steeples in the sky

Sunday, December 8, 2013


The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

GOSPEL READING Matthew 3: 1-12
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

I’d been wondering how I was going to pull together the lectionary texts for today. Could Isaiah’s idyllic vision of peace coexist with the story of the fire-breathing John the Baptist and his scorched earth Gospel? Then Nelson Mandela died. And we have been remembering the extraordinary self-sacrifice, courage, and forbearance of the insurrectionist prisoner who became the reconciling president. Advent’s gift of peace now seems as if it has been wrapped this year by Mandela. His dream for South Africa reminds me of Isaiah’s utopian vision of a place where wolves and lambs live in side-by-side equality.

Yet today’s lectionary examples of Christ’s peace include not only the idealized image of the peaceable kingdom but also the edgy portrait of the irritating freedom fighter, John the Baptist, forerunner of Jesus and, as it turns out, a figure not unlike a South African prophet who lived 2000 years later. Like the New Testament prophet, Mandela also challenged imperialists who’d invaded his ancestor’s land and who imprisoned him. Like the John the Baptizer, Mandela came from the backwoods to speak truth to power and paid a heavy price for doing so. John would pay with his life; Mandela with 27 years of deprivation and hard labor in prison.

I won’t stretch the analogy too far. I can’t imagine roughneck John ever displaying the grace and statesmanship of South Africa’s first black president. But one of the many eulogizers warned this week that “in the desire to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s life — an iconic figure who triumphed over South Africa’s brutal apartheid regime — it’s tempting to homogenize his views into something everyone can support. This is not, however, an accurate representation of the man. Mandela was a political activist and agitator. He did not shy away from controversy and he did not seek — or obtain — universal approval. Before and after his release from prison, he embraced an unabashedly progressive and provocative platform. As one commentator shared shortly after the announcement of the freedom fighter’s death, ‘Mandela will never, ever be your minstrel. Over the next few days you will try so, so hard to make him something he was not, and you will fail. You will try to smooth him, to sandblast him, to take away his Malcolm X. You will try to hide his anger from view.’”

I think the range of Advent scriptures today is a safeguard against erasing the hard lines in Mandela’s portrait and in the Gospel message. Although you and I live in a culture that equates Christ’s call to peace with being inoffensive, we forget that John the Baptist rudely paved the way for Jesus by calling his audience “a brood of vipers.” We forget that change never happens without conflict. We were raised, most of us, by good ol’ Southern mamas who taught us to be polite, but there’s not a single word about good manners in the Bible. We were cautioned to “be sweet”—especially in church. But church might be the last place where we need to be “sweet” and may be the very place we need to be stirred to anger. Following Jesus is always a nonviolent way, but that way is often confrontational and seldom popular. That’s because true peace can never be achieved without justice.

What’s true in societies is also true for individuals: peaceful personal relationships are rooted in equality and compassion. A relationship may seem peaceful in the absence of overt strife, but peace bought at the expense of another’s dignity or rights is the pretense of peace. True peace in a society is not the mere absence of revolt. True peace in a faith community is not a veneer of niceness. True peace in a home is not made by suppressing some voices.

The following poem reminds us of a patriarchal family from a previous generation which only appeared to be harmonious because no one dared challenge the patriarch. But “peace” at the cost of fairness is just coercion. It’s the familial equivalent of the phony Pax Romana of Jesus’s day that used military might to tamp down unrest simmering among the Galilean peasants.

Ducks at Peace” by Hal Sirowitz

I’d like to take my family to the lake,
Father said, so they can see how well
the animal & fish kingdoms get along.
You hardly ever see ducks fighting.
If they do, it’s done in private.
We should follow their example,
& not air out our dirty laundry in public.
That was what I told your mother
at the restaurant, that she should
save her complaints for when we
get home. She said she had already
complained there. She was hoping
she’d get better results if she changed locations.

It may not feel polite to complain or call the powerful “a brood of vipers” a la John the Baptist. But sometimes complaint is the only option for those who are not at the seat of power.

Today’s discordant combination of scriptures complicates our understanding of Christ’s peace. Some folks pretend that the Bible speaks with one consistent voice throughout and have to do some pretty complicated mental tricks to harmonize conflicting scriptures and force all those passages into a unified interpretation. Others recognize contradictions in scripture and eventually toss out the Bible. I’m suggesting we appreciate the Bible’s disparate voices and honor the diversity of thought but ignore or speak against parts of scripture that seem exclusionary or violent. Sometimes the simplest way to use scripture for peaceful means is to acknowledge that we may be misreading some part of the Bible—or conclude some voices in the Bible may be wrong about something.

Nelson Mandela’s life is one that deserves our admiration. After 27 years of unjust imprisonment and cruel treatment, he refused to remain bitter and instead cultivated a spirit of peace in his own life. He invited his former jailers to his inauguration as president of a country where he previously had been unable to vote. But peace came not because he remained politely quiet or stifled his people’s cries or accepted his lot in life but because he instead exposed inequity and dreamed of justice. And peace came not because he lived a perfect life but because peace is often born out of messiness.

We can benefit from his example without having to approve every choice he made. We can listen to the voice of John the Baptist without having to adopt his violent imagery for God. We can aspire to be imperfect peacemakers, too. If we wait for perfect solutions or bide our time until we’re perfect people, the violence of the wolves and lions and vipers will escalate and we may never be able to show them how to follow the lead of a little child . . . or an ex-prisoner convicted of treason . . . or a crazy dude in camel-hair clothes insulting the folks who request baptism.

We start our peacemaking with three simple steps:

  1. Listen especially well to those who are not in power.
  2. Speak and act only after you have found in your heart genuine compassion for those with whom you may disagree.
  3. Trust that change is possible. We had to light the candle of hope before we were able to let in the light of peace. I hold out hope that if we don’t blow ourselves up first, our descendants’ descendants’ descendants may one day live Isaiah’s dream of peace. With one kind word and one courageous act at a time, we are changing.

PRAYER: Spirit of Peace, we yearn for a world pulsing with justice and truth, a world in which we all sit down together at the Open Table and share equally and speak only words of love. AMEN

Category Justice
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