Purifying, Abiding, Peace-making

From John 15:1-8

Our church is full of people fully committed to the cause of peace.  Helen and Dave.  Caroline.  Lavon.  Doug.  So many others… 

Many of us find ways to invest ourselves in the processes of expanding peace in our communities and our world.  It’s a big part of who we are.
We’re even planning to create a “Peace Garden” right outside our sanctuary—a place of rest and reflection and spiritual connection.
And in many ways, we can trace our connections and passions for peace right back to the founding of our church movement.  We’ve talked about this some over the past 2 weeks in our Disciples History class and conversations.  Making and nurturing peace—among the wide and various fractures and splits present in Christianity—was the primary issue that brought individuals and groups together to form the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  We have always been a church that strives after unity.  Alongside the great value placed on individual liberty and the pioneering spirit, “Unity,” our founders often claimed, “is our polar star.”  In the midst of great theological, cultural, racial, economic, political diversity, we are—and have always been—on a search for unity, wholeness, and peace.
But in the midst of that search, we have also faced fragmentation and adversity.  In actuality—although it may seem strange—the search for unity, wholeness, and peace moves against the grain of our society.  Many cultural forces seem to conspire against achieving that sense of wholeness.  Do you know what I’m talking about?  And as a result, our unity has often been fragile; our liberty, conditional; peace, illusive.  Our church frequently claims, “In essentials, unity.  In non-essentials, liberty.”  But we are slow to claim just what is essential.  Just what is non-essential.  And we remain divided.
During the Civil War, many people wondered, is slavery essential or non-essential?  Do we have to agree about it or not?  Is abolition essential or non-essential?  Do we have to agree or not?  Is pacifism essential or non-essential?  Do we have to agree or not? 
Basically it comes down to this question:  Are political, economic, and social issues essential or non-essential to faith?  Are they matters of faith or matters of opinion?  Is addressing an issue like slavery, immigration, racism, homophobia, sexism, poverty, unemployment, homelessness an essential part of your faith?  Or not?
This question is the one I sit with as I watch news from Baltimore and Nepal, as I watch the escalating violence and discontent with the structural inequalities in our society.  And if I do claim that these issues and situations are essential to my faith, what do I do?  How can I—and how can we—respond in faith?  What does a genuine commitment to peace look like in light of crippling injustice?  Where is the hope of resurrection this Easter season?
Wendell Berry, as we read earlier, suggests we open a trench in the ground—bury all those useless words, fragments, errors, mix it with the contents of the outhouse, and the confessions of our sins.  And then we close that trench and make room for transformation—to allow the old to escape into the new.  We allow that outward expression of our shortcomings to purify us, to set us on a new path, to open us in vulnerability to greater possibility.
And in our scripture this morning, Jesus reminds us that he is the true vine, God is the vine-grower, and we are the branches.  We all depend on one another.  Just as we abide in him, he abides in us.  And just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can we, unless we abide in him.  Resurrection is only possible in that relationship.  And the fruit of possibility and hope and healing comes from abiding in that relationship.  Nurturing that relationship.  Accepting challenges that come from that relationship.  Working hard on that relationship.  Only then is change possible.  Only then is peace possible.  Only then might we be able to find a way forward in the midst of the violence and hurt in the world. 
Now—get ready for this—peace does not always stand in opposition to violence.  This may be hard for some of us to hear and understand.  Sometimes, what we understand as peace IS violent.  And sometimes a just peace may require violence.  It largely depends on what we understand to be violent—and where we recognize it and how we respond to it.  The social critic Noam Chomsky often said, “Everyone wants peace—even Hitler and Genghis Khan.  The question is:  On what terms?”
A friend recently reminded me about the story of the first African American student accepted into the University of Alabama.  It was 1956—not that long ago, y’all—and as soon as Autherine Lucy stepped onto campus, she was attacked with eggs and bricks.  Crosses were burned, and a mob jumped on top of the car that drove her to school.  Eventually, the president and trustees of the University asked Autherine to withdraw—for her own safety and the safety of the University.  The day after she was dismissed, the newspaper headline ran:  “Things are quiet in Tuscaloosa today. There is peace on the campus of the University of Alabama.”  For the white people of Tuscaloosa, peace meant a return to segregation and the crippling and unjust status quo. 
Do we want peace on these terms?
We read about and see pictures and videos of Baltimore this past week—cars burning, buildings looted, protest, uprising, anger. . . .  And for many of us, our first reaction may be, “No, no, no, not that!”  “That’s not going to help!”  “That won’t solve anything!”  “Why break things, destroy things, cause more chaos?!”  For many of us, we may be more concerned about those expressions of anger than the situations that provoked that anger.  And we can—because we have a separation from it.  We are removed by geography, race, and class.  And we think, how could anyone act that way?  Respond that way?  That’s just not right.  It’s okay to be angry, but why not express it peacefully, lawfully, civilly?  
I get this response.  I’ve certainly had these thoughts this week—and in previous weeks and months.  “Come on, now!” I’ve wanted to say—especially when I’m driving back to Oakland from Vallejo, hoping to get home in time for Clivie’s bedtime, and wondering if this will be one of those nights when protestors shut down 80.  This is one of the sins I confess:  Sometimes, I am admittedly more concerned about avoiding any disruption in my own life than I am concerned about the generations of economic, racial, and cultural violence that leads to the kinds of uprisings and outbreaks of protest we see in Baltimore, Ferguson, Oakland, and many other places. 

But do we really want peace on these terms?
Like Alexander Campbell—one of the founders of the Christian Church (DOC)—we are sometimes tempted to work to preserve that calm and fragile sense of unity, even at the expense of justice—even at the expense of being silent on issues like slavery—or economic injustice—or racial prejudice wedded to power. . . .

But do we want peace on these terms?
My friend and fellow Disciples pastor, Sandhya Jha, argues that “Nonviolence has come to be used as a strange weapon by people who are not suffering from the way things are in our society against people who are. And unconsciously, they are asking the people who are suffering to accept what Martin Luther King called ‘obnoxious peace,’ a lack of physical conflict that is marked by real and tangible harm to people.” 

We spend decades, generations, longer… treating people as commodities—devaluing, degrading, detaining, dehumanizing, disenfranchising, and discarding them—and then, we are surprised when there are severe consequences and ramifications.  Do we want—can we in any way afford—peace on those terms?  Why weren’t we concerned BEFORE the violent protests?
Martin Luther King once said, “Peace is not merely the absence of tension, but the presence of justice. . . .  Yes, it is true that if [a black man] accepts his place, accepts exploitation and injustice, there will be peace. But it would be a peace boiled down to stagnant complacency, deadening passivity, and if peace means this, I don’t want peace.  If peace means accepting second-class citizenship, I don’t want it.  If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I don’t want it.   If peace means being complacently adjusted to a deadening status quo, I don’t want peace.  If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated and segregated, I don’t want peace.  So in a passive, non-violent manner, we must revolt against this peace.”

And instead, we must stand and advocate for a peace that stands firmly beside justice. . . .  That is grafted to the true vine.  That is modeled after the peace Jesus walked through locked doors to give us.  A peace that abides in us as long as we abide in him.  A peace that is not simplistic or capitulating.  But a peace that invests in building hopeful and meaningful relationships across lines that divide us.  That transforms us from the inside out.  That works to change oppressive systems and structures.  That builds communities where all gifts, experiences, hopes, and dreams are honored.  Where we ALL live as though ALL lives matter, ALL kids are important, and where no one should be living in poverty and hopelessness.

This is peace.  This is the hope of the resurrection.  And this is what we do today—and in all the days ahead.