Sunday, December 1, 2013
First Sunday in Advent
Ready and Waiting/Learning Peace
Unexpected God, your advent alarms us. Wake us from drowsy worship, from the sleep that neglects love, and the sedative of misdirected frenzy. Awaken us now to your coming, and bend our angers into your peace. Amen.
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In days to come the mountain of the Lord's house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
"Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths."
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!
All readings for this Sunday
1. What is your role, your church's role, the wider church's role, in bringing in the great day described by the prophet Isaiah?
2. In what ways have we constructed our lives to protect what we have, as individuals, communities, and nations?
3. What would the dream of peace look like in today's world?
4. In what ways do we need to imagine that our interactions with others might change?
5. How might we hear the voice of the Stillspeaking God through the voices of others, especially those who are "not like" us?
Reflection by Kate Huey
Walter Brueggemann has likened today's beautiful passage from the prophet Isaiah to the "I have a dream" speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but most days our reality is a long way from either prophet's vision of peace, justice, and healing. This year, like every year, we read this text in the context of war: conflicts and struggles flare and threaten to flare all over the world, in Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, EgyptÖin our cities and neighborhoods, as well, our homes and workplaces, our relationships with one another, perhaps even within the walls of our congregation. We've come to understand the absence of peace in other ways, too: in the threat of terrorism that makes even "peaceful" days feel ominous and "secure" places unsafe, in the growing anger of the dispossessed that threatens to explode, in the damage to the earth that we will leave as a tragic legacy to our grandchildren, and to theirs as well. (Who ever heard of a "super storm" before? And yet the Philippines lie devastated from only the most recent one, and we have to wonder if nature itself is at war with us.)
It isn't hard then to imagine how the people of Israel must have felt over the centuries in the face of threat, destruction, and exile by one empire after another. More than 500 years before the time of Jesus, they listened to this dream, this vision of the future, and then they looked at their once-beautiful city, Jerusalem, burned and battered by powers that must have appeared unstoppable. Still, they held on to their trust in the promises of One more powerful than any empire and any destructive force; this week's passage is Isaiah's recitation of God's promise of a future very different from what was visible just then. The prophet's words are so graceful, so haunting, so expressive of our deepest yearnings that we even use them in our public life as a vision for all of God's children: James Limburg tells us that these words are engraved on a wall near the headquarters of the United Nations in New York City, where they inspire the work of many nations, many different peoples who yearn to live together in justice and peace. What a beautiful and grace-filled image to hold in our hearts during these cold and difficult days!
We hear this text not only in a time of conflict and war but in a new season at the beginning of a new church year: Advent, the time of waiting, and so much more. Brueggemann describes Advent as "an abrupt disruption in our 'ordinary time'...utterly new year, new time, new life. Everything begins again..." While the world around us wraps up another year hoping for increased consumer spending and waiting for annual reports on profits, the church already steps into a new time, to begin a season of hoping and waiting for much more: "Advent," Brueggemann continues, "invites us to awaken from our numbed endurance and our domesticated expectations, to consider our life afresh in light of new gifts that God is about to give." In this new season and new year, we dare to hope for something much better than the news may report. We begin a new time remembering who is really in charge of everything, and setting our hearts on being part of the plan. As beautiful as these verses are, they paint a very clear picture: God is the One who brings this dream to reality, but there's work for us to do, too, in re-shaping the instruments of war, violence, and destruction into instruments of peace and provision for all.
So, there are words of comfort and promise about what God is going to do, but between the lines, there's a call to participate in that dream of God. We suspect that Dr. King expected us not just to sit around waiting for that great day of peace and justice but to work as we wait. Isaiah too wants us to loosen the grip on our swords and the instruments of war and to take up the things of peace, to "walk in the light of the Lord." It sounds really, really nice, but Brueggemann says there's a catch: "God wills for the world...a center of justice and righteousness that will get our minds off our petty agenda and our penchant to protect our little investments. I find that vision overwhelming--and not very welcome, because the things I value most I am reluctant to lose or risk, and even more reluctant to share." The things of war between nations are also things that we struggle with, each one of us, individually, even our great theologians and scholars.
"Delighting in God, Engaged in God's Purpose"
We might claim that the nations, alas, can't beat their swords and spears into the things of peace just yet, much as they might like to, because there are still so many situations in which those weapons are needed. After all, that's how we have to settle conflicts. But Isaiah promises a day when, in Brueggemann's words, "The nations will not only delight in God's person, they will be engaged in God's purpose." (Wouldn't that be a great mission statement for a congregation? "Delighting in God, Engaged in God's Purpose") Isaiah promises a time when God's ways will fully shape how we live, not just some of us, but every single person--"all the nations...many peoples" streaming toward the bright light of peace, and enough, for all. It may not look like that right now, but Advent is about taking the long view of things. And, in the meantime, Limburg writes, we're "invited to get this marvelous picture of peacemaking out of the realm of the imagination and into the realities of everyday life." Many may doubt that seeking peace through justice will ever turn back the dogs of war, but, Mary Hinkle Shores writes, "even skeptics have to admit that justice, safety, and widespread prosperity have a better chance of resulting in peace than injustice, danger, and disparity of wealth." Certainly it's worth our best try!
We might claim that the nations, alas, can't beat their swords and spears into the things of peace just yet, much as they might want to, because there are still so many situations in which those weapons are needed. Isn't that how we "keep" a kind of peace, at least, until a better one is possible? But Isaiah promises a day when God's ways will fully shape how we live, not just some of us, but every single person--"all the nationsÖmany peoples" streaming toward the bright light of peace, and enough, for all. It may not look like that right now, but Advent is about taking the long view of things. And, in the meantime, James Limburg reminds us that God invites, or better, calls us not just to imagine and dream but to make peacemaking a priority in our everyday lives. Many people may doubt that seeking peace through justice will prove effective in turning back the dogs of war, but, as Mary Hinkle Shore claims, "even skeptics have to admit that justice, safety, and widespread prosperity have a better chance of resulting in peace than injustice, danger, and disparity of wealth." In his November 1, 2010 column in the New York Times, "Fast Track to Inequality," Bob Herbert wrote movingly--and disturbingly--of the dramatically growing disparity of wealth in the United States in the past few years, even during this economic recovery of sorts. Three years later, the middle class continues to erode and disproportionate wealth continues to move upward to a small segment at the top of the economic ladder. We can't bear to imagine what happens to those at the bottom (See "Reinventing the Dwindling Middle Class"). Perhaps these post-modern texts could be read alongside the ancient one, in order to hear the challenge of the prophet and the call of God to respond.
History belongs to God
If this text were not so comforting and full of hope, it would be painful to read. Indeed, how our hearts long for a time--the time--of peace in the world! Perhaps the most powerful affirmation of the text, however, is that history belongs to God and will surely unfold as God sees fit. As we steep ourselves in Advent observance and look forward as much as backward in time for inspiration and hope, what do we truly long for in our lives? What price are we willing to pay for it? Haven't we often beaten our pruning hooks into spears in order to protect what we claim as our own? As we write our Christmas cards with lovely images of peace in the world, in what ways are we pursuing peace in our lives and in the world around us?
How can people of faith transcend our differences and speak with one voice about the call to peace given by a God who--today--loves each one of us? What can we share in common--care for our children, for the earth, for the future--that brings us together in recognition that all of us, and our entire lives, belong to the same God and therefore find our common ground in peace, not war? How might we deepen our respect for one another?
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) can be found at http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/december-1-2013.html.
For further reflection
Jo Hudson, Gathering Pastor of Extravagance UCC, 21st century
"There is a world of hurt out there that needs the word of hope in here."
Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century
"The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy that recognizes the dignity and worth of all Godís children."
Fred Rogers, 20th century
"When I say it's you I like, I'm talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed."
Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes: Sunday Pages 1985-1995
"Dad, how do soldiers killing each other solve the world's problems?"
John Lennon, 20th century
"All we are saying, is give peace a chance."
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Ready and Waiting/Learning Peace
Sunday, December 1, 2013