A Vulnerable Cry for Peace 12-7-14

Sometimes we need to take a step back with our hearts open, sometimes we need a new conversation around the table. Hear the word of God for you this morning.

Mark 1:1-8 Here begins the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God: as it was written in Isaiah the prophet:  “I send my messenger before you to prepare your way, a herald’s voice in the desert, crying, ‘Make ready the way of our God.  Clear a straight path.’” And so John the Baptizer appeared in the desert, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to John and were baptized by him in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins. John was clothed in camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist, and he ate nothing but grasshoppers and wild honey. In the course of his preaching, John said, “One more powerful than I is to come after me.  I am not fit to stoop and untie his sandal straps. I have baptized you in water, but the One to come will baptize you in the Holy Spirit.”

December 7, 2014

A Vulnerable Cry for Peace  

“Why don’t you turn out the lights when you leave the room?” I yell at my wife as I enter the room and turn the light off. She yells right back, “I like to have the light on when I’m going through the room working in the kitchen. Leave it on!” A stupid argument like this can escalate into a rip-roarer if we don’t watch it, so I turn the light back on. It’s not worth it. I like the darkness part of Advent, she likes the light. That’s fine. Turn on the lights!
Sometimes when disagreement like that escalates into a fight, I look back on it to see what caused it. Most of the time, in hindsight, what seemed so important in the moment seems kind of silly, you know what I mean? Have you ever noticed that? Usually when we fight, it’s about something that feels very important in the moment, but when we’re outside the urgency of the moment, either one of us could see any number of ways we could have defused the fight along the way. I’m sure you’ve been there.
I went to a breakfast meeting on Thursday where Dr. Howard Stevenson, a distinguished professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania was speaking. He talked about more serious confrontations, like the ones that have been leading to the deaths of so many Black men lately at the hands of the police. He said a moment can come where you have about 40 seconds to say or do the right thing to defuse a dangerous or deadly confrontation. He’s trying to teach young Black men some of the things they can say or do to save their lives.
He’s doing a study called the Barbershop Talk Project  which teaches barbers to counsel 1100 Black males between 18-24 years old about retaliation violence and HIV/STD reduction strategies during their haircut appointments in a randomized field study. Doesn’t that sound brilliant? He’s trying to teach young men how to make the right decision in the 40 second window that they have to defuse violence in their lives, to help them not get killed.
I hope the police force hires him too. We would kind of expect them to be the ones who would learn how to defuse violent, dangerous situations, but it doesn’t seem to be happening. I’m sure they do get that kind of training, but in action it’s really hard to put it in practice. I know that it’s hard for me when I’m in a tense situation – even when it’s just at home. How do you say or do the right thing in that 40 second window, no matter who you are?

Let’s look at the passage from Mark for a minute here. I usually think of John the Baptist showing up in Advent here with a loud mouth and a confrontational style. He certainly spares no mercy for the religious people who come out to him in the wilderness. This year, I noticed something different about J the B that helped me a bit. I noticed that there is a powerful vulnerability to John in this text.
He’s dressed in camel’s hair and a belt, not exactly a power outfit. Some picture him as being almost naked. He is out in the wilderness, alone. And yet, he’s crying out for justice. His is a vulnerable and persistent cry proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John has a powerful combination of vulnerability and insistence on making things right, that we might learn from in our present stressful situation.

We have to be able to talk about what’s going on in our society. My son called me the other day and said, “Did you hear about the cop who shot a man dead in the street?” I said “yes, of course. Which one do you mean?” He said, “Over here in Phoenix.” I said, “no, I hadn’t heard bout that.” He said, “I’ve heard about 7 killings in the last two weeks.”  – in St. Louis, in New York, now in Cleveland and Phoenix.
We have to be able to talk about what’s going on, even though it brings up tension and stress. We’re going to have to figure out the right combinations of vulnerability and persistence in our communications with each other. The breakfast meeting I attended on Thursday where Dr. Stevenson spoke was a meeting of a group called NewCORE, the New Conversation on Race and Ethnicity. We are trying to help this conversation to happen in safe environments.

On Thursday, one pastor who comes regularly was clearly in a lot of pain. She said that she had had trouble sleeping and that the latest news that there would be no indictment in the case of Eric Garner’s death in New York left her feeling hopeless. She said “You know I am a non-violent person. I serve on the selection committee for the Nobel Peace Prize, but this situation has made me question my commitment to non-violence.”
I knew in that moment that my friend was speaking from a John the Baptist kind of place – a vulnerable cry for justice and peace. It was a sacred moment in which she was speaking from the heart. When a white male colleague stepped in to try to explain that he thought in the bigger picture we are making progress, I wanted to shush him and tell him to listen. That was not the time to be talking about a bigger picture or how much progress we are making. It was a time to respect the sacred moment, the vulnerable cry for justice and for peace.
Luckily that was not a tense situation where my words would be needed to defuse the stress because I didn’t say anything. I knew of course that that dear sister and colleague was as committed to non-violence as she ever had been. But we need to listen. We need to hear the struggle of a community that is in pain, struggling to breath and live in hope.
We have to take the risk of having a new conversation about race. We may say the wrong thing at times. We may have to defuse the tension at times. We may step on a sacred moment and not realize we’re in it. But this conversation, this moment will lead to sacred realizations if we allow ourselves to open to each other, to listen to the pain and deal with the justice issues. We will be a better society for it if we take the risk to set aside our fear and to listen to the voices of the prophets among us, to listen to the voice of the people who are crying out in agony and frustration when their children are being taken, choked, shot, mistreated. Can’t we hear that voice and respond in the moment with compassion, with sympathy, with solidarity?
Brothers and sisters, it’s not about taking sides. It’s not about giving up our voice. It’s just about hearing that vulnerable cry for justice and peace, allowing ourselves for a moment to hear the cry. What would it mean to allow ourselves that vulnerability, to allow ourselves maybe even to hear God’s voice?

Communion Hymn: 202, People Look East