By the Rev. Victoria Larson
Preaching texts: Proper 29 on the RCL
A few years ago, I found myself walking under the gnarled branches and silver-green leaves of the olive trees that still grow on the Mount of Olives. Our tour guide told us that we had arrived at the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed on the night of his betrayal and arrest. I looked around and saw something that struck me as…odd. Under one of the trees, someone had arranged white stones–broken off bits of local bedrock, in no way special–into a simple word: “Peace.” It looked like the kind of thing an unattended and artistic tourist might have done over the course of a couple of hours. Those stones are still there, I think. If there’s a story behind them, I can’t remember it and the internet doesn’t seem to have recorded it.
The word “Peace” seems so incongruous in that place. Both its meaning and its medium are at odds with the place where Jesus underwent his decidedly unpacific Agony. Modern history colors the irony too: the stones lie in East Jerusalem, an occupied territory in which peace is notoriously difficult to come by. But despite all these contradictions, the informal stones spelling “Peace” persist.
“Peace is a process, not a state of being,” a friend told me recently. His words helped. So often I associate peace with stillness and calm, and it makes it difficult to find in a world that seems consumed with wars and rumors of war.
What if peace–the process–isn’t very peaceful at all? What if peace leads us into recognizing the ways in which we are caught in systems that keep us trapped in feedback loops of violence, violence against bodies, minds, souls, nations, creation?
Perhaps the Prince of Peace is coming not to calm us down, but to rile us up: to interrupt the status quo, and awaken us to the beckoning potential of God’s reign.
Such a reckoning seems to break upon Pilate as he questions Jesus in today’s gospel text. “What is truth?” Pilate asks Jesus. The question exposes the internal fragility of Pilate’s world. The high priests have communicated to him that Jesus is a risk, that he holds too much clout. But Jesus seems uninterested in defending his authority, even at the cost of his life. Earthly and heavenly power collide as God’s strength is revealed in weakness.
In this scene, Jesus exposes the possibility of a different kind of peace, one predicated on vulnerability rather than strength, and that paradox confronts Pilate with his own weakness: he is beholden to the political machine that gave him his power, and now he must follow the dictates of the high priests against his own inclinations.
Where are we caught up in systems that keep us locked in place, that encourage us to turn our attention away from the way things could be and settle for what is?
How is the peace of Christ at work in your congregation, beckoning God’s people to name what is true?
The peace of Christ isn’t pacific. It will pull down your world to build something else in its place. It dwells hand-in-hand with possibility: possibility that the way things are aren’t the way things always must be. Peace invokes disquiet. It comprises not merely the absence of violence, but the presence of reconciliation, unity, and hope, all of which demand that we name what is wrong in order to work toward what is right.
The presence of those three things is the prayer of the hymn for this week, “Come Now, O Prince of Peace.” The hymn was written in 1988 by South Korean composer Geonyong Lee before a conference on Korean reunification. While the prayer of the song is global, its creation happened in a particular time and place, reminding us of the specific costs of two Koreas: families separated for generations, friends divided without hope of reunion, a country’s identity forever altered. Naming the particularity of the song’s context may help your congregation recognize other places in the world and in their lives where the process of peace is calling.
On this Sunday, when we sing our prayer that the Prince of Peace will come to reconcile his people, the hymn will end with an open fifth rather than a harmonized chord, “leaving space for God and God’s people to decide how the nations will be reconciled,” as Linnéa notes in the Hymn Commentary. The space invites us to name where God’s promised future can happen, is happening now, wherever unjust and imperfect systems collapse in the face of divine imagination.
It happens when a woman names the truth that she must leave an abusive relationship, collapsing the fragile lie that everything is OK.
It happens when an addict names that their lives have become unmanageable, and they are not in control of their addiction.
It happens when a community names that it is complicit in systemic racism, and that they have work to do.
It happens when a country acknowledges that the word “reconciliation” must be more than lip-service, and takes concrete steps in its direction.
It happens when a global coalition names that climate change is real, and unfolding, and that it is our fault as well as our opportunity to mitigate.
It is happening now, in your community in ways that the Spirit is equipping you to unveil in your preaching this week. Blessings on that proclamation.