“A People Made Ready”

 

            Would you to find a pencil or pen and a blank corner of your bulletin? Look around now and choose something here, in this sanctuary, to sketch. It doesn’t matter if you’re a terrible artist or a great one. Just focus on something that catches your eye, and, begin to make a sketch. Pay attention to what you see and try to translate it to the paper. If you’re feeling playful, do this sketching with your non-dominant hand. Humor me, here. No one will see it but you.

[time for sketching]

Our Advent word is “ponder.” This exercise, which I learned on a retreat a couple of years ago, is one way to open the door to pondering. The point of it is not to produce a drawing, but to produce the ability to be fully present in the moment. The act of engaging eyes, brain, and fingers in the work of sketching focuses our energy and attention, releasing our minds from preoccupation with the past or worries about the future. It is an act of truly noticing what is before us in this moment. Cultivating our capacity to be present is a spiritual practice, an act of faith. When we are authentically present, then we are prepared to encounter the presence of God.

During this Advent season, we are pondering the story that unfolds in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke. Luke 1 narrates what happens before the Christmas story; before the baby is born in a manger. This chapter is an attempt to explain Jesus’ origins, and particularly God’s part in his coming to be. Today, we meet Elizabeth, a relative of Mary, and Elizabeth’s husband, the priest Zechariah.

Elizabeth’s experience of becoming pregnant in her old age echoes the stories of countless ancestors: Sarah, Rachel and Hannah, among the most famous. In the Hebrew scriptures, the “barren” woman who miraculously delivers a child is a familiar archetype. A commentary by Irish Jesuits explores the perspectives of these women: “In a society where having children, and especially boys, was a wife’s primary duty, to be unable to produce children was a terrible shame. It was the ultimate failure. One had been chosen as wife for this purpose and this purpose alone. Love and affection had very little to do with it. And it was, of course, presumed that it was the wife and not the husband who had failed.” (http://livingspace.sacredspace.ie/a1219g/). We live at a great cultural distance from Elizabeth and her society, and we think quite differently about issues around marriage, child-bearing, infertility, and gender roles.

The literal notion that God solves the world’s problems by causing “barren” women to become pregnant is kind a head-scratcher for us. But what about the metaphorical idea that God is a life-generating presence that surprises us in the barren spaces of our hearts, our human society, and the universe as a whole? Like the gift of a son to Zechariah and Elizabeth, this birth of God among us and within us is intensely personal. It also shapes our life in community. As Zechariah lit the sacred incense at the altar, surely he carried his own prayers, but his most important work that day was to raise the prayers of his entire people, prayers of joy and thanksgiving, groans of pain, and sighs of longing for freedom.

            The role of Elizabeth and Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist, was to be a new Elijah for this same community. Elijah was a revered Hebrew prophet and miracle worker, who, among other things, healed the sick and raised the dead to life. Tradition said that Elijah would return someday and his return would be a sign that the Messiah was about to appear and inaugurate a new creation. No wonder Zechariah had some difficulty believing what the angel told him: “With the spirit and power of Elijah [your son, John], will go before God, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Advent is our time to ponder so that we might become fully present—to ourselves, to those we love, and ultimately, to the wisdom of God.

This week, I’ve been pondering the Grand Jury decision in Ferguson. It’s hard to articulate my feelings about this event, except to say that I am heavy-hearted. I am grieving. I’m angry in some deep down place and it’s not going away. I’ve read numerous essays and listened to multiple radio reports…about grand juries and how they work, about evidence and eyewitness testimonies, about Darren Wilson’s account, about the terror that tall black men feel in the presence of the police, about our failure to hold police officers accountable for the force they use, about white privilege and what we can do to address it. It’s not just the shooting of Mike Brown or the failure to indict Darren Wilson, but all the history these events symbolize, all the wounds they rub salt in. A colleague, pastor L.T. Richardson, put it well. “There are no quick fixes when attempting to address over 400 years of violence, distrust, and systemic oppression.” (http://thesaltcollective.org/ferguson-happened-now-what/ #sthash.0rcq0G4d.gRsTNKQU.dpuf)

As I ponder Ferguson, along with the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, I am grieving and angry, but I am also hopeful. I am hopeful because of the way that my Facebook feed continues to fill with articles and posts from friends about these issues. I have realized I am not alone in taking this wounds seriously and personally. There are many, many people (and a growing number of white folks) who are not willing to stand by any longer and let racist systems continue unchecked. There are lots of good, honest, difficult and painful conversations going on right now and I see that as a significant step toward change.

            One such moment of genuine human dialogue happened at a demonstration in Portland, Oregon. The mother of twelve-year-old Devonte Hart said that as their family arrived at the rally,

“I noticed Devonte was struggling. Tears. He wouldn’t speak. He was inconsolable. My son has a heart of a gold, compassion beyond anything I’ve ever experienced, yet struggles with living fearlessly when it comes to the police and people that don’t understand the complexity of racism that is prevalent in our society . . . . He trembled holding a ‘Free Hugs’ sign as he bravely stood alone in front of the police barricade. . . . After a while, one of the officers approached him and extended his hand. Their interaction was uncomfortable at first. . . . There were generic questions about his favorite subject and what he liked to do in the summer, but the one that mattered hit straight to the heart. He asked Devonte why he was crying. Devonte’s response about his concerns regarding the level of police brutality towards young black kids was met with an unexpected and seemingly authentic (to Devonte), ‘Yes. (sigh) I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’ The officer then asked if he could have one of his hugs.”

 

A photographer from the Oregonian newspaper captured this moment: Devonte embracing the officer with tears streaming from his eyes. (http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/ index.ssf/2014/11/post_495.html#incart_story_package)

            Advent is the time we honor God’s pregnancy with a new creation. We watch, and wait, and ponder the signs, signs like young Devonte and Portland Police Sgt. Bret Barnum. Where and through whom is God getting ready to be born? What do angels look like and sound like in our lives? How are they seeking to bring us the often hidden message that the generative power of the divine is with us and for us? God’s birth is not, in the words of the ancient Latin hymn, splendor bright. It is starlight against the backdrop of dark midnight. It is the dawn we know is coming though we cannot yet feel its warmth.

This Advent, will you ponder with me? Will you look for the signs of God’s birth in our barrenness? What will help you ponder? It seems that Zechariah and Elizabeth needed some quiet time to process and make sense of God’s workings in their lives. For me, being outside is a way to ponder… and so that will be my Advent “practice” during this season: to spend some time outdoors each day. What will help you ponder? Do that thing, whatever it is. Today we will have a reverse offering, as well as a regular offering. As the plate comes around, everyone is invited to take a button that says “ponder.” Thanks to Joy and Jim Gullikson for creating these! Wear the button on your coat or your purse or keep it on your dresser … but let it be a reminder that when we are fully present, prepared and ready, God’s presence will be made known to us.

Amen.