Matthew 5:9, John 14:27, Isaiah 9:6-7
The Reverend Tom Herbek
December 6, 2015
There is so much violence in our world this year, so much hatred, so much discord. How can we possibly think that peace is a realistic hope in such a world? Writing about Advent, Maya Angelou created a poem entitled “Amazing Peace.”
It is the Glad Season.
Hope is born again in the faces of children
It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into
Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.
In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness.
The word is Peace.
It is loud now.
Louder than the explosion of bombs.
When we look at the scenes of violence and hatred in our world, it seems overwhelming, and peace seems like a pipe-dream. Perhaps what we need is to bring it closer to home, to move our thoughts to what we can do, not what we can’t do.
Jesus was called the Prince of Peace and promised that he would give us peace, but what did that mean then, and what can that mean now?
Frederick Buechner writes: “In Hebrew peace, shalom, means fullness, means having everything you need to be wholly and happily yourself.” Perhaps when Jesus used the term “peace”, he was speaking of something much more personal, and, at the same time, much broader. Buechner goes on to say: “For Jesus, peace seems to have meant not the absence of struggle, but the presence of love.”
In the midst of violence and hatred, we must be people of Shalom, people of peace. And we must make sure that we see that – despite all the news reports to the contrary – we are not alone. Larry Rich found this out in Peru:
Despite the fact that popular culture and our own childlike religious mindset may tend to sometimes imagine divine intervention as something occurring at the end of time and perhaps in a very fantastic way, there are less spectacular instances of revelation in the here-and-now. These tend to happen in the midst of genuine crises; and we will understand them only if we are prepared to see them.
In 1992 in Lima, Peru, I witnessed what I would say qualifies as such a moment. I worked at a church human rights center during the harsh years of an unconventional war between the Shining Path, a group given to terrorist tactics, and the de facto government dictatorship with death squads. We used to talk about being caught between “two devils.” As Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission later confirmed, each side killed some 30,000 people. By 1992, there was a pervasive sense of desperation over whether the violence would ever end. We heard stories daily of brutality by both the military and the Shining Path.
Despite death threats and assassinations, many community leaders in the poorest barrios, especially the women, carried on with efforts to improve the lives of their neighbors. One of these was Maria Elena Moyano, who led an association of comedores populares – communal kitchens where people could gather to get a nutritious meal and children could get milk. These comedores were sometimes the target of terrorist bombings, and Maria Elena criticized the hypocrisy of the Shining Path’s alleged people’s revolution. On February 15, 1992, Maria Elena herself was assassinated by the Shining Path, her body blown to pieces by dynamite.
What happened next was as clear a breakthrough of hope in the midst of darkness as I have ever seen. At Maria Elena’s open-air funeral Mass in her poverty-stricken part of town, there was great tension soldiers ringed the area. Everyone feared reprisal from the Shining Path for at was seen as an act of defiance. As a result, many of the few hundred people present were human rights and aid workers from outside the barrio.
When the funeral procession began the twomile or so march by foot to the local cemetery it passed homes and side streets, and people began to pour out and swell its ranks until the time it arrived at the burial spot it numbered some 30,000 people and stretched as far down the road as one could see. Courage was being shown to the rest of Peruvian society by the marchers, mostly people without means and vulnerable in plain sight to the “thou sand eyes” with which the Shining Path claimed to menacingly watch.
A public outcry followed in Peru that had not been heard in all those years. The news media invited community leaders, especially the women from the barrio organizations, as guests and interviewees on many of its programs. It was a rare moment in which the secular media seemed to have become the voice of the voiceless. It was as if middle and upper class Peruvians had perhaps begun to learn wisdom from those never considered important. Maybe the strength that kept the country from dissolving into chaos was found in the previously ignored efforts in poor communities to sustain life.
So peace and struggle are not at odds, at least not in the message of Jesus. For Jesus, perhaps peace and struggle are necessary components of one another.
When we call for peace, for Shalom for everyone, we may be seen as rabble-rousers. When we affirm that all people everywhere have a birthright to be able to find peace, fullness, wholeness – everything they need to be wholly and happily themselves – then we may also be seen as rabble-rousing, as creators of struggle.
Making others uncomfortable with the status quo, calling for change when people are left out and left behind means that we peacemakers will be blessed, will be “children of God.”
In order to bring peace to our world, we may need to be a part of struggle. In order to be blessed as peacemakers, we are called to bring love to the unloved, hope to the hopeless and fullness to the unfulfilled.
Perhaps what we can do, even in the midst of many things we can’t do, is to say to those who feel left out and left behind, “I am not going away.” Episcopal bishop Rowan Williams spent time in the Congo, helping to rescue child soldiers from violence and drugs and death. He wrote:
“I’m not going away” is one of the most important things we can ever hear, whether we hear it from someone at our bedside in illness or over a shared drink at a time of depression or stress – or at a moment when we wonder what’s happening to our neighborhood and our society. This is the heart of what Christmas says about God. And it’s the real justification for any local church or any national church being there. When people are pushed by all sorts of destructive forces into seeing themselves as hopeless, as rubbish, so that what they do doesn’t matter anymore, it’s this that will make the change that matters.
Happy Christmas to you all; and remember when you can the people who think the world has forgotten them – the child soldiers in Congo and elsewhere who haven’t yet escaped into the arms of a loving community, the men and women who sit in their rooms or houses in depression and loneliness, the elderly who feel that the world has left them behind and that their feelings and needs don’t matter to anyone any longer, the refugee who has left behind a horrifyingly traumatic situation of rape and murder, yet who knows that he or she is looked on with suspicion and hostility in their new home…..So many. You’ll be able to think of many more, I’m sure.
Pray that they will find that someone hasn’t forgotten – that they will find out that God and the friends of God are there for them.
Where are the places and the people to whom we can say, “I am not going away?” We do not have to go to Congo or Peru, or even to San Bernadino. If we are to be blessed, then we have to find ways to combine peace and struggle. We are a church family that has said- in so many ways- to the people of this community, and the children of Haiti, “I am not going away.”
But let us continue to be creative in our caring, seeking new ways to make a difference. Let us be people of both peace and struggle together. Let us pray that Shalom, peace, fullness, love, may be more personal and more prevalent in our world and in our lives this Christmas.