Text: Isaiah 40:1-11 & Mark 1:1-8
Thursday night, I sat in the home of Layla and Farris Barakat with twenty-five Muslims and two other non-Muslims. Layla and Farris are the mother and brother of Deah Barakat, the UNC-Chapel Hill dental school student who was shot execution style in his Chapel Hill apartment along with his wife, Yusor, and sister-in-law, Razan, on February 10, 2015. The purpose of the gathering, including a beautiful meal that Layla and Farris had prepared for their guests, was to discuss how various non-profit organizations in the Triangle are supporting refugees and immigrants: an issue that Deah was passionate about. That evening, I met some incredible young adults who have dedicated their careers to helping refugees. Their passion is palpable. Their courage is contagious. And their dedication to helping their fellow human beings who find themselves in a strange land is deep and undeniable. I was especially moved by two young Syrian women, college students at NC State, who spoke of their summer plans to travel to Syria and Jordan and Lebanon in 2018 to work with refugees there.
The stories they told about their work with refugees, at times, brought tears to my heart—from helping refugees and immigrants set up a home, to finding work, to learning a new language, to coping emotionally with the trauma that their clients have experienced, to navigating being a parent in an unfamiliar culture. Every thing we do daily as routine, all the things we take for granted in knowing how to live in this country, these refugees struggle with hour by hour.
As the conversation moved around the circle, deliberately inviting each person to share the work they are doing with refugees, I began to panic as the person next to me was concluding his remarks. I had been so interested in what others were saying that I had not thought about how I would introduce myself. For a brief moment I contemplated making an exit to the bathroom just as the person beside me was winding down. But then I thought better. I thought, just be honest. I began by saying that I was there because I wanted to hear how my church might be able to support the work already being done with refugees. I spoke of the work many of you did with our Montagnard refugees. I spoke of our relationship with Etadal and Abdul, the Iraqi refugee couple we helped resettle when they arrived in Raleigh. I told the group of our relationship with Peace Cathedral in the Republic of Georgia and how we support the work they are doing with Muslim refugees there. And I told them of our present conversation about becoming a Sanctuary church. With humility, I will say that many in the circle already knew of Pullen and our interfaith work and our inclusiveness of all people. They thanked me for Pullen’s witness and for being in the circle with them. It was my honor.
In the midst of all these young adults sat one elder. I did not get his name but it was clear that his work with refugees is his calling and passion. He gave guidance throughout the conversation. He asked helpful questions. At times he gently challenged. But mostly, he encouraged and offered support. However, when it came his time to speak, he grew emotional. He spoke of his work in terms of helping refugees deal with the trauma they carry inside of them—physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual trauma. He talked about how here in this country where no bombs fall from the sky the refugees still hear them. He spoke of the anxiety that comes with going out of their homes at night, fearing the outbreak of gunfire—the kind that leaves towns is rubble. He told about the fear these refugees carry of religious persecution. The violence they have seen and experienced and lived with is, he noted, beyond anything we can imagine. He said, and I quote, “The peace they long for, the peace they come to this country seeking is always sought after with the awareness and reality of the violence they have lived through and it is this trauma that we must help heal.”
As I have reflected on his statement, I have wondered what we, as Americans, must heal if we are to find peace and truly be peace advocates in our homes and churches and communities and in the world. And this morning, I want to propose to you that it is the narrative we have told ourselves of what makes for peace that we must heal. Peace advocacy will require us to begin to live into a counter-narrative that may at times feel very uncomfortable, even anti-faith especially to us Southerners.
Think about it; think of the narrative you were told as to what makes for peace, especially if you grew up in the South. To make for peace meant to keep silent. As one person put it in lectionary group when family conflict would arise they were told, “just keep your mouth shut.” To make for peace meant to refrain from and avoid conflict, at all cost. Indeed, our cultural narrative has defined peace as the absence of conflict. For many of us, the peace narrative also meant, “Be nice.” Now there is nothing wrong with being nice. As a matter we should all strive to be kind and nice. But when nice becomes a replacement for truth and honesty, then nice simply becomes a way to avoid dealing with the hard and difficult tensions that inevitably exist in our relationships and in our world. Silence, avoiding conflict, playing nice at the cost of truth and honesty are the headlines of our cultural narrative for what makes for peace. And possibly nothing more has shaped this narrative than a distorted, skewed, twisted interpretation and portrayal of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.
Evangelical Christianity has painted Jesus as this “nice” guy whose sole purpose was a kind of sweet personal salvation that if accepted takes away all the pain and suffering of the world. It proclaims: If only you have faith enough in this nice guy Jesus, who died on the cross to save you from your sins, then you will have peace like a river in your soul. We take this nice Jesus’ own words, “blessed are the peacemakers,” and we recite them unaware of the radical message they were to the first hearers of them. Again, we think, “how sweet, blessed are the peacemakers.”
We shut our ears to the counter-narrative, the biblical narrative, that peacemaking is dangerous business. We don’t listen to the counter-narrative that says peace is about crying out in the wilderness. Five times in just eleven verses the prophet Isaiah tells the people to cry out, to lift their voices with strength and to prepare the way for peace. The gospel of Mark begins with those same words from Isaiah, “I am sending my messenger ahead of you…the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness: prepare the way…”
The narrative we have been taught of what makes for peace says keep silent. The counter-narrative, the Jesus narrative for peace teaches us to cry out, to lift our voices with strength for justice-love and mercy—for the poor, for the sick, for the lonely, for the marginalized, for the refugee. Cry out for peace the prophets proclaim. We cannot keep silent. Not now. Not when one week before the second Sunday of Advent when we focus on Peace, the President of the United States of America recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a move that is a slap in the face to any advancement toward peace in the Middle East. We cannot keep silent. We must cry out.
The narrative we have been taught tells us to avoid conflict at all cost. The counter-narrative of what makes for peace requires conflict. Loving, generous, peaceful conflict. Conflict with our families when they make overtly racist comments, and when they make assumptions out of privilege that they don’t even realize. Conflict with our co-workers when they repeat “fake news” intended to incite hatred against immigrants. Conflict with our neighbors when they try to keep others out as a way to protect their own homogeny and power. Conflict with our elected officials who take money from the poor to give to the rich. Conflict with our educational system when students receive vastly different opportunities because of their accent or their skin color or their difference. Conflict with our retailers when they don’t pay a living wage or otherwise fail to live by values that we would be proud to perpetuate through our patronage. Conflict with our justice system when it fails to serve and protect all people who call this land home.
The narrative we have been taught for who makes for peace is the sweet baby Jesus, not the prophet Jesus who said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” We want the world’s peace—the conflict avoidance peace, the silent peace, the personal peace down in our hearts that makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside. We struggle with the counter-narrative of peace—the narrative that says, “Blessed are the peacemakers”—those who actually go out into the highways and byways, enter into conflict and work for peace. People like those two young Syrian college students who will go into some of the worst war torn areas in the world this coming summer and work with refugees and immigrants. Peacemakers who bear the heartache of hard conversations, not in hopes of miraculously changing the other, but in the knowledge that without holding the line of tense truth in the hand to hand of the day to day, we are giving up hope of being a better people, a kingdom people.
But here’s the truth. Not all of us are called to be peacemakers in Syria or Lebanon or Jordan or Iraq. And the purpose of this sermon is not to make us all feel like we should be. Honestly, truthfully, there is peacemaking that needs to be done here on our own soil—in our own homes, in our own churches, in our own communities. There is significant peacemaking that needs to be done in the halls of our government, on the streets in our neighborhoods, between those who are charged with enforcing the laws in this country and the communities that depend on those officers to do their jobs lawfully. There is peacemaking that needs to be done—not silently or by avoiding conflict—between those who have abused their power morally, ethically, sexually and those who have been the victims of such abuse.
To be peace advocates, to be called the peacemakers of the kingdom will require a new narrative—a counter-narrative to the one we have been taught, not only by our culture but by our Christian tradition. We will need to heal the trauma of silence, the trauma of avoidance, the trauma of a rugged individualism that promotes a personal salvation that disengages from the injustices and corporate sins of the world.
Peacemaking is a sport of engagement. It requires action: marching, protesting, crying out in the streets. And if you can’t march or get out in the streets then you can write letters—to your congress person, to your local representatives, to your governor, to your judicial officials, to your family members. And if you can’t write, then pray. Cry out to God. Even if you are unsure as to the value of prayer, pray anyway. Our world needs people who are praying for it.
Peace in our world, as with hope and joy and love, will need for us as people of faith to engage our imaginations. We can only replace the old narratives of what makes for peace by imagining a new narrative: a narrative that includes us crying out for peace and lifting our voices with strength, a narrative that has us engaging in conflict with openness and kindness and understanding, a narrative that reshapes the dominate evangelical theology from saving souls to following Jesus. If we can begin to imagine this kind of peace in our day-to-day lives, if we can begin to tell the stories of where this new narrative of peace is taking root then I believe there is hope for peace. I witnessed this hope Thursday night.
This week, imagine one thing you might do to help birth peace this advent season. Cry out at an injustice. Stay with conflict and see it through to a new resolution. Feed the hungry, give the thirsty a drink of water, visit someone sick, and don’t worry about whether you are doing it right. Imagine peace, prepare the way and you will be called blessed.