1st Reading: Isaiah 40:1-11
Gospel: Mark 1:1-8
There's old news and there's good news. Here's the old news: An army takes a country by force, overtaxes it, controls it with arms, oppresses its people. That was the situation in Israel when Jesus was born. More old news: A people are dragged off to a foreign land and kept there for 200 years. That was the situation of our reading in Isaiah, the Israelites taken into slavery in Babylon. More old news: Unarmed black men are killed by white police officers and grand juries don't bring criminal charges against the officers. That's our situation in the US over the past couple of weeks. It isn't old news in that it is boring, but old news in that we've heard it before, experienced it before, and it is part of an old order and system that keeps some people in power and others powerless.
But God is promising something completely new—new life, comfort for those who have been wronged, and justice for those who have hurt others, a whole new start, a chance to heal and to have relationship, good news. But the pathway from the old news to the good news seems so long and full of potholes. It seems almost impossible to get from where we are now, with all the injustice and inequality and prejudice and fear and anger, to a place of peacemaking, and healing, of new life and the Kingdom of God.
Thankfully, it doesn't depend on us, because we are like withering flowers and blades of tender grass on a hot day. We wilt and fail. But whether the Kingdom of God, God's reign of justice and peace and love, comes and when, doesn't depend on us, thankfully. That is something guaranteed by God and dependent upon God who stands forever, reliable, and powerful.
This partly sounds like old news. God is powerful and mighty, starting a huge highway project so he can have his grand parade, ruling with might. Yet there is something unexpected and brand new. God is also gentle and tender. These verses are so beautiful, “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.” There is an old news view of God, vengeful, angry, violent. Yet, here is the good news, a different view of God, powerful, yet gentle and very patient.
We are watching the old news unfold on TV and hearing it on the radio and reading about it in the newspaper and online, racial mistrust and divides in our country. People are dying. People are protesting. People are afraid of each other. How will we ever find our way from the old news of fighting and hurting each other to the good news of justice and peace?
When I was growing up the “N” word was used in my house almost every day. It was used in an often repeated joke that my dad would say, and that I still don't understand, to this day. My mom did daycare. My dad had to quit saying that word when my mom started babysitting little Andrew, who was a mixed race kid. We saw the before and after picture, the old news, the old way dad talked and acted, and we saw that wasn't the way it was supposed to be when he had to quit doing it. My parents told me they moved to Oregon so we wouldn't have to go to school with children of other races and that they wouldn't allow us to ever date someone of a different race because that person wouldn't have the same values that we did, of caring for family. They also sent me a mixed message because they said I was lucky to be born a white girl in the United States. To me this meant that I could have been born with any color skin from anywhere in the world. It meant that I could be a person of any race and I should treat others how I would want to be treated. That could be me.
It was a strange picture I got growing up: old news-racism, lack of understanding, and prejudice combined with this mixed-up good news of a different perspective, something new possible, a connection between me and all the other people of the world, and an awareness of my privilege, something I had that other people didn't have, that I shouldn't ever take for granted, and that I could use to help people with less privilege than I had, often by getting out of the way.
What do I mean by privilege? I don't get pulled over all the time by cops and when I do they let me off with a warning. No one follows me around in the store expecting me to shoplift. Nobody expects me to be carrying a gun or to be a threat of any kind. That is all because of an accident of birth, something completely out of my control—my race. That's old news, the way people are treated differently because of the color of their skin.
Also old news is the reaction that a lot of white people have when others talk about their experiences as a person of color. We often dismiss it. We often get defensive, as if the other person is asking us to fix it and take responsibility for every person of our race who has ever been prejudiced.
It is hard to listen to these painful stories. We want to take away the pain. We want to fix it. We want it not to be true. But the telling of these stories is what is going to take us from the old news to the good news. The good news is that if we can let ourselves hear these stories and internalize them, if we can recognize and honor the pain, then we will be changed and new life will spring up. Then we will speak up if we hear someone say something rude to someone else just because of race or gender or age or sexuality. Then we will stand up to bullies in our midst. Then we will question those stereotypes in our heads about other people. We will venture to make friends with people of different races. And the world will be changed because we are sick and tired of the old news and ready for the Kingdom of God to break in and transform us.
This is part of what it means that the hills be made low and the valleys lifted up. Hills and valleys are the barriers of inequality that keep some people from seeing and experiencing God's kingdom, the good things in life that we all hope for our friends and family. If someone is in a valley, they won't be able to see and hear what is going on on the mountain. If there is a hill or mountain, it can block the view of those below to able to see the goodness of God. If you've ever been to Holden Village, you may have noticed that it is perched between mountain peaks. It is my understanding that there are many days in the winter that the sun doesn't fall on Holden Village because of its placement there. In the same way, the hills and valleys, the inequalities of life keep the sun from falling on people we know and love, our friends of different races and skin colors.
We have become accustomed to dismantling the hills and valleys for the genders and in discussing and listening to stories of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. We need to open ourselves to hearing the stories of our friends and neighbors and sons-in-law and daughters-in-law and fellow church members who have experienced discrimination because of race.
When I hear those stories of prejudice and pain, I have been learning to listen and to go to that place within myself that has experienced something similar. Although I am privileged, I have been met with laughter when I have said I am a pastor. There were many who doubted that I would be able to do it, including people in my own family. We've all had times of struggle that we can tap into when someone shares their experience, either in person or even in a news story. We all know what it is like to be put into a category and be labeled and to be treated differently because of it. I think of my poor boy and the pressures put on boys to fight each other and be a man and not show their emotions. It breaks my heart to think that someday other people will try to tell him who he is and how he ought to act if he is going to be a man. Our own story of struggle, rather than making us say to another to quit whining, ought to open our heart to hear what they've been through and to vow not to let that happen anymore. We know our world isn't as it should be, isn't how God envisions it. Are we going to put up more mountains and valleys and make things harder for our brothers and sisters, or are we going to listen, let those stories affect us, and do something about it so that our world is a little bit better for all of us.
The chasms between people seem so huge—how can we ever make peace between us? God is building a road. He says, “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill made low, and uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” “Prepare the way of the Lord.” This is the road that Jesus will use to march straight into human life, into our lives. It will become the road of Joseph and Mary on the way to Bethlehem, the birth canal that Jesus passes through as he is born, the road that he walks as he carries his cross. It is a road that links two places together that seem completely divided—a road between races and genders and ages and sexualities—it is the road of love and we're always invited on it to love and be loved as God loves.