If you haven’t seen it already, inside your bulletin this morning there is a blue insert. Or if you have a large print bulletin, it’s printed on a white piece of paper. On one side of the blue insert you will see a list of the events happening here at Wapping Community Church over the next few weeks leading up to Christmas. Feel free to take that list home with you and post it on your refrigerator or some prominent spot in your home.
On the other side of that same insert are two pictures printed side by side. The photograph on the right hand side of the page may be familiar. In the wake of the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent protests around this county, the picture on the right has captured public imagination, quickly going viral on social media.
That picture on the right, taken in Portland, Oregon on November 25th, depicts a twelve year old African-American boy named Devonte Hart, with tears streaming down his face, hugging a white police officer named Sergeant Bret Barnum. The photograph has been so widely distributed over the last couple of weeks that it has now been dubbed as “the hug that was shared around the world.”
The picture of Sergeant Barnum and Devonte Hart embracing is both vivid and captivating. Moreover, in many ways it appears to be the perfect Advent image. For the picture contains within it a powerful message of hope for humanity symbolized by the notion that love will eventually overcome injustice and violence and racism and oppression.
In order to truly appreciate the photograph on the right, however, I think it’s helpful to know a little bit of the back story. Beginning twelve years ago when Devonte Hart entered the world with drugs pulsing through his tiny newborn body.
By the time Devonte Hart was four years old, he had smoked cigarettes, consumed alcohol, handled guns, been shot at, and suffered severe abuse and neglect. As a toddler he knew only a handful of words, including profanity. Meanwhile, he struggled to identify the names of different foods, body parts, and everyday objects. As a result, weighed down by lack of parental role models and a number of health related disabilities, Devonte Hart’s early life was marked with precious little hope and a tenuous future.
Seven years ago, however, a white woman named Jen Hart, along with her wife, Sarah, adopted Devonte and his two siblings. Added to Jen and Sarah’s five previously adopted children, Devonte became part of a big family filled with unconditional love and a great deal of patience and acceptance.
Over the years since his adoption, Devonte has grown in confidence, in generosity and in charisma, inspiring those fortunate enough to encounter him. Along the way, Devonte has steadily proven doctors, psychologists and teachers wrong. And now at age twelve, Devonte’s future looks as bright as any child his age…
Which catches us up in time to the protest on November 25th in Portland, Oregon. Standing in front of a police barricade, with a homemade “free hugs” sign hanging around his neck, Devonte Hart started to get emotional during the protest. According to his mother, Devonte struggles at age twelve with living fearlessly. He thinks about the prevalence of racism in our society, including some he has witnessed and lived through firsthand. He wonders if his life will be in danger when he grows older and becomes a black teenager and then a black man. And the emotion of the day caught up to Devonte, causing tears to stream down his cheeks.
Right around that moment, Sergeant Bret Barnum looked over in Devonte’s direction. He saw the “free hugs” sign around Devonte’s neck. He saw the tears on Devonte’s face. And he called Devonte over to him.
Hesitantly, Devonte made his way over to Sergeant Barnum. And Sergeant Barnum asked Devonte a few generic questions. A few moments later, however, Sergeant Barnum asked Devonte why he was crying and he listened carefully while Devonte described some of his fear and sadness. After acknowledging Devonte’s feelings, Sergeant Barnum asked if he could have one of those free hugs Devonte was advertising on his sign. And the image of the two embracing was captured by a nearby freelance photographer.
Later on, Devonte’s mother Jen called the tearful hug “one of the most emotionally charged experiences I’ve had as a mother.” Clearly her sentiments have been mirrored in the reactions of millions of people around the world who have seen the picture and had their own emotionally charged experiences…
From the moment I first saw the photograph of Devonte Hart and Sergeant Barnum sharing a hug in one of the more unlikely scenarios you could envision, I’ve been mulling over the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom. Often read during the Advent season, Isaiah’s eleventh chapter sets forth a world image that is simultaneously vivid and eloquent and hard to imagine.
In Isaiah’s vision, wolves lie down with lambs and lions lie down next to calves. Nursing children play near the dens of venomous snakes. And no one is hurt or destroyed on all of God’s holy mountain.
In Isaiah’s vision people of all skin colors set aside their differences. Avowed enemies sit down together and figure out what they share in common. Hatred and violence and destruction melt away. White police officers reach out and embrace twelve year old African-American boys and no one gives it a second thought.
I invite you to keep that picture of Devonte Hart and Sergeant Bret Barnum on your refrigerator this Advent season and see if it reminds you of the peaceful kingdom Isaiah envisions…
But just so you know I haven’t forgotten, the picture on your insert actually has two different images on it. The image on the left is a photograph of Devonte Hart atop his mother’s shoulders at that same protest rally. You can see the “Free Hugs” sign around his neck. You can see the big smile on his face. And you can read clearly the second sign he holds above his head.
“The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do. Think different.” In my mind, the picture of Devonte Hart hugging Sergeant Barnum is not complete without the first picture of Devonte and the words over his head.
We long for the day when Isaiah’s vision of a peaceful world will come to pass. We yearn for it. We hope for it. And we pray for it.
But we are not there yet. There is lots of work still to do. We who are pastors and teachers and police officers and social workers and healthcare professionals and neighbors and people of faith and human beings need to do the hard work of justice.
Individual acts of compassion and kindness are necessary and powerful and important. Those acts, in fact, have the power to touch the hearts of millions of people. But beyond any individual responses, God calls us to come together and address the racism and the classism and the persecution and the violence that every day diminishes our best intentions and tears us apart.
So yes, on this Second Sunday in Advent, the Sunday of peace, take the bulletin insert home with you and hang it on your refrigerator as a symbolic representation of Isaiah’s peaceful kingdom. But also take that picture home with you as a reminder that we will not change the world unless people think differently. Without justice, there can be no peace…
In the end, the right and the left panel of the picture represent the entire Advent and Christmas season for me. Long ago, the prophet Isaiah pointed to a child who would bear the spirit of the Lord on his shoulders. That child, descended from the lineage of Jesse which Isaiah predicted, would be born centuries later in the small town of Bethlehem.
Just as Isaiah promised, that child grew in wisdom and understanding. He grew up to judge the poor with righteousness and to decide with equity for the meek of the earth. The savior Isaiah foretold bore the name Jesus Christ, a little child who would in fact lead us.
That holy, precious baby, born to Mary and Joseph in a manger, came into our world carrying two signs. On one of those signs the words read, “free hugs.” It was God’s promise on behalf of an infant Messiah who would reach out to any person who felt frightened or overwhelmed. Any person who was poor or abused. Anyone who had lost a sense of hope. Anyone with tears streaming down their face. Offering to embrace them with love and compassion.
On the other sign the words read, “the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do. Think different.” It was God’s promise on behalf of an infant Messiah who would grow up preaching justice and advocating for justice. A Savior who spent his lifetime and gave his life to change the world we know and build a world where all God’s people would be treated with dignity and equality and respect.
Keep those two pictures nearby over the next few weeks. And hold those two signs in your mind and in your heart this Advent and Christmas season. Do so in the name of justice and peace and love. Do so in the name of the One who saves us. Amen.