They hadn’t spoken for years. My grandmother told me that the conflict between my father and his sister wasn’t new. From the time they were little they hadn’t gotten along. As my grandmother tells the story, my Dad was just the sweetest little boy. One of his favorite things to do was to take out all the pots and pans and create a drum set in the middle of the kitchen floor. Without fail, as soon as his big sister saw it, she barreled through the kitchen and knocked down everything he’d built, leaving little Bruce weeping inconsolably.
By the time I was born my father and his sister had completely separate lives and separate interests. She was studious, hard-working, an introvert and a lover of ballet and theater. He was easy going, fun loving, at home on the golf course and surrounded by friends. I have often wondered how my father and his sister could come from the same family. Though they attended all the same holiday dinners and family functions, I can’t remember a single instance of seeing the two of them sitting and talking together.
Things only got worse after my grandfather died and my grandmother needed more help. My aunt and uncle graciously created an in-law apartment for my grandmother to spend her summers. Though it was within minutes of one of my father’s favorite haunts, the Saratoga Race Track, he almost never visited. After my grandmother died in 1998, my father and his sister had nothing to do with each other.
Until one afternoon in September of 2005. When my father was admitted to Hospice, his sister had been vacationing in Hawaii. In her absence, she sent her husband – who always had a cordial relationship with my father – to visit. Laughter filled the air. My father’s spirits were lifted.
It seemed possible that my father would die while his sister was away. But, for some reason I will never know, she decided to cut her visit short to come home and see my Dad. I greeted my aunt at the door and excused myself so they could have some privacy. I don’t know what was said or unsaid. I don’t remember hearing any laughter. But, what I do know is that my father died the very next day in peace.
As many of you know, I worked as a Hospice chaplain for a long time. What seemed to happen for my father and his sister is a scene I saw repeated over and over (perhaps one you have observed, too): long estranged family members finding their way to peace just as time was running out.
But, I also witnessed plenty of people in anguish over whether or not to reach out to the family member they had stopped speaking to years ago. I saw all too many people dying from the consequences of alcoholism and addiction whose shattered relationships caused them more pain than any cancer ever could.
Those who can not find their way to peace with the people who matter most, often fail to experience the grace of a peaceful death.
On this second Sunday of Advent, our readings present us with what seems like an unachievable vision and a pointed command. The prophet Isaiah imagines a world where “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together,” all known enemies at peace and rest with each other.
It is a world where humans are not in fear of creatures they typically see as a threat; a world without hurt or destruction. Isaiah’s vision is an invitation for us to consider that peace on earth is possible; to make conscious choices to live from the conviction that it is.
Surely, our hearts long for peace! And just as surely, it often evades us. The state of the world is nothing short of an indictment of human nature. We need look no further than Russia’s behavior in Ukraine to see how depraved humans can be.
Advent reminds us that it doesn’t have to be like this. That war and violence are not inevitable. That we can make different choices. And those different choices can start here. And now. With us.
But, do you and I really believe that peace begins with us or that it depends on someone else? Are we more apt to see that other people, not ourselves, are the real impediments to peace? This is the mistake the Pharisees and Sadducees and we often make. John says to them, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’” In other words, do not presume that because we are Christian or American or from Massachusetts or from Annisquam that we are beyond reproach; that we’re blameless, that it’s those other people at fault.
How easy is it for us to presume that because we try to be good people or do the right thing that somehow we are right and “they” are wrong. How easy is it for us to fall into thinking that because what “they” are doing is so egregiously wrong that they are the only ones responsible for a lack of peace. John says… you don’t get off that easy. You, too, must repent. You, too, must see what your part is in perpetuating violence, injustice, and broken relationships.
Last week I preached on gun violence. In the sermon I asked, “Could it be that it isn’t only because of the people who have their own political and economic interests served by the proliferation of guns that this problem hasn’t been solved in our country, but because the rest of us keep going back to sleep?”
I’m not sure the message landed because afterwards, a number of people came up to me and basically said, “We’re never going to solve the gun issue as long as some people benefit from the status quo.”
And though that may be true, the challenge of Advent – the challenge that we are again presented with today – is this: What is it that we need to change? What is our role – by our action or inaction – that perpetuates and even promotes a lack of peace in our lives and in our world? Advent asks us to change our hearts.
Ronald J. Allen writes, “To repent is to take a clear-minded look at the ways in which one’s life colludes with the assumptions and behaviors of the old age, to turn away from such complicity, and to turn towards God and the attitudes and actions of the realm of heaven.”
When John says, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” it sounds foreboding, even threatening. But what it actually means is that the Spirit comes, like wind and fire: not to destroy us, but to shake off and extinguish all that holds us back; so that we are empowered to live into the vision of peace.
John calls us to think differently about ourselves. To believe and hope and act from the promise that peace is possible. To not allow despair to take root in us. But to welcome Christ’s spirit – a spirit that comes like wind and fire to remove the husks from our hearts that get in the way: the anxieties, self-absorption, apathy, or greed that make us less generous, less just, or less respectful of others.
Advent is an inside job.
In a few weeks, God willing, you and I will sit with loved ones unwrapping presents from under a Christmas tree. It won’t matter what’s in those boxes, if our relationships with the people who matter most aren’t at peace. This is the place for us to start… not with what’s happening in Ukraine, or in Congress, but with what’s happening in our own lives.
Is there someone in your life with whom you are not at peace? Someone with whom you desire greater understanding and closeness? Someone with whom having an overdue, crucial conversation would be of benefit? Or maybe there is someone else who may never feel safe to you, but whom you can send love and peace from your heart? What can you do to foster greater peace in your life and your relationships? (Which by the way, are inextricably intertwined. I doubt you can be fully at peace within without being at peace with those who matter most.)
It’s so easy to get distracted by the outer trappings of the holiday season – the parties, the shopping, the presents, the cookies, all of it. We can be so busy that we forget to take the time to spiritually prepare our hearts for the living Christ, to make our lives a welcoming manger for the prince of Peace.
May we take to heart Isaiah’s vision of peace and John’s challenge of repentance by making it a priority this Advent to pause and look within – to see what is ours to let go of and ours to nurture. Let’s not wait until the very end of our lives to heal those relationships we know are in need of healing. Advent invites us to stop pointing the finger at them – at what they are doing or not doing – and instead asks us to live the peace that is possible. With God’s grace, may we take a step towards what matters most in life – peaceful and loving relationships. Amen.