“God judges in favor of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free and gives sight to the blind. God lifts those who have fallen; God loves his righteous people. God protects the strangers who live in our land and helps widows and orphans but takes the wicked to their ruin.”
-Psalm 146:7-10 GNT, Advent 3, Year A
Likely you have noticed that there is a rush in our culture toward the celebration of Christmas. Each year it seems the rush starts earlier with Christmas Trees and Halloween costumes wrestling for center stage in early October. As you likely know well, we are called to operate by a different calendar. It’s not that we are not eager for Christmas. Rather, it is that we know there is an Advent time that reframes our expectations and our hope for the world. It is a gift, though often it doesn’t feel like it because like all new creation there is a “But before that…” time.
The scripture texts for this season often can seem counterintuitive, almost like bad news of foreboding and even loss, rather than bright lights and joy. I wonder if that isn’t because there is always a risk of forgetting that the coming of God in Jesus Christ is about healing a world in which there is far too much hunger, poverty, despair, loneliness, hatred, fear, suspicion, polarization, parochialism… you can fill in the blank with words of your own.
Advent reminds me that every December I am due for a vision check physically and spiritually. Truth is I go into my eye doctor in December and he does all the typical things including making things out of focus and then changing the lenses, progressively asking me which view is better “1” or “2”? The goal, of course, is clarity. To be able to see the world as sharply and clearly as possible. It’s what our Advent texts do. They provide lenses of correction and clarity. They ask of us, “Is the vision of God for a world in which all may flourish becoming more and more a reality? If not, why not, and what may we be called to do?”
I had another of these spiritual vision checks last week as I gathered with the Council of Conference Ministers of the United Church of Christ for what I can only call a spiritual pilgrimage of human pain and suffering and terror. We gathered in Alabama to remember key moments in the fight for civil rights which certainly is ongoing. We went to 16th Street Baptist Church where four young girls where killed when the church was bombed. We went across the street to the park where Bull Connor ordered fire hoses be turned on children who dared to gather and courageously witness against segregation.
We went together to the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, a powerful witness and testimony to systemic racism and its ongoing effects by tracing the history of post-Civil War reconstruction and segregation policies that find their way into the fabric of our life today. This museum is part of the work of the Equal Justice Initiative headed by attorney Bryan Stevenson. His powerful book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, I highly recommend. A movie based on this book comes out on Christmas Day.
There were far too many statistics to name here, but several are worth sharing to provide just a small lens of clarity and urgency. Some of you, of course, already know these. African Americans are six times more likely to be incarcerated for the same crime than those who are white. For every ten people executed on death row, one is exonerated as innocent. There are 73 persons incarcerated nationwide who were sentenced at either age 13 or 14 to die in prison due to sentences that don’t allow for parole.
Some of these children were sentenced in cases where no one was killed or injured. Seventy percent of these children are African American.
We then went to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Here is how this memorial is described from their website: “More than 4400 African American men, women, and children were hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, and beaten to death by white mobs between 1877 and 1950. Millions more fled the South as refugees from racial terrorism, profoundly impacting the entire nation. Until now, there has been no national memorial acknowledging the victims of racial terror lynchings. On a six-acre site atop a rise overlooking Montgomery, the national lynching memorial is a sacred space for truth-telling and reflection about racial terror in America and its legacy.”
Every county where lynching occurred is represented by one of the 800 six foot hanging steel monuments, the known names of each county’s victims engraved so that they are not lost to history. Still there are many whose names we will never know. I highly recommend this memorial to you.
We then went to Selma and walked across and prayed at the Edmund Pettus Bridge where in March of 1965 those marching for voting rights where confronted by police in what came to be known as Bloody Sunday. The irony of this site only came to my awareness in this trip. The motion of justice walked right over and through a bridge meant to honor a former Confederate Officer who later served as a US Senator from Alabama.
Though terrorism is a word that has been used with much greater frequency since 9/11, terror has been woven into the fabric of our national narrative throughout our entire history, as you may well know. Its legacy continues. It is vitally important in this Advent time (and every time) to allow our faith to speak truth about this reality so we may have an ever clearer lens to see life as it really is and discern our call toward the healing about which the Psalmist sings.
“Is the vision of God for a world in which all may flourish becoming more and more a reality? If not, why not, and what may we be called to do?” These are urgent Advent questions because they set a focus for the year to come. These are urgent personal and communal questions. These are urgent and vital questions for we who are church. I commit to tending them with you, listening carefully to those whose voices have long been covered over, trusting that like the stump of Jesse, God can take the stump of our history and cause a new creation to spring forth.
I welcome your partnership in exploring how we might engage and encourage this vital work in the various settings of the Heartland so that the body of all God’s people may know the joy of incarnation. If this work is of interest to you (and I hope it is) I hope you will contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Advent strength and courage to us all!
– Pastor Dave