The ax on bare limbs

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Text: Matthew 3:1-12

I sneak down to Miriam’s Kitchen in the middle of the week, when they have their cafe. I grab a sandwich and something to drink, and scan the room for a seat. I see a woman who’s sitting alone at a table in the center of the room. She’s young and beautiful, an African-American woman, wearing stylish clothes, interesting jewelry. She’s politely looking at the man in the corner of the room, whose playing a guitar and singing. But there’s obviously a lot on her mind. She’s waiting for something. I ask if I can sit next to her and I find out that her name’s Julia.

We listen to the music for a little while, and then, little by little, Julia begins to unfold the corners of her story. She starts with telling me that she works, that she’s going to school, and that she has no intention of being homeless for long. It’s a temporary situation.

I nod, and she asks me some questions. As we compare notes and get to know each other, we find out that we’re a lot alike. We’re both moms with children in the first grade. We both have family who live in the same rural Southern towns.

Julia’s never seen a woman pastor. She didn’t even know that they existed. So, she’s wondering how it happened. Why I decided to be a minister. How I got from the conservative, Bible-belt South to seminary. I give her the five-minute version of my life story.

The music’s still playing and it’s creating that particular atmosphere that many of us enjoy in coffeehouses and pubs. It’s loud enough so that we have to yell so we can talk to each other, but no one else around us can hear what we’re saying. It’s providing a blanket of privacy in the middle of a crowd of people. It’s only been a few minutes, but we have enough common ground and trust so that now that she can unfold another part of her story. As I’m eating my sandwich, she tells me how she became homeless.

She got married young, and her husband began to hit her almost immediately. At first, she went home to her mom’s house, but her mother always sent her back to her husband. So she tried to get used to it. She tried to avoid sensitive issues or anything that might set him off. He was a good provider, and she didn’t have a job or an education, so she was intent on making the marriage work no matter what.

Then, when she became a mom, things changed. With another pair of eyes in the home, she became ashamed of the way that they were living. Her son’s teacher at school began to send home notes, informing Julia that her son was hitting other children. Julia knew where he was learning his lessons. She didn’t want him to think that violence was the only way to solve problems, and she didn’t want her son to think that was how a husband was supposed to treat a wife. But she knew that she was teaching him that lesson, by staying there and by taking it.

One day, when Julia came home and found her husband hitting her son, that was it. She waited until her husband was at work, then she took down the suitcases, filled them up with as much stuff as she possibly could, packed them in her car, held her son close, and moved in with a friend. That lasted until the friend began to get threats from the husband, and she couldn’t bear to put anyone else in jeopardy, so she sent her son to live with a relative, and moved to D.C. until she could set up some sort of home. In her pocket, she carried a plan. She had a precise, detailed list of the people and the organizations she contacted, with dates and responses.

As I heard the familiar story from Julia, I couldn’t help but be moved by it. She’s brave, trying to build up her life from the bottom as quickly as possible. It’s a common story, for sure. I’ve listened to it all too often.

This isn’t a story just about Julia. Women of all races are equally vulnerable to violence by a spouse or a boyfriend. In fact, I don’t usually hear it from people on the streets: I hear it from my friends. I have a couple of friends who stay with their husbands, even though they’re in physical danger. When I found out about it, I begged them to leave, to stay with us, to do whatever needs to be done. But they’re not so courageous. They can’t imagine leaving their comfortable beds in their upper-middle class homes for a sofa bed in a friend’s basement.

They make the careful calculations and decide that staying would be the better thing for their children. They’ll just keep trying to make peace in the home. They’ll just keep avoiding certain issues. And for some strange reason–a reason I’ll never understand–they decide to have another child, thinking that will ignite some harmony within the home. The next time I call them, they will tell me that the blow-ups don’t really occur all that often. And the next time, they pretend that nothing’s happened at all.

The conversation cuts off. That’s the end of it. From that point on, everything is fine. With a meager smile they inform me that they were just blowing things out of proportion.

Hearing this story in Miriam’s Kitchen, even as I eat the sandwich, makes me hungry. There’s a deep pain that comes up from the bottom of my belly as I think about our communities. Why don’t we have more resources for women in this position? Our net as a society has grown worn and frail. It’s become almost intolerable for so many. It’s forcing children to live in violent homes, learning the deep and painful lessons of abuse. What is it about our families that breeds this violence?

Every year in this country, three million women are abused by a husband or spouse.

Thirty-one percent of women in our country report being abused by a husband or a boyfriend.

Nearly 25 percent of American women report being raped and/or physically assaulted by a spouse or a date.

On average, more than three women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends in this country every single day.

About one in five female high school students reports being physically and/or sexually abused by a dating partner.

Fifty percent of men who frequently assault their wives also abuse their children.

More than half of female victims of intimate violence live in households with children under age of twelve.

This is our country.

It all makes me hungry. It’s the hunger of Advent. Along with the celebration, there is a longing that forms within us as we imagine the reign of God–that hope of what our lives and society ought to be. It’s that impossible dream of peace. The longing captures us as we gather here and imagine a day when the lion and the lamb will lie down together. When we will take our weapons of war, and hammer them into instruments that feed one another. That reality, it seems so far away from Julia. It’s too far away from all of us. It makes me hungry.

And that hunger is with me as I read the passage this morning, hearing the voice John the Baptist, echoing through the wilderness, calling out to make the paths straight and proclaiming that the kingdom of God is at hand. John the Baptist, who is telling us that we must change our ways, we have to begin to produce fruit.

We stand next to him, with his camel hair clothes, leather belt, and breath that smells of locusts. He’s looking at the leaders of his community, and with great fury, he begins to see a vision.

We can see it too. We’re all looking up at the bare limbs of the tree, scratching black outlines into the sky. He is calling out for fruit. We’re hoping and praying for that fruit–the sweet fruit that grows when the people of God prepare for the Kingdom. This fruit–it’s the everyday work that we do to make this a more peaceful place.

There are so many ways to look at the reign of God, this reality which is here and not yet at the same time. As the pastor and theologian Walter Rauscenbusch put it, the Kingdom of God reminds us that Christianity is “a great revolutionary movement, pledged to change the world-as-it-is into the world-as-it-ought-to-be.”

As we gather here, together, it’s as if we have a taste of something that’s not resting in our mouths quite yet, but it produces within us a longing, a deep and powerful craving to taste its fullness. And Advent, this moment is about the appetite that we have. Not only to be fed, but to feed one another. It is our longing for peace; it is our eternal hope to see the world-as-it-ought-to-be.

Because we look down with John the Baptist as well, and we see the world as it is. We see the ax–the cruel and brutal reality that occurs when we don’t feed one another. The ax is sharpened in a society that allows for such domestic violence. When we neglect to care for each other. As a community, as a world, we know the destruction and the damaging consequences.

I used to think that the hunger was either physical or spiritual. I used to think that as Christians we were called to feed one or the other. I thought the body and soul were two completely different entities, cut off from each other.

But sitting in Miriam’s reminds me that they’re entwined. Thoroughly and completely. So that when our church feeds the body, we are feeding souls. And when a person’s soul is fed, then he or she must be in the business of feeding bodies. As Christians, when we come together and hunger for the reign of God, we know that it is a deep spiritual hunger to make this world the place that it ought to be. A place where peace abides–in our world and in our homes.

I finished my lunch with Julia, and as I did, one of the social workers from Miriam’s had good news. They found a shelter, a place where she could spend the night and rest with her son. It wasn’t perfect, but it was safe. It was a room in which she could begin to build her life. A space where she could hold her son and tell him bedtime stories again. She was so happy when she heard the news that she was on the verge of tears. And so was I.

Because it happened. We had a glimpse of the kingdom. At that moment, we tasted the fruit. It was just a little bit. There will be so much more for us to do as people of God. But there was a taste of it. I sat back, and savored the moment. I gave Julia a pat on the back, left her with her paperwork, and went back upstairs.

We know that the ax is at the bare limbs. We know there is so much to be done. And yet, the fruit, when we taste it, it’s so sweet. May we continue to work fruit, may we long for peace, and may we continue to work for a world as it ought to be.

Through God, our Creator,
God, our Liberator,
And God our Sustainer. Amen.

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