Posted by: smstrouse | December 9, 2018

Practicing Peace at the Edge

LennonWallImagineGrace to you and peace from God, our Creator and Christ, our Wisdom.  Amen.

Grace to you – and peace.  The second candle on the Advent wreath is often called the Peace candle. You might also hear the second Sunday in Advent referred to as “the prophet’s day,” with our texts devoted to John the Baptist. The psalm that Zechariah, father of John the Baptizer, sings in Luke – which we said together a few minutes ago – bring the two together: “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.”

What Is Peace?
The way of peace. We share “the peace” every Sunday. But what is peace? The simple answer is that it’s the opposite of war, the absence of conflict. And that’s certainly valid. In these days of unending warfare, we long for the kind of celebrations that broke out the end of WW II. And though the signing of the Paris Peace Accords ending the Vietnam War may have been marked more with fatigue and grief, peace was definitely welcome. It seems to be getting harder to achieve peaceful outcomes these days; one war just seems to bleed (literally) into another. We long for peace as an absence of war. But it seems to be a very elusive goal.

That’s true for other conflicts as well. We’ve just come through the Thanksgiving holiday when we’ve heard endless jokes about disruptive family gatherings. On The Late Show, Steven Colbert quipped, “Personally, I love Thanksgiving traditions: watching football, making pumpkin pie, and saying the magic phrase that sends your aunt storming out of the dining room to sit in her car.”

We laugh at these jokes because we can relate. Many of us have an aunt like Colbert’s. Or, in my case, an uncle, who could make me grit my teeth and keep quiet for the sake of keeping peace in the family. But that kind of peace isn’t really peace-ful; it just keeps the conflict below the surface. Or it serves to allow someone’s bad behavior to continue – at best, a mild annoyance; at worst, abuse and oppression. 

So again, peace is elusive. In a way, this is beginning to sound like what I said last week about hope. Everybody wants it, but what is real peace, and how do we get it?

After all, this is the season when we sing a lot about it.
“Hark! The herald angels sing, Peace on earth, and mercy mild . . .” 
O Little Town of Bethlehem: “Praises sing to God the King, and Peace to all the earth”Handel’s “Messiah” –“and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”

Prince of Peace? Really?
But you know, I remember that even when I was a child, hearing these words and looking at the world around me made we wonder if I was missing something. If Jesus had come to bring peace on earth, we’d have to seriously evaluate his job performance. That might sound irreverent, but this question of peace is an important one – not just for Advent and happy (or at least conflict-free) holiday times. But as Douglas Todd, a columnist for the Vancouver Sun wrote in a lovely Advent devotion a few years ago, “Peace can have an edge.” That phrase has stuck with me ever since. As well as his conclusion that “practicing peace is both an individual and communal discipline, a demanding one.”

Thinking communally, we might recall Rev. Alan Boesak, a leader in the struggle against apartheid in South African, who said: “Peace is more than the absence of war, it is the pursuit of active justice.”  And thinking individually, Mohandas Gandhi comes to mind. He said: “If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things inside yourself, not in another.”

Practicing peace, indeed. On both of these fronts I, for one, need a lot of practice. I need a presence in my life, in my heart that is a bearer of the kind of peace needed both within me and around me. As probably most of us know, it can be tricky to bring peace into our personal lives. We’re too harried, too anxious, too estranged, too un-centered. We don’t really feel the deep satisfaction that could be called peace.

Practicing Peace at the Edge
Advent calls us to the edge of our usual distracted state and urges us toward a better way.  As we proclaimed along with Zechariah, “the dawn from on high will break upon us,to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

But not a sugar-coated or false peace. We’re talking about shalom. When those of the Jewish faith say “Shalom” and Muslims say, “Salaam alaikum,” they are conveying a peace that is encompasses harmony, wholeness, completeness, and tranquility. In her book The Case for God, Karen Armstrong writes that peace is about wholeness. It is about coming home: to oneself, to the universe, to the richness of the holy. Peace is large enough to contain apparent contradictions, such as sorrow, hope and joy.

That was the kind of peace embodied by Jesus, the kind he offers to us as well. I’ve read somewhere that true peace is more like an improvisational jazz concert; a constant responsive blending of discord, mistakes, beauty, competition, cooperation, unpredictability and insight – all in the name of a larger harmony.  Maybe along with our beloved and sweet Christmas carols, we should also have some jazz to lead us into the way of peace. Peace with an edge, yet peace that leads us home.

It sounds contradictory. We seek the kind of peace that enables us to feel at home within ourselves, to feel whole, to be free to bask in the love of God that is there in our hearts. That’s a warm, comforting place to be. But at the same time, we seek the kind of peace that enables us to reach out into the world to do the things we can to bring peace and justice to others.

I’m leaving for San Diego this afternoon to participate tomorrow in an action at the Mexican border in support of migrant justice. I tell you this, not as a political statement (you may agree or disagree with my position on the matter). I tell you as a “peace with an edge” moment in my life. At the Parliament of the World’s Religions last month, I was listening to an address by Jim Wallis, the founder of the Sojourners community and magazine, which is committed to social justice and peace from a Christian perspective. He was speaking about the caravan moving up through Central America towards the US border, and he said that people of faith should be there to meet them in a visible show of Christian compassion. I applauded his speech along with everyone else. And I remembered that when the call to action came: tomorrow morning at 8:00, clergy and other religious leaders will gather at the offices of the American Friends Service Committee to be bused to the border.

To be perfectly honest, I thought of a good number of reasons why I shouldn’t go.: money, time, convenience, laziness (there’d be enough people there), discomfort.  But ultimately, I decided that if I could applaud Jim Wallace in the comfort of my chair in an auditorium, then I could go and be uncomfortable at the border. And also, to be perfectly honest, I knew in my heart that it was the right thing for me to do. It is, for me, peace with an edge. On the way of Christ: as we move inward to discover that which is within each of our hearts, we then move outward into the world, wherever that may take us.  

Now – Your Stories
You will have your own stories of what this looks like for you. And I invite you to ponder those stories during this hectic season. And ponder as well the ways that you have found to come home to the shalom that lives in your heart.  Finding that peace is no easy, one-size-fits-all practice. And if you’re like me, you’re able to sustain it for a time until the mind’s chatter interrupts again. It’s an on-going process of letting go and listening for the still, small voice.

For me, meditation and music are ways I’ve found to go more deeply into my heart place. You may have others.  In this Advent time, I find the light of the candles and the smell of incense to be helpful. Holy Communion is also a time of renewed mystical connection with Spirit and with other members of the body of Christ. Reading or listening to the insights of others as they work out their own jazz improvisations of life are also precious roadmaps along the way.

The way of peace is open to all.  But remember that the way has an edge. Jesus certainly knew that. His followers knew it. It didn’t take long for “Away in the Manger” to turn to “Crucify him!” But that does not mean that Jesus failed to live up to his identity as Prince of Peace. It just means that the peace he offers is deeper than the kind we usually get.

The way of Advent invites us to go deeper – deeper into hope, deeper into peace.  On this “prophet’s day,” as we remember John the Baptist and his father Zechariah, we proclaim with them the dawn from on high that is breaking upon us, giving light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and guiding our feet into the way of peace.

Amen

1

The psalm that Zechariah, father of John the Baptizer, sings in Luke 1 is one of the most beautiful psalms in the Bible. The Second Sunday of Advent is traditionally “the prophet’s day” with texts devoted to John the Baptist. The song’s theology, which rehearses fidelity of “the most high God of Israel” to the divine promises spoken in the Old Testament and fulfilled in Jesus. is perfect for Advent.

It is written . . .

“Blessed are you, the most high God of Israel—
for you have visited and redeemed your people.
You have raised up a mighty savior for us
of the house of David,
As you promised
through the mouths of your holy ones,
the prophets of ancient times:
Salvation from our enemies
and from the hands of all our foes.
You have shown mercy to our ancestors
by remembering the holy covenant
you made with them,
The oath you swore to Sarah and Abraham,
Granting that we,
delivered from the hands of our enemies,
might serve you without fear,
In holiness and justice,
in your presence all our days.
And you, my child, will be called
the prophet of the most high,
for you will go before our God
to prepare the way for the Promised one,
Giving the people the knowledge of salvation
through forgiveness of their sins.
Such is the tender mercy of our God,
who from on high
will bring the Rising sun to visit us,
To give light to those who live
in darkness and the shadow of death
and to guide our feet
into the way of peace.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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