A Sermon for 6 December 2015 – 2nd Sunday of Advent
A reading from the gospel of Luke 1:68-79. Listen for God’s word to us as we hear this proclamation from the priest Zechariah on the birth of his son John the Baptist. Listen.
“”Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. God has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus God has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness before God all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 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.””
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
A Washington Post article appeared early this week that I found very disturbing. (The Washington Post, Christopher Ingraham, “There have been 334 days and 351 mass shootings so far this Year,” 30 Nov. 2015). It came out Monday, before the event at the special needs facility in San Bernardino, California. The article was a piece on mass shootings in America in 2015. The article defined mass shootings as “incidents in which four or more people, including the gunman, are killed or injured by gunfire.” According to the article, it’s a definition a bit broader than some sources that reduce the definition of mass shootings to incidents that only count deaths and not injuries by shooters. And while I’m sure there are good reasons why the difference is delineated, four or more killed or injured, versus four or more killed seems unnecessary hairsplitting really when we’re talking about such unacceptable degradation of human life. You probably remember the shooting at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs Thanksgiving week. And maybe you remember the shooting at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June when nine people were ruthlessly killed while at a Wednesday night prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina. Maybe you even remember the last school shooting this year on October 1 at a small community college in Roseburg, Oregon where ten people were killed and seven others injured before the shooter killed himself. If you remember only those, then you might be shocked to learn that according to the article in The Washington Post, as of November 30; there have been 351 mass shootings in America in 2015’s 334 days. That’s an average of more than one a day – a number that already has surpassed the total number of shootings in 2014 and is well above how many took place in 2013. Though we only may have heard of the one shooting in Colorado Springs the day after Thanksgiving, the article reported that there actually were twelve mass shootings in our country during the week of Thanksgiving. . . . Could the poetry of Zechariah have fallen upon us at a more opportune time, so that we might join our prayers with his words in calling out to God: “Guide our feet into the way of Peace!” (Luke 1:79).
Ten years ago, one pastor sent me these words and since receiving them, I have kept them close: “Peace. It’s not the absence of conflict or an enemy threatened or pummeled into submission. Not a boot squarely and securely placed on the neck slowly squeezing life from a hostile windpipe. It is the overwhelming desire for and commitment to overcoming violent differences via communication, risk, trust. A reciprocal recognition of inherent worth and mutuality; the bell that tolls for the demise of ego, pride, greed, and, most of all, fear” (“Peace,” by Todd Jenkins, 2005). Peace.
Might it be possible that the opposite of peace isn’t violence but ego, pride, greed, and most of all, fear? . . . Zechariah gave great thanks to God for a history of rescuing the people from the hands of their enemies in order to serve God without fear. In other words, in peace. More than once, according to the long history of their people which we come to know in Scripture as our own history too. God sets us free in order to serve the LORD without fear – in peace. The prophet Isaiah long ago spoke for God to the people reminding of the way we are to be repairers of the breach, restorers of streets to live in (Isaiah 58:12). Healing springs up quickly, the prophet proclaims (Isaiah 58:8), when we live in ways that bear our name: repairs of the breach – those broken places. Restorers of streets to live in. . . . We are to be people who live peace – that overwhelming desire for and commitment to overcoming violent differences via communication, risk, and trust. It is like that beloved Christmas carol charges: Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with us!
But how? We can’t storm into everyone’s homes and take away weapons. We can’t round up all the troubled young men – as seems to be the profile of those who commit these mass shootings – we can’t round up anyone we might suspect as a potential threat and suddenly fix whatever’s broken in them that would conceive such destructive violence. What can we – a little ban of followers of the Prince of Peace do as we seek to serve God without fear? What can we do that all feet might be guided into the way of Peace?
I think the first thing all of us must do is pray –because prayer changes things – it has the power to change the very energy in the atmosphere around us. . . . Sometimes I wonder if the world around us is getting more violent because the world inside us all is becoming more violent. It is as if the very air we breathe has become toxic. It seeps into our bodies, minds, and spirits until we don’t want to talk to those who are different from us. We don’t dare risk and we definitely find it difficult to trust. While twenty minute segments work best, even five minutes a day seeking to cultivate interior quiet allows the Spirit of God to work in us. To pull out the negativity that gets in from outside and pops up from inside too. It’s like the silence just rakes that all away for the beautiful calm of God to pervade us instead. We must start there because we serve the One who started there all the time. According to the gospels, all the time, Jesus was out somewhere communing in quiet with God. Some churches have begun weekly centering prayer groups as part of their peacemaking ministry efforts. The groups cultivate inner peace as a first step in affecting any sort of peace between families and communities and countries. Anyone can do this – this simple act of peace through quiet, centering prayer. And if you want to give it a try but don’t know how, or feel like you haven’t been successful at it in the past, then let me know and we’ll learn and practice together.
From such a place of inner peace, we can begin praying for others who need peace. 351 mass shootings, and a few more this week too –if it’s just the minimum number of people killed or injured in each shooting, that means that at least 1,500 families all across this nation this year are trying to figure out how to go through these holidays for the first time since losing their loved one to the unspeakable violence done to them at the hand of another person. That’s a lot of grieving parents – a lot of hurting siblings – a lot of grandparents whose hearts are breaking this year over the loss of their loved one.
You know the story of the peace crane, I’m sure. Tomorrow marks the anniversary of our nation being bombed at Pearl Harbor. Well, the peace crane is a paper crane one little girl in Hiroshima, Japan lifted up on her deathbed as a way to work for peace in the world. She started out hoping to make 1,000 of them to bring about her own wish for healing from the cancer she developed, which was believed to be a result of her exposure to the atomic bomb. Upon her death, her classmates took up her cause. The children collected enough money to build a statue in her honor that reads: “This is our cry, this is our prayer: Peace in the world” (www.budddhistcouncil.org). . . . What child doesn’t want to grow up in a world free from violence? There are easy instructions online of how to make the origami peace cranes and wouldn’t it be an interesting Advent practice to make a crane each day as you pray for peace and for those reeling from the loss these mass murders have brought? You even might consider making a paper peace crane each day with the name of a child you know on it – maybe even with the name of one of the children of this church or of the children of the community who are coming to be with us on Wednesday nights – as you pray for their daily safety and self-esteem as they seek to grow in the world we’re giving them.
I know not everyone gets excited about peacemaking – because after all, memories of “peace protests” in our nation’s history can leave a bitter taste. But did you know that the Presbyterian Church has a long history of peacemaking ministries? Since 1983, more than 4,500 PCUSA congregations around the United States have signed the Commitment to Peacemaking. Because, as a denomination, we believe that “peacemaking is not a peripheral issue but a central declaration of the gospel” of Jesus Christ (www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/peacemaking/pdf/commitment.pdf; p. 3). Congregations commitment to everything from worship expressing God’s desire for our peace, to peacemaking pledges offered to families as guides for how to live together at home, to study of global issues that affect human rights, to being a part of local peacemaking ministries however the church chooses to define such efforts. Congregations who take the pledge begin to see that everything they do to build relationships and uplift the needs of the downtrodden and learn about living together is done as ways of making peace. As ones praying to God to guide our feet into the way of peace.
It’s not enough for us to turn off the news. Or helplessly wring our hands when we hear of another shooting. Or shake our heads naively believing it could never happen here. It is our call to join our best efforts – to use our hearts and minds and creative imaginations as we call out to God to guide our feet into the way of Peace! Guide our feet into the way of Peace. Teach us, LORD, show us this Advent the way we are to walk as the ones who follow the great gift of Peace. . . . Let peace be our prayer, our commitment, our overwhelming desire.
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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