Advent 2: We Can’t Breathe

Comfort, O comfort my people,
    says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that she has served her term,
    that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all people shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out!”
    And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
    their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
    when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
    surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
    but the word of our God will stand forever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
    O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
    O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
    lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
    “Here is your God!”
See, the Lord God comes with might,
    and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
    and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
    he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
    and gently lead the mother sheep. (Isaiah 40:1-11)

Advent is a waiting season. We are waiting to hear that cry in the wilderness that Isaiah heralds so beautifully: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God!” It reads triumphantly, especially as it got taken up as the rallying cry of John the Baptist in the Gospels. The long night is almost over, Isaiah seems to say; the dawn is at hand!

A memorial to Eric Garner, who was choked to death by a Staten Island police officer earlier this year. His dying words: “I can’t breathe.”

The problem, though, is that that voice is crying in the wilderness. And we live too ensconced in our world of modern convenience, our world of economic and racial privilege, our world of complacent comfort, our world of industrial and technological noise and distraction, to hear that voice. If we want to hear the voice–and when I say we I mean “we privileged,” “we White folks,” “we beneficiaries of the systems of injustice”–we have to work very hard to shut down our normal ways of being in the world. We have to stop talking so damn much and start listening, really listening.

As I lay on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley last night, in silent prayer during a ritual die-in in for Mike Brown and Eric Garnerm, I did not hear a cry of triumph, of approaching dawn. No, I heard a cry of anguish, a cry of lamentation, a cry of distress, a voice in the wilderness that has gone too long unheard and unheeded. The cry I heard was:

I can’t breathe.

I can’t ignore that cry any longer. We can’t ignore that cry any longer, the cries of all the Michael Browns and Eric Garners and Trayvon Martins of this nation. They can’t breathe. Their parents and families, all the people of color who must live their lives in fear and in shame, they can’t breathe. My friends and fellow Berkeleyites who got tear-gassed last night, who got their heads beaten in my the batons of policemen in full riot gear, for standing up for the idea that Black lives matter – they can’t breathe.

Police and protesters face off in Berkeley last night (12/6).

But we privileged, we White folks, we beneficiaries of the systems and structures of injustice and oppression – we don’t want to listen. We respond to the protests and the rage, the “languages of the unheard,” as Martin Luther King, Jr., called them, with indignation at closed freeways; with equivocation about police forces who murder young black men and who unleash excessive force on those who dare to voice their outrage; with evasion and self-justification and self-medication, so that we don’t have to face up to the historical realities of slavery and segregation and exploitation and oppression, so that we don’t have to face up to the contemporary realities of racial profiling and systemic prejudice. We try to drown the voice in the wilderness out by any means necessary.

If things are going to change, that has to be the first step: to shut up and listen. To hear that voice crying out for justice. To shut off our inherited self-defense mechanisms. To take off the myopic goggles of economic and racial privilege and see the world around us for what it is.  As long as we stand by and allow these things to be, as long as we refuse to listen, we can’t breathe. We can’t be the people God is calling us to be in this world.

That’s only the first step though. The second step is then to raise up another cry, to rise up and take to the streets and the subways and the social media outlets and the city halls and the state legislatures of this country, to counter that wail of anguish and anger with a shout of hope and restoration: “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” For then–and only then–“the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

If we can do that… then maybe the new day that Isaiah promised maybe really will start to dawn.

That we might hear the voice in the wilderness, and raise up a new cry of justice for all God’s children; that we might prepare the Way of the Lord, so that all people might see it together… Lord we pray.

Amen. –Tom

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One Response to Advent 2: We Can’t Breathe

  1. Becky Rider says:

    If good preaching should “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” then you are already a very effective preacher. (But I already knew that!) I will be sharing this. Peace, my friend.

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