Sunday, December 9, 2018

Phil Kniss: The low road to high ground

(Advent 2) “PEACE: Proclaiming”
Luke 1:68-79, 3:1-6

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In this season of the year, everyone wishes for peace.
It may feel like this year, given all that’s going on in our world,
it’s an especially ripe year to wish for peace
But this year’s peace-wish is not unique.
It’s this way every year.
Advent and Christmas is a season that awakens our longing for peace.

Maybe it’s the songs we sing.
So many of them express this longing
for a world put right, and at peace.
Just look at the hymns and songs being sung today—
the Advent hymns we’re singing,
and the Christmas songs brought to us so beautifully
by the Clymer-Kurtz band.

Maybe our peace-wish is awakened because
everyone is oozing with holiday nostalgia,
longing for a day of peace like the days gone by,
when life was simple and beautiful,
candle-lit and snow-covered,
when Christmas was a time for slowing down,
reading a book by the fireplace,
breathing in the smells of cookies baking,
and ambling through the village streets
caroling to your happy neighbors.
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year . . .
it’s the hap-happiest season of all.”

In all likelihood, it was never like that at all,
but Christmas is a time when these images and dreams abound,
when everyone longs for a world at peace,
for enough of what everyone really needs,
for neighbors and families that actually, consistently,
get along with each other,
and value each other’s differences and eccentricities.

But, seasonal nostalgia aside,
there are deeper, and more theologically rich reasons,
why people like us should think about peace right now, 
and long for peace.

It’s the Biblical image of the “Promised One”—the Messiah—
the one that would reveal God’s real presence, 
Immanuel, God with us.
The promise of the real presence of God among us
makes us able to see peace as a real possibility,
and not just a wish-dream.
If deep peace in the world seems hopeless most of the time,
here is one time of year Christians specifically talk about
a pathway that might actually get us there.

But the thing about wishing and praying for peace,
is that it often stops at the wish,
and rarely goes much further and deeper.
So few of us are willing to make the sacrifices necessary,
to actually change the dynamics of the conflict.

I think about the famous Christmas Truce
a little over 100 years ago,
during World War I on the Western Front in France,
where British and German soldiers
were fighting each other from the trenches.
On Christmas of 1914, early in the war, there were dozens
of these informal, soldier-initiated 1-day truces
scattered all along that 300-mile front,
where British and German soldiers got out of the trenches,
met in the middle and fraternized,
told stories, sang carols, traded souvenirs and cigarettes,
and in one location, at least, they played a game of soccer,
until Christmas ended, and they went back to war.

Folk singer John McCutcheon wrote a great song about that truce.
He sang it here at Court Square Theater a few weeks ago.
It’s one of my all-time favorite ballads of his,
telling this true story in detail,
about how these soldiers saw the humanity in their enemy,
and were changed forever.

And I imagine that part is true,
that they were changed forever, in some way.
But the harder part of that story is not in the song.
It’s the fact that this peace did not last.
The next Christmas, 1915, there were only a few
of these 1-day truces that popped up along the same battle line.
The authorities had come down hard on them the year before,
and ordered them not to happen again.
And by Christmas of 1916, with the war still raging,
there were no truces on the Western Front.
The bitterness between these enemies became even deeper,
especially after poison gas was introduced to the conflict.

The Western Front was one of the longest and deadliest
in human war-making history.
By the time it ended four million soldiers were dead.
Plus, almost one million civilians.
It was an unprecedented loss of life
that left Germany bankrupt and in semi-starvation,
cut off from the rest of the world,
and led eventually to the rise of Hitler and Naziism.

This, despite the inspiring and touching Christmas Truce of 1914.
Peace takes more than wishing,
and more than a feel-good story about our shared humanity.

So . . . where can we find the path to peace?
Are we doomed to keep repeating the mistakes of the past?
Are we forever going to be at each other’s throats?
as a human race? and as a nation?
Where is the path to lasting reconciliation and peace and shalom
between racial and ethnic groups? between neighbors?
at our country’s borders? in our political institutions?
in the church? in our marriages? in our family relationships?

I certainly cannot spell out for us the answers to those questions.
They are in many ways, unanswerable, for now.

But I think there is something to say
about the path to peace and shalom.
I think there is a road to the high ground, so to speak,
where we can find the fulfillment of our greatest aspirations.
But the road does not follow the path you might expect.
There is a road, but it’s not a shortcut.

And to look at it, we’d say it’s not a very appealing road.
It doesn’t draw us in, like the Blue Ridge Parkway,
with its lofty beauty and charm.
It’s more like a pothole-filled, gravelly, and dusty road,
that takes us off the beaten track.

If that’s the road to peace,
we could say—it’s a low road to high ground.

The road is named repentance.

It’s not the road most of us spend any time looking for.
It’s the road we’d rather avoid,
find a detour around,
or a shortcut that eliminates the need for that road at all.

It’s obvious why a road of repentance does not appeal to us.
To repent requires that I lower myself.
It involves the posture of bowing,
of acknowledging that I had it wrong,
or had done wrong.
It is a posture that looks like, and feels like,
a posture of weakness.

And that’s not very appealing—
especially at a time when power politics is on the rise,
when the winners have been those
most willing to exploit their own power,
and take power from their opponents.

No matter what the public arena—
politics, sports, entertainment, business, religion—
the winners are those that end up on top of the pile,
standing on top of the losers beneath them.

So, it seems counterintuitive to say,
in order to reach the high ground
of becoming the best and most fulfilled version of us
which God intended for us all along—
requires that we admit we are something considerably less.
At least, that’s how this road appears to us,
as we look at it from a distance.

But maybe . . . once we start down this road, following Jesus,
things are not quite the way they first appeared,
as is often the case when Jesus is involved.

Yes, repentance can be hard.
It can be daunting.
But I want to suggest that repentance,
what I’m calling the “low road,”
is actually, and paradoxically, not low at all.
Repentance is not about debasing ourselves.
It is not self-flagellation, self-punishment.
It is not meant to demean or diminish our selves.
Yes, it is hard, and it can be humbling.
Because repentance requires us to change our way of thinking.
And who wants to do that?
Who gets joy from saying, “I had it wrong all this time.”
Repentance means, quite literally, in the Greek,
“to change our minds”—metanoia.
We can’t change our minds,
without admitting we had it wrong the first time.
It need not be humiliating, but it is, by definition,
an act of humility.

This so-called “low” road of humility is the only path
that leads to the high ground of peace, of wholeness, of shalom.

So the invitation to repentance
is the invitation to live more fully and joyfully.
It has to be seen in that light if we read the Gospels.
People would not have been lining up
to be baptized by John the Baptist—
kind of a scary person to begin with—
if what he was offered
was demeaning or humiliating or shaming.
No, John’s invitation was an invitation to life!

We get stuck at his wild clothing and his brood-of-vipers language.
But that’s just style and rhetoric,
and made perfect sense to those in his culture.
They would have seen, easily, the hope and the promise in John.
John was inviting them into Isaiah’s grand vision,
of a world at peace, accessible to all—
of valleys exalted and mountains made low.

This picture in Isaiah, and repeated by John,
of the mountains being made low
is by no means a picture of a violent God
behind the wheel of a bulldozer destroying the landscape.
This is a positive and hopeful and liberating image.
Barriers are being removed.
The Berlin Wall is being toppled, so to speak.
Under God’s reign,
mountains are lowered,
valleys are lifted,
twisty roads are straightened.
And nothing will hinder the coming King.
No barrier will prevent the nations from coming together.
This is a picture of freedom.
This is a picture of the path of mercy.

And the way to get there is repentance,
it is to change our way of thinking.

We have forgotten who we really are.
We are confused by the message
with which our dominant culture bombards us daily—
telling us to avoid any appearance of weakness or vulnerability,
to shun compromise and never yield to another,
to lift myself up by pushing others down.

So the calls to repentance of John—
and of Malachi and Isaiah for that matter,
and scores of other harsh-sounding biblical prophets—
are actually words we should welcome.

They are saying, “Here’s life!”
Here’s the shalom God intends for all people and all creation.
Here’s peace.

Repent and return to the covenant God made with you
from the beginning.
To love God with all your being.
To love your neighbor as yourself.
To treat the poor with respect.
To care for the widows and orphans and aliens,
and all people susceptible to exploitation by the powerful.
Stand up and accept the mantle God has placed on your life—
to reflect God’s good image,
to join with God in God’s good purposes in this world,
to not give in to any base desires you might have
to prove your worth at the expense of others.

If you embrace this vision,
and live into it by the power of the Holy Spirit,
you will be living the life God intended for you.
And perhaps you will inspire in others the kind of sentiment
that inspired Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist.

When John was born and Zechariah got his speech back,
he was overcome with gratitude
for what God was up to through his son John,
who would prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah.

We heard Zechariah’s song of praise from Luke 1, our psalm of the day.
He was filled with hope for the future,
at a time when his world was actually in shambles,
under occupation by Rome, ruled by the brutal king Herod.

At that point, he sang a song of praise to God’s justice,
that still rings with hope for us today.

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace,
to guide our feet along the low road leading to high ground.

Let us sing our hope and expectation,
by turning to the song printed in the insert.
This hymn is proposed for the new hymnal.
It’s the same as the one in our current hymnal,
except there is a new verse, stanza two.
The hymn text by Charles Wesley has only two stanzas,
but the hymnal committee was wishing for a third,
so Adam Tice wrote this second stanza,
based in part on another hymn text by Charles Wesley.

So this is one of the first times
this stanza is being sung by a congregation,
and how appropriate it is to the morning’s theme—
Come, thou universal Savior; come, redeem the human race.Life and joy spring from thy favor; cheer each soul in need of graceStill we wait for thine appearing—make our senseless struggles cease.Guide us from our weary wandering into paths of perfect peace

—Phil Kniss, December 9, 2018

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