by Ellen Sims
texts: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:8-11; Mark 1:1-8
Pastors are expected to listen to even the most disturbing of their congregants’ stories with imperturbable calm. I’ve gotten better over the years in my role as confidant, consoler, and mother confessor. I never explode with “You did WHAT?” But I wonder if my face tends to betray what I’m thinking and feeling. In my pre-ministry life, when I sang in the church choir, an older lady in our church one day told me in all seriousness that she liked to watch me during the worship services so she would “know what to feel.” I wondered, “What kind of smorgasbord of emotions have I been displaying on my face for the whole church to read?”
It helps me to remember that for every shadow trait that dogs us, there is, thank goodness, a redeeming strength associated with that aspect of each personality type. Especially in recent days you’ve seen me deeply disheartened at times. But the thing that makes me a worrier is the very part of me that pursues our life together with commitment and passion and that helps me empathize with my whole heart. I’m not the textbook ideal of the unflappable pastor, but it may not be the worst thing in the world for your pastor, in certain situations, to cry WITH you. I’m still trying to cultivate an inner equanimity and calm, to rest more faithfully in the knowledge that everything doesn’t depend on me, and to trust that the world will very likely survive Donald Trump.
I long for inner peace that is absolutely necessary for those working for societal peace. In fact, Open Table’s mission statement acknowledges the link between the work for personal transformation and for social transformation. Take a look at the front of your bulletin, upper right-hand corner. We read that this congregation aims to follow Jesus through five commitments, firstly through his extraordinary life of love—and secondly through his example of spiritual as well as social transformation. These inner and outer aims are mutual and recursive. We cannot act as agents of change in the world if we are not also undergoing inner transformation. One mark of both social and personal transformation is peace. If my inner life is marked by peace, I’m better positioned to contribute to this world’s peace. And engaging actively as a peacemaker in this world gives me practice in spiritual exercises that strengthen me personally.
Open Table periodically offers opportunities for explicitly cultivating and practicing both inner and outer peace. For instance, Tracy Glover and I recently led a series on nonviolent tactics for “bystander intervention.” We role played situations in which, for instance, an ordinary person might witness in public someone harassing another person and then would need to assess if and how best to intercede for the targeted individual without inflaming the situation. We can do more harm than good if we’re not personally equipped to deescalate violence. To be an active peacemaker in this world requires practice. And much of that practice involves drawing upon one’s own inner resources of calm and self-control and self-understanding.
But really the entire life of a congregation centers on doing this inner/outer work together. It’s in community that we engage in important matters as we practice healthy communication and work with people who are different from us. It’s in community that inevitably we experience conflict and then have to work through that conflict in healthy (peaceful) ways. Resolving conflict peacefully, by the way, does not mean acquiescing to a bully. When conflict does arise, I always think, “Well, this problem presents us with a curriculum for developing our peacemaking skills. We couldn’t buy such a customized, challenging material for learning to work together toward a peaceful and just resolution.”
Which brings me back to our passage from today’s psalm. Not only does Advent peace teach us this back and forth dance between inner and outer peace. Today’s psalm reminds us that Advent peace is understood best when it’s inextricably connected to the concept of justice.
“Let us hear what God will speak, for she will speak peace to her people, to those who turn to her in their hearts. Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.”
Righteousness here means “social justice.” The Psalmist is saying that social justice and peace go together. Peace is not authentic if it is merely the absence of overt physical violence. Totalitarian regimes can keep the oppressed under control so that it may seem there is “peace” in the country—but in fact there is always the threat of terrible violence in totalitarian states whose citizens have no recourse against those in power. Not a lot of riots, rallies, and social protests happen in North Korea, but that doesn’t mean that nation is “peaceful.” Genuine peace can only exist when people are treated justly. Working for a world of peace requires us to work for justice (translated sometimes as “righteousness”) that empowers the lowly and treats all equally.
The relationship between peace and equality is found in today’s passage from Isaiah, which the writer of Mark later paraphrased. Listen again to the prophet’s vision of a fair and equal ideal using the metaphor of a varied landscape in the wilderness:
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”
The prophet recognizes that a leveling must occur if we’re to welcome God. Figurative valleys must be elevated; symbolic hills need to be leveled; God’s way, the Lord’s “highway” must be level. God’s kingdom lifts up the lowly and eliminates unfair privilege. Through symbolic topography, Isaiah implies that reparations may need to be made, that economies should be evened out to correct extreme disparities.. Again, authentic peace is not mere absence of protest or conflict. God’s shalom is not a passive, doormat acceptance of unjust treatment or degradation and violence to the human spirit. Living with hunger, being subjected to verbal abuse, being denied opportunity and choice and self-expression are forms of violence. Real peace is founded on justice (righteousness) and equality, honoring the dignity of all.
Righteousness/justice and peace must “kiss.” The Psalmist is saying poetically that justice loves peace and peace loves justice. Righteousness and peace must live together in harmony, in peace. Peace is not authentic if it is merely the absence of overt violence. And peace is not passive. It must empower the lowly and treat all equally.
This is the season we are to stand watch for Advent’s signs of peace. But it’s easier to name signs of conflict and violence, isn’t it?
• unstable world leaders itching to press the nuclear button
• easy access to guns that can kill as many people as possible in as little time as possible
• Hate speech that demonizes certain groups of people.
So what does emerging peace look like? Any signs of peace you’ve seen lately?
If you believe some things have to get pretty bad before people are willing, out of desperation, to acknowledge the dysfunction and stop the violence, then you might say we are seeing signs of emerging peace nowadays. For instance, sexual harassment and aggression—forms of violence—are being exposed like never before. Maybe we are seeing the first signs of a concerted commitment to insist that sexual aggression is a form of violence. Bringing this injustice to light may actually be a sign of emerging peace.
I began by focusing on our work to cultivate an inner life of peace. I then moved to the larger challenge of reforming a violent society by instating social justice. I close now by returning to the private work of the inner soul. Because that “confession” I made at the start of the service was not completely true. It’s so much easier for me to talk about social justice “issues” rather than admit personal challenges. In fact, this circling back to the personal is an addendum to the sermon I thought I finished last night.
When I woke up this morning I realized the “confession” with which I began the sermon was phony. Or just not fully honest. I confessed to showing my feelings and getting anxious at times. But that was the confessional equivalent to someone on a diet confessing to their Weight Watchers group that she used extra salad dressing on her salad and failing to mention she also ate a whole sleeve of Girl Scout cookies later that night.
What I need to admit is that I am not spending enough time in prayer and quiet and in other ways that nurture my soul. When the world gets darker, it feel there’s just so much more that we, that I, need to DO. But that’s NOT the time to give up healthy spiritual practices. Because Open Table is known in the community, I and we are often asked to provide assistance for worthy events and causes. And sometimes I just forget that I don’t have to say yes to everything. It’s faithless to think so much depends on me and on Open Table.
I am going to try to get more sleep and limit my time on social media. I recommend the same for you. I don’t know about you, but Facebook is drawing me into this world’s troubles in a way that dispirits me rather than equips me to engage in social justice. I was watching a video posted on Facebook this morning about the rescue of a fox wedged in some rocks and caught myself praying, “O, help them dig him out in time!” knowing full well someone must have rescued that fox months ago. It’s faithless and unhealthy for me not to devote myself to the quiet experience of God’s restoring peace.
To make room for genuine peace in my life, I need to do what Isaiah preaches and “clear a straight path.” You, too, may want to ask yourself what you need to remove from the path you are taking in order for God’s ways to emerge in and through my life. “Let peace begin with me,” says a song from my youth. Then it can extend to those in our everyday world.
Ironically this season when we pray for peace on earth can bring out our most belligerent tones. You may have already seen Facebook posts and Twitter exchanges renewing the annual debate over whether we should greet strangers with the phrase “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” People are snapping at each other in cyberspace with a “Merry Christmas, you heathen.” And “Oh yeh? Well Happy Holidays, you religious freak.” And that is to say nothing of the highly divisive senatorial campaign that has received unprecedented national attention and has us afraid to talk with our neighbors.
What if Isaiah’s vision of peace comes to pass one conversation at a time? I do not mean we should put our emotional health at risk by absorbing belligerence. I mean that we cannot wage peace if we have enmity in our hearts. I mean that I cannot expect a brother to hear me unless I am willing to listen to him.
I do get angry and afraid for the world when some people talk might-makes-right politics with chests puffed out and arms flexed. But I am even more afraid of the person I will become if I respond in kind. We live in a world, in a nation, in families where political, cultural, and theological fissures are deepening. We struggle to find ways to see that across that widening gulf there are people who are our brothers and sisters. Maybe when we develop our inner capacity for peace—even while we collectively become the next voice crying in the wilderness—then we will help to clear the path for the Spirit of Peace.