Sunday, December 17, 2017
Third Sunday of Advent
Antonio, then a 15-year-old, and Christiane, his then 16-year-old girlfriend testified in court on Friday that they were stunned, shocked and frightened when a 49-year-old man from Haliʻimaile accosted them in the Pukalani MacDonald’s Restaurant on the evening on February 22nd of this year.
I will tell you that I support the First Amendment of the United States Constitution with regard to freedom of speech. But for me there are personal limitations when it comes to what is said from the pulpits of any of our churches. So let me just preface what I am about to say that I will be referencing the “f” word and the “n” word.
According to witnesses who were in the restaurant that evening the man “spoke in a loud, aggressive angry tone when he said, ʻI’m sick of you f---ing niggers,’ to Antonio, who is part African American, and to Christiane who is haole. The man’s outburst caught the attention of two other customers and an employee who was concerned because other customers were getting involved (The Maui News, Saturday, December 16, 2017, A3).
Witnesses testified that the man continued to confront the young teenager, saying, “Do you know your ethnicity? You shouldn’t be with that white girl!” At the time that incident was reported in the newspaper, I thought it ironic that the man was unaware that Antonio’s father was African-American and his mother Italian-American and he shared the same first with Antonio - which caused me to think that he may have also been Italian and if he is, he would have done well to know his own ethnicity before questioning someone else.
The defense attorney for the man said of his client, “He was a having a bad day, saw something he disagreed with and it go him upset. He regrets it.” Apparently since the incident the attorney indicated that his client has “lost the possibility of jobs, lost money” and that he has received threats on Facebook.
The Deputy Prosecutor Joshua Kent recommended that the man be sentenced to consecutive jail terms totaling 60 days, the maximum penalty for the petty misdemeanor offenses (Op. cit.). It was noted during the trial that the man was placed on probation for a 1998 conviction in Newport Beach, California for willful cruelty to a child.
Speaking in court, Christiane’s mother said that the incident affected her daughter deeply. “I will always be grateful for the people who stood up between him and my daughter. I don’t know what would have happened if they hadn’t been courageous enough to stand up and support the two” – for both Christiane and Antonio.
“We never, ever thought we would experience something like this, and it is unacceptable and should never be tolerated.” Antonio’s father said that the incident has had a lasting effect on his son. “We not only seek justice for our son, he said, we wish to begin documenting the [man’s] behavior. It is our hope [this] will help [him] to keep his racist opinions to himself and most importantly, not to attack minors” (Op. cit.).
The judge has scheduled the sentencing for February 6, 2018. It will be almost a year since the incident occurred.
Some of us know Antonio’s family well. It was Antonio’s mom, Lisa, who sent word out to family and friends soon after the incident occurred in February. I shared with you back then that David and Lisa were married here at Keawala’i and that Antonio and his brother were baptized here.
The family lives Upcountry but each year since their wedding and the boysʻ baptisms, we see them here at Keawala’i at our Christmas Eve Candlelight Service. I know it has been a long legal process.
I thought about Antonio’s baptism this week in light of our reading from The Gospel According to John. It has been said that if a Christmas pageant was based on the Fourth Gospel of John, it would feature one child, speaking one line in front of a curtain of black velvet: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14) (Feasting on the Word, Bartlett & Taylor, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville/London, 2008, page 69).
There would be no costumes for shepherds or angels, no costumes for a donkey and other animals or props like the LED-lit star we had last Sunday for our annual Christmas pageant. The one character in the “pageant” would be a man sent from God whose name was John. He was someone who was accustomed to wearing a loin cloth and prone to eating locusts and wild honey. Apparently he also had a somewhat booming voice.
We come to know him not as John the Baptist, as recorded Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life, or John the Baptizer in Mark’s account or as John, the son of Zechariah in Luke’s account. He is simply “a man sent by God, whose name was John.” (John 1:6)
It was not the legal authorities – not a judge or prosecuting attorney or defending attorney – but religious authorities who questioned him. The Rev. Dr. David Bartlett, Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia writes: “They want to know who this noisy man is, this man who will not shut up about the light he saw fall to earth, who is baptizing people to help them see the same light, although he has no license to do this, from them or anyone else. They want him to say who he is, but all John will say is who he is not. He is not the Messiah (never mind that no asked him that). He is not Elijah. He is not the prophet-like-Moses awaited by Israel since Moses’ death.” (Ibid., page 71)
When John is finally pressed to say something about himself, he relents and responds by choosing to borrow from the words of the prophet Isaiah, “I am the voice,” he says, “crying out in the wilderness” (John 1:23) He is not the Word or the light. Instead, he is a witness to Jesus who is the light and the light alone. That is his testimony.
In this season of Advent, our reading reminds us that the first witness to Jesus arrived on the scene before Jesus did. The Rev. Dr. Gary Charles of Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia said it best: John “did not arrive to get everything decorated and everyone ready for Christmas, but ‘to prepare the way of the Lord’ (Isaiah 40:3). He came to ‘bear witness’ to the coming Light of God, reminding all who would listen that the darkest forces in the world are not finally as powerful as they appear.”
“He came to bear witness that the most enchanting words spoken by forces of darkness lose their charm when measured against the ‘Word [who] became flesh and live among us . . . full of grace and truth” (John 1:14) (Ibid., page 73). He came to bear witness to the one who is the light and to echo the words of the prophet Isaiah who wrote: “For I the Lord love justice . . . I hate wrongdoing . . . . (Isaiah 6:8).
It was John who confessed “I baptize with water, but the one who comes after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” That was a gift that Antonio received the day we baptized him here at Keawala’i fifteen years ago – and it is a gift 10-month old Kylie will receive today when we celebrate her baptism.
On this the Third Sunday of Advent, there are no images of a young Mary and Joseph on a holy journey to Jerusalem. There are no shepherds or sheep. No angels singing in the fields. There are no grumpy innkeepers and no magi following a star from a distant land. Dr. Charles points out that we may want to “obscure Advent and romanticize Christmas” but our reading from John will not allow us to do that (Op cit.).
Instead, we bear witness today as John did centuries ago to the coming of the light of God in Jesus, the Christ Child. It is that light that will shine on the darkest forces in the world. It is that light that will not allow the darkness of an unhappy man to overshadow the lives of our sons and daughters. It is that light that will not allow the darkness of racism and bigotry to destroy our yearning for hope, peace and joy in the hearts of all people. We are not the light but we bear witness to the light – and we testify to its power to transform the darkness.
By the way, it must be said that the MacDonald’s Restaurant where Antonio and Christiane went to on that February evening earlier this year is located in Pukalani. Pukalani means the “gateway to heaven” or the “window to heaven.” I imagine if the man was aware that he was at heaven’s gate, at heaven’s window, his day may have not been so bad. Light has that effect on darkness.