The emphasis for the second Sunday of Advent is peace, or in our version, just peace—not in the sense of only peace but of peace informed by justice. The scripture passage was from Mark 1 and described the appearance of John the Baptist.
As I said in the sermon, talking about peace feels even more difficult this year with all that is happening in Israel and Gaza, along with Ukraine and other places. Even so, we are called to be peacemakers.
One of the reasons I chose the particular translation we are using this morning is because the translators caught something that most have not, and that is that the opening words of Mark are the title of the book rather than the first sentence:
The beginning of the gospel—the good news—of Jesus Christ.
Then Mark moves to quote from the prophet Isaiah about preparing the way of the Lord and ends up focusing on John the Baptist, giving us a picture of an odd man dressed in camel hide and eating locusts and wild honey. John chose a remote part of the Jordan River, many miles from Jerusalem, to issue his call for repentance. Still, people came to be baptized.
But the words we read are not the beginning of the good news of Jesus. They are the opening scene; the whole book is the beginning. Jesus’ life is the beginning of the gospel; we are still telling the story. It has lots of chapters. We are reading these introductory words on this Sunday as we talk about peace—just peace—even though the word is not mentioned in the passage.
Last week, we talked about how difficult it is to define the word hope; I’m not sure peace is much easier. The root meaning of the word in English carries the notion of binding together, to make a promise as a way to end conflict. Then it came to mean friendly relationships with others. The word also carries the idea of inner calm and quiet, as in peace of mind. Peace has a lot of angles to consider.
When I was in seminary, I made plans to get my doctorate. I actually completed a year of study and then I met Ginger—a turn in my life I was not expecting. That one year was all I did. That’s the way life goes sometimes.
One of the requirements for admission was I had to pass a French test so I could read European theologians. One of the ways we studied for the test was translating from a French New Testament. We were working on the Beatitudes and found that the French version of “blessed are the peacemakers” translated to “blessed are those who make peace around them.”
Philosopher Cornell West said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” To talk, then, about just peace is to talk about binding ourselves together in love—and by ourselves we mean all of those around us, both near and far.
How do we make peace around us?
That’s a difficult question under any circumstances, but it is even harder in these days when we are inundated by news of what is happening in Gaza and Israel, as well as in Ukraine. And those are only two of the thirty-plus wars going on in the world right now. The wars make the question difficult not only because people are dying, but also because we are a long way from those wars and there’s not much we can do about them, or at least that is how it feels.
When we say, “make peace around us,” how far out do we draw the circle?
I want to add three other questions, added layers to what it means to make peace around us. They come from writer Judith Baker in an essay titled, “Violence, Mourning, and Politics:”
Who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives? And finally, what makes for a grievable life?
Yesterday several of us participated in a Service of Remembrance that we hosted here working with the folks from Beecher and Bennett Funeral Home. The heart of the service was the reading of the names of those who died this past year. As the names were read, family and friends put an ornament on a tree we had down front and then lit a candle. Every name recalled a grievable life, someone who was missed and longed for.
By contrast, I read an article this week about the ongoing civil war in Sudan—a war that rarely makes the news here. They commented that five thousand civilians have been killed there in the last six months. In the war we do hear about, fifteen thousand Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since October 7 when twelve hundred Israelis were killed in an attack by Hamas.
In most all the reporting I have seen, no names were mentioned; how can those lives be grieved when we don’t know who they are? But the impact of these wars hits closer to home.
Judith Butler says mourning means agreeing to be transformed by our sadness without knowing where those changes will take us. John the Baptist invited people to repent, which meant more than just feeling sorry; it meant turning your life in a new direction. That is what it takes to make peace around us.
I have a friend who is a Methodist minister. His name is Eric Folkerth. He says people are not changed by following their passions, they are changed when they follow their broken hearts. If you want to live your life to its fullest, then work to heal what breaks your heart. That’s another way of saying make peace around you.
As the war in Israel and Gaza has escalated, I watched Ginger’s heart break for the situation at large, but also for the rabbi nearest us who lost friends in the Hamas attack and also feared reprisals from people here who see the situation as a chance to lash out in hatred. She knew she couldn’t change much in Gaza, but she organized a group of us to go one Friday evening as the temple was gathering for shabbat services. We stood silently with candles as people arrived. Some thanked us. Some even wept. We did not stop the war, but we made peace.
We are not going to stop wars with our efforts, regardless of what we do. We can, however, widen the circle of those for whom we grieve. We can learn names. We can ask questions. We can let our hearts be broken and then see where that takes us.
As we prepare for the election year that is just around the corner—which is going to feel like a war—we can let our hearts break for those with whom we disagree. I don’t mean feel sorry for them because they’re wrong. I mean allow them to become grievable lives to us: people we know and care about. We can practice that right here in this room. We have no better place to begin to live like peacemakers; then we, too, can see where it takes us.
The world will not be changed by opinions or by outrage. The world will be changed by those who make peace around them—those who look at others as grievable, as loveable; those who learn names and have conversations; those who are willing to follow their broken hearts.
And by the world, I mean us. Amen.