Sunday Service, 2/18/18

“Reclaiming My Time” 

2 Corinthians is a text that’s been and continues to be used to silence and oppress women, especially women of color, and has contributed to theologies that glorify their suffering. In the Christian season of Lent, and the month of celebrating Black History, we must be diligent in lifting up the voices of those whose reality has been stifled, whose lives have been diminished, in our call to identify and dismantle cultural evil. Part of our work is in facing the difficult texts and seeing them through the eyes of those they’ve hurt. This Sunday will feature the voices of women of color, boldly, passionately, and courageously reclaiming their time. 
Pilar Milhollen, our minister, will lead the worship service.
Richard Harper will be our musician.

If you’re new to All Souls Bethlehem Church you’ll find all kinds of information on our webpage (www.allsoulsbethlehem.org), including our location: 566 E. 7th St. between Cortelyou Road and Ditmas Avenue—don’t be fooled by the large church on the corner of Cortelyou and E. 7th Street; we’re a house church midway down the block. We begin around 10:30. And check out our video on the homepage. It provides a brief introduction to our diverse and progressive house church! If you’re taking the train, we’re in between the Cortelyou Rd. stop on the Q train and the Ditmas Ave. stop on the F train. And please note: childcare and/or religious education (depending on the ages of the children) is available.

Wherever you are on life’s journey, you are always welcome here.

For information in the event of Q or F train route changes due to construction, visit http://web.mta.info/apps/weekenderApp.html

All Souls Bethlehem Church ~ 347-240-0757

 

Sunday Service, 2/11/18

“Metamorphosis”

The fantastic story of Jesus transfigured on a mountain confounded his disciples and left them unnerved. How else were they to feel when confronted with such a transformation, such a shift in what they thought they knew and understood? We are hardwired to fear change, yet we are faced with the constant adaptation to an ever-growing, ever shifting world, a world where, as Anne Lamott describes, “waking up is miserable and change is terrifying.” We are called to respond to the difficult work of changing the world, but in so doing, we must also face perhaps the even more difficult work: transforming ourselves on our journey toward wholeness. It may be frightening, but the ride is worth it.

Be who you are; do what you can; want what you have. (Forrest Church)

Pilar Milhollen, our minister, will lead the worship service.

Richard Harper will be our musician.

We will have our pot luck lunch this Sunday – bring a dish and your appetite!

Artwork: Wolfgang Lettl – Die Verwandlung (The Transfiguration) 1977, Germany

If you’re new to All Souls Bethlehem Church you’ll find all kinds of information on our webpage (www.allsoulsbethlehem.org), including our location: 566 E. 7th St. between Cortelyou Road and Ditmas Avenue—don’t be fooled by the large church on the corner of Cortelyou and E. 7th Street; we’re a house church midway down the block. We begin around 10:30. And check out our video on the homepage. It provides a brief introduction to our diverse and progressive house church! If you’re taking the train, we’re in between the Cortelyou Rd. stop on the Q train and the Ditmas Ave. stop on the F train. And please note: childcare and/or religious education (depending on the ages of the children) is available.

Wherever you are on life’s journey, you are always welcome here.

For information in the event of Q or F train route changes due to construction, visit http://web.mta.info/apps/weekenderApp.html

All Souls Bethlehem Church ~ 347-240-0757

Sunday Service, 2/4/18

“Demons Of A False Divide”

Right out of the gate, the gospel of Mark tells tales of Jesus healing the sick and “driving out demons” from the souls of the tormented. We shake our heads and wonder why so many folks now are supporting what looks like “demonic” powers in our leadership. Though this language may seem superstitious, we must examine our deeper affliction by cultural demons that possess our collective social body in the form of false divisions. We lament our demons of racism: but what might we learn if we delved deeper into its origins, the ancient demon of class prejudice and the false divisions it has birthed in our collective psyche? How might we use this knowledge to drive out such “demons”?

Pilar Milhollen,minister of All Souls Bethlehem Church, will lead the worship service.

Richard Harper will be our musician.

We will celebrate Communion this Sunday.

If you’re new to All Souls Bethlehem Church you’ll find all kinds of information on our webpage (www.allsoulsbethlehem.org), including our location: 566 E. 7th St. between Cortelyou Road and Ditmas Avenue—don’t be fooled by the large church on the corner of Cortelyou and E. 7th Street; we’re a house church midway down the block. We begin around 10:30. And check out our video on the homepage. It provides a brief introduction to our diverse and progressive house church! If you’re taking the train, we’re in between the Cortelyou Rd. stop on the Q train and the Ditmas Ave. stop on the F train. And please note: childcare and/or religious education (depending on the ages of the children) is available.
Wherever you are on life’s journey, you are always welcome here.
For information in the event of Q or F train route changes due to construction, visit http://web.mta.info/apps/weekenderApp.html
All Souls Bethlehem Church ~ 347-240-0757

Sunday Service, 1/28/18

“Being Woke”

This is a term we hear thrown around quite often in social justice circles. But how should religious people think about this term and apply it to our work?

Natalie R. Perkins will lead the worship service.

Debbie Deane will be our musician.

If you’re new to All Souls Bethlehem Church you’ll find all kinds of information on our webpage (www.allsoulsbethlehem.org), including our location: 566 E. 7th St. between Cortelyou Road and Ditmas Avenue—don’t be fooled by the large church on the corner of Cortelyou and E. 7th Street; we’re a house church midway down the block. We begin around 10:30. And check out our video on the homepage. It provides a brief introduction to our diverse and progressive house church! If you’re taking the train, we’re in between the Cortelyou Rd. stop on the Q train and the Ditmas Ave. stop on the F train. And please note: childcare and/or religious education (depending on the ages of the children) is available.

Wherever you are on life’s journey, you are always welcome here.

For information in the event of Q or F train route changes due to construction, visit http://web.mta.info/apps/weekenderApp.html

Sunday Service, 1/21/18

Refuge in the Real 

Ever heard of Hindu liberation theology? Me, neither…until now! Christian liberation theology affirms that spiritual liberation is not found in the freedom granted after death but must include freedom from poverty, injustice, and other human suffering while on earth; theologian Anantanand Rambachand offers a new lens into Hindu advaita theology, following this tradition to rework the old theologies of non-attachment in order to push Hinduism to answer its call to fight systems that create poverty and social inequality. We will look at the parallels and traps of negating our suffering between Psalm 62 and traditional Hindu beliefs. 

Pilar Milhollen, our minister, will lead the worship service.

Debbie Deane will be our musician.

If you’re new to All Souls Bethlehem Church you’ll find all kinds of information on our webpage (www.allsoulsbethlehem.org), including our location: 566 E. 7th St. between Cortelyou Road and Ditmas Avenue—don’t be fooled by the large church on the corner of Cortelyou and E. 7th Street; we’re a house church midway down the block. We begin around 10:30. And check out our video on the homepage. It provides a brief introduction to our diverse and progressive house church! If you’re taking the train, we’re in between the Cortelyou Rd. stop on the Q train and the Ditmas Ave. stop on the F train. And please note: childcare and/or religious education (depending on the ages of the children) is available.

Wherever you are on life’s journey, you are always welcome here.

For information in the event of Q or F train route changes due to construction, visit http://web.mta.info/apps/weekenderApp.html

All Souls Bethlehem Church ~ 347-240-0757

 

Pilar Millhollen: Glory (Sermon for King Sunday, 1/14/18)

Glory  

January 14, 2018, King Sunday

Readings: “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases” (Ida B. Wells);

“Let America Be America Again” (Langston Hughes)

“…fellow Americans. Three years ago the Supreme Court of this nation rendered in simple, eloquent, and unequivocal language a decision which will long be stenciled on the mental sheets of succeeding generations. For all men of goodwill, this May seventeenth decision came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of human captivity. It came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of disinherited people throughout the world who had dared only to dream of freedom. Unfortunately, this noble and sublime decision has not gone without opposition. This opposition has often risen to ominous proportions. Many states have risen up in open defiance. The legislative halls of the South ring loud with such words as “interposition” and “nullification.” But even more, all types of conniving methods are still being used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters. The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition. And so our most urgent request to the president of the United States and every member of Congress is to give us the right to vote.”

These words rang out upon the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on May 17th, 1957, at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom rally. It was the third anniversary of the historic Supreme Court decision entitled Brown v. The Board of Education that legally proclaimed the right to vote for all people, no matter their color or creed, and yet America still was not the dream it wanted to be, as it refused to acknowledge this highest court’s decision. So at the end of the rally, organized by activists Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, and Stanley Levison, a 28-year-old southern Baptist minister and activist stood up to deliver the last address to some 20,000 people, entreating the nation’s leadership to make good on what was not just a promise, but was the law of the land in a country that continually found itself falling short of its claim upon life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all its citizens. This young minister, whose name was changed from Michael King to Martin Luther King at the age of 5 by his minister father in honor of the German reformer Martin Luther, found himself living up to his namesake in spite of his skepticism about Christianity. Growing up in Jim Crow Atlanta, young Martin suffered bouts of depression and even a suicide attempt that he attributed to the racial humiliation that he endured on a daily basis. The fundamentalist form of Christianity that Martin grew up with provided little comfort for the existential crisis of being black in a country built literally upon the exploitation of black bodies, a country where America never was America to anyone whose skin deepened beyond a certain pallor. Despite church being like home for this son of a preacher, Martin wrestled with the traditionalism of the doctrines he was taught and struggled to reconcile their meaning for the social context in which he lived. How was a nine-year-old to make sense of personal sin and redemption in light of suddenly being ripped away from his best friend, because his friend’s father decides his white son shouldn’t be playing with Negro children? What cold comfort did orthodoxy have to offer when young men were regularly hunted down and hanged upon magnolia trees for the crime of walking while black? If this makes your stomach turn now, as it makes mine, imagine the cognitive dissonance for this young soul, this brilliant mind, who prayed to the same God his white best friend did, and yet lived under the sardonic banner “separate but equal.” At the age of 15, when he was accepted early into college, his spiritual life began to fall in line with the lived realities of his physical existence as he delved into Biblical criticism in the academy. Soon, “the shackles of fundamentalism were removed from my body,” he recalled, for he finally found in the Bible the same calls to justice for the oppressed that he had felt his soul crying out for from childhood. It was a powerful epiphany, this realization that the God Martin had longed for, had cried out to, craved for humanity to see in itself the holiness from which it sprung, craved the day when the politics of respectability holding both whites and blacks hostage to their own limited religious claims might be dismantled and replaced with the real work that the gospel demands of each one of us: to usher in an era where everyone is treated as the holy masterpiece that we are created to be.

And so the work began for him, which took the form of Mahatma Ghandi’s model of non-violent resistance of hegemonic powers that systematically stripped people of their rights in order to maintain a social hierarchy that resulted in terror, poverty, and cultural robbery. By 1955, he became the spokesperson for the year-long bus boycott in Montgomery, AL, which legally ended segregation on public buses and provided a launching pad to fight for follow-through on the legal voting rights for Americans of color the next year. Martin became the face of the Civil Rights Movement, a movement which focused its efforts on getting the right to vote for every American. Because the right to vote, its leaders reasoned, was at the heart of democracy, and gave power to the voices that had been so historically disempowered. The right to vote meant actual representation of the concerns of average citizens, and a nation where the concerns of the most vulnerable held the same weight as the most powerful were at the bedrock of a nation that staked its claim in a moral high ground. It was a lofty assertion, this claim that America made and still continues to make, and Martin, carrying the torch after Frederick Douglass and Florence Kelley and Ida B. Wells and W.E.B. DuBois and Langston Hughes and so many others, recognized that such moral proclamations were rooted in the religious traditions that dominated the founding of this nation.

These confessions were the very stuff of Judaism, the core of Christianity, because they posited that all persons are made in the image of God. This one audacious idea planted the seed that became a thesis statement for the American Dream when Jefferson declared “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” However compartmentalized his intention behind this statement was, a nation that claimed a Judeo-Christian vision of the world could not long stand without making good on this vow in its purest form.

So arose the courageous men and women who would not, and could not, rest until America became America to all. The ground began to quiver with the abolition work of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth giving voice to women of color and carried on by Nellie Griswold Francis in Minnesota and Robert Fox when he boarded a white streetcar in Kentucky. Ida B. Wells continued reporting in the midst of lost employment, unjust lawsuits, and death threats to speak truth to power when to be black in the south was to live in a state of emergency 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year with no paid vacation; to live in a war zone where domestic terror was working overtime shifts, where, as Maya Angelou writes, “the Black woman in the south who raises sons, grandsons and nephews had her heartstrings tied to a hanging noose.”

If these words shock, if they seem foreign, if they feel like a distant nightmare that we’ve buried in the grave, let us sit with that discomfort. Let us feel it today, holding two distinct aspects: let us hold these memories and this history in memoriam, but let us also steel our resolve in admitting that this is not just the horror of history, that this is now. That Emmett Till’s murder, at 14, by white adult men is linked directly to Tamir Rice’s murder at 12 by a policeman on a playground in Cleveland almost 60 years later. That those four young girls, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, are interconnected to Sandra Bland’s murder in a Texas jail and 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones in her living room in Detroit. Let us sit with the reality that men, women, and children died for the right to vote, and that in 2018, people are still dying because of our refusal as a nation to fulfill the dream that Martin spoke of. The dream that Langston wrote of. The dream that in the ten years between 1955 and 1965 yielded a whirlwind of historic changes for the cause of equality and justice for all, but left in its wake a virulent strain of anti-equality politics that continue to contaminate the body of this nation, a disease that threatens to dismantle and destroy the democratic ideals upon which we derive our very identity.

Let us be very clear, beloved, that this disease is not a southern problem, a Midwestern problem, a white working-class problem or an angry billionaire’s problem. This is an American problem and it is a moral problem. And we who believe in the dream, we who affirm that the dream is a moral imperative because we have known the glory of a God of the oppressed, we are the ones who cannot rest. We are the ones who must answer to the high call of our God in the midst of this dream. We are the ones who must take up the mantle and do what we can with what we have, today, because the cancer of white supremacy is clinging to our cells, but it will never win without our compliance. So here’s a hook into fulfilling our call to fulfill the dream: those words that Martin spoke, the “types of conniving methods that are still being used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters,” these words might have been written today. Because ever so quietly, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that so many died for was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013, rendering a backlash of voter suppression all over the country. Since then, states with diverse populations have with surgical precision enacted laws to control exactly who shows up at the polls on voting day. Here’s a peek into the details of what this looks like:

In 2016, right before the November presidential and congressional elections, 14 states in the union passed new laws restricting the ease of voting. In 2017, at least 99 bills were introduced in 31 states in order to restrict access to registration and voting. Most of these bills focus heavily on ID requirements for all eligible voters, as well as purging already registered voters from the rolls, which statistically tends to flag voters of color more than white voters, or reducing early voting and closing polling places so voters have to travel further to vote on election days. I hear a frequent question that you may find yourself or others asking: what specifically is so damaging about requiring voter IDs? Well, here’s an example of what this means to someone who doesn’t have an ID in a state like Alabama but wants to vote: say you work an average day of an 8-hour shift, 9-5 or 8-4. You’re making minimum wage, and you live way out in a rural area because that’s what’s affordable. You take public transportation to where you work, and it takes you over an hour to get there. You have children at home and you’re a single parent. In order to get an ID card, you have to show up in person at the DMV, which is only open until 4pm Monday through Friday. It’s also 45 minutes away from where you work on public transportation. You have to have four different documents proving your identity and legal U.S. residence, such as a birth certificate, passport, social security card, visa, and at least one of these has to have a photo identification proving you’re who you say you are. The cost for this ID is $36.25, and it expires four years later, upon which time you have to go back in person, and pay another $36.25. Now, while Alabama is one of the most extreme examples of what it looks like to have voter ID laws in place, let’s take the cost down to $5, like it is in Arkansas. You’ve got the $5, but you can’t leave work or you’ll be penalized or fired. Say you’ve got the $5, you get time off of work, but you get to the DMV and the line is so long you’re not going to get through by the time it closes. This was your one shot. It’s gone now. Another scenario: you’ve jumped through the hoops, and you’re registered to vote. You’re single, so you don’t have to worry about your family or childcare. But you still have a fixed work schedule, and because of the new laws, there’s no more early voting in your county. Your regular polling place down the block was one of the 868 that closed between 2013 and the 2016 elections. Your new polling place has limited hours and it’s already too far to get to or you’ll miss work. In this scenario, you are technically free to vote, but if missing work means potentially losing your job, or failing to pay your bills, then your enfranchisement is nothing but an empty promise.

Voting in 2018 should be simple and easy. These scenarios are the fallout in our failure to fulfill the dream. For millions of Americans, these situations have been happening and continue to happen because of a deep-seated fear that equality for all will feel like oppression for those who benefit from inequality. So we must educate ourselves to the reality of those for whom the dream is most elusive. It is we who must stand against the immoral legislation that continues to undermine the democratic promise, it is we who must press forward together, not one step back, because it is our God who asks, is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? If Martin could see the dream fulfilled then, if he could run up to the mountaintop and see the glory of the coming of the Lord, how much closer are we to fulfilling the dream now? In these short years since his death, how much farther have we come, despite the disease that befalls our nation, despite the dark inheritance that we all must own, despite the forces of evil that belie the promise of justice and equality for each and every person? It is a miracle to come as far as we did since that speech in 1957. It is a holy blessing that those who came before us did not give their lives in vain. It is proof of the glory of the coming of the Lord. On this day, and every day, may we never, ever doubt that the dream will become, must become, is becoming reality. May we never, ever, grow weary in the work that we do on a daily basis to fulfill that dream. May we be meticulous in our speaking about racism, may we be steadfast in resisting death-dealing policy, may we reach out and beyond our sphere to call out where there is injustice, and may we be exhaustive in examining own internalized biases.

The night before he was assassinated, Martin spoke in Memphis at the Mason Temple Church of God In Christ headquarters. He spoke of the victories they had already seen as well as the fears of what may come. Let us close with a renewal of our spirits in his final prophetic words:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life – longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Rest in peace, Dr. King. Amen.

Pilar Millhollen: Beginning, Again and Again (Sermon, 1/7/18)

Beginning, Again and Again

January 7, 2018

Readings: “Beginning, Again” (Erick Jacobsen); Genesis 1:1 – 5

I’ve always had mixed feelings about New Year’s Resolutions. Do you feel where I’m going here? Does anyone else have mixed feelings when they think about or make resolutions for the new year? Well, for me, the inspiration of resolutions has faded over the years because I’ve seen them veer down one of two paths: complete and utter neglect, or a half-hearted attempt that leads to guilt and self-criticism for not following through. And I’m not just speaking from personal experience, but from what I’ve seen with friends and the greater community. As some of you know, I do work in the realm of health and fitness, where I’ve been a personal trainer as well as a teacher in the classroom setting. Perhaps this is where my resolution crisis began – for what better way to measure the efficacy of a new year’s resolution than to put yourself directly into the crucible of the most popular resolution made in the United States, which is “to be more healthy, or lose weight.” Now, while this resolution is deeply admirable and one I support wholeheartedly, I have seen firsthand the gym and studio packed from January to February, thinning out through March and April, till by the summertime the idea is but a distant memory while people beat themselves up for having neglected a well-meaning attempt to better their lives. And there is a slew of reasons why this is so hard to accomplish: for in a country where health is directly correlated to income level, where food deserts are now commonplace and fast food reigns supreme, it would be disingenuous to suggest that our failure to turn around our individual health lies solely in the hands of, well, us as individuals. But there’s something else at play here too, something that feels misaligned: and that is the narrow confines of finality, of totality, in a practice that asks us to start from scratch with a finished product as the goal. It is asking us to begin with potentially, nothing – from a blank place – and to produce out of that nothing. It is, to parallel the common translation of our scripture reading today, a creatio ex nihilo – a creation from nothing.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” How many times have you heard or think of the first line of Genesis in this way? Here’s how this translation reads with the second line – “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” Now, listen again: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” Similar, yes? But these two translations are actually entirely different. For centuries, a normalized English version of the famous first line from the Greek Bible known as the Septuagint has written verse 1 as “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth.” Period. This sneaky little play on words has developed into the popular Jewish and Christian doctrine that God existed first, in nothingness, and created something – the cosmos, and everything in it – out of nothing. But what if this wasn’t the only possibility? Strangely, biblical scholars have argued against this doctrine for about as long as it’s been popular. Because grammatically, the second translation is most accurate to the Hebrew text, implying that the beginning is more like a beginning, that wait – the creation that we speak of was actually something out of something. It gets even trickier: for the word used for God, Elohim, is plural – a word that is used frequently in Genesis describing a kind of angelic council, a committee of helpers with whom God consulted frequently to make decisions. Later on, as monotheism – or belief in a single powerful deity – developed, away went the divine council into a singular entity making all the decisions, God alone. But it’s only been more recently that voices of inquiry have begun to really surface and ask, what has this idea, this something out of nothing, this singularity of power, done to our conception of God, our world, ourselves – and what happens if we read it in its more authentic form, “in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep”?

This face of the preexistent deep, which may be understood as a kind of primordial ocean, a swelling of waters with murk, and earth, and formless stuff, exists in creation accounts from cultures all over the world, especially the near east. Ancient Greek mythology names the goddess Eurynome-Night who dances over the face of the waters; the Tao Te Ching speaks of primordial waters that were both nothing and everything, a body that it calls “the Mother of Everything.” Ovid speaks of “Chaos” as existing before heaven and earth, as the “bolus of everything.” Speaking of chaos, this is the word in Hebrew that we’ve translated into the “deep.” Darkness covered the face of tehom, the chaos, the waters. So why shift our gaze from the image of God hovering over the face of chaos and choosing to create something new out of its vast potential toward an image of God surrounded by nothingness, creating the cosmos in what they call ex nihilo – out of nothing?

The nothingness doctrine holds more power than we might first realize, for several reasons. To begin with, you may have already noticed, but the various traditions describing the chaos, the tehom, the face of the deep, have attributed a gender to this existence, and the gender is female. Much as we’ve attributed a male gender to God because of Hebrew grammar, so is the deep associated with the feminine, and with it, a need to tame at best and to repudiate at worst. Yet we cannot deny that are all born through the female body, formed mysteriously within a mini version of the deep in our mother’s wombs. We emerge out of a powerful something, unformed and created by the cooperation of many forces working together. But a patriarchal social system cannot embrace or even acknowledge such a power, for it disrupts a hierarchy in which there is no cooperation; only the singular power of a male entity, creating something alone with no needs and with no help, thus rendering the feminine irrelevant, submerged, silenced. The denial of such a cooperation of powers has given way to a model that elevates masculine domination, supports unchecked power, and reinforces binaries in which there is no room for difference, for otherness, and for both/and.

In addition to the strange silencing of the feminine in our denial of the deep, this concept of zero cooperation from a masculine place of power has supported and justified the militarism of colonial invasion. How might it complicate the merciless invasion of lands and peoples if we had a cooperative sense of God’s creation of us? I propose, a lot. What if we took this image of the preexistent deep, the vast waters of chaotic potential, and alongside it also took the plurality of Elohim, to re-envision the great I Am, gathering the divine council to coax, urge, and work with the face of the deep to create the heavens and the earth? From this vantage point, creation emerges as a vast collective effort, orchestrated by the One who calls it into being. Each piece has its part, its purpose in adding to the beauty of a complex web of interconnected life. In this model that has been lost in nervous monotheistic translations, however foreign it may seem, God is both creator and co-creator, both all-powerful and generously cooperative. The both/and of this kind of creator, in its radical cooperativeness, must give pause to the traditional justification for colonialism and its desire for domination of that which is other, that which is foreign, that which is seen from the eyes of the conqueror as chaotic. Catherine Keller, who preaches and teaches on this text from Genesis 1, puts it thus: “from the vantage point of the colonizing episteme, the evil is always disorder rather than unjust order; anarchy rather than control, darkness rather than pallor.” What she’s getting at is that a worldview organized by our traditional image of God the creator, commanding and taming a wildness that only He could call into being, leaves little room for any other ways of life, any cultural differentiation, any cooperation. It has led instead to a theological justification for the inferiority of brownness and blackness against whiteness, for the claiming of lands that are already populated by a people seen as other, and the plundering of natural resources to support a way of life that is deemed to be civilized, to be correct, a way of life that is believed to be the only way. In this worldview, collaboration is replaced with coercion, and creation itself is ultimately reimagined as a doctrine of destruction.

So what about us? What if we dared to expand our concept of the creation as an ultimate collaboration, a great web of formation between God, and God’s helpers, and the deep, from the vast potential that has already been? As Jacob Erickson writes, fresh starts rarely happen, for good or for ill; that chaotic depths of the past all flow, sometimes tumultuously, into this moment. I don’t know about you, but I’ve wanted to erase many things in my past that I feel ashamed of or wish had gone differently. I’ve wanted to rewrite, to remake, my relationships with others; I’ve wished that I had more control over situations that I’ve put myself in and situations that have exerted themselves upon me. I’ve played and replayed past scenarios in my mind, torturing myself for what I should have said or done. I’ve wanted to atone for being too close-minded, for lashing out in anger, for being too weak, for not doing enough. And I’ve spent many years past making new year’s resolutions to work with more discipline, to seek greater enlightenment, to be kinder, more generous, more efficient, more productive, even and I’m ashamed to admit it, at the height of my theater career to be thinner, and prettier, just better, but all of these goals actually hid a grasping desire not to be better but to be perfect. And in that grasping desire for perfection I left no room for actual growth, only the possibility of reaching an endpoint that was unattainable and ultimately, dead. And you know what? I failed every time. For just as the world was created and is ever-creating, changing, shifting, and giving birth, so I’ve had to surrender the idea that I could somehow get to a place where I could stop becoming. A place where I had achieved all that my potential held, because if I actually did get to a finished point, there would be nothing left. No creativity, no potential, nothing new. In that weird search for perfection I found myself contracting rather than expanding, becoming the opposite of what I intended by denying the complexity of all the mistakes, of all the trauma, of all the great imperfections of my past and the imperfections of those I love in an attempt to have my own creatio ex nihilo – something out of nothing. So this year, a new year that’s emerging out of a great deal of cultural and societal trauma, a great deal of pre-existing chaos, I propose we entertain an attempt at embracing all that has been rather than trying to erase it and start anew. In this beginning, another beginning, what does that look like for you? Perhaps it starts with replacing resolution with process. With replacing an end-goal with a sense of working-toward, allowing space for the unfinished. Perhaps it’s a concerned parent reaching out to the child they struggle to get along with, allowing for the possibility that repair might take as little as a month or as long as a lifetime, and even allowing for the possibility that repair might not look like what either party imagines. It can be sitting with the grief of losing a loved one and allowing for the grief to come at you in times when you least expect, allowing that sometimes the grief doesn’t fully go away, but that it has the ability to evolve, to become a little more bearable. Or maybe it looks like taking on a project, however small, to make the world a little more livable in a time where our rights and the rights of others are systematically being rolled back – whether it’s volunteering at a food pantry, or a women’s shelter, or maybe sharing your skills by tutoring a student once a month. And hey, maybe it is about getting physically “healthier,” but rather than remaking your life or envisioning some massive transformation, you might allow for a small shift in your existing body with all its imperfections and all its wonderful possibilities, a shift that is unique to you and beautiful in its continued process into next year, and the next, and the next. In this revision of resolutions, we may find ourselves beginning to forgive where we thought we were lacking, and celebrate what we used to regret. In this revision, we may find our capacity to forgive ourselves extends to a greater capacity to forgive each other, and to forgive the hatred in those driven by fear by seeing the potential that each of us has to love. Catherine Keller says, “To love is to bear with the chaos.” To love is to bear with the chaos. In all its discomfort, in all its imperfections, the chaos is also full of illimitable possibility. So let’s bear with the chaos, beloved community. Bear with it in the expectation of a blessing that comes with growth, rather than perfection; with progress, rather than resolution; with the process of creating something new out of something that already exists, worthy, ready, and holy in its possibility.

Pilar Millhollen: Awaiting You (Sermon for 12/17/17)

AWAITING YOU

December 17th, 2017 by Pilar Millhollen

Readings: “Like A Star” by Galen Guengerich; Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

In the Sunday school room at Middle Collegiate Church hangs a gorgeous tapestry with bold sweeping colors that tell the story of God’s creation of the world from Genesis. Painted by an artist in the congregation, each square, like a quilt, features a watercolor image with paraphrased quotes around the borders about God’s lavish work. But I always noticed the first couple of squares more than any others. They feature lightness and darkness, swirling together, sun and moon working with each other as God forms the cosmos. They read something like this: “And God stepped out on space. And she looked around and said, “I’m lonely – I’ll make me a world.” The following squares portray the earth within the cosmos and gorgeous creations of waterfalls, eagles, horses, mountain tops and coastlines, with Adam and Eve in all their brown-skinned beauty standing to look out with joy at the marvelous work that God shouts is “very good,” but I always loved that first scene because it said something that always seemed so clear but never has been so popular: God was alone, and so God decided to create a world.

I remember when I first heard the song “Awaiting You” that Jordan just sang…I remember hearing this song and thinking, I don’t know if I understand this, but I know what it feels like. To look around and see things happening that you think are not supposed to happen, and waiting to see God in it. To one moment, feeling the presence of such divine goodness, and the next to suffer a loss that makes you go, maybe you’re not here, maybe I’m still waiting for you to show up. But what felt more foreign to me was the lyric that proclaimed that God is awaiting the singer: “Shining in the eyes of every child/and in the flame of dawn reflecting on the open sea/in every fury and every love/you are awaiting me.” I didn’t quite get this until I started really reading the Bible. Truly. Because somehow in our traditions, we’ve shied away from the truth that God is also waiting for us. This passage from Isaiah 61, which has such a specific meaning for Christians since Jesus used it to declare his public ministry, has a different meaning in light of its original context. Between our text from last week where Isaiah promised the soon-coming return from exile and where we end up this week, declaring the year of the Lord’s favor, the story takes twists and turns in a drama of moral failings and redemption, but contains an unrelenting emphasis on Israel’s unique potential to bring light to a world in great pain. But what I found this time, that I had missed in prior readings of this epic story, was a new kind of partnership between God and the people. So for centuries we’ve had this theological argument going on in Jewish and Christian tradition about how much God needs people, or for that matter, if God needs people at all. From the more orthodox perspective, a clear case is argued that if God is sovereign, so totally in charge, and if God is transcendent, so beyond the realm of physical and immediate reality, then that’s proof that God has no external needs. God stands alone, which separate and greater than humans. Unlike humans, God has no vulnerabilities. And this makes a lot of sense…except for the fact that the God of our scriptures is profoundly relational. While both testaments describe God’s creative power in ways that we humans could never imitate, we also can’t pretend that the stories in this book are anything other than about God’s relationship to humanity. From the Genesis creation story of God’s beloved first people to Moses’ call on Horeb to Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation, we are confronted by a God who desires so much to be with us, and we have responded as a people always reaching back out toward God. And why wouldn’t we? Why would God have any reason to create this world – in all its pain but all its glory – and then stand aside and leave us alone?

Perhaps God simply made the choice to be in relationship with us, a choice that could have gone the other way. But I wonder, when reading this magnificent text in Isaiah, this thesis text for who God wants us to be, I wonder if God found that the creation – which as Genesis tells us, was very good, actually changed God’s needs?

Like any journey toward wholeness, return from exile proved much more difficult than the Israelites had hoped, and according to Isaiah the people in their hardship forgot who they were and returned to a state of callousness, greed, and idolatry – thus forsaking the God of good news. But God would not let this go. Leading up to chapter 61, Isaiah often speaks as God in the first person, chasing after the people even though they have turned away; “you have burdened me with your sins,” God laments, “you have wearied me with your iniquities.” This a grieving deity, the tables have turned – where once the people had long awaited divine deliverance, now it is the Divine One who pursues, who laments and who desires to see justice enacted upon the earth through a chosen people. The prophet introduces the character of an unnamed suffering servant, which Jewish Talmudic tradition has sometimes attributed to Moses and Christian theology has interpreted as proof of a coming messiah who would permanently deliver the world from violence to restore God’s reign on earth. For Christians, this prophecy aligns beautifully with Jesus’ ministry and is a continued source of strength and affirmation of that coming figure who would save humanity. But there is a missing element here: for perhaps there’s even more power in the text’s meaning for its original audience in the diaspora, for the suffering servant is called Jacob and Israel, and more accurately represents that whole nation of people. “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights,” God proclaims, who “will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.” God goes on to name Israel, in spite of its flaws, in spite of its bad behavior, as a light to all the nations. Consider the implications for a moment: rather than one or two or a few leaders that will guide the many into right living, God is waiting on an entire people to be an example to the world. And that people God chooses have suffered centuries of collective trauma, a people who are, in essence, underdogs. Forget the decorated kings of Assyria and Babylon, God chooses to stake claim on the beleaguered nation of Israel. This is a weighty declaration, and here’s why: because by choosing a people who know what it is to hurt, God is lifting up an emphasis on empathy – that only through identification with the suffering of others can a society make conscious and moral choices. It is such that the God of Israel proclaims this unlikely nation to be the one chosen to show the world what a more just, a more peaceful, a more compassionate society looks like. By the time we get to our passage for this morning, God has laid into Israel and its neighboring nations like an angry parent who cannot understand why the children do not learn from their mistakes, why they allow their suffering to turn their hearts against their neighbor; and yet with each lamentation, God reiterates, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach the end of the earth…my steadfast love shall not depart from you…with everlasting love, I will have compassion on you.” Hey, you who have suffered, God’s saying, you are the ones to help end the suffering of others. You, who have been broken, are the ones called to repair the brokenness of the world. Like the covenants of old, God promises a new covenant, charging Israel with the task of calling all the nations into right living through their distinct experience of their own marginalization, which is to become that powerful tool that we know as empathy.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me;” Isaiah’s words proclaim. What if we shifted gears on this away from the individual and toward the collective? What if we really listened to the text calling to us, as a whole people, to be the light of the world? What if in every fury and every love, God is also awaiting you? I know it’s scary, but what if we embraced the dark nights in each of us, the unique histories of individual pain, of cultural oppression, of personal loss and shame and collective grief, that each of these experiences that live within us are actually holy? That each of these experiences is holy because they give us the wherewithal to bring good news to the oppressed because of our own oppression or our own awakening to how we have oppressed; to bind up the brokenhearted because our hearts too have been broken, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners because we have been or have loved ones who have been imprisoned by the state or by internalized forces of evil that whisper to us that we are unworthy; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, the Jubilee Year where debts are forgiven and the dispossessed return to their own land, because we have felt the sting of unpaid bills and the struggle of displacement. Dennis Bratcher puts it this way: “The role of a delivered people is to be a channel from God to the hurting, oppressed, hopeless people of the world.” UU minister Galen Guengerich, in our first reading, also reflects that “no matter how difficult the past may have been, nor how dire the present may seem to be, something more is possible – something more loving, something more merciful, something more peaceful.” But I believe in a caveat here: we cannot put on someone else’s oxygen mask until we’ve put on our own oxygen masks. We cannot build up the ancient ruins and raise up the former devastations without first acknowledging what has been devastated within each of us. It is only through our own dark nights of the soul, that doubt, that experience of not seeing but awaiting that something more, that deliverance, that sense of prevailing goodness, that we have the capacity to be as a light to the world.

In this our third week of Advent and first week of Hanukkah, we light these candles of faith for many reasons, and with many representations. What if we included ourselves in these symbols? What if in the flames we see both the hope of a coming messiah and the promise of our own ability to bring the messianic vision to earth? What if, perhaps, we imitated divine grace by giving ourselves a portion of that grace for the moments in this busy season we think we have failed, for the wounds that still feel fresh, for the darkness within us that we want so much to go away? What if in these flames, we affirm the remembrance of God’s miracle when goodness prevailed over evil in spite of grand opposition and the current miracles that we usher in when as a people we repudiate the forces of white supremacy and individualism? What if in that candle we seek God’s presence calling out to us, saying, “Hey, I’m here and I need you too. I’m always reaching out for you, hoping that you’ll hear me, that you’ll use everything that you’ve experienced and embrace everything that you are – wounds and all – for the healing of the world.” If you reach back out, maybe you’ll find that the spirit of the Lord God is upon you, for the Lord God has anointed you. So keep bringing the light that shines from within you, even if it feels like only a sliver here, a glimpse there, because in the endless work of dismantling oppressions, repairing what is broken, freeing those imprisoned, you may find that you are healing yourself. That shining in the eyes of every child, and in the flame of dawn reflecting on the open sea, in every fury and every love, God will still be standing there, awaiting you.

 

Pilar Millhollen: Here is Your God (Sermon for 12/10/17))

HERE IS YOUR GOD!

December 10th, 2017 by Pilar Millhollen

Readings: The Third Reconstruction (William J. Barber II); Isaiah 40:1 – 11

What a time is this, beloved community. So many signs of hope, of stirrings, of movement toward a time where, as our prophet says, the uneven ground shall become level as we see the coming of God in our midst. In preparation for making this highway for our God, I bore witness to such a moment on Thursday evening when I gathered in Washington Square Park with hundreds of other New Yorkers from all five boroughs. The gathering was a rally and march against not one, not two, but three major concerns affecting vulnerable Americans in our time. The demonstration sought to address 1) Congress’ immoral tax proposal; 2) to protest the Supreme Court decision to uphold a ban on travelers from six Muslim-majority countries, and 3) to demand action protecting the Dreamers, the many immigrants who came to our country as children but have yet to become full citizens. What made this gathering – and others like it – unique to our time, new and exciting in its vision, is its intersectional nature. Intersectionality seeks to affirm that systems of domination, oppression, and discrimination are not independent, but actually intersect and play off each other to continue to divide and marginalize variant groups of people in a society. This week’s trifecta rally was the result of multiple nonprofit organizations working together – these groups all have different needs and different focuses such as immigration, racial justice, Muslim-American rights, anti-poverty work – but they joined together in recognition that each of these issues are not just about one thing, and they do not just affect one group. It was, from my vantage point, a triumph for God’s vision of unity through diversity, with the underlying message that none of us is free until all of us are free. How fitting for this week, that marks the 50th anniversary of the birth of the Poor People’s Campaign, a mass grassroots movement to heal the wounds of poverty by addressing the intersectional injustices of racism, economic disparity, and militarism in the United States. The roots of the movement started in December of 1967 when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. announced a continuation of the work related to Civil Rights by involving people who were directly affected by economic devastation and war mongering. Tragically, the movement suffered from internal collapse after King was assassinated four months later in the spring of 1968, but the spirit of the Poor People’s Campaign, inspired by more than 2000 verses in the Jewish and Christian testaments to raise up the poor and eradicate economic disparity, has only become stronger in the last 50 years. After King’s untimely death, the multiracial movement against economic injustice seemed to unearth a deep-seated fear of losing control from those who have gained power at the expense of the vulnerable…and here’s what this looks like: in the last 50 years, our economic disparity has gone off the charts because of tax legislation that’s concentrated more and more of the country’s wealth into a handful of extremely affluent people. I’m going to put this in perspective because, as our dear brother Bill Moyers says, progressives love statistics: since 1968, there has been a 40% increase in the number of Americans living at or below the poverty level. 43% of these people are children. Increased militarization of poor communities of color has birthed the private prison industry and incarcerated 1.5 million people, up from 188,000 people in 1968. Coinciding with this increase, our government now spends 4 times as much on military defense as it does on fighting poverty; in comparison, in 1968 we were only spending twice as much on defense as on poverty, even in the middle of the very costly Vietnam War.

In such circumstances, as our sacred texts have told, it is only a matter of time before God begins to show up and show up strong. A few years ago in the state of North Carolina, a coalition of leaders from faith communities and secular non-profits organized to appeal to the immorality of the state’s legislative decisions to cut public education, healthcare, and voting rights. What began as a gathering of intersectional folks at the capital building on a Monday evening grew into a monthly and sometimes weekly event – advocates from Planned Parenthood joined with faith leaders concerned with growing poverty, public school teachers devastated by budget cuts, and black and brown communities whose water was poisoned by toxic dumping. One voice began to emerge as the kind of face of the campaign – a Disciples of Christ minister who came from a long line of folks whose faith informed their active participation in the eradication of social evils. This minister, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, reluctantly took up the mantle of leadership for this diverse coalition, under the condition that the movement never be dominated by one faith, by one issue, and by one type of human being. The movement erupted in North Carolina and faced much resistance, which Rev. Barber saw as proof of its efficacy – “when they stop laughing and start fighting,” he notes, “you can be sure they are worried that you are winning.” Indeed, like the Civil Rights movement, the new resistance, shaped by Martin Luther King Jr.’s earlier call for a moral revolution of values in our country, took up the name “Moral Mondays,” and suffered its fair share of failures as well as triumphs. One of the biggest risks Barber took was, in fact, making the movement so broad – could such a diverse group put aside their ideological differences to agree that the middle class trans white woman and the working class Latino Pentecostal straight man and the black atheist academic all deserve the same rights to life, liberty, to enjoy the fruits of their own labor, and to happiness?

We are reminded of this radical vision of justice in the towering messages of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah. Isaiah is one of the most beloved and influential voices of the Hebrew Bible. He is referenced multiple times by John the Baptist in preparation for Jesus, and according to the gospels, by Jesus himself who used Isaiah’s prophetic language as a compass for his own ministry when he walked into the temple, opened the scripture, and declared “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” Isaiah’s original prophecy took place during the fall of Jerusalem to the Assyrian Empire in the 6th Century B.C., where Isaiah was a personal advisor to King Hezekiah of Judah, the southern kingdom. The first part of Isaiah’s written account, books 1 – 39, foretell the hardship and suffering of destruction and subsequent exile from the land that the Israelites called home, while all the while anticipating a coming day of peace, a day where the people would practice war no more, where the lion would lay down with the lamb and the soldiers would beat their swords into plowshares. Chapter 40 begins a secondary message in the spirit of the original prophecy, but speaks more than 150 years later to the subsequent generations who were granted return from exile in Babylon back to Jerusalem under the Persian King Cyrus. This return was, in Jewish history, a landmark moment for God’s continual promise to keep showing up in the lives of the oppressed. What makes this second Isaiah’s prophecy so exciting is its emphasis on God’s love through action in the affairs of humanity, God’s tireless investment in the events of the people whom God has called to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly beside their God. It has a completely different tone from first Isaiah: at last, at long last, the people of God hear good news of a reprieve from their burdens, a respite from their displacement. “Comfort, comfort my people,” Isaiah proclaims, as a declaration that the people have suffered long enough, that God, though seemingly absent in their exile, is returning to triumphantly restore their lives. Isaiah then uses imagery from the ancient Exodus to prepare the people, commanding them to “make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God,” a highway through which both the people can physically journey and God can lead them. While this imagery was meant to Isaiah’s listeners to evoke the parting of the Red Sea, as we read these ancient words, may we glean in that image another meaning for our time: what does it look like to have every valley lifted up and every mountain and hill be made low, to see the uneven ground become level and the rough places a plain? Much as we work to see the child-of-Godness in all people, to hear the voice of God speaking anew to us in our time, I cannot help but see the inequality of the high mountains and the low valleys evening out; I cannot help but see in my mind’s eye the graphs of income inequality – with the wealthy few tracing a towering line like mountains over the great many dipping low like valleys. I cannot help but take note of the preacher inspired by Isaiah who warned us that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, a time where the playing field finally is made level. In such a vision, in that level-playing-field celebration, Isaiah preaches that “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,” which, in English, doesn’t fully illuminate the prophet’s intent. In Hebrew this phrase “glory of the Lord” expressed not just God’s grandness, God’s goodness, but God’s activity in human history. Isaiah chooses to emphasize this because Yahweh, as God was called, was no stand-aside-and-judge-from-afar God; though the text in our English translation reads, “the word of our God stands forever,” again, the English falls short here in the breadth of the message, for in Hebrew, the word used for word is dabar, which has a more expansive meaning than in English. Dabar refers to spoken word, but it also refers to the activities related to that spoken word. Thus when Isaiah muses in verses 6 and 7 on the inconsistency of the people, their inability to remain steadfast as people of such a dynamic God, he resolves this musing with, “the grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God stands forever.” Here he is convinced that even when humanity falls short of its high call, when we fail to do the work of God and end up hurting each other, the actions – the work of God does not falter. And this work is the anchor upon which the people of God can always return, even when they fall short. Thus Isaiah proclaims, “herald of good tidings, lift up your voice with strength, and say to the cities of Judah, ‘HERE IS YOUR GOD!’”

It’s as if he was saying, “no matter what mistakes you’ve made, no matter what you’ve suffered, or where you have gotten lost, you are children of the living God, the God who acts for your wellbeing, the God who humbles the elite and lifts up the lowly. Here is your God, who will walk with you when all the valleys are lifted up and the high places made low. Here is your God, who delivered your ancestors from oppression. Here is your God, who has, and is, and always will be the God of freedom.

This past week, in time for the 50th Anniversary, Rev. Barber joined with Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis of the Kairos Center here in New York City to announce a revival. This revival will not happen in a tent; this revival will not happen over a weekend; this revival, beloved, is going to be in our streets, in our pulpits, in our schools and in our government buildings. This revival will join young with old, rich with poor, gay, straight, black, brown, white, Democrats, Republicans, Independents. For this revival, to quote Rev. Barber, “is not about saving a party, it’s about becoming the nation we’ve never yet been. It’s about possibly saving the soul of this country.” Revs. Barber and Theoharis have declared this revival the New Poor People’s Campaign, working at the grassroots level as in 1967 with people directly affected by the trifecta of racism, poverty and militarism – with the additional issue of ecological devastation, which is in our age deeply intertwined with the previous evils mentioned. The campaign calls for a moral revolution of values, because ideology will always fall short of the framework needed to do what is actually right. And although many pundits have described it as an uphill battle, its legacy has already been felt in North Carolina where Moral Mondays action was attributed with bringing down a corrupt governor, and the heat will be on in 2018 with forty days of direct action and civil disobedience planned, culminating with a march on Washington in June. This is just the beginning, beloved – like for the listeners of Isaiah’s prophecy, we know all too well that the good news will ultimately prevail; that, as Rev. Barber reminds us, “their resistance is our confirmation that we are on the right track”…that we must not fear, no, but run up to the mountaintop and lift up our voices with strength to declare, “Here, here is our God.”

 

Pilar Millhollen: Stay Woke (Sermon for 12/3/17)

STAY WOKE

December 3rd, 2017 by Pilar Millhollen

Readings: “For Calling the Spirit Back From Wandering the Earth in its Human Feet”(Joy Harjo); Mark 13:24 – 37

Don’t you love an apocalyptic reading as we enter the first week of Advent? As I read over our selected texts from the lectionary for this week, I was shocked at the through line of crisis that bound them. Isaiah’s portion cries out for rescue and asks forgiveness of sins; the Psalm for this week similarly entreats God to show up and restore the people; and then of course there is this challenging passage from Jesus’ preaching in the Gospel of Mark, which launches us into the season in which we await an earth-shattering shift in humanity’s trajectory. In this season, which Christians know as Advent, we generally become caught up in the secular activities of decorating our homes, baking more desserts, going to more parties, and most of all, spending inordinate amounts of money to shower our closest friends and family with material items. But these activities and expectations also intensify the stresses that we face during every season of the year for those of us who cannot afford our rent, or to properly clothe ourselves, or who wonder where the next meal is coming from. Christian or otherwise, the Advent season inevitably holds a sense of urgency, a calling forth of a need for humanity to rearrange itself, to rewrite its narrative toward a vision where urgency is no longer felt, a vision where everyone can breathe out in relief that they have enough. So as I meditated on our texts for this morning, I came to realize that my own frustration with the darkness in Mark’s gospel required my deepest attention to hear God’s word – not just in its complexities, but also in its starkness.

Nobody likes the Gospel of Mark. Or rather, nobody likes to hear the gospel of Mark. And it’s understandable why – it cannot be read without acknowledging the context of the war during which it was written. As the earliest of the gospels in canon, it emerged around the time of great conflict during the Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire around 66 or 67 C.E. – several decades after Jesus’ death. Its stark and concise testimony narrates a kind of primitive biography of an unlikely prophet who is the real Son of God, an inversion of the divine identity claimed by the emperor. The Gospel of Mark is a paradox; it defies the idea that God is on the side of the ruling state, and it reframes the reality of the reckless use of state power wielded over a people who would rise up against it. Picture this: in the midst of a gruesome war, people are passing around this short report, about the length of an article in the Atlantic Monthly, describing a radical rabbi who is actually a Son of God, hell-bent on restructuring society and crucified as a state criminal only to rise from the dead just the way Caesar is supposed to. See, there was a Greco-Roman narrative around the divinity of each emperor, whoever was in the throne, which became popular after Julius Caesar was deified after his assassination. Have you ever seen an ancient coin with the bust of Augustus Caesar? On the “tails” side is the inscription divi filius, meaning “son of the god.” Within this cultural context, Mark’s gospel, in its unelegant Koine Greek – the equivalent of common street language – is an outrageous reversal of the accepted norms around power and recast this implausible radical guy as an anointed savior of the world.

 

It is a dubious claim. And yet, it awoke generations to come.

 

Our passage this morning is one that immediately follows a text that the lectionary surely loves to leave out – probably because its extreme language is, understandably, frightening. But it isn’t unfamiliar. In what theologians have called the “little apocalypse,” Mark’s early 1st Century Jesus uses the alarmist language of the Hebrew prophetic tradition to foretell an almost exact account of what Mark’s late 1st Century listeners would be experiencing during the Jewish Roman War. The apocalyptic literature of the Hebrew Old Testament most famously appears in the book of Daniel, where a similar vision is told of a human leader, a son of humanity who comes to earth to establish an eternal reign of peace and justice. But only, of course, after everything falls apart. Mark’s Jesus takes this image and reimagines it, warning that the temple in Jerusalem, the economic and social center of Judaism, will once again be destroyed in a coming time of great pain and suffering “such as has not been and never will be.” Earthquakes, famine, and war mark just the “beginning of the birth pangs,” he says, a clue that the creation is about to undergo a violent but necessary rebirth. This motif would have been familiar to Jews, as it mimics references in other prophetic texts such as Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Micah – that tie the immediate circumstances of crisis to a greater arc of cosmic justice. In the subsequent days, Jesus continues, they will suffer persecution that tests their mettle and false leaders who will test their ethics – they must “stay awake,” he charges, in order to survive this coming era. This declaration leads into our text for this morning, where the stars fall and the heavens quake, and then, I suppose, the good stuff happens: Jesus appears like Daniel’s prophecy, to “gather the elect from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” What’s significant here is that there is no judgment between the righteous and unrighteous as we heard last week in Matthew’s gospel and other apocalyptic narratives. Instead, Jesus shares a more positive message of salvation from the suffering of those who he has already identified as his people. This was not the time for an in-depth analysis of who’s in and who’s out here; in the middle of war, when things are not looking up for them, they didn’t need to be told they were about to be judged; they needed to be lifted up, fortified and encouraged to stay strong and keep on the path of a doing what is just and good. It’s almost as if Mark’s Jesus is saying, hold on, children of God, because justice is coming and you are gonna see it. You will be a part of it. But do not falter in who you are here and now, because there are too many people that will make you want to give it up. There is too much pain that will threaten to make you want to sell out, to give in to the voices of moral relativism and the reality of the coming winter where we fear that our needs and our neighbors’ needs will not be met because the powerful few who hold sway over our lives say they will protect the vulnerable but plunder the earth of its resources; they say they represent families while pulling healthcare for the child with a disability and the elder with a failing heart; they say they follow the Jesus who fed the hungry but try with all their might to cut food stamps and meal programs for the sister who works 12 hours a day for minimum wage; they say they are lifting up the working and middle classes but reduce taxes for billionaires while the young college student cannot pay for his education and the family of color is pushed out of the home they saved long and hard to buy with a bogus loan meant to prey upon the income that is only 75 cents to the white family’s dollar; they say they operate with moral concern and ethical integrity but will champion sexual predators and child molesters to make decisions about women’s and children’s bodies.

In this scenario, the fantastic story that Mark tells us does not seem so dubious.

The poet, musician and playwright Joy Harjo, whose words we heard earlier, offers us an alternative angle on the same need to stay woke. As a member of the Muskogee nation, an indigenous American tribe, her writing is informed by centuries of marginalization, a voice that speaks directly to the folks Jesus calls kin. She calls out to us in our fervor, our frenzy, our pain and our numbness with a kind of “what to do” list when the world is too much with us. She begins with the simplest of actions: open the door, step outside…breathe. This small action reconnects one’s body – where histories lie stored – with the ground that holds it up. “Let the earth stabilize your postcolonial jitters,” she instructs, as a balm for the wounds of colonialism that have yet to heal in this struggling land. But some of her most important instructions are the hardest – ask forgiveness. Don’t worry. Watch your mind. Let go of regrets, shame, failure…and, in the brevity of her message, she doesn’t give us a step-by-step how to accomplish these things. Only a distinct sense of confidence that we can, and we will, return to ourselves, to a state of wholeness. To a state of being truly awake. And in that state, that woke state, where we have a 360 degree awareness of the gravity of our lives and the quiet power we possess, that’s where we become available and responsible for helping each other to also wake up. “The journey might take you a few hours,” she says, “a day, a year, a few years, a hundred, a thousand, or even more.” That’s frustrating…but what she means, I believe, is the same thing that Jesus means when he says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” This comes directly after he says, “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” This would seem to indicate that hey, this tribulation is urgent, this massive shift is about to happen in your lifetime – Mark’s gospel was meant to prepare its listeners for Jesus’ imminent return to earth, but the genres in which the gospel writers framed their narratives were not literalist either. Because, like any journey worth taking, the woke ones had to hold an expansive perception of possibility, to hold the paradox because every life, every culture, every system that makes up our experience of being human, is dynamic, fluid, and ever-evolving. Keep alert, keep awake, Jesus tells them, because no one knows, not even me, when this will all come to fruition. But you gotta stay in it. Do not check out, even though the journey might take a few hours, a day, a few years, a hundred, a thousand…more.

I wake up every day to the same news that you do. And it scares me. It enrages me. It makes me ask what God is doing – or not doing – in our lives. And then I remember that we are not powerless, as long as we keep awake. I remember that God is doing a new thing in me every time God says, “Speak up. Do not let the opportunity to speak against evil pass you by. Do not let this day, this week, this year go by without writing, calling, organizing, marching, protesting, the evil that threatens to make you throw up your hands and say, “I am only one person and the forces of empire are too much.” What if Jesus had said that? What if at Gethsemane, he said, nope, this isn’t worth it and nothing’s going to get better? What if those who believe in the power of transformation, in the unlikely triumph of the itinerant working class preacher said, “well, we tried, but we’re not seeing results, so I guess we’ll just go home and see what happens.” We don’t get to do that, because we are people of the living God, we are people of the God who warns us to keep awake, because we are the revolution. We are the gears through which God’s new thing works, we are the agents of this great transformation that began to take place when this child of unwed refugee parents was born. This is what Advent is about. It is about God doing a new thing on earth and asking us to get on board. The wheels have already started turning – and we’re on this journey for the long haul. Yes, it is disruptive; yes, we are hitting potholes; yes, it may feel like the whole creation is having birth pangs. Indira Ghandi puts it this way: “When you take a step forward you are bound to disturb something. You disturb the air as you go forward, you disturb the dust, the ground. You trample upon things. When a whole society moves forward this tramping is on a much bigger scale and each thing that you disturb, each vested interest which you want to remove, stands as an obstacle.” Our job right now is to not let the obstacles dismantle our work. Our job moving forward is not to let the obstacles dismantle our souls. Call your spirit back, as Joy says – when you find your way to the circle, to the fire kept burning by the keepers of your soul, you will be welcomed. Nourish your spirit as we venture into this season because it will need preparation for this journey. It will need to shore up its reserves so that you, beloved, can stay woke. Get on board, and get ready. Then, you can help the next person get on board and get ready. The transformation is coming.

 

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All Souls Bethelehem Church, 566 East 7th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11218-5902

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