Sermon for Dec. 6, 2020: "A Highway to Peace" -- Bill Dow


SERMON “A Highway of Peace”

Bill Dow


We built our house in the woods. Some would call it a wilderness. In the winter, when the leaves are down, you can just barely see it from the road. We’re introverts. That doesn’t mean we don’t like people. It means that when we’re around people, we are spending energy and when we’re alone, our mental and spiritual batteries are being recharged.

There’s a lane by the house that I mow that takes you to the Wisconsin River. It’s a little over a quarter mile long. When we walk, we seldom leave the lane. The woods are thick, you make a lot of noise, the going is tough, and there’s poison ivy. Wildlife use the lane as well. It’s fun, particularly after a fresh snow, to see who or what has been using the lane.

The wilderness is a great place for observing, listening and reflecting.

If you say the word “wilderness” to a Jew, their thoughts gravitate to the Exodus, where the people of Israel, under the leadership of Moses, left over 200 years of slavery and entered the wilderness of learning what it meant to fully trust God and become free agents of that trust.

When we read in the Hebrew scriptures about 40 years in the wilderness, we should resist the urge to assign numeric values associated with our Roman calendar. It’s better to understand “40 years” as a very long time or time enough. You see, the people needed to change their identity from being a slave to becoming the people of God…something we hear today expressed as blessed community.

In Advent, blessed community follows the lead of the opening statement in the Gospel of Mark. We look to the prophet Isaiah who describes a process of road building as an essential preparation for the coming of God’s presence among us.

How interesting is that? God does not require roads to travel. God is everywhere, travel is irrelevant. Yet, the road is essential… for us… as we live, and move, and have our being.

I miss those jokes about how many Methodists, or how many Presbyterians it takes to change a light bulb. Some of them are a little snarky…which wasn’t even a word back then. But at the core of those jokes is the common theme of how we resist change.

Like the people of Israel, wandering in the wilderness, hardship and stress causes us to look back and long for the good old days, even when the good old days included being a slave, when the masters provided food and shelter. The Hebrew Scriptures remind us that Moses was nearly stoned more than once for doing the will of God.

Today, people look back to the good old days when masks were “a thing” for surgeons and Halloween. There’s tension and rebellion in our communities over the simple matter of wearing masks during a pandemic. Of course, tension and rebellion are nothing new.

People are often shocked to learn that Isaiah preached naked for three years. A prophet’s life is never easy. Isaiah was providing a graphic image of consequence, that God’s chosen people would be marched naked from their homes to be paraded as slaves in the streets of their new masters. Why? Israel had shifted its trust in God to trusting their own abilities to make deals and pay tribute to neighboring nations to avoid invasion. In the process, people were displaced from the land. The ability to make a living was compromised, creating an expanding gap between rich and poor. Arrogance and lust for power competed with the need to live according to Torah, the Law of Moses. Invasion came and Isaiah’s humility became Israel’s. The wilderness of diaspora became reality and blessed community became more of a concept.

Prophecy is not predicting the future. It’s God’s voice in the here and now coming to us from those God has chosen to speak. Historically, God’s message comes to us in three parts: awareness, consequence, and salvation. We tend to focus on the salvation part, the part where God enters the affairs of humans and saves the day.

Isaiah’s life testifies to our need to pay closer attention to the message of awareness and consequence. We shy away from these two because we know deep inside that they take us to the wilderness of change.

Today we have lit the candle of peace. It should be understood by those preparing the highway for the coming of Christ, that peace originates at the intersection of God’s commandments and our willingness to embrace the baptism of repentance.

Repentance is a loaded word and carries a lot of baggage from years of fire and brimstone preaching that polished the emotions of shame and regret along with heavy doses of harsh judgment. In a more constructive way, repentance is simply changing how we think and respond to the prophetic word. When you consider God’s rainbow covenant after the great flood, even God is capable of repentance.

Without repentance, there can be no peace. It’s a continuous process in the same way that peace is a continuous process. And both are learned.

Many of us have played the game of Monopoly. It’s been around since the early 1900s and is still available to this day. Originally it was called “The Landlord Game.” The object is to acquire and manage property in ways that force your opponents to declare bankruptcy. There’s not really much skill involved. In the end, it boils down to a roll of the dice. If you land on the Boardwalk with two motels, you’re pretty much toast. Monopoly is a perfect example of rewarding the creation of an uneven playing field. An internet search revealed that there is now a game called Anti-Monopoly. It gives me hope!

Mo Rocca interviewed Colman McCarthy on CBS Sunday Morning last week. At the age of 82, Mr. McCarthy is teaching high schoolers about peace. Peace studies in high school! He’s a volunteer. No pay, except the possibility that the message of peace might take root in his students. Through his efforts, over 30,000 have encountered an informed message of peace.

But hold on! He doesn’t give grades. He believes grades are a form of academic violence. He doesn’t eat meat: violence to animals. He rides a bicycle to work: cars do violence to the environment. He's against both the death penalty and abortion. "But I don't criticize anybody who's had abortions. I don't want the government involved. But I do think we ought to educate everybody that there are other means to solve an unwanted pregnancy." He doesn’t vote. He doesn’t believe in borders. He doesn’t believe in a standing military.

And right about now many are thinking that this guy shouldn’t be teaching our kids! But before the door gets slammed, I invite you to at least watch the interview. Ruby is posting the link in the chat section of our gathering. If this man intrigues you, there are other videos documenting his work that will come up with the link.

My friends, the work of peace is a radical departure from our day-to-day experience.

Isaiah would remind me that we built our house on land taken from the Ho Chunk people. That path to the river was taken by force! He would point to the insane wealth of the one percent and remind us of that portion built by those dragged naked from their homes in Africa by those seeking power and profit. What do you think he would say about our prisons… and our system of justice? What would be his commentary on our tax laws?

Peace originates at the intersection of God’s commandments and our willingness to change in ways that honor life and add value to being.

The good news is that prophecy also includes the message of salvation. God has provided the way and the means. In Christ we are provided the way. The presence of the Holy Spirit supplies the means. We have the ability to thrive, even in the midst of a pandemic and a dysfunctional system of governance. Peace is a valid possibility. Beloved community is a valid possibility. But the highway of peace is still under construction.

Many of us are feeling torn from the traditions of this season. There are way too many empty chairs at our tables. We are cautious, and rightfully so. But we are also angry and afraid. It seems like trust has been misplaced.

The wilderness is a place of challenge and testing. But it’s also a place of discovery. It’s a place of change. You emerge from the wilderness a different person, with new insight, and new resolve.

As we consider the Advent candle of peace, we encounter the PURPOSE of our discipleship journey. Peace is a process. Without the journey, peace is reduced to an external condition that comes from outside our being. Peace is reduced to a commodity.

The peace of shalom comes from WITHIN, when the well-being of our neighbor is just as important as our own well-being. To that end, God has provided just enough for each one of us to create a level playing field in our relationships with others. Christ has provided the victory over death.

For those who grieve the loss of tradition, the loss of a loved one, the loss of gathering, the loss of personal health, let us remember the communion of saints and the potential for healing at the Lord’s table. At least for a moment, let us enter the peace that passes understanding, extended to us through the love of the One we call the Prince of Peace. 

  June 2021  
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