Sermon from December 10, 2017, Second Sunday of Advent: Peace

The Things That Make for Peace
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
December 10, 2017
Second Sunday of Advent, Peace Sunday
Isaiah 40:1-11; Luke 1:57-79; Mark 1:1-8

Jesus wept in his final week
to see how far Jerusalem had fallen
from God’s realm. He said,
“If only you had recognized today
the things that make for peace!” (Luke 19:42)
He saw division and conflict,
social and economic injustice,
meanness and hard heartedness,
and he foresaw that it would lead
to the downfall of Jerusalem,
although it could still be saved
by doing the things that make for peace.

Yet what Jesus saw as making for peace,
the religious and political establishment saw
as threats of revolution worthy of crucifixion.
Christ’s way of nonviolence draws violent opposition
from those whose power or wealth depend
on opposing the things that make for peace,
like Herod and Caesar whose tax bills
favored the rich and oppressed the poor,
and whose executive orders
excluded certain people from full citizenship
because of who or what they were.

The prophet Isaiah had seen the same thing at work
hundreds of years earlier.
He warned Jerusalem where it was headed
as a consequence of abandoning God’s ways
of lovingkindness. His prophecy was fulfilled.
Jerusalem and all Israel were destroyed.
The people were taken captive into Babylon.
But then God gave Isaiah a new message.
In the poetry of the King James Version it says:
“Comfort, comfort ye my people,
saith your God. Speak ye comfortably
to Jerusalem, and cry unto her,
that her warfare is accomplished,
that her iniquity is pardoned….
Behold, the Lord God will come with strong hand….
He shall feed his flock like a shepherd:
he shall gather the lambs with his arm.”

At the birth of John the Baptist
under the shadow of Herod and Rome,
John’s father spoke similar words of comfort,
“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.”

The words of comfort of Isaiah and Zechariah
can fill us with deep peace
if we can believe that by the tender mercy
of our God a light will come to those
who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death
and lead us on a new and right path.
Think of the conflicts that upset you,
think of your guilt or your wounds,
feel how you long for peace from those things.
Think of any form of darkness
that depresses or discourages you or cuts you off
from the light, think of any shadow
of death, your own or others’,
or the change and loss of a past you loved,
and feel your longing for peace from that grief.

Isaiah and Zechariah and Jesus are right there with us
in our longing, holding out the hope
and promise that there are, truly,
things that make for peace
that we can choose now.
The first thing that makes for peace
is the recognition that we lack peace,
and that we are yearning for it.
Advent calls us to recognize our darkness,
and to enter it willingly and purposefully
so that we feel our need and our longing for light
and become wise about where and how to find it.
We have to feel a deep and strong desire for peace
before we will learn what it takes to secure it.

This congregation has had its share of conflicts
and controversies in the past,
and it has gained the yearning and wisdom it needs.
Often the conflicts have been about an issue
that gets referred to as political for lack of a better word.
This week John Freitag sent me a clipping
of a letter to the Valley News that he wrote
in the early 1980s when I was a new member here.
Pastor Dana Douglas was suggesting
that this church serve as a sanctuary for refugees
fleeing from right wing death squads in Central America.
The purpose was to help them reach Canada,
like an Underground Railroad.
It was illegal to harbor those refugees
and many people in town were upset by the idea.
The debate got heated.
A meeting here in the sanctuary was standing room only
with many expressing opposition.
Dana Douglas dropped the proposal
and left not long afterward.
He was a very popular pastor.
It was a big loss.
The church and town felt divided and hurt.
This is not the way it has to be,
and it is not the way our congregation
wants it to be.

We have read much wisdom today
about the things that make for peace.
Martin Luther King Jr. said in his last Christmas sermon,
“We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means.”
Taoism says, “No peace in the world…
without peace in the heart.”
St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “Have peace in yourself
and thousands will find salvation around you.”
And the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh talks about
peace blooming like a flower from the field
of open-hearted dialogue.
Some of us at our recent small gatherings expressed
the dream of our church being full of that wisdom.

For one thing, we want to learn
how to fulfill our covenant promise
to nurture contemplation and action.
There is a scene in the film Gandhi
where he has been meditating
with other Hindu and Muslim leaders.
Gandhi gets up and does two things—
he takes the tea tray from a servant,
insisting on serving everyone himself,
and then he offers the leadership of the entire nation
to the Muslim who has been his opponent.
Contemplation changes our way of seeing the world,
we see all as one, and so it changes our actions
to be the things that make for peace,
including equality and justice and openness to all.
As we nurture contemplation, we nurture
peace in the heart and peace in the world.

Another dream that surfaced in the small gatherings
was of our congregation as a place where we can talk
about controversial issues in a moral context,
a place that feels safe for big questions
that are important to us and the world,
a place of dialogue and healthy communication,
where people can disagree and still get along,
feeling mutually respected and heard,
where we engage differing views with curiosity,
ready to be challenged and grow and maybe change.

A congregation that knows how to do that
can resolve conflicts before
they divide and diminish the church,
and can be a force in the community
and world that can work miracles of peace.
I have seen this happen. I have seen a church
that had been devastated by fight after fight
choose to change. I was at the first meeting
where they started to get angry and attack
and then pulled back and really listened to one another.
They found a peaceful way forward
through their disagreement
and ended the meeting with opponents
hugging and crying with relief.

I have seen another church that had decades
of wounding divisions, leaving the congregation
a tiny remnant of what it had been,
yet they took on the most controversial political issue
of their day and voted to take a stand on it.
They had been so careful and compassionate
and kind with one another this time
that not a single person left,
and it turned that church around and gave it new life.
I have seen this work at church committee meetings
where people were angry at the pastor
and others where people had been hurt by each other,
where they talked and worked things out
so they felt closer and more loving than before.
I have seen those churches teach their towns
to do the same thing. I have seen members
use the skills they learned in church to resolve
controversial environmental or personnel issues
in public meetings where people
were hostile and entrenched.
I can tell you that what we dream, we can do.
We can build something like God’s realm right here.
We can have peace, if we work at
the things that make for peace,
if we learn the skills and techniques.

Then we need never be afraid again
of a controversial issue of any kind,
we need never be afraid
what conflict Christ calls us to enter,
because we know what makes for peace
within any struggle we may face,
and we know we will emerge feeling closer
and made stronger by our diversity.

Advent asks us to love peace and long for it
enough to commit our lives
to the things that make for peace.
That is our hope for the world,
and it is a good hope, it is enough,
because Advent gives us a glimpse of a coming dawn,
the beautiful light of Christ
that brings peace to the hearts
of all who open to it and makes them
instruments of peace.
Advent reminds us how comforting it is
to experience even the hope of that peace.
Let us take a moment to rest in it now
in faith and in a spirit of silent prayer…

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