Prophet’s Peace Unwelcome - thrive UMC Official Blog

Prophet’s Peace Unwelcome

Already we’re in week two of Advent, which is a season of waiting and expectation.  And I think for those of us today, it’s hard to imagine the degree and the sheer intensity of the expectancy that the Jewish people were enduring.

Remember,by the time Jesus was born, the last remnant of the 12 tribes of Israel had been waiting just shy of six hundred years for salvation.  In the year 598 B.C.E., the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar finally breached the fortifications of Jerusalem and captured the city.  He then hauled the leaders and the educated households of Jerusalem back to Babylon in chains,in order to humiliate and assimilate them. Get them to forget where they came from and their cultural values and their language –get them to forget their hope and their god- and that way the people could be broken and used as fuel to feed the fires of empire.

How many of you have ever been in a room where you were the only one of your kind?  I remember watching a Iowa/Nebraska game on TV some years ago, where the Huskers were just dominating the game by half-time. And after some big turn over –it might have been an interception- the camera pans over the crowd so you can see this vast sea of red just going nuts with triumph.  And there, right in corner of the stands –seeming to have a protective barrier around them, were like two or three people huddled together, wearing black and gold.  And at that moment, I wondered: “Gee, I wonder what it feels like to be them right now.”   Somehow, they were the only people in the stands who seemed to be about freezing to death.

Or maybe for you, it was being the only Republican in a room full of Democrats in voting season (or visa-versa) –or maybe you’re the only Christian at a party?  Have any of you had an experience where you were the absolute minority in some given space?  How many of you have had a moment where you were the only one –the lone ranger- for something, somewhere?

If you have, I want you to remember how that felt.

For me, I think of the time in seminary, where my friend, La-Nette, invited me to come with her to her church on Sunday. She served at a Baptist church in Harlem, in New York City.  And about 25 minutes after I walked into the sanctuary with her, I realized: I am the only, single, solitary, lone white person in this whole place.  And for me,an inordinately pasty kid from Iowa, this was something I had never experienced before.  Now, some of you astute listeners might have noticed: it took me 25 minutes to notice this fact –and you’re perhaps thinking I might have likely figured out this obvious bit of information a little more quickly than that.

But you see, what happened was that the first thing we did after we walked into the then half-filled sanctuary, was LaNette walked me directly over to a women and introduced her: it was her mother.  And this was one of those moments, which I didn’t understand at all while it was happening, where people were standing around, still talking, but it felt like a kind of hush went over the room.  And it felt like everyone was watching us out of the corner of their eyes, but trying really hard to pretend they weren’t.  And LaNette’s mom’s face was taking on a look of knowing significance that I could not comprehend or contextualize.  And then my friend LaNette –the only person I knew on the entire island of Manhattan-  suddenly left me unexpectedly to go up to the front of the sanctuary and sit at the fancy pastor’s chair,leaving me with her mother. 

Then immediately, her mother is leaning over and whispering in my ear what turns out to be a very elaborate set of instructions to get me through the service.  ‘There’s going to be a time where we welcome visitors, and everybody who’s new is invited to stand,’ she tells me.  ‘You’d better stand up, ‘cause everybody’s gonna know!’ She gives me this obvious smile.

“Okay,”I say, nodding.

And it went on like that, for quite a while as she kept informing me of various protocols I needed to be privy to.  Every time I nodded and said, “Okay,” even though by then my brain felt like a ho tglob of Crisco.  And it turned out that this particular worship service in a not-particularly-rich congregation in Harlem New York took three separate offerings before the pastor ever got up to speak.  And every offering was a parade,set to loud, jubilant music, and people would dance their way up to offer their gifts.  And each new round, Mrs. Williams would stuff more wadded bills in my sweaty hands, and encourage me to ‘get in the spirit’ and look like I was praising God –which growing up white and United Methodist, I had absolutely no idea how to do. 

But that moment of recognition finally came when visitors were recognized and I stood up, as I was firmly instructed to do.  Only then did I have the chance to survey the entire room to see: yep, I am absolutely the only white person here, in an all-black church, and of the maybe four people who were standing at the same time I was, a disproportionate count of the sitting eyes were on me, likely wondering –as an epiphany struck me: ‘what’s going on with this sweaty, gangly-looking white boy and our pastor –are they dating or what?’ 

It would go a long way in explaining why the room went a little quiet as she introduced me to her mom.  And it could have also helped to offer insight as to why the three young men leaning against the railing outside of the church before we entered, suddenly froze to kept their icy eyes locked on me, walking with her, for nearly a whole block’s distance.  And it would put some piece of the puzzle into place as to why this lovely woman sitting next to me in church seemed, at he same time, so wryly cheerful and also so eager for me to get the actions of belonging right. 

                Anyway, I bring up this whole long story for a rather simple point.  LaNette and I were not involved in any kind of romantic relationship; but here’s a thing I learned about myself in that moment: if her mom, Mrs. Williams, would have leaned over, at any point in the service, and whispered in my ear, “And now you’d better ask my daughter out on a date and take her somewhere real nice,” I would have absolutely turned to her, nodded and gone, “okay.”  And if, after that, some people would have come up to me and shared any kind of public disapproval for our then-spontaneous relationship, I would have nodded and said “okay,” to them too.  And I would have sincerely meant it both times.  Because—and here’s the thing- in that setting, I couldn’t even access the part of my own brain that handled my feelings and personal preferences. What I wanted for me was about a thousand miles away from Harlem, because there was way more going on there than I could possibly be aware of.  History and culture and public perceptions, and a whole new collective spirit were intertwined to make a kind of web I was suddenly, dimly aware I had always been caught up in.  But there in that moment it immediately became clear to me that any kind of wrong move could send vibrations through the web to summon disaster upon LaNette and myself. So all of my energy was invested in a single, focused hope: just go with the flow, white boy. That’s how powerful the compulsion to be at peace with new people can be.

                 And all of this in a Christian house of worship, where –I think- just about everyone would have been happy to welcome me…  if only I could clue everybody in to what, exactly, it was that I thought I was doing there. The people there were really friendly and wonderful.

                So just imagine what it would be like to live every day of your life feeling like –not only are you in the minute minority; but you’re not welcome as you are.  You don’t belong.  Imagine how far you might be willing to go to compromise yourself and your past just so you could have some limited access to life-giving connections with the people around you. 

                And these ancient Jewish people lived like that –they lived as outsiders, unwilling to give in or conform, under foreign powers.  For six hundred years. They might be the only people from that area and time who maintained their sense of identity and integrity in the face of all of the shifting, swirling empires.  Every new generation some new war machine seemed to rise up and take over.  And the swirling tides changed and swallowed up every one of them.  Except the Jewish people. 

                And that’s because they were a people of a wild and daring hope.  They knew who they were and what they needed to do because they still had a powerful promise that had been delivered to them by their prophets.  And at the heart of that promise, made by God, is for a coming day of peace.

                Today we’re going to read one of several passages in the bible that records the prophetic hopes.  This one is from the prophet Jeremiah, but we could find other hopeful pronouncements in Isaiah, and Ezekiel and Daniel.  Our reading for today is from Jeremiah, chapter 33, verses 4-9, and 14-18.  It says this:

This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, proclaims about the houses of this city and the palaces of the kings of Judah that were torn down to defend against the siege ramps and weapons of the invading Babylonians.[b] They will be filled with the corpses of those slain in my fierce anger. I hid my face from the people of this city because of all their evil deeds, but now I will heal and mend them. I will make them whole and bless them[c] with an abundance of peace and security. I will bring back the captives of Judah and Israel, and I will rebuild them as they were at first. I will cleanse them of all the wrongdoing they committed against me, and I will forgive them for all of their guilt and rebellion. Then this city[d] will bring me great joy, praise, and renown before all nations on earth, when they hear of all the good I provide for them. They will be in total awe at all the good and prosperity I provide for them.

14 The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. 15 In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land. 16 In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what he will be called: The Lord Is Our Righteousness. 17 The Lord proclaims: David will always have one of his descendants sit on the throne of the house of Israel. 18 And the levitical priests will always have someone in my presence to make entirely burned offerings and grain offerings, and to present sacrifices.

                “I will make them whole and bless them,” says the LORD, “with an abundance of peace and security.”  Then the prophet Jeremiah, from a prison cell, goes on to provide the listener with a picture of what God’s peace will look like: peace will look like returning to their promised land and restoring what was lost.  It will mean reconciling with God, and living in such a way as to bring God “great joy,” praise, and renown before all the nations of the earth.  And it will look like, for the people, having such prosperity that others will look upon it with awe in their hearts.  And finally, peace will look like a righteous branch of David’s line, who will lead with justice. 

                This morning, I want to invite you to envision the kind of peace you hope for in this season.  Because that’s why we’re here.  That’s what we hope for.  That’s what we’re working for.  Peace.  So what would it take for peace to become real in your life?

                For the subjugated Judeans, it meant political freedom.  They needed release so they could govern themselves.  And it meant they needed their land back. And it meant success –perhaps in the form of wealth.  And it meant God turning back toward them, to be present with them once again. 

                And this is why so many Jewish people are still waiting on God: because they look at the world and see their hope yet unfulfilled.  The savior has not yet come, because until about seventy years ago, they had no geographic space to call their home.  For over 2,500 years, they had no political freedom –they were still living as a disbursed minority in foreign lands and cultures, among strange idols.  And now even though the land has been given back to them, they’re still not any closer to possessing peace, because every day they still live with the historically-validated fear that some unknown threat might still swing by and try to wipe them from the face of the planet.  And there can be no peace when you live in fear.

                But those who believe in Jesus see things differently.  You see, the difference is not in custom or in belief, but it starts with our eyes.  Somehow, you and I are able to look upon a little baby that the world practically had no room for –so that he has to find its rest in a sheep’s feeding trough-  we look upon that baby and see God with us.  In the baby, we see our hopes fulfilled, our promises realized.  Because of the simple presence of the child, we are capable of possessing real and lasting peace.

Author and theologian C.S. Lewis speaks of the child in this way: “The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation.  They say that God became Man. Every other miracle prepares for this, or exhibits this, or results from this.  Just as every natural event is the manifestation at a particular place and moment of Nature’s total character, so every particular Christian miracle manifests at a particular place and moment the character and significance of the Incarnation (Miracles, p. 112).” 

Most of us now are in the busy throes of preparing for Christmas.  We’re getting all the things we think we need, we’re making all the plans we think we need to make.  We’re arranging our homes to be hospitable spaces for that ever-ethereal ‘Christmas spirit.’  We’re queuing up strategic conversational diversions away from uncomfortable family topics, like politics and religion for those big holiday meals.  We’re stuffing all of the messy things in boxes and closets, hopes that –for just a little while- no one will have to look at them.  We’re doing all we can to arrange the outside world we share to be a peaceful space.  That’s what we think peace looks like.  That’s how we imagine it works.

But the peace that Christ brings in the incarnation is not that kind of peace. It’s not something that starts on the outside and moves its way in.  Instead, the vision we have for peace in the incarnation starts with an open, aching, anxious mess: and God enters into it, to be with us.  It is not an escape plan from life’s hardships.  It is, instead, a dramatic and powerful welcome to enter into it.  God sees us, and our struggles, and our loneliness, and our despair, and even our evil –and God goes ‘I will be there with you in it! I will abandon the comforts of heaven, and the service of angels, to be there with you, in the mess.’ 

That’s the miracle, we’re spending a season preparing for again: that God is coming once more to be with us in our human disasters.  God is neither afraid of, nor repelled by, our broken spirits and twisted and tangled relationships.  God will not run from a whiff of our anxieties and doubts.  Instead, God will be there, standing with us in our vulnerability.  And if we can welcome God into everything, then we’ll have all we need to live in peace.

So let us pray together today, being strengthened by our invitation: God you are welcome, you are welcome, you are welcome.  Come, Holy Spirit, give us life.