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Peace with Justice


Rev. Kristi Denham
Congregational Church of Belmont
December 12, 2017

Today we celebrate the second Sunday of Advent. We lit the Advent Candle of Peace. We heard Mary declare God's vision for the world. She speaks in a prophet's voice. Indeed, Mary in Hebrew is Miriam, sister to Moses and one of the few women prophets named in scripture. She sees this time as the reversal of fortunes, of peace through justice, as already accomplished.

She proclaims:
         "God has shown strength with God’s arm;
                  God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
          God has brought down the powerful from their thrones
                  and has lifted up the lowly.
         God has filled the hungry with good things
                  and sent the rich away empty."

How are we to respond? Was she crazy? Are we so comfortable that we cannot acknowledge how far from reality this is for most people? Or how far it would have been from true for Mary? Do we see this upside-down declaration of peace as even possible?

There are four types of peace described in the Bible: Imperial Peace, Utopian Peace, Just Peace, and Realistic Peace.

Imperial Peace is the peace of Empire. It is founded on the ability to enforce control. The peace of the Roman Empire that controlled Israel in the first century; the peace during the reign of David and Solomon that so many dreamed would someday return; the peace that Jews in Israel now enjoy for the first time since 1000 BCE, but that continues to leave Palestinians and Arab Israelis out; the peace that has been an American reality for a long time, unless you are African American, or an immigrant or indigenous.

Utopian Peace is vividly imaged in "the lion shall lie down with the lamb." It may be magical thinking, but there is power in imagining. This is the hope of the totally powerless.

A Just Peace represents a reversal of fortunes where the rich are punished and the poor receive in abundance. It is Mary's vision of God's justice proclaimed and lived out. It is still mostly the hope of the totally powerless.

And finally, there is Realistic Peace, where each has their own vine and fig tree: enough to eat, a roof over your head, basic health care. It is not too much to ask. This is a peace we can work towards even as we see Imperial peace and its structures working to consolidate the power of the rich.

It is only the powerful who can imagine moving from Imperial peace to a realistic peace. We have that much power. We are at a turning point in history. Much of the world is dominated by dictators and the rule of Imperial peace. The rich everywhere are working to consolidate power. But more and more individuals and communities like ours around the world are learning from each other that another way is possible.

We are challenged as never before to ask ourselves where we stand: Do we choose the easy comforts of "trickle down" abundance that comes to those who quietly enjoy the fruits of empire and make no trouble? Or are we on the side of the marginalized, the oppressed, the immigrants currently being disappeared from our communities, the homeless or house poor among us who are desperately trying to make ends meet? Mary's Magnificat indicates that God is on their side!

We are powerful enough to be asking ourselves these important questions.

Mary could declare a reversal of fortunes as a prophet, but she lived on the margins of empire and saw the child of her womb crucified by that empire.

Jesus declared the poor blessed, the peacemakers powerful, the humble to inherit the earth, but he had to die and be transformed through resurrection to begin to make that dream a possible reality.

Have we been transformed by the Spirit of the living God so that we can dare to imagine a peace with justice, or at least a realist peace? Or do we prefer to rest in the vision of Utopian Peace we see on so many Christmas cards, "the lion lying down with the lamb"? Are we simply comfortable with Imperial Peace?

Our Christmas story is filled with challenges to our comfortable understanding of the birth of the Prince of Peace:

Mary and Joseph must travel to Bethlehem by order of Emperor Augustus to be registered at a time when she is so close to giving birth that the child is born in a barn, in desperate circumstances.

In Matthew's version Jesus is born at home, but Governor Herod plots to destroy this potential king. The wise men who follow a star to the place of his birth must circle round another way in order to escape Herod's clutches. And the new family must escape into Egypt to avoid his death, even as every child in Bethlehem under two years of age is murdered by order of the governor.

Luke tells of lowly shepherds and angels visiting the newborn child. The angels may be spiritually powerful, but shepherds are the lowest of the low in Jewish society. They live with the sheep. They smell! The birth of a king is celebrated by outcasts, the poor, the lowest of the low.

We take all these details for granted. They are just cute images in a nativity scene or on a Christmas card.

We are so distanced from the raw reality of ancient times, the poverty, the desperation, the terror of Imperial rule. Even as we are distanced from the sufferings of the impoverished in our own communities: the homeless, the immigrant families being torn apart, our black and brown brothers and sisters still locked in ghettos in fear of the police, or in jail awaiting trial or sentencing this Christmas season, their families finding it difficult to find enough work to care for each other.

If we truly believe in the Peace with Justice that Mary proclaims then we must move the center of our witness for God's love to the margins. We must find ways to walk with those who are oppressed, not just feed them or offer them gifts once a year. We must ask ourselves, as I am asking myself, what more does God ask of those of us with the power to dream a realistic and just peace? How do we move toward working with others to bring that about?

As we celebrate the miracle of rebirth that is promised by the coming of the Christ Child, we can embrace our true Spirits, our courage, our calling to Peace with Justice.

In the busy-ness of the holiday season, as we remember the reason for the season, we can acknowledge that God calls us to be instruments of God's peace!

Please pray with me:
         Lord, make me an instrument of they peace.
         Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
         Where there is injury, pardon;
         Where there is doubt, faith;
         Where there is despair, hope;
         Where there is darkness, light;
         And where there is sadness, joy.
         O divine master, grant that I may not so much seek
         to be consoled as to console,
         to be understood as to understand,
         to be loved as to love.
         For it is in giving that we receive.
         It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.
         And it is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.