December 2009

Sermon Advent 4, December 20th, 2009
Micah 5:2-5a and Luke 1 Mary’s Song

Rarely in life do things appear clear to us. Complex, confusing, grey; but rarely does black and white clarity come to us in life. When it does, it seems to creep up at 3AM, or while raking leaves. I had such an experience recently while listening to our President give a speech.

After President Barack Obama’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace prize Desmond Tutu remarked, “You are now a Nobel laureate- become what you are!” Indeed, Mr. President, become what you are!

In his speech the President said several things that brought clarity to Christmas for me. Remember, Christmas is not so much the miraculous story of the virgin birth, as it is the miraculous birth of a new world coming when God bursts in and breaks out in our midst. In contrast, Obama said he was:

mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago — “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life’s work, I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence. I know there is nothing weak — nothing passive, nothing naïve — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King. But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason… So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace…I understand why war is not popular. But I also know this: The belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it. Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice.[i]

This speech demands a choice: we can choose to believe the story of Christmas, justice and peace; or we can choose to believe the story of kings and Presidents, war and poverty.
Our prophetic text from Micah 5:2-5 pictures God coming humbly and with care as a shepherd, “And [God] shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord God. And they shall live secure.” We will be cared for, nurtured, fed, clothed, protected. This is the picture of God in the world that we celebrate at Christmas. But Micah continues, giving us perhaps the most clear and succinct definition of who Messiah will be when he comes, and of what he will do: “He is the one of peace!” Peace, not war will be the way of Messiah! For Micah, Jesus’ and our own day, the expectation is to fight evil with evil, war with war, and hatred with ever more hatred. But the coming one will be the one of peace! Mr. President, I’m afraid you were dead on when you joked during your campaign that you are not the Messiah. Indeed, you are not! There can be no peace without first security, and justice, for all.

Micah by no means stands alone in this picture of the world as it is being formed to become. Our Gospel text today is the song of Jesus’ mother, known as the Magnificat, in Luke 1:39-56.

Luke tells the story of God’s answer to the problem of evil in our world. In the face of chaos, empire, and death, we find humble Mary: poor, young, and illegitimate mother of a tiny baby boy. This is what happens when God bursts in and breaks out??? Where is the expected shock and awe? Where are the predator drones and troop increases? Where the deficit spending on the war machine?

In place of violence, we find humility. And in place of expected songs about cute noses, tiny toes, and mommy’s little angel, we find the radical in-breaking of the upside down kingdom. For Mary, God’s coming signals the powerful are to be brought low, the oppressed freed from tyranny, the wealthy emptied, the destitute “filled with good things”. This is Jubilee! This is what we’ve seen all throughout Advent, with mountains brought low and valley’s lifted up. It’s a picture of the world as it will look when all things are made right. It’s a kingdom of justice, sharing, economic equality and relationality with God and each other rather than a kingdom of political and military dominance.

One wonders, given the fact that this song was recorded by Luke 70 years after Mary first sang it, if perhaps she didn’t sing it only one time. Perhaps this song functioned not only as Mary’s song of praise, but more importantly also as formation for who Jesus became. Was Jesus who he was precisely because Mary sang this song to him as a boy? Mary, like Micah before and Jesus after, connects peace with necessary justice. This song, and not the drumbeats of war, is the true Christmas song.

And this interconnection between peace and justice reminds me of another church hero, this one from the 20th century. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Peace is not the absence of conflict, it is the presence of justice.” We’ve been talking here about the miraculous birth of a new world that comes when God bursts in and breaks out. This is that miraculous new world: where peace and justice walk hand in hand down the streets of Houston and Kabul; where poverty and riches in America are linked to war in Iraq; where Christmas purchases at LL Bean, Gymboree, Ikea, Kohls, Pier 1, Hanes, Abercrombie and Fitch, and Walmart[ii] are connected to modern day slavery in the Phillipines and Los Angeles; where war is overcome by anti-racism campaigns and efforts to include those not like ourselves.

But are Micah and Mary only offering us a picture of some far off dream-world, or is what they suggest an actual viable strategy? President Obama clearly sees it as whimsy and gumdrop wishes. But what about you? What about Scripture? What about Jesus?

This is NOT just some naïve dreamscape. Obama holds in one hand King and Ghandi. But by holding “realism” in his other hand, dispels everything they stood for! You cannot hold together nonviolence and war! It doesn’t even make sense, let alone work.

Mary and Micah are not naïve. Peace works! Peace is both the strategy of God, and the goal of the coming one. It’s both the vision of the world as it should be (what the Bible calls “Righteousness) and God’s way of making it happen. Nonviolence is the strongest weapon we can wield to overcome evil. History has proven this over and again. Mr President, your reading of history is wrong, and all too limited. Peace as a strategy does work!

Today, Mary and Micah would celebrate the story of Ghandi in India. Ghandi’s love for Jesus, and commitment to live like him, birthed an entirely new world for us to embrace. By seeing peace as both strategy and goal, Ghandi utilized the tools of nonviolence to win victory over empire. “The mighty British Army was halted in its tracks and had to withdraw from India (Brian McLaren).”

Today, Mary and Micah would celebrate the story of Martin Luther King Jr. in the American south. “By advocating love, forgiveness, and nonviolence, Dr. King also withstood the hatred and viciousness of those who believed in white supremacy. He, like Ghandi, was beaten and imprisoned. He was even stabbed and did not retaliate. Through this he inspired hope and gave millions of people a vision that transformed our entire society (Brian McLaren).”

And what of Obama’s claims about Hitler in WW2? I believe that today, Mary and Micah would celebrate the story of Denmark, where nonviolence was tried and held the great Blitzkrieg at bay, successfully halting Hitler’s armies and saving the lives of 7,000 Jews.

Mary and Micah would sing songs about “Otpar!” The Balkan nonviolent movement of the 1990’s that brought down Slobodan Milosevic. They would sing songs of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, breaking the back of Apartheid and building genuine community through Truth and Reconciliation. They would sing of the Velvet Revolution and its cousins in Eastern Europe climaxing in the fall of the Berlin Wall. I could go on.

They would sing the songs of peace, because peace works! Peace is God’s strategy for overcoming evil in our world. And folks, the list of nonviolent victories is long, longer than our President could ever imagine. But dig deep for military victory and you will find a very very short list.

This Christmas we celebrate the birth of an entirely new world. A world that is bursting and breaking into our midst through Jesus, “the one of peace!”

Theodore Dostoyevsky writes: “Of some thoughts one stands perplexed — especially at the sight of men’s sin—and wonders whether one should use force or humble love. Always decide to use humble love. If you resolve on that once and for all, you may subdue the whole world. Loving humility is marvelously strong, the strongest of all things, and there is nothing else like it.”

Humble love; that is the story of Christmas!

This Christmas we have a choice. We can choose to believe the stale old way of kings and Presidents, war and terror. Or, we can choose to believe in the miraculous birth of the new way of Jesus, Mary and Micah; the way of peace, justice and humble love.

In our day, as in the 1st century, the problems seemed impossible to overcome. They were bloody, life and death problems, and fear filled the hearts of many. Violence, bloodshed, hatred, the machinery of war seem to be the only solution. But God’s answer to the prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done…” is the same today as it was then: “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, for there was no room for them in the inn.” And when the call of the angels came to Mary like it comes to us, she responded, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Who do you believe?

Jesus, we celebrate your birth as the prince of peace! “The Prince of Peace is Jesus Christ. We who were formerly no people at all, and who knew of no peace, are now called to be a church of peace. True Christians do not know vengeance. They are the children of peace. Their hearts overflow with peace. Their mouths speak peace, and they walk in the way of peace (from Menno Simons, Reply to False Accusations, 1552).”

Houston Mennonite Church, we are now a peace church – become what you are!

[i] More Obama Speech quotes:

The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms…So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace.

The nonviolence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached — their faith in human progress — must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.

For if we lose that faith — if we dismiss it as silly or naive; if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace — then we lose what is best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass.

So let us reach for the world that ought to be — that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls. Somewhere today, in the here and now, a soldier sees he’s outgunned but stands firm to keep the peace. Somewhere today, in this world, a young protester awaits the brutality of her government, but has the courage to march on. Somewhere today, a mother facing punishing poverty still takes the time to teach her child, who believes that a cruel world still has a place for his dreams.

Let us live by their example.

[ii] All inductees into the 2009 “Sweatshop Hall of Fame.”


ADVENT 2009:Visions for Peace-Plans for War

Tuesday night’s Presidential address did little to keep me in the Advent spirit. Plans to escalate war fly in the face of everything I believe is at the core of Christmas, and at the core of what our world needs.

The New Testament calls on various Old Testament texts in order to interpret the meaning of Jesus birth. Strangely these texts have nothing to do with generosity or the mental gymnastics necessary to believe its better to give than receive. No, the New Testament almost univocally pulls on texts that promise justice and peace, deliverance from real-world oppression, an upside-down kingdom, and political-economic-spiritual “light” – a new and better world for all as defined by God. The New Testament supplements those Old Testament readings with its own interpretations of the birth that sharpen the contrast between the President’s plan. “Peace on earth among those whom God favors (Luke 2:14).” “God sent his son into the world…that we might love one another (1John 4:7-12).” “The word became flesh… and was full of grace and truth (John 1).”

On top of both of those accounts, the Christian church for 2,000 years has pulled various Old Testament texts to highlight the Messianic expectation of God’s people. These texts are a highlight reel of what they expected when Messiah (who turned out to be Jesus) finally came. Consistent with the two categories above, peace, justice, love, the upside-down kingdom are mentioned throughout our history of Advent. Perhaps my favorite of these is Isaiah 11:1-10, one of the grandest and most fascinating pictures of God’s kingdom ever! Isaiah’s picture of wolves and lambs together is an extraordinary picture of how the world will look when God answers the prayer: “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10).”

As the President spoke directly into the faces of future soldiers who will die for his war plans, I found myself begging instead for the words of Isaiah 11:9: “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of God.” And what is this knowledge of God that Isaiah tells us about? That “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together (11:6).” The message of Advent/Christmas is not security based on military might; nor is it the President’s catchy twist of words that “right makes might.” Violence under any name is still misguided, and ill-equipped to accomplish the necessary ends for Afghanistan or any region. Isaiah counters the “myth of redemptive violence” with his promise the coming Christ-child will overcome evil with his word of righteousness, faithfulness, and peace. Righteousness as pictured in the Old Testament is “the right ordering of the world according to God’s intention, with a special bias toward the poor and the outcast (John E. Toews, pg 401).” Proper ordering of Afghanistan does not include more war or a longstanding imperial presence. It includes faithfulness in relationship and nonviolence that leads to love of enemies. “When we hear the good news of the love of God,…our response includes… placing full trust in God alone…When we who once were God’s enemies are reconciled with God through Christ, we also experience reconciliation with others (Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, Article 8: Salvation).”

This is an extraordinary voice this Christmas season! This is what we are called to be about. As the body of Christ, our fellowship is a foretaste of this vision, our worship is designed to celebrate it, our Christian education must be about forming people to be the type of people who work for this vision, our outreach works to spread it, and our giving is directed towards this end!

But this Advent vision was alarmingly absent from the President’s plan. The President sadly chose not to listen to the strategy of Isaiah but rather to listen to his war council.  He erroneously chose to believe one story over another: the story that proclaims violence can and does solve our problems.

But, as Christians, that is not our story.

Ours is the only story that can “win” in Afghanistan.

This Christmas, I grieve violence done in our name. I grieve that we are not creative enough to think of new and different plans. I grieve our inability to read the history of violence as being woefully deficient. I grieve our incalculable spending for destruction and our petty spending for development. I grieve the loss of life in American and Afghan families. I grieve that the church has yet to muster up a nonviolent training program (Isaiah 2:4 says that when Messiah comes they “shall not learn war anymore”) to rival that of Westpoint. But mostly, I grieve that another story besides that of Jesus birth has so captured our attention again this year that once again we will miss hearing the angels song: “Peace!”

I pray that you would believe Christmas is more than generosity and more than a miraculous virgin birth. Much moreso, it is the birth of a miraculous picture of the world as it should be! This Christmas, may we all come to more deeply believe in the proper ordering of our world as Isaiah saw it, and the story of peace that Scripture so boldly proclaims. Will you join me in this prayer for “righteousness”:

Your kingdom come, your will be done, in Afghanistan as it is in heaven. AMEN

Advent Prayer
Mary’s Song-
can we sing it on a bleak mid-winter midnight
while we wait for good news
and the wars just get worse
and the children keep dying?

Is the Child winning the battle
and we just can’t see well enough?

But we can pray- that the hope of the world
keeps being born in us
and God will do the rest! AMEN

Words for Worship 2, #175 by Linea Reimer Geiser.