The Big Peace

Today is the second Sunday of Advent. And today, we hear a part of a story that we don’t hear very often.

There was this priest, Zechariah, and his wife, Elizabeth. They were righteous before the Lord. And, like so many people in the Bible, they were old and they were childless.

And, one day, an angel appeared before Zechariah and said to him, “Elizabeth will bear a son and you will name him John… and he will prepare the people for the Lord.”

And, like so many people in the Bible who are old and childless, when they hear that they will have a child, Zechariah said, “That… seems unlikely.” And the angel struck him mute. And Elizabeth conceived.

Later, Elizabeth bore a son. They took him to be circumcised, and their friends and family wanted to name him Zechariah, after his father. Elizabeth said, “No. His name is John.” And, like so many people do when a woman contradicts the crowd, they say, “Let’s check with your husband.”

So they hand Zechariah a tablet, and he writes, “His name is John.” And right at that moment, his tongue is freed and he is able to speak again.

And he does what all new dads do when they are able to speak to their newborn son for the first time: he prophesies.

He praises God. And he says that God has remembered her covenant with Abraham, and raised up a savior from the house of David, who will rescue God’s people from the hands of their enemies.

And he says to John, his son, “You will be a prophet. You will go before the Lord and prepare his ways. You will give knowledge of salvation to God’s people by the forgiveness of their sins.”

And he says, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Dawn will break… there will be light for those who live in darkness… to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Today is the second Sunday of Advent. Today, we light a candle—a light in the darkness to guide our feet—for peace. And God knows that we need it. We do not have peace.

Peace is a hard thing to talk about. It’s a word that has many meanings.

On the one hand, there is the little peace: the absence of conflict. Or, sometimes, even less. “Peace is not the absence of conflict,” said Ronald Reagan, “but the ability to cope with conflict by peaceful means.”

And God knows that we need that little peace. We do not have it.

Some of the conflicts that we face, and that we cannot resolve, are huge. There is a generation in America that only knows a nation at war. There are people in high school—there are people in this sanctuary—who are younger than the war in Afghanistan.

And the truth is that most of us only know a nation at war in one way or another. In its two hundred forty-two year history, the United States has only been not-at-war for about seventeen years. There are people about to graduate from high school who have lived longer on this earth than our nation has lived in relative peace.

We can all name some of the famous wars: the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Spanish American War, the Civil War, two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. But there have been so many others: against Native peoples and in far-off lands. Official and unofficial. Hot and cold.

And it isn’t just us. War is a living reality for countless people around the world. There are big wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Mexico and Syria and Yemen. And there are dozens of other wars and conflicts and skirmishes and clashes that don’t make the news.

And it isn’t just war. Communities across our nation and around the world face police brutality, mass shootings, gang wars, and other forms of violence. For too many of us—which is to say, for any of us—violence is part of life.

God knows we need that little peace; that absence of conflict. We do not have it.

Some of those conflicts of huge. But some of them are small and intimate.

Some of us are in conflict with our families: our spouses or partners, our parents or children, our siblings or cousins or nieces or nephews.

Some of us are in conflict with someone at work: a supervisor or an employee, a client or a vendor, a coworker.

Some of us are in conflict with a friend, or someone who we go to church with, or a complete stranger who blocked the aisle with the grocery cart while looking at spices.

Some of us are in conflict with ourselves. Some of us have inventories of our faults—real or imagined—and fight against ourselves mercilessly.

And sometimes those conflicts turn to physical violence. And sometimes they are verbally or emotionally violent. And sometimes they just just are.

God knows we need that little peace; that absence of conflict. We do not have it.

But the absence of conflict is just a little peace; it’s an imitation peace.

“Peace is not just the absence of conflict,” said the Rev. Dr. King, “it is the presence of justice.”

And he went on. He recalled a conversation with a man who was upset about… ‘the bus situation’.

“Yes, there is more tension now,” King said, “but even if we didn’t have this tension, we still wouldn’t have real peace.”

“If Black folk accepted their place,” he said, “their place of exploitation and injustice, there would be peace. But it would be obnoxious peace of stagnant complacency and deadening passivity.”

“I do not want a peace,” he said, “if that means that I have to accept second class citizenship; or keep my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil; or be well-adjusted to a deadening status quo; or be willing to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated, and segregated.”

“Peace is not just the absence of conflict,” he said, “it is the presence of justice.”

And he was right. The absence of conflict is a little peace; it’s an imitation peace. Real peace comes when there is also justice. And there is not enough justice. And it is often the same people who face violence who are denied their share of justice.

God knows that we need the little peace; the imitation peace. We do not have it.

And God knows that we need the big peace; the real peace that comes alongside the presence of justice. We do not have it.

But we do have Zechariah—a priest serving in a land occupied by an empire—prophesying to his son.

“You, my child, will be a prophet of the Most High. You will go before the Lord to prepare his ways. You will give knowledge of salvation to his people. And by the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

His name is John. And he will become John the Baptizer, who proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

He will become John the Baptizer, who will proclaim the good news to the people. He will become John the Baptizer, who will baptize the Messiah, our Lord, Jesus the Christ.

Think about that for just a minute.

It is tempting to imagine that peace—whether it’s the little imitation peace as the absence of conflict, or the big real peace as the presence of justice—is a big systemic thing that is… out there. And that’s a little bit true. Peace is a big systemic thing. And reaching it will take big systemic steps like the tender mercy of God and the dawn from on high.

But it is also true that big systemic things have their roots in individual acts of every day life. It is true that when I—or you, or anyone—stand up for peace and against not-peace, there ends up being a little more peace in the world.

John was not the Messiah. He baptized people. He told them to repent. He told people who had extra to share with those who didn’t have enough. He told tax collectors to only collect the amount they were supposed to. He told soldiers not to extort money.

I can do that. You can do that. Anyone can do that.

When we see injustice, we can say, “There is injustice.” And we can call people to repent and turn towards the God who is just.

When we see violence, we can say, “There is violence.” And we can call people to repent and turn towards the God who is love.

When we see not-peace, we can say, “There is not-peace.” And we can call people to repent and turn towards the Prince of Peace.

John did that. And so I can do that, and you can do that, and anyone can do that.

And I know that’s hard. I know that’s scary. I know that I fail at it.

I know that I don’t like conflict. And I know that, among my many privileges, is the privilege to avoid conflict. And I know that sometimes—often, maybe even usually—my desire to avoid conflict is so much greater than my desire to work for peace.

I know that I stay silent when I should speak. I know that I stay still when I should act.

So I light a candle.

I light a candle as a light in the darkness.

I light a candle to remind myself that there is always a light in the darkness, a dawn from on high, a light that can guide my feet into the way of peace.

I light a candle to remind myself that I—and you, and everyone—am called to be the light of the world, preparing the way of the Lord, and calling others to the big peace that comes alongside the presence of justice.

I light a candle… for peace.

World-Ending Hope

It is the first Sunday of Advent.

Advent is a strange season. On the one hand, we’re looking forward to Christmas. In the church, we decorate the building, we make cookies for people who can’t be with us regularly, we prepare for the children’s Christmas program, we sing a handful of carols, and we give to the Referral Center. We are getting ready for the birth of our savior… in a stable… two thousand years ago.

And, of course, outside of the church, we’re really looking forward to Christmas. People put up decorations everywhere: wreaths on city lampposts, lights on roofs, trees in homes, and window displays in stores. We wish each other a Merry Christmas, or—if we’re respectful of the many other holidays at this time of year—Happy Holidays. A Christmas Story plays on the TV. All I Want for Christmas is You and Last Christmas play on a loop on the radio.

On the other hand, though, we’re looking forward to Christ’s return. Not as a baby in a stable in Bethlehem, but as a king… and a judge… and a redeemer. For the days are surely coming when God will keep her promise to the world, when a righteous branch will spring up, and when there will be justice and righteousness in the land.

And we look to the past and to the future… in hope.

We are good mainline Protestants. And one of the things about good mainline Protestants is our relationship with time.

On the one hand, we remember the past. We remember the days when everything was better. When the sanctuary was full. When the Sunday School rooms were bursting at the seams. When the committees were fully staffed and the money was rolling in and no one had anything to do but go to church on Sunday morning and participate in activities on Wednesday nights.

And, to be fair, we probably misremember the past. But we misremember it fondly.

On the other hand, we work in the present. We do the work of justice and righteousness and mercy by giving to charity, and going on mission trips, and leaving non-perishable food items under the coatrack in the narthex, and putting gloves and hats under the little Christmas tree, and calling our congress-critters on a host of issues.

We even think about the future in concrete terms, in terms of budgets and committee assignments and maybe a program or two. We talk about a future that is a lot like today.

We don’t usually talk about the end of things.

There are churches that do. There are churches that talk about the last days and how we are living in them. There are churches that talk about raptures and antichrists and tribulations. There are churches who will tell you that Jesus is coming back this year, or next year, or by the end of the decade for sure.

But we usually don’t.

So today’s reading from Luke can be a little uncomfortable for us. God knows it’s a little uncomfortable for me.

In today’s reading, we get a little slice of an extended monologue… where Jesus is very definitely talking about the end of things.

He talks about the people who will come and claim to be the Messiah, and how they we lead people astray, and how we shouldn’t follow them.

He talks about wars and insurrections and nation rising against nation. He talks about earthquakes and famines and plagues; and dreadful portents and great signs; and persecutions and armies and the destruction of Jerusalem.

And he doesn’t say this, but still: dogs and cats… living together… mass hysteria!

This kind of talk can be uncomfortable for us. But if we’re going to talk about hope, we have to talk about it. We have to talk about the end of things.

Because hope for me—a straight white cis-gendered able-bodied neuro-typical well-educated English-speaking professional middle class man between the ages of 18 and 49 who lives in the United States of America—is one thing.

And hope for some other people… is different.

Earlier in the story—before he started talking about the end of things—Jesus was teaching near the Temple.

And he said, “Beware of the scribes. They like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect when they’re out and about, and to have the best seats in synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. But they devour widows’ houses, and they say long prayers just to show off how religious they are. They will have the greater condemnation.”

And then he saw rich people putting their offerings in the plate. And he saw a widow drop in her two copper coins. And he said, “She’s put in more than all of them. They gave a little bit of their abundance. She gave her whole life.”

And then he heard some people talking about the beauty of the Temple, and he started talking about the end of things.

Because Jesus knows his world. He knows that widow has no power. He knows that she cannot hope that the next Emperor will propose a set of policies that are better for poor widows, because Emperors don’t do that sort of thing. He knows that she cannot hope for a slightly better job, because widows don’t get good paying jobs.

He knows that all she can hope for is for the way that the world works to change. All she can hope for is the end of the world as she—and as those scribes—know it. For the coming of the Son of Man. For her redemption to draw near.

There are people in this world who are that widow, whose homes are being devoured, who have nothing more than two copper coins. There are people who live in countries and neighborhoods where violence is rampant. There are people who do not have enough food, or adequate housing, or access to clean water.

There are people who will walk twenty-six hundred miles from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, to Tijuana, Mexico, in the hope—in the HOPE—of coming to the United States and no longer living in one of the poorest and deadliest cities in the world.

I cannot imagine what that hope is like. I cannot imagine what it means to walk twenty-six hundred miles, through dangerous terrain, with nothing more than hope.

But I can tell you that that hope is a world-ending hope. Because someone who is hoping with that hope is hoping for such a radical change in their life, for such a tremendous alteration to their circumstances, that it can only be described as the END. OF. THEIR. WORLD.

And there are people who are still living in San Pedro Sula—or somewhere else—in fear and hunger and poverty and worry.

And some of them hoping for change. And not just for change, but for change that can only be described as the end of the world.

But, of course… there’s the other side to that. When the widow’s world ends, so does the scribes’. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

I get it.

I’ve only been with you for… not quite a year. So you don’t know this about me yet, but there are a lot of parts of my life where I don’t really do change. I’m trying to get better at that. But…

Before this November, I had the same goatee since my sophomore year in college.

Before last year, I had bought the same brand and design of tennis shoes three or four times. And it was only that few because they discontinued the design I was buying before that.

Mariah and I were talking recently, and she said that she didn’t realize, when she suggested a short hair cut, that I would just have this hair cut for the rest of my life.

I’m trying to get better. But there are a lot of parts of my life where I don’t really do change.

So you can imagine what it’s like when I think about big changes; about world-ending changes.

I am a firm believer that we need radical change in this world. I believe that we could make sure that everyone on this planet had enough to eat and to drink, and a safe place to live, and a good education, and a fulfilling life. And I believe that we could do all of that while protecting our forests and our waterways and our glaciers; and our red pandas and our black rhinos, and the little creepy crawly things. And I believe all of that with a burning belief.

And I know that all of that would require huge changes in my life. And I do not want to change.

So I get it. A little bit.

I get wanting to keep things the way they have been And I get wanting to react to change—and, especially to world-ending change—with yelling and screaming and hateful invective. I get wanting to react to change—and, especially to world-ending change—with armies and tear gas and rubber bullets.

I might not get it completely. But I get it… a little bit.

I am a scribe. I’ve got my long robe. I like being greeted with honor. I like the good seats. I have been known to say long prayers. I do not want my world to end. Even if the world to come would be better.

So I light a candle.

I light a candle in the hope that my world will change, and that I will change with it.

I light a candle in the hope that redemption will come for the widows of the world, and that, somehow, it will come for me, too.

I light a candle in the hope that I will not be afraid; that I will not faint.

I light a candle in the hope that I will have the strength to stand before the Son of Man.

I light a candle… in hope.

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