The Sleepless Night: A sermon on Ferguson, keeping awake, and Jesus

*Originally preached at the Jazz Service at Fourth Presbyterian Church-Chicago on November 30, 2014.

Mark 13:24-37

 ‘But in those days, after that suffering,

the sun will be darkened,

   and the moon will not give its light,

and the stars will be falling from heaven,

   and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

 ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’

Last Monday night, a little after midnight, I was having a debate with myself. Should I go to sleep or stay awake?

Like many of you perhaps, I had spent my evening anxiously awaiting the decision from the grand jury on whether or not Officer Darren Wilson would be indicted for the killing of Mike Brown. I had spent hours refreshing news websites until the statement was finally released, and then when it became clear that Wilson would not be indicted or tried, I spent hours more following Ferguson twitter feeds and reading countless Facebook posts as friends and public figures alike processed the news.

In Ferguson and in other cities around the country including Chicago, protesters and those tasked with keeping the peace faced a long sleepless night. Undoubtedly, the family of Mike Brown faced the most sleepless night of all, following on the heels of many other sleepless nights in the weeks and months since his death.

Ensconced as I was on a tucked away South Carolina island with my family, I felt far removed from the unrest happening half a country away from me. But when the time came to turn off the lights and sleep and hope for a better tomorrow, I kept thinking of all those who weren’t sleeping. And how for most of them, that sleeplessness was about the death of one young man and the one who killed him, but it was also about the seeming hopelessness of a deeply entrenched, insidious and deadly system of racism, classism, and injustice that continues to rent our society asunder even and especially when those of us with the privilege to do so simply turn out the light and sleep through it. And so, removed as I felt, sleeping seemed very much like the wrong thing to do.

Over and over, all night long, I thought about this text and what it means to “keep alert, beware… keep awake, for you do not know when the time will come.”

——–

This Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, that season in our church life when we prepare our hearts and lives for the radical world-transforming change that the birth of the Christ child will bring. Advent is a season of waiting and expectation, and each week we light candles and lean into that waiting with a spirit of hope, peace, joy and love. This first week, we light the candle of hope, and this particular week, we could sure use some.

I confess that—much though I love the season leading up to Christmas—I have always found it a bit theologically confusing that we pretend to be waiting for a birth that has already happened several millennia ago. I always find myself thinking of the life and death that lie ahead for that baby in Bethlehem, and this year in particular I find myself thinking of his mother’s anguish as she watched him on the cross and the rage and fear of his followers in the wake of his execution, and perhaps most of all—as I reflect on “keeping awake” in this oh so broken world—I think of that long night in the garden when Jesus trembled and prayed and begged his friends to stay awake with him.

It is true that we live in a time long after Christ was born, but these days it is not hard to imagine that we are still waiting. We still live in deep brokenness, and, indeed, we are still waiting for the radical transformation of the world that Christ promises. And we are still longing for “those days, after that suffering, [when] the sun shall be darkened, and the moon will not give its light… and [we] shall see the Son of Man coming.” We are still waiting and we are still looking for hope in the ever-present darkness.

In the midst of that waiting and looking for hope, this passage calls us to be alert… wakeful… sleepless.

There is a particular moment in childhood when nothing seems quite so exciting as staying awake all night at a sleepover. I remember giggling my way through that slaphappy phase where exhaustion has made you feel delirious. I remember the strange sense of accomplishment that came with derailing our circadian rhythms so that, without sleep, a new day seemed to become an extension of the day before.

As adults, we learn to appreciate sleep. We live for naps. We come to fear the delirium and disorientation and disconnection from the world around us that exhaustion brings. We recognize that our bodies need time to rest and recover. We rejoice at the chance to go to sleep and wake to a better tomorrow.

But when it comes to our spiritual lives—maybe our childhood recklessness has some wisdom to offer. For we are told to keep alert, beware, and keep awake for we know not when the Son of Man will come.

In this passage, Jesus tells us that, “not one generation will pass away before all these things have taken place.” It certainly feels like a lot longer than that. We could easily conclude that this sentiment belongs to a more apocalyptic era than ours, that it has become irrelevant. But what if, instead, we chose to believe that the time, the day, that we really belong to is the day of Christ—that all that has come to pass since that birth in Bethlehem and that trembling moment in the garden when Jesus asked us to stay is just one long night?

What does it mean to stay spiritually awake to that day even as we wait and cry out for the day that is promised? To allow our spiritual rhythms to draw us back to Jesus even as they draw us forward to world yet to come? What does it mean to seem delirious to this world—this world of brokenness and injustice, where young black men die and mothers weep and no one sleeps easy and we wonder what justice even looks like and if we’ve ever really known? What does it mean to be disoriented to that world and alive to the world of Christ?

There is a lullaby playing in this age. It sounds like the media and the powers and popular culture and it is attempting to lull us into sleep, into complacency, with gentle whispers that we are better, that difference is to be feared, that the status quo must be maintained, and that we should not ever rock the boat. Daily we struggle with the destructive “isms” of race, class, sex, ability and more that tuck us into our privilege and kiss us goodnight. Our discomfort shushes us, our fear calms our restless hearts, and our need for easy answers tells us, “Just go to sleep, you’ll feel better in the morning.”

But Jesus tells us to keep awake.

The truth is that many in this world are sleepless. The brokenness we all live in cuts them down day after day and keeps them up night after night. We can choose to turn out the light in the face of their sleeplessness and dream of the morning, but Jesus is not off waiting for the morning sun.

Jesus is with the sleepless. Jesus is weeping with the parents, and gasping with the dying sons, and trembling with those civil servants who do truly seek to serve and protect. Jesus is flipping tables with the outraged and terrified and holding up his hands and saying over and over and over, “Black lives matter.” Jesus is with the sleepless because Jesus is sleepless too—at this whole broken system that his world is so ensnared in. Jesus is with the sleepless and Jesus calls us to be sleepless too. It is not enough just to be sleepless, but it is where Jesus calls us to begin. Keep awake.

This first week of Advent is about waiting for a better world and we are waiting. But it is also about hope. And I think it is difficult, in weeks like this one, to find hope. I am reluctant to settle for a candy-coated version that—intentionally or inadvertently—diminishes the truly heinous characteristics of our modern world. In my life as a white, upper-middle class Christian American, I’ve been taught that hope looks like kindness in the face of violence and friendship in adversity.

And there is some of that this week. There is that viral photo of the young black protester in Portland crying and hugging a cop. There are stories of protesters who protected businesses from looting even while they protested. There are the powerful words of Michael Brown’s family telling others who share their grief and anger, “let’s not just make noise, let’s make a difference.”

But I have also been listening to friends who grew up learning to fear systems that claimed to protect, who were taught young that they were feared and hated by the world for the color of their skin. They have been talking about how there is hope, too, in outrage that refuses to be silenced. There is hope in the breaking point. There is hope, essential Christ-like hope, in the angry voice that says, “We will not sleep, and we will not calm down, and we will be heard. Our lives matter.”

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow which confronts racial injustice in our legal system, wrote a piece this week for the NY Times about talking to her young son in the hours before the Ferguson decision. She reveals that at first she lied to him and said that she expected a hopeful outcome, but then she told him the truth. And in the wake of his outrage, she reflected,

“My son is telling me now that the people in Ferguson should fight back. A minute ago, he was reminiscing about waving to Officer Friendly. Now he wants to riot.

I tell him that sometimes I have those feelings too. But now I feel something greater. I am proud of the thousands of people of all colors who have taken to the streets in nonviolent protest, raising their voices with boldness and courage, capturing the attention and the imagination of the world. They’re building a radical movement for justice, one that would make the freedom fighters who came before them sing from the heavens with joy.

I tell my son, as well as my daughters, as we sit around the dinner table, stories of young activists organizing in Ferguson, some of them not much older than they are. I tell them about the hip-hop artist Tef Poe, who traveled with Michael Brown’s parents to Geneva to testify before a United Nations subcommittee about police militarization and violence. I tell them about activists like Phillip B. Agnew, Tory Russell, Brittany Ferrell and Alexis Templeton, who marched in the streets and endured tear gas while waving signs bearing three words: “Black Lives Matter.”

I’ve met some of these activists, I say. They believe, like you do, that we should be able to live in a world where we trust the police and where all people and all children, no matter what their color or where they came from, are treated with dignity, care, compassion and concern. These courageous young people know the tools of war, violence and revenge will never build a nation of justice. They told me they’re willing to risk their lives, if necessary, so that kids like you can live in a better world.

My son is stirring his mashed potatoes around on his plate. He looks up and says, ‘Right now, I’m just thinking I don’t want anything like this ever to happen again.’”

There is hope in a child who cannot help but be incensed at the idea of an unjust world. There is hope in those who risk their lives for the possibility of a better world, who refuse to go unheard even if they have to scream. And there is hope too in the holy discomfort, in the irrepressible outrage, in that nauseating feeling in our gut that keeps us up at night at the thought of Mike Brown, Eric Gardner, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and so many more. There is hope in the sleeplessness. It is the hope of the coming Christ, who whispers while we wait through that long sleepless night, “Keep awake, keep alert, do not let this broken world lull you to sleep and dream of no better reality. Be sleepless. Keep awake and hope. With one another—and with me.”

Amen.

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The Kids’ Table: A Communion Invitation

*originally written for my ordination service at Central Pres in Austin, TX on Nov. 15th, 2014.

The Table of Communion is a holy table,
But it is not a fancy table:
Gilded in gold, decorated with fine china,
And set apart behind a heavy door.

This holy Table stands in every messy corner of this world,
Where gather the hungry, and lost, and small.
It is rough hewn, and well-loved, and scratched.
It is littered with bread crumbs and stained with wine and juice.

This holy Table is, in fact, the kids’ table.
And we can never outgrow it,
Because no passage of time or matter of circumstance
Can ever make us any less than beloved children of God.

So come, come like children.
Eager and innocent, timid and rascally,
Hopeful and vulnerable.
Come exactly as you are, beautiful child of God.
You who have much faith, and you who would like to have more.
You who have been here often, and you who haven’t been in a long time.
Come, and know that it is Jesus Christ who calls you to this family meal,
And Jesus Christ who welcomes you home.

Sexism and Parables: A Question for Jesus

Dear Jesus,

Ever since I was a little kid, I have thought about the one question I would ask you if I could see you face to face. For a long time it was, “What is really the highest number?” And then, because life happens, it was “Do pets really go to heaven?” and these days it’s often, “Do you still believe in us?” though admittedly at some moments I get distracted and just want to know, “Were you ever as awkward as I am?”

But this week, I’ve been wrestling with a different question. I’m going to dare to name it, even though I’m scared to. Here it is: “Jesus, were you sexist?”

See, I am struggling. I am preaching this Sunday morning and I am preaching on the parable of the ten bridesmaids because as a Christian minister it seems important to at least occasionally preach on the Gospel, but I am struggling.

I am struggling because I know that there is a good, important message in this parable about patience and faith and Christian hope and I want to share that message with the people who will hear me preach on Sunday morning and who might need to hear about those things. But as a 21st century young woman, feminist, and pastor, I have a hard time reading this story and seeing anything beyond its deeply sexist framework.

You didn’t create the sexist framework, I know. You were born into a world where the value of a woman was rooted in her virginity and purity (I can relate… I was born into a world like this too). You preached and taught at a time where wedding customs meant that young women were expected to defer to men always even if it meant staying up all night and wasting precious oil to wait for an exceptionally tardy bridegroom. And I know that in your time it was seen as customary rather than cruel that said bridegroom might coldly dismiss those bridesmaids who [surely risked their safety and] ventured out into the darkness of night to buy more oil when they ran out.

I get it. I’ve both heard and said that you were merely speaking to your time, using the language of the era, preaching to your audience with metaphors that they could understand and relate to. And I have both heard and said that we know how much you valued women because you stopped that woman from being stoned and you let that other woman touch your cloak and you hung out with women a lot. And I have both heard and said that it is really just that the authors of these books were trapped in a sexist paradigm and so naturally they translated your teachings in sexist ways.

But here’s the thing: I have both heard and said all of those things in my attempt to answer/fix/solve/dismiss this deeply unsettling question that I am nevertheless still asking, “Jesus, were you sexist?”

Because it’s true that you didn’t create the framework, but how often did you cry out in your teachings against other destructive frameworks that defined your time? How often did you challenge paradigms of wealth and class and righteousness? Why wasn’t this paradigm worth shattering?

And I know that the authors of these books were trapped in a sexist paradigm, but if you were fully human then weren’t you trapped in that paradigm too? And though I know that you hung out with women and advocated for them (sometimes), I wonder if it was even possible in your fully divine/fully human mind to conceive of the possibility that we (women, that is) are equal to men. Or was that beyond the realm of imagining, even for you?

Listen, I’m not trying to be difficult. I’m not asking because I want to be subversive or radical or disrespectful. I’m asking because it’s a long wait in the darkness for you and this world you call us to work for. And I’m wondering how to keep my lamp lit and how to help others keep their lamps lit. And I find energy and oil so much in the world you preached about—a world where the walls of hostility are torn down and the evils of our brokenness like racism, classism, and sexism give way to an endless mutual perichoretic love for one another in all our miraculous God-sculpted humanness. But it precisely because I believe so deeply in these things that I cannot rest easily with passages like this one being spoken in your voice.

Because for all that your teachings have brought us so far in moves toward justice and equality and a better world, paradigms like this one that go unchallenged as the word of God have at least something to do with why, 2000 years after you lived and died and lived again—we can occupy a world where women have to fight for the right to control our own bodies, to have the healthcare we need, to have justice when we are violated by men who see us as somehow worth less.

And I am sitting here. I am here in my office in a big important church where for more than a century people of all genders have come to hear about the better world you promise and challenge us with. And I am a woman pastor on a staff of mostly women pastors with a woman as head of staff in this big, powerful, historic church and week after week we step into the pulpit and lead this church of people and dare to speak your words and this question lives inside me in the midst of all of that. This question of whether the Son of God could even imagine us preaching his word. And if the Son of God himself could not imagine a world where women like me are truly worth the same as men, does that mean I am actually worth less?

Maybe “Jesus, were you sexist?” isn’t really the question I want to ask. It’s certainly not the one whose answer will carry me through the night. Maybe what I really want to know is:

Does the fact that I even have to ask these things break your heart as much as it breaks mine?

(I hope so.)

Write back soon.

Love,

Layton

The Shadow of Moses (A Sermon)

* Originally preached at the Jazz Service at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago on Nov. 2, 2014.

Joshua 3:7-17
3:7 The LORD said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses.

3:8 You are the one who shall command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, ‘When you come to the edge of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan.'”

3:9 Joshua then said to the Israelites, “Draw near and hear the words of the LORD your God.”

3:10 Joshua said, “By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites:

3:11 the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is going to pass before you into the Jordan.

3:12 So now select twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe.

3:13 When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the LORD, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off; they shall stand in a single heap.”

3:14 When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the ark of the covenant were in front of the people.

3:15 Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water,

3:16 the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, while those flowing toward the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, were wholly cut off. Then the people crossed over opposite Jericho.

3:17 While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.

———————————

I wonder what it felt like. I wonder what it felt like to be Joshua standing in the shadow of Moses. After all, where we meet our Israelites in this week’s scripture is at the very beginning of Joshua’s time as their leader. Moses has just died. Moses, the one who encountered God in a burning bush, the one who called down the plagues and secured the Israelites’ liberty from Egypt, who led them through the wilderness, and brought them the Ten Commandments. Moses the great Israelite leader has died, and Joshua has been called to take his place.  Joshua who was, at least up to that point, really just an ordinary guy—assistant to Moses, some time spy, bumbling Israelite man.

Except, suddenly, he was the “new Moses”—or at least, the Israelites’ new leader. And as he stood before them, just across the Jordan from the long awaited “Promised Land”—I have to imagine that he was quaking in his sandals. I bet his voice shook a bit as he commanded the men carrying the ark to step into those rushing waters. I bet he wondered how to stand and what to do with his hands so that he came across as calm, confident, and qualified. And as he watched his people cross, one by one, into a new, unimaginable future that he would lead—I bet he was thinking about all that Moses had been and all he was now expected to be and saying to himself over and over, “How the heck did I get here?”

It’s not hard for us today to imagine Joshua feeling just this way. After all, we’ve been hearing about the epic Jewish hero Moses our whole lives. Even if we didn’t grow up in church, we’ve seen Moses’ story played out on the silver screen—Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments or perhaps the more recent animated film The Prince of Egypt. For everything we’ve heard about Moses and his vital role in leading the ancient Israelites out of bondage, he seems more mythic herculean demigod than real, imperfect human being.

And even though the ancient Israelites didn’t have the classic Hollywood depiction to go off of, surely their much-revered (though often disobeyed) leader seemed superhuman even to them. Especially in the days immediately following his death, when his people would have been poignantly aware of his absence and would have filled the empty space with memories of his best and most extraordinary qualities and achievements—as we so often do when someone dies.

Of course Moses would have seemed superhuman to them, just as he does to us. We do this to our heroes, don’t we? We immortalize them. In our storytelling, in our reverence, in our admiration—we turn them into superhuman legends and, insodoing, we flatten out—even dismiss—their humanity.

From Nelson Mandela to Ghandi to Martin Luther King Jr. to Harvey Milk to Malala Yousafzai, we learn about and teach about their incredible strength, courage, leadership, and revolutionary spirit. We call them prophets, and we give thanks for all the wonder of their achievements. We sing their praises and we wish that we had one ounce of what makes them so heroic.

But we forget that—even with all that the good they do in their unbelievable lives—they are still human. Mandela, Ghandi, King, and even Moses—like all heroes—they were human. They were imperfect, flawed. They, like anyone, had the capacity to hurt and be hurt, to do wrong, to be afraid, to mess up. Often, we are reminded of this human reality about our real world heroes in the worst of ways. A scandal hits the news or a scathing biopic comes out—and we find this less rose-colored image of our idols deeply unsettling.

My father’s favorite author has always been Pat Conroy. Conroy writes beautiful, nuanced novels about life in South Carolina—my dad’s home state. Like my father, he was a graduate of The Citadel in Charleston and one of his most famous novels, Lords of Discipline, is based on the military college. My dad has read everything he’s ever written. And some years ago, when the opportunity arose for my dad to meet his much beloved idol—he jumped at the chance. But he was disappointed. Conroy was grouchy, distant, and frankly, just too human. Ever since, my dad has sworn off any chance to meet another hero and warned me to do the same. He’d rather hold on to his hopeful—if unrealistic—image than be disappointed by a more human reality.

It makes sense, I think. We want to believe that these people who we look to for inspiration and hope have somehow managed to overcome all the brokenness that we so often find ourselves mired in. We want to believe that a better world is possible because there are better—even perfect—people out there bringing it into being.

But here’s the thing: we will never be perfect—you and me. And when we immortalize our heroes right out of their God-given humanity, when we imagine that God calls upon them as perfect, flawless superhumans to do things we cannot imagine—we miss the whole point. God does call them, but God calls them as human beings, works through them as human beings. And when we forget that–we allow ourselves to forget that God calls us too. Even us. All of us. Human. Broken. Imperfect. God calls us just as we are.

Bumbling, nervous Joshua—new leader of the Israelites—was oh so human. And so was Moses. It’s not just true. It is essential.

God calls stuttering, reluctant sheepherders to lead a people to freedom, and bumbling former assistants to help them cross to the Promised Land. And God call us to do things we cannot imagine, to dream of and work for a world better than we can imagine. It is a daunting calling—being a part of God’s work in this world—but the good news is we don’t have to be perfect or superhuman to do it.

The amazing thing about God’s grace is that it doesn’t work merely in spite of humanness—God’s grace works through humanness. This is nowhere more apparent than in Jesus Christ himself. God incarnate. Fully divine, yes. But also, essentially, fully human.

Mired as we all are—this whole world even—in brokenness and imperfection, God might just have written us all off. The whole thing. Or, being both full of grace and infinitely powerful, God might have snapped those divine fingers and fixed everything without breaking a sweat. But no. Instead, God chose to enter in to finite, limited, imperfect human life. God staked the fate of every inch of beloved creation on a vulnerable, particular, absolutely human child. A child who grew into a man who changed this world utterly, shattered paradigms and gave rise to new unbelievable hope—but who also cried bitter tears of grief, who doubted and questioned, who got angry and once cursed a fig tree because he was hungry and it wouldn’t bear fruit out of season. Son of God, yes. Embodiment of grace, yes. But also truly, uniquely human.

Theologians highlight that it matters not only that Jesus was human, generally, but that he was one specific human being in a specific time and place. They call it the scandal of particularity. It means that particularity matters. God works through particularity. God not only calls us in our humanness, but each of us, in our unique, particular embodiment of humanness. With our flaws, with our insecurities, all the things that make you, you and me, me. God calls us each, because each of us has something uniquely essential to contribute to God’s work in this world.

In this text from Joshua, God commands that one person from each tribe of Israel help carry the ark into the Jordan so that the whole nation is represented and connected. And then, the men holding the ark wait, until every last individual member of the whole nation of Israel crosses over into the new land. Only then, when every last essential person has played their part does the Ark cross over and the promise become fulfilled.

Like Joshua and these ancient Israelites, we are standing in the shadow of Moses and other greats who have come before us. We are looking toward and dreaming of an unimaginable future and we are wondering what superhuman hero will get us there. But it matters that Moses was human and so are we.

Because if the future of God’s kingdom—if the better world we dare to dream of—rests on the likes of Moses—well that only means that it rests—at least some small but essential piece of it—on the likes of us. God’s grace, which unbelievably works not merely in spite of us but through us—is both an incredible gift and a responsibility that we cannot ignore simply because we feel too imperfectly human. God works through our humanness.

Today is All Saints Sunday. Today we remember those whom we have loved and lost and all who have come before us in our common story of faith. We stand in their shadow, and we may be tempted, as those Israelites surely were all those years ago, to immortalize them. To fill in the space of their absence with some superhuman, perfect version of who they were. But let’s not. Let’s remember them in all their beautiful, beloved, imperfect humanness. Let’s remember that God worked through their human lives. And let us be inspired and emboldened by their memory to believe that God is working through our human lives too.

We are called. Each of us. Human. Imperfect. Particular. We are called to the work of God’s kingdom. May the kingdom come. Amen.