Sunday, December 03, 2017

Sermon for Second Sunday in Advent, "Peace: All Is Calm, All Is Bright," Isaiah 11:1-10, Mark 13:24-37

Sermon 12/3/17
Mark 13:24-37, Isaiah 11:1-10


Peace: All Is Calm, All Is Bright


            “Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright. Round yon’ virgin mother and child. Holy infant, so tender and mild. Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace.”
            This week, I read news stories about North Korea testing a missile that perhaps could reach across the whole of the United States.
            This week, I spoke with a colleague in ministry who had, like all churches in our conference, received from our church insurance company information about how to respond in an active shooter situation. She was trying to figure out how to respond to anxious parishioners and yet not get caught up in spending all of their ministry time on creating safety plans.
            This week, we’ve continued to hear stories from people who have experienced sexual assault and harassment, as the actions, sometimes over decades, of men in positions of power have been uncovered.
            This week, I saw more than one story of a young person – in one story 13, in the other 10 – who took their life because of the relentless bullying they were experiencing.
            This week – I’m sure we could add more to the list. Pain. Violence. Anger. War. Aggression. Suffering.
            And in the midst of it, we sing: “Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright. Round yon’ virgin mother and child. Holy infant, so tender and mild. Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace.”
            Today is the Second Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of peace. Are we naïve? Are we, people of faith, followers of Jesus, foolish for talking about peace? Do we mean it, when we talk about peace? Is peace only something that happens “by and by” at some far off future time, out of our control, out of sight and out of mind? Sometimes, it seems like the news is always bad. Talking about peace seems like just that – talk. It feels ridiculous.
            And today, the gospel of Mark seems to agree. Every Advent in the lectionary cycle, usually on the very first Sunday, although we’ve switched our weeks around a little bit, there’s a text like this one, that welcomes us to Advent with doom and gloom and foreboding. Right before our passage for today, Jesus is telling the disciples about the kinds of things they might encounter as followers of Jesus. He says, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs. As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them.” Jesus says, with no regard for those of us who will one day read these words from the North Country of New York: “Pray that it may not be in winter.”[1] In such a context, in those days, at that “kairos” time, God’s right time to act, Jesus will come again to earth, he says in today’s text. No one knows the day or hour, not the angels, not Jesus himself. Only God, creator of all that is knows. And what are we to do about this? “Keep alert,” Jesus says, “for you do not know when the time will come.” He compares the situation to slaves of a household needing to make sure that things are always ready for the master of the house who might arrive home at any time. You don’t want to be caught asleep, he says. He concludes: “And what I say I say to you all: Keep awake.” Well, that sounds exhausting, and a little frightening, and certainly not peaceful at all, does it?  
            And yet, Jesus arrives into the world heralded by angels who are proclaiming peace on earth in the skies. Some of Jesus’ first words after the resurrection are words of peace to the disciples who have been fearfully hiding away. And when Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit that is our advocate and strength, Jesus says that he also leaves us with peace: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” We heard from the prophet Isaiah this morning his vision of a messiah who brings about such radical change to the world that the wolf and the lamb become friends, and a child can play with a snake without fear. How do we reconcile these words of peace with these anxiety-filled words we hear in Mark’s gospel? How do we talk about peace when we feel so afraid? How can we imagine peace in the world when it feels like there is danger all around us?
            Some of my favorite books, as you know, are The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. In the first book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the four main characters, siblings Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy find themselves in the magical world of Narnia. They’re eating at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, and the beavers are telling them about their hope that Aslan will return soon. Aslan is the Christ-figure in the books. The children ask the beavers who Aslan is. The beavers answer, “Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion." "Ooh" said Susan. "I'd thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” "Safe?" said Mr. Beaver, "Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.”[2]
Peace and safety aren’t the same things, much as we’d like them to be. We’re not called to safety though friends. We’re called to be disciples who walk in the ways of peace. When I read in Mark that we’re meant to be prepared, awake, and alert, I think this is what it means to pursue peace, not as a passive state of mind that we can achieve when we hide ourselves away, or protect ourselves from all harm. I think being prepared, awake, and alert is what happens when we actively work to create a space for peace, when we cultivate peace, when we pursue peace with the ways we live in the world. Cultivating peace is being always ready to receive the Christ, God-with-us into our hearts and our world, again and always again.
I asked online this week for people to share with me their ideas about whether peace was possible and how we might actively cultivate peace, and I got a lot of wonderful responses.[3] I want to share a few of them with you. Several folks commented on peace starting with our own hearts and spirits. One wrote, “All peace starts with inner peace. If you don’t have a peaceful heart you will only add to the chaos of the world even if you think you are out to do good.” Another said, “Peace is that quietness in your spirit when you know you are well with the Lord. Then you share it with everyone you meet.” One of our own here, Danielle Atria wrote, “I believe that peace is possible to achieve. Things around us are going to happen, it’s all in how we choose to react that can create peace.” Another wrote, “I have always felt that we cannot have peace on earth until we have peace among nations; and we cannot have peace among nations until we have peace within the nations; we can’t peace within our nations until we have peace amongst our people; we can’t have peace amongst our people until we have peace within our families; and we can’t have peace within our families until we have peace within our own hearts that only Jesus can bring." 
Part of cultivating peace in the world is cultivating peace in our hearts. It can be tempting to do that by trying to tune the rest of the world out, shutting ourselves off from others. When I was little, if I didn’t like something my mother was saying to me, I would cover my ears and say, “I can’t hear you!” Sometimes I think that’s our peace strategy! I don’t think that that’s the way of Jesus, though. He never tuned others out. Instead, he tuned in even more deeply, listening to others, hearing their pain and struggle, opening his heart, pouring himself out for others, looking and acting always with compassion. Having the peace of Christ in our hearts means trying to make as much room in our hearts for Jesus to take up residence as we possibly can. We do that by a commitment to prayer, by studying God’s word, and by living by Jesus’ example as much as we can. 
Two other responses I got to my questions about peace really stuck with me. My friend Rachael wrote: “Calls for peace can make me weary... peace is beautiful, but not passive acceptance of a harmful status quo. Inner peace is amazing, but not uncritical denial of ways we can grow. Social peace is essential, but not calls for civility that ask the already suffering to ignore history and identity to make the privileged feel comfortable. Of course we must strive for peace in all things, but that striving must be accompanied with vigilant work toward justice and righteousness.” Whether she knows it or not, Rachael is channeling the prophet Isaiah. In his beautiful vision of peace, the world he describes comes about because the messiah comes clothed in righteousness, seeking justice for the poor and equity for the meek. To cultivate peace, we have to work for righteousness, justice and peace for those who have had no such experience. To cultivate peace, we have to be ready to put ourselves on the line for others. That’s what my friend Harold wrote. He’s a pastor at the United Methodist Church in Dryden. He said, “Yes! Peace is possible, but those who would bear the burden of being called peacemakers, the ones who give their lives to help others be reconciled to God, must be ready to suffer. Through their poverty others may grow abundantly alive.” What would you be willing to give so that others might experience abundant life? So that others know peace? 
  And so, I think Jesus’s words in the gospel of Mark aren’t a call to fear and anxiety, where our best course of action is to put our heads in the sand or lock ourselves away from it all. Jesus is calling us to be awake, be alert, be ready, because peacemaking is hard work, and we need as many laborers working for peace as we can get. This Advent, friends, and always, let’s not wait for peace to drop into our laps. Instead, let’s grow peace: cultivating it, tending it, watering it, sharing it. How will you be a peacemaker? 
            And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake. Amen. 




[1] Mark 13:7-11, 18.
[2] Lewis, C.S., The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
[3] Post and responses: https://www.facebook.com/eaquick/posts/10100255525741402
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