Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Way of Peace -- A Lectionary Reflection

The Way of Peace

            We can meet each other with open hands or close fists.  We can embrace each other or walk away.  We can build bridges or put up walls.  These options have been with us from the beginning of time.  The choices we make depend on whether we live in faith or in fear.  The way of peace is the way of welcome.  And to be communities that build bridges and welcome the stranger requires from us openness to the other.  It doesn’t mean that we don’t have values or beliefs, but it does mean that we have the willingness to engage the other openly.  Not all ways are the same.  There will be times and places where barriers need to be erected.  Bigotry has no place in such a community.  Not only must we wall out bigotry and hatred, we must recognize the danger of the current partisan divide in our political culture.  Partisanship itself needn’t be a problem, but when it takes on an extremist mentality that so polarizes the community that the common good suffers, then we must address the problem head on.  So, yes, there are many obstacles to a life of openness and welcome, but if we’re to take the way of peace, then this is the path required of us. 

            The way of peace is a difficult path.  We find it difficult to create a peaceful and respectful environment even in the local church, so we shouldn’t be surprised by the turmoil present in the broader culture, including the global culture.  The idea of “clash of civilizations” may be problematic, at least as such an idea is laid out by those who want to lift up western culture as the exemplar for the world, it’s clear from the news, especially as we watch the turmoil in the Middle East and across the Muslim world, that this is an age of social and cultural change that many are finding difficult to understand and embrace.   But the way of peace, the way of Jesus, it seems to me requires of us a commitment to building bridges, and that involves building relationships with the other. 

So, I have a growing appreciation for Islam, largely because I now have Muslim friends.  I know their hearts.  I know they don’t wish me ill.  They grieve the loss of life, especially lives given up for friends as in the case of Ambassador Christopher Stevens, who died in Libya.  For those of us who seek a different way, a way that is open and welcoming, find it a difficult road to take.  There is much resistance, often rooted in a lack of understanding and knowledge.  I’ve just finished reading Eboo Patel’s book Sacred Ground (Beacon, 2012), a book that focuses on developing strong interfaith relationships while remaining true to our faith confessions.  He speaks to the prejudice but also the promise that can, if we’re willing to take up the task, move toward achieving Martin Luther King’s vision of the Beloved Community.  But sometimes those who commit their lives to this task, whether it is Christopher Stevens (and I don’t anything about his faith) or Dr. King or Gandhi or Jesus, lives are given up for others.  But in the course of their efforts a way of welcome is established.

            In the gospel we read of Jesus’ announcement that he will die a martyr’s death in the context of an argument or dispute among his followers as to who is the greatest.  Jesus offers us a new vision of who we should embrace.  Jeremiah speaks of his own dilemma, but leaves vengeance in the hands of God.  For his part, James writes about the way of peace, and the role that our cravings play in putting obstacles in the way achieving God’s vision of peace. 

            I start with Jeremiah 11.  It’s just three short verses that describe Jeremiah’s recognition that his path is like that of the lamb led to slaughter.  This is an image that appears as well in Isaiah 53, and Christians have used it as a lens to interpret Jesus’ own death.  Jeremiah’s opponents – and those of God – wish to do him harm.  They resist the way of God, though they think they’re doing what is right.  God informs Jeremiah of this plot and as a result, Jeremiah discerns a better way than seeking vengeance.  Rather than turn to violence, as is the choice of his opponents, he will entrust himself to God’s care – much as Jesus will do later in history.  Jeremiah’s ability to embrace his call from God is rooted in this decision, and is not the same true of us, especially those who embrace the call to social justice.  There will be opposition, so what will be our demeanor?  In their comments on this passage, Catherine and Justo Gonzalez note that “Jeremiah is able to be faithful in following God’s difficult way because he trusts in God’s faithfulness.  His enemies assume they are following in the more prudent way to save their lives in the face of danger to the nation.  But God’s way, although foolishness to the faithless, is the road to the greater security God gives” (in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice Year B, p. 411).  So, are we ready to join Jeremiah in following faithfully God’s more difficult path – a path that leads to greater security?

            From Jeremiah’s decision to entrust his life to God’s care, we turn to James and his conversation about the way of peace and welcome.  James continues his conversation about the life of wisdom.  “Are any of you wise and understanding?”  He asks.  It’s a question that requires a careful answer, because it depends on whose wisdom we depend.  James, of course, is a practical person and offers us a glimpse into this wisdom.  It doesn’t involve bitterness, jealousy, selfish ambition – it’s not trying to get ahead at the expense of others.  This obviously isn’t the way envisioned by the disciples of Ayn Rand!  This isn’t wisdom that comes from God – no it’s rather demonic.  It is the source of evil.  Instead, we’re offered a better way, one that is pure and peaceful.  It’s gentle and merciful.    Here’s the key – “those who make peace sow seeds of justice by their peaceful acts” (Jms. 3:18 CEB).  Peace results from sowing justice.  It’s not something that simply happens – we have to take up the work of justice, and with it comes peace.

            But to understand the call to peacemaking, we need to understand the root of our conflicts.  James suggests that conflict arises from “your cravings that are at war with your own lives” (Jms. 4:1).  In making this claim, James reaches back to the Commandments, especially that one that speaks of coveting.  When you covet something that belongs to the other you’re liable to break the other commands – like adultery or murder.  But James offers a way – don’t be jealous or covetous.  Instead ask, letting go of evil intentions.  Submit, he writes, to God.  Come near to God.  It’s not a call to ascetism, but rather recognition that God has our best interests in mind.  So come, and God will come near to you.

            When we come to the Gospel reading, Jesus is back in Galilee after a tour of Gentile regions to the north.  Interestingly, Jesus still seeks anonymity.  He’s trying to evade the crowds.  Why?  Because he feels the need to focus on his disciples.  By this point, Jesus seems to recognize that his time is short and that he’ll have to hand off this movement of peace to his followers.  There’s a connection between Jesus’ attitude expressed here and the one expressed by Jeremiah.  Both see themselves as lambs led to slaughter.  But both place their future in the hands of God.  Jeremiah trusts God’s vengeance, while Jesus sees resurrection as his vindication.  Of course the disciples still don’t understand, and like many of us, they’re not willing to ask for clarification.

            In James, we learn that conflict arises because of our cravings, and there’s not greater craving, than the craving after power.  In my community organizing work I’m learning the importance of power.  But the kind of power that allows us to build community is tempered by humility.  And so we have before us a debate among the disciples.  Jesus asks – what are you arguing about?  And the answer, ultimately, is – who is the greatest?  Who is going to be the leader?  Who will sit at Jesus’ right hand?  You know, they see him as Messiah, and they want the chief seats at his side.  They crave power over each other.  And so Jesus has to draw them together and make it clear the way of discipleship.  Here is the message that we all find difficult to live into –“Whoever wants to be first must be least of all” (Mk. 9:35).  Jesus needs an illustration, because without it they’ll never understand.

            Jesus uses an image that can be confusing or at least misleading to us.  In our world children are to be treasured.  We invest a lot into them.  But, in a different age, when mortality is great, and a majority live at a subsistence level, children aren’t near the treasure we make them today.  So, when Jesus pulls a child from the crowd and places this child in the midst of the disciples and embraces the child and then says “whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me,” he’s saying something radical. Children are disposable.  If they don’t produce or have the potential to produce, they’re a liability, so to treat them as you would treat Jesus is a radical thing.  And not only that, in welcoming this child into your midst – the one who is the least of these – you are welcoming God.  Yes, God is present in this child, in this disposable person, and so in embracing this child you embrace God.  This is the way of justice and peace.  So what does this require of us?

            There is a lot of debate in our society today about the role of government and charity in providing for the needs of the least among us.  In the United States there’s more than enough food and energy to provide for every person, but there is clearly a differential between first and last.  So, as followers of Jesus, who seek to sow justice through acts peace, what does this require of us?  What does embracing the child – the disposable one – mean for us?  There is a lot of talk about pro-life and pro-choice, but what is often neglected in this conversation is the life of the child once born.  If we’re pro-life, and I’m ambivalent about abortion, then are we willing to provide for a child – education, food, medical care?  If not, what does this say about our pro-life commitments?  And if we’re pro-choice, what does this stance say to us about matters of justice?  These aren’t easy questions to answer, but the answer seems to lie in the way of peace and the way of wisdom as expressed in James 3.

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