Sunday, December 9, 2012

Cultivating Peace (12/9/12)


In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:  “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  Every valley shall be filled,  and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’
Luke 3:1-6

The Second Sunday of Advent is generally John the Baptist Sunday.   He is the“wide eyed radical” alluded to in the reading for the Lighting of the Advent Candle.    He is the one crying in the wilderness,
Prepare the way of the Lord,  Make his paths straight.
The writers of the gospels were impressively creative.   They were able to reinterpret old stories and apply them to current situations.    The author of Luke quotes from the prophetic book Isaiah and applies this passage to John the Baptist.     The reason this is creative is that the prophet Isaiah is not talking about John the Baptist or Jesus.    

Those books we that call the prophetic books in the Hebrew Scriptures are not filled with prophecies of things supposedly to come.   Certainly, Isaiah writing 500 years before John and Jesus was not talking about them.    The writer of Isaiah was writing about events in his own time.    

The gospel writers in telling the stories of Jesus, went back into their scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament, and borrowed themes, events, images, and narratives, and applied all of that to Jesus and in this case, John.     Most of us learned in Sunday School and by listening to Christmas music that Jesus and John fulfilled prophecy.  That the Old Testament predicts the New Testament.     This has been the view promoted by Christian theology over the centuries. 

Modern scholarship has shown that that is not likely.  It is more likely that the stories of Jesus were borrowed from stories about Moses and Elijah and from various other figures and places and then retold to be about Jesus. 

For instance, in Matthew’s gospel, Herod has all the children under two slaughtered in order to get to Jesus who he understands to be a threat.   Miraculously, Jesus is saved by a combination of skill, courage, and providence even though other innocent children are not.    Where have we heard that story before?  In Exodus chapter two, Pharaoh has the young boys killed out of fear that the Hebrew people will revolt.  Moses is saved by a combination of skill, courage, and providence.    Hence Jesus is like Moses. 

You can go through the stories of Jesus and find many similar literary antecedents in the Hebrew scriptures as well as from imperial religion.   For instance Luke’s story of the announcement by the angels of Jesus’ birth can be seen as a mocking of the birthday of Augustus Caesar.   Caesar was celebrated as the prince of peace, the savior of the world, the lord, the son of a god.    Christians used that imperial language and applied it to someone who was not imperial at all, but in fact, was executed by the empire as a criminal.  

The gospel writers were offering a choice.  Who is your son of god?  The Emperor or Jesus?    

When I learned that a couple of things happened.  First a balloon popped.  There was kind of a deflation.   The Bible lost whatever magic it had.  Then I found it interesting.   It was far more interesting to me than the magic.  I wondered, why did they do that?     Why did the authors write this way?  What did they want to tell us?  What really happened?

It seems that what happened is that over the centuries from the time of the gospel writers to the creeds of the fourth and fifth centuries, Jesus the radical peasant and wisdom teacher who was executed by the emperor was turned into the emperor.   The language backfired and all those titles given to Jesus such as son of god, prince of peace, and lord and christ were turned from political titles to supernatural ones.    His symbols (such as the cross) were placed on military shields and the emperor conquered his enemies under the sign of Jesus the Christ.   That has been the church’s Jesus since.

In my 20 years of preaching I have discovered that many people don’t like the historical Jesus.   They especially don’t like him at Christmas.    Many would be happy if the historical Jesus never came to church.    He doesn’t do much.  He isn’t the second person of the trinity.   He doesn’t save the world from sin.  He doesn’t answer prayer.  He doesn’t return on a white horse and conquer evil.    He isn’t a vehicle by which our consciousness survives our death.    All of that and more is the result of theological reflection in the centuries following his life.    It isn't that those theological reflections are bad or wrong, they are distinct from the historical Jesus.

In life, Jesus was a wisdom teacher whose stories and activities were so fascinating, pointed, and threatening, that he got himself executed.      What I find interesting is that he was inspiring enough that those who wanted to follow his vision remembered him and remembered him in the creative ways that were available to them.   As I mentioned earlier they borrowed from their tradition to capture his essence.     

What they borrowed, such as the passage from Isaiah, that is our focus for today, is the political return to their homeland from their exile in Babylon.  They imagined God making a highway in the desert so they could travel home from Babylon to Jerusalem.     The dream is of a just peace.  No longer will they be under another’s rule.    Each will sit under his or her own fig tree.     

Why does this all apply to Jesus?  Because the people live under the authority of the Roman Emperor.   For them it is not a just peace.    The emperor and the imperial religion that celebrates him constantly tells its "good news".  It "evangelizes", that very word comes from the imperial religion.  Hear the "good news" that Caesar is the savior of the world.  He has shown his generosity by providing peace to Rome and quiet in the provinces.   What more could we ask?  We want peace at home and we want quiet over there in the Middle East so the oil keeps coming, or quiet in Central America so the coffee keeps coming or quiet in China so we keep getting the cool plastic Christmas presents at low prices at Wal-Mart.    I know, I know, I am meddling.  The historical Jesus is just no fun at Christmas.  

The people Jesus hung out with were the victims of the emperor’s “quiet.”   The difference between Caesar and the historical Jesus is that Jesus knew the difference between peace and quiet.   Caesar knew  the difference too.   From Caesar’s perspective it was like this: 
“When you are quiet, I can have peace.”
It is like dad and the kids.  The siblings are squabbling.  There is likely some injustice occurring.  But dad only cares when his peace gets disturbed.    They aren’t quiet.   They are disturbing his peace.   Here is his solution:
“Both of you go to bed!”
Caesar says,  
“When you are quiet, I can have peace.  I will enforce your quiet and my peace with my army and the spectacle of crucifixion.”
Jesus says,
“Do what you will, Caesar.   We will not be quiet until there is peace, a just peace, for everyone.”
When Jesus made his parade into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday, Luke records Jesus as saying to those who complained about the loudness of his followers:   
“I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”   (Luke 19:40)
The question at Christmas and at any time of the year is which son of god will you follow?   Which prince of peace?   Caesar or Jesus?   What do you want?  Peace or quiet?    Mostly we just put Jesus in a Caesar suit and conveniently forget that Jesus, like John before him, was a wide eyed radical who opposed with all of his mind, heart, and soul and ultimately his body the policies of empire.  

I said, perhaps too despairingly, that many don’t want the historical Jesus to come to church.   But I am also finding that more and more people do want to hear about him.   Not only hear about him, but be inspired by him.  

What might it mean for us today to be inspired by that Jesus?

I cannot say how to do it.  That is up to each of us.  I can point to some illustrations of what peace instead of quiet looks like.    

In a few moments we will hear from the Peacemaking Committee about alternative giving.  Rather than giving ourselves over completely to the treadmill of consumerism, some have decided to give the gift of justice and peace for victims of domestic violence through the Shepherd’s Inn and for basic needs of food and fresh water through the Kenya water project.     

There is a website called The Advent Conspiracy.  It was founded in 2006 by five pastors  
“…who decided to make Christmas a revolutionary event by encouraging their faith communities to Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More and Love All.”
It includes ideas for households to be conscious about peace and justice in the world and to be encouraged to follow their hearts.    There are many creative ways that people are putting the historical Jesus into their Christmas celebrations.   I am sure that you have some ideas.  Don’t be quiet about it!

In regards to peace vs. quiet, I would like to share what happened at the presbytery meeting this past Tuesday.    I have been an advocate for justice for LGBT people for some time.    I have been told that I should be more quiet about it because it disturbs some people.    While I appreciate the advice, I don’t internalize it because I think this is a question of justice.   I don’t think quiet is a good response to injustice.    I am inspired when people break that silence even when facing great opposition.  

This past Tuesday at the meeting of our presbytery, my friend Don Steele, did not remain quiet.  He wasn’t loud.  He was himself, vulnerable and courageous.     Don simply asked for a transfer from membership in Pittsburgh Presbytery to Holston Presbytery.    With a minister of 42 years it would be automatic.  But because Don is gay he had to be examined, something only done to new ministers, and voted upon after two meetings of discussion.   

Because the policy of the national church had changed in the last year, he was able to make this request.  But removing the barriers that had previously prevented openly gay people from being ministers does not mean the presbytery was required to accept him.  The mood was intensely hostile.    The feeling was that he shouldn’t even have asked.    One speaker accused him of disturbing the peace of the church.     They voted not to receive him 27-64.  

None of us is na├»ve.   Neither Don nor I thought he would be accepted this first time around.    But Don’s unwillingness to be quiet spoke volumes on behalf of LGBT people in the church and in society.    It wasn’t just about him.    It is for everyone who has been marginalized, ridiculed, bullied, and denied freedoms because they are gay or lesbian.   

The good thing is that Don by giving of himself to this spectacle opened the conversation in our presbytery. 

Since then I have heard stories of people who were confronted by their own prejudice and had changes of heart.   It happens one story at a time.  Don followed the spirit of the historical Jesus advocating for peace, a just peace, not quiet.  

When the historical Jesus comes to church at Christmas, it can be disturbing.   In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is quoted as saying:
“Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find.  When they find, they will be disturbed.  When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will reign over all.”
That is one of my favorite sayings.  It inspires me, like Don did, like the historical Jesus did, to be uncomfortable, to be vulnerable, to risk the hostile stare, to not confuse quiet with peace.  

And to trust as Martin Luther King said,
“That the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

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