Peace, When There is No Peace

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, December 2, 2018.

I love this season of Advent, and this month that brings Hanukkah and the Solstice, and their stories of oil that lasts longer than it should, and the wonder and mystery of the longest night. I love this time of waiting and getting ready. And I need its promise: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). 

Because you know, the darkness around us is deep. That was true when the poet William Stafford wrote that line twenty years ago, and it’s certainly true these days. I guess it’s always true. There are always forces that are working against love and justice, and some days, it seems like they have the upper hand.

I was on a conference call the other day with clergy from around the area; we were talking about how to respond to the humanitarian crisis on our southern border, and particularly the fact that our troops fired tear gas across the border against parents and children trying to get into our country. What an image that is. Whatever happened to, “"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”?

On that call, Father Carlos Urbina, pastor of St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Lawrence, told us how that congregation has been praying for the people at our border, and standing in solidarity with them. Father Carlos told us that a few years ago, he made a trip to our southwest border, and he walked in the desert there, retracing the steps that his mother had taken many years before, when she came into this country carrying Fr. Carlos’ older brother, who was a baby then, in her arms. He told us, that these days, “I have to create hope, because someone created hope for my mother.”

That’s the purpose of the vigil this afternoon at 4:30 at St. Mary’s in Lawrence, to create hope. To be together, brown people and black people and white people, people from the cities and from the suburbs, Protestants and Catholics, Jews and Unitarian Universalists, together creating more hope that we have on our own. I need this, and I expect you do too, and I hope you will come.

Our worship theme for December is “peace,” and we need peace too, don’t we? Most of us could use more peace in our daily lives, and our world certainly needs more peace. I need peace and quiet and time to pray and time alone and time for worship together—all this bring me peace, and I need it, if I’m going to be of use to anyone else. What about you?

Sometimes people think peaces comes by withdrawing from the troubles of the world—pulling down the shades, pulling up the moat, building a wall. But what kind of peace is that, hiding from the pain and trouble around us, acting as if it’s not there? “You can hold yourself back from the suffering of the world,” Franz Kafka said, “but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.”

There are those who would seek peace in distraction and insulation from the world. They ask, “What can anyone do? It’s better take care your own needs and not worry about other people.” Theirs can be a kind of spiritual narcissism. The prophet Jeremiah was critical of people like this; he said, “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace; when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14).

But f you aspired to be that kind of person, would you be here? To be a person of faith is to be awake; to care about others as much as you do about yourself. To be aware of the distance between how the world is, and how it could be, how it should be. To be mindful of the hurt around you, and mindful of your own limitations, and still, to keep asking, “How can I help?” 

I think you know, this is not a peaceful place to be. It’s more often frustrating, demanding, exhausting. The question in my heart these days is the one Jeremiah pointed toward so long ago: how can you have peace when there is no peace? If we are want to be of use to others, then we need to know how to do this; how to find some peace in the midst of the struggle and the strife. So how do we do this?

It seems to me that the way to start is by jumping into life, as best you can. As the Outward Bound saying goes, “If you can’t get out of if, get into it!” The way to a deeper peace is not by holding back, but by diving in. You know the bumper sticker that says,”If you want peace, work for justice.” This is certainly true on a global scale—world peace will only come when justice prevails. But it’s true on the personal level too—if you want peace in your heart and in your life, then make it your mission to help others. None of us can do everything, but do what you can, so when you go to bed at night, you can rest assured that you’re part of the solution, and not part of the problem.

Another thing we could do is learn to live in the incompleteness and discomfort of the present moment; to accept our own limitations, and the fact that there’s much that’s beyond our control. Like it says in the Serenity Prayer: courage to change what we can, grace to accept what we can’t change, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Finally, to find peace in this world, it seems essential that you know how to open yourself up to others. How to be in relationship, especially with those who are different from you. And how to be in relationship with a higher power. 

We live in an increasingly diverse nation, and it remains to be seen how this is going to turn out. We all need to work on our intercultural competence: getting better at being in places and with people that cause us to stretch and grow. And we could stand to work on our spiritual competence: developing a language of reverence and ways to be in touch with, and be supported by, a power that is greater than ourselves. To trust that what Whittier wrote is true:

The letter fails, and systems fall,
  And every symbol wanes;
The Spirit over-brooding all      
  Eternal Love remains.

This is our Universalist faith, and our world needs it these days.

The poet Naomi Shihab Nye was born to a Palestinian father and an American mother. She writes about how September 11 was a tragedy not us for the US, but for Arabs and Muslims too. In those weeks after the planes struck the towers. she says her dear departed Palestinian grandmother “swarmed into my consciousness, poking my sleep, saying, ‘It’s your job. Speak for me too. Say how much I hate it. Say this is not who we are.’”

This is a voice I am hearing these days too; the call to show up and speak up, to say, “This is not who we are.” This is not how we are supposed to treat people who are in trouble, those who are seeking hope. Especially in this season when we remember and celebrate the story of the birth of Jesus, in a stable, because there was nowhere else to go.

Hear, again, some of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “Kindness,” and how it offers us a way though the wilderness of these troubled times, a way toward a wider and deeper peace:

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things…

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness… |
You must see how this could be you…

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. 
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

My friends, by spiritual companions, let us, in these days, lean into what is real, and not hold back. Let us practice living in the tension between what is and what is yet to be. Let us reach out our hands, let us be kind. And let us trust that the Spirit overseeing all, Eternal Love, remains.