Saturday, December 07, 2013

Will It Never Be Over?

Sermon preached on the First Sunday of Advent, December 1, 2013, at the Church of St.Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, New York.  Advent 1A:  Isaiah 2:1-5

It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old,
With angels bending near the earth, to touch their harps of gold.
“Peace on the earth, good will to all, from heaven’s all-gracious King;
The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.[1]

          The instinct we follow in Advent is this:  we must remind ourselves of the vision lest we forget why the baby was born.  We dare not celebrate the Christmas feast wrapped in the cloak of amnesia, lest we join the rest of the world in celebrating the acquisition of as many things as possible with only a sentimental glance, if that, at the baby with nothing in the barn with the cows.

          The people who remind us of this vision—what my friend Verna Dozier called “The Dream of God”[2]—are Israel’s prophets, in particular the prophet Isaiah.  Isaiah of Jerusalem, who prophesied in the years leading up to the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple and the taking of its leading citizens into exile, and a second Isaiah, Isaiah of the Exile, a successor who helped Israel dream its way back home.[3]

          The vision is told in glorious images that have become great songs and stories of hope, but they all boil down to one word:  Shalom.  Shalom was the message of the angels:  “Peace on earth, good-will to all, whom God favors.”  All of that translated the Hebrew concept of Shalom.  Shalom is not just peace, the absence of conflict, the calm of rest, but the well-being, the justice, of all.  When we wish peace, shalom, to one another we are saying more than “have a nice day.”  We are wishing another all that they need for wholeness and holiness, and, more than that, we are committing ourselves to participate in the fulfillment of this desire.

          If Peace, Shalom, is the Dream of God, the vision, than the baby came to make it so, or, rather, to show us a way, to clear us a path, toward it.  And one of the primary things that he came to show us is that we cannot simply wish for peace, either peace among nations and peoples, or between neighbors or family members, or within our own hearts.  We must wish, long for, pray for, but we must be willing to act.  He taught us ways to live that make for peace.

          One of the most difficult things he taught us is hinted at in this morning’s reading from Isaiah 2.  The great image from this reading is, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares,” an image that must have gotten around in ancient Israel because it is repeated by the prophet Micah (4:3).

          Let’s be real. In a world of mistrust and prejudice and hatred, and of threats unimaginable, in the days of Isaiah, yes, but even more so now, this image is just a vision is it not?  Isn’t it enough to believe that in heaven our weapons will be unnecessary?  For now, security demands them, does it not?  We cannot be so naïve as to think otherwise.

          Perhaps this is true, although to hold up that God’s dream for us is peace is a responsibility we should not bear lightly.  Yet it is all overwhelming, the conflicts of nations, the wars and rumors of wars.  What can we really do?  I suggest not be too distracted by them.  The work of peace is urgent enough and difficult enough to occupy a great deal of our time and energy in our own daily living.

          So I ask as we prepare to celebrate the birth of the One who is called the Prince of Peace, who do we need to make peace with today?  Who do you need to practice peace with today?  Who do you need to sit down with at a kind of peace conference and negotiate the beating of your swords into ploughshares?

          In our world, people believe that it is not possible for us to do this.  A story:  There is a guy in my hometown who has always felt in rivalry with one of my sister's best friends.  I don’t think her friend really ever wanted to participate in this rivalry, and it was just a small annoyance, until one day this guy accused my sister's friend of being an abusive soccer coach to his two sons.

          After thorough and painful investigation, it was all discovered not to be true, but not before a great deal of damage had been done, and my sister's friend, though innocent, had agreed to take a year off coaching so that these boys would be comfortable enough to play next year.  As he was telling my sister and her husband this story, he was clearly broken hearted, but more than that.  My brother-in-law said, “At least it's over now.”

          “It will never be over,” he said.  He did not say this in a tone of vengefulness.  This guy does not have a vengeful bone in his body.  My sister spoke of a tone of great sadness and even defeat.  He did not see any way to de-escalate the rivalry.

          And why should he?  That is not how the world around us works.  But here is what this is all about.  Jesus taught us how to get out of this stuff.  St. Paul called it “reconciliation.”  God has chosen not to stay at odds with us.  We do not have to choose to stay at odds with God or with one another.  We can make peace.

          It is not easy.  We should be clear about that.  It means giving up all kinds of things: pride, anger, our fear of shame, of being seen as wrong or, worse, weak.  And it is risky. Reconciliation takes two and there is no guarantee that it can or will actually happen.

          But are we living in a world where we have given up trying?

          I wonder if all of us, all Christians, at least, should have to take a course:  Peacemaking 101.  Reconciliation 101.  It occurs to me that our inability to practice peacemaking and reconciliation may be the one thing that most gives credence to that old accusation against us, that we are hypocrites, that we do not practice what we preach.  I have heard younger people put it this way:  “I cannot see where going to church makes anything different for people.”  And this—our being caught in the same cycle of endless argument and rivalry, name-calling and refusal to make peace—this is what they are talking about.

          Perhaps we are more sensitive to the polarization and bitterness and anger and violence that our society is soaked in, but then we act as if we do not know what to do about it.  We have forgotten the vision and so we have forgotten why the baby was born.

          My sister's friend voiced the fear that we all should confront at the beginning of this Advent:  “It will never be over.”  Peace is an illusion, or, worse, a delusion.  The rivalry games that we play and that play us, they just go on and on.

          Perhaps we can turn the despair at least into a question.  Will it never be over?  Is there a possibility that the baby whose birth we prepare to celebrate has something to do with this possibility? 

[1] Edmund H. Sears, 1849.
[2] The title of her book, The Dream of God (Cowley, 1991).
[3] The division is generally considered to be Isaiah of Jerusalem, chapters 1-39; Isaiah of the Exile, chapters 40-66, with the last ten chapters perhaps being yet a third generation Isaiah prophesying after the return from exile.

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