New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
December 14, 2014
Good God! What a depressing Advent. Everywhere around this wide world, it’s more bad news, from violent protests in Berkeley and Oakland, CA, to the Senate report on the CIA and its use of detention, rendition, and torture to floods and rock- and mudslides in California and Indonesia, from another typhoon in the Philippines to today’s second anniversary of the school shooting in Sandy Hook, CT. And today is the third Sunday in Advent, or Gaudete (gow-day’-tee) Sunday, Latin for the command form of “rejoice”, when we light the candle of joy. Really?
It seems that the more appropriate Psalm would be these verses from Psalm 137.
By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down
and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth,
saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
God’s people were being held captive in Babylon. The most painful form of torture was for the Babylonians to taunt the Israelites, commanding them to sing a song from home, and not just any song but a song of Zion. A song sung by pilgrims making their way to the temple in Jerusalem, the temple that now lay in ruins. And so the musicmakers hung up their harps on willow trees, as protest, for how could they sing Yahweh’s song in exile? How could they sing a pilgrim song when they couldn’t go home, would not go home for several generations?
And so how can we sing a song of joy in these times of unrest, of angry shouts and demonizing the other? God knows we want to come home, to come to a place of peace and justice, of love and compassion for all. Yet even when those released captives came home to Israel singing and laughing, after a while they realized that not all was wonderful. There were those who had stayed behind, and each resented the other. The returnees took charge of the rebuilding efforts, while those who had not been carried off into exile now became captive and oppressed by their sisters and brothers. Those in exile returned home, and those who stayed survived, but it would take a great deal more to restore a divided people into one nation, as God’s people.
Even though the Civil War ended almost 150 years ago, we are still a divided, partisan nation: Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, rich and poor, black and white. Ending a war is not the same thing as peace. The Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil Rights Act are not bookends to a closed era. They are only the beginning of constant vigilance to right wrongs, to examine ourselves rather each other, and to enact good and just policies.
Yet even so, there is good news to be had, signs and glimmers that we are on our way home. Two protest stories you may not have heard: One takes place in Richmond, CA; the other in Portland, OR. A youth center in Richmond, CA organized a peaceful protest this past Tuesday, but with a slight twist. Along with about 100 protesters calling for a reduction of police violence in communities of color stood the chief of police, his command staff, and other officers, as well as the mayor and council members, holding signs that read #BlackLivesMattter. The city of Richmond has been proactive when it comes to community-based policing, ensuring that their police force is responsive and well-trained, as this protest demonstrated. In actuality, it wasn’t a protest but more like an invitation to witness community leaders, police, and citizens working together and being willing to examine themselves. (Story update here.)
The other story centers around a twelve-year-old boy named Devonte Hart. Devonte came into this world with drugs in his bloodstream. By the time he was four, he had smoked, drank alcohol, was familiar with guns, and had been neglected and abused. He was pretty scary the first few years after he and his siblings had been adopted by Jen Hart and her wife Sarah. But now, as violent as he had been, Devonte is deeply sensitive and compassionate. One of his favorite charitable campaigns (and mine) is the Free Hugs movement. Often Devonte will wear a “Free Hugs” sign in public places. He was wearing one when he and his mom Jen were at Ferguson rally in Portland.
When Devonte saw the police officers who were present to ensure a safe and peaceful protest, Devonte was in tears. He had been struggling with all the news stories about police brutality and racism, not wanting to be fearful of police officers. The day after the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Devonte and his mother went downtown with signs that read “You Matter” and “Free Hugs”, and then joined the rally that was already in progress.
Sgt. Bret Barnum of the Portland Police Dept. saw Devonte with tears streaming down his face. He motioned for Devonte to come over to where he was standing with his motorcycle. They shook hands, talked about school and summer vacation, and what Devonte likes to do. Then Sgt. Barnum looked at the sign around Devonte’s neck and asked him if he could have a hug. A photographer, Johnny Nguyen (hwen), was in the right place at the right time, and thus was born “the hug that was felt around the world”.
It is stories like these that remind us kindness can come out of great pain, that within the seeds of sorrow, watered by rivers of tears, are harvests of joy. Joy, not happiness. Henri Nouwen wrote that joy is “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing—sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death—can take that love away.”
Joy is our spiritual home that we can always come home to, even when home is in ruins, when relationships are strained or broken, when we’re not sure what the future holds. Advent is the practice of learning to live joyfully while we’re waiting for God to act. Meanwhile, God is behind the scenes, always moving, still speaking, in ways that sometimes pass beneath our notice, like the thousands of police officers who create goodwill in our communities; youth like Devonte who make a difference just by being themselves; you and me when we live from that joyful place that nothing can touch.
Someone told me that a police officer’s plan, every day, is to always come home. That’s God’s plan for us too, to come home, and not only that, but to come home singing. Every last one of us. Amen.