A Common Ground Sermon by Rev. Sarah Buteux


There are five candles on our Advent wreath in the church. Can anyone tell me what they stand for? Hope, joy, peace, love, and in the center is the Christ Candle because Christians believe that the Christ child – Jesus – came to usher in all these other gifts to the world.


Hope, peace, love, joy: these are the promises of advent, but year in and year out, none seems more elusive then peace. Love is in the air at this time of year, joy comes in the morning, hope springs eternal, but peace…peace seems forever just beyond our grasp.


If you are lucky you might grab a moment for yourself here or there, but peace on any sort of grand scale seems impossible. Yesterday I googled: “Has there ever been a time without war?” and expected a big NO to appear on my screen. Instead I learned that over the last 3400 years of recorded history humans have been at peace for only 268. That’s roughly 8 %.

[1] And America is no different. We have been at war for 223 of our 240 years, bringing our rate of peacefulness down to 7%.


I think it’s safe to say that we humans are not so good at peace. Peace does not come naturally to us. Which is in part why the image of a lion lying down with a lamb speaks to us so viscerally. If there were someway for animals through the grace of God to override their instinct for blood, their need to live at the expense of one another, perhaps there might yet be hope for us too.[2]


But honestly, I’m not feeling that hopeful lately when it comes to peace. I tend to think of myself as a relatively peaceful person, but since the election I have found myself thinking deeply about what a peacemaker looks like in an unjust society… and it’s not a peaceful image that comes to my mind at all, but a disruptive one.


I hear calls for peace and reconciliation, voices asking those of us who lost in this election to get in line and just accept our next president and his political appointees as the new normal, but I can’t. I can’t just go along to get along. I confess that as I contemplate the future I do not feel the least bit peaceful at all, perhaps because I do not equate peace with order or calm. I favor Frederick Beuchner’s definition of peace, which is a little different than one might expect.


He once said that: “peace is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of love….”

I hate conflict.

I crave peace.

But as much as I want us all to get along, as much as I want to see peace in my family and across this country and all over the globe – I know in my heart of hearts that it would not be loving for me to just get in line with any administration or policy that scapegoats or otherwise threatens the safety and security of any of my neighbors: be they Muslim, queer, immigrants, inmates, refugees, people of color, the poor, women, or any of my neighbors who happen to live and depend upon the survival of this fragile earth we all call home. Which leaves me – and maybe you, if you feel the same – in a rather tough position when it comes to calls for peace and reconciliation.


In situations like this, I believe I may well need to resist – non-violently of course – but resist all the same before I can be reconciled, not necessarily because of my politics even, but because of my faith. As a Christian it is right there in the baptismal vows and membership covenant of my church. I have vowed to resist the powers of evil, to resist any part of any program that denigrates, oppresses, or endangers any of God’s children. I am called to resist evil and work for love, justice, and peace. And friends, we can’t get to the latter – to peace – without exercising the former. If there is no love and justice there can be no peace.


And that’s where this gets tricky – right? – because resistance by its very nature is anything but peaceful. It can sometimes feel like it is holding us back from the very peace we crave.


It’s not an easy thing for people of faith to engage, not just because we prefer to play nice, but because resistance can all too easily become an end in and of itself. Our effort and desire to resist what is evil can all too easily morph into a desire to dominate and destroy those whose actions are evil. We can become so focused on toppling those who abuse their power that we begin to long for enough power to hurt them in the same way they have hurt us or others, and that doesn’t bring peace, that just keeps the whole wheel of abuse turning.


As a follower of Jesus, I believe he came – and is still coming – into us, through us, among us, to teach us and free us from this cycle.


I see it here on the pages of scripture, here in Isaiah’s vision where the lions and wolves are still present. They have not been destroyed or cast out, but redeemed and tamed in order that they might remain. Taming those who thirst for blood and power will require resistance, a total upending of the social order as we know it. And those at the top of the food chain are not going to like it. But in the end we must always remember that the ultimate goal is not annihilation of our enemies but reconciliation.


Jesus didn’t just come to reshuffle the deck. Jesus came to level the playing field. Jesus came to empower the little ones and reform those who would hurt them, not fit the little lambs with teeth and claws so they can run with eh wolves and fight like lions. Jesus came to lead us into a new world, a new way of being, a new way of relating to one another where we don’t rip one another apart as we try to claw our way to the top, but lift each other up till we are all on solid ground. Only then can we finally all lie down together in peace. And I don’t think we have to wait to do that. I don’t think we can afford to wait. I think we need to do all we can to start lifting each other up right now.


But how? I trust you have some ideas, but before I open the floor I want to share one of my own with you.

I believe one of the first things we can do is stop obsessing about the gap between ourselves and those who have more power than we do, and instead really tune in to the needs of those who have it even harder than we do.


A lot of the fear that consumes us is fear for our own safety, our own future, our own security. But no matter how hard you have it there’s almost always somebody who has it harder. So I think step one is quieting our own fears so we can better hear the fears of others.


Now is the time to be on the look out for people who are even more vulnerable than we are and when we find them the first and most important things we can do is listen to them … and when I say listen, I mean really listen. Don’t commiserate. Don’t tell them you understand because of all you’ve been through. Don’t listen and then try to fix them or tell them what to do.


People who are suffering don’t need advice. People who are scared need comfort and support. They need us to come alongside them, sit with them, grieve with them, let them know that we are there for them and then ask them to tell us how we can help.


It may seem like a small thing, but I have this sense that if we can tune our hearts and our ears to listen deeply to those who are having a harder time than we are and do all we can to alleviate their fear and their insecurity and their suffering then that’s the sort of rising tide they can lift all our little boats.


And if nothing else, there is great power in listening: listening to those who are hurting more than you, listening to those who are even more frightened than you, getting outside of yourself the better to know and care for others. If enough of us can practice, practice, practice putting others before ourselves, the less powerful before ourselves, the more vulnerable before ourselves, rather than seeking to climb that ladder of power so that we can put others beneath ourselves, we can begin to change the patterns of this world.


It’s not the only way, and it doesn’t take us the whole way from here to God’s holy mountain, but it can’t help but move us a little bit closer… and we have to start somewhere. So let’s start by listening to the lambs… and listening now to one another.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/06/books/chapters/what-every-person-should-know-about-war.html

[2] Feasting on the Word Advent year A…