As I sometimes do when I’m preparing for Sunday, early last week I went back to read a sermon I wrote on this same text several years ago. I always do so with fear and trepidation because I never know what I will find – a memory of a difficult time or a special celebration in the life of the church, a sermon I don’t think I can top this time, or a trainwreck I’m embarrassed I ever delivered.
By the time I read my 6 year old sermon on Tuesday afternoon last week two men in their twenties had been arrested for shooting five people involved in the protests around the recent police killing of an African American man in north Minneapolis. Two more were later arrested, all four were suspected white supremacists. It was just hours before the dashboard cam video of the horrific killing of teenager Laquan McDonald in Chicago was released worldwide. Add these recent events to the recent terrifying tide of violence and centuries old systemic racism against African Americans in this country and in this week of giving thanks instead I was asking, along with throngs of others online and around the country, “How long, O Lord?”
The last time I preached this passage I focused on the waiting, the longing, the people of Israel felt as they were crying out in exile. They wanted a quick fix; they wanted instant gratification, but instead Jeremiah’s prophecy was about looking down the road to a day in the distant future when they would find God’s promises fulfilled and righteousness executed in the land. Jeremiah’s prophecy has a long view toward hope fulfilled….
Waiting is a common theme in Advent preaching and praying. We often say that’s what Advent is all about – waiting for the birth of Jesus, waiting for the coming of Jesus. The song of the season by which today’s worship is informed, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” is a song begging, imploring God to be with us, to come among us as promised, to ransom us from captivity, to save us from Satan’s tyranny, to cheer our gloom. It’s a song of expectation and urging the fulfillment of promises made in the past in the here and now. Waiting is the whole idea of Advent.
The only problem is that sometimes in Advent it seems like we’re pretending we’re waiting for Jesus to come for the first time. In our reading of prophecies and our disciplines we rehearse what it may have been like for the Israelites who waited for deliverance, for exiles who needed a savior, for Jews who lived under the oppression of Rome. We make ourselves aware of the dark places in our world, and we muster up this posture of hope that things will be better someday. We focus on living in hope knowing that sometimes the fulfillment of that hope is a long way off. And so we encourage the practice of patience in a season of waiting as if that’s the only answer to anything – any longing, any mourning, any desire for righteousness. The most urgency we ever seem to muster are laments like mine earlier, “How long, O Lord?” or frustrated prayers asking God, “What are you waiting for? Do something!”
But this year, that just doesn’t cut.
“What are you waiting for?” just won’t work as the question of the day, the question of the season if it’s a question we keep asking of God.
One of my communities of support as a pastor is the RevGalBlogPals. We are a large community on-line in a couple of different places. Our closed Facebook group has over 3000 members made up of a large majority of white female clergy, a much smaller percentage of women of color who are clergy, and a smattering of men, ordained and not, and lay women who support the ministries of women. It is as safe of a space to ask honest questions and share ministry highs and lows as online space gets. On Tuesday evening one of our African-American clergy sisters, the Rev. Kentina Washington, posted a pointed challenge to most of the community. She wrote:
On this upcoming first Sunday of Advent, [I’m] wondering how [many of] you will be preaching to your congregations – regardless of racial/ethnic demographic – about the dashcam video released today in Chicago today showing a teenager shot 17 times by a CPD officer? What about the protesters shot by white supremacists – at a #BlackLivesMatter rally in Minneapolis?
White clergy, I am talking to you. What are you planning to say about the execution of Black people in our world. What will *you* say??
I’ll be honest. I bristled at the question at first. On the one hand, it was a general bristling. I almost always bristle when anyone in the group starts to make declarations about what all of us should be preaching without knowing our churches, our contexts, our unique circumstances. I get annoyed at the assumption that I wouldn’t know what is best for our worship.
And on the other hand I bristled because it was hard for me to hear the painful truth a sister in Christ was voicing – – We don’t do or say enough. The white church in general and me as a white pastor more specifically, we don’t speak out about the sinful and ugly racism that’s a part of our American culture nearly enough. I was convicted. And what my colleague further helped me understand is that this perennial question of Advent longing, “What are you waiting for?” only works if we hear God as the questioner and ourselves, the middle to upper middle class white church, as the ones who need to come up with an answer.
What are *you* waiting for?
What are *we* waiting for?
It is time for us to start coming up with answers for God.
What are *we* waiting for, church?
What are *we* waiting for, suburbanites?
What are *we* waiting for, white Christians?
What are we waiting for that we can sit here and be OK with the massacre that took place in the Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church Bible study?
What are we waiting for that we can simply shake our heads at the execution of a black teenager in the middle of the street? A young man who was shot 16 times, many after he was already lying on the ground.
What are we waiting for that we prayed for hundreds of girls kidnapped from their school for sexual violence on one Sunday, then barely spoke of it again the next?
What are we waiting for that read in the news of the shooting of peaceful protesters to intimidate the black community and then do absolutely nothing?
What are we waiting for that we seem OK with the fact that the poverty rates among African Americans and Native Americans are over 25% of those populations while the poverty rate among whites is 11%?
What are we waiting for that we are satisfied that high school graduation rates are 85% for white students and 68% for African American and Native American students?
What are *we* waiting for? Because Jesus has come, so we have no right to say we don’t know any better. We sort of pretend this time of year that he isn’t here yet. We go through this charade of waiting for the baby to be born, but he’s been here. God has come. Jesus was born, and lived, and died, and was resurrected to show us that life is valuable – – and in particular that vulnerable lives matter, poor lives matter, persecuted lives matter, yes, black lives matter.
I understand that talking what some will label as “politics” in church is about as advisable as talking politics at the Thanksgiving dinner table. I understand that by talking about the sinful race problem we have in this country and that whether we are ready to admit it or not you and I are a part of, I might upset more than a few of us. But I’m OK with that this time. I have been convicted of my own complicity in unjust systems and cultures, and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t speak this corporate word of gospel conviction to all of us.
What is going on, what has been going on for centuries and is not yet over – the mistreatment and dehumanization of dark-skinned people by light-skinned people – is unjust. It is unrighteous. It is sinful, and we cannot remain silent any longer. We can’t say “but I don’t own slaves, so it’s not my fault.” We can’t say “but I’m not a white supremacist, so I’m not like that.” We can’t say “but we don’t know the whole story.” We can’t say “but there’s nothing I can do from here.” We can’t say these things any longer (if we ever could say that before), because saying all of that has gotten us exactly nowhere on the racism in our country. In fact, right now there is very little those of us in the white community and the white churches need to say other than, “I’m sorry. I will listen. How can I join you in making changes for the future?”
There are things we are being asked to do. None of these are quick fixes, and all of them require some humility, some learning, maybe some courage (although nothing close to the courage required of our black brothers and sisters), and definitely some deep, deep listening.
First we need to acknowledge our privilege. “Privilege exists when one group has something of value that is denied to others simply because of the groups they belong to, rather than because of anything they’ve done or failed to do.” (Peggy McIntosh) Privilege is knowing that the people our children will learn about in history class will primarily share their race. Privilege is being able to assume that our failures will not be attributed to our race. As white people we show our privilege insensitively when we say things like “Can’t they just move on? Slavery ended over a hundred years ago. The Civil Rights Movement was 50 years ago. This is all over today.”
Secondly, we need to repent of our complicity born of our complacency. When we choose not to get involved, when we choose not to speak up when a racist joke is told or a racial slur is used, we are allowing racism to continue. We are part of the problem.
Thirdly, we must listen to the experiences and testimonies of those who have been harmed by systemic racism. We must listen without discounting or discrediting those experiences by saying they can’t possibly be true because we haven’t lived them. One opportunity for this is being presented to us by the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area. Our Committee on Representation is inviting us all into a book study of The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. This work of non-fiction chronicles the migration of black citizens who fled the South for norther and western cities from 1915 to 1970.
And lastly we must join with people who have been persecuted and discriminated against in the solutions they identify. This is not another time for white people to think we have the answer to a problem we have been a part of creating, racism that we clearly haven’t lived in the same way.
What are we waiting for? In this season of Advent, in this time of racial crisis in our nation and around the world, what are we waiting for? We know the next chapter in the story of hope promised. God did come. Jesus was born. God did show up. So as often as we sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” waiting desperately for God to break into this messy world and just do something, I believe God is singing back to us “O Come All Ye Faithful.”
I believe God is waiting for us to show up – not just with our candles through Advent and our heartfelt singing on Christmas Eve, because “we cannot in good conscience or good faith sing that we want Jesus to come when we are willing to allow him to be killed, again and again, right in front of us.” (The Rev. Julia Seymour) We don’t get to sing the songs of Christmas with any integrity when we are more interested in staying silent than ensuring our black brothers and sisters can live in peace.
God is inviting us, God is waiting for us to show up and be faithful, to walk in the way of the prophets who called for and the Savior who demonstrated a new and better way of life. O come all ye faithful.
What are we waiting for?