A Sermon for Covenant
Peace and Violence
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
First Sunday of Advent
December 1, 2013
Kyndall Rae Rothaus
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
“They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Isaiah 2:4
Driving back from Oklahoma this week, I listened to StoryCorps on NPR. They were playing a variety of old clips, each story a brief but touching vignette displaying the beauty of humanity, and I don’t know what it was about that day, but every story brought tears to my eyes. There was the mom being interviewed by her 12-year-old son with Asperger’s Syndrome. Joshua had these marvelous questions for his mother, like, “From a scale of 1-10, do you think your life would be different without animals?” he asked; seconds later he turned suddenly quite serious, “Have you ever felt life was hopeless?” the 12 year-old wanted to know.
Then there were the grown daughters interviewing their father with Alzheimer’s. He could no longer remember where he met his wife, but he did remember dating her. As he answered questions, he kept checking with his daughters to see if he had remembered correctly. “Yes, dad, you do have four children,” they would graciously assure him. For a moment he forgot his son David’s name, but he did remember, without hesitation, what a great son David had been.
Then there was a story about Mary Johnson whose son had been murdered, and ten years after the trial, she went to the prison to visit the murderer. “I wanted to know if he was in the same mindset as what I remembered in court,” she told the radio, but she found that he was not the same 16-year-old boy, that he had grown up. She was able to talk to him, to tell him about her son, her pain, and he was able to listen to her and to see the humanity of the boy whose life he had taken.
Now they sit together on public radio, side-by-side, and share their story. By the end of their conversation that day in the prison, Mary was crying, and the man who had killed her son said he didn’t know what to do but to reach out and hold her, hug her like it was his own mother standing there. After he left the room, Mary began to say it out loud, “I just hugged the man that murdered my son.” She says to him in the interview, “I instantly knew that all that anger and animosity, all the stuff I had in my heart for 12 years for you, I knew it was over, that I had totally forgiven you.” He tells her she is motivation, that he is amazed at her forgiveness, that she treats him like a son. He has since served his sentence and they now live next door to one another, take care of another. She looks forward to seeing him graduate, get married, she says. They wrap up the interview with him saying to her, “I love you, lady,” to which she replies, “I love you too, son.”
I listened transfixed, especially to that last account, as I heard how the impossible had happened. These little windows into humanity, stories that may never have been told if it weren’t for the StoryCorps project, left me almost breathless.
This week working on the sermon I remembered around this time last year, somewhere into the second week of Advent, sitting on my bed, laptop out, at a complete loss for what to preach. The shooting of elementary school children in Connecticut had left me undone. I don’t know if it was the fact that they were children, or if it was the sheer volume of gun violence in this country, or if it was the state of my own personal life, but for whatever reason that national tragedy rocked me like no other. It was too much to try and grapple with.
I think of that tale of horror juxtaposed with today’s Advent text that envisions a peaceable kingdom on earth in which weapons are beaten into farming tools, and the disparity between the two chokes you of your breath.
But I also I remember another gunman who walked into a school near Atlanta in August. Loaded with weapons, the first person he encountered on entering the building was the school clerk, who responded to his arrival by asking him his name to try and calm him. At first he didn’t reply, so she started praying, and then she started talking. She told him about her own life, the troubles and tragedies she had faced—her divorce, her son with special needs—we all have stuff, she pointed out. For an hour she talked with the shooter, telling him about herself, drawing him into talking too until finally, he surrendered his weapons and no one was hurt that day. These are the stories we need to hear too.
In a world like ours, we deeply feel the need for the coming of peace, for war to cease, for the transformation of weapons into harmless tools. We live in a world of senseless violence, excess weapons, and raw, unchecked hate. But as so many of the stories we have heard today remind us, we also live in a world of unbelievable compassion, heroic courage, and resilient love. The stories we hear of brutal violence fill us with fear, but the other stories, the way people have responded to acts of violence, the way people have lived ordinary lives with extraordinary courage, these are the stories that fill us with hope.
Advent is supposed to be a season of hope, but when it comes to God ushering peace into the world, you would think God would do something more drastic, something bigger than sending a baby. Why doesn’t God obliterate our enemies or our weapons or both? Why doesn’t God make us all get along? All this out-of-control evil and God chose to respond by becoming a human being and walking somewhat inconspicuously among us, just one man, whose story could have easily been unnoticed or forgotten, like the remarkable but forgotten stories of so many brave people throughout history. Wouldn’t you rather see God rise up large in all his furious power and smite violence off the face of the earth? Instead, God got small enough to look us in the face.
We talk about God becoming human so that we could see God, but I think God also became human so that we could see humanity, humanity as God intended it. We killed him, not, I think, because he was God, but because he was human. He came and humanized the law—“man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath was made for man,” he would say—and we did not like it. He came and humanized the outcast—healing lepers, dining with sinners, speaking intelligently to women, welcoming children—and we didn’t like it. He came and humanized God; he came and humanized the human plight, humanized the sinner, humanized our struggle. For some twisted reason, we can’t handle that. We persist in our dehumanizing religiosity. God comes to earth bearing peace in a human face and we erect a cross to stop it. I say “we” because this is not just what happened way back when; it is what happens.
I have a friend to whom great violence has been done, but her family and her church continue to push her back into harm’s way because of misguided theology—they fail to see how Jesus humanizes the law and thus they fail to protect the one they say they love. They preserve the letter of the law over the dignity of a human life. They do not see that to be Jesus to a battered woman is to obstruct the violence. Jesus is out to save her life and redeem it, but they are seeking to crucify that operation before it completes itself. Somehow we continue to get ourselves confused, bolster violence rather than impede it, look past people to preconceived perceptions.
I’ve been told by multiple people this year that my theme in writing and in preaching is vulnerability and transparency. I didn’t even know I had a theme, but in retrospect, I think those themes fit. Despite my introverted impulse to hide and stay hidden, I have come to value deeply the honesty of speaking up and the courage of showing up. Along those same lines, if I had a theme for Advent or just for proclaiming the Christian faith in general, I’d say that for this season of my life, the theme is incarnation: God among us. God with us. God, transparent and vulnerable, God with the courage to show up, God exposing God’s self to all the dangers of wearing flesh, and somehow, somehow this humanness, this rawness, this exposure would save the world. It just doesn’t make any sense that God would witness the world’s horror and decide to respond by putting on skin and letting us look him in the eye, knowing full well that even a face-to-face encounter would not stop the killing. But that is what God chose, and even in its seeming ineffectiveness, I think it has something to teach us about how we respond to evil, how we hold up against violence, what kind of life-in-the-face-of-death will plant the seeds for resurrection.
Sometimes it works miracles, sharing our humanity with one another, like the school clerk who thought to ask a gunman his name or like the mother who cried in front of her son’s murderer. Sometimes the violence plows ahead without regard for human life, despite our best efforts, and we are dropped, yet again, to the brink of despair, and then, because we are human and resilient, we stand back up and keep walking.
This is the difficult tension we live regarding the already, but not-yet Kingdom of God. Saying no, a definitive, unreserved NO to violence while keeping one eye strained to see the humanity of the perpetrator. Standing against all carnage and cruelty, all the while holding space for the possibility of forgiveness and redemption. Jesus died for victims and perpetrators and somehow we say NO, STOP to offenders, shield and protect the innocent, all while looking a violent man in the eye and visualizing him as the child he once was, before he made all these choices that morphed him into a half-man, half-monster. “This man has a mother,” we must say to ourselves, even as we work tirelessly to thwart his path to senseless violence.
I don’t know how we do it, except that we have a role model in Jesus Christ. I don’t know how we do it except that the answer is never more weapons. I don’t know how we do it except that Jesus heals the man’s ear when Peter chops it off, tells him to put away his sword, but even after that fiasco, Peter is still the rock on which the church is built. I don’t know how we do it, except that on account of Jesus, a man as violent as Saul was changed, truly and miraculously changed. I don’t know how we do it, except that Isaiah promises a day when all swords will be beaten into plowshares and all spears into innocuous pruning hooks and all war will cease, and somehow we hold onto to the promise, even in the dark. I don’t know how we do it, except that God chose to do it by becoming human, and as nonsensical and ineffective as that seems, I think we’re meant to do it too. To become more human. To feel pain and heartache and disappointment, to know our own mortality, to let the suffering we experience expand our capacity for love, to let the violence we see call us to response, to let the human stories we hear inspire us to courage and to action.
I don’t know how we do it, except that this is God’s way, to risk being among a violent people, searching out the courageous, peacemaking spark in all of us. As the prophet Isaiah said, “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!” Amen.
 Joshua and Sarah Littman, “Have You Ever Lied to Me?” StoryCorps interview, produced by Michael Garofalo. http://storycorps.org/listen/sarah-and-joshua-littman/
 Priya Morganstern, Bhavani Jaroff, and Ken Morganstern, “It Was Very Easy to Be Patient With Him,” Story Corps interview, produced by Michael Garofalo andYasmina Guerda. http://storycorps.org/listen/priya-morganstern-and-bhavani-jaroff-update/
 Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel, “I Just Hugged the Man Who Murdered My Son,” Story Corps interview, produced by Jasmyn Belcher. http://storycorps.org/listen/mary-johnson-and-oshea-israel/
 Mark Memmott, “School Clerk in Georgia Persuaded Gunman to Lay Down Weapons,” August 21, 2013 http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/08/21/214085753/school-clerk-in-georgia-persuaded-gunman-to-lay-down-weapons?