Sunday, December 6, 2015

"On the Path of Peace" (Luke 1:68-79)

Zechariah and Elizabeth were – as the scripture puts it – “getting on in years.” So when an angel came to Zechariah and said he and Elizabeth were going to have a baby... well, would you believe such a thing was possible? After all, if it hadn’t happened by now…
Zechariah couldn’t believe it; the angel said to Zechariah, “Since you didn’t believe me, you will be mute – unable to speak – until the day the baby is born.”
And so for nine months, Zechariah was unable to say a word.
Not speaking does give a person time to think. I once spent 24 hours not speaking as part of a– well, I’m really not supposed to say, but just between you and me, it involved a special organization within scouting called Order of the Arrow. ;)
I know of an eleven year-old named Itzcuauhtli Martinez who went 45 days without speaking. This is the younger brother of Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, the young climate activist I talked about a few weeks ago. Both Itzcuauhtli and Xiuhtezcatl are currently in Paris for the Climate Talks, trying to get their voices heard.
When young Itzcuauhtli stopped speaking for 45 days, he did that because he was frustrated that world leaders weren’t listening when young people talked about climate change. If they didn’t listen to his words, he thought, maybe they’d listen to his silence.
If you were silent for 45 days, what would your first words be when you spoke again? You’d have a lot of time to think about it. And people would pay attention, wouldn’t they? Someone hasn’t spoken for 45 days but is finally going to say something; everyone’s curious: what’s he going to say?
A lot of people speak more, thinking it will help them be heard, but sometimes, the best way to be heard is to speak less.
Zechariah didn’t speak – couldn’t speak – for over nine months. What would his first words be?
The baby was born. Eight days later, according to custom, was the circumcision and naming ceremony. At the end of the ceremony, Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit, and he was finally able to speak.
And the words he spoke were those that were read for us.
“Blessed be the God of Israel, who has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them…”
It was a prophecy delivered in song. It was a profound statement of truth and hope.
“God has shown us the compassion promised to our ancestors… that we might serve him without fear” and be guided “into the way of peace.”
God has shown us compassion… that we might serve him without fear… and be guided into the way of peace.
If ever there was a time when this message needed to be heard, that time is now. Our world is racked by fear. Our world needs to be guided into the way of peace.
In light of the shooting last week in San Bernardino, and other recent mass shootings, as well as news headlines of terrorism around the world, there are some who preach fear as a response. Their message? “Be afraid. Arm yourself. Defend your family. Prepare for the worst. And watch out for those guys.”
Perhaps they are well intentioned. But I know that if I preach fear, and if you allow fear to take control of your life, then we will have no peace.
Zechariah lived in a fearful time. Yet the words he spoke after a nine-month silence were about being set free from fear, and being guided into the way of peace.
I want to be a preacher like Zechariah. Hopefully it won’t take a mandatory, extended period of silence to achieve, but I want to be a preacher who preaches peace. It’s the type of preacher I feel God is calling me to be. I can’t say I’ve always been successful, but preaching with kindness and compassion, helping people live without fear, and finding the way of peace in their lives, has been my goal.
After all, the number one command in the Bible is “do not be afraid.”
When the angel first appeared to Zechariah, Zechariah was terrified; but the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah.”
When the angel appeared to Mary mother of Jesus, the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary.”
After Jesus was born, the angel appeared to shepherds in the field. The shepherds were terrified.  “They were sore afraid” is how the old King James version puts it.
But the first words out of the angel’s mouth were, “Do not be afraid; I bring you good news of great joy for all people.”
That’s what the gospel is about: helping people live without fear, helping people find peace, letting them know of the compassion and love of God for all people.
It is a real perversion of the gospel to use fear as a tactic, to preach fear, to increase anxiety in the hearts of people. It goes completely against everything that the gospel stands for. Preaching fear is the tactic used by terrorists. It is not the way of people who follow Christ, or the way of anybody who desires a peaceful world.
And yet, fear is increasingly used today as a way to spread the gospel. Preachers of fear are everywhere.
In her book Grounded, Diana Butler Bass writes: “Religious fundamentalism and exclusion are nurturing fear across the planet, movements to build boundaries between nations and religions, to reinforce walls that divide, claiming that foreigners and strangers must be contained, exiled, or eliminated.”
We’re constantly being told to be afraid. Be afraid of Muslims, be afraid of immigrants and refugees, be afraid of Mexican-Americans, African-Americans, be afraid of transgender people who are just waiting to molest and abuse you.
The worst thing is that all this rhetoric of fear that we keep hearing has no basis in fact.
Last month, voters in Houston got to vote on the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. The ordinance would have provided protection for gay, lesbian, and transgender people.
However, a vocal group of Houston pastors preached against the ordinance. They said it would allow male predators into women’s bathrooms. The stoked the fears of the people. Over and over they said this, and made the people of Houston so afraid, that the Ordinance was defeated.
These pastors did this, despite the fact that not once has there ever been a documented case of a transgender person using their gender identity as a means of sexually assaulting another person in a bathroom. It’s never happened.
So what were those pastors basing their rhetoric on? It was all fabrications, rooted in their own irrational fears, and intended to create that same fear in others.
Which is all completely contrary to the message of the gospel.
What those pastors did was bear false witness against their neighbors. What they did was withhold compassion from those who most needed compassion.
Because there have been documented cases – many of them – of transgender people being bullied, assaulted, and even murdered, in bathrooms and elsewhere, because of their gender identity. The transgender people are the ones who need protection, which is why an ordinance like the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance is necessary.
They are the victims, yet those pastors made them out to be the perpetrators. As if being the victim isn’t bad enough, now the victims who need protection are told that they are the ones who everyone else needs protection from.
What those pastors did was fuel the flames of fear. They exchanged truth for lies, and became false prophets of fear. They have failed to guide people in the way of peace.
With pastors like these, it shouldn’t be a surprise that a recent study from the University of Chicago showed that children raised in religious households were less likely than other children to share, less likely to show generosity, and more likely to distrust others and judge others as being worthy of punishment.  It’s true. Religious children are more judgmental and less generous than other children… because too many religious leaders are teaching their people to be less compassionate and more fearful.
Diana Butler Bass writes about the path our nation took after 9/11. At first, the world was suffering with us. Others were compassionate toward America’s loss.
But then, she says, “fear blinded us. We did not understand that we were the wounded traveler, and many, many people were reaching out their hands to help…
“Fear blinded us to the world’s compassion. Fear led to revenge which led to war, which divided the nation, demonized foreigners, and wrecked relationships across the world.”
She then asks, “What path was forever lost” in the weeks after 9/11?
You see this same rhetoric of fear being used in the current political debates. Syrian refugees. Muslims. African-Americans. They all pose a huge danger to America, according to some of the politicians currently running for office.
Donald Trump is a master at this fear-based rhetoric. Jeb Bush, a fellow Republican, was right when he said that Trump is “manipulating people’s angst and fears.”
A lot of people have accepted the rhetoric. But the gospel teaches us to live differently.
Jesus once told a story about a traveler who was beaten, stripped, robbed, and left for dead on the side of the road.
Three other travelers then came by. 
The first to come by was a priest, but he ignored the wounded traveler and passed by on the other side of the road. The second to come by was a Levite, but he also passed by on the other side of the road.
Why did these two pass by? Because they were afraid. They were afraid – what if the victim they saw was dead? Touching him would make them unclean. Or what if he was faking it? What if he was waiting for them to come close, only to jump up and beat and strip and rob them?
Fear kept them from stopping. Fear: the biggest threat to compassion and peace.
The third traveler to come by was a Samaritan. Samaritans were the ones who were most slandered in Jesus’s day. Today, instead of a Samaritan, the story would be about a Muslim. Or a Syrian refugee. Or a transgender person.
And with all the scorn and contempt thrown at Muslims, refugees, and transgender persons, this third traveler could have easily justified walking past the dying man on the side of the road. Certainly, if their situations were reversed, no one would stop and help him. So why should he stop?
Yet this Muslim/refugee/transgender person did stop. He was probably afraid to stop, but he still stopped. He controlled his fear for the sake of compassion. For the sake of peace….

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