Monroe Congregation United Church of Christ
December 10, 2000 - Pastor Diane Schmitz

Nancy leaves the Monroe High School on a rainy, Friday afternoon. She arrives home to an empty house and fixes herself a snack. A bit later she goes into the bathroom. When she comes out of the bathroom she is relieved her mom is not yet home. She is ashamed of the vicious bingeing and purging cycle in which she is caught these days: eating followed by self-induced vomiting. But she is driven by the need to be thin and worthy - she desperately yearns to be like all the pictures of young women in the magazines.

Raquel has discovered she is pregnant. Neither she nor her husband speaks very much English. They feel panicky at the thought how they will cope with this news. They have only been in Monroe a few months, moving from Mexico to work as agricultural laborers. Although they live in a city that is thought to have the fastest growing population of Spanish-speaking residents in Snohomish County, they do not know where and how they will find people who can understand them and direct them to the kinds of information and services they will need for this journey.

Roger wakes up every morning in despair. He's recently lost his job in Snohomish and hasn't been able to find a new one. His wife cares for other young children along with their 3-year-old daughter during the day, but the money from that will not come close to covering the rent for their 1-bedroom apartment in Everett and other bills. Today he will swallow his pride and go to the food bank; something he used to think of as only done by those who simply refused to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. In the dark recesses of his mind lurks a panicking question: what if he doesn't get a job and they end up living on the street?

Larry has been a member of his church for 12 years. Last month his church family revoked his membership after he shared a painful secret he had kept for all those years. Larry, a computer programmer, a member of the Kiwanis club and a volunteer at a Snohomish Country homeless center is also gay. Now he experiences a deep loss as he is exiled from his church home.

Sharon's late shift at the hospital has just ended. She walks out to the car, her can of pepper spray firmly in her grasp. She hears a noise behind her and whirls around. It is only a stray dog romping through the parking lot but she shakes, remembering the headlines of yesterday's Monitor that announced the remains of a missing woman had been found.

George lies awake nights worrying about how the nursing home bills for his wife will get paid. The pain of confronting her dementia is hard enough but the anxiety of where the money will come from to pay for this medical care as well as his own prescriptions has him sinking in a valley of despair.

Nancy, Raquel, Roger, Larry, Sharon and George are not experiencing peace in their lives.

The disturbers of their peace are not individuals but social systems: social systems that objectify women and perpetuate violence, social systems that fail to meet basic human needs for health care and shelter, social systems that are blind to prejudice and unable to embrace the changing diversity of our country.

Today we lit the second candle of Advent, the candle of peace. When we say the word peace we often focus on the overwhelming evidence of lack of peace in many areas of the world experiencing conflict and war. But, often we get so distracted by the pain and loss those faraway places that we forget to look for peace or lack of it in our own neighborhoods.

There are many definitions of peace. Our scripture readings this morning tell of a peace that comes from the exiled being returned home. A mournful people scattered from their home in Jerusalem are given cause for hope: God is about to act. Those who were cast out and separated from that which gave them life will be brought back along a path where the mountains in their way have been leveled and the deep valleys of despair are filled up so they are safe to walk across. "Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on the beauty of the glory from God," we hear in the passage from Baruch.

In the passage from Mark we are told what we must do to prepare the way for God to act. The message comes in a startling way, as "a voice of one crying out in the wilderness." The wild and unexpected arrival of John the Baptist proclaiming a message of repentance likely shook up a number of people. But perhaps, it was just that kind of shaking that needed to happen for people to have their eyes opened. The message from John is not tentative or suggestive but insistent: a radical new vision of the world is needed where justice and compassion create a safe and peaceful place for all people. It is a new creation that is needed. What better time have we to ponder his words than this time of Advent when the birth of God in a new way in our lives is anticipated and hoped for.

But, the gospel invites us to do more than ponder. We have work to do if we are to be the agents of change that make the rough roads smooth and the crooked ways straight. We have listening to do to the clarity and passion of contemporary voices that mirror the voice of John the Baptist: the voices of those like Raquel, Larry and Roger that cry out from the wilderness to which they feel exiled. Their voices call us to be engaged in confession of the ways we have participated in perpetuating the institutions and social systems that put up roadblocks on the path for the peaceful and safe existence of God's people.

Preparing a path involves intentional activity. Once we see more clearly the mountains that block the way we must work together to level the injustices that create such barriers. We must ask ourselves, as this church community, "What are we doing to prepare the way in this very community for the homeless to have homes, the elderly to have adequate healthcare, and diverse populations to be truly welcomed into this area. As a church historically linked to the beginnings of this town of Monroe, what are we doing to be a contemporary voice that refuses to participate in age-old prejudices and sanctions that discriminate against people based on their ethnic group or sexual orientation? As a church that has come into being because of the strength and courage of a young peasant girl to say yes to God and birth a son, what are we doing to counteract the abundant negative messages given to young girls today about their value? What are we doing to take a stand against the tremendous amount of violence done daily to women? As a church grounded in a gospel that exhorts us to care for the poor, what are we doing to impact poverty in Snohomish County?

As disciples we are asked to do more than provide sympathy and support for those whose days are filled with strife, not peace. We are called to take action to straighten the paths that have led to such a life that those fallen by the wayside may shed their cloaks of sorrow and dance anew in the beauty of God's justice.

John C. Morris, a rector of an Episcopal Church in Vermont shares this reflection:

"There is a highway in southern Vermont where many serious accidents happen because cars and trucks build up their speed descending a mountain, only to come upon a sharp curve in the road. The people living in the house near that curve keep a pile of blankets on their porch because they know there will be accidents regularly, and the victims will need to be covered while waiting for the rescue squad. Residents of the area have been petitioning the state for years to straighten the road out in order to prevent accidents and save lives. John the Baptist seems to be saying something similar - the curves of injustice, immorality and inhumanity need to be changed into smooth paths so that everyone will see God's salvation. That is God's plan, and it is not wishful thinking to proclaim it.

"Who is going to do this work? It is God's work, but at the same time, it is our responsibility to join that work. That is our work of repentance. That is our harvest of righteousness. We pile up our blankets and respond to human misery, but we also do all that we can to remove the curves and injustices that cause so much suffering and pain."

If John the Baptist walked in here this moment, what might he say to us? Perhaps more importantly, how willing are we to step outside the door of this church and go looking for other voices in the wilderness to which we might listen and from which we could learn? The voices might speak in tones uncomfortable or unfamiliar to our hearing. The ideas might seem "wild" or impossible. But, God calls us to tread on roads that are bumpy so we might experience for ourselves the discomfort that is everyday experience for many of those marginalized in our society. God calls us to remove obstacles to authentic relationships with the people we might see as "other." Most of all God invites us to prepare a way for God's expression to be more fully realized among all people.

That is the work we are invited to contemplate through prayer and reflection during this Advent season. We can imagine and dream of how we at Monroe Congregational Church might be an intentional path maker for peace and understanding within our community.

As we find ways to respond to the needs of our larger community we are likely to find increased peace within ourselves as well. I suspect that we all carry an ongoing discomfort deep within us that knows all is not right with our brothers and sisters in our world and in our very own community. As long as that injustice prevails we cannot truly rest peacefully ourselves. We may have buried such feelings within us out of despair that there is a solution or out of a conviction that one person, one community cannot make a difference. We may have learned to live at a more superficial level that tries to deny the reality around us. But, the words of John the Baptist charge us to bare the truth of the realities in which we live so that we will clearly see what we as faithful Christians are called to do in response.

When the paths are straightened and people are able to come home to a peaceful, safe and just life then we will all have the opportunity to experience the real joy of the Christmas promise.