By Jess Cook
“No Justice, No Peace! No Justice, No Peace! No Justice, No Peace!”
As we chanted these words together marching through downtown St. Louis, I could feel a palpable energy among the crowd. The reverberation of our chant was felt by not only us, but by the people in the city who came out to watch a huge group of church folk marching to end cash bail, calling for an overhaul of a criminal “justice system” that is anything but just. This summer the march was scheduled as part of the 2018 General Assembly. The intent was to engage with the host city in a meaningful way that would leverage the size of several thousand Presbyterians in town, make even a small an impact on the city, and give GA attendants an experience of direct action to take with them when they left. We gathered at the city courthouse preparing to deliver a $37,000 check that would go toward bailing our people being held in jail for minor crimes but were stuck because they didn’t have the finances to bail themselves out. However, J. Herbert Nelson encouraged us to avoid letting the actions of that day be our last. As Michelle Higgins, a St. Louis organizer and co-planner of the march challenged us: “It’s not enough to bail folks out if you’re not willing to wash their feet when they get home.”
In other words, it’s one thing to march and call for justice, or to present large checks to bail people out of a tough situation. But true peace can only come in a just society. True peace requires us to see that simple fixes are not enough to bring the change this world needs. Large checks and mass protests are one step in this process but cannot bring about the kind of peace that dwells within a truly just society.
This week is the second week of Advent: the second week on our journey to God’s breaking into the world in the person of Jesus. As we move closer to Christmas Day, our attention moves more and more to the manger in Bethlehem, to a quiet night into which our Savior was born. Advent calls us to focus on the places that need God’s presence the most, to see the brokenness and to trust that God will make it right.
Looking around today, though, that brokenness is everywhere. The theme of Peace, it seems, couldn’t come soon enough. And yet, reading the texts offered to us by the lectionary this week, I assume many of us were coming up short with how to draw a theme of peace from texts that are anything but peaceful. In Malachi, we are told that those who yearn for the presence of God that would come with the day of the Lord don’t really know what they’re asking for. The visceral reaction I have at the idea of being refined or purified by fire makes for beautiful poetry, but there is nothing peaceful about it.
During Advent, when we talk about God coming into the world, we do so with a longing, a willingness to see the ways in which things are broken and a true desire for those things to be made right. And yet, if the idea of God coming into the world doesn’t also terrify us in some way, we are missing the fullness of the season. I don’t mean that it should terrify us in some hell, fire, and brimstone way, but in a way that fully acknowledges our potential as dwelling places for the divine. As the Franciscan sister Ilio Delio says, “Advent is God waiting for us to empty ourselves of all that hinders God’s dwelling in us.”Advent gives us the opportunity – the challenge- to focus on the things that separate us from one another, and from God. And as part of that, we have to be willing to look at the ways in which our foundations themselves have been the biggest barriers to our ability to live into who God created us to be.
For the community in Malachi, the religious practices are scrutinized as hindrances to the people’s preparedness for God’s entrance into the world. Israel had returned from exile and, while their lives had improved significantly, injustice still prevailed everywhere. They performed the same rituals they’d been doing for centuries, and were frustrated at their lack of efficacy – Israel wasn’t being restored as the prophets had promised. The people were frustrated, desolate, overwhelmed, and their religious practices became rote and empty. They tried to apply an old formula to a new context, while failing to realize that ritualistic actions in themselves are nothing if they have no meaning behind them. Simply going through the motions of worship is not enough to invoke God’s presence in the world.
Preparing for God’s entry into the world means evaluating systems, structures, and traditions that we see as normal, but that God condemns as oppressive and crooked. Advent challenges us to examine our worship and honestly ask if it functions to draw us closer to one another and prepares us to be dwelling places for God and, if not, to be willing to change.
For 40 years, More Light congregations have been a refuge for people who wanted to worship in a place where they can be seen and affirmed in their full humanity. More Light congregations have innovated the way we worship, how we engage with one another. While the primary focus of welcome for More Light is around LGBTQIA+ inclusion, the willingness to see God’s abundance and the faith to step into that abundance translates to more dynamic worship. The courage to be vulnerable, to strive to see and be seen by one another in love the way More Light congregations do sets a foundation of mutuality and vulnerability that translates to worship that is full of life and love.
Over the past year we have expanded our Teach-In program and developed resources to address the underlying foundation of what needs to be cleared and emptied for God’s peaceful presence to become more real to us. We have been humbled and honored by the number of congregations and institutions turning to our resources for support in addressing these systems in their midst.
More Light has set a goal to raise $40,000 by the end of the year – an acknowledgement of how much we have accomplished in the 40 years since More Light began, and for the work that lies ahead of us. It is an ambitious goal, precipitated by circumstances that remind us, now more than ever, to persist in shining more light into our world. We are asking you to participate in this giving campaign in the hope and trust that we will Shine More Peace together than any of us could do alone.