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“Buttercream Bigotry and the Spirituality of Advent” by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - December 10, 2017

posted Dec 12, 2017, 8:07 AM by Plymouth Church UCC   [ updated Jan 3, 2018, 10:00 AM ]

Earlier this week the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. the Colorado Civil Rights Commission.  In the case, baker Jack Phillips refused to make a cake for the same-sex wedding reception of Charlie Craig and David Mullins.  Phillips claimed baking a cake for gay people violated his rights: the cakes were protected free speech which could not be compelled.  He claimed the freedom of buttercream bigotry.   


Lively discussion ensued in the court about what exactly counted as protected artistic expression and what did not.  Phillip’s lawyer held firm to the idea that baked goods were a form of speech.  Justice Elena Kagan pressed the lawyer to find out what other creative professionals engaged in protected speech.  “Are chefs, jewelers, hair stylists or makeup artists engaged in speech?”  The lawyer said no.  But Kagan pressed on, “The makeup artist?” asked Kagan. “It’s called an artist. It’s the makeup artist.”  


Justice Sonia Sotomayor went further, "There are sandwich artists now.  There are people who create beauty in what they make, but we still don't call it expressive and entitled to First Amendment protection."


And yet, as much as I enjoyed some of the funnier moments of the hearing, my thoughts remained with Craig and Mullins, who ran into homophobia covered in the achingly sweet frosting of Christian piety; as if “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but” hate the gays.


The case also reminded me of my own wedding, held here back in 2000.  Jay and I went to a bakery that made delicious cakes.  We picked the flavors and asked for it to be decorated with yellow fondant and ribbons, just like I’d seen in Martha Stewart’s Living (it was a gay wedding after all).  But when the day came, our cake arrived undecorated.  


Sometimes people ask me about my experiences of homophobia.  Some people make their discrimination clear and direct, but more often things remain ambiguous, a situation that leaves me wondering, “Did that happen because…?”  Did the baker just happen to forget to decorate my cake?  Or was this an artistic expression?


Many of us could tell similar stories of ambiguous moments: the bank teller who demands identification of the Latino customer before accepting a deposit, the store clerk who wants to check the bag of the black shopper, the man who makes the odd comment to his female colleague; those moments that leave you asking, “Did that happen because…?”


How are we to respond to those overt and covert moments?

David Brooks wrote about the Masterpiece Cakeshop case earlier this week.  His advice: gays should just be good neighbors; Craig and Mullins should have just moved on down the street to another bakery.  He spoke in the long tradition of people who say, “I support your rights, just don’t get pushy about them.”  


Indeed, he ended his article noting, “I fervently support gay marriage, but I don’t think bakers like Jack Phillips are best brought along by the iron fist of the state.  I don’t think the fabric of this country will be repaired through the angry confrontation.”  In other words, David Brooks just wants the gays to be nice; patience, he counsels, now is not the right time to make waves.


Martin Luther King once got a similar message from people who supported his cause but thought his tactics were “untimely”; just be patient, they told him.  Writing from a jail cell, he said, “Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’”


Brooks’ recommendation to just be patient and King’s insistence that justice can’t wait rang in my ears as I prayed this Advent.  We often speak of waiting in Advent.  As we’ll sing soon: “Wait for the Lord, whose day is near.  Wait for the Lord: be strong, take heart!”  Advent deepens our spirituality by teaching us to wait.  But this week I wonder, “What does it mean to wait?”  Do we wait like David Brooks advises?  Smiling nicely in the face of overt and covert discrimination?  Do we wait like Martin Luther King did?  Waiting at the lunch counter for justice to be served?


A few comments by Martin Copenhaver, President of one of our UCC seminaries, helped me think about the quality of waiting Advent calls us to practice.  Martin suggested a difference between “passive” waiting and “active” waiting.  He compared it to the teenager waiting for a bus - passive waiting, marking time with boredom; and the same teen waiting for a concert to begin - active waiting, filled with expectation.   I like this distinction he makes because it turns us from asking “What do we wait for?” and instead asks “How do we wait?”


And I know this difference in waiting.  Active waiting is the avid baseball fan waiting for opening day.  Passive waiting is like the spouse of the avid baseball fan - speaking hypothetically here - who always thought, “I’m an out gay man; I never have to watch sports!” but then finds himself - on his birthday - behind home plate with just one thought: how much longer till the 7th inning stretch?


We can either wait with a feeling of excitement and anticipation, a yearning; or we can wait as an act of endurance, a soldiering on.  The Season of Advent calls us to wait with expectation; longing for that new day, the opening day of God’s justice.


Martin Luther King once spoke to this, when he wrote, “Time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively.  More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of goodwill…  Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of [people] willing to work to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.  We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”


My own sense of what it means to wait with expectation, to use time creatively, powerfully, comes in part from our readings of Isaiah and the Gospel of Mark.  


Handel’s Messiah made the words of Isaiah famous for many of us, “Comfort, O Comfort my people.”  But instead of hearing Handel, I’m struck by the way this passage from Isaiah sounds like the interior dialogue in the heart of the prophet.  


The passage begins with the prophet hearing the voice of God speak in the heart, a voice that cries out, “Comfort my people.”  The voice in the heart spoke imperatively, “Cry out!”  


But the prophet struggled with this message of hope.  “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’”  The prophet faced doubts, real fears: “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass.”  


This passage really only makes sense when we face the desolation of the prophet.  The prophet felt demoralized.  “All people are grass” comes as the confession of a heart which knows too much sorrow.


I suspect David Brooks - who so wants gays to just be nice neighbors - cautioned against agitation and confrontation because he can’t bear to hear the pain gay people have faced.  Often our culture struggles to hear stories of pain.  And yet it may be that we can’t find true comfort without facing discomfort.


This happened in the heart of the prophet.  The key moment comes in the 8th verse, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.”  Hurt and hope meet in that verse.  The spirit of God moves over the deep of the prophet’s pain, not denying the hurt, but holding it with care, saying, “Let there be hope.”  


Dr. King spoke to this in his most famous speech, when he alluded to this very passage of Isaiah while describing his dream:

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; ‘and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.’

 

“This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

 

“With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of [beloved community]. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”


This is the work of active waiting, hewing out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.  Not denying the pain, but holding tighter to the hope.  As Judith McDaniel once said, active waiting means being “bold enough to face the pain of living with hope, daring enough to speak of hurt with an expectation of healing, tough enough to confront lack with trust in fulfillment.”  And so Isaiah teaches me how to actively wait: hold together my hurt and my hope.


The Gospel imagines John fulfilling the vision of Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”  Mark explained, “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins...  He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’”


We often hear these words “prepare the way” but do we consider what it means?  Even Jesus - beloved of God, worker of miracles, savior - needed someone to do his advance work.  Someone needed to prepare the way for Jesus; Jesus depended on someone else’s work.


And even more I’m struck by the way John understands his work.  “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me.”  John understood himself as one person in a long line of people, stretching before and behind him.  He knew himself to be one who gave his energy in preparing for those who came next.


Waiting evokes the sense of waiting in line.  But instead of thinking of it as the line that never moves, what if we saw ourselves as waiting in a line like John, actively waiting, preparing the way for those that come next?  


David Brooks gave the advice this week that always comes to those who wait for justice.  “Be a little nicer,” he said, “just smile and put up with discrimination.”  But that’s not how John waited for Jesus: John stood out, made a spectacle of himself, and made sure everyone heard about the injustices he saw all around him.  John didn’t do so because of some great vanity, out of some love of confrontation, but because he wanted to prepare the way for those who came after him.  Likewise, Craig and Mullins didn’t speak up for themselves.  Their reception happened five years ago.  They demanded justice for those that come after them.


Friends, this Advent season may we faithfully, actively wait for the Lord.  Waiting with expectation, holding together our hurt and our hopes, preparing the way for those who come next.


Alleluia and Amen.




Sources

In addition to Feasting on the Word, I consulted:

  • Arends, Carolyn, “Worship con Queso,” Christianity Today, 2013.

  • Brooks, David, “How Not to Advance Gay Marriage,” New York Times, Dec. 4, 2017.

  • McDaniel, Judith, “Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room,” Living Pulpit, 1997.

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