Fourth Sunday of Advent
Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Message: "I Believe in Peace"
Isaiah 9:2-7, John 1:1-18
You may recall as 2020 began, in January, I preached a sermon about the peace that exists at the beginning of the year. I shared with you how I love January because the busy-ness of the holiday season is over, how the new calendar year represents a fresh start, and if we stop and listen, we can hear the world responding with a collective exhale.
It was a message about peace, how to find it, and how to tap into it. Your responses to that message were very positive and appreciative—when lives are full and our pace is hectic, sometimes even frantic, tapping into peace is a welcome break. The reminder and invitation to that peace was received with gratitude. Relaxing into peace in the midst of full and busy lives can seem like the reward we didn’t know was waiting for us, like sinking into a comfy bed with down comforter, clean sheets and plumped pillows at the end of a crazy day.
I stand by the truth and value in that message, but now after ten months of restrictions and a much different lifestyle for all of us, a little excitement, a little of the “busy sidewalks dressed in holiday style” with “children laughing, people passing with smile after smile” that the Christmas song speaks of, would be nice. What is peace when our days are already relatively quiet? What is peace when withdrawing from busyness into stillness is what we’ve already been doing for some time now? What is peace when for many of us, our primary concern is out there, a specter unseen, but nonetheless real and potentially life-threatening? What is Advent peace in this time of waiting and preparing for the birth of the one who came so that we might live, and live fully?
A few years ago, I took a meditation immersion class. We learned about different kinds of meditation and practiced them from morning until late afternoon. In one session, we went to the part of the Pacific School of Religion dining room that looks out with a view of the Bay Bridge and the cranes and ships at the Port of Oakland, where the viewline of one’s eye is even with the clouds. For a sixty-minute session, we did an open eye meditation on the clouds, watching them form and change and move, there and not there. Below the clouds, on the bridge and at the port, there was granular activity, but we couldn’t really see it from where we were. We were at one with the clouds. Afterwards, all the participants were amazed by the experience and we resonated with one participant who said, “There was so much happening!” It was only after we had been in the meditation for some time that many of us began to feel a transcendence of both emptiness and fullness.
Our scripture today is from the first chapter of John. Among all of the gospel writers, John is the most mystical, writing chronologically later than the others. The other gospels are called the synoptic gospels, meaning they look the same. John’s gospel is different. Where the other gospels begin in the material world with genealogies and birth narratives, John’s gospel begins in the ether. It begins in the void that was fully occupied, that emptiness that was also fullness, inhabited by and at one with the Word, Jesus, who was with God and was God, intertwining the persons of God and Jesus for eternity behind us and to come.
As students of Biblical Greek know, the prologue of the gospel of John is one of the easiest passages of scripture to translate, but one of the hardest to fully comprehend. It has engendered grand theological debates and councils throughout the centuries about who Jesus is, how he comes to us, and what his presence means. At first, it looks simple to understand what is there. But the longer one stares at it, meditates on it, the more it blossoms and moves. This is an important tension, this tension between the simplicity of the words and the elusiveness of meaning. The sacredness and inspiration of our scriptures, of our Words, lies in the space between what is revealed and what we look for in faith.
The scripture from John 1 says, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.” And so maybe the kind of peace we need to look for now is the peace that shows up when the world is already quiet, and when activity has already slowed for some time. It’s the peace that is waiting for us to recognize it, that is already there with us in the room, not like the impish elf on the shelf, but the cloud that is both formless, and evocative of a horse or an angel or a portal, waiting for us to look up, and still changing every second.
This isn’t a kind of breaking-away-from-the-hustle-and-bustle kind of peace. It’s a peace that we only become conscious of and can sink into when we’ve been still for some time.
There are those among us who are hermits by choice and they can teach us about how to embrace, learn from, and enjoy this kind of peace. Two among them were profiled this year by the New York Times, a former priest and a former nun, who have chosen solitary life together in the mountains just west of Asheville, North Carolina, and now minister through an online community of hermits called Raven’s Bread. You’ll remember earlier this year when we learned about the Desert Fathers and Mothers that this paradoxical idea of a community of hermits was common even then. Since the beginning of the pandemic, these two contemplatives have seen visits to their website quadruple, and they realized that they were being called in this moment both to those who were voluntarily eremitic and those who had become very solitary as a result of the pandemic.
And so, what do this community of hermits have to tell us about this kind of peace? Well first, they say that it is expected, when one begins a journey in solitude, fears, worries and anxieties come up because we can’t distract ourselves. So we need to prepare for that. But the key to transforming anxiety-ridden isolation into nurturing solitude is the understanding that your own “deeper self” is always beside you. This deeper self, the part that is connected to that place and state referred to as the book of John begins, that place where we are with God, has always been present like the intricacies of the sky, but not always recognized. And it is good. You are good and wonderfully made.
The words of John reveal how we can face those fears, worries and anxieties. Hear these words again, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a parent’s only child,[d] full of grace and truth.” Sometimes we experience our fears and anxieties as shameful things or maybe they are connected to painful experiences that we feel are too terrible or scary to tell. But Jesus comes to us with both truth and grace. The grace Jesus provides is necessary to be able to speak the truth. It provides an atmosphere and assurance that there is a path to peace, to truth with grace.
The second piece of wisdom from the Raven’s Bread is this: just because you are in solitude, or living eremtically or as a contemplative, it doesn’t mean you can’t reach out in concern and service. “A lot of people are going to be in pain,” they say, “and if you know there’s something you can do to alleviate some of that pain, do it.” Even though we are limited in mobility, we are blessed with many ways of connection, technologically, through calls and texts, or cards—the mail may be a bit slower but it still gets there—and of course, prayer.
Finally, the Raven’s Bread ministry says, embrace nature. Nature is the effortless companion to the solitary life, and though I’d say many in this congregation were nature lovers before the pandemic, new places and connection with spirit has been found outdoors during these last ten months. As in that sixty minute cloud meditation, nature reveals mystery and impermanence and awe to us in every second, if we pay attention. And the more presence we bring to our attention as we begin, the more that is revealed. Presence and consciousness in nature allow us to experience John’s words anew, “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people…From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”
What I am saying here is not new. You have heard these things before, you have heard them already from me. But this is why we call our faith…a practice. We come back to these truths again and again, and each time we listen, bring our attention back to God, and look for incarnation, we cultivate the capacities to be as the ones who can receive him, as the scripture says, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”
The great contemplative hermit Thomas Merton said, “Peace is not quietism” in the sense that peace is not passivity. It is an active, living, breathing engagement and it reveals itself more fully to us when we pay attention and when we practice. Each Advent we practice again the preparation of our hearts to receive God as a gift of truth and grace. Each Advent we have the opportunity speak truth, even if it is just to ourselves, to peel away layers that block us from seeing or receiving him. This Advent is different in some ways, but still a preparation to be at one with peace. I believe in peace even when I feel there are unpeaceful places inside of me. I believe in peace because I know that Jesus is coming and has come in the fullness of grace and truth and flesh. Amen.
Order of Service (Bulletin) - December 20, 2020
Advent Week 4 - I Believe in the Light: Illuminating Peace
Prelude: “Comfort My People” - Rev. Jerry Asheim, Margot Hanson & Caroline Lee
Welcome & Opening Prayer - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Carol of Joy: “UMH 211 O Come, O Come Emmanuel” - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Anjuli Arreola-Burl
Isaiah Reading: Isaiah 9: 2-7 - Steven Coambs
Children’s Message - Susan Jardin & Judy Kriege
Gospel Reading: John 1: 1-18 - Steven Coambs
The Witness of Music (Anthem): “Morning Star” - Recorded in worship 7/14/19
Message: “I Believe in Peace” - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Carol of Response: “UMH 221 In the Bleak Midwinter” - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Michele Arreola-Burl
Litany of Belief - Molly Brostrom
Prayers of the People - Orion Lacey and Viki Alvarado
Special Music: “In the Stillness” - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Melani Gantes
Announcements & Offerings - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Doxology: “Believe with a Peaceful Heart” - Judy Kriege
WE GO FORTH
Carol of Resistance: “Go Tell it on the Mountain” - Recorded in worship on 1/5/20
Postlude: “O Come All Ye Faithful” Rev. Jerry Asheim
Special thanks to:
Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Contributors: Rev. Jerry Asheim, Viki Alvarado, Anjuli Arreola-Burl, Michele Arreola-Burl, Molly Brostrom, Steve Coambs, Melanie Gantes, Margot Hanson, Susan Jardin, Judy Kriege, Orion Lacey, Caroline Lee
“Morning Star” by Susan Bentall Boersma recorded in worship 7/14/19.
Video producer: Tai Jokela
Podcast producer: Ethan Lindsey
Livestream producer: Merrie Bunt