"When There is No Peace"

Sunday sermon from Sunday, May 5, 2013
Text: Jeremiah 6:9-15 and John 14:23-29
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa

We have been in wartime, in some fashion or another, for as long as I can remember. Of course there are some degrees of difference. The Cold War, for all of its diplomatic intensity, blessedly never had the sheer bloodshed that we associate with the so-called "real" wars, but it was wartime nonetheless. I can remember watching the first American war with Iraq, Desert Shield and Desert Storm; I can remember as a child realizing that I had never lived in a country during wartime, and that something was going to change. Now that particular war was over almost in a heartbeat, but of course it was the same era as the fall of the Soviet Union and my own realization that I had in fact always been a child of wartime, cold though it may have been. In the intervening years, in the vacuum created by the eclipse of the Cold War itself, we have been stuffed to the gills with warfare: in Bosnia and Rwanda and Somalia, in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention wars fought tooth and nail in the public spaces of our own modern age: the war on drugs, the war on terror. It has become so fashionable to declare war on abstract concepts that we now find ourselves at war as well with cancer and with poverty -- valiant causes, of course, but in a generation that has lost its memory of anything but wartime, for a generation whose first recourse in problem-solving is to declare war even on the broadest and most intangible of ideas, for a generation in which warfare is not just a persistent state of military affairs but rather something like an intractable cultural disposition towards anything we find objectionable; in this present generation, what do we do with this so-called "Peace of Christ?"

"Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you." Our text this morning comes squarely from what we call the Farewell Discourses, a prolonged section of the Gospel of John in which Jesus, sitting at the Last Supper with his disciples, tries to outline for them the reality of the world that awaits them after his death. In the face of the pressing reality of Jesus's departure from their midst the disciples are understandably perplexed: honestly, we thought you were going to be King of something, or take over the army, or march on the palace. Now you're just leaving? Not to be selfish, but what about us? You're just leaving us here alone? What are we supposed to do now? And the confounding, mystifying, dumbfounding answer that Jesus gives is this: well, I leave you my peace. My peace, I give to you. And at first glance, it's a terrible present. It's like the box is totally empty. Because "Peace," which Hebrew tradition would understand as "Shalom," was something like a common everyday greeting in Jewish life. When someone entered into your shop in the middle of the afternoon, you might greet them with a word of "Peace. Shalom." When they departed again for the busy street, you might repeat, "Peace. Shalom." You might rightly expect to hear it in return. It is, as common greetings inevitably are, something that we find easy to say and difficult to consider, and so for the disciples, what righteous frustration, that Jesus would disappear and leave them with so little but "So long."

But in the next line Jesus is quick to clarify: "I do not give to you as the world gives." Which is to say, the peace that I give is not merely a passing thought, a word whose force has somehow evaporated. There's a critique here: the world has forgotten what real peace is, the world has watered it down into pithiness or simply forgotten its real power. It's not unlike the critique that Jeremiah makes in the text we read just beforehand. There, the Israel that Jeremiah describes has not only watered down the word of Shalom but in fact betrayed its very conditions. Because Shalom isn't just about the absence of warfare; properly understood, it imagines Israel in full covenantal relationship with God, respecting the desires of God's law, especially and particularly including treatment of the poor and the outcast. It imagines the citizens of Jerusalem as citizens of the whole, diverse, honest, faithful and majestic household of God. And instead, in God's words on Jeremiah's lips, "from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, 'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace." For Jeremiah, the passing invocation of Shalom isn't just a matter of everyday courtesy; it's a problem of the entire citizenry of Jerusalem engaging in a kind of public hypocrisy - "everyone deals falsely" - a widespread public forgetting of who they are and where they came from, of the covenantal promises they made and the covenantal people that they were called to be. For Jeremiah, the central problem of the day is that, by forgetting the poor and the outcast, Jerusalem has clearly also forgotten its own values. And so what Jeremiah imagines for his people is not first and and foremost real legitimate Shalom but at the very least, at the very minimum, the least you could do is to remember who you are. The least you could do is to face facts. The least you could do is to stop saying Peace, Peace, When There is No Peace. Because telling yourself the lie of Peace over and over will in no way make Peace happen. It will only instead generate the false illusion of Peace called "security."

For Jeremiah, when the world says "peace," what it really means is "security." In the fall of 2001 I was living in Georgetown with a freshly-minted college diploma and very little else to show for myself. My day job was in an office complex in Vienna, so every morning I walked across the Key Bridge across the Potomac and got on the DC Metro at the Rosslyn station, and took the orange line twenty-three minutes west into the suburbs of Northern Virginia, at which point a shuttle from my building would find me and whisk me to my cubicle. Which is precisely how I got to work on the Tuesday morning of September 11. By time I arrived the first plane had struck. My boss had the only television in our corner of the building, and so we huddled on her floor and watched in shock and horror. We tried to call loved ones with mixed success. I reached my girlfriend at the time, who was at first livid with me for making her get out of bed. And then at some point later that morning, as rumors swirled around DC about any number of other secondary attacks - at the State Department, at the White House, at the offices of USA Today - and of course as news emerged about the very real attack at the Pentagon - at some point that morning I realized that if I was going to take the Metro home, I needed to leave, now, before somebody shut the whole thing down. And twenty-three minutes later I emerged at Rosslyn, and walked back across the Key Bridge, and there on the far side, parked at the northeast corner of 35th and M Streets, displacing the usual crowd of lunchtime shoppers and hungry undergraduates, there instead was a full-scale Army Hummer, manned by soldiers with loaded fully-automatic weapons, just waiting and watching.

It was there for days. And in all the most important ways, it's still there. You and I both know that in and months and years that followed we traded something of our national character, something perhaps of our moral fiber, for what we call security. We don't like to talk about this, but the toll is astounding. We invaded three countries, if you count the incursions into Pakistan, in the confidence that our security was to be found in the dismantling of hostile foreign states and the central operating theatre of Al Qaeda. We cost tens of thousands of lives, many of them American. We traded our own principles of due process for the indefinite detention of presumed terrorists at Guantanamo and for the emergent reality of remote drone warfare and its inevitable collateral damage. Here at home we built an entire domestic apparatus around the promise of security; if you've tried to board an airplane in the last decade, or gone to the doctor and signed over your medical privacy under the auspices of the Patriot Act, or given a second thought to what you said in one phone call or one email because you wondered who might be listening, then I think you and I both know something of what we traded away. And there's no question that we did get security in exchange; there's no question that Al Qaeda is diminished; there's no question our borders are more impenetrable; there's no question that our authorities are better informed than they were fifteen years ago. There's no question that we have found security. But by Jeremiah's standard, security is only the illusion we create for ourselves when there is no real peace. It's a lie, mutually agreed upon; it's a veneer spread then across the surface of everything we've forgotten: the principles we've forgotten to hold, the conversations we've forgotten to have, the people and places we've forgotten to acknowledge. It's a convenience so that we don't have to be honest with ourselves about who we once were and who we've now become and the things we've lost along the way; by Jeremiah's standard, the most tragic cost of our security is the integrity of our conversation.

Of course the argument has been and continues to be that we are, in fact, in wartime, and that wartime demands certain concessions. Certain sacrifices, even by those not fighting on the front lines. The First and Second World Wars demanded tremendous material sacrifices from those on the home front, and that time passed, and history remembers it with valor. During the American Civil War Lincoln suspended all manner of due process as a necessary means to a greater end, and history remembers him with honor. But those wars were fought against enemies who could surrender. Those wars were fought against armies that could lay down their arms. We are instead engaged in a great battle not against a particular military entity but rather against the ideology of terrorism. Our enemy is an idea and therefore can never surrender. And so the things that we quickly and readily set aside as a courtesy to the temporariness of war have now begun to settle into permanence. And I'm not just talking about taking your shoes off at the airport. There's something lost in this new permanent war, something about being a people of hope, something about being a community of justice and principle, something about being a nation of promise. At this point I don't remember entirely what it was. At this point I'm not sure any of us can. At this point, I think we've all largely forgotten.

But Jesus does not give peace as the world gives. If security - if the security that the world gives is predicated on all the things that we've forgotten, the peace of Christ is first and foremost that which helps us remember. After all, the disciples are being confronted with the impending reality of Jesus's death. How can they continue in his absence? How can they continue to be a community of witnesses without the theological power of Jesus in their midst? How can they remember to be who they were already called to be? With the peace of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit. The two go hand-in-hand, of course: it is here in the Farewell Discourses that Jesus first introduces the disciples to the Spirit he will send to them, the power he will grant them in the aftermath of his death and resurrection. Which means Jesus's gift of peace is hardly the empty word of passing greeting, and not even just an idea about how the world ought to be, but in fact its own kind of theological force. It is the living, moving, ongoing activity of the Holy Spirit; it's not a concept or an illustration or a nice idea for a rainy afternoon; the peace of Christ is nothing less than the cosmic work of God claiming and re-claiming God's people, of God loving and redeeming God's people, of God imagining some reconciliation for us that we have long since lost the inclination to pursue, of God remembering for us all of the things we've forgotten. Note that this is not always good news: we don't always want to remember. But it is the Gospel, and it is the force of the Gospel, that the Peace of Christ remembers for us who were called to be: citizens of the whole, diverse, honest, faithful and majestic household of God.

The tradition in this congregation has been for the pastor to do the rounds of home communion one Sunday every quarter, and today happens to be the first of those Sundays. For that reason it has been circled on my calendar for many weeks now, but it was only about Wednesday when I realized that in order to take home communion this week I would probably need something like a home communion kit. They don't just give you these things when you graduate. And so, in something of a scramble, and not having what I would call a clergy supply store in downtown Amherst, I did what any reasonable consumer of my generation would do: I went to Amazon and bought a communion kit. Of course, the problem of buying a communion kit on Amazon -- or I suppose the problem of buying anything on Amazon -- is that now Amazon knows that I am the sort of person who shops for communion kits online, and so every Amazon advertisement, even when I'm reading other web pages, every Amazon ad I see is for portable communion kits.

All of which is the background that you need to understand how it came to be, on Friday afternoon, that I was reading a story in the news. Not just any story: I was reading about the ongoing hunger strike at Guantanamo. For at least a month now, at least one hundred of our Guantanamo inmates - men for whom we have conveniently forgotten due process in the interest of security - at least one hundred of our inmates have refused food of any kind. At least twenty-one of them are now being force-fed: a tube thrust into the nasal cavity, past the sinuses, and down through the throat into the stomach. One of the hunger strikers, a man named Fayiz al-Kandari, is among the eighty-five at Guantanamo who have been cleared for release but never discharged, an interminable political and personal limbo that has left him with no recourse but to protest with his own body. It's not pleasant. Al-Kandari says that each stage of the tube insertion is accompanied by its own distinct kind of pain, but none of them as bad as when the food actually begins to enter the stomach. As described in The Guardian, that's "the most painful moment of all: the return of feeling hungry." The memory of being human again - It doesn't take much to trigger it, just the tiniest drop. And as I scrolled down the page, there it was, just next to descriptions of the most abject hunger: one more Amazon advertisement. Customers like you also purchased this home communion kit. They're really very small. Six tiny glass cups. A petite container for the wine. A small serving plate. But it doesn't take much.