Worship Reflection Sunday, December 10, 2023

Peace Is The Way

John is a voice crying in the wilderness “Prepare the Way of the Lord.” Preaching the message of repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Surely this is not the way of the world.

The way of the world teaches us that might makes right. The winner takes all. If history is a story, the winners and the strong get to write the story. They are the storytellers. But all of the world’s great religions teach to the contrary. They all insist not only that there is an alternative, but that the alternative is real. The gospel of winner takes all is a false teaching. 

John is in the wilderness. The wilderness in this instance is not a wild, untamed, dangerous and lonely place. People have come from farms and villages and even from Jerusalem to hear John. The world is aching to hear this good news. People are tired of war and hungry for peace. They want to know there really is another way. It is not just that “they” want to know this. We want to hear this good news. We want to know that war and famine and want are not the final words. Put simply, we want to know that peace is not just possible, peace is the deeper truth about life.

Dr. King taught us that we are caught up in a web of mutuality. There is no escape. There is no way to break free, even if we should want to. All of life is connected, interwoven, interdependent. The poet John Donne wrote long ago:
“No man/person is an island. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” We rely on each other. Therefore, we must learn to forgive each other. Share each other’s joys and bear each other’s burdens, that’s the truth about life.

The problems of hunger and homelessness and poverty and want are not caused by scarcity. We can feed the 5,000. We can house the houseless. We don’t need to open a public housing shelter, as the city recently did. There is enough. 

Hunger and poverty are matters of imagination and political will, not scarcity. Poverty is not a call for charity. Poverty is a summons for a new order.

We know this. That’s why we volunteer at the Lord’s dinner,  adopt a family, donate to the backpack, and support teachers and schools. I remember a year ago during the Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration, the speaker told us, “If you are not part of the solution, you are the problem.” We want to be part of the solution in whatever ways we can.

This year, this Advent, I became a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. It is the oldest interfaith peace organization in the country. I have thought about joining FOR since before I was ordained, but just never got around to joining. Now I have and my inbox is fuller than full. I am glad to be part of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Another group I have been connected to for more than a year is World Beyond War. Their latest message reads: “Those in power need to begin to grasp that the people of the world don’t just object to one war for obscure reasons but to all wars because mass murder is never acceptable.” One of the projects this group is working on is to bring Arab and Jewish peace advocates to the United States to testify before Congress and to go on a speaking tour.

Some groups want money to support their work, but even more than that they want members and readers. You can get newsletters for free. There are also local events that we might choose to support if we knew about them. Some of these events are peace events, others might focus on LGBTQIA+ issues, which we have identified as our mission priority in 2024. 

The message I want to bring today is that although sometimes it may feel like you are a voice crying in the wilderness, sometimes you feel like your voice is too small to make a difference. There is a community here and beyond that is willing to hear you. We won’t agree on everything. That’s a given. That’s to be expected. But we can encourage each other. The commandment is to love one another–not agree with each other. The church in the twenty-first century needs to get back to the way of the early church, when people simply identified themselves as “followers of the way of Jesus.”

In the beginning of the Christian movement–I mean for the first 400 years–there was no New Testament. What we call the New Testament did not become the canon, the official book of the Christian movement, until sometime after the year 400. For the first 400 years Christians in different parts of the world read, debated, and accepted a wide variety of literature. They read the Teachings of the 12, the First Letter of Clement, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gnostic Gospel and a whole lot of other books and letters. And even the gospels were not all the same. There were different endings to the gospels, different versions of the gospels. 

During these 400 years the church grew not because everyone believed the same thing. The first Christians did not all understand communion, the Lord’s supper, in the same way. They didn’t agree on what people should wear to church, who could speak in church, there was no orthodoxy–no agreed upon set of doctrines. 

There is an interesting letter from Pliny the Younger, who in the early second century was the governor of a region in what is now Turkey, that gives us insight into life in the early church. He writes a letter to Trajan the Emperor in which he says: “I have never participated in the trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate and to what extent.” He goes on to say that he interrogated many Christians, punished some, executed some, he’s not sure what the crime was but he is sure that they deserve to be punished. Then he tells the emperor what he has learned about these Christians. He reports: “They meet on a fixed day before dawn, sing a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bind themselves by oath not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not to falsity their trust, or refuse to return trust when called upon, and when this is over they depart.” He calls this “depraved superstition.” Then he says:” the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to cities but to villages and farms.” 

In the beginning Christianity spread not because of right belief, but because of right practice. Pliny tells the emperor that the Christians were men and women, different ages and different backgrounds, but they agreed to love one another, and not to worship the emperor. That was the superstition. They would not worship the empire, and they would love one another. It was as simple and as hard as that. In the wilderness John called the people to repent and forgive. Prepare the way of the lord. Don’t worship the empire, and love one another. And people in cities and villages and farms heard the call and joined him and the world has never been the same.