waiting on the light of peace

This advent, we’re admiring the methodology
of social worker, researcher Brené Brown,
who stresses the importance of a good definition
(a practical, everyday good definition)
particularly of what she calls “big concept words.”
And surely we would number among such words:
hope, peace, joy, and love—
the big concepts with which the four Sundays of Advent
are traditionally associated.

And this week, we’re considering peace.
So, how do we define peace?

The online dictionary I consulted at Panera last night
had as its first definition:
“freedom from disturbance; quiet and tranquility,”
and, as its second,
“freedom from or the cessation of war or violence”
But we define it, let it be said, today,
in worship, in light of Scripture, and in light of God.
So the idea that peace could be defined
as freedom from war or violence,
as it is in that second definition
(and I think in popular thought)—
that peace could be defined as freedom from war or violence,
or even as the absence of conflict, falls flat.
Not that that’s not part of a good definition of peace,
but if we leave it at that, we end up with a very shallow definition.

I’d like to consider three possible reasons
such a definition would ring hollow.
First, war, violence, and conflict all represent expressions
of some essential, fundamental inequality,
Now the validity of that perception is not the issue.
Some inequalities unquestionably have to be addressed;
others are manufactured, exploited,
and do not deserve the attention they get.
That’s not the point here.
Here’s the point:
War, violence, and conflict all represent expressions
of some essential, fundamental inequality,
but you can not have the expression
and still have the inequality.
So would you appropriately name such a context peace?
If you’re not overtly fighting with your best friend or spouse or sibling,
but still so very, very angry,
is that peace?

Second, we tend to define peace
either from the perspective of winners and losers,
or from our own.
So from the win/loss perspective,
there’s peace because someone won,
and because someone lost.

Y’all know what a zero sum game is?
Comes from the mathematical idea
that there’s a fixed number of points,
and is a game in which someone gains points
as someone else loses them.
The game ends with someone having all the points,
and others having none.
So the winner wins at the expense of the losers.
But a corollary of such a mathematical proposition,
thinking about it from another angle,
is that if you add up all of what someone wins
and you subtract everything everyone else loses,
you end up with zero,
and from that perspective, no one wins.

Peace cannot be a zero sum game.
And yet, with war and all too many relationships,
we like to think it is.
The more completely we can beat them, we think,
the greater the possibility of peace.
So we define peace from the perspective of winners and losers.

Or we define peace from our own perspective,
and we claim peace
because we’re not directly, immediately, and adversely affected
by expressions of inequality.
We do that in our country a lot.

So to ask the question, are we at peace?
is to ask, more fundamentally, who are “we”?
Right? Because all too often,
such peace is simply a matter of limiting the “we”
to a small enough unaffected number.

Third, it is troubling to me,
the idea that peace can be achieved
by means so very other than peace-full.

And there are times and circumstances, perhaps,
in which it falls upon us to discern
what benefit there might be to forcing peace
(or attempting to force peace).
But such is not our story today.
When it comes to peace as part of God’s will—
when it comes to the peace that is part of who God is—
when it comes to Advent and angelsong—
angel message,
we do peace a disservice
to subordinate it to any subset of the whole.
Good news of great joy: peace to all, remember,
is the angelsong—the Advent word.

And I know the world is complex,
and I know evil exists.
But at a very basic level, I have tried to imagine
peace within a family
as the will of one family member imposed on all the others.
Can you imagine that?
I can’t.
Peace is not about who’s strongest.
And it’s not about the right person being strongest.
Peace has rather to do with the assurance of all—
with opportunity for all—
with justice for all.
So peace has precisely to do with the absence of imposition.
Not with being strong enough—
powerful enough to impose your will—
even if your will is peace.
Such a reliance on power is a kind of god,
but it’s not ours.
Ours is, in truth, defined against such an idea.

And we read in Scripture
both of the peace of God (Phil. 4:7; Gal. 3:15)
and the God of peace (Rom. 15:33; Phil. 4:9; Heb. 13:20)—
the God who gifts us with peace
(Isaiah 45:7; Luke 1:79; 19:42; Romans 3:17).
“Clearly peace is a divine quality,
and the practice of peace is a measuring rod
of the relationship between the divine and the human”
(Isam Ballenger, “The Meaning of Peace,
Biblical and Theological Considerations”—
Topic for the Virginia Baptist Historical Society, March 8, 2010).

But what our God values is not the absence of conflict.
Even a brief consideration of Jesus’ life
makes it abundantly clear
that God’s peace “cannot be construed
as the absence of conflict, grief, or suffering”
(Isam Ballenger)—
that it’s so much more than the absence of conflict—
that it sometimes, in truth, includes conflict.

In our sacred texts, peace in the Old Testament
is associated with covenant,
and in the New Testament, with Jesus.
and so with the establishment of righteousness and justice.

Again not so much the absence of conflict,
but the absence of threat, of dis-ease,
of so many of life’s profound stresses—
the absence of all the far-reaching implications
of those who are not valued, not loved, not cared for.

As such, peace is not reactive, but proactive.
We lost a great man this past week.
Nelson Mandela once said,
“If you want to make peace with your enemy,
you have to work with your enemy.
Then he becomes your partner.”
But, perhaps more importantly,
said a commentator of Mandela:
“He was the embodiment
of what he wanted to accomplish”—
the embodiment of forgiveness,
the embodiment of reconciliation,
the embodiment of acceptance,
the embodiment of hope.
An Advent question for us:
are we the embodiment of what we want to accomplish?
And do we embody peace?

And it’s not that we can accomplish peace,
and yet, what we accomplish by not trying
is something else, and is not good.

To go back to that first definition
the Oxford dictionaries offered online—
to the idea of peace as freedom from disturbance,
that has potential.
Not so much thinking quiet tranquility,
as freedom from the great stresses.
Or enough assurance within the great stresses
not to be turned upside down and inside out by them.
Though again, we must ask, whose freedom from disturbance?
The “we” has to be big enough
that limiting the “we” doesn’t completely undermine
the integrity of the peace.

At thirteen years of age, a Jewish boy celebrates his Bar Mitzvah
assumed is the fact that he’s been studying Torah.
assumed is a familiarity with its tradition and its teachings,
and so, familiarity with the concept of shalom—
a word that shows up in the Old Testament
in the form of a verb 116 times,
and in the form of a noun, 358 times.
important word. important idea.

So at thirteen, Tali Sorek, of Beersheba, Israel,
wrote this poem:
“I had a box of color—
​Shining, bright and bold.
​I had a box of colors,
​Some warm, some very cold.

​I had no red for the blood of wounds.
​I had no black for the orphans’ grief.
​I had no white for dead faces and hands.
​I had no yellow for burning sands.

​But I had orange for the joy of life,
​And I had green for buds and nests.
​I had blue for bright, clear skies.
​I had pink for dreams and rest.

​I sat down and painted Peace”

Let me suggest to you this morning,
that if Tali Sorek does not know peace in Beersheba,
and if other children throughout the Middle East
do not know peace—in Israel and Palestine,
in Iran and Syria and Turkey …
if the children of Africa and in the favelas of South America
do not know peace …
if children in our own country do not know peace,
then what we do know is not peace—
not as the Bible conceives it—
not as God understands it.

So with at least the idea of a definition in hand,
Brown then asks the question: what gets in the way?
If these four big concept advent ideas
are key characteristics of God’s way of being
(hope, peace, joy and love),
then what gets in the way of their being manifest more regularly?
And today, specifically, what gets in the way of peace?

Part of what gets in the way is thinking we know what peace means
when we’e settled for some small, limited definition.
Whatever we know of peace, we do not know peace.
In a speech on November 11, 1948,
then Army Chief of Staff
soon to become the first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
General Omar N. Bradley, observed:
“The world has achieved brilliance without conscience.
Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.
we know more about war than we know about peace,
more about killing than we know about living.
We have grasped the mystery of the atom
and rejected the Sermon on the Mount.”

What gets in the way of peace?
Those who say it’s impossible,
it’s unrealistic, it’s nothing we can accomplish.

What gets in the way of peace?
Whether that’s corporations making billions off death,
or individuals maneuvering for power,
profit is the coldly calculated, very utilitarian prioritizing
that undermines the priority of peace—
that often wears the mask of inevitability—
of claiming to look at what’s real without rose colored filters.
But it’s nothing more than the
the undermining of peace.
For the shrinking of peace from all creation
to whatever stakeholders are identified
is way too profitable for way too many.

“The American people and the governing class
have accepted that war has become a permanent condition,”
said retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich,
a history professor at Boston University ….
“Protracted war has become a widely accepted part of our politics.”

As bad as that is, it’s actually worse.
Because it’s not just that protracted war has become
a widely accepted part of our politics,
but the lack of peace has become the widely accepted status quo.
And shallow definitions of peace
that disguise this truth prevail.

Last week, considering hope,
we listed what we might hope for.
Today I would suggest we can’t hold onto
the biggest idea of peace—
the truest definition of peace,
without hope.

So blessed are not just the peacemakers,
but also the peace-namers—
the namers of true peace—
the true peace that unsettles any compromised definition.

Pope Francis, whom I appreciate more and more all the time,
wrote in his recent apostolic exhortation:
“But until exclusion and inequality in society
and between peoples is reversed,
it will be impossible to eliminate violence….
When a society – whether local, national or global –
is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes,
no political programs or resources
spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems
can indefinitely guarantee tranquility.
This is not the case simply because inequality provokes
a violent reaction from those excluded from the system,
but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root.
Just as goodness tends to spread, the toleration of evil,
which is injustice, tends to expand its baneful influence
and quietly to undermine any political and social system,
no matter how solid it may appear.
If every action has its consequences,
an evil embedded in the structures of a society
has a constant potential for disintegration and death”
(Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, November 24, 2013).

I tell you, I worry about this man.
For someone in such a high profile position
to speak and live out the truths he does ….

So yes, peace is the vision
of the peaceable kingdom—
Isaiah’s remarkable, wonderful vision
of the lion and the lamb.
It’s Jimi Hendrix (how often do you get to quote Jimi Hendrix
in a sermon?!), but twas he who said,
“When the power of love
overcomes the love of power,
the world will know peace.”
Yes, peace is the holy vision of an alternate reality.

But it’s also the harsh cry of John the Baptist
preaching repentance in the wilderness
with words that continue, if heard,
to lash us out of complacency—
out of blindly accepting the way things are—

out of settling for our reality
and clinging to a beautiful vision of an alternate one—

lash us out of complacency
into repentance—
into a living that embodies what we want—
repenting of the injustice,
repenting of the systems
that do not manifest justice
and do not facilitate peace.

That we personally benefit from many of them
is both insidious and irrelevant.
The vision of God is bigger than we are—
bigger than any “we”.
It is not to be claimed by any limited “we”
for it encompasses creation—
all creation,
groaning in hope,
awaiting the advent of the children of God.

And waiting not in some naive denial
of the very real threat of enemies,
but committed to making partners of them.
Not labeling and treating everyone
as participants in a zero sum game.

Have I defined it?
We settle for a small definition of peace—
a shallow understanding.
But our sacred texts in both Old and New Testaments,
the whole of the story of God,
and the seasonal part of the story we tell at this time,
all remind us that the truth of peace—
of God’s peace—
is such a bigger vision of wholeness
that challenges any small interpretation.

That definition’s a gift—
maybe a challenging one—
a hard one,
but gift.
Given to us that we might prepare diligently,
that we might receive gratefully,
that we might welcome appropriately—

So, this second Sunday of Advent,
may the peace of Christ be with you.


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