Thursday, December 14, 2017

A Change Is Gonna Come

It is often the poets, the artists, who express the truth of our situation and see the possibilities inherent in the moment that we can’t yet see.  They see the tender branch beginning to put forth its leaves, heralding the coming of summer, while we are still shivering in the chill of a seemingly endless winter.   The poets perceive the signs of life taking root in the soil of death, bringing hope to those blinded by grief and judgment upon those blinded by the illusion that all is well.

The poets speak of a world that is not yet to illumine the world as it is, and embolden us to traverse the distance between here and there:  between the wilderness and the promised land, exile and homecoming, the old creation and the new.  While Alabama state troopers beat, gassed, and rode down peaceful protestors crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, Sam Cooke could be heard singing on the radio:

Then I go to my brother
And I say brother help me please
But he winds up knockin' me
Back down on my knees, oh

There have been times that I thought I couldn't last for long
But now I think I'm able to carry on
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

Those beaten back from the bridge that day may not have seen the change that was coming, but Sam Cooke could see it.  Cooke placed his hope in a social movement that transcended his own brief life, trusting like Dr. King that the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.  A change gonna come.  But in the meantime, stay woke: alert to the signs of the times, patient in the struggle, living in anticipation of the Beloved Community as if it already were here and now. 

This is what Jesus teaches us in the somewhat enigmatic apocalyptic imagery of Mark chapter 13.  It is about how to persevere in the struggle for a better world, resisting the nightmare in which we find ourselves by living into God’s dream for the earth.   Jesus weaves together the works of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Zechariah, and Daniel into a new vision.  Grounded in the classics of his tradition, Jesus performs a surprisingly creative variation on the theme of prophetic hope. 

That is what artists do.  They transform the received tradition to make it fresh and relevant, so that we have eyes to see and ears to hear again.  Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” is a beautiful example.  It was rooted in a long tradition of musical protest that wended its way back through Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind,” evoking Woodie Guthrie as well as Paul Robeson’s unsurpassable rendition of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Ol’ Man River;” even as it drew on the existential depth and critical perspective of the spirituals and the blues to subvert the inherent racism of 19th Century ministrel anthems.  As critic David Cantwell notes, “Thanks to ‘Ol’ Man River,’ we can move from ‘Dixie,’ the popular song most associated with the Confederacy and Jim Crow, to ‘A Change Is Gonna Come,’ one of the songs most associated with civil rights, in just two steps.”[1] 

Just as Sam Cooke skillfully drew on the best of American musical tradition to subvert its racist roots, Jesus skillfully drew on the best of his religious tradition to subverts its violent images of God.  At its best, the prophetic tradition holds up the promise that God will not forsake us.  It is a tradition of resistance to injustice and hope for a better world.  At its worst, it is a tradition rooted in the myth of redemptive violence, promoting an image of God overcoming evil through cataclysmic destruction to bring about a new creation.  Apocalypse, which simply means “revelation” or “uncovering what was hidden” – living in the truth –  becomes associated with violent end-of-the-world scenarios. 

Jesus takes over this imagery to tell a different story.  Jesus doesn’t elide the truth one bit.  Only the truth can set us free to creatively integrate the past in the service of a better future.  Jesus is profoundly in touch with the suffering of his people, the growing economic inequality between Jewish elites and peasants, the corruption arising from collaboration with Roman imperial power, and the intensification of violence engendered by Jewish resistance and Roman repression.  He uses the motif of apocalyptic to describe the reality of Roman rule, and to predict its denouement in the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple.

Jesus warns his followers not to be lead astray by these forces contending against each other.  Many false Messiahs will come promoting violent resistance.  He invites them to put their trust in God’s power to sustain them amidst conflict, betrayal, and persecution.  Oppression and suffering is part of the struggle for a better world.   

What is different about Jesus’ use of apocalyptic imagery is that suffering is never the expression of divine vengeance.  It is simply the result of wars, exploitative leaders, famines, and persecution.  God has nothing to do with it.  The only reference to God’s involvement is divine intervention to bring the suffering to an end.  God’s part comes “after that suffering” – this is the good news:  suffering is not the final word. 

What does the world “after the suffering” look like?  Well, it looks like a son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory.  “Son of man” simply means “human being,” and it is a symbol for the advent of a community in which human beings can realize their intrinsic dignity in God’s image.  While the darkened sun and moon and falling stars sound scary, they do not portend the end of the world.  They symbolize unjust rulers falling from power. Then the “son of man” arrives in clouds of glory to gather his chosen ones from all around the world.  This is an allusion to the Book of Daniel, which described violent empires as beasts, while God’s just rule looks like a human being fully alive.

A change gonna come.  When?  No one knows except God, according to Jesus.  We can only stay awake and watch for the signs of the times.  Just as the budding of leaves on the branches of fig trees portends the coming of summer, pay attention to the signs of new life and growth indicating the advent of humanity in our all too inhumane world.  They are there if we have eyes to see.  When the human being arrives, it will be like a homecoming.  Not a stranger, not a thief breaking in, but like the master of the house returning home at last; an occasion of joy, not fear.  Watch with eager expectation, not with apprehension or dread. 

Jesus turns apocalyptic on its head.  We don’t have to be afraid that God is gone get us.  It is our fellow humans we need to worry about!  We can trust that God is coming with power to set us free, to heal and make new.  In fact, the son of man already has come.  The human one is here.  

In Mark’s Gospel, the coming of the son of man is fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Three times, Jesus predicts that the son of man will be crucified and rise again.  Three times, Jesus predicts that the son of man will come in glory.  Two ways of saying the same thing.  God’s way of intervening to address suffering is not through cataclysmic violence, but through revolutionary love continually renewed by the courageous witness of those who work for justice no matter the cost.  It is this love the makes us human and renews the world.

I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river I've been running ev'r since
It's been a long time, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

Sam Cooke began his career as a gospel singer and it is telling that “A Change Is Gonna Come” was included in Cooke’s final album entitled, Aint’ That Good NewsIt’s been a long, a long time coming, but a change gonna come.  That was the good news that Jesus announced.  We are that change.  We are the Jesus movement, creating a genuinely human community. And through us, Jesus is coming again, and again, and again, a river that has been runnin’ ever since that first advent.   

[1] David Cantwell, “The Unlikely Story of ‘A Change Is Gonna Come,’” The New Yorker (March 17, 2015)

Monday, November 20, 2017

Welcome The Children

Celebration of Holy Baptism, St. James Episcopal Church, San Francisco

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

- Mark 10:13-16

I wonder if Jesus enjoyed spending time with children.

Last Sunday, Andrew and I hosted the new rector at St. Mary the Virgin, David Ericson, his wife, Heather, and their children, Gabriella (5), and John (3) for dinner.  Our son, Nehemiah, is a college sophomore in Boston, so it has been a while since we’ve had little ones in the house.   Andrew found a box of old toy trains and planes, stuffed animals, and books from Nehemiah’s childhood and put it in the living room.  Gabriella and John were enchanted to discover these old treasures, which were new to them.  John seemed to enjoy shooting a plastic cannon ball at me.  Gabriella, a budding ballerina, was taken by a pink elephant wearing a tutu that I had forgotten about.  No wonder Nehemiah is a dance major! 

During dinner, John would periodically disappear under the table and scratch my leg, pretending to be a dog.  Finally, he worked his way onto my lap and asked, “Am I sleeping here tonight?”  I’m not sure if he asked out of hope or fear or both.  When they left, I was exhausted.  But I had a great big grin on my face.

I think Jesus welcomed the children because he knew he would enjoy it. 

I wonder, though, if Jesus also found his time with these children heart-breaking.  Remember that people were bringing these children to him so that he might touch them.  Usually, when people wanted Jesus to touch them, it was because they needed healing.  These were probably children from peasant families, malnourished, and unwell.  These kids needed help. 

It is easy for us to romanticize childhood.  We live in a society where very few infants are lost at birth or prior to weaning.  In Jesus’ world, probably a third of children born live died before the age of six.  By sixteen, something like 60% would be dead.[1]  For Jesus to allow these children to come close to him, was to come close to the pain in the communities he visited.  It had to be heart-breaking.

Jesus was indignant – he was angry – when his disciples tried to prevent people from bringing the children to him.  I used to think the disciples were just being mean, treating these children as expendable, unworthy of Jesus’ attention.  I’m not so sure now.  Maybe they were just practicing triage, believing that these kids were hopeless cases.  Maybe they were trying to protect Jesus from compassion fatigue.  I’m sure they had the best of intentions. 

But Jesus refuses their protection.  By embracing these children, he embraces their vulnerability, as well as his own.  In this mutual vulnerability, hedged around with love and care, they claim the blessing that is their birthright. 

When the children come to Jesus, don’t think of kids sitting on Santa’s lap posing for a picture.  Think of Mother Teresa in the streets of Calcutta.  Did Jesus find joy in these children?  Yes!  But not before he came close to their pain.  Which is the flat-out truth of the matter even for the most privileged families: children are vulnerable by definition.  They just come that way.  Jesus tells us that we must stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable people in our community, we must be willing to come close to their pain, if we want to enter the kingdom of God.  The kingdom happens when we make our mutual vulnerability a blessing rather than a curse; an opportunity for joy rather than for exploitation.

It is the social location of these children – as marginal, expendable, worthless – not some romantic notion of their innocence –  that cries out for our solidarity with them.  Notice too, that this solidarity is not just the responsibility of parents or families.  Jesus is not a parent.  These are not his biological or adoptive children, but he takes responsibility for blessing them and admonishes his followers to imitate him in this. 

Earlier in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”[2]   This is a radical statement in a culture where children were socially marginal and subject to exposure when unwanted or considered burdensome:  literally, disposable people.  Jesus says that embracing a child is embracing God!   There is that of God in each of us.  There are no disposable people!  The only way to realize the kingdom of God is to embrace the deep truth of our intrinsic value and interdependence.   For Jesus, welcoming and blessing children epitomizes God gracious embrace of the vulnerable and needy.[3]

It isn’t easy to acknowledge our vulnerability.  It isn’t easy to come close to the pain in our communities.  But to close ourselves off from the vulnerability and pain, to prevent the children from coming to us, also closes us off from the joy of claiming and sharing God’s blessing.  

Earlier this week, I had occasion to attend the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education meeting, along with a couple of other members of St. James, and leaders from other congregations who are a part of Faith in Action Bay Area’s faith-based community organizing work.  We were there to support the efforts of Dr. Vincent Matthews, the Superintendent, who declared a state of emergency among African American children in our city.

Since 2000, the African American community in San Francisco shrank by 27 percent.  Life expectancy among African Americans here is 15 years less than the rest of the population.  The median household income of white households is more than $100k, while that of African American households is $30K.  48% of African American children live in households earning less than the federal poverty line, compared to 2% of white children.   Our schools are failing these children, 74% of whom score well below grade level on standardized tests and have been for more than 25 years across different state tests.  It is no wonder that 67% of African Americans in our city do not have a high school diploma, compared to 16% of the white population.[4]  Racial and socioeconomic segregation and institutional racism is creating a public health crisis for African American children in our city.  This is what a slow-moving genocide looks like.

Are we willing to come close to the pain in our community?  What would it look like to embrace and bless these children?  

These are not easy questions.  But I do know this:  white guilt and white fragility, the attitude that issues of race are just too painful and unpleasant to address, is the resort of privilege.  Jesus invites us to choose a different option: using our privilege and power to welcome, heal, and bless.  In our baptism, we are empowered to be ambassadors of Jesus, agents of reconciliation.  The work of reconciliation begins with relationship. 

What if we chose to come close to the pain rather than deny or ignore it?  What if we partnered with a congregation in the Bayview or Western Addition to adopt a failing elementary school there?  What if we built relationships with the families in that congregation, listened deeply to their stories, and opened ourselves, as Elizabeth Nelson invited us last week, not only to their brokenness but also to the unique gifts they bring to the party?  What if, like Jesus, we discovered that we enjoyed our time with these families and their children? What if we claimed them as our children too.  I’m sure that we would feel vulnerable, even uncomfortable.  I suspect that we would be changed.  I trust that we would find ourselves on the inside of the kingdom of God. 

Today, we welcome and embrace Boden, Brooks, and Logan in the sacrament of Holy Baptism.  We promise to hold them close in their pain and in their joy.  We promise to honor the unique gifts they bring to the table, a table in which all are invited and included.  In so doing, they push the circle of our embrace to make it a little bit wider.  May the scope of that embrace keep expanding until it knows no limits.  Let the children come.  It may be exhausting sometimes, but it will leave a big grin on your face.  Amen. 

[1] John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus:  The Life of Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991), p. 4.
[2] Mark 9:37.
[3] James L. Bailey, “Experiencing the Kingdom as a Little Child: A Rereading of Mark 10:13-16,” Word & World (Volume XV, Number 1, Winter 1995), p. 62.
[4] Data from the 2016 San Francisco Community Health Needs Assessment and the Superintendent’s 90-Day Report.