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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Monday, May 23, 2016

While We Wait for God, How Shall We Wait? Stay Woke in Advent

In looking back through my unfinished blog posts from the past few months, I found this sermon I preached during advent, but failed to post at that time.  It draws on the lectionary texts and the advent theme of waiting to see what God will do, but it also takes inspiration from the rising voices of young people who are no longer waiting for their elders to do the work needed to reverse the tide of injustice sweeping our neighborhoods, transferring of money from the mass of poor and middle classes to the 1%, destroying the lives of minorities through mass incarceration and shoot-first interdiction, and rising up in resentment against a perceived loss of power and privilege in white communities.  The twitter label #StayWokeAdvent got me thinking, and the Prophet Zephaniah provided the inspiration for my reflections.

Zephaniah 3:14-20

3:14 Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!

3:15 The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.

3:16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.

3:17 The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing

3:18 as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it.

3:19 I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.

3:20 At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD.

Luke 3:7-18

3:7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

3:8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

3:9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

3:10 And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?"

3:11 In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."

3:12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?"

3:13 He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you."

3:14 Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."

3:15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,

3:16 John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

3:17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

3:18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

While We Wait for God, How Shall We Wait?

       Stay Woke in Advent

       I’m an old dog that sometimes has to learn new tricks.  I had to learn to teach courses online, even though no one ever taught me that way.  I had to get used to carrying a phone around with me and to type out text messages if I wanted to have a chance to communicate with my grown children.  And earlier this year, I had to figure out how to tweet on twitter.  I have to believe I’m not the only one in here today who uses twitter.

       I might still not be a twitter user had it not been for a push from my dean at Shaw University Divinity School.  I don’t mean that he said, “Mike, go forth and tweet!”  But he did urge me to find a way to quickly publish a sermon that I had preached in chapel.  Not sure where to turn, I decided to check out twitter.  I already have a place online for writing.  That’s called a “blog,” and you all have heard of that.  Around a hundred people in various parts of the U.S., and a few in Europe and China read the things I post there.  And then there is facebook, something David told me about when he was a first-year student up at Oberlin College in Ohio, back in 2004.  Some people follow what I post there, too.  So I thought maybe I could expand my reach in twitter.  It’s not such a fast process to add new followers on twitter.  After several months, I have only a few more than 50 people checking out what I say there.  But all in all, it did give me another audience, if not exactly as many as Dean Forbes was intending.

       Part of twitter communication is something called “hashtags.”  That means you put one of those “pound” or “tic-tac-toe” looking symbols in front of a word or phrase.  Then if other people use the same phrase or word, twitter organizes all of those similar comments together.  This week, a popular hashtag has been #StayMadAbby.  It refers to a college applicant from Texas named Abigail, who got upset when some minority students got admitted to the University of Texas and she did not.  Her complaint became a lawsuit, and the lawsuit went before the Supreme Court this week.  Many minority college graduates have been posting pictures of themselves in graduation robes, posting lists of their degrees and schools.  Then they add #StayMadAbby to emphasize that nothing is going to stand in the way of African Americans, Latinos, and others who are striving to get an education and make something of their lives.  If it makes her mad to see minority students getting opportunities, she is just going to have to stay mad.

       Another hashtag you are familiar with is the slogan #BlackLivesMatter.  This phrase got started through the organizing work of three young women who responded to the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, by organizing people to call for police accountability.  These young women, some of whom were seminary students at the time, used twitter to help build connections with like-minded people around their region and around the country.  Those relationships and the expanding network have become very important as we have become more and more aware of the widespread violence done against young black men and women, treating them as if their lives don’t matter at all.

       One more hashtag I need to mention appeared as the Christian year began a couple of weeks ago.  It says #StayWokeAdvent.  This phrase calls on church people who are journeying through the season of advent to keep our eyes open, to keep our hearts sensitive, to keep our priorities straight, in short, to Stay Woke, as we live our faith in this season of longing for the fullness of God revealed in the teen mother Mary, in the refugee family moving from temporary Bethlehem home to temporary Egyptian home, in the vulnerable baby Jesus born among straw and dung in the barn, in the sojourning community of God’s people never quite at home in this world.

       The examples I’ve given from hashtag phrases on twitter are each reminders of the way that powers and structures of domination are always nearby, waiting around the corner, plotting in back rooms and board rooms, in order to continue to keep power and prosperity in the hands of a few at the expense of the many.  One spotlights the elite class attacking systems designed to provide educational opportunity to those who have historically faced barriers and deprivation.  Another cries out against the disturbingly callous act of leaving an unarmed young man in the middle of the road to bleed and die after a well-trained officer of the law, claiming to fear the face of a demon on an 18-year-old scared kid, took away that life.  And #StayWokeAdvent holds up for all to see that in the season in which we live, there is a collision between the Christian tradition of hope and love and a world seemingly controlled by fear, hatred, prejudice, bigotry, and violence.  Losing ourselves in a seasonal binge of overconsumption and overspending, of empty platitudes and shallow optimism, is the opposite of living in faith and hope.  Pretending for a few weeks that we can buy whatever we want, that we will all magically get along, that we can make reality out of nostalgia for a time when we were oblivious to the pain and struggle of life—these get us nowhere but farther from the God on whom we must depend.  Losing our focus, pretending—we can’t afford these ways.  We must be awake, alert, ready for what may strike.  Stay Woke in Advent!

       The lectionary takes us to the Prophet Zephaniah this week.  I have to say that I don’t think I’ve preached from Zephaniah ever.  With some of the better known prophets, I can remember when and where they did their work and what their primary message is.  I could not remember anything about Zephaniah.  Put that kind of obscure text in front of an ornery professor, and you know I’m going to take the challenge to preach on Prophet Zephaniah.  So I had to dig out some reference works.

       It seems that Zephaniah probably came along after Isaiah and Amos, and maybe a little before Jeremiah.  We recognize all their names, and some of us remember when and where they prophesied.  In that time frame, Zephaniah would have come along some time after King Hezekiah’s reign when Assyria had besieged the city of Jerusalem, causing much adversity to the people.  But God delivered Jerusalem from the Assyrians through the mighty arm and outstretched hand, and not by the military power of the armies of Judah. 

       King Hezekiah’s son, Manasseh, reigned many years, gaining the reputation as one of the most evil kings of Judah.  After Hezekiah’s death, it seems that Manasseh aligned Judah with the imperial power of Assyria, cooperating with the empire in exchange for creating trading relationships.  Olive oil and other products of Judah’s agriculture became cash commodities and brought wealth into the land.  That might sound like an era of prosperity that would benefit everyone, but more likely King Manasseh cut special deals with his cronies, and a rich aristocracy became richer while the masses of the people lost their land, sold themselves into servitude, and struggled to meet daily needs. 

All the while, Manasseh supported those who wanted to bring the worship of Ba’al and many other gods back to the Temple, and set up altars on hillsides all over the land.  The Bible even accuses him of practicing human sacrifice in the ways of the nations.  When supporters of Manasseh’s father’s views tried to stand up to the king, he persecuted them.  He got the reputation as the king that killed the prophets.  Some believe he even killed the persistent and outspoken Prophet Isaiah.

       Zephaniah was probably directly aware of this history.  The book places him also during the reign of Josiah, during a time when Josiah’s sons were already becoming young men.  King Josiah is probably the most virtuous and most praised of the Kings after David, and he is not known for the same kinds of great moral failures we know from David’s reign.  Then again, much less is written about any king besides David.  Josiah restored the study and observance of the Torah, the gift of law and life that God had given to the children of Israel.  He restored pure and holy worship of the one true God of Moses and Zipporah, of Abraham and Sarah, the God who had called their ancestors and had brought them out of the land of Egypt. 

       Zephaniah knew how this had happened, how Judah’s leaders had by ebb and flow showed loyalty to the Lord and had turned away from the ways of the Lord.  His prophecies give the impression that he sees that even with Josiah’s reforms, not every part of society, not everyone in power, has embraced Josiah’s agenda.  Even Josiah’s sons seem drawn away from their father’s strong commitment to faith in the Lord.  The Kingdom of Judah had not yet faced its final destruction at the hands of Babylon.  But Zephaniah was clearly able to see the possibility that judgment might not be far away.  In a time when social divisions, class unrest, and cultural conflict remained ever-present and potential flash points, Zephaniah had a message to deliver.

       Zephaniah did not beat around the bush.  He did not sugar coat his words.  Zeph didn’t warm up slowly.  He did not tell a long story about twitter and hashtags to set things up.  He cut to the chase.  He went straight to the heart of it.  He left no prisoners.  How did Zephaniah’s prophecy begin?  He speaks the message of the Lord in these words,

“I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth.”

Well, there’s not much left to say after that.  God is so sick of the corrupt, unjust, violent ways of the nations of the world, it’s going to be like the story of Noah.  Everything will be swept away.  Words like that will wake you up.  #StayWokeAdvent.

       Probably too often we find ourselves listening to preaching or Bible study with some expectation that what is going to be said is what we already know and have heard time and time again.  We think we have a pretty good idea of anything God might want to tell us.  We could just about doze off and not miss it since we’ve heard it all before.  God loves us.  Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Repent of sins.  Don’t kill.  Praise God.  Share your stuff.  Yada yada yada.  But then, just before dozing, along comes Zephaniah saying, “All of it is going away.  Everything.  The cities, the palaces, the temple, the houses, the jobs, the fields, the trees, the roads, the streams, the dogs, the cattle—everything.

       That will wake you up.  “Wait a minute, Zephaniah.  What did you say?  Did you say what I think you said?  That’s not what Brother Teacher told us last week.  That’s not what the Rev preached about on Sunday.  Can you run that by me again?”

       In the season of advent, do we expect to hear a word from God?  Do we expect that we are having the same advent observance we have every year and that all of it will be identical to last time?  Do we ever think that God might plan to overthrow everything we thought we knew in order to shed new light on the Scriptures for such a time as this?  Could it be we keep giving the same answers when the questions have changed?  Do new times bring new questions for our faith?  Does the Holy Spirit bring new life even in our time?  Are the mercies of the Lord really new every morning? 

Yet when young people come to us with their honest questions, how often are we tempted to tell them not to question what they have been told?  Do we discount their questions because we have become comfortable with our own faith and don’t want the Holy Spirit to rock the boat in our lives?  I can’t count how many seminary students who arrived at school dealing with years of guilt from being rebuked about the questions that rise up within them.  Too often, their elders and fellow-church members treated the Spirit’s stirring in them as a sign of unfaithfulness.  They are amazed to be told that God is bigger than their questions and can handle any question they have.  Is this the message of hope we are prepared to give young people in our church?

       I was blessed to hear Rev. William Barber recently, discussing the story of Jesus’ going into the temple and shutting down the shopping mall that had come to dominate the temple court.  He called it a den of thieves.  If it had been an honest and proper market giving people fair value for their money, then he probably would have called it something besides a den of thieves.  Commerce and consumption had taken over the center of worship, and it was commerce of the worst kind that took advantage of poor and weary travelers, overcharging and otherwise practicing injustice.  If merchants kept animals for sale in the temple, the house of worship had become a public dung heap.  Jesus saw it all for what it really was—abusive, corrupt, unjust economic exploitation that was perpetrated by the powerful, the religious leaders, the high council.  Those who should look out for the good of the people were using their positions to victimize the people.

       So Jesus shut it all down.  He turned over tables.  He twisted some cords and chased the animals out.  He disrupted and overthrew the systems of corruption and abuse and stepped into that space to reorder it around justice.  This was no respectability politics.  Jesus did not pull aside the head man in charge for a private and discreet conversation.  He did not set up a series of meetings to discuss possible best practices for the use of the temple court.  No, that’s not what he did.  He swept it all way.  He cleaned up the place and straightened out the right use of that space for anyone listening or watching him.  He blessed the poor and marginalized, healing blind and lame people, freeing them to see, to walk, and to run.  Jesus was sweeping away the old and bringing in the new.

       What Rev. Barber points out is a detail of the story that appears only in the Gospel of Matthew.  All the accounts of the story note that when Jesus did these and other things, the crowds in Jerusalem were amazed and astounded and mesmerized.  Mark’s and Luke’s gospels say the people were spellbound.  As you might imagine, the chief priests and scribes, the people in charge of the temple and of life in Jerusalem generally, were angry.  Their constant stream of revenue had been interrupted.  Their mechanism to take money from the poor and give it to the rich was being threatened.  They got especially mad about one thing that happened.

       Barber points out that after Jesus challenged corruption and took on injustice, and only after, did the young people start to pay attention.  Young people had likely been going along with the festivities.  They were used to seeing the religion of their parents and neighbors.  They also knew their parents and their neighbors well enough to have doubts about whether all this religious talk was real.  Their eyes and ears were pretty good hypocrisy detectors, and they were hanging off to the side, waiting to decide whether they should jump in the flow of things or maybe just toss it all out.

       But when these young people saw Jesus align his preaching directly with his actions, they joined in.  When they saw him actually challenge and battle injustice and corruption and not just give speeches and strike a pose as a defender of justice, their personal faith was activated.  They started crying out, “Hosannah, to the Son of David.”  They may even have been singing a familiar psalm of worship.  This integrity of talk and walk was what they had been waiting for.  Now they had hope that he could save their lives and their world from the evil so deeply embedded in them.

       Some people fear that our children have left the faith.  They think the young people have given up on God.  But more careful study is showing us that young people are drifting out of our churches not because they are losing faith in God, but because they are losing faith in existing churches’ ability to stand up to injustices in the world.  Churches have become bastions of respectability.  They are fortresses to keep out the riffraff while those inside congratulate ourselves for being such upstanding citizens.  Young people “ain’t got time for that.”  Ain’t nobody got time for that.  It’s time to be awake to the world in which God is active and powerful.  We need to stay woke, because Jesus is steadily standing at the doors of the churches, knocking, asking to be let in, while we continue in our same old way, never realizing Jesus is outside trying to get in and we are inside ignoring the people outside the door. 

Out in the streets, young people are challenging injustices with all the vigor and passion of youth.  And Jesus is also in the streets.  Don’t you think Jesus would have us join him in the streets?  Don’t you think the struggle to end police killing of unarmed black men and women could use the experience of elders alongside the energy of young people?  Isn’t there a way for the bold words of youth to and the wisdom of age to teach one another a thing or two?  Or will we stay inside because we think we don’t need what those outside have to offer us?

       Too often we think we have everything we need already.  Zephaniah spoke about people like that.  He said that among the comfortable and the powerful there are many who are self-satisfied.  They are sure they can thank themselves for all the good things they have in their lives.  He says that they sit on top of their piles of stuff and say, “God is not going to do anything good for us, and God is not going to do us any harm.”  In other words, they count on themselves, not on God.  They don’t look for God to be in their world.  They take God to be irrelevant.  Everything comes back to their own actions. 

But Zephaniah says they have it all wrong.  They may build fancy houses for themselves, but they will not get to live in them.  Instead, the Day of the Lord is coming.  In the tradition of Amos, Zephaniah says that we ought not expect that the coming of the Lord will leave things as they are.  The Day of the Lord will shake us up; it will shake things up.  So we had better stay woke.  We had better be ready rather than ruling God out of our lives. 

The New Testament lesson for this third Sunday in Advent tells about the work of John the Baptist, whose preaching woke many from their sleep.  He told them that “the axe is at the root.”  God was ready to dig up the whole plant, all the way down to the root, to cut it off below ground and leave no evidence on the surface that anything had been there at all.  Like Zephaniah, John discerned that God means to go to any length to get the world right.

Zephaniah said that after God swept away everything, there would be a new beginning.  After wild animals and birds had become the only occupants left where once great cities and civilizations had stood, then God would send in a remnant of the people.  Where devastation has brought down the wealthy, the powerful, and the haughty, God would send in the lame, the outcast, the ones who had been shamed by the world. 

Zephaniah said that all the leaders had failed their purpose.  The officials and rulers had failed to establish and maintain a just, peaceful world for people to live in.  They must be swept away.  The judges had failed to uphold the law and make sure that everyone is treated according to justice.  They must be swept away.  The prophets had spun tales and preached sermons to support the status quo and gain favor with the wealthy and powerful.  They must be swept away.  The priests had sustained religious practices built on injustice and oppression, offering only empty hope to the masses.  They must be swept away.

Yet Zephaniah could see that the same God who swept away oppression would reposition the weak and powerless into a place of praise and renown.  God will gather them.  They will not make it all happen.  They who had lost all hope were not sure whether they should hope at all.  But Zephaniah proclaims above all the despair and uncertainty that God will do it.  Won’t God do it?  God will do it.  All that we have dared to dream or hope for, all the justice and peacefulness and joy that we have waited for—God will do it.

That’s something to stay woke for.  In this advent season of awaiting the birth of Jesus, how shall we wait?  Mary waited through an unexpected pregnancy, through all the bodily struggles of pregnancy, all its uncertainties, all its dangers, for what she could only hope against hope to be true.  Joseph waited in his confusion and shame that he had been the greatest fool in the world to marry this pregnant girl.  The shepherds waited out in the fields, doing the dirty work of the world, wondering if and when their time would ever come. 

And in our day we wait for the time when the love of learning and longing of every soul to achieve matters as much as the anger of the privileged, a time when everyone can gain access to education at any level.  We wait for the time when people in authority won’t shoot first and tell lies later, when black lives matter equally.  We wait for the time when violence toward any is understood as violence against all.  We wait for a time when politicians cannot build a following through stoking the fires of fear and hatred toward people whose skin or religion is different from our own.   We wait for the time that a preacher cannot get cheers and applause for telling his congregation to get a gun and be ready to kill the enemy of the moment.  We wait for a time when the refugee, the homeless, the jobless, the orphan, the hungry, the weak, when every one of God’s children has a place of honor, love, and safety in this world. 

If we wait carelessly, sleepily, and without expectation, we may miss it when God shows up.  While we wait, we must wait as awake people.  We need our eyes wide open.  We need to stay woke.  God is moving here and now.  If I don’t receive the refugee while I wait, how will I recognize God’s showing up in the life of a refugee family trying to save the life of their baby?  If I don’t get into the streets with young people crying out for justice, how will I know when the King of Heaven goes walking down those streets and alleys to lift up the lowly and outcast.  If I am not where Jesus is walking, how will I hear the call to follow him? 

I must be awake, ready, anticipating the mighty work of God.  When John preached, people from all walks of life came out to hear and listen.  They were shaken by his message.  Awakened, they asked him what they should do.  In all cases, he pointed them toward a life of justice.  He told them to wake up to justice in living with their neighbors.  He told them to stay ready to do the right thing.  He told them to trust in God and not in the ways they could game the system in their own favor.  And the Gospel of Luke says that even though he told them they had to change their ways, they heard the good news in that message. 

God has a better way for you and for me.  We are waiting for it, and we can’t afford to sleep through it’s coming.  We don’t know just when God will sweep away the structures of injustice, but God will do it.  We don’t know what the means will be, but God will do it.  We want to be about the right work when it happens.  When a new heaven and a new earth start to appear, we need to be in God’s vicinity.  We need to be awake doing the work God has given us.  While we wait, we need to stay woke.  Let’s do this together.  Let’s stay woke in advent.  Let’s stay woke, because God will do it.  Amen.

Maybe you are here today and realize you have never awakened to God’s call to unite your life to God’s way.  You have not taken your first step to follow Jesus.  God is present here in this place, with us, ready to embrace you will the deep love that only can come from the one who made you for love.  If you need to wake up to God’s calling and purpose for your life today, the doors of the church are open.  We join with God ready to receive you into the reconciling power of God in Jesus Christ.  Come today and profess your desire and commitment to stay woke to God in your life.

Maybe someone here today finds yourself drifting along half asleep as the world passes by.  Maybe your hope and trust in God have faded over time because of the cares of the world.  Just as Israel waited through oppression in Egypt and through exile in Babylon, we wait this season for the God who liberates the oppressed and feeds the hungry.  If you are in Durham but not part of a congregation, know that God has called this gathering of pilgrims together in this corner of our city to be a people of love and care for one another and for our neighborhood.  If the Holy Spirit is prodding you to be part of our striving for faithfulness, there is no better time than now to unite your life to ours as we try to stay woke for what God will do.

As we stand together, as the musicians lead, let this be the day we commit to stay woke in advent and walk in readiness for what God will do.

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