Here he is again.
Every year it’s the same, John the Baptist showing up on the banks of the River Jordan on this Second Sunday of Advent. He’s shouting that message of repentance because God’s kingdom is on its way. And next week when we light our pink candle—the one some call the “Mary” candle, although it’s really about “rejoicing” —he keeps hogging the stage. Two weeks, my friends, two full weeks of this wild prophetic man on the banks of the river baptizing people and munching on crickets. That’s half of Advent. Half! So someone out there thinks his call to repent deserves our listening ears as we get ready for the Incarnation. Perhaps we should.
The voice of one crying out in the wilderness proclaims, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
In my experience there are usually two types of preachers in the world when it comes to sin, the ones who never move away from it in that fire and brimstone sort of way, and the ones who think it isn’t relevant and never say a word about it. As a good Anglican, I want to strike a middle way. Frederick Buchner tells us that sin is centrifugal, pushing God and others out toward the periphery of our lives. It impacts us. It isolates us. It creates a breakdown in relationships. Jesus comes, according to the angel who will speak to Joseph in a couple weeks, to save us from our sins. This Christmas thing isn’t about a new Lexus. It’s about a new life. But new life not just for us in a personal sort of way—that’s the salvation equivalent of getting a new luxury sedan—but in order to bring about salvation for the whole world. To restore all of us to a right relationship with God and one another.
Or, as the prophet Isaiah describes it, “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.” It’s the peaceable kingdom that gets ushered in with the Incarnation, when all of creation experiences shalom.
Hear these words I read in the Foreword to the book on my bedside table, “Late one night several years ago, I was getting out of my car on an empty midtown Atlanta street when a man standing fifteen feet away pointed a gun at me and threatened to ‘blow my head off.’ I had just moved to the neighborhood, which I didn’t consider to be a high crime area. Panicked thoughts raced through my mind as the threat was repeated. I quickly realized that my first instinct to run was misguided and dangerous, so I fearfully raised my hands in helpless, terrifying submission to the barrel of a handgun. I tried to stay calm and begged the man not to shoot me, repeating over and over again, ‘It’s alright, it’s okay.’ As a young attorney working on criminal cases, I knew that my survival required careful, strategic thinking. I had to stay calm.”
I can tell you that such reading is not the way to get you to doze off to sleep. These words bolted me upright. I imagined a young twenty-something professional standing there in his suit, while a perp had come from the background lurking and ready to shake him down. I kept reading.
“I’d just returned home from my office with a car filled with legal papers, but I knew the man holding the gun wasn’t targeting me because he thought I was a young professional. A young, bearded black man dressed casually in jeans, I didn’t look like a lawyer with a Harvard Law School degree to most people; I just looked like a black man in America. I had spent my life in the church. I graduated from a Christian college and was steeped in Dr. King’s teachings of nonviolence, but none of that mattered to the Atlanta police office threatening to kill me. To that officer, I looked like a criminal, dangerous and guilty.”
I should have been more in the know as I started reading and made presumptions about the identities of these players; the book is Jim Wallis’ recent title America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America. But I wasn’t. As I read those words on my Kindle, I imagined a young white man as the young attorney, and the nameless one holding the gun as a young black man. And in a single instant I knew. The sin of racism lurks in my heart. The years growing up in primarily segregated Detroit—African Americans living mostly on the other side of Eminem’s famed 8 Mile Rd—along with some relatives who used horrible slurs and belittled people of color—including the large Middle Eastern Muslim population in the area—that seed had taken root and concealed itself in the shadows.
I continued reading and heard about “the talk” that parents have with their children of color. That they have to be cautious around the police, and extra respectful and to avoid confrontation. A talk I never got as a white kid.
I wanted to test these claims, so I called Ovid Fraser, a parishioner here who raised three kids. Doc Fraser established and ran the Southborough Veterinary Hospital for nearly 30 years before retiring. He’s a black man from Guyana, moving to the US as an adult and coming to this area to teach at Harvard. After a few years, he left Harvard to start the Vet practice. Ovid was on the search committee that brought me to St. Mark’s, and while long since retired he works for a vet clinic most Sundays so we get together for lunch to stay in contact. We began talking on the phone this week about racism—something we’ve hit on from time to time—and then he asked if we could meet at Kennedy’s to talk in person. I did, and I have his permission to share our conversation.
After getting settled, he answered my question. No, he hadn’t had the talk with his kids because he’d come from Guyana where he was fully empowered, and his wife Madge is white, so they didn’t know. But he told me this story. Their middle child, a son named Paris, was riding his bike here on Main Street in Southborough one summer day. He was around 10. As he biked along the road, a local office come up to ask him who he was. “I’m Doc Fraser’s son, Paris” he replied. Southborough wasn’t a big place in the late 70s, so Ovid was well known. “He only has one son named Garth,” came the reply from the officer. It looked as if the family wasn’t as well known.
After a few minutes, the boy was put in the cruiser, his bike in the trunk and they headed the two minutes back to the vet hospital and their home on Rt 85 to verify his identity. After a few minutes of conversation, it was established that Paris was indeed their offspring, and they all sort of laughed. But it became clear that if you were black and not known, you didn’t really belong.
Ovid went on to tell me this story. After some time in his practice, some people weren’t paying their bills, and he decided to take these people to small claims court. Within a matter of minutes of being there before the judge he could tell something was off. He made an opening statement in which he said he felt like he was being jerked around. The judge stopped him, telling him that profane language would not be tolerated and then went on for about 5 minutes dressing Doc Fraser down, as if he were the one in the wrong and not the victim. Ovid knew at that point that he would not get anything, and determined that he’d never go to small claims court again. In the future he sent his technician, a white woman. She won every single claim.
He then looked me straight in the eye. “It was a complete negation of my soul,” he said. “And my technician knew she was treated better than her boss.”
He then went on to mention the times he’s been pulled over by police, simply for being a person of color. Many were in Marlborough. On one occasion he wasn’t doing anything illegal, he just drove by where a police cruiser had been far back in a driveway . “All he saw was the color of my skin,” Ovid said. He got a ticket for doing 10 over even though he had been driving the limit. When he contested the ticket, it got thrown out immediately, the judge ripping it up. “That helped me to know that there are good people out there too,” he said.
Finally he told me this story from his childhood. When he or his siblings did something bad, they would get a scolding from their mother. They were faithful church goers and so when something he did was especially egregious, his mother would say, “Boy, you make Jesus cry.” He knew then that it was bad, that the sin he had committed had created a breach in his relationships both with God and his mom.
He looked at me then, tears beginning to form. “When I contemplate all that America has done on this,” he shook his head, “it make Jesus cry. It make Jesus cry.”
I sat there across from him in the silence for a moment. He then said, “America’s infected with the virus of racism. It’s a hell of a burden to carry. It demands that you see yourself as superior to every single black man. Every single one, and there’s trouble when it’s clear that you’re not. It’s a kind of slavery—it’s insidious. You’re doing yourself a favor by becoming humane. You’re saving yourself from that infection. You’re become a true follower of Jesus.”
We can’t get ready for the Incarnation of the Prince of Peace without contemplating our sins. And this one, this one lies deep in the DNA of our country. We’re watching it play out in front of us—and if you think our current political climate isn’t about this, I pray you take a second look. Hate crimes have increased substantially since the election. Our president-elect has selected a man known for his white supremacist views to be a top aid. Episcopal churches in our country have been spray painted with swastikas. Our friends at the Muslim Center in Wayland received a hate filled letter threatening them this week. This hasn’t all been unidirectional—no one political party or group has the market on hate—but it’s become clear that many are acting out on this sin of ours against what Ovid called “the permanent other” in our country. “If you don’t see the other person as equally human, then you are okay with these things,” he told me.
The point of this isn’t to heap on the guilt and let you go out in despair. The point is for us to seek repentance, in the Greek metanoia, literally “to change one’s mind.” To turn around. To make amends. To have our changed minds lead us to changed behavior. To come to Jesus, the Prince of Peace, and seek forgiveness for the things that make him cry, and then work with our whole hearts and strength to establish the kingdom where all of creation sits with one another. The wolf and the kid. The lion and the lamb. The black man and the police officer. The Muslim and the Christian. And together share in the joy of that kingdom forever. May it be so. Amen.