This sermon was preached in preparation for a public forum I helped organized, hosted at First Church DC, which explored anti-Muslim discrimination in the U.S., and how we are called as Christians to respond to it.
First United Church of Christ of Washington, DC
December 2, 2012 (First Sunday in Advent)
The liturgical calendar we Christians set our worship life to follows a prescribed pattern each year: through the church seasons and the scripture passages assigned each week by the lectionary, we follow the story of Jesus from birth to ministry to death and resurrection. And so today, as we do every year, we begin again with this Advent season of preparation –a four week crescendo toward the birth of Christ. Advent is a season of expectation, of preparing, of watching, and of our gradual, growing call to God to come to us, to bring divine light and love into a world that needs it. Over the next four weeks, the scripture passages in worship will resonate with all these themes. And as time ripens towards the due date, our hearts, God willing, will also ripen until they burst open to accept God’s arrival, embodied in human flesh as Jesus, into our world and lives.
And so today it begins, our church year. And as it does every year, it begins at The End.
That dramatic passage David read is indeed about the arrival of Christ – but not of little baby Jesus. Instead, we’re told about the second coming of Christ, which is pretty different from the first. Rather than the humble image of a baby born to a young couple’s lonely labor in the stink of a barn, today we get something more glorious, fantastical, and frightening — the Son of Man descending from heaven amidst cataclysm, the birth pangs of the world, the uproar of nations, to bring a final judgment and a final redemption.
Now, I’ve been a member of this church for over four years, long enough to hazard a guess about what y’all think of these Apocalypse Now biblical passages. As Ron Hopson might say, this stuff is a little too religious for our taste. Too martial and violent, too righteous, and too mythic and absurd, this magic pyrotechnic show of clouds and towering figures descending from on high to confront us cowering earthlings – it’s like something out of the movie This is Spinal Tap. It’s over the top, almost campy. And worst of all, isn’t this apocalyptic stuff just a little too moralistic, in stark terms? These passages always seem to imply that people can be judged finally as all good or all bad. And we know that most people, certainly ourselves, are a little of both – a little bit sinnly, a little bit saintly, all mixed up together in one fleshy package. Finally, we’re painfully aware of how these passages have fed dangerous theologies by some of our fellow Christians, used to fuel psychoses, cults, even violence. Reason enough to pitch this hooey into the embers.
But you know, considering each year begins here, considering the evidence shows that the historical figure of Jesus did in fact dwell on these apocalyptic visions in his preaching, well, it seems to me that no matter how much we might hide, these passages’ll seek us out. There seems to be some folks in our tradition – those who wrote our scriptures, those who put together our lectionary, much less the One whom we follow, who thought we needed to hear this stuff, and wrestle with it. And these guys weren’t easily duped, I don’t think.
So let’s consider their purpose. At the time of Jesus, these visions were meant to remind those living under a foreign occupier, in an environment of rampant injustice, that that the current moment of anxiety was not the end of the story. Ultimately, in The End, the last would be first, and the powerful and mighty who were oppressing others would be held to account. This vision was meant to stir hope for the downtrodden, and to call them to see the signs of God’s promise emerging around them.
And for us two millennia later, perhaps there is purpose in our hearing these passages every year at the start of our procession through the Christian story. To remind us that ultimately, there is a wider narrative arc to our story of faith and discipleship – ultimately there is a destination we are heading toward, one which may go through trial and tribulation, but which ultimately brings down a heavenly order on earth, the Kingdom of God, where there is no more injustice, no more oppression, no more tears.
We tend to think of these apocalyptic visions as being about the end of the world – as in the end of the space-time continuum. But what if, instead, bearing in mind these two purposes: to instill hope and to remind us of the ultimate destination of our path of discipleship – what if we thought of these stories as being about the end of the world as it is now: corrupt, death-dealing, unjust. And this vision of a new order, a new Kingdom, is what Jesus is saying can break out of a situation of injustice and anxiety, what will break out. Taken this way, these passages describe a moment that will arrive in the midst of this space-time continuum, not at its conclusion. A moment that might arrive at any time, a moment that perhaps is constantly arriving, if we have eyes to see it.
Now, all this aside, I was invited to preach today to help set the stage for the public forum we will hold in January that will focus on anti-Muslim attitudes in our city and country. So let me get to that.
The impetus for this forum was advertisements placed in four Metro stations in October that implied Muslims, or those who oppose Israel, are savages. These ads were placed by an organization called American Freedom Defense Initiative, which is led by a woman named Pamela Geller. Geller also leads a group called Stop the Islamization of America, which is designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League. These ads, which also went up in NYC and San Francisco and now Chicago, are not isolated events. They are part of a growing trend across our country.
While anti-Muslim attitudes and actions lay dormant for awhile following the post-9/11 spike, they’ve re-emerged in recent years. Just this fall, arsonists in Missouri burned a mosque to the ground. Pig legs, seen as unclean in the Islamic faith, were left at the site of a planned mosque in California. Air rifle shots were fired at a mosque packed with worshippers in Illinois. Vandals shot paintballs at a mosque in Oklahoma City. An acid bomb was thrown at an Islamic school in Illinois. The home of a Muslim family in Panama City was firebombed; and arsonists badly damaged one of the country’s largest mosques in Ohio. A mosque in Harrisonburg was vandalized. All of these incidents happened against the backdrop of hateful, incendiary rhetoric – like the five House Representatives who accused several prominent Muslim American government employees of working for the Muslim Brotherhood, based on little evidence. Or the sustained effort to frighten Americans with the baseless idea that Muslims secretly plan to impose Sharia religious law in this country. Or a speaker at one of Pamela Geller’s conferences who said that “Muslims will breed like rats” but “can be wiped out.” You can draw a line between rhetoric like this, or like that found on those ads in the Metro stations, and the violent attacks on Muslim Americans and their places of worship.
But Muslims aren’t alone. A national rise in hate activity has also impacted Latinos, Jews, Sikhs (who can forget the massacre of Sikh worshippers in Wisconsin last August?), LGBT, and African American communities. Since 2010, there has been a 50% increase in hate crimes generally (there have been far more attacks against minority groups, I’d point out, than the number of attacks in this country by Muslim Americans linked to global terrorist movements.). Hate breeds hate. And hate is breeding in our country. Undoubtedly there is a connection between this spike in hate crimes and the demographic shifts that are occurring across the nation, which are upending the traditional status quo, and the traditional political and social orders. While some Christians, myself among them, think these shifts are bringing greater redemptive change, greater justice and equality, that these changes are bringing us closer to a heavenly realm in which we are all equal before God, clearly not all Christians think this is the case. And as these changes towards redemption are happening, there are birth pangs along the way. There are forces that are pushing back, forces of hate.
So what will we do about it, First Church? How will we wake up, lift our heads high, and respond?
To paraphrase the Rev. Dr. King, “hate anywhere is a threat to love everywhere.” Extremist ideology based on half-truths that seek to scapegoat others, to simplify complex challenges, to instill fear and hate… this is insidious stuff. And it’s not just happening in the Midwest, or the southern border states, but here in DC. These ads, and the ideological movements they represent, came onto our turf, to our beautiful diverse city. This is reason enough for us to host this forum – a forum that will bring together DC’s faith communities to raise awareness and to organize the community to stand with vulnerable groups, protect coexistence in DC, and undermine these anti-Muslim organizations and their pernicious narratives of hate.
But there are other reasons to host this meeting too. We have designated this next year in our church life as one for reflective action. At our September retreat folks raised a collective call to lift up our heads from the navel-gazing we’ve been absorbed in over the last couple years, and to turn out towards our wider community, to discover our new mission. We have already been doing this, through getting to know our neighbors, through work with the Washington Interfaith Network. Perhaps this forum can be another step in our process of turning outwards, of seeking to discover where God is calling us to act in this city and world, who God is calling this church to be. And perhaps, if we approach this forum as a spiritual enterprise, as an act of not only justice and community building, but also as an act of worship and discernment, we’ll discover that this kind of reflective action can also be redemptive action.
Beloved, even as we move into this new liturgical year and this year of reflective action, let us remember our ultimate destination– heaven on earth. It may sound fantastical, absurd. But if you are awake for it, if you are looking for it, if you lift your heads high and strengthen your prayers, you may just see heaven descend a little bit more in this generation, arriving like a small, vulnerable infant whose redeeming cry ends the wails of his mother’s birth pangs.