Sunday, December 6, 2015

When There Is No Peace

When There Is No Peace
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
December 6, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 1: 68-79

Here is the audio recording from today:

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

68     “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69     He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David,
70     as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71     that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72     Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
73     the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
76     And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77     to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
78     By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79     to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.” [1]

Last week we lit the Hope candle on the Advent Wreath, as we do every year, and with hope in our hearts again we asked the Lord, When. When, Lord, when, Come Lord, Come. We desperately need you. And this week, also, as we do every year, we light the candle of peace, and again it is as if we ask when Lord, when, because we have to light it every year when there is no peace. I realized this week as I was planning this sermon that it is the  third time that I have spoken during the Advent Season on this topic of peace. I did so in my first year here back in December of 2011, and I also chose a topic of peace in last year's special Blue and Gray Christmas service. I thought it an ironically good topic for a church service that was a reenactment of a War time Christmas service. . . that just maybe there would have been back then a Christmas time respite from the war, that the cannons may have just been silent enough for to hear Franz Gruber's at that time relatively new Christmas Hymn, "Silent Night" echoing in chorus across enemy lines between the two camps, like it was rumored to do during World War I. One can dream, and envision such a scene, but we know that, both of those wars resumed, as have many since, and now we find ourselves on the brink it seems of another major world conflict, and we again light this candle of peace, and we must ask ourselves, but why, why does peace, that Christ brings into the world, that Christ offers, that Christ promises, that the Angels sing about, that Zechariah prophesies about John teaching, guiding people in the ways of peace, why does peace continually elude us, as if it is just out of our grasp, existing in our minds, but only there, as if it is just an empty wish. Why does it elude us?
I said I preached on this topic back 2011, and then like now, it seemed we lived in a world of turmoil, conflict, and the rumors of war. I was reading that sermon, and I'm glad I did because I realized very quickly that all of the ideas that I had this week, I had back then, too. . . I thought maybe I could talk about Jeremiah and Patrick Henry's lament, about Peace, Peace, but there is no peace. .  . already did it. Then I thought well, maybe I could talk about Shalom, how the word means peace, but an internal holistic peace, a greeting, a statement of wellness in mind, body, and relationship, and how Jerusalem actually means the king's peace, mention something about Joseph and his brothers so angry with him that they couldn't speak shalom to him. . . did it. I thought maybe I could talk about the irony of Jesus being born, the Prince of Peace, at a time in history known as the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace, bringing out the idea that when the empire is at peace, there may just be quite a cost, especially for the empiree's. There may be peace for the Empirers, but the Empiree's might just have a different notion. . .yup, did it. I thought I might could talk about Jesus saying that he brings a sword rather than peace, again irony, that the so called Prince of Peace would say, "do not think I have come to bring peace to the world, I have not come to bring peace but a sword." Certainly there would be possibility there. . . yeah, there was, but I already did it too. Peace, it's been covered again and again, and by many people at many different times, throughout many years, and still, still, still, it continues to elude us. We have to ask why?
And then this week, I saw something, it was a newspaper headline that got big attention. It read, "God isn't going to fix this. .  ." Did you see that one? It was talking about the need to pass gun legislation, to pass laws to stop the wave of mass shootings. That prayer was not going to be sufficient, that actions, definitive actions need to be taken, and need to be taken now. It made me think, what measures do we have at our disposal to bring about peace on our own? What can we do to bring Peace starting within the country and then growing to the possibility of world peace? What have we already tried? Has any of it worked? If we could pass a law and create peace, wouldn't we have done that long ago? I mean we've done big plans like the League of Nations, and the United Nations, ideas like Assured Mutual Destruction, we've tied all of the economies of the world together, so that no one really wants to have a war because it is going to get in the way of business, we've even had ideas like, peace through strength, containment, exit strategies, no boots on the ground, reset buttons. We tried all that stuff, but all along we could have just passed a law, we can ban guns, we can ban terrorists, we can ban. . .well shoot let's ban hatred, and fear, and racism while we're at it. I'm sorry for the sarcasm, but that is the best I can muster at this point. I'm reacting like they want me to, to be angry, to be upset, offended, you see I don't think it brings us closer to a solution to the problem of human beings and our tendencies towards violence to mock people's deeply held religious beliefs by putting "God isn't going to fix this" on the cover of a newspaper magazine.
But that's typical right, our solutions always seem to exacerbate the problem because they're trapped in point of view, they are trapped in our biases, they are trapped in our need to be right, in our need to win. You see that is our plan for peace, right, win first and then get peace. Win the argument, win the disagreement, win the fight, win the battle, win the war. Once we win, we'll claim that we want peace, at least some of us will, but then we may grow greedy, lazy, bored, there may be people who actually claim to want peace, but, honestly there are people out there who don't, who don't even really want peace. . . Shakespeare captures it so fully in his character Richard III, writing about the peace time the end of the War of the Roses. . . you see the war of the roses was a horrible multigenerational civil war, one that got people used to fighting, and when it was over it was hard to give up, especially for someone good at fighting, and lacking in other areas, Shakespeare's Richard III says at the opening of the play. . .
Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this sun of YorkAnd all the clouds that lour'd upon our houseIn the deep bosom of the ocean buried.Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.Grim-visaged war hath smooth'd his wrinkled front;And now, instead of mounting barded steedsTo fright the souls of fearful adversaries,He capers nimbly in a lady's chamberTo the lascivious pleasing of a lute.But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majestyTo strut before a wanton ambling nymph;I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my timeInto this breathing world, scarce half made up,And that so lamely and unfashionableThat dogs bark at me as I halt by them;Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,Have no delight to pass away the time,Unless to spy my shadow in the sunAnd descant on mine own deformity:And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,To entertain these fair well-spoken days,I am determined to prove a villain. . .

Shakespeare's character is dark, deformed, bitter, angry, but incredibly intelligent, good at playing the game, creating the game, and of course winning the game. He profits by war, and in peace time feels useless.
It is an interesting picture of sin really, symbolically, he is describing what sin does to a person, leaving us broken, deformed, bitter, hopeless, that is sin. For Richard III it is all on the outside, but we are good at hiding that face, at least in the public of the real world, but we have this new outlet for it all, these days. . . social media. . . and does it ever show that destructive side, that side that always wants to win, that always wants to tear down the other, and feel the rise of self importance, that doesn't listen, just attacks, and all the time claiming to be a self righteous lover of peace. It is the entertainment we have chosen in our bubbles of relative peace, where we are mostly safe from the ravages of violence and war, except when we are not.
The truth is we have no solution to create peace in this world because we have no peace within ourselves, not even between ourselves and others, but within. There is a battle raging at all times within us, it is the battle of brokenness, it is the battle of sin, and it rears its head in every way imaginable, and even some we could never imagine. And the only solution is to be saved from it through grace, to be saved from it by love, to be saved from it by the coming of Jesus Christ. So in a sense that headline was right, God isn't going to fix this. . . he's busy fixing us first because God cures diseases rather than merely treating symptoms. God knows that the only way to destroy evil is with good, full goodness, not half measures, and mediocrity. So he sends his son not to force us, through control and other evils, but to show us, to love us, to guide us in the way of peace, and the way of peace includes going to the cross, ourselves, not winning and sending someone else there first instead. . . love, that perfect balance of sacrifice and freedom, is the only possible solution. It doesn't happen in bulk, or by proxy, but piece by piece, person by person, heart by heart, it's the longer road, but it doesn't overcome the evils of the world with more evil, turning the world again on the spinning gyre of what goes around comes around.
I wrote a poem last year on this idea, I was listening to Bob Dylan sing and asking the questions of this morning, when Lord when will there be peace, "How many roads must a man walk down, how many times must a cannonball fly before they are forever banned." My poem looks at that line about the cannonballs, and responds. . . I am sorry it is a little raw, but at its heart, it speaks of the need for human beings to be good, and describes what that takes. I'd like to close with it this morning:
Two Feet Facing the Wind
The wind still blows, blowing through empty heads,
Who think that we can simply ban cannonballs,
That such an action taken by those in charge,
Could stop them from flying, stop the dying,
As if a piece of paper, and a vote really matter,
As if intentions without action are ever enough,
As if what we will must be, so let it be written,
But it being done requires more than our assent,
Assent can be assumed, while we sit on our ass,
Instead, rise we must, for hope lies in ascent,
Getting up and going up, becoming better ourselves,
In doing, in deeds, not in proclamation, for in each
Decree the illusion is entrenched, goodness put on
Like a mask, a shell, the image, painted an inch thick,
But as empty as words, as hollow as the politicians,
Who would write the ordinance, seal it packaged
With ribbons and bows, and signed with a card,
Because we care enough to send the very best,
The Gold and silver plaited shackles and chains
Of the shiny illusion that mediocrity is enough,
That existence and time make people free,
That freedom rises from being called free,
Granted permission, given not taken, forever
Depending on, staking the future on hot air blowing
From Hollow men, who have since dispatched
Their birthright and their spines to sing songs
About dreams and wind, and mandated goodness,
While subsidizing and cultivating its antithesis.
Simply walking down roads, again and again,
Trying to catch the wind, vain, wisdom calls it,
Nothing new is ever done, a time to be born,
A time to die, but no! Now is a time to plant,
A time to build on the firm foundation, not to ban,
But to build men so rooted in love, their goodness
Makes bombs relics, symbols of a past not forgotten
Not in ignorance of darkness, bliss of innocence,
That behind the walls, built once in fear, lies people
Who have not forgotten evil, but who have overcome it,
Not with Evil, not with illusion, not with lies and vacancy,
Spineless darkness, idols of idleness, but with Good,
Built and Baptized, christened and blessed by loving.
The answer my friend is not blowing in the wind of words,
But planted firmly by the streams of water, alive.
One by one, it spreads, by seamless actions, giving hope
That we are more, that we matter, that what we give
Is needed, and that hoarding ourselves, holding back,
Accepting less, cowering in fear that we don’t have enough
To make it, for fear will never lead us upward into the light.
The wind blows side to side, and incessantly spins,
In cyclones of terror, blustering hurricanes of worry,
And typhoons of doubt, but on our two feet we face it,
We stand upright, and like the trees grow ever upward
Towards the light they will never fully reach, they bask,
In the light, and the rings of growth testify that they
Have risen out of the cold dark ground, grown strong,
With their roots richly planted in it, cultivated by it,
Gaining nourishment from it, they must leave it behind,
Though part of them is in the darkness, they can
Finally look up and see the sky, and in the infinite space
Can  search for more, so do we, richly planted, like them
Our purpose is to grow toward the light, and we can’t
Sheltered in paper safe sealed packages. Our seed,
Planted in the darkness, will be strong of purpose,
Resilient, and good, and powerful, beyond measure,
Ready in wait for the season to come to share our fruit.

Through Jesus Christ may we begin to bear the fruit of goodness, the fruit of love, for it is the only hope for true lasting peace within and without. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 1:68-79). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.