Peace

The Lord was not in the Wind

A sermon for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, August 13, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

In the fourth watch of the night, he came walking toward them on the sea.

If last Sunday had not been the Feast of the Transfiguration, the Gospel would have been the Feeding of the Five Thousand, which immediately precedes what we hear today. In the Gospel of Matthew, the reason that Jesus is out there at a remote place by the Sea of Galilee is that he had been informed that Herod Antipas was comparing Jesus to John the Baptist; and everyone knew that Herod had had John killed for calling out Herod’s immoral behavior. As Jesus was trying to withdraw to reflect and pray, the crowds came. It was late in the afternoon, and Jesus made sure that they had food.

So our lesson today begins with Jesus sending his disciples ahead with the boat, while he got rid of the crowds and went up on the mountain to pray, which was why he was there to begin with.  So why did he send the disciples off in the boat? Because they needed to get to the other side.  Most of them were fisherman, and they knew how to use a boat—better than Jesus did because he was a carpenter. So that evening, they were headed off, across the lake while Jesus was up on the mountain alone; praying.

Though they knew how to row it was tough going, because the wind was blowing directly at them. And as they struggled through the night, a storm came up.

I grew up in arid country, and storms can appear quickly. When I was a kid, I was fishing with my dad, an uncle and three cousins in a small boat in the middle of a reservoir not that much smaller than the Sea of Galilee. In the middle of a sunny afternoon a cloud came in from the west and suddenly there was a storm—the waves were higher than the gunwales of the boat. My dad got the motor started and we went straight for the nearest point on the shore. As soon as the boat touched the beach, it filled with water. It was a frightening and dangerous time.

Out there on the water there was no place to take cover.  The disciples had been struggling out on the open water all night, and it was dark. When the storm suddenly came up, the text says, literally, it was the fourth watch of the night, which meant the time between 3 a.m and 6 a.m. There they were, far from shore, without even a 35 horsepower Evinrude to get them out of danger.

And Jesus appears, walking toward them on the water. It didn’t calm their fears—they thought they were seeing a ghost. Out there in the dark, everything seemed threatening. Not just the real possibilities of the boat sinking or capsizing, but everything. Their fear, which was in a real sense reasonable, magnified every other thing around them and made everything frightening, even the saving presence of Jesus. When I read this story again, I realized that it resembles nothing as much as the accounts of Jesus resurrection appearances. He appears, and is seen but not recognized until he speaks, he reached out his hand so that Peter could touch him and know that he was not a ghost. Jesus is present, the fear calms, and the storm calms, and they are safe.

So why didn’t he just stay with them and keep them safe? One reason is that he had something else to do—he was out there on that hillside to pray and reflect. And why shouldn’t these professional boat rowers be the ones to take a boat across a lake? The danger that the disciples were in was not unusual. Back then, people lived closer to the forces and dangers of nature than we do today. Everyday life could put you in peril that we mostly can’t imagine today.  In our more technologically advanced age, the dangers are more technologically mediated, like automobile accidents or nuclear missiles. Our fears and anxiety more often emerge with relationship to people and institutions—will there be enough money? Are those unhappy faces signs of a conspiracy against me? Will things work out so my kids can learn and be happy? Will there be a war?

Yesterday, we saw a violent eruption of hatred in Charlottesville, Virginia. At its root is the self-pity and infantile anger of white supremacists who can’t bear the thought of others having equality of dignity with white people in our country. Their anxieties have morphed into blame and evil. And people were injured and died.

Like the disciples, we are responsible human beings out in a world with its dangers and with anxieties that magnify and distort those dangers to the point that we see ghosts of our fears at every turn.  A large part of the polarization and partisan conflict is due to anxieties constructing dangers that aren’t there and making it harder to deal with the real dangers and evil that threaten us. It is particularly disturbing when people of great power intentionally magnify anxieties and threaten multitudes with danger and destruction.

Jesus appears in the midst of the storm, not to do a magic act and make the danger go away. That’s not what the miracle is. The miracle is the healing of the fright, the presence of the life-giving power of God. At the beginning of the lesson, Jesus is dismissing the crowds, just as I do, or a deacon does at the end of the Eucharist, “Go forth, in the peace of God.” At the end of the lesson, he brings peace, not just to the disciples, but to the forces of nature. His presence gives courage—even though, as Peter demonstrates, in the midst of all of this we can slip and start to sink. We often overthink things, think of why we are beyond God’s help, think that Jesus is on the other side of the lake, or perhaps on the other side of a historical or philosophical divide. Somehow, the last place we expect him is in the middle of our turbulent storm. Yet at the darkest time, there he is, “Take heart. It is I, do not be afraid.”

Don’t be fooled by the loudest voices, or the roaring of the storms, or the great earthquakes or cataclysms. Remember Elijah—he was told to go to the mountain and wait for the Lord. And it was not the storm, or the earthquake or the fire that revealed the Lord. It was the sound of sheer silence.

 

Advertisements

My Yoke is Easy

A sermon for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 9, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Those of us who grew up long ago in the Episcopal Church recognize the first part of this as the “Comfortable Words” that were said right after the confession and absolution every week in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer communion service. Sometimes they are said in the Rite I Eucharist. When I think about it, it is very appropriate to hear these words every week—Jesus says who he is for everyone—I will give you rest—my yoke is easy. The Gospel is good news for everyone; you don’t have to be one of the elite. His yoke is easy, and you don’t have to be a great mystic exercising ascetic discipline, you don’t have to be smart or well educated, you don’t even need to be as well-off as your neighbors, or as good as you expect yourself to be. “Come to me”—Jesus welcomes each one, and refreshes us all, particularly in our harried, too fast, too many expectations contemporary existence.

All of us need to hear that regularly, and anybody who thinks they have outgrown it or is too advanced to need it, is probably mistaken. That’s what Jesus says to us, but what do we say to one another? The top of today’s Gospel lesson has a pretty good summary: Jesus compares the current generation – I think the current generation 2,000 years ago was probably not measurably different than the generation we are in – he compares them to bratty kids in the market place, who complain whether somebody dances or whether they mourn. Nothing is ever good enough or satisfactory. Sometimes it’s noted how mean kids can be, I’ve certainly seen it and even been on the receiving end of it when I was a child. However, people don’t actually outgrow that, they just get better at concealing it, though maybe not, if you spend much time on Twitter or Facebook.

Jesus points out that religious people were the same way with John the Baptist and with him. John was a scary prophet, who spent a lot of his time fasting, praying and calling people to repentance. Rather than listening to him, those who represented themselves as religious said, “Oh, he has a demon, and besides I don’t like his choice of clothes.” Jesus, on the other hand, spent a lot of time enjoying people, extending hospitality and accepting hospitality from others. The same people responded, “Way too much partying here, and those people he welcomes are just not the right kind of people.”

Jesus’ words are comfortable and simple: Come to me—Everyone! Rest with me awhile. But people, often those who claim to be the very ones to whom Jesus is extending his invitation, will find ways to make those words complicated and definitely uncomfortable, especially for those who are not the right kind of people.

Someone once said, “Since we know that at least one homeless person will come in glory to judge the living and the dead, we ought to be careful about the way we treat the rest of them.” People like to draw circles around themselves and have some people inside the circle and others outside. But Jesus makes it hard for us to get away with that kind of thing. For one thing, he had the very characteristics that people of his time—and some still in our time—would use to exclude him. He was a Jew, he hung around with sinners and, in regard to sinners, he was an equal opportunity offender: tax collectors and political collaborators, the poor and the zealot anti-Roman insurrectionists, the prostitutes and the Pharisees, the widows and centurions were all people with whom Jesus shared hospitality and his life.

Jesus leads us into a realm that includes possibilities that we resist, and welcome that we often can’t believe. Thus he said,

“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”

Beyond our power and planning, the Kingdom of God is built by the innocence of infants, yet includes even the arrogant and the fearful, and others who are not as welcoming as Jesus. It even includes our political opponents and those who are clearly mistaken. For all of us are called in those comfortable words:

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

They were righteous and regarded others with contempt?

A sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, October 23, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other…”

When we hear today’s parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector, praying in the temple, it’s enough to make us think, “Wow, I’m glad I’m not a Pharisee!”

So who were the Pharisees?

They were the devout. They were those who were regular in attendance at worship. They observed pious practices and sought to purify their lives in accord with the commands of scripture. (The most likely derivation of the word “Pharisee” is from the word for “pure”).

The Pharisees pledged and paid their pledge. They attended parish meetings and volunteered for committees. They really cared about their religious faith.

They were just like us.

Christians sometimes miss that. As St. Luke introduces this parable: “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

Regarded others with contempt. There is nothing further from Christian values than to regard others with contempt. Any time that we baptize new Christians we all promise to “respect the dignity of every human being.” Without that respect, there is no growth in a Christian church, no matter what anyone says. It is tempting to regard others with contempt, particularly in the current political climate of our country.  So how is it with the Pharisee in this parable? He says, “God, I thank you…” That part is good—all good is from God and we should always live our lives as thanksgiving and give voice to God in thanks as much as possible. He continues, “… that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers …”

Hmmm. He is NOT like other people. And he makes a long list in ways he’s not like other people. Included in that list are behaviors that most of us agree are bad behaviors such as theft, unrighteousness and adultery. So that makes the Pharisee irreproachable—because he’s not a thief, unrighteous or an adulterer.

Fair enough, but now, the parable tells us that the Pharisee mentions the man standing next to him with contempt. That man, the tax collector of the story, is standing there and what is he saying? Unlike the Pharisee, he isn’t separating himself from others or categorizing others by their behavior. He says: “God be merciful to me, a sinner!”

I look around our country, and what I hear is people defending themselves by accusation, of categorizing others according to their sins or imagined sins. I myself have been angry from time to time, and in that anger characterized others as the unrighteous and myself and my friends as the righteous. That does not lead to healing or the resolution of the situation. For me, healing only comes through reaching out to others in compassion, hearing the pain and complexity in their lives, and encouraging others in the abundance of God’s mercy.  That’s usually a long process if trust has been broken between people. It also doesn’t mean that we have to give up on our deeply-held positive values.  In some situations where trust has really been broken, the life of compassion has to be developed elsewhere, with others, not directly and quickly with those we have been in conflict.  But it is not through accusation that we find the truth, but through sharing in the mercy of God, of trying to understand the struggles and suffering of others.

praying-aloneThe tax collector was well aware of how things were in his life. It wasn’t just that others despised tax collectors because they were associated with the Roman rule and got substantial income and privilege from their work. The tax collector also knew of the pressures and temptations to extort from some and play favorites with others that characterized the somewhat chaotic Roman system of tax farming. Getting along in that job often ended up meaning that a tax collector went along with, and practiced things that went beyond his ethical boundaries. The truth could be devastating—and the picture in this parable is of a man facing that truth.

“I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other…” There’s no easy answer in this story. But even so, the tax collector could receive God’s mercy because he was trying to live in the truth.

How common is it in our lives that we are tempted to avoid acknowledging the truth? How common that we fib to make ourselves look better? And how common is it for people to pretend that they don’t need mercy? That they don’t have to ask for forgiveness, because they can’t remember any wrong that they have done?

Jesus is here to give mercy and to welcome us into the truth.

Today happens to be the feast of Saint James of Jerusalem, the patron of our church. He was the leader of the Church in Jerusalem during the early days of the church, working along with and in discussion with, and sometimes in conflict with St. Paul and St. Peter on the relationship between Gentile converts and Jewish Christians. We know from the writings of Paul that sometimes these became partisan battles, and James was key in resolving these conflicts in a way that the mission of the church moved forward.

The collect for this feast is a fitting ending to this reflection. Let us pray.

Grant, O God, that, following the example of your servant James the Just, brother of our Lord, your Church may give itself continually to prayer and to the reconciliation of all who are at variance and enmity, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Teach us to pray

A sermon for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost, July 24, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“Lord, teach us to pray.”

Today’s gospel lesson features the Lord’s Prayer. This prayer has been the characteristic prayer of Christians since the very beginning. Early Christian writings say that every Christian should say it three times a day—before Morning Prayer and Evensong were invented, the Lord’s prayer was the daily Christian liturgy. The Lord’s Prayer exists in a few slightly varying forms in ancient documents, and the form we have today in the Gospel of Luke is the simplest and shortest. This can help us to understand the longer version of the prayer that we sing every Sunday and which we hold in our memory.

The spirituality of Jesus and the followers of Jesus are quickly outlined: Simple reverence for God—Father, hallowed be your name; Your kingdom come—the Kingdom of God among us, life in the Commonwealth of God is the most distinctive part of the teaching of Jesus. I’m often puzzled when people suggest using this prayer as non-sectarian and appropriate for groups that are largely non-Christian. There is nothing more Christian than to pray for the Kingdom of God to come.

The Kingdom of God is very different from the Kingdom of this world. It is not about power; it is not about intimidation or fear. It is not about one group gathering all the power and wealth it can to itself at the expense of others. You see the Kingdom in Jesus healing the sick from disease and from being oppressed by those demons that distort the lives of individuals and society. You see the Kingdom in Jesus, the servant of all, who encourages everyone to be neighbors to one another.  You see the Kingdom in him as he faced those powers of the world and was killed by them and yet was raised by God from the dead.  In saying, “Your kingdom come,” we pray for the resurrection of the dead in Jesus Christ.

And it is in that vision of that Kingdom of God that we pray the next sentence: “Give us each day our daily bread.” Bread Nourished. Each day.  In God’s commonwealth there is enough. Enough to share, but not enough to grab and keep for ourselves. Life with Jesus is simple, it is an ordinary experience of peace. In his prayer, what we request is the basics of real life, not the fantasies of what we might want, or the violence of what we might take.

The way that the next petition is phrased is somewhat ironic—it points up something we want to ignore: Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.  This is a dangerous prayer—by entering into it, you end up giving up all claims you have to what others owe you. Of course, God’s forgiveness of our sins is much larger than that, but still, it’s a pretty audacious prayer.  It’s costly to be Jesus’ disciple. The bounty of God’s overwhelming love, forgiveness and free grace flows to us all, in pure generosity. In the Kingdom of Christ, we live from God’s generosity and we live in God’s generosity, and it only costs us …. Everything. It costs us our fears and our selfishness. It costs us our self-righteousness and judgement. It costs us our smugness and our complacency.

And that’s why the prayer ends— “Save us from the time of trial.” The trial is the temptation to turn our backs on the Kingdom of Peace and accept the world of violence, fear and anger, as we see just about every time we turn to the national news recently. The time of trial when the only way forward for everyone seems to be to hold on to the despair of anger and to give up on the hope of forgiveness. Save us from the time of trial when the way to Jesus’ resurrection seems totally blocked by that stone sealing the tomb, and those soldiers blocking the way.

The Gospel lesson continues, and Jesus continues to teach about prayer. Usually the experts observe that these stories are about persistence in prayer. That’s true. But I think Jesus is also playing with us a bit. He taught his disciples and us this simple prayer of the Kingdom. But how often do we get bogged down in being all religious about that? “Oh yes. We must be grateful and generous and forgiving.” “Oh yes, we are the faithful disciples.” “Oh yes, we never give in to the temptation to be fearful.” So Jesus tells a story about his followers and their friends and neighbors who are probably also Jesus’ followers. One goes to the other and asks for a cup of sugar or something, because guests were coming. And Jesus tells it like it actually happens (or the way that people sometimes feel)—that friend says, “No, go away! You’re always bothering me and I don’t feel like helping you out!” In this real world, people don’t always cooperate, not everything goes smoothly and not everyone is nice. Jesus is teasing us. It is not because you are perfect, or because you feel good that you are part of the Kingdom of God, it is because you are God’s child. And look! What’s in my hand? Is it an egg for you to eat? Or is it a scorpion to sting and hurt you? It’s possible to think of people who might play that trick, but not a loving parent, not the God and Father of Jesus Christ, not in the Kingdom of God, the Commonwealth of Peace. Jesus’ stories tease us out of that fearfulness and anger that are that trial that can tempt us. He forgives us and directs us to our daily bread.

The ancient Didache, or Teaching, of the Twelve Apostles, instructs us to pray this prayer three times a day. Before we come forward and share in the heavenly bread of the Eucharist (our Great Thanksgiving), Let’s pray in the words that our Lord taught us:

 

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name.

Thy Kingdom Come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

Peace to this house!

A sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 3, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!”

In last week’s Gospel lesson, Jesus began his journey to Jerusalem. The next thing in the Gospel of Luke is today’s reading.  Jesus found seventy “others.” It doesn’t really describe them, but they were definitely not the twelve apostles. We assume they were Jesus’ disciples, people we like to call his followers. But Jesus didn’t have them follow him, he sent them on ahead, to places where he had not yet been. What were they supposed to do? We can assume a lot of things, and describe their mission, but here is what Jesus actually told them: “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be with this

He sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place.

He sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place.

house!’” These 35 (or maybe 36) pairs of people were supposed to go and pronounce peace for these houses—to be specific: “whatever house.”

These people who Jesus sent out were ordinary people, not geniuses, or orators, or great salespeople. Jesus sent these ordinary people to the places where he would be traveling with one mission: bring peace to the households they visited.

Those people were out there, and Jesus hadn’t cleared the way for them, they were ahead of him, and it was frightening.  Jesus wasn’t naïve. What he was asking them to do was not easy or safe: “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” Going out without bag or purse, without wealth, or power, or any office or standing makes you pretty vulnerable when all you have to offer is peace.

But that’s how Jesus sent them out.  “Peace be with this house.” What is this peace? It’s clearly more than just a greeting, because Jesus continues: “If anyone there shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.” Peace is a gift from God—the God who is love gives peace to those whom he loves.  Peace is the knowledge of dwelling in God’s love—it is the foundation for compassion and for trust. If you’re going into someone else’s house and you want to talk about the Kingdom of God, you have to have some basis for trust. To share God’s compassion, you have to know compassion and share it.  That’s a big piece of those instructions that Jesus gave: “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals…” When you come in carrying all these tools and resources, that’s what the host will see.

But there is only one thing that Jesus gives us to share: his peace.  It surpasses all understanding—and it doesn’t make sense in a world of transactions and power. It is frightening. And note: living in God’s peace and offering it, doesn’t always work out, people won’t always receive it. Jesus gives instructions of what to do in that case: “Say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off…”

Here’s what they found: in living in the peace of God, and offering the compassion of God to those they met, when that peace found the peace within others, tremendous and surprising healing power was unleashed. Even the demons, those spiritual forces that tear apart and destroy society and people were cast out by that peace of God in those ordinary people who went out like lambs to share the Kingdom of God. And as they come back to Jesus, they were are all excited—they had never witnessed such a thing. And the thing they witnessed was them! How exciting! And Jesus rejoiced with them—indeed, he said, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” The transformation and the healing were pretty remarkable as these ordinary people focused and lived in the compassion of God, sharing peace with those they met.

The power is greater than we can ask or imagine—yet Jesus says something else: “Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” It’s not the spiritual power, no more than it is the purse and bag that make the difference. Jesus did not send them out so that they could gain powers and do wonders. He sent them to bring peace, to live in compassion and for their lives to be a source of healing in the world.

We find that peace and healing here in this place, Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania. At least I do. The Kingdom of God is here. Jesus sends us out to bring peace. We gather here and share in Christ’s peace in the Eucharist. You know that peace is real and is of God because it helps others to be healed and grow, and we have no power to control it or make it happen. We live our lives going forward, and we don’t necessarily know what will be there when we reach the place that Christ is sending us.

But Jesus says this: “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Rejoice that God’s Kingdom is here among you.

As our lesson from Isaiah says:

“As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice; your bodies shall flourish like the grass; and it shall be known that the hand of the Lord is with his servants.”

The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace

A sermon for Watch Night, New Year’s Eve

December 31, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx New York

The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

Tonight we end the year of 2015 and we observe the Feast of the Holy Name, which falls on January first of 2016. The Gospel lesson is about Jesus receiving his name—on the eighth day, according to Jewish law Mary and Joseph had their baby circumcised and at that point he received his name: Jesus. But for us, that’s not just any baby, and it’s not just any name. We continue our celebration of the incarnation and Jesus is the name of God among us—alive and real, no abstraction.

The Old Testament lesson is not about circumcision or naming children. It is the blessing which the priests of Israel were instructed to give to the people. The last line of the lesson is, “So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.” When we read this blessing in most translations, there is something that is easy to miss. The blessing says, “The LORD bless you and keep you”  in most translations. But in Hebrew, there is a different word there that was not pronounced, even from before the time of Jesus. Out of reverence, respect and fear of the One, the Holy, the Eternal God that no one has ever seen, orthodox Jews do not pronounce the name of God.  But in this blessing, when you read the text, that name—written as four consonants—Y-H-W-H without the YHWHvowels needed to pronounce it—that name occurs three times. Some scholars believe that it was pronounced Yahweh. So the blessing would be: Yahweh bless you and keep you; Yahweh make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; Yahweh lift up his countenance upon you, and be gracious to you.

This blessing puts the Holy Name of God on the people. The name is not some generic abstraction. It is the name of the God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt, who before that appeared to Moses in the Burning Bush, and long before that who had called Abraham, to make him a people. The Holy Name signifies God among us.  And the angel told Mary to name him Jesus.

We are blessed by the presence of God with us at the end of this year. 2015 has been a difficult year.  If you look in the news, there is violence all over. All over the world, and violence and fear in every sector of public life. There are wars and terrorist attacks around the globe. Over a hundred people were killed in one attack in Paris. Millions of Syrians have had to flee the killing and destruction in their own country—many have died in the process.  In our own country gun violence continues to increase. We particularly notice when people go into public places and kill people they don’t know: a college campus in Oregon, a women’s health center in Colorado, a holiday party at an agency that served clients with developmental disabilities in California, a prayer meeting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The violence makes people fearful and angry and looking for over-simple solutions. They bring more violence and fear into this world. Fearful people see danger in broad categories of people: all immigrants, all Muslims; perhaps all Republicans or all Democrats. Fear has grown to the point that some have taken to fearing, even hating, pretty much everybody who doesn’t look or think like them.

Recently, a grand jury in Cleveland declined to indict the police officer who shot Tamir Rice, a twelve-year old, who had been playing with a toy gun in a park. Police have a difficult and dangerous job, but the numbers of African Americans killed at their hands is totally out of proportion. Professional law enforcement officers should respond to situations by evaluating the circumstances and increasing the safety of all people, not by giving vent to anger; and not by building anger on fear of entire categories of people.

As politics rev up for a presidential election, some seek to exploit people’s fear and to increase their fear and anger. This is not moral. Winning an election or a nomination by harnessing hate is a mockery of democracy and it is the opposite of Christian faith.

At the end of this difficult year, we watch and pray. We are not alone, we pray with others, Christians and non-Christians—we wait and look for peace. Peace is not something we can make, especially not by exercising power. Peace is something that we become. We become people of peace through God’s grace and God’s blessing.

When Pope Francis visited our country this fall, he spoke to Congress. Here is a brief excerpt of what he had to say:

But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within.

God can free us from that enemy within—the enemy of hate, built on fear. It takes courage, however, for Christians to follow Jesus, and take his name into their hearts—fear does not magically disappear in this world, it is only the love of God that overcomes fear.

We wait, and we pray for God to bless us, to banish our fear and to give us his blessing. And in blessing us, God puts the Name of our Lord Jesus in our hearts.

The Lord bless you and keep you;

The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;

The Lord lift up his countenance upon you,

And give you peace.

Guide our feet into the way of peace

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Today instead of a psalm, we read the Canticle of Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father. In the Gospel of Luke, it interprets the meaning of John:

In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us. To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

John the BaptistJohn the Baptizer was a tough guy. There was nothing soft about him. He called people to repentance, and he was not afraid to say hard words to those who tried to game the system. And those who profited by power in the system reacted to him with violence. Ultimately they cut off his head. But these things can distract us from what John was about. “The tender compassion of our God,” the song says. John was out there in the wilderness. He was a voice crying, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” The song continues, “to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

We live in dark times, violent times, and it is difficult to see that path towards peace. Since we were last here in this church together, another mass murder in a public building has taken place.  For a couple of days everyone was darting all over, asking: “Who’s to blame?”  “Who can we be angry at?”  “Who should we be anxious about?” “Is is terrorism?” Of course it’s terrorism. Such acts are designed to provoke fear, to get attention, to affect the world by a show of power and violence.  It really, really, does not matter what the terrorists believe or who their targets are. Their target, their aim, is to suck us all in to increased participation in the violence and fear of violence in this world. They are the agents of chaos, fear and anger—that is to say, they are exactly, precisely the opposite of the messengers of God’s peace.

John was out there in a situation not that different from our own, and he courageously called for repentance. “Step back from the chaos of violence, the chaos of fear.” Comfort ye my people, says the prophet. Prepare the straight way of the Lord—the superhighway of Peace, not winding around every up and down, but going straight through to peace—without fear, without revenge.

It’s easy to get sucked in to violence. We imagine that somehow we can put together power and use violence to destroy violence. I remember how angry I was after 9/11. But the anger and the war that followed did not destroy the violence—it moved it around, recruited more angry and violent people on all sides, in our country and others. It increased intolerance and xenophobia in our country as well as elsewhere. The more that we attempt to crush violence with anger, violence and exercise of power, the more violence is multiplied in more places. This fear-laden atmosphere of violence even effects the way in which police interact with civilians—separate and apart from terrorism or weapons. We cannot stop gun violence and mass murder in our country with power. We must stop it with peace.

This season of Advent is about “the tender compassion of God” which guides us into the way of peace.  The world is filled with lazy cowards who think that peace is a passive thing, that you don’t have to do anything about it, to bring it about. So look at who God sent to proclaim peace. The prophets, especially John the Baptist, were not passive or lazy or soft. I can’t think of anyone in the whole Bible tougher than John the Baptist. Except Jesus. The path of peace is not the path of fearfulness, and it is certainly not the path of surrender. The path of peace requires fortitude and courage.

Yet, peace is not something we can achieve alone. It is only the presence and action and judgment of the living God that brings peace. In the lesson from the prophet Malachi today it says, “The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap … he will purify.”

We will be purified from anger, and fear, and violence and clinging to power, by that messenger of God’s peace. The righteousness of God comes into this world not through being powerful but by serving that one who is powerless, the one who John foretold. We bless the Lord, the God of Israel. He is here. His salvation is among us. He lights our way, and guides us toward peace. It is not in some sort of program that you write up in 500 pages and send off to be implemented. God guides us toward peace each day, in us, between us and through us. It is in our lives that peace grows.

St. Paul got himself put in prison toward the end of his life. He wrote to his friends at the church in Philippi which he had founded. He knew them, and he was confident, not simply in them, but in what God was doing among them. It could not have been an easy time for the congregation or for Paul. This is what he said to them, as was read this morning:

“I am confident of this, that the One who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. … And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”

For the glory and praise of God may your love overflow, as God guides you in the way of peace.