Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig.
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Military Uniforms Transformed
Four years ago, Christmas Eve 2012, Steve Cessna read Isaiah 9 like a blast of divine truth during the war in Afghanistan. All the boots of the tramping warriors, and all the garments rolled in blood shall be…fuel for the fire.
As peace church Christians we are not against people. We are not against men or women or children who are soldiers, but the military uniform is not the honor we seek. The peace churches in the US have fragile future, dependent upon whether we will welcome God with us.
I just learned about a military uniform project that seems derived from Isaiah’s prophecy. Florida State University is one of many hosts for the Peace Paper Project in which veterans cut up their military uniforms, turn the fibers into pulp and create paper. It’s essentially an art therapy project. The vets from US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are often dealing with diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder or simply struggling to integrate into society, as university students where they are at least four years older than most of their academic peers.
As one of the sponsors described it, by cutting their uniforms vets are releasing the fibers, and releasing some of the memories attached to them. By pulping the fibers in water, they are reconstituting the uniform of war into paper, for making art. Now there is nothing pacifist about the Peace Paper Project. It is sponsored by many organizations that support the military as a necessary and honorable feature of our country’s identity. But in treating PTSD and helping returning vets adjust to civilian life this paper-making art therapy is breaking down some of the inner hostility, releasing some of the pain, and reconstituting lives through creative expression.
Peace in the Christian Tradition
Our scriptures this morning are about God making peace. Isaiah 9 and Ephesians 2 belong to the deepest layers of Christian pacifist understanding of our faith tradition. As much as I love these two passages, I am always shaken by them because our tradition, at its depth, always brings the work of God into dynamic tension with the public, political powers of human society. Biblical prophets lived that tension. Prophets generally opposed the politically powerful kings of their nations. Yet prophets, like Isaiah, retained this idea of a future king like David who would rule with justice and righteousness and bring about endless peace. The Biblical view of God and the Biblical view of God as a peacemaker is always inclusive of and contingent on public political peacemaking.
In other words, the peace of God that surpasses understanding, that guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus is only the beginning, or maybe it is only the outcome, of public political peacemaking. Because, every other Biblical example of peace and justice being God’s desire for the God’s people, God’s nation, God’s world is peace that is being shaped and built and ordered in real relationships, in organizations and institutions, through laws and policies. There’s just no getting around it. In Ephesians Jesus dismantles the law, commandments and ordinances in order to make peace. That’s why peace church Christians today work to change laws and establish greater justice.
The Biblical revelation of God as a peaceful ruler of the cosmos and Jesus Christ as the embodiment, the incarnation of God’s peaceful rule, is supposed to have an effect on us. We’re to be people of God’s peace as a new creation. We’re not just quietly enjoying peaceful solitude, but also in flesh and blood relationships creating peace. Now, if you want a spiritual tradition that avoids the messy reality of violence and injustice—where you will never be called upon to be an active peacemaker in your sphere of influence—the good news (which is actually bad news) is that you will not have to look far. There are actually distortions of Christian faith that do just that. But Advent and certainly Christmas shows us God entering into our bungled political lives and welcoming us to be partners in a peaceful future.
Peacemaking in the Bible
CMC entered into Advent this year dwelling with the first verse from Matthew’s gospel: An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. This morning’s scriptures highlight this strange idea that Jesus is the son of David. Of course, if you read the stories of David, he doesn’t exactly remind us of Jesus. David was a man of rebellious violence, sexual violence and military violence. He’s not all bad. He also ministers to someone who is mentally ill, confesses his sin and grieves for his child. Jesus is called Son of David because kings were powerful, public, political figures. The Bible is written by people who had not yet theorized about social action campaigns, or democratic process, or community organizing, or creative non-conformity, or assets -based development, or political advocacy. There are glimpses of these ideas in scripture, but they are not fully formed. The Bible is written by people whose encounter with God fueled their imagination for public peacemaking and they described God as a king, and God’s desire for the world as a kingdom because God is with us in our messy public, political lives powerfully acting powerfully for justice and peace.
Leave it to the Lord to begin with a vulnerable, dependent baby. That’s what Isaiah says. In chapter 7 a child to be born is named Emmanuel, God with us. In chapter 9 God breaks through history in the birth of a child named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. These four names are royal. They are public political names fit for a king. The Wonderful Counselor is the wise ruler, who demonstrates discernment in legal matters, so that a good direction is set for society. The Mighty God or, as some Jewish translations read, Mighty Hero, is the powerful ruler, who accomplishes something, who is not defeated, who delivers on promises to the people, who in the face of adversity, prevails. The Everlasting Father is the ruler who lives long, who is active into old age—not a flash in the pan, but persevering over a lifetime to provide for needy families. The Prince of Peace is the ruler who establishes peace, or Shalom, which means the well-being of all—the economic, social and political well-being of all in the community—the old people, the sick people, the married, the single, the children, the immigrants, the childless, the refugees, the wealthy, the widows, the poor, the orphans, the workers, the excluded, the animals, the agricultural land, the wilderness. Shalom is all-inclusive.
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders. He is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. No wonder we associate this ancient prophesy with the birth of Jesus Christ. Of course, if you read the stories of Jesus you might notice that he never had any formal position of authority.
Jesus had the wisdom, power, perseverance and all-inclusive vision of shalom that people in his own generation craved. I guess he lacked long life. He lived just into his 30s and died painfully, a seeming failure. Yet, the faith of the church from our earliest days is that Jesus was raised to everlasting life and by his body and blood one generation after another is fed and fueled for being people of peace in his name.
Ephesians describes Jesus Christ as the peacemaker who has broken down a dividing wall of hostility between ethnic groups to establish a new kind of human being. This new humanity is also a house or a body in whom God dwells and with whom God makes a home. I want to be as clear as possible. These scripture passages on peace are intolerant of war, violence and bloodshed. They reveal God’s intention for peace—in homes, neighborhoods, and between nations. These scriptures position us as people of peace. I am so grateful for the previous generations of peace church Christians in this Valley who refused to participate in the violence of the Civil War. I see peace church Christians in the Valley today living into the public, political dimensions of peacemaking. We are involved in mediation for families and organizations, restorative justice practices in schools and the criminal justice system, access to healthcare, building interfaith relationships, service to the poor and elderly, advocacy for immigrants, trauma-informed therapy, business and service in Jesus’ name here and around the world—all political action. As Anabaptists, our vision for peace is a thoroughly Biblical, exceptionally Christian vision.
During our vision process this past year Community Mennonite Church described ourselves as a peace church. We didn’t directly link our various initiatives to peacemaking, but we’d better do that. So much of who we are as Community Mennonite Church and who we are becoming emerges from how deeply the gospel of peace has shaped the Anabaptist tradition in the past. I’m hopeful about the peace witness of our church into the future, but we know that Anabaptist Christian history is littered with groups who let peace fade from their vision and practice.
Given our natural tendencies and cycles of aggression, the will to make peace is easy to lose. This Advent, we need the child of peace. We need God with us. We need God’s revelation in Jesus as the Son of David to sustain a public, political, powerful practice of peacemaking. Or we die.
But even if we die, even if we lose our faith, even if in generations to come we retain our intentions, yet fail to realize God’s vision of peace, I’m convinced that God will work in other ways. The God who speaks through prophets and acts through a human birth, who loves the world and makes peace through Jesus Christ is not stymied by our failures. God continues to inspire the peoples of the world toward peace. In Greek mythology the phoenix is a bird who rises from the ashes of death and destruction and is reborn like the sun. A lot of ancient cultures have such a bird in their lore. The phoenix even shows up in the Bible. Job, this extraordinary man—not an Israelite—tried to make sense of his public, political peacemaking work of the past, when he was experiencing spirit-crushing circumstances. He says that from the ashes of present—even beyond his own life—hope for the future is rising. Hear Job 29. Hear what Christ is saying to the peace churches:
…when I was in my prime, when the friendship of God was upon my tent;
when the Almighty was still with me…
When I went out to the gate of the city, when I took my seat in the square…
I delivered the poor who cried, and the orphan who had no helper.
…I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy. I put on righteousness, and it clothed me; my justice was like a robe and a turban.
I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame.
I was a father to the needy, and I championed the cause of the immigrant.
I broke the fangs of the just, and made them drop their prey from their teeth.
Then I thought, ‘I shall die in my nest, and I shall multiply my days like the phoenix.’
These are hopeful Advent days, days of not knowing, days of blessing, days of peace. My prayer for CMC is that Welcoming Emmanuel would be a rebirth of our church outfitted for public, political peacemaking in all it forms and always in the name of Jesus, the Messiah, the son of David.
Our theme music is “Jesus, I believe you’re near,” composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.
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