Rev. Teri Peterson
28 November 2010, Advent 1A
I was glad when they said to me,
‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’
Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.
Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together.
To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord,
as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
For there the thrones for judgment were set up,
the thrones of the house of David.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
‘May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.’
For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good.
Every Sunday we say these words to each other: “Peace be with you. And also with you.” Each and every worship service includes the sharing of peace—the peace of Christ, shared among the Body of Christ, and hopefully extended into the whole world.
On a day when we’re still stuffed from a feast, the tryptophan barely worn off, the leftover mashed potatoes beckoning, peace seems easy. Besides the food coma many of us are still in, there’s also the post-family-gathering peace, when we can take a deep breath and let go of the anxiety that often comes with those big family holidays. Once they’ve all gone home and things settle back into normal, the most conflict any of us expect is over who gets to eat the last bite of cranberry sauce. Things seem peaceful enough.
Of course, though, that’s not true in many places in the world. Conflict rages in homes, communities, and nations, and even within individuals. Sometimes those conflicts are supposed to lead to peace, sometimes they are waged only for monetary or political power gains, sometimes they simply end in chaos and tragedy with no redeeming qualities at all. But even when conflict ends, there’s often no peace. Because peace is not simply the absence of conflict—peace is something more than that.
The Hebrew word “shalom” is generally translated “peace,” and it’s a word we hear often enough that we often think we’ve got it down. We know that “shalom” is about wholeness, about healing, about redemption…and together, all these things make up “peace.” But when we use the word “peace” we don’t generally mean all those things…instead we settle for shallow “peace” which is really a façade behind which we suppress our feelings, and so suppress true community. The peace we generally think of is more of the calm surface, even if underneath the waters churn. But shalom is the kind of peace God has in mind for the world, the kind of peace the psalmist prays for, the kind of peace we are to make. This is peace that demands that we be real with ourselves and each other, peace that requires true listening and compassionate speaking, peace that will not settle for any to be left out or left behind. This is not only the absence of conflict, but also the presence of healing and growth. The words of the prophet Isaiah still ring in our ears even as they stick in our throats—the vision of swords turned to plowshares and all the nations walking together in God’s light. We yearn for this vision to be a reality, and yet so often we do nothing to make it a reality. Instead we do what is easy, we practice instant gratification, we turn a blind eye to peace-breaking even as we proclaim “peace be with you.”
During Advent we have an opportunity. Well, we have a choice, I suppose. Advent is a time of waiting—a time when we acknowledge the darkness and the “not-yet” nature of the kingdom of God. We wait with hope and expectation, looking for light that shines in unexpected places and for the coming of God who will bring peace on earth and goodwill to all people. We say no to a culture of instant gratification, no to the commodification of God’s kingdom of love, and no to the desire to skip the hard part in favor of the fun part of the season. The church is a place where we recognize the grief and darkness of the world even as we proclaim that God’s peace, justice, joy, and light are both coming and already here. These are good things, important reasons to observe Advent as a season even as the malls and radio stations skip right ahead to reindeer and jingling bells.
But on the other hand, Advent is a season of waiting—but that doesn’t mean a season of passivity or even patience. Too often, I think, we fall victim to the idea that waiting means doing nothing. That is not what Advent is for—because the kingdom of God is also “already” even if it is “not yet.” We are waiting for God to come and bring peace, and sometimes we forget that God has already come, has already broken in to our world, has already shined a great light, and has already sent us the Holy Spirit in order that WE may BE the Body of Christ in the world—that we may not just wait for peace, not even just make peace or work for it, but that we may BE the peace of Christ in our homes, churches, communities, nations.
We don’t just go up to the house of the Lord—we ARE living temples of the holy spirit, we ARE the body of Christ, we ARE the hands and feet, the hearts and voices, through which God works. Just as the psalmist was transformed from one among a crowd to a proclaimer of peace, when we pray and praise, worship and work, we are transformed from those who simply wait to those who embody the truth of God’s grace for all people, the promise of peace for a world prone to turn plows into swords rather than the other way around. That is why our mission statement says that “we ARE an ever-widening circle of grace.” That’s not something we’re waiting for, or something we’re like—it’s who and what we are. Have we lived up to our full potential, fully given ourselves to God’s will, completely followed God’s call to us? Not yet. But that doesn’t mean we ought to wait for God to do something about that. Instead it means that we strive to be who God calls us to be.
How can we BE peace in a world of ubiquitous violence? I don’t have an answer for that, and I suspect each of us will have to discern our ways. A good start would be to not engage in violence—and while it seems easy to refrain from physical violence, it’s much harder to discipline our words, our language, into peace. Perhaps that can be our Advent challenge—to speak only peace. Another way to be peace is to recognize where there is brokenness and work toward healing—to conspire with God to reconcile and lift up, to see truly and help wherever there is need—to feed people who are hungry, to give warmth to people who are cold, to offer hospitality to people who are lonely, and to recognize and encourage the humanity, the child of God, in each person we meet, whether we meet them at the food pantry, PADS, the grocery store, work, on the train or on a sidewalk. When we truly see one another, then we can truly have compassion for one another, and then we are on the road to shalom.
In many ways the world lives in Advent, though we don’t often recognize it. We are waiting for something…for someone to do something, for the world to get better, for God to break in and bring the kingdom, for a light to shine in the darkness. And waiting is important and good, it’s true, particularly if we can do it without filling the void with more gadgets and toys and things. Yet waiting can also be a distraction, a false idol of its own. At the risk of sounding cliché, I quote the elders of the Hopi nation, “we are the ones we have been waiting for.” And the ones God, and the world, has been waiting for. We are the body of Christ, called, equipped, and empowered to BE peace in and for the world. May that be our Advent task.
Peace be with you.