Many old southern families, and mine is among them, operate under the delusion that they are English nobility displaced and disconnected by the accidents of history, Downton Abbey on the down-low as it were, never mind that many of these families have been working class for generations, and 19th century charlatans made a fortune convincing people they had long-lost titles, castles across the sea. Some things never change.
These Southern families long for a return to Tara, ignoring the fact that the entire colonial economic and social system was built on broken brown bodies, or worse, these Southerners celebrate their ancestor’s efforts to preserve the institution of slavery. All can whip out a family tree in an instant, as can I.
In the case of my particular family, which includes one “damned Yankee” branch, the family tree goes back centuries, some elements possibly fictional, for one of those accidents of history it that my elderly grandmother, a committed racist, is descended from two fairly well-known Virginia slave-holding families, the Lee Family famous in both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, and the Ball family, the maternal family of George Washington.
Of course, the family tree early Christians imagined for Jesus included Tamar, Rahab and Ruth, women from the margins. And scripture tells us to judge a tree by its fruit. The same goes for family trees.
There is a lot to celebrate in George Washington, “Cousin George” if you will, despite his status as a slave owner. As the smash hit musical “Hamilton” reminds us, he was worshipped in ways that were terrifying, a cult of personality, but unlike our current national situation, he was both a real hero and very humble, had no desire to wear a crown. He had no intention of being the Narcissist-in-Chief.
Tested in the crucible of war, then refined in the furnace of nation-building, he kept it real, writing in his Farewell Address:
“I have, with good intentions, contributed towards the organization and administration of the government the best exertions of which a very fallible judgment was capable. Not unconscious, in the outset, of the inferiority of my qualifications, experience in my own eyes, perhaps still more in the eyes of others, has strengthened the motives to diffidence of myself.”
Despite all that is good and worthy in his history, he was not quite the man described in later hagiographies. He took part in some very shady land deals, so that whole thing with the cherry tree and “I cannot tell a lie” misses the mark a bit, which is okay, since we know that that story and several others were manufactured by a man named Parson Weems after Washington’s death.
These portraits of Washington as good and honest ring true, even if they are not historically accurate. Complete fictions can contain truth, something we discover again and again in fictional portions of scripture like the Creation myth and the Book of Daniel, and in the fiction of great novels. Even contemporary works like the Harry Potter series for kids can speak important truths, that entire seven-book series a testament to love and a celebration of diversity. Want to know what a world that denigrates and bullies looks like? Think Lord Voldemort.
Two weeks ago we read about the Peaceable Kingdom, the lion and the lamb, the toddler playing over the hole of a snake, a fiction that points to tries to point to the truth, but maybe not…
Today’s readings tie back to that utopian image, the famously mistranslated young woman with child, the notion of some future perfect that is just around the corner. It is likely that the prophet, the actual Isaiah Bin Amoz that lends his name to two centuries of prophetic work, meant one of the king’s concubines when he spoke of the young woman with child, in which case the prophecy came true, for Assyria did destroy Syria and the Northern Hebrew Kingdom, the thrones of the two kings Judah feared at that moment abandoned just as the prophet predicted. If it is read through the much later lens of Christianity, this whole narrative in First Isaiah falls flat, for while Syria and the Northern Kingdom are still gone when Jesus is born, the Peaceable Kingdom proves to be a lie.
The lion might well lay down with the lamb, but only as a light dinner. And any parent who allows their child to play around poisonous snakes is going to be speaking to Child Protective Services in the Emergency Room.
Jesus does not, in fact, offer peace, at least not that fake-y sort of peace. In fact, in Matthew 10 he says:
“Don’t think that I’ve come to bring peace to the earth. I haven’t come to bring peace but a sword. I’ve come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. People’s enemies are members of their own households.”
“Those who love father or mother more than me aren’t worthy of me. Those who love son or daughter more than me aren’t worthy of me. Those who don’t pick up their crosses and follow me aren’t worthy of me. Those who find their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives because of me will find them.”
Year after year we troop out these peaceful images of a nativity, of Mary and Joseph in a snow globe world, a babe in a manger and happy shepherds. We forget that those shepherds were terrified, and the angels singing in the sky do not promise peace on earth, only peace to those God favors. We put on pageant after pageant and ignore that whole part of the narrative where a mad egomaniac seeks the destruction of anyone who might possibly threaten his power, even the infant boys of Bethlehem.
This happy-clappy Christmas lost meaning for me years ago. The birth of Jesus is accompanied by terror and murder. That life will end the same way. The power of love is not in pretty and shiny, a Hollywood soundstage Christmas, it is in pain and birth and love and terror. It is real, as complex and uncomfortable as all of human existence, for isn’t that what we proclaim? God is with us in the person of Jesus experiencing what we experience. And every one of us knows grief and fear, love and joy. Each of us at times wants to do, as the fundamentalists say, what Jesus would do, and we should not forget that in the face of systemic injustice, flipping over tables is an option, as is going out to the garden to cry.
We celebrate a passing of Christ’s peace in our service, and we recall the ways in which reconciliation was tied to sacrifice, make peace with your brother or sister before you come to the table of the Lord, but we have forgotten the very political meaning of the Peace of Christ, for it was held up as an alternative to the Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome.
Last week’s sermon touched on the three terrible moments of war and conquest covered in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, gave you just a taste of the constant violence in the ancient world as technical innovation allowed for larger armies that could travel further and kill with increasing efficiency. We are familiar with moments in more modern history where the same combination of new technologies allowed killing on a massive scale, the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War, the Great War, and the most terrifying of them all, the rise of fascism and the scapegoating and slaughter of whole peoples in the Second World War. In the ancient world, no one was better at managing large armies than the Romans. They celebrated their brutality as a founding myth, Romulus and Remus. These are the Caesars, the bloodthirsty people of bread and circuses, distracting the oppressed from entrenched injustice by pitting oppressed people against one another in a stadium to destroy one another’s bodies to the roar of the crowds, bodies broken for entertainment.
The Pax Romana was real if peace meant streets of blood, dozens of crosses outside every town with the bodies still on them of the decaying executed, a warning, a tweet to surrounding communities that dissent would not be tolerated.
Jesus does not offer us that sort of peace, a peace built on injustice and violence, a false peace. He knew that the Kingdom of God would not be welcomed by everyone. Jesus was not some wimpy pacifist, despite tremendous efforts over centuries to turn him into Jesus meek and mild. As if…
Jesus was a fiery Hebrew reformer, versed in that tradition, and best placed in that long Hebrew narrative of justice and liberation. He spoke only once about who was sleeping with who, with the woman at the well, but he repeatedly spoke about self-righteousness, greed and the legalism that is always trying to nit-pick, that whips out the rules when things aren’t going their way. Jesus ate with the unclean, spent his time with sinners.
He saw people that others pretended not to see, saw beyond labels… mostly. He gets it wrong once, in the case of the Syro-Phoenecian woman he calls a dog, but listens when she calls him out, this woman at the margins who calls him out. He is attentive to that voice of the one even he might himself have oppressed, failed to redeem, and she is healed. In every other story we have about Jesus, he is the one who is proactive and crosses boundaries. The gospel authors, separated from actual events by decades, would later project some of their own prejudice onto Jesus, railing against Scribes and Pharisees, but a close read of the gospel will make clear that members of those groups were followers of Jesus. One of the most famous teaching stories, the Good Samaritan, challenges labels and speaks powerfully about what we pretend not to see.
The Peace of Christ is a radical statement, a rejection of any peace that is built on injustice. It is a peace that says I am going to speak for the oppressed and I am going to announce God’s kingdom of love and justice, even if it means a cross, for I choose the power of love over the love of power.
Our entire Advent journey is about the impossible, the utterly inconceivable becoming real and fleshy and part of our world, about divine creativity and compassion breaking into our world in the form of a helpless baby born in trying circumstances, no matter which birth narrative you choose to believe. It is a journey about the courage to dream of a future where hope, love, joy and peace are how we operate in the world where, as we pray, God’s will is done.
And that will, found in scripture, is a peace founded on justice, not on the ability to stifle dissent, as we were reminded in 1955 by the flawed saint from Atlanta who said during the Montgomery Bus Boycott that “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” As we were reminded by Christ.
Forget the facade of peace. Build peace, a deep peace based on justice and love.
Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the hungry. No airy fairy spiritualizing of the Beatitudes in Luke.
When did we give you food when you were hungry, Jesus? When did we visit you in prison?
When did we see you in the face of the other, in the poor, the oppressed, the refugee?
When did we see you in the disabled person who can’t get into the building? In the gender-queer teenager terrified to use the bathroom at school?
It is easy to forget, in the middle of the glittering lights and frantic shopping, that we are celebrating the intrusion of the divine into our reality, an alien invasion if you will, celebrating a God-with-us in the form of an un-credentialed rabbi who, according to tradition, only had three years to teach and to show us what it means to live as daughters and sons of a living God in this world, three years before those with power arranged his murder on trumped up charges.
This is a story that includes violence, dead babies and decapitated prophets, it is not for bedtime and would make for the most terrifying pageant if told straight. It is also a story of healing and a love that is more powerful than the grave. It is about the Kingdom of God, where we will experience the Peace of Christ, where the blind will see and the lame will walk and the hungry will be fed. It is better than any Pax Romana, for Caesar is not our Lord, our ruler. We are ruled by Christ, a baby in Bethlehem, a promise for a new day.
Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives.
May the Peace of Christ be with you always. Amen.