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God's Peace
A sermon preached by the Rev. Kit Lonergan on August 18, 2013

Christ Church Andover
Year C, Proper 15
August 18, 2013

Jeremiah 23:23-29; Psalm 82; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

Fire. Baptism. Division. In what Walter Brueggeman terms the ‘low holy days’ of late summer, the readings for today are jarring, upsetting, unpleasant and rough, even. They are the kind of readings a preacher might, as she prepares to write her sermon, whisper to herself ‘run away! Preach on the Old Testament!’ upon first glance. But they are our gospel—they are our words—and they are out of the mouth of Jesus.

And trust me, these are not the most unsettling words in the entire gospel.

I used to teach a class to ninth and tenth graders on the New Testament years ago. It wasn’t a requirement, but many who came to the class thought that piety was also a prerequisite for attendance. It was not. Actually, familiarity with the Old Testament would have been more helpful, but instead, those well-intentioned kids sorted through the conglomeration of books and letters and history that comprise the New Testament. And it was always a surprise to them when Jesus appeared to say things that they hadn’t heard before, in their curated Sunday School or limited chapel attendance experience. “Jesus didn’t really say that”, they would assure themselves, one another and me. “Or he didn’t really mean it. Jesus was all about peace.”

It’s the curse of the ‘nice guy Jesus’ that we tend to see in greeting cards and inspirational gift shops. It’s the Jesus with washed, cascading locks, cuddling sheep and children, clean tunic and clean feet. It’s the Jesus that assures us that we have a friend in him, that he is the wise father figure who will take care of it all on our behalf, that we have nothing to worry about, and have to take nothing on ourselves. That “Jesus was all about peace” is absolutely true—but we take less time understanding what the peace he offers us really means.

This is one of those passages where I can hear the uncomfortable crickets chirping as I would ask my students what they thought Jesus was really saying here. Sometimes I feel it myself when I read it. Fire kindled, baptism under stress, division instead of peace, fighting among families and between brothers and sisters. For many who have experienced family strife or division, this passage sits heavily on hearts, especially when divided because of faith or religion or tradition. Jesus’ promise doesn’t proclaim the healing and reconciliation which we assume he always means (and yes, sometimes get tired of hearing—God is love, yes, we get it, AMEN). Jesus promises nothing less than upheaval; change; destruction-- all the scary words that we usually spend our time and energy avoiding, rather than engaging in.

But perhaps this is one of those times when the meaning of the words can hold two senses- such as the word ‘dirt’. As a religion professor once pointed out to me, we think of ‘dirt’ as a bad thing—something to get rid of, to clean up, an infringement upon a set purity. But really, what dirt is is ‘matter out of place’. Food crumbs get on the couch—that is dirt. But food crumbs are perfectly fine, they just shouldn’t be on the couch. Soil from the earth on the newly shampooed rug? Soil is fine, it just shouldn’t be found on the carpet. Destruction, division, upheaval are foreboding words if we have been taught to keep the apple cart level and the status quo in place. We would rather think that peace is a warm and comfortable feeling of secure happiness, when peace itself is only available after conflict and resolution. Peace itself is not the absence of conflict, but the emergence of a new normal, a new standard in the wake of change, usually startling, unsettling change.

Jesus’ gospel, his message to us, his proclamation of God’s will, had (and has) little to do with the peace that we envision or that new age spirituality books promise. Buddhist mediation offers peace, but only after disintegrating the ego and destroying the self. Peace does not affirm us, it is what we get when we accept that things must change and we along with them. When we say ‘Peace on Earth’ at Christmastime, it is God’s peace that we are talking about-- - not our own. The Unicef holiday cards often proclaim ‘Peace on Earth’ and show pictures of children from all over the world holding hands—that too is God’s will for peace—but we often forget what is asked of us in sacrifice to obtain that sense of unity.

The gospel that Jesus offers his disciples and us today is a challenge to our notions of peace and our own understanding of the will of God. At the time Luke was writing (in hindsight of course), peace was only obtained militarily, through power, through force, through corruption and coercion. Peace was based on subservience to a world power, not a goal which brought all nations and races together. God’s understanding of peace, God’s own kingdom is built not on power, but on service, on humility, on sacrifice and on the power of love transforming us into people who care only for each other and not or ourselves or our own power or profit. God’s peace came to those who struggled against the systems and structures that made a mockery of all that love upheld, and conflated it with power and prestige, using it as a weapon, rather than an instrument of new life.

God’s peace was never intended to affirm or make easy, or make light. It was intended to make REAL. To acknowledge and deny and rise up against darkness. It was the result of the signs all around the disciples and the crowds Jesus was speaking to, reminding them that the current state of being was not the ultimate state that God wished for God’s people—and this was liberation indeed for those who were struggling under it—for those who were yoked in servitude, in fear, in heartbreak, in oppression. The here and now? It is not how God wishes or wills it to be for us, because not all of God’s children, made in God’s own image, are realizing the “Jesus was really all about peace” in their day to day lives.

Our reading from Hebrews this week cites those faithful to God who have gone before us—prophets, judges, saints and all—who struggled with their understanding of God’s peace throughout their lives. This past week, we celebrated a few saint’s days—two stand out, with one minor one added on. Jonathan Myrick Daniels, celebrated on Wednesday of this week, was a 26-year old seminarian from Southern New Hampshire in the late sixties, studying at the Episcopal seminary in Cambridge. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, invited students to come and stand in solidarity with those in Selma, Alabama, he was one of them. After a week of demonstrations and sit-ins against segregation, he and another student started to think about how it might look to the African American communities in Selma if they were just to leave and head back to school after a week of so-called ‘helping’. They decided to stay in Selma to work and pray and live in community with those who they had just been ‘helping’ before. On August 20th, 1965, six days after being released from jail after a sit in, Jonathan and some friends entered a store to get some food. The owner did not like that a young black girl was one of their party and threatened Daniels. The man then aimed a shotgun at the young girl, but Daniels threw her out of the way and took the blast. In his journals, the writings and prayers he offered were those of someone filled with a joy that was deeper than any happiness—he was experiencing the peace of God that came only when the motto ‘keeping the peace’ was being deconstructed so that all might experience peace, not just the few.

On August 15th, it was the birthday of Oscar Romero (though not the feast day, that is in March), Archbishop of El Salvador, who spent the last three years of his life and tenure as Archbishop working and struggling for peace in El Salvador—not the peace of oppression that had been the norm, with the few rich and connected families at the top of the food chain creating governments to serve them and them only, but for the peace which comes when fear is not the pre-eminent factor and feeling in one’s life. Monsignor Romero understood the gospel to proclaim God’s peace, the peace which promised not just salvation in heaven, but liberation from oppression in this one. He too was shot, while celebrating the Eucharist, at the small cancer hospice where he lived for those three years. But like Daniels, Romero had no qualms, no doubts, that his journey, his agitation, his ministry was for peace, the peace which God promised, not the peace of false security and comfort.

Also on August 15th, we celebrated the feast day of the Virgin Mary. No figure is more lauded for her domestic acceptance in Christmas pageant style, of the news that she would bear the Son of God. What she hints at in her beautiful song, the Magnificat, is not the peace that comes when things are settled and happy—she sings of the upheaval of those who are the most comfortable being thrown down, those who are full being sent away empty, and those who are most hidden and marginalized coming forth to take their place at the seat of God. This all came from a woman who was lauded for her obedience to God, but was rewarded not with a life that might indicate that ‘Jesus was all about peace’, but a life where her very being was used to witness the birth and death of her son, Jesus, to hold him in both states in her arms. I doubt that she had the peace which comes alongside every Christmas card.

Some days, when it’s the low holy days of summer, we forget that our faith asks of us, demands of us, to strive for more than just the nice peace we are all sure that Jesus was all about. To close, I’d like to ask you all to read the words from Hymn 661 together—our quest for peace is not a lonely one, but filled with others to walk with us on the way.

Hymn 661

1. They cast their nets in Galilee
just off the hills of brown;
such happy, simple fisherfolk,
before the Lord came down.

2. Contented, peaceful fishermen,
before they ever knew
the peace of God that filled their hearts
brimful, and broke them too.

3. Young John who trimmed the flapping sail,
homeless in Patmos died,
Peter, who hauled the teeming net,
head-down was crucified.

4. The peace of God, it is no peace,
but strife closed in the sod,
Yet let us pray for but one thing --
the marvelous peace of God.


Last Published: August 19, 2013 11:54 AM