We cannot be our own judge.
“No, I am not a racist.”
The problem with self-declared exonerations such as our president recently gave is that they’re meaningless. (And no, I’m not saying that he or his administration is meaningless – far from it! But, judging the meaning of the current administration is not the subject of this posting.)
Here’s the issue: statements such as “I am not racist” originate from our own point of view. They are an expression of how we see ourselves. And of course, we are our own heroes in the reality show that is our life. So, no – we’re certain that we’re not racists. We’re not misogynists. We’re not bullies. We’re not evil. Those are negative words, about nasty things – everybody agrees they’re nasty, but we’re not nasty – so no, such nasty, negative, sad terms are not labels that can be applied to us.
In proclaiming our guiltlessness, we ignore that we cannot provide a valid and balanced judgment of ourselves with regards to the accusation that we are racist. That judgment must be left up to others, to those who are the victims of racism. Our racism (or any oppressive behavior we may exhibit) can be only identified by another, not by ourselves. We cannot be our own judge.
Would God’s love for us have any meaning or value if God did not expect something of us in return? The death of Christ on the Cross is proof that Love does not come cheap. So, while the Love of God is freely given to all, there is a price to accepting it. And, that price is Repentance.
There are lots of wonderful old traditions we celebrate this time year: the annual church rummage sale. The men’s pancake breakfast. The live nativity scenes. Going Caroling. Maybe in some churches the youth group sets up a tree in the sanctuary; and the younger children make ornaments to hang on them. Perhaps we have an “Angel Tree” or a box to donate gifts for those who would not otherwise have a Christmas at all. And then there’s my personal favorite: all those Christmas cookies!
These are all beautiful and very worthwhile traditions; they express who we are and what is important to us. And, many if not most of them are centered on Christ’s call to take of each other and take care of those in need. This is a good thing. But, such traditions, as wonderful and good and appropriate to Christmas as they are, are not what Advent is about.
Advent is about who we are about to become, not about who we are now. Advent is about preparing for the gift of God: the Christ Child who is not yet here. It is a call to prepare for what is about to happen.
So, what is Repentance? And, why is it a theme of this, our Second Sunday of Advent? I’d like to begin by exploring what Repentance isn’t.
When I think about the definition many use for the term “Traditional Marriage”, I wonder whether it is right or fair to define all that marriage is based upon what we do with our genitals, and/or who we do it with.
There are many kinds of traditions out there. But when the term “Traditional Marriage” is used, it is referring to what the speaker sees as a faith tradition. Yet, as I spoke about in a recent sermon, “Tradition” is not synonymous with “Faith.” One must be dependent upon the other, but which one is primary: Faith or Tradition?
There are two kinds of silence present in both of these two passages: the silence which makes space for the inner witness, and the silence of oppression. But, the ways in which the characters in each narrative respond is very different. What can we learn from these two stories?
For all of recorded history, bringing legal disputes to the local ruler or wise man for public airing and judgment was a centerpiece of good government, and still is. And, doing so – among other things – makes all who are there part of the public witness for each case and decision; so, the community as a whole is in effect a party to the success and enforcement of each judgment that is made.
In our reading from 2 Samuel, Nathan makes his case to David in just such a setting; which was a wise move on his part! He knew he needed that public witness for the accusations he was about to make.
Imagine the scene: David is sitting in a chair with his scepter and crown on a platform in front of the crowd. People are standing around, waiting for their turn to be heard, or perhaps hoping for some drama to enliven their day. The King’s advisors are off to one side, waiting to be called upon when needed.
Then, Nathan steps forward, and begins to tell his story. The King listens, his anger rising as he hears the tale; and, when he can’t restrain himself any more, his face red, gripping his chair with both fists, he leans forward and says “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die!”
Nathan pauses, then says four simply painful words: “You are the man!” Then, turning his back on his King, he tells the people of all the terrible things David has done: Rape, Deception, Betrayal, Murder.
I imagine David sitting there, mouth open, silent. The sin he’d so carefully hidden from the people, from God and even from himself, is revealed. He has not fooled anyone. He took Uriah’s wife and impregnated her. He engineered the death of one of his greatest and most loyal warriors. He married the grieving widow to make the pregnancy appear legitimate. He tried to deceive everyone, betraying the peoples’ trust and that of the Lord. Yes, he deserved to die: condemned before the people and before God out of his own mouth.
But not one word is said in condemnation of Bathsheba. Nathan does not accuse her, nor does David defend himself through blaming or implicating her. (Unlike Adam’s blaming of Eve and Eve’s blaming of the serpent in the Garden.)
Many have said that Bathsheba enticed David, but doing blames a victim who has lost everything. Nowhere in the Bible is it even hinted that Bathsheba had done anything wrong.
You’ve probably heard the story of Rachel Dolezal in the news: a young woman who is (apparently) “White,” but who some now claim has been masquerading as “Black” for most of her adult life. She is also the [now former] President of the NAACP chapter in her community of Spokane, Washington; and a professor of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University.
The concern of many is that she is not a “real Black” even though she claims to be. But, what is a “Real Black” – or, for that matter, a “Real White”? And, is all this controversy over her perceived racial makeup relevant in any case?
Such signs say far more about the persons holding them than they do about their intended target. Expressing God’s love in ways these people and I can both agree on is a difficult challenge, because it requires that I be just as open to being changed by that love as I hope they will be. It would be far easier, and less challenging to my own peace of mind, to simply shut the door to relationship by dismissing such people as not worth listening to – which is what those signs are attempting to do in terms of their bearers’ relationship with me – and our President – after all…
Like you, I’ve seen signs like this posted by relatively conservative groups and individuals on social media and elsewhere. While I understand the impetus behind such signs, that I understand does not imply that I agree with them – far from it!
For one thing, we must remember that our President IS a Christian. Until shortly before his election to the Presidency, he and his entire family regularly attended worship at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, one of the largest and most dynamic churches within my own denomination. In fact, more than a quarter of a century ago, our future President made a conscious decision to become a Christian when he joined that church after being, as he put it, a “religious skeptic” for many years. (One should also note that Trinity Church’s motto is “Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian.” …And as an organization serving a community deeply and continuously affected by racism and injustice in this society, how can their motto be otherwise?)
Now, I am a Minister in the tradition of the United Church of Christ (UCC), and for over three centuries members of my family and our ancestors have been faithful members of a church that is now part of this same Protestant Denomination that Barack Obama chose to become a member of at age 26. Obama is one of three presidents who were affiliated with this same religious tradition that the UCC descends from (Congregationalism) at some point in their lives. So, I see signs such as this being evidence that their bearer does not believe I am a Christian, either.
I’ve been percolating on the third of the ten commandments [or second, depending on how you count] (Exodus 20:7) for a few weeks now. Here it is in the King James Version, with which many of us are most familiar…
“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain…”
And here is the same passage in the New Revised Standard Version, which I think evokes a broader and deeper understanding of the intent of the original text…
“You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God…”
What I find interesting about this passage is how we look at it. Many of us (thanks to how King James presents it) see it as a prohibition against swearing with the name of God. But really, that’s only a tiny part of it, as the Jews demonstrate with their avoidance of using the name of God at all. (To the point where, for millennia now, no one has known how to say the Lord’s name in the original ancient Hebrew!)
The NRSV version helps us see some of the reason behind this Jewish interpretation of the third commandment: it’s not just about swearing, but that we are not to make wrongful use of it in any form or context.