Occupy Hope: Preparing for Peace 12/4/2011

During Advent, when we were hoping for a nice time of nostalgic Christmas carols and storytelling, the Gospel gives us instead a bunch of characters who sound like they could be right out of Occupy Wall Street.  John the Baptist certainly looked the part – scruffy and boldly challenging, he certainly had the religious people of the day clucking their tongues at his eccentricity and unrealistic demands. Later in the season we will receive the challenge to occupy hope from an even more surprising source.  For today: listen to the good news from the gospel of Mark.

 Mark 1:1-8 The good news of Jesus Christ—the Message!—begins here, 2 following to the letter the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Watch closely: I’m sending my preacher ahead of you; He’ll make the road smooth for you. 3 Thunder in the desert! Prepare for God’s arrival! Make the road smooth and straight! 4 John the Baptizer appeared in the wild, preaching a baptism of life-change that leads to forgiveness of sins. 5 People thronged to him from Judea and Jerusalem and, as they confessed their sins, were baptized by him in the Jordan River into a changed life. 6 John wore a camel-hair habit, tied at the waist with a leather belt. He ate locusts and wild field honey. 7 As he preached he said, “The real action comes next: The star in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will change your life. 8 I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. His baptism—a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit—will change you from the inside out.”

December 4, 2011

Occupy Hope: Preparing for Peace 

Last Sunday, while my family was driving home from our Thanksgiving weekend in Boston, I got an email from a United Methodist pastor who’s church is right next to City Hall. He said that the Occupy Philadelphia folks camped out at City Hall were about to be evicted and he asked for pastoral presence to try to help keep the peace and to minister to anyone who might need it. I went down there about 8 pm that evening – 3 hours after the eviction was supposed to happen and 3 days before it actually did happen.

Though friends told me things had settled down quite a bit by the time I got there, the air was still electric with tension among the hundreds of people on Dilworth Plaza waiting for a confrontation. The biggest confrontation I saw that evening was between the “occupiers” and Eagles fans coming home from a disappointing game and trying to pick a fight with some susceptible protesters.

It’s fairly easy for us to dismiss the folks from Occupy Wall Street or conversely from the Tea Party as expressing anger and frustration about our society that comes from the fringes. They don’t represent the mainstream certainly. But in this unstable time of growing poverty and inequality, or political confusion and divisiveness, it is hard to find a center. It’s hard to feel easy with the way things are – even though we are not any more comfortable with people calling for change. (The only change we’re generally comfortable with is the change in our pocket.)

 

John the Baptist is such an odd character in the Bible that we tend to dismiss his radical message, his dire warnings as easily as we dismiss the Occupy folks. You can imagine people saying “oh, he’s dirty, and what does he want anyway?” The Gospel of Mark, however, clearly portrays John the Baptist as an agent of change and a prophet of change. He expects the one who is coming to turn things upside down, to bring a new time of spiritual, economic, and social wholeness.  John the Baptist challenges the people who support the status quo as a “brood of vipers” and insists that they get their hearts ready for the One who is coming to make things right.

On Friday evening I went to a prayer meeting at a United Methodist Church a block away from my son’s school in Philadelphia. It was a powerful time of petition to God, an outpouring of thankfulness for the work that God is doing in our midst. A woman by the name of Victoria Green got up to speak as a representative of a group called Every Murder is Real, and I remembered that we had awarded her and her group $500 a few years ago from the Main Line Children’s Festival.

She told us the story of her son being murdered by gun violence in that neighborhood. She said she was suicidal and homicidal when she lost her only son to senseless gun violence. In the midst of her despair, she ran into another woman whose son was killed 2 days after her son was killed. She and her new friend helped each other out of their despair and through prayer and determination began to help others who were in a similar situation. Eventually, with the help of prison inmates, they transformed a room in that United Methodist Church to be a support center for women and men dealing with the devastation of gun violence in our region.

It was an amazing story of transformation and hope and it felt like God was moving that evening to make some new connections, to build a new place of hope in a difficult world.

I take some hope in the way the Occupy movement has changed the conversation about inequality and injustice in our country. I think that conversation is important to have. But I also believe that Jesus calls us to a deeper conversation – one that leads to a transformation of the spirit, a depth of hope for the hardest problems in our society and the deepest hurts in ourselves. That was the spirit that I felt moving when that group prayed on Friday night. That was the spirit I felt moving when Victoria Greene spoke about her son and the work she is doing to stop the violence in her neighborhood. That’s the Spirit I feel when I walk by the homeless people in the park near my house each morning, waking up in the cold morning, and I feel Jesus with them, knowing what’s it’s like to face no room in the inn, and still have hope.

That’s the spirit that I feel moving when we share a meal this morning, when we allow the hope and the expectation of the coming of the Living God among us to occupy our hearts.  Make room in your heart this morning. As you come forward this morning, make room in your heart for hope – the hope of that is coming from some most unexpected places. Make room in your heart for peace – the peace which passes all understanding.