Facets of Faithfulness, III: Peace, The Invisible made Visible
Bible Text: Isaiah 9:2–7 | Preacher: Reverend Dr. Katie Snipes Lancaster | Click here to listen to this sermon.
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. —Isaiah 9:6
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder.
For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor.
Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
T he Fruit of the Spirit on which we are basing this Facets of Faithfulness series come from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, an immigrant community nestled into the powerful Roman empire, in what is now the heart of modern day Turkey. The Galatians were ethnic Celts who traveled east through Europe 300 years before they met St. Paul, to settle in a city they called Ancyra, or modern-day Ankara, Turkey’s capital. By the time they learned about Jesus, the Galatians would have inherited generations of cultural assimilation from the Greeks, and the Romans who followed them, as well as probably picking up some social norms from the sea-faring cultures along the Mediterranean. The Galatians may have once been unified under the umbrella of an ethnic identity, but three hundred years or more on the Anatolian Peninsula left them polyvalent, many-faceted, diverse, like any American immigrant community that has populated these shores for three centuries or more.
Still by the Roman conquerors, the Galatians were considered “the other” and looked down upon as “the barbarian.” Romans would have considered the Galatians a people group to control, if not “civilize.” To be perceived as the “barbarian” meant to be considered an outsider, not right, on the wrong side of civilization, maybe primitive, or even backwards, unsophisticated, unpolished, ill-mannered. It is a title that makes you feel less-than, without value, and unworthy. Immigrant communities are resilient though as we know, and when Paul arrives in the Galatian region, it’s no surprise that they welcomed his gospel message of freedom that “dismantled taboos, broke down social boundaries, and dethroned human institutions that dehumanize people.” The good news was good news for the Galatians: it meant welcome, freedom, dignity, and full citizenship in the kingdom of God. For the Galatians, Jesus’ message preached in the complexities of the Roman empire meant hope for the end of coercion, the freedom to rejoice, the possibility for unity and inclusion, and an integrated life.
Have you ever been taken care of by a near stranger when you were sick? Not the more formal relationship of being taken care of by hospital staff whose job it is to care for you even though you are a stranger to them, but the more intimate hospitality that comes from someone who doesn’t need to take care of you, but does it anyway? …that feeling that your physical ailment was a burden on someone you hardly know and yet there was nothing you could do to prevent your body from falling apart?
I will never forget Deborah, who took care of my friend when she got sick on our trip to rural Kenya. I’m sure there are untold costs, the way she cared for her and all of us, when all of us were worried—would she start to get better? Would we need to travel eight hours to the nearest hospital? Could we take her to see the local healer?
And on a smaller scale: I still remember the time when I had a fever and was visibly uncontrollably shivering on a church camping trip in 40 degree pouring rain, and one of our students, Sam, offered me his only pair of dry socks—it might have felt like a small sacrifice for him, but it was huge for me: a symbol of generosity, and literally the reason I could sleep that night.
As for the Galatians: St. Paul was far from home and fell ill as he was traveling through Galatia. And Paul writes in chapter four of Galatians, though he was a stranger to him, they offered him undue hospitality. Paul writes in chapter four of Galatians: you took care of me such that “you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me” if it would have made a difference. That is the kind of care reserved for a mother caring for a sick child, a child caring for a sick parent, an intimate, eager, sacrificial kind of care. Paul remembers everything that was humbling about being taken care of by these strangers far from home and knew they would have done anything to make sure that he, again a stranger, was well again.
It is in this context: one of profoundly personal connection because of the way the Galatians cared for Paul when he was sick, and the Galatians’ deep-seated hope for inclusion and restoration rooted in the Good News of Jesus Christ, that St. Paul offers the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
We are at the end of the first fruity triad: love, joy, and peace. Today we examine peace. Whenever I am tasked with studying peace I get bogged down by the complexity of such a simple word: peace.
Does peace begin with me as the sages say? Or is there something communal, social, political, international about peace? Or maybe peace weaves its way out in concentric circles, webbing and weaving a path outward from the personal toward the family, and out to the neighborhood, to the city, the nation, the world, and back inward again, from the global to the national to the local to the personal.
When I think of peace I think of places like Darfur, Vietnam, Rwanda, the Korean Peninsula, or our own fraught immigration centers.
When I think of peace, I think of individuals like Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, the Dali Lama, and Malala.
I think of intimate places where peace might preside but it doesn’t: domestic violence, child abuse, and psychological trauma.
I think of the ways that peace symbols surround us: peace bumper stickers, peace signs, peace doves, long strands of carefully folded paper cranes, and even that little peace hand emoji blinking up from my cell phone.
I think of organizations like Doctors without Borders, Amnesty International, and the Red Cross.
Peace makes me remember of individuals being lost within systems of suffering: P.O.W.s, mass incarceration, World War I trench warfare, and photos in newspapers post-Hiroshima.
I think of groups who have tried to organize the world to be more peaceful: nonviolent sit-ins and protests, Quakers who resist cooperating with the draft, and monks and religious orders that live life tucked away from the violence of the world.
And I think the context of Galatians helps us to set the scene about what peace might look like. Peace does hold both personal dimension and a social dimension. Peace at once holds both the vulnerability of being sick when you are away from home and the systemic social and cultural legacy of generations of Galatians being considered “barbarian” by the dominant culture. Peace hopes for change now the way you do when someone you love is urgently sick or suffering. And peace hopes for change over the long haul the way you do when people long for the systems of the world to change for the better.
In August of 1945 when the A-bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, Sadako Sasaki was two years old. Like so many of the children who grew up in the aftermath of the atomic bomb, such a large-scale violent event at such an early age was elusive and mysterious, a lingering chaos that caused rippling harm, but was all she knew. Nearly 10 years after the atomic bomb, the otherwise growing and healthy Sadako became sick with radiation-induced leukemia. She was a joyful almost 12 year old who did not want others to know she knew she was dying, the kind of girl who knowing her life was short, wanted to spread the triad of love, joy, and peace to others as much as possible. While she was in the hospital, Sadako was given a string of paper cranes, a gift from anonymous school children sent to the hospital wing that treated children with radiation disease—like when our middle schoolers send notes to people who survived a tornado in Northern Illinois or a school shooting in Florida.
The paper crane wasn’t a new concept to Sadako, her mother had folded a huge paper crane and hung it above her crib as a child. But long days in the hospital need some thrust of activity that keeps you motivated and hopeful: she said to her sister Kiyo “these are beautiful let’s make some.” As if to symbolize their mingled grief and hope the paper cranes began to multiply. First a few, then 50 strung together, then hundreds. Sadako remembered reading in a girl’s magazine: if you make 1,000 cranes you will get well. Soon there were a thousand, and then more, and more paper cranes.
Sadako Sasaki died nine months after entering the hospital. Her classmates were devastated. Together they crafted a letter to other local schools in their city: our friend Sadako died on October 25. We are devastated. But we can do nothing about her death now. But what can we do? Let’s build a statue to the Children of the A-Bomb they wrote to console the spirits of the children.
They printed 2,000 copies. With the work of over 3,000 junior high schools in Japan, and some in England and elsewhere, the work on the statue began. Maybe you’ve been to the statue. Many have. Maybe you have folded paper cranes. Many have. Thousands of paper cranes from every corner of the globe are sent there to this day. At the foot of the statue, the inscription reads: “This is our cry. This is our prayer. For building peace in this world.” Sadako Sasaki represents the forgotten voices of children, the most vulnerable who struggle to cope with the adult world of violence seeping into their own.
Paper cranes again highlight that tension and confluence between the personal and the communal the individual and the social. Sadako’s suffering and the suffering of untold children. The individual suffering as a result of war and the constant need for international negotiations around nuclear weapons in times of relative peace.
In the era of the reformation during a time of equally dense social disruption and religious unrest there were three dominant understandings of Jesus’ call to peace.
On the most violently radical was Muentzer who believed that suffering for Christ was the holiest form of faithfulness to God. Maybe it is the same kind of message preached to jihadists that such violent sacrifice leads to union with God. Acknowledging that, yes, holy scriptures contain messages of violence, Muentzer used as his central rallying cry a text from the gospel of Matthew which reads: “Do not think I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword.”
On the opposite side of Muentzer were the radical peace groups like the Quakers and Anabaptists who understood the full cost of discipleship to mean resisting violence at all costs. Similar to the non-violent protests of the 1960s in which Civil Rights demonstrators sought to resist violence, even when being beaten themselves, Quakers and other Christian pacifists from the reformation era yielded all power over to God made known in Jesus Christ who was the Prince of Peace.
The middle way between violence for the sake of faith and non-violence for the sake of peace was Luther who argued that on occasion, Christians might be called to war or violent action as part of their civic duty, and that as long as the government was participating in only “just war” then Christians are obligated to participate as an indication of their responsibility as a citizen of that government. They would not be participating as Christians, per se, this was not a holy war writ large, with Christians marching off to war wearing the cross of Christ on your armor. This was “just war” rooted in Augustine’s claim that “Peace is not sought in order to kindle war but war is waged in order to obtain peace.”
You would find this same wide diversity and wider still among Christians asking the question “what is peace?” and maybe more importantly “what is my role in this violent world that longs for peace?”
The vison placed at our feet on Christmas Eve is that of Christ, Prince of Peace, child vulnerable and cared for. It is on that night that we read today’s passage from Isaiah. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. The vision is of joy and harvest, abundance and enemies retreating, relief from burdens, the trappings of war being cast off and burned, never to be used again.
The hope of Isaiah 9 is that one will come who will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. That reign of peace really can start with you, with me, with us.
Where are the places where burdens need to be shared?
Heavy loads need to be abandoned?
What meal can be shared?
What song of joy can be sung?
What light can be brought to the places that are hidden in inky shadow?
What stranger can we care for when he is sick and far from home?
What person can we include and get to know who otherwise would be marginalized at great cost?
For the last thirty years the Chicago Tribune has published an editorial beginning:
“What is this day, this Christmas, that dawns with a chorus of joy? What river of love and magic speeds the message from that moment of wonder in Bethlehem across the cold darkness of centuries long forgotten? How does it warm us this morning as we awaken in a world the Wise Men could scarcely imagine to a radiance that once each year makes it all just a little bit better?”
It claims a “fervent hope that the elusive gift of peace will not slip from our grasp.” But maybe that peace does not need to be so slippery. Maybe that peace does not need to be so elusive. Maybe that peace does not need to be just once a year. Maybe that peace can be made tangible by me and by you, by us. Virginia Wolf says, “You cannot find peace by avoiding life.” Lyndon B. Johnson said “Peace is a journey of a thousand miles and it must be taken one step at a time.” Ralph Waldo Emerson said “Nobody can bring peace but yourself.” And one theologian, John Keble reminds us that “Peace is the first thing the angels sang”
It is not difficult to place Jesus at the center of the Fruits of the Spirit: Even just in this first triad of the fruit, Jesus is “Love in human form,” the one for whom we sing “Joy to the world,” our “Prince of Peace.” May the Prince of Peace begin to rule in you anew. Amen. Nancy Elizabeth Bedford, Galatians: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville, Westminster John Knox 2016).  Historical research on the context of Galatians from the following resources: Frederick W. Weidmann, Galatians (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2012). Charles B. Cousar, Galatians (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1982). Nancy Elizabeth Bedford, Galatians: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville, Westminster John Knox 2016).  Masamoto Nasu, Children of the Paper Crane: The Story of Sadako Sasaki and Her Struggle with the A-Bomb Disease (Abingdon, Routledge Press, 1991).  Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).  Editorial, “As Christmas Dawns,” Chicago Tribune, December 25, 2018.  Joseph Demakis, Ultimate Book of Quotations (Raleigh, 2012).