A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, May 29, 2016
Text: Micah 4:1-5; Luke 6:26-37; Romans 12:9-21 (The Message)
Are you tired of talking about peace? It’s been a month now. Are we any closer to achieving peace than we were when we started? People are still warring on a variety of fronts. Ancient enmity keeps people glaring at each other across chasms of hatred or pretending they are safe behind walls that separate. Sexism, homo-hated, and racism are all still rampant. The gulf widens daily between the haves and have nots. People are fed up with governments atrophied over the silliest self-absorption of special interest groups and childish grabs for power by politicians of every persuasion.
We have looked at visions of the Holy Mountain and the Beloved Community where peace is promised. We have heard Jesus and Paul and the prophets proclaim peace as a way of life. We have considered the lives of those who have committed themselves to peacemaking. But it is also true that we aren’t there yet, that we haven’t lived up to our high calling, that we haven’t really given ourselves to peacemaking. At least, it doesn’t appear that much, if anything, has changed as we come to the fifth Sunday in a row in which we’ve tried to say, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
It makes me think of Jeremiah, that prophet of weeping and woe, who stands in the city square and cries out, “Thus says God of hosts: Glean thoroughly as a vine the remnant of Israel; like a grape-gatherer, pass your hand again over its branches. To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear? See, their ears are closed, they cannot listen. The word of God is to them an object of scorn; they take no pleasure in it. But I am full of the wrath of God; I am weary of holding it in. Pour it out on the children in the street, and on the gatherings of young men as well; both husband and wife shall be taken, the old folk and the very aged. Their houses shall be turned over to others, their fields and wives together; for I will stretch out my hand against the inhabitants of the land, says God. For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush. Therefore, they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown, says God. Thus says God: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, “We will not walk in it.” Also I raised up sentinels for you: “Give heed to the sound of the trumpet!” But they said, “We will not give heed” (Jeremiah 6:9-17).
Well there’s a gloomy picture from the passionate prophet. I don’t mean to draw a direct parallel between our own situation and Jeremiah’s words to an ancient people threatened with imminent assault from a great power, destruction of their land and way of life and exile to a strange place. For one thing, we are situated in the midst of the most powerful nation on earth. Nor do we live in a theocracy in which we believe that God directly pulls the strings that determine our fate or the fate of the world. Oh, I know we make a nominal claim to being a Christian nation, but, really, do we live our lives or conduct the affairs of state as if we were in covenant with God? This is not the Promised Land nor do we inhabit the shining city set on a hill.
Still there is truth for us in this ancient word. When peace and justice are discussed, how many close their ears, refusing to listen? How often is God’s word of compassion and care, of steadfast love and mercy scorned? It sounds as if Jeremiah is “mad as hell” and “not going to take it anymore.” Do we ever feel like that? Whether it’s God’s wrath or Jeremiah’s own disgust with his recalcitrant people, the threats are ominous. Neither the young nor the old is spared; nor is their property.
What’s the problem as the prophet sees it? “… from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush.” Am I wrong in thinking Jeremiah’s indictment might speak to us, might say something about us, especially in the current election cycle?
You know I’m not going to argue that God is out to get us or that God wants to punish us for our wickedness. That may be Jeremiah’s view but I believe that the tragedies of daily life are largely our own doing. If there is “punishment,” it will be the inevitable consequence of the choices we make. In time we will reap what we sow. I think the prophet is on to something when he says, “Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” The question is whether or not we will heed the warning walk in God’s good way.
OK, I will confess that I’m playing a bit of a game here. I didn’t really expect much change in a month’s worth of focusing on peace. Maybe the problem is I should have expected more. But we’ve made a start and, as with last month’s focus on love of the earth and creation care, this is not the last time we will consider peace. I do believe that the practice of peacemaking is fundamental to our Christian identity, especially when we think of peace as shalom, which includes harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, tranquility, welfare, and well-being.
In a book entitled, The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right, Lisa Sharon Harper writes, “Shalom is what God declared. Shalom is what the Kingdom of God looks like. Shalom is when all people have enough. It’s when families are healed. It’s when churches, schools, and public policies protect human dignity. Shalom is when the image of God is recognized in every single human. Shalom is our calling as followers of Jesus’ gospel. It is the vision God set forth in the Garden and the restoration God desires for every relationship” (Quoted by Linda Bergeon in the FCBC Newsletter, May 26, 2016). That does sound like good news if we could just play our part in making it real.
God’s good way, the way of shalom – do we throw up our hands in frustration and despair because it is not current reality or do we give ourselves more ardently to making peace now? All of our readings from this morning lead toward peace, the shalom of God’s Beloved Community. Do we believe it is possible or do we cry “peace, peace when there is no peace” and thereby thwart healing the wounds of God’s people and all creation?
Like Isaiah and Jeremiah, Micah pauses in the midst of his hard word to envision a world in which instruments of war will be transformed to tools for peace and people will study war no more, a time in which every single human being, no exception, will be free to sit under their own vine and fig tree, utterly unafraid.
Jesus encourages his followers to “love your enemies” and “do good to those who hate you.” The irony of this wisdom is that it is impossible to hold as enemy another whom you hold in love. As the poet, Emily Dickinson, with her own wisdom, wrote:
I had no time to hate, because
The grave would hinder me,
And life was not so ample I
Could finish enmity.
Nor had I time to love, but since
Some industry must be,
The little toil of love, I thought,
Was large enough for me.
“The little toil of love…was large enough…” Could we make the same claim for ourselves? “Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it,” Paul says to the church in Rome. There is the challenge. How do we ensure that love lives at the center of who we are? The first week Jieun Lee played her violin for us and I shared that she was on her way to play at Carnegie Hall, I told that joke about how one gets to Carnegie Hall. When the young tourist asks the old musician how to get to Carnegie Hall, the response is “Practice!” I know it’s a tired old joke, but isn’t there also wisdom in it? How do you establish love at the center of who you are? How do you learn to love your enemy and do good to those who hate you? How do you internalize the Golden Rule? Practice, friends, practice. I know of no other way. And isn’t that a sort of peace now? Practice it as best you can. Live as if it was really so in your daily life.
Paul exhorts the Roman church to just such practice. “Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle. Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Holy One, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality. Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody. Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do… if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise your enemy with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.” “Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.”
I can hear you. Honestly, I can hear me. This is hard work. I don’t know if I can live into it, loving from the center of my being and practicing the things that make for peace. The issues of peace and justice are so much larger than I. I don’t even know where to begin. Well, we can start with the ballot we cast next Tuesday and ask ourselves to be cognizant of concerns for peace and justice, compassion and love, as we mark our ballots. We might even pray over them. We can lobby our leaders for peace now and work to elect leaders who are committed to peace and justice. Then we can practice the things that make for peace in our lives now – at home, at school, at work, at play, as we walk the streets and encounter every aspect of God’s creation. We really can.
I want to close by sharing a little story from our friend Greg Griffey. It is both simple and counterintuitive, unless you’re actively trying to let love flow from the center of your being and practice the things that make for peace. Greg writes:
My neighbor in the waiting area at Bubbles Car Wash: “Donald Trump will become President because he’s not afraid to say what’s in his mind! People want that!”
Me: “What do you mean?”
Neighbor: “Like when he called Elizabeth Warren Pocahontas. He rises above all that political correctness bull that we’re being fed and calls it like he sees it!”
Me: “It feels to me that name calling relieves us from the vulnerability of hard conversations by keeping us ‘above’ the other person.
Neighbor: “I guess you’re a politically correct liberal.”
Me: “I try to be kind and understanding of others, including you. Tell me more about your hopes for our country.”
Neighbor: “I want my kids to be safe and have opportunities.”
Me: “You love your kids.”
Neighbor: “Yep! And you?”
Me: “I don’t have kids, but I have a husband and a mom and dad back home. I worry about them every day. I want them to be safe and to have opportunities, too.”
Neighbor: “Looks like we have something in common.”
Me: “We both love our families and we’ve both judged each other today.”
Neighbor: “I guess you like Bernie?”
Me: “I like Bernie. I also believe that real hope doesn’t come from Bernie. It comes from you and me when we can enter into real relationship and know that we each speak from a place of integrity.”
Car Attendant: “Toyota Yaris!”
Me: “That’s my car. I’m Greg, by the way.”
Neighbor: “I’m David. Pleased to meet you, Greg.”
Me: “Pleased to meet you, too, David. Best to your kids!”
We shake hands. I slip the attendant a tip and wonder about his hopes, too. Then I wonder how he affords to live in the Bay Area on a car wash attendant’s wage. I get in my car and drive off, haunted by it all.
There are many places where this interchange might have taken a different, more hostile turn. Greg took a chance, made himself vulnerable, and something miraculous happened. A small miracle, yes, but a miracle none the less – a miracle of shalom, a miracle of peace-making. I’m not nominating Greg for sainthood just yet, but how often might we make this sort of difference in a simple yet challenging human interaction? “Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” Find shalom, well-being for your loved ones and your neighbors and, yes, your enemies. Peace now. Is it possible? You tell me. Amen.