Making Peace

A version of this sermon was preached at the First Baptist Church of Hyattsville on Sunday, December 6, 2015.  The Scripture texts were Malachi 3.1-4 and Luke 1.67-79.  Accompanying the biblical texts was a reading of Langston Hughes’ 1930 poem, “Merry Christmas.”

___________________________________________________________

As December begins, and our thoughts turn earnestly toward Christmas, this is how we like to think of Jesus.

nativity stained glass

But sadly, in too much of the world, too many people are seeing Jesus the way these Egyptian women see Jesus in the photograph below: splattered and stained just like everyone and everything else, covered in the violence that has become all too common – so common, in fact, that some commentators have begun referring to it as “the new normal.”

Egyptian Christians touch a blood-splattered image of Jesus Christ, inside the Coptic Orthodox church in Alexandria, January 2, 2011. A bomb killed at least 21 people outside the church early on New Year's Day and the Interior Ministry said a foreign-backed suicide bomber may have been responsible. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh (EGYPT - Tags: CIVIL UNREST RELIGION IMAGES OF THE DAY)

This photograph was taken in Egypt a few years ago, but it easily could have been taken in America a few days ago. We no longer have to look overseas to grieve senseless acts of violence or contemplate the theological questions associated with them. 2015 is the year in which the phrase “active shooter” entered our vocabulary, and this is the context in which we come to church on this second Sunday of Advent to light the Candle of Peace.

This context is why we need to hear Langston Hughes’ ironically titled poem, “Merry Christmas,” alongside “Silver Bells,” “White Christmas,” “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” and the other seasonal standards this year. It’s challenging to hear, I know. You might have even found it offensive. But that’s precisely why we need to hear it. These challenging words from a poet of the Harlem Renaissance call us closer to what the gospel story of Christmas has to say to us.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself: hang on a second, preacher. Angels and shepherds and a star and a manger – this is the gospel story of Christmas. That’s what we read about in the Bible. That’s what Linus tells Charlie Brown Christmas is all about. And you’d be right – it is. But it’s not all we read about in Luke, much less the Bible.

Linus begins his story with Luke 2. However, as the people of Jesus, we have to begin with Luke 1. And Luke 1 doesn’t begin the story of Christmas with angels or shepherds or stars or mangers. Luke doesn’t even begin with Jesus. Luke 1 begins with John the Baptist. The presence of John the Baptist is how you know you’re dealing with the full gospel version of Christmas, because John the Baptist is the context for the angels and the shepherds and the star and the manger.

Funny how you never see a John the Baptist lawn ornament, now, isn’t it?

Actually, the lack of inflatable, light-up John the Baptists is completely understandable because the truth is we don’t like to start with him, either. Not only is John the Baptist a freaky dude who walks around wearing camel’s skin and snacking on locusts, he’s a freaky dude who comes, in the words of Malachi, to prepare the way of the Lord – which means he comes like a refiner’s fire, like fuller’s soap – to proclaim the need for cleansing and purifying as he goes. He comes to preach repentance. And he comes to Judea – to God’s people. He’s not strolling the streets of Rome, or Damascus, or Baghdad. He’s not coming to get in the face of “those people.” He’s coming to get into our face – in much the same way Langston Hughes gets in our face, pointing out things we don’t want to hear, much less see.

One of the most uncomfortable aspects of this poem is that, even though it was first published 85 years ago, it hardly reads like a relic of the past. Too much of this of this poem is all too familiar, because this is hardly the first year in America we’ve lit the Candle of Peace in the shadow of violence and terror – and not only violence done to us, but violence done by us. That’s the uncomfortable truth Langston Hughes is pointing out – the same kind of truth John the Baptist comes to point out – because that’s the kind of truth we have to confront if we are to repent.

It’s the kind of truth we’ll hear from Jesus, too.

So, if this poem offends you, or makes you squirm, and you don’t want to squirm or be offended, then I suggest you stick with “the holly jolly” commercial version of Christmas – because if Langston Hughes ruffles your feathers, then John the Baptist is liable to make ‘em fall out completely. In fact, you might want to consider heading over to the mall next Sunday morning, because we’re going to be reading more about J.B. next week, too. (FYI – The Mall at Prince George’s Plaza opens at 8:00 a.m., and I promise they’ll go out of their way not to offend you).  Just know that if you decide to come to church, and if you look deep into the full gospel version of Christmas within the pages of Scripture, and if truly have ears to hear and you hear, then chances are you’ll be offended. And you’ll be offended because God’s in the business of being offensive.

It was offensive for God to lower a sheet filled with unclean animals before Peter – animals he had never touched in his entire life – and say, “Kill and eat.”

It was offensive for the Spirit to tell Phillip to get in the carriage with the Ethiopian eunuch, an unclean Gentile of the first order.

It was offensive for the prophets of old to declare to the tribes and kings of Israel how the smell of their burnt offerings turned God’s stomach.

It was offensive for Jesus to tell the rich young ruler to give away all that he had.

It was offensive when Jesus to tell Martha, you know what, it’s okay that Mary is taking a break from her chores to sit and listen. In fact, she’s made a better choice than you have.

It was offensive when Jesus told the Pharisees it’s was okay to pick grain on the Sabbath because the Sabbath was created for people, people weren’t created for the Sabbath.

It was offensive when Jesus, the King of kings, the long-expected Messiah, deigned to wash His disciples’ feet – and to declare that they had no share in Him if they refused.

It was offensive when this same Messiah secured our salvation by being crucified like runaway slave. That’s why Paul declares that Christ crucified is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.

The gospel is offensive, plain and simple. It has to be offensive if it’s to do us any good. Offending our sensibilities for the sake of grace, defying decorum in the interest of justice – this is how God reminds us that He is God and we are NOT. It’s how God in Christ points out to us those jagged, cumbersome, unsightly logs that jut out of our own eyes when what we’d rather do is obsess over the speck we notice in our neighbor’s eye. Being offensive is how God confronts us in order to transform us. It’s the only way, really, that He can heal the world – by forcing us to acknowledge our wounds, as well as the wounds we inflict on others.

In fact, acknowledging those wounds is the only way we can light the Candle of Peace with any integrity today. For, if we fail to acknowledge our wounding and our woundedness, then we light this candle as false prophets – declaring peace, peace where there is no peace.

But if we approach the Advent Wreath, if we look toward the manger, with contrite and repentant hearts, then it becomes a powerful symbol indeed.  If we approach the Advent Wreath with contrite and repentant hearts, then  we light this Candle of Peace not in delusional ignorance of the violence and the division and the injustice of the world but in defiance of it.

With contrite and repentant hearts, we light this candle as people ready to shoulder our crosses and follow where Jesus will lead.

With contrite and repentant hearts, we light this candle as people who remember that when Jesus scandalously got down on His hands and knees to wash His disciples’ feet, He set an example for us. And when we remember the example Jesus has set for us, we position ourselves to proclaim that Jesus really is “the reason for the season” in ways that don’t ring hollow in the ears of observant people like Langston Hughes, who see the world plainly and who aren’t fooled by window dressing.

Proclaiming Jesus with integrity is what we must do, because the world needs what the full gospel version of Christmas has to offer.  The world needs to see and experience the glory of this holy season, to know that in Christ God is coming to His temple. Heaven is coming to earth. God is coming to walk in our shoes and live in our flesh, because God is willing to be splattered and stained by all the muck and the mire, the blood and the gore that the machines of worldly power spew out. He’s willing to wade directly into the cycles of violence that wreack havoc on our bodies and our souls and in our communities so that all of creation might yet be redeemed. And if we are His people, then Jesus calls us to wade right in there with Him, to be instruments and agents of His peace – the peace that surpasses all understanding, because it won’t let us settle for the false comfort of social conventions, preconceived notions, and self-righteous piety.

Joining Christ in that work is how God will ultimately “guide our feet into the way of peace,”  because peace is more than a feature of life.  It is a way of life.  Peace is a work to be fashioned rather than a present to be received.  Blessed are the peacemakers, Jesus said, not blessed are the peaceful.

So, in the interest of “the way of peace,” let me leave you today with some provocative, if not offensive, questions:

What would the world look like if we, the people of Jesus, recruited for peace with the same intensity that ISIS recruits for terror?

What would the world look like if we, the people of Jesus, prepared for ministry with the purpose and intentionality of the “active shooters” who prepare so meticulously for their heinous acts of violence?

What would the world look like if we, the people of Jesus, waged peace as earnestly and systematically as the world’s armies wage war?

I think we would find it to be a world in which Christmas, and all the seasons before and all the seasons after, would be very merry indeed.

May we have faith and courage to shoulder our crosses and follow Jesus into the way of peace.  Amen.

All Sides of the Sea

A version of this post was my sermon on Sunday, June 28.  The texts are Mark 5.21-43 (NRSV) and 1 Thessalonians 3.1-13 (NRSV).  It is the third in a five-part sermon series on First Thessalonians. 

Three chapters and 43 verses into Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessalonica, Paul is still giving thanks for the members of the Thessalonian congregation. In fact, offering thanksgiving for them and rejoicing over them is essentially ALL Paul has done thus far. The faith instruction that is so prominent in Paul’s other letters has been minimal. Don’t worry, it’s coming; but in the first three-fifths of First Thessalonians almost everything has revolved around Paul’s love for this church and his joy in them as brothers and sisters in Christ – and this in itself is instructional.

We can’t go too far out of our way or make too big a deal out of love. It is Paul, after all, who will later pen the most famous hymn to love in all of Scripture – arguably, perhaps, in all of Western literature: 1 Corinthians chapter 13.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing…. [ Love ] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

Without love, we, the people of Jesus, have nothing. We gain nothing. We are nothing.

Jesus Himself declares that love is what everything comes down to. Love the Lord your God with your whole self, and love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the prophets hang from these two commandments. Paul is simply embodying here what he has received from Jesus, and what he proclaims elsewhere.

When Paul himself cannot visit the Thessalonian church, he sends Timothy to “strengthen and encourage them.” Paul is afraid that recent trials might have caused them to doubt or stray, so he made sure someone got there. And when Timothy returns with a report that all is well with them, Paul celebrates! He writes to tell the Thessalonians how joyful they have made him, and how that joy has sustained him during his own very trying time.

Then, he goes one step further. Paul concludes this section of the letter with a prayer – praying that God will increase their love for one another, and for all people. He wants them to love even more! For all there is to celebrate, they have not yet found the floor of love’s depths nor reached the peak of faith’s summit. When it comes to love, there is always more: more to receive, more to give, more to experience. And more is what Paul wants for the Thessalonians because that’s what Christ wants for them and all of God’s children. That’s what Christ offers us, and what He models for us. It all comes down to love. And love never ends – which means love only expands; it never contracts.

We’ll see how Paul encourages the Thessalonians to reach for more and strive for more in the next couple of weeks as First Thessalonians continues. In the meantime, to explore why (when it comes to love) there’s always more to reach and strive for, the Gospel lectionary reading for today illustrates the boundless reach of Christ’s love as well as any text in the New Testament. I think it will help us understand why Paul can’t seem to stop rejoicing over the Thessalonians, and prompt us to reflect on how we should love as Christ loves – within our church, and within our world.

In Mark 5.21, Jesus has just returned from the land of the Gerasenes. Jesus had crossed over the Sea of Galilee to the Gentile side, to an area referred to as the Decapolis: a region of Greco-Roman cities and towns east and south of Galilee. These settlements were outposts of Hellenic life and culture in the otherwise Semitic territories of the first century Near East.

For Jews, especially pious Jews, the Decapolis was the land of “the other.” It was an “unclean” region, and the cultural base of their pagan overlords. Yet, Jesus goes there. And not only does He go there, He performs a miracle there – just as He performed miracles throughout Galilee and Judea. Specifically, he heals a man possessed by a “legion” of unclean spirits. As a Gentile, this man would have been considered unclean anyway. But this poor suffering soul turns out to be an unclean Gentile, living in an unclean Gentile land, who makes his home in an unclean cemetery, possessed by an army of unclean spirits. He’s about as unclean as a human being could possibly be in the minds of Jesus’ peers.

He’s so unclean, even the other unclean Gentiles won’t have anything to do with him. The townspeople are afraid of him. He howls like an animal and hits himself with rocks. Out of their fear, the community tried to restrain him, but he was so strong he broke free of their chains. So, they kept away from him – had nothing to do with him. If he came near, they would have run in the opposite direction as far and fast as they could.

But Jesus doesn’t run. Jesus engages this man, then casts out the legion of spirits by sending them into a heard of pigs that happened to be nearby. The possessed heard then stampedes into the sea and drowns. The owners of the pigs are none to pleased, as I’m sure you can imagine – and they ask Jesus to leave. The Lord might have healed this feared man whom everyone thought was incurable, but He did so at great cost to certain individuals and they’re now afraid of Jesus.

So, Jesus leaves. As Jesus and the disciples are getting into their boat, the man whom Jesus healed begs to come with Him. But Jesus refuses his request. Jesus tells him he needs to stay, and this is what He says. “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.”

These instructions are key to understanding fully what Jesus is up to. Jesus is not just restoring this poor man to his right mind; He’s restoring him to his society, to his friends and family, the community from which he has been ostracized and estranged for so long. Jesus instructs the former demoniac to stay so he can begin rebuilding the bonds of kinship now that he’s been released from the bondage of his condition, and the literal shackles his relatives and neighbors tried to impose upon him.  We might even go so far as to say that Jesus leaves (And takes the blame) so that the former demoniac can stay.

Community matters. Belonging matters.

Now, at the beginning of today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus is back on the “right side” of the Sea of Galilee – back among “righteous” people: God’s people, the Jews. But even here, all is not well and restoration is needed.

Right away, Jesus is met by a man named Jairus, who is one of the leaders of the synagogue. We’re not just back among “clean” folk; we’re among the shiniest of the clean folk. To be a leader of the synagogue, Jairus must have been an especially pious person. At the very least, he must have had a reputation for being an especially pious person. Nevertheless, Jairus’ piety has not shielded his household from tragedy. His daughter is ill – on the verge of death – and he implores Jesus to come and heal her. Jesus agrees.

Then, the story gets even more interesting. On the way to Jairus’ house, another person sees Jesus making His way through the crowd: a woman who has suffered with a hemorrhage, an issue of blood, for twelve years.

Mark tells us she’s been to see all manner of doctors, and spent all of her money trying to get well. But the doctors have failed her. Not only could they not make her better, their proscribed treatments have made the problem worse. What’s more, her affliction, like the demoniac’s possession, has rendered her unclean. For more than a decade, if she touched anyone, or if anyone touched her, she would have made them unclean, too.

So, even though she was there in the midst of the multitude, she would have been isolated. Most likely she was also deeply troubled as well as in great discomfort from her affliction. What had she done to displease God that this was happening to her? What sin had she committed? What offense had she given? After twelve years, the fact that she had any faith left at all is almost as miraculous as what happens next.

The woman says to herself, “If only I can touch Jesus’ clothes, I can be made well.” So, as Jesus passes by, she does what the Law says she shouldn’t do: she reaches out and grabs ahold of Him. When she does, Mark says that she can feel in her body that she has been healed.

Jesus feels it, too. Mark says that Jesus feels the power go out of Him and He begins asking, “Who touched My clothes?” The disciples are incredulous. Seriously? In this sea of people, You want to know who touched You? It could have been anybody.

But Jesus will not relent. He keeps searching, though we’re not quite sure why. Is He surprised? Angry? Curious? The anonymous woman hears His inquiry, and even though she is afraid, decides to make herself known. “It was I,” she says. “I touched You.”

What Jesus says in response to her confession is just as powerful and important as what He tells the Gerasene demoniac. “Daughter,” He says, “your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease.”

Jesus addresses her as, “Daughter.” To her world, she may have been anonymous; she may have been an unclean outcast.  But to Jesus, she’s family. She is a “daughter” every bit as much as the child of the leader of the synagogue whom Jesus is on His way to see. Jesus restores her humanity as well as her body. As with the demoniac, He returns her to community as well as to health.

Jesus’ satisfaction is short-lived, however. While Jesus is blessing the anonymous woman with the issue of blood, news arrives from Jairus’ house that his daughter has died.

Yet, unlike the inconsequential, unclean woman in the crowd, the response to this tragedy from the supposedly pious household of the leader of the synagogue is a lack of faith rather than a demonstration of it. The messengers say to Jairus, “Why trouble the teacher any longer?” It’s finished. Nothing can be done.

Jesus won’t hear of it. He tells Jairus not to fear, but to believe – and presses on. When they arrive at the house, the people gathered in the girl’s room laugh at Him when He assesses the situation and them tells them the little girl is only sleeping. They laugh.

No matter. Jesus remains undeterred. He throws the scoffers out of the house, and with her parents and the inner circle of His disciples present, Jesus heals the girl and she begins to move freely around.

Then, at the very end of the story, we discover an incredible detail. Mark tells us Jairus’ daughter is twelve years old. That means that she, the daughter of the prominent synagogue leader, and the unclean, anonymous woman from the crowd share a connection. The woman’s hemorrhage had dogged her for twelve years, which means it began the same year the young girl was born. Now, of course, they share an additional connection: Christ Jesus.

Jesus connects everything in Mark chapter five: Jew and Gentile, the somebodies and the nobodies, the living and the dead. In the privacy of a prominent home, in the thick of a bustling crowd, on the “right” and “wrong” sides of the sea – Jesus lives and moves. We see Jesus with the supposedly “righteous” and the supposedly “unrighteous.” We see Him with the movers and the shakers, as well as with the voiceless and the marginalized. From start to finish, He values people of every station and status enough to allow them to summon Him, interrupt Him, even to tell Him He needs to go. There is more than enough of Jesus and His love to go around.

That’s why Paul can declare to the church that love never ends – and why he prays for love among Jesus’ people to continually increase, even when it abounds in their midst. If love never ends, it must continue to grow. So, even when we’ve gone with Christ to the other side of the sea, we haven’t yet gone as far as we can.

As the people of Jesus, we need to remember that. We need to remember that each and every day, but we especially need to remember it as the people of Jesus in America as we begin to live in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality.

Since the Court’s verdict was handed down last week, social forums and media outlets have exploded with exuberance and outrage. Some see the ruling as victory in a decades-long struggle for civil liberty. Others view it as the veritable end of Western civilization. What’s more, faithful, earnest, God-fearing, Jesus-loving people are to be found on the side of exuberance, on the side of outrage, and at many points in between. It’s a debate that has been raging for some time, and it is a debate that will continue to rage. The Court’s decision is a milestone, not the finish line.

It’s also a debate worth having. Living a faithful life in pursuit of Jesus is a challenge. Yes, we have the witness of Scripture to guide us, but the Bible says a lot of things. Some matters are addressed directly. Some are hinted at. Others are not addressed at all – and still others are addressed one way in one part of the Bible and another way in a different part. Scripture must therefore be continually and prayerfully interpreted. Engaging in honest, sincere debate about how to best apply what we read to the life we live is how we learn and grow as disciples. And the fact that there are so many faithful, earnest, God-fearing, Jesus-loving people at various points all along the theological spectrum of this particular question should confirm for us that marriage is a nuanced issue far more complex than simply “what the Bible says.”

That’s why the venom and the judgment embedded in many of the supposedly Christian responses to the Supreme Court’s decision are so disturbing. Christians on one side of the debate are essentially telling fellow Christians – and anyone else – on the other side that they are unclean. You don’t see this matter the same way we see it, therefore you are not counted among the faithful. You are apostates outside the fold of Jesus’ flock, essentially outside the scope of His love and mercy.

We simply cannot indulge that kind of rhetoric, or logic. When we draw such rigid lines in the sand, we stunt our own spiritual growth and we make our faith about the lines rather than about Jesus – the Jesus whom, as we have seen, lives and moves among the “righteous” and the “unrighteous” on all sides of the sea. What’s more, we’ve seen that great faith and powerful witness can be found among “the unclean,” and doubt and misunderstanding can be found among the “clean.” Jesus is always deeper and wider and greater than our own conclusions, which is why, at the end of the day, our faith must come down to love, if it is come down to Jesus.

Like Jesus, love always sees people, no matter how thick the veil of fear or doubt that surrounds them, or how thick the crowd that obscures them. Love constantly nudges us, prods us, to push through the lines that crisscross our world – some drawn by others, some drawn by us – and to pay attention to the humanity within their bounds. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

I think that’s why Paul can’t stop talking about love, can’t stop rejoicing in the love he witnesses and experiences, and why he prays that the followers of Jesus will find and experience even more love.

That’s my prayer today, too: that in the days ahead, the Lord will make the people of Jesus increase and abound in love for one another and for all. May we remember that none of us has yet found the floor of love’s depths, nor reached the peak of faith’s summit – and that Jesus is to be found on all sides of the sea, with “us” as well as with “them,” whomever and wherever “we” and “they” might be.

Amen.

  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 863 other followers

  • RSS Weekly Scripture from the Revised Common Lectionary

  • Editor’s Choice

  • Recent Posts

  • Previous Posts

  • Categories

  • Art Matters

    Marc Chagall, The White Crucifixion, 1938

  • Follow Me on Twitter @RevBTT

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 863 other followers