What follows is my Christmas Convocation sermon, “Keep Walking,” to the Monmouth College community, based on Isaiah 9:2-7.
If Tim Kramer, our college’s videographer, were to set his camera to film all of us walking the slick sidewalks of campus this winter, I imagine he’d get a pretty good blooper reel. A few weeks ago (when the sun was still shining) I was walking and talking with our new Associate Chaplain, Jessica Hawkinson, along the sidewalk above the Stockdale parking lot. Jessica accidentally stepped off the pavement, lost her balance, and then just sort of rolled down the hill. It happened so fast. One minute she was there and the next she was gone.
I wouldn’t embarrass Jessica, though, if I didn’t have my own story to tell. My first winter here in Monmouth I slipped and fell down the stairs of the Weeks House, shouting out a very unchaplain-like word as I went. This would have been bad enough, but my fall happened right as the men’s track team was running by.
I’m sure these little spills don’t only happen to the clumsy occupants of the Chaplain’s Office, though. You’ve got your stories to tell too. I know you do. Now that winter has set in here we’re all going to be tripping and slipping our way around campus.
The prophet Isaiah opens his passage to us today by describing a people who weren’t unfamiliar with treacherous paths. Isaiah’s people walked in a time of darkness. They were living in fear. Neighboring superpower Assyria had been systematically taking over the entire region surrounding Israel and Judah. The people didn’t know if they should join a coalition that was preparing to fight Assyria or if they should try to avoid the bloodshed by giving in and giving up their rights and their freedom as an independent nation. Isaiah’s people were walking in an uncertain and frightening time. Perhaps we can relate.
I recently read an Advent sermon by Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz Weber in which she described the year 2016 as apocalyptic. And she meant this literally. The Greek for apocalypse means “to uncover” or “to unveil.” Many things were uncovered this year, many things that we probably would have rather left veiled. All the horrific shootings, the mounting evidence of police brutality, the racial and socio-economic tension and divisive political rhetoric did not create the anger, fear, bigotry and biases among us, it just uncovered what was already here. And that uncovering has been devastating. So devastating that it makes it hard to carry on. I mean what do we do in the face of all that 2016 has revealed? What is a pastor to preach this Christmas to offer any kind of hope?
I confess that on Wednesday, November 9th, I was among the 50% of our country that woke up despairing over the news that Donald Trump would be our next President. I drove to campus that morning wondering how I could be the Chaplain for such a diverse community as ours when I was personally feeling so broken and beaten. I attended all the meetings I was scheduled to attend that day, but I couldn’t focus on anything. So I abandoned my to-do list and just started walking. I came across a student who had recently come out as gay. He laughed at the absurdity of the election, the surreal feeling that this couldn’t possibly be life as we know it. But tears welled as he spoke, spilling freely down his cheeks and onto the sidewalk we shared. I caught a professor outside of the mailroom, he too in tears. How do I teach today, he asked? How do I just go on? Then, I started knocking on dorm room doors. (I do that sometimes. You all should know.) But I wanted to see my Latina students whose families are still in the process of becoming citizens. And our Syrian students whom I have grown to love. And the African-American student whose rage lit up Facebook, his fiery words highlighting his feelings of betrayal, once again, by White America. Then I ran into a white student whose views, I know, are more conservative than mine. He was afraid too. Not in the same way as our Latino students, and African American students, and Syrian refugee students. But he was afraid, nonetheless, that if people knew what he believed and who he voted for, he would be treated like some sort of monster to be shunned and disdained. I listened to him too.
As I walked campus that Wednesday and met people on the sidewalk, in the dorms, in their offices and at the mailboxes, I had no words of reassurance, no explanation that would make everything okay, no wisdom, not even any prayers. All I knew when I got to campus was that I needed to be with you and I needed to walk.
I recently discovered a poem called “Walker” by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado. In this poem Machado writes: “Walker, there is no road, the road is made by walking.”
I’ve been considering this poem lately. The first part, “Walker, there is no road,” resonates, because right now, with the state of our government and our nation and our communities embroiled in tension and hostility, it feels as if there is no road forward. Seriously, where do we go from here?
The latter half of the poet’s phrase, “The road is made by walking,” offers a charge to which I know I should adhere. The poet suggests that there is no road forward until we take the steps to create it. It’s up to me, the walker, to forge the path. And, whereas, this sounds quite empowering—kind of like “be the change you wish to see in the world”—I’ll be honest, it also sounds exhausting, maybe even a bit overwhelming.
I’m sure you understand. I mean it is December 6th—the week before finals. If Will Ferrell were here he’d describe this end-of-the-semester time as like riding a bike, except the bike is on fire, and you’re on fire, and everything is on fire, and you’re in hell. Yeah, we’re just trying to survive.
So this is when prophets like Isaiah come in handy. You see, their job is to fuel our imagination with an alternative reality, a motivating vision of what God wills for our lives. Isaiah paints this picture as a time when the yoke of the people’s burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor has been broken. It’s a time when all the boots of tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood are burned as fuel for the fire because there is no longer a need for a military, no need for war. It’s a time ushered in by the birth of a child, a new King, who will rule with justice and righteousness—a Prince of Peace—whose authority will grow because of his love and respect for all people, most especially those who are poor and vulnerable. This is the vision the prophet Isaiah holds before us today.
Walking our campus with this vision in mind, it’s amazing what you will find, literally, just steps away.
A few weeks ago, I walked past Wallace Hall and paused to take in the chalkings. Affirmative statements such as, YOU BELONG, YOU ARE LOVED, YOU ARE WANTED, filled the plaza’s cement.
This past Wednesday I walked into the Weeks House living room to sit and listen to Diana Rubi’s Mujerista Theology study group. Latinos are projected to be the majority population in our country by 2050. Holding this vision before them, Diana’s group discussed their responsibility to the world. How can they ensure, they asked themselves, that today’s oppressed do not become tomorrow’s oppressors?
Friday afternoon I walked to Hewes Library for a coffee from Einstein’s and passed a student reviewing Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies” for an ILA exam.
Saturday afternoon I walked into Room 273 of the CSB to attend the Empowerment Workshop led by Neddy Velez and her group, People of Change.
Saturday night I walked here, to Dahl Chapel. The lights set by our theater students made it feel like you were walking into a fairy tale. Then, I sat down and was moved to tears by the beauty of the music performed by our chorale, and our orchestra, and our wind ensemble.
I, like you, walk this campus all the time. It’s what we do. When we walk, though, with the prophet’s vision before us another kind of unveiling occurs. It’s an unveiling of care and compassion for others, an unveiling of art and beauty that will move us to tears, an unveiling of people who seek to do good and make a difference with their lives, an unveiling of young lives being shaped for the future, our future—and it’s this unveiling that keeps me walking.
If, as the poet says, the road is made by walking, then I want to make this road by walking it with all of you— because you inspire me. You encourage me. You give me hope. If this Christmas Convocation leaves with you anything, I hope it is the knowledge that though the road ahead may be dark, it is well lit by walkers with their candles held high—walkers inspired and illumined by a prophetic vision of the world to come—a world we are to see into reality, guided by the grace and love of God. So keep walking, my friends. Keep walking.
[Feature Image: Renaud Leon]
In his essay “The Harlem Ghetto” James Baldwin describes the 1950 American reality as a “bitterness—felt alike by the inarticulate, hungry population of Harlem, by the wealthy on Sugar Hill, and by the brilliant exceptions ensconced in universities—which has defeated and promises to continue to defeat all efforts at interracial understanding.” Baldwin could just as well have written his essay about our 2016 reality with all the bitterness, rancor, public cynicism and private despair running rampant among us.
With this current state of our union, it’s difficult to know what to do, what action to take, what, even, to pray for as an engaged, responsible citizen. What can make things better? How can I make a difference? It has occurred to me that there is an awful lot that is out of my control—historical structures in place that are inherently racist, politicians becoming popular among working-class whites with empty rhetoric and false promises that appeal to their sense of entitlement, and (again quoting Baldwin) “the pressure of living [that] is too immediate and incessant to allow time for understanding.”
I had never considered “understanding” a rite of the privileged until reading this quote from Baldwin. It disturbed me. How will we ever mature as a society if the pressure of living is too immediate and incessant to allow time for understanding? I hadn’t considered the stack of books on my nightstand, all conveniently purchased with 1-click ordering on Amazon, as a sign of my privilege. Nor had I considered the thirty minutes I set aside most nights to read these books to be such a luxury. But, unlike many in America, my mind is not preoccupied with questions about how I will feed my children or pay my utility bill or endure one more day on the line at a factory job. It is a part of my privilege to have the freedom, time, energy and resources to contemplate and consider the lives of others.
I recently learned about the idea of “dismantling privilege”, which means using your own privilege to benefit someone who has less. Since reading and studying Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness with a group of students this year, I have wanted to grow in my understanding of people of color and their particular experience in America today. I was also confronted by some hard truths shared by Dr. Eddie Glaude, Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University, who visited our campus this year and told a room full of white liberal intellectuals, “You know, it gets tiring trying to teach you all about our experience. There are books you can read.” (Or, read this excellent interview with Eddie Glaude.) I took Glaude’s challenge to heart, realizing that I had been relying on my Black and Latino students to share their experiences with me so I could learn from them. Why should they bear the responsibility (or the burden) for my education? Don’t I wish men would educate themselves about my particular experience as a female? So this summer, I have decided to take advantage of my privilege to read books by theologians, essayists, and activists of color.
The books on my list include:
“Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin
“The Cross and the Lynching Tree” by James H. Cone
“Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God” by Kelly Brown Douglas
“Mujerista Theology” by Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz
I am disturbed by the state of our society today. I am disturbed and disappointed by the lack of interracial understanding. I feel powerless in the face of most of it, except for the misunderstanding that resides within me. I believe many of our social ills could be resolved if we followed Jesus’ advice in Matthew 7:5 to “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” To set aside time this summer to focus on my own understanding is certainly a luxury of my privilege. But it is a necessary first step if I seek to follow Christ and work, as he did, towards dismantling the systems of injustice that bind us all.
 James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son, (Beacon Press, 1955), pg. 72.
 Read George Packer’s article “Head of the Class: How Donald Trump appeals to the white working class” in The New Yorker for more on this.
 James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son, (Beacon Press, 1955), pg. 73.
[Feature Image: Johnny Silvercloud]