Malachi 3:1-4; Philippians 1:3-11 ; Luke 3:1-6
What Kind of Peace is This?
A Sermon Preached by Jess Cook on the Second Sunday of Advent
Ginter Park Presbyterian Church
December 9, 2018
“Oppression works when it is theologically grounded.”
I first heard those words, uttered by Dr. Katie Cannon, on the day I knew I would go to seminary. I was auditing Dr. Cannon’s Womanist, Feminist, and Mujerista Ethics class in the spring of 2009, and it was sitting in the classroom on the second floor of Watts Hall, down the street at Union Presbyterian Seminary, that I can remember being hit with the almost overwhelmingly clear thought that, after pondering a call to seminary for almost a decade, it was finally crystalized.
Dr. Cannon’s statement was so simple, yet so profound – so obvious, yet until that point in my life, obscured. Though I was in my late 20s, and I’d felt it in my bones my whole life, it wasn’t until Dr. Cannon’s class that I’d heard anyone state so simply the correlation between theological assertions an oppressive systems. I felt in that moment like a part of myself had been cracked open. What I experienced was akin to the foundation breaking under my feet. Only, when it broke, I found that it wasn’t my foundation, but a shell – a protective barrier that had been constructed around the core of who I was, a veil made to shield me from such an obvious truth. And when it broke that winter day in 2009, it took with it the barriers that had kept me from hearing the call on my own life. Going to seminary was no longer a passing thought or a vague illusion. I recognized at that point that the only answer I could give to the question of whether I was going to answer the call to ministry was yes. I’ll admit that while the yes I heard in my head was resounding, the yes beating out of my heart was more of an, “oh crap. I think I’m going to seminary.” But, still. It was a yes.
“Oppression works when it is theologically grounded.” It’s one thing to create systems of government that favor one group of people over another. But, when those systems of government are undergirded by the assertion that a deity has ordained them to be so, it allows for a whole host of sins.
Of course, standing in this pulpit, I’m aware that I am, quite literally preaching to the choir. We are a group of social-justice minded people. We can see the ways in which scripture is misused and abused to justify atrocity after atrocity. We want to do the work to make sure not only this church, but this city, state, and world are safer for people who’ve been subject to death-dealing systems for far too long. We want to be part of the healing of the world. We want to do right, to live into who we’ve been called to be. We look around and see the brokenness and we want to help heal it. We know it will be hard, but we know we can do it – we can push up our shirt sleeves, get our hands dirty, and do the work. Right? And yet, I think even the most resilient among us would admit that the work of being the church has been particularly difficult lately.
Today marks the second Sunday of Advent. The second week on our journey to God’s breaking into the world in the person of Jesus. As we move closer to Christmas Day, our attention moves more and more to the manger in Bethlehem, to a quiet night into which our Savior was born. Advent calls us to focus on the places that need God’s presence the most, to see the brokenness and to trust that God will make it right. Advent is always a potent time of year for me. I find the more I focus on the pending presence of Christ in the world, the more I see the brokenness around me. This year, in particular, well . . .the world is on fire. It seems every time I log on to Facebook, which I frequently do for my job, I see another cautionary message about the state of the world, with parallels drawn to Germany in the 1930s.
What are we to do in a world where children are separated from their families at the border, put in cages for who knows how long? What do we do when environmental protections are being rolled back, voter suppression is rampant and winning elections, people are carrying Nazi flags openly on the streets, Black lives still don’t seem to matter, trans people’s identities are being threatened to literally be erased? How are we to be the Church in the midst of this? Where is God in this? We are weary, impatient for justice, yet we move through the Advent season trusting that Jesus will come.
I feel I’m not alone in saying that if I allow myself to get stuck for too long in my worries about the world, it leaves me feeling dizzy, nauseous, and overwhelmed. I’m sure we could all add something to that when we consider the stressors of daily life: bills that need to be paid, children or parents (sometimes both) who need to be cared for, the loss or possible loss of a job, sickness, inter-personal dynamics at work or home, or whatever else may arise, and it’s not dizziness that threatens to overwhelm, but paralysis.
How perfect, then, that the Advent theme for this week is Peace. As someone who believes any sermon should offer a sense of hope, or good news, to offer a message that will carry people out into the world with a sense of connection and empowerment, I confess that the texts for this week present a bit of a homiletical, or preaching pickle. So much so, that when I first began preparing to preach, I had to check a few times to be sure I was looking at the correct passages from the lectionary. Only once in all four of today’s scripture readings is the word peace even mentioned. In Malachi, we are told that those who yearn for the presence of God that would come with the day of the Lord don’t really know what they’re asking for. Luke’s passage doesn’t help much, either. While the idea of valleys being filled, or mountains and hills being made low makes for beautiful poetry, there is nothing peaceful about it.
During Advent, when we talk about God coming into the world, we do so with a longing, a willingness to see the ways in which things are broken and a true desire for those things to be made right. And yet, if the idea of God coming into the world doesn’t also terrify us in some way, we are missing the fullness of the season. I don’t mean that it should terrify us in some hell, fire, and brimstone way, but in a way that fully acknowledges our potential as dwelling places for the divine, and the ways in which we fall short. As the Franciscan sister Ilio Delio says, “Advent is God waiting for us to empty ourselves of all that hinders God’s dwelling in us.” Advent gives the us the opportunity – the challenge- to focus on the things that separate us from one another, and from God. And as part of that, we have to be willing to look at the ways in which our foundations themselves have been the biggest barriers to our ability to live into who God created us to be.
In our readings from both Malachi and Luke, it is the religious practices that are scrutinized as hindrances to the people’s preparedness for God’s entrance into the world. In Malachi, Israel had returned from exile and, while their lives had improved significantly, injustice still prevailed everywhere. They performed the same rituals they’d been doing for centuries, and were frustrated at their lack of efficacy – Israel wasn’t being restored as the prophets had promised. The people were frustrated, desolate, overwhelmed, and their religious practices became rote and empty. They tried to apply an old formula to a new context, while failing to realize that ritualistic actions in themselves are nothing if they have no meaning behind them. Simply going through the motions is not enough to invoke God’s presence in the world.
In the Gospel reading from Luke this morning, mention of both social and religious authorities of the time locates John’s proclamation in a time when the strong relationship between ruling elites from the temple and the government worked together to maintain structures that held power and economic wealth in the hands of those elites, while the bulk of society, particularly those on the margins, were left without. As our own John Carroll notes, John enters the scene from the wilderness and proclaims his message around the Jordan River, a geographic pairing reminiscent of Israel’s 40 years in the desert. The desolate setting is fitting for John’s call for a transformation of heart and mind. Baptism as a ritual gives symbolic expression to this transformation, which must then, issue a change in how people lived their lives. John’s message of forgiveness of sins and his location outside the temple are notable as well, for at the time, ritual cleansing could only take place at the temple, and could only be performed by priests (John Carroll, Luke: A Commentary, New Testament Library, 91). John’s message on the Advent of Jesus’ ministry is that, while the authorities of the day may have used their economic resources and religious traditions to uphold their assertion that God had designated them as arbiters of salvation, their misuse and abuse of their power rendered their authority as empty. John’s message implies that if the temple is no longer living into its call or potential to be what it is intended to be in the world, God will find a home elsewhere.
Not surprisingly, the religious and social authorities saw John’s proclamation as an affront. So much so that in just a few verses, Herod has John imprisoned, and later killed. It’s no doubt that the religious leaders of the time, and likely many of the people who followed them, saw the way things were as normal. Social and economic inequity, sickness, injustice, just happened in the world. They may have been moved by some of these things, but not enough to respond with action, and certainly not enough to examine their long-held traditions.
In a few minutes, we will stand and affirm our faith together using the Nicene Creed. Professing our faith together is part of what it means for us as Presbyterians to be part of the “little c” catholic – meaning, universal church. In using the creeds and confessions as statements of faith, we are acknowledging that the Church is bound by neither time, nor space, nor denominational affiliation, and undergirds the belief that the Spirit is always moving among us, always reforming us. As documents created in a particular time and space, the creeds and confessions allow us to see the Church as a conversation among people sitting around a table, even though we are at the table at different times.
Though we affirm our faith every week, the Nicene Creed is a fairly uncommon text for us to use. For folks who may not know, the Nicene Creed is the oldest of the 12 Confessions in the Presbyterian Book of Confessions. It was written in 325 CE, the product of the Council of Nicea, which was the first gathering of the collective church. It was also the impetus for an existential crisis I had in my second year of seminary.
To give some context . . . In 312 CE, on the eve of a battle in which he would take control of the western half of the Roman Empire, the Emperor Constantine had a vision of a symbol of the overlaid Greek letters chi and rho, the first two letters of Christ, with a message that under that sign, he would conquer. Constantine ascribed his victory to the Christian God and Christianity subsequently became the religion of the empire. The imperial pomp and power brought by the emperor’s conversion did not fit with the humble servants of a carpenter, whose heroes were fisherman, slaves, and criminals condemned to death by the state. The empire had a vested interest in the unity of the church, and dissident views on the nature and relationship of God and Christ could no longer go unresolved. When Constantine called the council of Nicea in 325, it was in an effort to bring unity to the empire under Christianity.
When the Council of Nicea produced a Creed wherein it was solidified that God and Jesus were of the same substance, it was done under the auspices of using Christianity to maintain imperial power. Jesus, the figure whose life was so dedicated to breaking down cultural and religious norms that maintained unjust power structures that he was killed for it had, with this unified statement, become the symbol of empire.
Cue: my existential crisis. Ironically, it was in the very same classroom I’d been in two years before, that I paused, raised my arms incredulously, and said aloud, “The foundation is cracked!” Only, this time, it wasn’t my self-preserving shell, but the foundation of the church and of my beliefs.
Oppression works when it is theologically grounded. Yes, Dr. Cannon. Yes it does.
Looking back, I realize it wasn’t the foundation of the church that was cracked, just a very early misuse of the story of Christ. Those early church Fathers didn’t need to massage the language to draw a parallel between Jesus and God – scripture offers us that on its own. It’s just that scripture is read very differently when it’s being used to maintain imperial power. Jesus’ life and ministry aren’t negated because of the ways in which his story has been misused any more than the message of democracy has been diminished by its gross misuse at the founding of this country. Such a deep and rich concept will always have the potential of being misused by those who become arrogant and misguided in their understanding of what it means to follow God.
Preparing for God’s entry into the world means evaluating systems, structures, and traditions that we see as normal, but that God condemns as oppressive and crooked. It means honestly looking around at what is happening in this country right now and avoiding the temptation to jump to the rise of Hitler’s Germany at the cost of avoiding the honest examination of the ways in which this country was built by and upon the backs of enslaved people. In some ways, the image of an angry God who’s entering into the mess of it all with a message of hell, fire, and damnation is simpler, because it allows us to focus on our individual actions, our independent lists of right and wrong. We miss one step, we pray for forgiveness, we move on. We miss again, pray again, move on. Sin, pray, repeat. But that is not what it means to be God’s people.
Advent means honestly examining our actions and intentions, looking at the ways we have been complicit in death-dealing structures, even toward ourselves. It means letting even the most vulnerable parts of ourselves be seen, naming everything that is proud and self-self-satisfied in us, and trusting that underneath all of that, we are worthy of being a dwelling place for God.
It means recognizing that oppression works when it is theologically grounded, but so does liberation.
It is easy to look around with anger or fear, to point the finger at the ways in which other people are messing up 200 years of democracy or 2000 years of Christianity. But doing so allows us to ignore the ways in which we have also allowed these things to go unchecked. It allows us to dismiss our own behavior, our own complicity, our willingness to create a hierarchy of righteousness wherein we are on the top. It allows us ignore the ways in which we are all connected to one another. When we talk about the difficulty of Advent, this is when it gets tricky, because if we aren’t willing or able to be honest with ourselves and one another about the ways in which we fall short of being the people we were created to be, then how on earth do we expect to stand before God?
In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he encourages a community that had been mired in conflict and who was moving through it. Paul celebrates this reconciliation, and prays that their love would continue to expand their knowledge and insight. It is their love for one another through conflict that has brought about this reconciliation, and it is love that will make them worthy of standing before God.
Friends, we were created in love and made to love. It is love that peels back the layers of our vulnerability, that speaks honestly, that holds us accountable to one another and ourselves. It is love that asks honestly for forgiveness, and love that honestly gives it. It is love that empowers us to speak against systems of injustice and challenges us to remember the perpetrators of those injustices are just as beautiful to God as we are. It is love that makes our worship meaningful, that allows us to hold one another through the loss and pain of life, to make promises when we baptize people, to see people’s baptism complete in death. It is love that gives us the strength to dig in and honestly examine the ways in which we have sold ourselves short, and it is love that gives us the courage to change.
It was love that broke into the world on that cold December night 2000 years ago – love that refuses to give up a beloved humanity – on me, and on each of you.
May we all rest in the knowledge of that love, and may that knowledge bring us peace.