The Peaceful Heart

(sermon 12/10/17 – Advent 2B)

Fallingwater-resized

Fallingwater, Mill Run, PA, 1935 – Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

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One of the true masterpieces of modern architecture, not just in this country but in the world – and arguably the most recognized house in the history of modern architecture – is Fallingwater, the house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1930s for the Kaufman family, built over a waterfall in a beautiful wooded area in southwestern Pennsylvania. This house is the definitive illustration of what Wright called Organic Architecture – the idea that a building design should respect and spring from, and be uniquely tied to, its site. At Fallingwater, you can see this in a number of ways – as just a few examples, a large boulder on the site stayed in place and became an integral part of the main floor. Terraces cantilever out over much of the site, making its actual footprint on the land less imposing. Windows are set at a level that makes you feel as if you’re living in a tree house. Stone walls are laid up using native stone quarried onsite, and in a pattern reminiscent of the natural stone outcroppings that are found around the site. You can see one small symbolic way that Wright expressed this respect for nature, as an integral part of the design, near the entrance of the house. Wright designed a trellis, a series of concrete beams, that spans over the entry drive and ties the house together to an exposed ledge of stone that crops out of the hillside on the opposite side of the drive. But as it turned out, there was a tall, thin tree that was growing right in the path of one of the trellis beams. So instead of just cutting the tree down to make way for the beam, Wright had the beam built to bend and go around the tree, deviating from its straight path and giving the tree room to grow.

Fallingwater trellis with tree-resized

It makes for an interesting design detail, while making an important statement about  incorporating the natural elements of a site into the overall design of a building.

Of course, it only takes a moment or two to realize that trees don’t stop growing just because you’ve built something close to it. Over the next number of years, the tree eventually got too big for the bend in the trellis to accommodate it. It had to be cut down anyway, and another young, thin tree was put in its place to keep the design intent intact. In fact, I’d imagine that it’s been probably been replaced several times since the house was originally built, but I suppose the idea is the important thing here.

For whatever reason, the image of that tree, and how it caused the beam to bend off it’s intended path came to mind when I read today’s gospel lesson – Mark’s account of John the Baptist, calling on people to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord; to make the paths straight and clear for his arrival.

John was offering that message to people who were in many was a lot like us. Most of them had been raised to know about God’s goodness, and God’s love for them. Most of them knew about the prophets who called them to a certain way of treating one another with compassion and mercy, caring for the orphan and the widow, the outcast, the refugee and the resident alien – and that this was the purest and most pleasing way, in God’s estimation, to worship and show love and gratitude to God. They knew the Ten Commandments, and in their hearts, they knew the simple, profound truths found in what we now call the Beatitudes, long before Jesus was even born to teach them – they knew the Hebrew scriptures, so when they would eventually hear Jesus’ teaching years later, they’d know that there was very little if anything in his words that couldn’t already be found in those scriptures.  For the most part, they knew the way of the Lord, and for the most part, we do, too. The path that John was calling us to return to really isn’t too hard to see.

But if it isn’t hard to see, it can still be hard to follow. For the people who came out to hear John, and for us, the concrete experiences of life can sometimes collide with its abstractions. Boulders and trees, of one definition or another, can obstruct the way. Concerns about living life “in the real world” can cause us to make compromises, deviations, from the straight path. And then, as it always works, one deviation will lead to another that builds upon the first, and then another, and another, until eventually we’re so far in the weeds, removed from that straight path that we know in our hearts, that we can’t even see it any more.

And then there are other things that can cloud our vision of the straight path that John called people to, also. Just like those people who came out to the banks of the Jordan River, our minds can get overwhelmed, bogged down, preoccupied with what’s going on in the social, cultural, and political surroundings, the landscape of the times. In thinking, worrying, fearing those kinds of things, we aren’t necessarily led any further away from the right path that God desires for us; they just tend to cloud our eyes so that we can’t see the path through the fog of the 24-hour news cycle and all the worries and anxieties that it can bring.

John’s stark words, and yes, no doubt his slightly scary appearance, cut through the fog and the deviations in the lives of the people who came out to hear him, and across the years, his words can cut through all that for us, too.

I think that often, when we hear his words, what we hear is challenge. We hear yet another “to do” list, a bunch more things to worry about, that we’re somehow supposed to add to everything else we have to get done. We hear more things to take on. More work, and hopefully, all that additional work will make God pleased with us.

But I think that the reality of John’s message for us can be heard a little differently. Instead of it being a challenge to do *more* in order to please God, I think it’s more of an invitation to do *less,* to let go of all those fears and distractions and deviations, in order to see that God is already pleased with us. God already loves us, and to whatever extent that it’s necessary, God has already forgiven us for our shortcomings and failures and deviations from that path, because God knows, literally firsthand, how difficult it is, that it’s truly impossible, for us to completely stay on that path, living in this broken world.

Hearing John’s words as invitation instead of challenge can help to create a peaceful heart within us instead of just adding anxiety on top of anxiety. And after all, isn’t peace, and a peaceful heart, what God desires for us above everything else? Living a life of true shalom, true contentedness and peacefulness through our relationship of love and gratitude with God, and compassion and connection with one another? Isn’t peace what the angels proclaimed to the shepherds in the fields when Jesus was born? Isn’t peace what Jesus repeatedly wished for his disciples after his resurrection? Isn’t having a peaceful heart, and being at peace with God, the entire reason for God’s choosing to enter our world, to live, and laugh, and cry with us, to work, and play, and die with us, so that we can have the peace of heart and mind that comes from knowing that God is truly with us?

Observing Advent is, in a way, our creating a “safe space” where we can help one another live into John’s invitation, and to let go of those things that cause us to lose sight of God’s path, and, like the concrete trellis at Fallingwater, to bend, to turn back around, and to get back on that original path. In this season, we’re trying to hear God’s Spirit speaking to us, enabling us to rediscover our own peaceful heart and to rediscover God’s path of love, mercy, and compassion, the path of hope and peace. In part, we observe Advent to help us to no not miss seeing the forest for the trees.

Thanks be to God.

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Peace Be with You (sermon 12/7/14, Advent 2B)

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  – Mark 1:1-8

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In early 1863, a young man named Charles Longfellow joined the Union Army and went off to war. He did it against the wishes of his father, the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Later that year, shortly before Christmas, his father received word that he’d been severely wounded in battle. Overwhelmed by grief over this, as well as the death of his wife in a fire not long before, Longfellow sat down and wrote a poem that’s become fairly well known to us as the words to the Christmas carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. Not all of the words of the poem made it into the lyrics of the carol, though; the original version of the poem began like this:

 I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

We may or may not have experienced the same kind of losses that Longfellow did. But there are times when it’s easy to share those feelings that there really is no peace on earth, that the whole idea seems like a cruel joke, when we experience the sorrow and unrest in our own lives, and when we look around us. When fundamentalist terrorists of one religion bomb busses and behead people and call for the death of all who don’t adhere to their version of their religion. When fundamentalist terrorists of another religion bomb federal buildings and murder abortion doctors and call for the death of all gays and lesbians as a way to end AIDS. When police harass a man standing on the street minding his own business, surrounding him like a pack of coyotes attacking an animal, and then dropping him with an illegal chokehold, ignoring his cries that he can’t breathe, failing to administer CPR, and then every single participant in this crime against God’s humanity walking away without so much as a slap on the wrist. When a twelve-year old boy is playing with a toy gun in a park, and police show up and shoot him dead within two seconds of arriving on the scene. Two seconds. Based on all the turmoil in this world, it’s easy to understand the disillusionment, the anger, sorrow, and cynicism that pours out of Longfellow’s heart as he continues to write:

 And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

And yet, despite these things, this is the season that we set aside to recognize and honor the coming of Christ into our world, as a sign of God’s wishes for reconciliation with all people. As the sign of God proclaiming peace and good will to all of us, entering into our existence, knowing firsthand our hopes, our aspirations, our greatest joys and our deepest grief. And through that, showing us how we’re to love God, and how an important way of loving God is how we love others. I believe that’s the most significant aspect of why God chose to reconcile with us by becoming one of us, in the flesh – to truly be God with us, God among us, through Christ – to show us how we’re supposed to be the key agents of illustrating, and spreading, God’s peace on earth, and God’s good will to all people.

Today’s gospel reading is from Mark. It includes the title, the headline of the gospel: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Did you notice that this gospel isn’t titled, “The beginning of the story of Jesus Christ;” or even more significantly, it isn’t called “The whole story,” or “The beginning, middle, and end of the story?” What we read in Mark’s gospel is just the beginning of what God considers the good news, the tidings of great joy, of reconciliation, of true peace on earth and good will to all, that we receive in Jesus Christ. In other words, it’s an ongoing, unfinished story. This passage talks a bit about John the Baptizer. John is the preparation for the good news. In Jesus’ birth, we have the initiation of that news. In his life and teachings, we have the clarification of the good news. In his death and resurrection, we have God’s validation of the good news. And through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, joining us with Christ, we – we – are the continuation of the good news that God has proclaimed to the world through Jesus, beginning with the birth that we’re awaiting this season.

So we light this second candle of Advent, the candle that signifies peace. We light it realizing that much of our world, around us and within us, is not right; is not at peace. But in our hearts, we’re grateful for what God has done in us, and for us, and we’re grateful that God has called us to work to extend that peace to others in the world, by working for justice, in every way we possibly can. We light this candle because through the birth of the little one in the manger, we know that God is in control, and will ultimately establish peace and good will for all. With that knowledge in our heart, even aware of what’s wrong in the world, even if we have some measure of sadness and disillusionment in our hearts, we can still share the feelings that Longfellow put to words as he finished his poem:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

 Thanks be to God.