Monday, December 09, 2013

learning war no more: laboratories for nonviolence in the eschatological now

Year A • The First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 2:1–5 • Psalm 122 • Romans 13:11–14 • Matthew 24:36–44
(Scroll Down for the Texts of the Scriptures)
Sermon available on YouTube by clicking here.
Sermon available as a PDF by clicking here.

The Sermon
I was glad when they said to me,“Let us go to the house of the Lord.” 
(Psalm 122:1)

Happy New Year!!!
Today is a special day. Not only is it the beginning of a new month, it is the beginning of a new season, the Season of Advent. In fact, it is also the first day of the New Church Year, so Happy New Year to you all! Now I had intended to bring along some noisemakers and party poppers, because I assume that all of you were up late last night bringing in the New Year, and so I thought that some noise might help wake you up, which is one of the major themes on this First Sunday of Advent. But alas, I was not able to make it to the store.
     Growing up, Advent was one of my favorite times of the year. For one reason, it meant that Christmas was on its way. Another reason was that loved the Advent wreath, with its three purple candles and its one pink candle, which is lit on the third Sunday in Advent instead of the fourth Sunday. As a kid always struck me as strange. What I liked about the Advent wreath was how it showed the passage of time. Back then, we used wax candles, and so the candles would shorten as the weeks of Advent passed by. Of course, the first candle was always the shortest, and as I sat in worship week after week, I would look at it and wonder whether it would have enough wax to last until midnight mass on Christmas Eve. I needn’t have worried though, for it always did. I also remember that in the little Episcopal Church of my childhood, which coincidentally was also named St. John’s, in our little parish church, we had a draft would sometimes pass right through the Advent wreath, causing the candles to burn quickly and unevenly. The wax would drip down on only one side of the candles, forming these large stalagmites—or stalactites, I can’t ever remember which is which—that we would break off after worship. Anyway, I loved the Season of Advent, the sights and sounds, the colors and the anticipation.
     That’s what Advent is all about. It is a season of anticipation, a season of preparation, a season where we eagerly await the coming of our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.

Advent • Forwards and Backwards • History and Eschatology
But, and this is very important, during the season of Advent, we are not just getting ready to meet the baby Jesus who arrived in the little town of Bethlehem some two thousand years ago. In Advent, we are also getting ready to meet the resurrected Jesus who is destined to return at some undisclosed future time—perhaps tomorrow, perhaps next year, perhaps next millennium, perhaps even before this sermon is over—Can I get an “Amen”?]. In short, Advent is about Christ’s first coming and his second coming. In the Season of Advent, we look forwards and backwards, and we do it in that order. So, today, on this First Sunday of Advent, we look not to the past but to the future, to the return of Christ.
     Why do we do this? Because as Christians, we are not only a historical people—a people who takes its identity from what God has done in the past—we are also an eschatological people. Eschatology. Well, that’s not a word you hear everyday… unless you are one of those unfortunate, hapless soles who live at my house. Now I wouldn’t say that the word, eschatology, can be heard every day in my house, but over the past twelve years, it has been heard with some regularity and frequency, mainly because it’s the first word that I have tried to get each of my kids to say when they were learning to talk. I would look at them, and say, “Eschatology. Say, eschatology. Come on. Es-cha-tol-o-gy.” Despite my valiant efforts, however, none of my children ended up choosing eschatology as their first word. Instead, they gave into peer pressure and chose “Momma,” or some other related word. Nevertheless, I am pleased to report that, before the age of two, all of my children have said something that resembled, eschatology. One of them used to say “tology,” which was good enough for me.

     So what does eschatology mean, and why is it so important? Simply put, eschatology refers to the last things. It is the counterpart to history which deals with the former things. In Christian theology, eschatology addresses such matters as the return of Christ, the final judgment, and the new creation. Eschatology is critical because, it not only tells us where we are going, it also tells us how we are going to get there. Eschatology is about what God is doing to bring about the final renewal of humanity and all of creation, and thus it is a source of hope because, if God is on the job, we can be assured that, in the end, all will be well. Eschatology is also a source of Christian identity and practice. You see, our Christian vocation—our vocation as followers of Christ—is not only shaped and informed by what Christ accomplished in his first coming, it is also shaped and informed by what Christ will accomplish in his second coming. As Christians, we have been called and equipped to participate in what God is doing in the world, and we get our cues not only from the past, but also from the future. We are a historical people; and we are an eschatological people.      In order to understand and participate in what God is doing in this world, we need light from both the past and the future to illumine our way because the world we inhabit is a dark one, fraught with sin, brokenness, and violence. When we go through those doors rejoicing in the power of the Spirit, we need to have both our eyes wide open, one eye on the past and one eye on the future. And, when we cross that street to love and serve the Lord, we need to be looking both ways, forwards and backwards, which is exactly what the Season of Advent helps us do.
     In the weeks ahead, we will make our way to Bethlehem, back to the beginning of the story when the God of all creation became a creature, a flesh-and-blood human being, Jesus of Nazareth. But today, on this first Sunday of Advent, we are headed in the opposite direction. We are looking ahead to see how the story ends, to see what things will look like when Christ returns to complete the work begun in his incarnation. We begin this new Christian year with the end in mind because the end of all things gives us a vision of where God is going and that vision empowers us to participate in what God is doing in the present.

Arise You Sleepers! Keep Awake!

Let’s take a look at our readings for today. In the Epistle and Gospel readings, we find similar directives: Arise sleepers! Keep awake! Why? Because the future—God’s future—is pressing in upon us. As Paul writes in Romans, “It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we [first] became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably” (Rom 13:11b–13a), as though the day had already dawned. The day of salvation, the day when Jesus returns to consummate the renewal of all creation, that day is near, but it has not yet arrived. The night is nearly spent, but the darkness still lingers. Yet, we are children of the light, so we must live as such. Instead of adopting the values and practices of a rundown, sinful world, we are called to live in accordance with the values and practices that characterize life in the coming kingdom of God. Don’t give darkness the time of day, whether that darkness is in you or in the world. Instead, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 13:14a). Clothe yourselves with Christ. Array yourselves with the values and habits of Jesus. Live as he lived, trusting in the love of his Father and relying upon the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
     Turning our attention to Matthew, Jesus also speaks of end of this age and of his return as the Son of Man, which will happen at an unknown, undisclosed future time. “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matt 24:36). As his followers, we need to keep awake and remain vigilant because we do not know when our Lord is returning. “You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Matt 24:44). But what does it mean to be ready? What does it mean to keep awake? It means to be about the Lord’s business whilst he is away. After his death and resurrection, Jesus didn’t hang around for very long. He made appearances for a period of forty days, and then he ascended into heaven. Jesus left his disciples in charge; he left us in charge. Now, Jesus has not abandoned us; and he does not expect us to fend for ourselves. Jesus has returned to the Father, yet the Holy Spirit is poured out on all who identify Jesus as Lord and Saviour that they might be equipped for the task they have been given to do, namely, the task of being about the Lord’s business until he returns.
     So, what exactly is the Lord’s business?

Isaiah — Learning War No More
Today’s reading from Isaiah gives us a clue. In the first twelve chapters of Isaiah, God’s people are indicted for their persistent sins of idolatry and injustice, for their ongoing failure and refusal to love God and neighbor. In the opening chapter of Isaiah, the Lord takes his people to court. Like a prosecuting attorney, the Lord argues his case before the heavens and the earth, who serve as judge and jury. The Lord says:

     Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth;
          for the Lord has spoken: 
     I reared children and brought them up,
          but they have rebelled against me (Isa 1:2).
Yet, in the middle of this indictment, the Lord offers his people a glimmer of hope. In today’s reading from Isaiah 2, the Lord anticipates a future day when his wayward people are redeemed and they finally fulfill their vocation to be a blessing and a light to the world. In that day, the peoples of the earth will flock to Jerusalem to worship the one true God, to learn to walk in his ways. In that day, the Lord will heal all the wounds that the nations of the world have inflicted upon one another, and there will be peace—genuine, everlasting peace. As a sign of this peace, weapons of war will be transformed into farming implements. “Swords will be beaten into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks” (Isa 2:4b). Tanks will be retrofitted as tractors, and drones will be used to seek out and rescue lost animals. “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isa 2:4b).
     It is a glorious vision, one that many people pray for, but what does it have to do with life in the here and now. Isn’t this a picture of the kingdom of God in the future? Well, yes it is. But, and this is critical, the kingdom of God envisioned here in Isaiah was inaugurated at Jesus’ first coming. It has not arrived in its fullness, but it is present now. Jesus proclaimed, “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.” Through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the future has already been making inroads into the present. And we are called to live in light of that reality. That is eschatology.
     When the kingdom of God is consummated, when it finally arrives in all its fullness, there will be justice. The growing divide between rich and poor will be no more. The hatred and distrust that divides races and classes of people will be no more. When the kingdom arrives in its fullness, there will be peace. “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (2:4b). Why? Because human beings will be reconciled to God and reconciled to one another. Again, it is a glorious vision, but it is not one that remains in some far-off, distant future. If in Christ, the new creation has already dawned, then this picture of peace and justice that Isaiah presents is not something we just sit back and longingly wait for, it is something that we work for in the here and now. That is what it means to be an eschatological people; living our present lives in the light of God’s future. Our Lord and Savior is in the business of reconciliation, of creating justice through just means and of establishing peace through peaceful means. Since we have been called to be about our Lord’s business until he returns, as Christians, we too are in the business of reconciliation, the justice- and peace-making business.

A New Year’s Resolution

So what does that look like for you and me as followers of Jesus? What does it look like for us as the body of Christ? There is so much that needs to be said, so over the course of this next year, I intend to focus on these issues in my preaching. This will be a great year to do it, because it is Year A in the lectionary, which focuses on the Gospel of Matthew. And it is in Matthew that we encounter some of Jesus’ most well-known pronouncements on peaceful resistance and noncooperation with violence.

     “All who take up the sword will die by the sword” (26:52).
     “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land” (5:5).
     “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (5:44).
     “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (5:39).
     “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (5:9).

     Let me conclude with some personal reflections. Recently, I began reading a book entitled, The Only Alternative. It’s a book about Christian Nonviolent Peacemakers in America, people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. The final chapter is devoted to Kathy Kelly, with whom I was not previously familiar. Kelly offers some very valuable insights on becoming peacemakers. In an interview, she says:     I think it is very important to use, as the laboratory for nonviolence, our everyday experience. Take time to mine from that experience. What can we learn about ourselves, about our own propensity for violence? (p. 17)   
     I have been an advocate for nonviolence for about 25 years now, ever since I was introduced to it by some Quakers I met during my time at Friends University. But only in the past few years have I become aware of how much my interest in nonviolence is fueled by my intense desire to become free from what I now recognize as my own propensity for violence. King David writes in Psalm 51, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” I know my propensity for violence, that is, my propensity to use anger as a way to control my environment, be it in my role as a father or as a public school teacher. Thus, for me, home and school are my principal laboratories for research on nonviolence because these are the places where I come face to face with my own limitations and my own brokenness on a daily basis. These are the places where I find it hardest to be compassionate and forgiving.
     So where are your laboratories for nonviolence? Where do you find it hardest to live compassionately in your daily life? These are the places that hold the greatest potential for our personal and collective transformation, for these are the places where Christ meets us and helps us lay aside the anger, hatred, and distrust, the fear, anxiety, and pain that contributes to violence in our world.
     Becoming aware of our own propensities for violence—be it physical, emotional, or spiritual—is part of what it means to wake up and to be about the Lord’s business until he returns. During this Season of Advent, as we prepare for Christ’s first coming and as we await his second coming, let us make a New Year’s resolution to learn war no more, but instead to learn this day what makes for peace.

     Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (Contemporary Collect for First Sunday of Advent, BCP 211).
The Scriptures
Isaiah 2:1–5
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 plowshares,
          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!

Psalm 122 (BCP 779)
     I was glad when they said to me, *
               “Let us go to the house of the Lord.” 
      Now our feet are standing *
               within your gates, O Jerusalem. 
      Jerusalem is built as a city *
               that is at unity with itself; 
      To which the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, *
               the assembly of Israel, to praise the Name of the Lord. 
      For there are the thrones of judgment, *
               the thrones of the house of David. 
      Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: *
               “May they prosper who love you. 
      Peace be within your walls *
               and quietness within your towers. 
      For my brethren and companions’ sake, *
               I pray for your prosperity. 
      Because of the house of the Lord our God, *
               I will seek to do you good.” 

Romans 13:11–14 You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Matthew 24:36–44 Jesus said to the disciples, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Delivered on Sunday, December 1, a.d. 2013
at St. John's Episcopal Church (Wichita, Kansas)

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