Peace at the Edge: John

Peace at the Edge: John
Rev. Michael Livingston • Sunday,December 5, 2021
Malachi 3:1-4 • Luke 3:1-6

We are nothing without our history.  At Riverside, we can’t know who we are without some understanding of John D. Rockefeller and Harry Emerson Fosdick, fuel and faith…and how in the…name of God, did we get from Fosdick, pacifist, through McCracken racism/civil rights , Campbell, social justice, and Coffin, nuclear disarmament, to James K Forbes, a Pentecostal born-again, preacher who cared about poverty?  Was something of our original narrative buried  so that we were reborn International, inter-denomination, interracial…?  Or was that in our DNA from the beginning whether we knew it or not?  That’s also a way of saying where did all you people of color come from?  Women in leadership?  LGBTQ-IA +?  Space for Grace?

It’s quite something to think of Rockefeller, born in 1839, in the north.  Is it too much to say he was an abolitionist?  He supported Lincoln and began his fortune supplying food and supplies to the northern army in the Civil War.  That’s progressive.    The oil came a little later.  His wife’s father was an active abolitionist and he and his wife supported the education of black women.  Spelman college is named after Laura Spelman Rockefeller.

That’s our history.  Riverside has always been at the edge.  Once that edge was the Hudson River, now it’s the repaved Westside Highway.  Once it was the liberal/fundamentalist conflict—well it’s still that.  You can think of the edge as on the side, but for us it really means the leading edge, it means the front edge, the cutting edge. It means being defined by that word so often associated with Riverside:  progressive.  However we think of it, the edge is out there, it’s controversial, it’s turbulent, it invites conflict, challenge—hello James Forman, Fidel Castro, MLK JR and Beyond Vietnam, LGBTQ inclusion, we were open and affirming well ahead of the curve.

Welcome to Worship and life in the Riverside community.  I still hear stories about how some reacted when Foreman disrupted the service.  Some walked out, following Dr. Campbell and the choir, about 500 stayed and listened to Forman’s demands, some were outraged, some were stunned into silence. Mayor Lindsay said, “I am shocked by the disruption of Sunday services at Riverside Church. I have alerted the city’s law-enforcement agencies to take immediate action upon the filing of an appropriate complaint…”

The edge is not a place that makes for an easy peace.

That’s our history and that’s where Luke begins our text.  He calls the role of historical figures who shape history, who have the power, who own the power, who are the power, of life and death in year 32 of the Common Era.  Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanius.  One of them will behead John the Baptist.  Another will wash his hands and John’s cousin Jesus will be put to death.  No justice, no peace.  Advent is at the edge of peace; whether before the birth through which we came to see God among us, ourselves as of God, or after the death and resurrection when we knew who we were and still had to, have to, struggle to find the peace that passes all understanding.

Advent, from the Latin “to come.”  There is no coming save from somewhere, out of something.  For John, for the seed of the early church, for us, that coming is from the wilderness.  Advent is at the edge, then and now, now and then, what is, and what will become, who we are, and who we will be, from this to that.  Advent is transformational, at least it can be if we take it seriously and look deep within as we listen for all we’re worth for the voice of God.

John came out of the wilderness with his vegetarian diet and his counter-culture clothes.   Our wilderness is dying forests, decaying seas, urban decay, suburban sprawl, poverty, corporate greed, blindness to our history, guns, guns, guns and the deaths they cause.  Our wilderness is the parents of the 15 year old in Michigan who shot and killed four classmates  being charging with manslaughter.  They bought him, again, 15 years old, a semi-automatic handgun—an early Christmas present.  “It’s the birthday of the Prince of Peace, have a gun on us.”   Our wilderness is the focus only on the parents and the sick child—not the hugely profitable gun industry, not the poorly interpreted 2nd amendment, not the gun lobby and the well paid members of congress who do its bidding.

Our wilderness is resistance to masks as a metaphor for the fear of too many whites to move on from supremacy and privilege to embrace our profound diversity, to see God in every face, to share power, to give up power and control for democracy, to believe we have a future together or no future at all.  Or, to put it more simply, our wilderness is: climate change, white supremacy, corporate evil.

Our wilderness is we’ve grown accustomed to the horrific.  Gross injustice is just an item in the news cycle.  We expect it.  We live with it.  It is ordinary.  It’s normal.

“The sort of crimes and even the amount of delinquency that fill the prophets of Israel with dismay do not go beyond that which we regard as normal,” wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel, “as typical ingredients of social dynamics.”  “To us a single act of injustice—cheating in business, exploitation of the poor—is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence: to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world,”  wrote Willie Dwayne Francois III in a commentary on our text this morning.

It isn’t that we are wrong in our perspective.  I used to be fond of saying we focus too much on the little sins—smoking, drinking, sex and ignore the weightier matters:  militarism, materialism, racism.  It’s that those ancient prophets were so right.  The seeds of the destruction of a civilization are imbedded in small acts of incivility…like termites munching away at the foundation of the house—one tiny bite at a time.  Like a virus on a computer, byte by byte seizing control of the operating system until you paid for it but it does the bidding of another.  Murder is made up of a mountain of unkindness, act upon act of abuse, irrational fear upon fear, until…a life is taken.  War is built upon small slights, a tax here, a tax there; the incremental move from prejudice to ethnic cleansing; from racial purity to plantations and ovens—until revolution or world wars are required.

One little lie, deception, one compromise of integrity, one seemingly harmless omission, whether we are the perpetrator or the bystander—one leads to two-leads to too many-leads to the crumbling infrastructure of a life or an organization, or a nation, or the world.

It seems the world, it seems we are always at the edge.  I can’t really remember a time in my life when it did not seem it could not get much worse, that we were on the edge and about to go over.  I don’t mean personally here—for me.  I mean we, as a society.  Our lives can be told in dates on the edge that will be familiar to anyone alive and over ten at the time, maybe younger:  and I’m only beginning with the years that are on the outer edge of my consciousness—some of you can go back much further:  1963.  1965.  1968.  1974. 1986. (Challenger).   1991 (Gulf War). 1992 (Rodney King).  1993 (Don’t ask, don’t tell). 1995 (OJ)    2001 (9/11).  2003. (attack on Iraq)  2008 (Obama).  And there is the string of horrific killings of blacks at the hands of white police officers and civilians.  Of course it didn’t begin with Amadou Diallo on February 4, 1999 when he was killed in a torrent of 41 bullets…while he pulled his wallet from his pocket; but it seems like it.

I was a little too young to remember when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a crowded bus in Montgomery, AL on December 1, 1955.  That’s Advent on the edge of peace.

After the roll call of the power structure, we hear those familiar words, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

What do we do on the edge?  What do we do in the wilderness?  Prepare for what comes next.  Live in ways that move us to the center.  “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” Paul writes in Philippians.  For “salvation.”  Why not?  What else makes sense?  Hide for cover until the edge is all there is?   The wilderness our only reality?   Pretend there is no edge, this wilderness is all there is?  Hope someone else will make the problem go away…?

We lost Stephen Sondheim this week.  Into the Woods was my favorite, he wrote:

The spell is on my house, only I can lift the spell.  No, no, the spell is on our house.  We must lift the spell together, the spell is on our house.  Into the woods, it’s time to go; It may be all in vain, I know; Into the woods but even so.  I have to take the journey; Into the woods, the path is straight.  You know it well, but who can tell; Into the woods to lift the spell…the lyrics say to visit Mother and sell the cow to get the money for the festival but we know he means to feed the children, to unbind the made-poor, to rescue the abused and afflicted, to free us all to love who we love, to save the earth from plastic and carbon dioxide.

“The way is clear,” he writes “…the light is good, I have no fear nor no one should
The woods are just trees, The trees are just wood, No need to be afraid there…Into the woods without delay, But careful not to lose the way.  It’s just the edge, just the wilderness, just the woods.  We must not get lost.”  That’s the way, In the words of our text, to  “fill the valley…to make the crooked straight, and the rough smooth.”

We’re at the edge of hope, of peace.  We do what the Hebrew bible has always required of us:  to do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with God.  We do what the gospel has always required of us:  love God and neighbor as we love ourselves.  So that “all flesh…” all flesh may see the face of God.  Amen.