A sermon for 2 Advent C, Sunday, December 6, 2015
Today, we get a glimpse of the other Nativity story in the Gospel. Not the story of Jesus’ birth…but of John the Baptist. Our glimpse comes through the Canticle of Zechariah from the Gospel of Luke, which we sang instead of the psalm today:
In the tender compassion of our God
The dawn from on high shall break upon us.
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death
And to guide our feet into the way of peace.
John was born to Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin. An angel told this Zechariah, John’s father. When Zechariah decided to name the baby “Junior” the angel took away his voice until he gave him the name God wanted: John. The canticle that was the first thing out of Zechariah’s mouth after hastily scrawling out John’s name.
St. John Baptist grew up to be as tough nails. As much as we try to domesticate St. John Baptist, because we find his funny clothes and eccentric diet intriguing, there was nothing soft about him.
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Kadel wrote about him:
He called people to repentance, and he was not afraid to say hard words to those who tried to game the system. He talked about people who said long fancy prayers but did nothing about the suffering of the people. He spoke up against those who profited by power. He spoke against religious and political leaders who said one things but did another or did evil in the name of God. Those in power did not react well. In the end, they cut off his head.
But these things can distract us from what John was really all about. “The tender compassion of our God,” the song says. John was out there in the wilderness. He was a voice crying, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” And, as the song goes, “to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
John prepared the way for Jesus, by proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. And in so doing he confronted the powers of this world that work and act against God and God’s people. Of course, the powers that be would literally hand John (or more precisely Herod) his head. The powers of the world does not take well to the ways of peace.
Just as with John, we live in a dark, violent age, and it is difficult to see that path towards peace. By now we’ve all heard about yet another mass murder in a public building. And we have witnessed what has become a normal cycle of reaction. People cry out for gun control, while others respond that it really the fault of the gun or use the event itself to say “see? Gun control doesn’t work!”
We look for whom to blame and we want to know whom to be angry at. “Is it terrorism?” Of course it’s terrorism! And it does not matter if the shooter is Muslim, Christian, a disgruntled employee, or an angry high school student! Because such acts are designed to provoke fear, to grab our attention, and to affect the world by a show of power and violence. It really does not matter what the shooters believe or who their targets are—what matters is our collective response. Remember terrorism is not an ideology, it is a methodology that is meant to deliberately scare us all into participating in their violence and out of our fear to do their bidding in harming each other. Terrorists count on us to react irrationally and fearfully. They want us to strike out at anything that appears threatening. The people who promote terrorism—no matter what their ideology, religion, or nationality might be-- are agents of chaos, fear and anger. They are agents of evil and so are precisely the opposite of the messengers of God’s peace.
John was out there in a situation not that different from our own, and he courageously called for repentance. “Comfort ye my people,” says the prophet. “Prepare the way of the Lord”—the ‘superhighway of peace.’ The road to peace is direct and purposeful…and is travelled—without fear, without revenge.
It’s easy to get sucked in to violence. Fr Kadel reminds us:
We imagine that somehow we can put together power and use violence to destroy violence. Remember how angry we were after 9/11? But the anger and the war that followed did not destroy the violence—it moved it around, recruited more angry and violent people on all sides, in our country and others. It increased intolerance and xenophobia in our country as well as elsewhere. The more that we attempt to crush violence with anger, violence and exercise of power, the more violence is multiplied in more places. This fear-laden atmosphere of violence even effects the way in which police interact with civilians—separate and apart from terrorism or weapons. We cannot stop gun violence and mass murder in our country with power. We must stop it with peace.
As I’ve said before, if you want to fight evil, we must do the things that evil hates the most.
Evil wants us to believe that peace is lazy, soft, and weak. But look at who God sent to proclaim peace. The prophets, especially St. John Baptist, were not passive or lazy or soft. Neither was Jesus, who willingly endured the passion and the cross for our—the world’s!—salvation. And they show that evil is wrong. The path of peace requires fortitude and courage.
That is why the flap about prayer versus action is an important conversation to have. Maybe you saw the Daily News headline last week? It said “God is not fixing this!” The front page was directed at those who tell us to pray for the victims of gun violence but will pass no law to deal with the proliferation of firearms in our society.
Part of the flap was a symptom of the anxiety in our society. We are stuck and incapable of staying focused on the problem at hand. Since we cannot tell the truth, and since we cannot listen to each other, and since any hint of compromise is anathema, all that energy has to go somewhere. So the conversation becomes quickly a gotcha game of who is doing more (or less) for our safety. Which is why we moved from that fourteen people killed and twenty-one wounded in a mass shooting on Wednesday to arguing about prayer on Friday.
It's time to get unstuck. But first, let’s take a breath.
Pope Francis once talked about prayer when he said, “You pray for the hungry. You pray that God will provide for the hungry. Then you feed the hungry. That’s how prayer works.” Or, as Pennsylvania labor organizer Mother Jones more colorfully said over a century ago: “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”
The problem is not prayer. Of course, we hold in prayer the dead and the injured and the grieving. Of course, we hold in prayer those who put their lives on the line for the safety of others. And, if we are as spiritually tough as St. John Baptist, we even pray for the perpetrators. We are called to do nothing less!
But if our prayers do not lead us to action, and if we use the vocabulary of prayer and piety to hide our inaction and justify our fear, then as it says in the Letter of James, our faith is as good as dead.
Our faith is not dead! God guides our footsteps in the way of peace. The way of peace does not cringe before evil, but looks evil in the eye and overflows with love…and with clarity, charity, and boldness do the things that evil hates.