the castoffs from the editing room floor. Believe me, if the first 28 verses if the Gospel of John were presented in a poetry workshop, our verses for today would be the ones mercilessly x-ed out with bright red marker by the Gospel writer’s fellow grad students.

These verses are simply the ones needed to solve a controversy sometime around 90 AD, when some groups were getting John-the-Baptist confused with Jesus-the-Messiah.
They’re filler verses. Verses meant to simply clarify and make a point. Verses meant to solve a controversy from almost 2000 years ago.

These verses about John and his witness, these verses about the real, everyday, mundane reality, are the stitches. Like if you were to turn a shirt inside out or see the back side of a cross-stitch. These are the messy verses, the ones that show the knots and missteps and seam allowances between two pieces of fabric. 
This passage shows the seams, the marionettes’ strings, the man behind the curtain and the gears under the hood.
It’s not really a pretty passage. Not really that inspiring. It feels a little clunky. Like a freshman composition paper that’s trying too hard.

And these verses are like winter. Like the cold dark days of winter in Pittsburgh.
The trees have lost their leaves and we can see the limbs, bare, fragile, creaking in the wind.
The sky is a slate grey, and the air is cold and makes cracks in our ungloved hands.
The frost has covered the windshield and we have to sit in the cold with the defrosters on and wait for our view to clear.
We are very close to the longest night of the year. The Winter Solstice. The darkest night when the sun sets at 4:50 in the afternoon.
It’s an Advent passage.
A waiting time. A darkness time.
Jesus is here. And yet still hasn’t come.

This is an anxious time for me, Advent. And well, being in my mid-thirties, is too if I’m really being honest.
I’m no good at waiting, so I tend to fill my time with stuff to do. Stuff to buy and wrap. Stuff to clean. Stuff to bake and mail and return. Jobs to take and furniture to buy and basements to redo.

I get worried that if I stop and notice, if I take a minute to see those barren trees or hear those geese flying south I’ll get sucked in to all the grey and the cold and the long long darkness that covers this time of year.
I’ll enter in and then I’ll never get out.
I’ll be stuck in the longest night of the year and the dawn will never come.
I’ll be isolated and alone in the cold dark forever. 
The seams will swallow me whole.
Our verses for today are those seams, the transitions, the in-between spaces - neither Creation nor Redemption, neither the cross nor the resurrection, neither here nor there. It’s the wilderness. It’s the desert. It’s where there are no easy highways, no straight paths. It’s Pittsburgh roads and switchbacks and hollers. It’s the waiting place. 

Our verses today are about a man who is a whole bunch of “nots”, “neithers”, and “nors.” 
John is not the light.
He is not the Messiah.
He is not Elijah or the prophet.
He is not worthy to untie the thong of the Messiah’s sandal.
When he does respond with who he is, he says that he is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.” - and these aren’t even his words. They’re Isaiah’s.
He doesn’t even get a body. He doesn’t get a complete identity. He is just a voice. Simply a voice.

John is nothing but a big arrow, a loud shout, pointing away from himself, away from his locusts and honey, away from his camels hair tunic, away from his dread locks and his callused feet and dirt-caked fingernails.

Like the dark black limbs that point straight up into the cold dark sky, John is pointing towards a light on the darkest night of the year.
John is pointing towards a light in the middle of civil unrest and oppression of the poor.
He is coming out of the wilderness of desert and wandering and danger into a wilderness of a few people with a lot of power and a lot of money directing the lives and futures of a whole lot of people who have no hope, people who are barely surviving, people who are living in the dark.

Sounds kinda familiar, eh?
And John isn’t there to fix anything.
He’s just an arrow pointing in the dark.
He is pointing to the one who stands among us whom we do not know.

Because we are so engrossed in our own darkness, in our own cold and grey, in our own waiting for our windshields to clear that we don’t even see the one standing among us.

We are surrounded by so much darkness.
By big companies drilling and wrecking and slugging and dumping.
By innocents murdered.
By corporations that claim they are people, and by people who are treated like animals and machines.
We are surrounded by systems of injustice and we have no idea how to dismantle them.
We are surrounded.
And so we keep our heads down and brace ourselves against the cold.
We rush from one store to the next, from one thing to another, just to stay a little ahead of the feeling that the walls are closing in around us.
We don’t want to notice the darkness, we don’t want to step in, for fear that we’ll get sucked down deep.

This in-between space is so hard. And yet, that’s where I think we are most of the time.
We are living in the seams between Jesus’ coming and his “not-yet-here”ness.

We are a whole bunch of “nots”
We are not the Messiah.
We are not Elijah.
Not the prophet. 

The darkness tells us that we are not good enough.
Not rich enough.
Not strong enough.
We are not busy enough.
We are not prepared or ready or smart enough.
We are not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.

And yet, we are called, called by the light, by the one who formed us in the deep darkness, by the one who is true light of true light to testify.
We are called to see.
To witness.
To point to the one standing among us, here and now.

Could it be that Jesus is among us, standing among us, and we do not even know?

I think part of living in the stitches, in the seams, is to notice, to testify, to witness, to tell the story, even when we’re not sure. Even when we are living in a space of not-knowing.
I guess that’s why I took my kids out to East Liberty in the cold and dark. I wanted to show them the power of witness. That there is power in just watching and waiting in the dark. That they can be an arrow that points to the one whom they do not know.
Maybe if we enter in to the darkness, if we step in to the mess and the seams and the grey and the cold, we’ll really see, we’ll really be able to tell the story, to witness to what has been there all along. 

Our passage today shows that John is the voice in the wilderness. John the Voice is a bridge to the incarnation. He is a bridge because it is still hard. It is still hard to see Jesus in the tinsel and the reindeer, in the poverty and the ebola outbreaks. It’s still so hard to see the one whom the world does not know in the drones and the bombings and the beheadings and the state-sponsored torture. 
So John is a voice crying out in all that violent, frightening, overwhelming wilderness, to tell the story of the one who is coming and who is already here among us. 

John is a man living in the seams. Living in the in-between space of the wilderness - of the winter - where we wait and hope and exhale clouds of breath in the cold. 
John is a man living in Advent. 
And we are to do what he does. 
We watch and we wait.
We will witness and cry out and tell the story. The story of the one among us whom we do not even know is there.

This Advent, let us be arrows that point to the one whom we do not know is among us. Because he is here, with us, among us, and through us and in us, even when we don’t know it, even when we’re not sure, even when all we have is grey skies and the crunch of frozen leaves below our feet. Let us cry out in the wilderness, even when we are afraid that we’ll be stuck in all the darkness. When we do, when we testify and witness and cry out, we’ll tell the story of the light. We’ll see it. We’ll bring it into focus. We’ll be warmed by its light. 

I guess that is pretty inspiring.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Getting Our Tears Back.

MARK 1:1-8
1The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2As it is written in he prophet Isaiah, 
     “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, 
          who will prepare your way; 
3   the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 
          ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, 
          make his paths straight,’” 
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

The beginning of the good news of Travon Martin, a son of God.
The beginning of the good news of Michael Brown, a son of God.
The beginning of the good news of John Crawford, a son of God.
The beginning of the good news of Tamir Rice, a son of god.
The beginning of the good news of Eric Garner, a son of god.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Listen to the beginning of the Gospel of Mark with first century ears. Ears of those who have seen and heard the crucifixion of Jesus. Ears of those who are as intimately connected to what happened on Calvary that dark Friday afternoon as we are to what is happening and has happened in Ferguson, in New York City, in Pittsburgh.

They would respond just as uncomfortably to these words: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God” as we have reacted to this very short list of African American men and boys, gunned down in our cities, in our time, and we feel it straight to the gut.

The good news? Is Mark crazy? This guy Jesus ended up getting himself crucified! He was killed by the Roman guards for sedition, and now these first century Christians are in the middle of a war against that same state and he wants them to believe that this is good news? 
And it sounds so pollyannaish - so trite and easy - or maybe just simply wrong, to proclaim “the good news” of any of these young men, killed too soon, killed, simply, it seems to me,  because they are black. The good news? These young men were killed because of racist systems that have oppressed all of us since the founding of this country.

But it doesn’t seem quite so naive — at least I want so badly to believe it — it doesn’t seem so blindly, falsely optimistic if we remember that Jesus was killed in such an unjust way, too.

And it doesn’t seem so, if we remember that this death, its unjust circumstances, and the terrifying situation that our first century hearers are living in, is the context for which the writer of our Gospel of Mark proclaims, “This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” 

But it’s not good news unless we do the dangerous and heartbreaking work of proclaiming it to be so.
It’s not good news unless we become prophets who cry out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” 

It’s the worst news, news as bad as a dead savior, unless we wait in the darkness, all the way to the end of the night, unless we wait and we cry and we hold on until the dawn.

Our bodies are wracked from all the wandering, all the doing. All the moving and the arguing and the striving and the facebooking.
We come out of the wilderness, out of the darkness, and all we’ve got left are our tears.

Biblical scholar, Walter Bruggeman, says, “The Gospel is a very dangerous idea. We have to see how much of that dangerous idea we can perform in our own lives. There is nothing innocuous or safe about the Gospel. Jesus did not get crucified because he was a nice man.”

Jesus was crucified because he was a minority who pissed off the people in power.
He threatened the status quo.
He upended the tables of power and prestige.
He healed the sick and cured the blind and he mourned with the lost and demanded justice for the poor. 
He threw coins back into the faces of the rich.
He fed crowds and didn’t call it a handout. He called it grace. 
He said we could do all this too.

Jesus was there. He could have been selling cigarettes on the street. He could have been listening to his music too loudly. Could have been playing with a toy gun in the park. Could have been wearing a hoody and the “wrong” skin color.

And Jesus is still here.
Jesus stands in the protests blocking the highways in Ferguson and 376 W in Pittsburgh.
He shouts for justice in the crowds in New York City.
He weeps over the death of these sons with their wives and mothers and children.

A friend of mine went to a protest in North Carolina the other day. And this is what she said, “Last night I was civilly disobedient for the first time. I'm not sure what shutting down the Durham Freeway in protest of police brutality and in remembrance of Eric Garner really does. But I know what it did for me - I got a tiny flash, however passing, however stunted by my middle-class whiteness, of what it's like to be afraid of the police in the US.  And everything really did look different.”

And it is dangerous to proclaim the good news. It’s dangerous to see everything differently. Because it’s shouting into the dark. Into the wilderness. Into the barrel of a gun. 
It’s shouting and crying and protesting and resisting into the prisons and the soup kitchens and homeless camps. It’s crying - weeping even - into the tear gas and the flying batons and rubber bullets. Into the shouting and the fear. Into the brokenness and the faces hidden behind millions of dollars or jihadi masks or behind riot gear.

We are all called to be prophets, ones who enter the wilderness and get lost and do a lot of wandering and who come back to demand justice, who come back looking a little haggard, who come back a little broken, looking a little unsteady.  We’ve got that crazed John the Baptist look in our eye that people get when they have seen injustice and poverty and death straight on and we don’t quite know what to do with it. We’ve got calluses on our feet and blisters on our hands and sunburns even on our eyelids from the wandering and the searching and the getting lost and the coming back again. 

But is it too trite, is it too early to proclaim that the good news is that death and injustice and the tears don’t have the last word?
Is it too easy for me to say because it’s not my son under the ground, not my dad at the morgue? 
I don’t know.
All I know is that I have to hope. I have to hope in this good news. Because I just don’t know what else to do.
The good news is that God entered in to this world, weak and vulnerable and left this world just as weak and vulnerable. And then came back again. And still comes back again.

Back to Ferguson. Back to New York City. Back to Cleveland. 
It’s a coming back even as God has been there all along.

That’s Advent.
It’s a waiting for what is already here. 
It’s a waiting for the kingdom even as it is already at hand.
We’re not waiting on God. 
We’re waiting on US.
We’re waiting for us to prepare the way. To make straight the path so that God can come through. 
God is going to do what God does. The question is, will be able to see it? Will we be able to get out of our own way to let it happen in our lives, in our city, in our world?

So it’s an active waiting. 
It’s a crying into the wilderness. 
It’s a confessing of our sins and eating locusts and honey and dunking ourselves in rivers and rivers of tears.
It’s the subversive practice of sabbath as resistance.
Resistance to the anxiety and the coercion and exclusivism and the multitasking that keeps us from demanding justice. 

Weeping. Mourning. Crying out. This is true sabbath. A rest from all the doing. A living in to, and a full feeling of the horrors of this world and demanding “why?” demanding change, proclaiming that this is not the way God intends them to be.
Because only our tears will save us now.
Only the cry of “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” is an acceptable response to what has happened in our country, what happens in our city, in this very neighborhood, every damn day.

That’s the cry of a prophet. That’s the crying out into the darkness. Into the wilderness. 
It’s a weeping.
It’s a mourning.

Go into the wilderness and get your tears back. Get your tears back from the folks who told you to “man up” when you scraped your knee.
Get your tears back from the patriarchy that said that you were a baby, a weak little girl, when you cried about your lost doll.
Get your tears back from the stoic demands of our society that claims there is no time to mourn, only time to go and go and go and do and produce and make and earn and acquire and go and go again.
Get your tears back.

And then go and baptize each other with your tears. 
Cry together.
Come together for Sabbath and let us mourn. Let us lament. 
This is how we prepare the way. 
God is here. God is listening.
The tears are the beginning. 
This is the beginning of the good news of all these innocents, sons of God.
This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 

This is just the beginning.
It’s going to get darker.
It’s going to get harder.
You’ll feel lost in the wilderness.
We are so sad. So lost. So helpless.
We are weak and tired.
And the darkness is so terrifying.

But cry out. 
Cry into the darkness anyway.
Be a prophet. Prepare the way.
Cry out and march and shout and hold on.
Baptize each other with your tears.

This is just the beginning.
Hang on.
Wait. Prepare the way.
The dawn will come.

This is the beginning of the good news of the children of God.

Thanks be to God.