Rev. Timothy B. Tutt
Westmoreland Congregational United Church of Christ
Sunday, November 30, 2014
1st Sunday of Advent
“How to be a Rockette”
Give ear, O Shepherd of your people, you who lead us like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth all the tribes.
Stir up your might, and come to save us!
Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves.
Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted.
They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down;
But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.
Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name.
Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
- Psalm 80 (NRSV, abridged and adapted)
In some ways, this past week has been the perfect week. School children and teachers had a holiday. Families and friends gathered across the country to feast on turkey and dressing and cranberries and pumpkin pie. A light snow drifted down on us on a couple of days adding a touch of wintry wonder. I had the opportunity yesterday to sit and listen to our choir rehearse the beautiful music they will perform on Saturday. Today, we have the privilege of baptizing this healthy, happy baby boy. And the church calendar begins anew with the word Hope as our theme. So much seems so right.
Yet, this same week has brought us the pain of continued violence and wars and rumors of war and saber-rattling and political posturing in Palestine and Ukraine and Syria and elsewhere. Beyond the space in our brains taken up by global news, there are our personal worries illnesses, hospital visits, deaths and the like. And of course, this past week was filled with the tragic news from Ferguson, Missouri.
A white police officer killed an unarmed black teenager. The grand jury failed to indict the police officer. Protests, riots, public pain, gripping grief, revealing yet again the racism that is part of our national life.
As much as I would like for it to be, all is not well in our world.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. The traditional theme for this Sunday is Hope.
The Lectionary that suggests the scriptures for our worship offers us these words that we read from Psalm 80. I must admit when I first looked at the Lectionary and read this psalm several weeks ago, it didn’t strike a chord with me. The psalm seemed too bleak, too sad.
But then, as this past week unfolded, as we consider our lives and the world around us, these words seem very honest, very real, even very right for this first Sunday of Advent.
Psalm 80 is a song of lament. It was written by an unknown author thousands of years ago, it was likely written during a time of national calamity. Scholars say the author was probably writing as his homeland was being invaded by another country.
And so the writer cries out, “Listen to your people, O Shepherd.” Those words could easily be the modern-day prayer of people of color in this country who feel unheard, overlooked, forgotten by our policies and systems.
The psalmist asks, “How long, O God, how long will we eat the bread of tears.” Those words could easily be the words of Michael Brown’s family.
The psalm says, “We feel like a vine that is being burned.” Those words could be the prayers of our sisters and brothers whose lands are occupied by war and violence.
“Let your face shine on us, O God,” the writer says. “Hold us in your hand.” These words could be the lament of our friends and family members who are sick or unemployed or having family difficulties:
“Restore us, O God,” the psalmist says, “Help us.” Even in the face of another holiday season, that could be your prayer. “Help us make sense of life.”
Elizabeth Webb, an Episcopal theologian who lives in Missouri, has written about this lament in Psalm 80:
“So many people suffer such affliction. So many have been laid to waste by destruction, whether physical, psychological, or spiritual, or some combination. And so many experience in that destruction the utter absence of God. Psalm 80 is the lament of scores of those outside our churches’ walls, and of scores of us sitting right in our churches’ pews. Thus it is a lament that the church must take up. All that is ravaged, fed upon, burned, and cut down in the world is crying out for the return of God’s presence, for God’s countenance to shine once more. The church sings this lament in solidarity with all who are afflicted, and tenderly points to the Incarnation.”
In other words, the world is a mess. And we – with our own messed up lives -- must stand with others in their times of grief and pain.
This psalm begins with two images of God. God as a protective shepherd, leading, guiding. And God as a glowing, saving light. And there is hope in those images. But this psalm also has another image – and that is the image of “us,” plural. Eighteen times in just the few verses that we read, the writer uses plural words – “people,” “us,” “we,” “our.” Lament, it seems, is not a solo, it is a song we sing as a group. And therefore, hope, also, is not singular, not lonely. Hope is what we find together.
How do we find Hope this Advent? How do we find Hope in the ashes of Ferguson? How do we find Hope in our lives and in the world?
I want to offer you an image to keep in mind this Advent season. As we face, honestly, the struggles of life and the world, I want to offer you a very cheesy, very American, very Christmas-y kind of image: The Rockettes.
That great iconic dance troupe overflowing with glitz and glamour. The Rockettes were founded in 1925 in St Louis, Missouri. Since 1932, they’ve been performing at Radio City Music Hall in New York. During the Christmas season they present five shows a day, seven days a week. Two million people each year see The Rockettes perform as part of the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Extravaganza.
Amy and the kids and I are planning to go to New York in a few weeks. So I was googling information and I came across a news story, “The Top The Things You Didn’t Know about the Rockettes.”
Here are the top ten things, according to that news story. First, the Rockettes do their own hair and makeup. Second, being a Rockette is a temporary job; they have other jobs the rest of the year. Third, their quickest costume change is 78 seconds. Fourth, their heaviest costume weighs 40 pounds. Fifth, the soldier hats block their vision, so they can’t see where they’re going during the famous Nutcracker routine. Sixth, they wear microphones in their shoes so audience can hear their tap dancing better. Seventh, Rockettes aren’t all the same height, they just stand in such a way that they appear to be the same height. Eighth, the Rockettes don’t hang on to each other when they kick – when they do their famous high kick at the end their show, they only gently rest their hands on the fabric of each other’s costumes. Ninth, the Rockettes rehearse in a church. And tenth, the rosy cheeks that the Rockettes wear for certain numbers aren’t natural, which you already knew. They have bright red circles that they stick to their faces with double-sided tape. Each Christmas season they go through about 15,000 rosy red circles that they put on their faces.
Somehow, that last Rockette fact is the one that stuck out to me: The rosy red cheeks that make the Rockettes look happy and smiley are fake.
Isn’t that how life is? On the outside we may be dressed and pretty, all smiles and rosy cheeks. And just below the surface there is a swirling mess of pain and confusion and worry and anxiety. Our tables may be groaning with turkey and cranberries and homemade rolls, but our souls ache with the hunger of dis-ease, discomfort, confusion.
On a national level, we give thanks, and that is right and good. But there, beneath the gratitude, boils the reality of our discontent.
The events of Ferguson did not begin or create the racial turmoil of our land. The grand jury verdict was just like pulling the band aid off a festering wound to find infection and injury.
To me, that seems to be the truth – the truth that we find in Ferguson and in the fake red cheeks of dancing girls and the truth that is spoken in this psalm: The truth is this: the world hurts. We ache. We grieve. And we yearn for Something More. We long for something to draw us beyond the façade. We don’t want to be Rockettes who don’t really touch each other when they do their kick. We want to be truly embraced. We want the Hope that comes with being fully known.
The temptation of preaching is to rush to easy answers: God loves you and all will be well. And the temptation of the holidays is to rush to Christmas and let the baby be born prematurely.
Advent, this odd time before Christmas, is a period of waiting, a period of preparation, a time to get ready. Advent is the liturgical way of saying, We are not there yet. The world is not the world it should be. Our nation is not the nation it could be. We are not the people we could be. Not yet. The baby is not born. Not yet. Christmas is not here. Not yet. Peace and justice are not realities. Not yet. And so we live with Hope.
A Hope that is found in we-ness. A Hope that is found in the first-person plural pronouns: we, us, our. A Hope that is found when we take off our fake rosy cheeks and admit that life is complicated, the world is difficult, and that we need each other. A Hope that is found when we embrace each other with love and grace and hold on for dear life.
Of all the pictures and news reports and video clips that we saw this week in response to Ferguson, one stands out, maybe you saw it. A white police officer in Portland, Oregon, hugging a twelve year old African American boy. A demonstration was held in Portland on Tuesday, along with many others across the country, in solidarity with the family of Michael Brown. In the crowd in Portland was a 12-year-old black boy named Devonte Hart. Devonte had a sign around this neck that said, “Free Hugs.” With all of the emotions and the pain and the crowd, Devonte was evidently in tears. When a white Portland police officer named Bret Barnum saw Devonte with his sign and asked, “Do I get one of those?” A nearby photographer snapped a picture. It is powerful.
A couple of weeks ago I half-jokingly said that we should require church committee members to spend twice as much time as they do in committee and board meetings standing at the Friendship Heights Metro with a sign that says, “I’m a Christian. Let me tell you about Jesus.” That sent chills up and down some of your liberal spines.
So, how about this. How about all of us going over to the Friendship Heights Metro with signs that say, “Free hugs.” Maybe our world needs that.
I’m sorry if you saw today’s sermon title and came to church expecting dancing lessons. Maybe we’ll never make it onto the stage at Radio City Music Hall. But maybe we will find our way to dance with Hope in Gaza and Ferguson and in the hospital waiting rooms and worried corners of our hearts.
We’re not there yet. Advent points us in the right direction. So, let us kick up our heels and be on our way. Let us paint our “Free Hugs” signs and embrace the world. Let us live with Hope for each other.