131208 – Peace for the Holy Land

Yr A ~ Advent 2 ~ Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122

Peace of heart. That’s what the choir just sang. And really that’s it. That’s my whole message today. I mean, I’m going to talk for another 15 minutes or so but I’m really not going to say much more than that. If you have peace of heart you know God. If you don’t, you don’t.peace-begin-me

We’re a social justice church tradition so we claim that peace and justice are important to us. Let me say it bluntly – without peace of heart we’re spinning our wheels. And I don’t just mean our own peace of heart – I mean those we’re striving to help too.

Like every beauty pageant queen says, I want world peace. But it will never happen until hearts change. No amount of programs, aid, troops, negotiations, summits, or General Council resolutions are ever going to crack that nut. Peace will always elude us until we ‘know peace’!

Here’s what I think it comes down to: If people could awaken to and embrace the peace/shalom of God’s Presence/Being/Spirit and experience transformation then world peace would be possible, and without that transformation world peace is impossible.

This Advent season we’re looking at Christmas in different parts of the world. Last week we talked about central Africa and how hope abounds in the face of their challenges. This week we’re looking at the Holy Land and the theme of peace. Peace in the Holy Land. How sad is it that as I say those words we’re all shaking our heads at how impossible that seems.

I want us to think for a minute about Christmas in the Holy Land. After all, this is literally the birthplace of Christmas, because it’s the birthplace of Jesus. And we know that because if you don’t mind the pushing and shoving you can go into the place where they think maybe Jesus might have possibly been born and take a selfie! But you’ll have to wait in line first – and possibly be searched for weapons at a check-point by someone with a machine gun.

How odd is it that the birthplace of Christianity, the birthplace of Judaism, and one of the holiest sites of Islam are all in the same place? And how pathetic is it that this ultra-holy little plot of land is the source of such pain and violence.

But I’m way ahead of myself here. We need to cycle back and talk about what peace means. Usually the first thing that pops into mind is that peace means an absence of conflict. And for religious people we also quickly add the bit about having no internal conflict or feeling at peace spiritually – what I’m calling peace of heart. And there’s also peace of mind where your thoughts are calm and you’re not worrying too much.

Around here we don’t worry about conflict or security very much. Sure, we don’t walk down dark streets at night without a twinge of uneasiness but that’s nothing like worrying about dudes with machine guns, or violent gangs, or being disappeared, or whatever. Really, most of our security fears are in our imagination – but in many places in the world it’s really real.

Our lack of peace tends to come with frustration over work or feeling like we’re not getting ahead in the world fast enough – even though we’ve already got it better than 95% of the world.

So what’s preventing you from feeling at peace? Well, you’re probably your own worst enemy. If you’d get out of your own way you’d likely find peace comes more easily. But the single biggest thing you can do to nurture that elusive peace of heart that we so yearn for is to take a few deep breaths, open your hands, and pray – no words, no nothings, just be. Sink into the quiet and you’ll discover the Holy Sacred Mystery we call God has been waiting for you all along. Rest there a while and your heart will be transformed, and you’ll know peace. Do that frequently, regularly, daily(!), and you’ll know peace!

It’s that simple. It’s that hard.

The answer here is the same answer spirituality always gives – because it’s the foundational answer: Love God, and everything else will flow from that.

Last week we talked about how the priests in ancient Israel inaugurated the new king by singing a coronation psalm that began with a prayer to God to pour God’s justice and grace into the king so the king could rule authentically. Love God first, and everything else will flow from that. It’s a pattern that appears over and over again in scripture.

Today we heard from the prophet Isaiah. It began, “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.” [Isaiah 2:2] That’s an invitation to worship and pray.

And interestingly, it’s an invitation to “all the nations” to come and pray! Clearly, Isaiah knew nothing of Christianity or Islam because neither existed in his time, but he certainly knew about conflict and he knew that if different people came together in prayer that wonderful things could happen – maybe even peace.

All the nations shall stream to the holy place. The word stream here is fascinating. The Hebrew naharu means the obvious “flow like a river” but it also means to “shine in joyful radiance.” Shine in joyful radiance! In a couple of verses Isaiah will be imploring people to beat their swords into ploughshares – to trade implements of war for implements of growth. What would provoke someone to do such a thing? Being in the Presence of God and shining in joyful radiance, that’s what!

Are there times in your life when you feel like you’re shining in joyful radiance? I certainly hope so! I hope it happens frequently. I hope you often find yourself glowing in the Presence of God. I hope you feel that here in worship sometimes. Heck, I hope you feel it here when you’re up to your armpits in dishes and laughing your head off at something! Shining in joyful radiance means feeling deeply the fullness of the Presence of God. That is where peace flows from.

People with hearts full of peace cannot help themselves but to act in peace in the world. I can imagine someone glowing in the Presence of God looking down at the sword in their hands and feeling sick to their stomach. “What the heck am I doing? This is just wrong!”

v.4 “… they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

Did you catch that? Neither shall they learn war any more. You have to learn war – which means someone has to teach it to you. What would we teach our children if we don’t teach them war? I don’t know, how about prayer! How about shining in joyful radiance! How about peace of heart!

What would be the effect in the world if we invested the resources we spend on warring and instead invested them in helping? (Kind of like what would happen if we took some of the money we blew on Christmas and donated it to drilling wells in Africa!)

Governments and individuals donate millions of dollars in aid money to places that are really hurting – like the Philippines, and Syria. And that’s a wonderful thing. But worldwide we spend trillions on fighting wars and building up military armaments. Trillions!

Wouldn’t we sow more peace in the world if those numbers were reversed? Wouldn’t enemies turn to friends if guns turned to bread? I think they would,  but it’ll never happen until hearts are shining in joyful radiance. There will be no peace until enough people ‘know peace’!

It’s so disheartening when you think about the Holy Land. Shalom is a key concept in Judaism as is salaam in Islam. Jesus spoke frequently of peace. Well, if peace is such a central concept in the three main religions there why is there not peace in the Middle East? All three traditions call Isaiah scripture – why aren’t they following it? What are the obstacles to peace? No peace of heart!

Put simply, the people who are claiming religious grounds for conflict must not be deeply authentic religious people. They cannot be, or they would not be able to act the way they do. A person whose heart is aflame with the Holy Sacred More cannot do violence to another. What sense does it make to say you’re sticking up for your religious tradition by violating the very core of it to make your point???

So yes, I’m making a judgement. I judge that those in conflict are not people of faith but people of passionate politics using faith as an excuse.

Imagine what would happen to world politics if I was able to magically put Ghandi, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Rumi (an Muslim Sufi poet), Martin Luther King Jr., and even this new Pope Francis in a room together and let them fight it out! Wouldn’t be much of a fight would it? – because we know that these folks and thousands upon thousands of unnamed and unknown people of faith like them (like you!) actually authentically have peace of heart. They know shalom, or salaam, or whatever word they’d choose – and that peace guides their actions.

Like Isaiah, Psalm 122 conveys a similar message, and it starts in a similar way – with an invitation to prayer. “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’” [Psalm 122:1] Of course that person was glad. They were on their way to shine in joyful radiance!

Then a couple verses later the psalm talks of peace. We often use the Hebrew word for peace here because it has a richer meaning. Do you remember what shalom means? Peace, wholeness, wellness, and blessing. So listen to Psalm 122:6-8 again:

6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you.
7 Shalom be within your walls, and security within your towers.”
8 For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Wholeness be within you.” Shalom be within you. Peace be within you – ‘cause if it ain’t in you it can’t work through you.

So, is peace for the Holy Land an impossible dream? I hope not! And remember, hope means confident expectation that the thing’s going to happen! It may sound cliché but the truth is that peace happens one person at a time, one heart at a time. That’s what we’re tuning-in to in Advent. That’s one of our Christmas dreams, that we can know peace of heart.

“One summer evening in 1955, a group of 180 teenagers of all races and religions, meeting at a workshop high in the California mountains locked arms, formed a circle and sang a song of peace. They felt that singing the song, with its simple basic sentiment – ‘Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me,’ helped to create a climate for world peace and understanding.”

Let there be peace on earth
And let it begin with me;
Let there be peace on earth,
The peace that was meant to be.

With God our Creator
Family all are we,
Let us walk with each other
In perfect harmony.

Let peace begin with me,
Let this be the moment now;
With every step I take,
Let this be my solemn vow:

To take each moment and live each moment, In peace eternally.
Let there be peace on earth
And let it begin with me.

“I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’ – where all the nations can shine in joyful radiance” and truly know Peace, Shalom, Salaam, Paix, Shanti, Friede, Mir, Heping, Heiwa, Irini…

In whatever language your heart speaks, may peace be born in us this season!

Amen.