SPU, Ferguson, and a New School Year: A Sermon

I was honored to be asked to be the preacher at Seattle Pacific University’s Faculty Retreat this week. In the wake of the shooting on our campus at the close of our academic year last year and the reminders of our violent and chaotic world in Ferguson, Israel/Gaza, the Ukraine, I was especially aware of the weight of this moment for our faculty.


Making Words Incarnate: Anticipating a New Year in the Shadow of Violence

Good morning everyone. I would like to thank Jeff Keuss for his kind invitation to share with this you this morning. As I read the email I felt the weight of what this morning means for us as a community entering a new year even as the shadow of the previous three months continues to loom over us.

As I began to reflect and pray about what this morning and this year might mean for us, I continued to return to Mary. This might be an odd choice, but in Mary I found this particular theme resonating again and again: What does anticipation look like in the face of an encounter with something we cannot and do not understand?

This theme, I think, is particularly important for us as a place of “higher learning.” We are a people devoted to questions, to inquiry, to understanding what is not presently understood. But what happens when we experience something that we cannot stretch our questions around? Its circumference is simply too much to take in with one look, and it leaves us shaking in the few glimpses that we manage.

As we anticipate a new year we have been encountered by such a reality. The reality of a world that seemed distant has come far too near. We are a people who now know what it means to cry out and lament and question. Perhaps your first few steps back to campus were ambivalent ones. Certainly our students, many of whom were wary of leaving may now be fearful of returning. We do not simply know about violence in the world. Our community has encountered it in a real way and we are different because of it. How will our questions change, I wonder.

At this point perhaps you are wondering, “This use of Mary seems a bit off-putting, Brian.” Mary’s encounter was news of a miraculous birth and a savior at that!” In the face of such violence how does Mary point us to hope?” Yes, Mary’s encounter with the angel was certainly one of joy and hope. Her song of response begins with a litany of praises and acknowledgements of God’s goodness.

But let us not forget that these confessions are made in the face of a reality that this promise would also ask something of her. It would ask her to enter into a space of risk. She was a young girl whose people were impoverished and subjugated and as a woman was utterly dependent upon a marriage to sustain her. And yet this news declared to her that she would enter into a space of disgrace, at best if Joseph did not break off their covenant. Good news indeed?

In the face of this utter mystery and fearful reality, her question is this, “How can this be for I am a virgin?” How can this be… how can it already have happened, how is this reality already present to me? Mary does not choose this encounter or its consequences and yet her question is one of wonder… of bending herself into the presence of what has happened, to her, her people, and the world.

He has shown strength with his arm;

   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

   and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

   and sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel,

   in remembrance of his mercy.

Mary’s question is not the question of Zechariah, who, faced with a similarly miraculous announcement sought to find certainty in the utterly mysterious, “How will I know this is so…” but was left silent, unable to contribute to the unfolding drama that was God’s work in them and among them until the very end.

Mary’s question is an opening to the mystery, however fearful and risky it might be, to the transformation this encounter will require of her. She is now pregnant with possibility. What does our encounter mean for us? What has changed for us? What marks us now? What will our questions be?

These transformations are so often difficult to anticipate, but they come upon us in sudden moments of realization. I still remember my first trip to the mall a few days after my first child, Caleb, was born. I was getting some more film for the camera and as I was walking my heart jumped when I heard a baby cry. I had been to the mall hundreds of times before and never once had I noticed the cries or laughter of the babies or noticed the tiredness of their mothers and fathers. But when I heard that child cry on my first trip to the mall as a father, that child was my child. That mother’s tiredness was my tiredness. I could not walk through the mall without hearing new sounds. I experienced my world in a new way now.

Something has happened to us. We have been touched by the reality of the world’s senselessness but in the midst of that we also have been reminded that even chaos cannot resist love and dark cannot overcome the light. There is nothing that cannot be made new. And as we hold on to this promise will our ears hear in new ways? We have been touched with a reality that makes us different, where we do not simply know that school shootings happen, but the news shoots down our spine and makes our knees weak. How will we see differently? What will our presence in the world be now?

In this encounter we now participate, hear the reality of this world in a new way – and as we do, I wonder if we are not on the precipice of a new possibility. Perhaps this possibility is not too distant for us. Even as we gather together again it is not only our community that has been touched. This fall students and faculty will return to campus with a profound reminder of how little black bodies are regarded as Michael Brown lay dead in a street for four hours, as the cries for justice were choked by tear gas and beat back by rubber bullets, and those throughout the country who felt the pain of this community were met with steely silence or pseudo-rationalized appeals to “wait for the facts.”

Some of us return to this community still sensing the dual atmospheres of those who feel our pain and rage only to enter a new room where life roars back in as we raise our head out of the waters of suffering…

Will our bodies respond to the news of a community’s rage over an equally senseless death of its young men and women? Perhaps most communities would not know what to do with the questions connected to such senseless violence. Most communities would not know what to do with the anger that lies beneath the surface with the realization that we are not as safe as we thought.

But that community is not us anymore. Perhaps you do not know what it means to be black in America, but you know what it means to have your community marked by the intrusion of violence. You may not know what it means to be a community perpetually criminalized and marginalized, but you know what it means to try to convey with a family member the fear or sadness you feel and have them look at you with eyes that do not see you and so they never ask you anymore questions, journey with you any farther than what is comfortable for them.

You, we, are different now. We are burdened with hearing cries and joys and laments. In this encounter our community can now conceive new people.

Will we sing with Mary in the face of uncertainty and our neighbors uncertainty, “How can this be?” with a confession that God is already present. Will we allow our words conceive lives of righteousness that expose the prideful, bring down the powerful from their thrones, feed the hungry with good things?

And perhaps this is what Christian higher education might begin to mean – that we fall into mystery unafraid to become something new, something foolish. That we are unafraid of the question that makes us uncomfortable. That we are not afraid to bind ourselves to children, to questions, to causes where assessment is insufficient.

Perhaps Christian higher education begins to look more like the work of an artist where our vocation is a prophetic creativity.

I spend much of my time in the university art department just looking at the student’s work. I am in awe of the technical proficiency, but even more, I just allow the images to soak into me. But after awhile I will peak back in the classrooms and studios where the students are learning and working. And I marvel at how a few pigments became and image that could well up within me deep despair or joy. How a few scraps of wood and rubber hose set out as waste can become a structure of hope and redemption. But even more, I marvel at the artists who mingle their own pain and joy and questions, skill and technique with these seemingly insignificant materials to create something that resonates with me. Every piece of art is nothing short of a miracle. Art is incarnation.

And perhaps this is the point of Christian higher education. Perhaps this is our calling this year. In our encounter with the heinous, will we mingle our words and work and lives with the questions that seem so foreign to us? In asking “How can this be?” each day we open ourselves to the growing reality of God’s presence in our midst. We are blessed by the burden of its weight, of its discomfort, its pressure. But most of all we are blessed to participate in the reality of God’s kingdom, both already and not yet. Mary’s witness is an icon of our daily work… that the possibility of justice and love lay in the ordinary and unexpected places and even in the midst of our unknowing.

May God’s peace be with you all this year.