Wednesday, December 13, 2006

the path of peace (advent 2)

In Advent we live in the “between times”, situated in the midst of a promise received and a fulfillment anticipated. If you were in this sanctuary last Sunday evening, and you experienced the glorious music of the Chancel Choir and Handel’s Messiah, you sensed this: from the thunder of “every valley shall be exalted” to the comfort of “his yoke is easy, his burden is light” to the confidence of the “Hallelujah Chorus”. Advent and Christmas are about promise and fulfillment, and when you are situated in the midst of that, you and I are waiting for something to happen.

Today, we await the gift of peace, a gift promised to us, a gift we pray for, a a gift whose fulfillment we yearn for. We live in the “between times” by learning from one of our ancestors, Zechariah. Zechariah was an observant Jew who lived in the hill country outside of Jerusalem. He had been preparing the temple for worship, which was his assignment, when the messenger, the angel, spoke to him: “Do not be afraid, your wife Elizabeth will bear a son, you are to name him John”.

How can his be? Zechariah responded, my wife and I are old! And then he falls silent, and is told that he will remain silent until the child is born.

Two things to notice here: first, Zechariah is doing his religious duty when God intervenes. This is true more often than we realize. There is much criticism about ritual in faith, about structure and formality --(Sometimes I think if I ever hear the words “I am spiritual but I am not religious” again I am going to become nauseus!)--but look: Zechariah is going about the business of caring for the worship space of the people and God shows up and speaks. This happens more often than we realize.

There is also an echo of an earlier ancestor couple of ours, Abraham and Sarah, who were also old, who were also invited into an adventure, who were also given a child.

And so, Zechariah enters a time of silence; he is unable to speak. Elizabeth is carrying the child, who will become John the Baptist. Elizabeth and Mary spend three months together, where they talk about the mysterious future. Then the baby is born. They had thought of naming him after the father, but Elizabeth interrupts, and says, “no, his name will be John”.

All of the relatives responded, “John? We don’t have any relatives named John!” Then Zechariah, silent, asked for a tablet, and, unable to speak, he wrote the words “His name is John”.

Then, Luke tells us, his mouth was opened and he spoke, giving thanks to God. His thanksgiving comes to us as the gospel for today. It comes as both promise and fulfillment, in the form of a child, his son, and what his son will mean for the world. He will prepare the way for the Lord. He will give us knowledge of salvation. And he will guide our feet in the way of peace.

The last phrase is the one that I want us to reflect on: he will guide our feet in the way of peace.

A reporter for a major newspaper was writing an article on the Jewish feast of tabernacles, which takes place in the fall of the year. He decided to visit the home of an Orthodox Rabbi, and they sat in the backyard, in a booth, a tent the family had constructed. After discussing their tradition, the rabbi’s teenage sons joined them. The reporter noted that these sons of an orthodox rabbi were not like the teenagers you often encountered at the mall. They were dressed formally, they wore yarmalkes on their heads, and longs spirals of hair covered their cheeks.

The reporter looked at them, and thought to himself, “how unique”. Then he looked down at their feet and they were both wearing “Air Jordan” tennis shoes, loose and unlaced. At that moment he realized the rabbi could not keep his kids from being a part of the culture. He thought of an incident that occurred at that time, a young boy in the inner city being murdered because he refused to give up his tennis shoes, the sad reality that human life was worth less to some than the value of the shoes they saw on the feet of their heroes.

What does this have to do with the prophecy of Zechariah? He will guide our feet in the way of peace. In the scripture, our feet are symbolic. How we walk defines who we are, as people, and determines where we are going.

In C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, there is a lion, Aslan, who is a Christ-figure. At one point in the story Aslan breathes on the feet of the giant, in order to bring him back to life. Don’t worry”, says the Lion, “once his feet have been set right, the rest will follow”.

Could it be that Christ is breathing on our feet, and guiding us into the way of peace? And how is this happening?

If we are going to be followers of Jesus, if we are somehow here to prepare the way for the Lord, if our feet are going to be guided into the way of peace, we begin by taking small steps.

Let there be peace on earth, the hymn says, and let it begin with me.

I have shared this experience with some of you. Our older daughter was in middle school, and she was very politically interested and active. She attended some event and came home with a bumper sticker, which read, simply, PEACE IS POSSIBLE.

I still have that bumper sticker. Would I put it on my bumper?”, she asked, well actually she didn’t ask, she sort of demanded. I do have a devious streak in me, at times, and I saw this as a teachable moment, and so I seized it. At that time Pam and were spending lots of time driving two daughters to a variety of activities, music lessons and basketball practices and so on, and an alternative purpose emerged for that bumper sticker.

“Liz”, I said, “could we put the bumper sticker, where we could all see it, inside the car?” That would remind me, and all of us, inside the car, that PEACE IS POSSIBLE.

This wasn’t satisfactory, but you get the idea.

Peace begins with us, you and me, and it happens as we take small steps. One of my favorite verses of scripture is found at the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans: If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all (12. 17).

This brief verse teaches us, first that sometimes peace is impossible. Will the sunnis and Shiites be at peace with each other? Will the peoples of Darfur be at peace with each other? Impossible. And yet, remember the promise, made early in Luke’s gospel: What is impossible for us is possible for God. So far as it depends on you….we cannot take responsibility for the actions of others, but we can for our own actions. Live peaceably with all…it begins with you and me, as we take small steps.

This summer I was teaching a Bible Study here on God’s grace---which is the unique thing about Christianity, the really distinctive thing about our faith, grace is the reality that we always receive more in this life than we deserve---I was reading and teaching and sharing all of this---and an email arrived one day, from a person in my family’s past, someone who had done great harm to someone I love in my family. The man who wrote me lives in another state, but must have tracked me down on the internet, and in the process learned that I was a minister. I am assuming that he is in a twelve-step program, where you go to the people you have harmed and make amends. This is what he was doing.

He was confessing, he was amending his life, he was asking for reconciliation, for grace.

What do you do?

We had some correspondence, and finally I said, after some prayer, that I could not speak for the person in my family, but from my side, I held nothing against him, and that I wished him God’s peace.

He wrote back, told me where he lived, and said that he was managing a pizza restaurant. If I ever came to his town he would be glad to treat me to a free pizza.

Sometimes I wish peace weren’t so complicated. A small step, maybe. This is what peace really is, where most of us live. It is knowing that Christ is our peace, and that his peace always comes as a gift. It is taking small steps to live in that peace. And then it is sharing the peace of Christ with others.

Last week I tried to link the gift of hope with the ritual of holy communion. This morning I want to link the gift of peace with another ritual: passing the peace. I don’t know about you, but in our house rituals are important. Finding a Christmas tree, setting it up, just right, decorating it (actually Pam decorates it), hanging the stockings, finding the gift for each other.

Rituals are important. One of our rituals is passing the peace. We ask you to do that after the service has concluded. I know that some people don’t like it----it spreads germs. Someone else will say “I come to worship God, I don’t want all of this touchy feeling stuff with other people”. I heard you.

And I know that it sometimes becomes something else: “The peace of the Lord be with you…remember we have a committee meeting this week!”…The peace of Christ be with you…where did you get that necklace?”…

It is a ritual, but it is important. It is a physical bodily reminder that worship has a vertical and a horizontal dimension. The vertical part is “towards God”. But the horizontal part is “towards each other”. Christ is our peace in relation to God and to each other.

And so we come to worship, hopefully, to know some of God’s peace in a world scarred by warfare and terrorism and torture, in families that have been broken, and even within ourselves, confessing that souls and our spirits are out of tune with the rhythms of grace and mercy and peace.

We come for these reasons, but in the process something else happens. When our feet have been guided in the way of peace, we begin to walk with the prince of peace, we begin to announce the good tidings of peace, we come to know the blessing that is given to the peacemakers, whom Jesus called the children of God.

It can be discouraging to come to the second Sunday of Advent, year after year, lighting the candle of peace, reading the scriptures about peace, preaching a sermon on the topic of peace. Discouraging, if I did not know that I am living in the “between times”, between promise and fulfillment, between hope and joy, between the first and the second comings of Christ.

And so I pray that we will learn to beat our swords into plowshares, in Advent, 2006. I pray that we will, all of us, discover the small steps that lead us to the holy mountain where the lion and the lamb lie down together.

As I read the gospels, it seems that Jesus wasn’t all that concerned with how we feel, or even what we think. He did call us to follow him, and in the process of following him, we would be his disciples.

I pray this morning not that God will do something in my heart, in the way I feel, or in my mind, in the way that I think, but that the spirit of peace will breathe upon me, and guide my feet in the way of peace.

Brothers and sisters, hear the good news: peace is possible.

(Sources: Terry Mattingly, “And Now A Word From Your Culture”, Shaping Our Future; Lillian Daniel, “Empire’s Sleepy Embrace”, Anxious About Empire).


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