A few years ago, I read something my sister Melinda wrote on her website at the beginning of a new year. Melinda is something of a mystic: a writer and yoga teacher, who spends her days working at the YMCA to make sure as many kids as possible can benefit from the Y’s programs. Now, I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions, so I was glad to see she had put a different spin on the concept. As she looks at the horizon of a new year, Melinda discerns not a resolution, but an intention. Here’s what she wrote two years ago:
“In years past, I’ve written about and set an intention rather than a resolution. In yoga we call this a sankalpa – a word or small phrase in the present tense that represents where we want to go or what we want to cultivate.” She continues: “I hadn’t planned on designating a new sankulpa for this year either, but as I was lying down for a little rest the world community sprung to my awareness… I don’t know what community is asking of me, but I do know enough to let it be, and open to what this energy wants to create through me.”
Last week I wrote a brief summary of my initial reactions to the pilgrimage I took with other local clergy to Montgomery, Tuskegee, and Birmingham, Alabama. You can read that essay here. Today, I would like to dwell on the centerpiece of the pilgrimage, the year-old National Memorial for Peace and Justice (sometimes called the Lynching Memorial).
Last week, I took a trip to Alabama with fellow clergy from New London and colleagues from the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. For three days we made a pilgrimage to sites, memorials, and museums important to the legacy of Civil Rights. What follows are my initial impressions of the trip in brief. I am still (and will be for a long time) processing and integrating my encounters with historic and current injustice in this country, and I will be revisiting my experience as I write more during this sabbatical time. Continue reading “Sabbatical Notes, Week 2: Peace and Justice Pilgrimage”→
Sermon for Sunday, April 8, 2018 || Easter 2B || John 20:19-31
“Peace” is one of my favorite words. It has a bit of onomatopoeia to it – you know, a word that sounds likes its meaning, like “buzz” or “hiss.” When I say the word “peace” I become more peaceful. I take a deep breath and exhale on the first sound of the word, and the sibilant at the end takes the rest of my breath. “Peace.”
I imagine Jesus doing this with his fearful disciples in the upper room. Of course, he wasn’t speaking the English word “peace,” but he does breathe on them. If they’re anything like me, then their anxiety would have stolen their breath from their lungs. But Jesus gives it back to them when he twice says, “Peace be with you.” And then a third time when Thomas rejoins the group: “Peace be with you.”Continue reading “The Intention of Peace”→
Sermon for Sunday, December 10, 2017 || Advent 2B || Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
The second semester of my sophomore year of college, the choir of Sewanee performed in concert an extraordinary piece of music that I bet most of you have never heard of. The Dona Nobis Pacem by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams is a work for choir, soloists, and orchestra in a similar vein as something like Handel’s Messiah but with a more eclectic text. The words of the Dona Nobis Pacem come from the Bible, a political speech, the church service, and the poetry of nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman. Written in 1936 as fascism was on the rise in Europe, Vaughan Williams work acknowledges the horror and heartbreak of war even as it cries out for peace. Dona nobis pacem: give us peace.
Now, the choirmaster at Sewanee, Dr. Robert Delcamp, programmed the music for the entire school year the summer beforehand. So he could never have known what would happen the same week we sang our song of peace. It was the spring of 2003: Shock and Awe, the bombing of Baghdad, the beginning of the Iraq War. And here we were, a little choir at a little college, tucked away on a mountaintop in Tennessee, singing our plaintive cry for peace while the drums of war sounded both within the music and out in the world.Continue reading “Dona Nobis Pacem”→
Sermon for Sunday, April 9, 2017 || Palm/Passion Sunday, Year A || Matthew 22:1-11; Matthew 26:36 – 27:56
As we move in our service from the humble triumph of Jesus’ festive entry into Jerusalem towards his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, there is one question on my mind. It is the question asked at the end of the Palm Sunday Gospel reading. “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’”
Who is this Jesus?
At the end of today’s service, we will read the Passion Gospel; that is, the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, suffering, and crucifixion. It is a story that is at once beautiful and heartbreaking, and I cannot read it without being moved. Indeed, it makes me tremble, tremble, tremble, as the old spiritual says. Today, as we hear this powerful story of our Lord’s unbreakable love for us and for all creation, I invite you to listen to how Matthew’s telling answers the question asked in today’s first Gospel story: “Who is this?” Continue reading “Who is this Jesus?”→
Sermon for Sunday, August 14, 2016 || Proper 15C || Luke 12:49-56
Whenever we have a baptism at St. Mark’s, we also have the opportunity to reaffirm our Baptismal Covenant. This covenant includes five promises that serve as a roadmap for a life as a follower of Jesus Christ.
The last of these promises asks: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”
We answer each promise with the same refrain: “I will, with God’s help.” If you’re like me, however, you might be experiencing some cognitive dissonance trying to reconcile that last promise against Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading. Continue reading “Peace Beyond Propaganda”→
(Sermon for Sunday, August 18, 2013 || Proper 15C || Luke 12:49-56)
These are the promises we will reaffirm before our baptism in a few minutes:
“Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”
We will answer each of these with, “I will, with God’s help.” This acknowledges that we can’t fulfill the promises without God. We will also answer them as a group, which acknowledges that we can’t fulfill them without each other. I wonder, however, if you are experiencing a bit of cognitive dissonance trying to reconcile that last promise with Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading. I know I am. We promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people,” while Jesus says, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”
It probably didn’t escape your notice that Jesus is in a less friendly mood than he was in last week’s passage. When Jesus speaks from a place of stress or exhaustion, as he does in today’s reading, he often slides to the strident, confrontational end of the spectrum. Sounds particularly human, doesn’t it? Sounds like me if I’m having a low blood sugar day or if I’m about to board an airplane. We can use Jesus’ stress to explain away his difficult words (“He didn’t really mean that stuff about peace and division; he was just really stressed out”). Or we can acknowledge that in his stressed state, Jesus speaks some unvarnished truth, perhaps not as nuanced as he would have liked to speak it, but truth nonetheless.
To get to this unvarnished truth, we first have to understand how people in Jesus’ time would have heard the word “peace.” One version of the word was a simple greeting: “Shalom.” Another use was for the cessation of upheaval: “Peace, be still.” But a third use was more sinister – peace as propaganda. You’ve heard of the “Pax Romana,” the “Peace of Rome.” This was the glorious gift of Rome to the peoples fortunate enough to come under the Roman banner and Roman “protection.” Well, that’s how the Romans would have sold it. The Pax Romana really spread by the edge of the sword, and conquered peoples lived in fear and distrust of their occupiers.
I think it is to this third kind of “peace” that Jesus is referring: “peace” as the absence of conflict, yes, but also the absence of justice, of freedom. The kind of peace the Pax Romana brought was really just a thin veneer spread over a roiling mass of suppressed cultures and traditions and hopes and dreams. The thin veneer of “peace” hid the brokenness, the divisions that lay beneath.
With his words in today’s lesson, Jesus seeks to rip the cover off this false kind of peace and to expose the brokenness of society beneath, and in exposing that brokenness begin to heal it. Jesus knows human nature all too well – without exposing the brokenness, the divisions in society, we are content just to go along with the status quo, willingly ignorant to the steep costs of so-called “peace.” Indeed, Jesus’ words today could have spilled from the lips of any leader of the Civil Rights movement. How many decades did this country live in so-called “peace” before Rosa Parks took her seat on the bus in 1955?
Jesus’ words also speak unvarnished truth when we move from the societal to the personal. Each of us has a individual Pax Romana within us — a set of assumptions about our security and wellbeing that promises peace at long last. Despite the lack of evidence, we believe these promises until we realize they come from the marketing department, whose goal is for us to consume, not to find peace. When Jesus rips the cover off this false kind of peace, we find our broken selves, which have fragmented because we let ourselves be seduced by so many things. With the false peace gone, we confront the broken, divided people we really are.
But we aren’t alone. Jesus may have come to expose the divisions hidden under the myriad Pax Romanas of society and of our souls. But this is only half the mission. He also came to put the pieces back together again. He came to show us what real peace is: peace accompanied by justice, mercy, and love; peace that nurtures the dignity of all peoples rather than suppressing it; peace that passes all understanding.
This is the kind of peace we strive for when we affirm our baptismal promises. We strive for the peace of the broken bone that grows back stronger than before. We strive for the peace of the generous heart that no longer fears scarcity as it once did. We strive for the peace of Christ that shatters the veneer of tranquility, exposes the divisions beneath, and weaves the disparate threads of division into peace that is true, deep, and abiding.
The peace we promise to strive for in our baptismal promises is this true, deep, and abiding peace of Christ. We participate in the hard work of accomplishing this peace when, with God’s help, we see past the thin veneer of so-called peace in society and in ourselves. When, with God’s help, we follow Jesus Christ to the brokenness beneath, the brokenness of the cross and the world. And when, with God’s help, we don’t stop there, but press on to the new wholeness of the empty tomb and the power of the resurrection.
(Sermon for Sunday, April 15, 2012 || Easter 2B || John 20:19-31)
Last Tuesday, I received two rather large packages in the mail from my parents. Turns out they have been cleaning out closets in their house, and they decided for me that I would like to be in possession of all of the Star Wars memorabilia I collected when I was a kid. This includes about three-dozen action figures, none of which is old enough to really be worth anything and all of which are now taking up space in my closet, rather than my parents’. Many of them are still in their boxes (yeah, I was that kid), and I spent a while on Tuesday looking at them, trying to dredge up all the intricate details I used to know about the Star Wars universe. And I noticed on the back of every box an advertisement to purchase more action figure, which states: “The Force is with you in all the Star Wars figures and vehicles.”
Even if you don’t know much about Star Wars, I’m sure you’ve heard the most famous line of dialogue from the films. And if you’re an Episcopalian, I’m also sure that you have a kneejerk reaction to this line. Let’s try: “May the Force be with you.” (And also with you.) I like to think that George Lucas borrowed and tweaked that bit of dialogue from the Book of Common Prayer. We say something similar three times during an average Sunday service – at the beginning before the Collect (“The Lord be with you”), in the middle during the Peace (“The peace of the Lord be always with you”), and a few minutes later at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer (“The Lord be with you” again”).
Let’s focus on the middle one: “The peace of the Lord be always with you.” (And also with you.) George Lucas might have borrowed his dialogue from us, but we borrowed ours from Jesus. Three times in this morning’s Gospel reading, the Risen Christ says to his disciples: “Peace be with you.” (They aren’t Episcopalians, so they aren’t trained to say, “And also with you,” back to him.) On one level, Jesus saying, “Peace be with you,” is just a greeting to the disciples. And he has to repeat this greeting after showing them his maimed hands and side because they don’t recognize him the first time around. But as the words of the Gospel according to John so often do, even something as simple as a greeting is loaded with layers of meaning.
So what is this “peace” that Jesus offers to the disciples when he appears to them on the evening of the first day of the week, the day he rose from the dead? The surface level is the greeting still heard today in Hebrew and Arabic speaking countries. “Shalom” and “Salaam” – one wonders how there can be so much conflict between and among peoples in these countries – countries like Syria, Israel, Iran – when their special words for greeting one another means “peace.”
On the level below the surface, Jesus’ word of peace to the disciples acknowledges their current situation. There they are, huddled together in the house: shutters drawn, candles doused, door locked for fear of the people who colluded to put Jesus to death. Would the disciples be next? Would the chief priests and the council be satisfied with the blood of the leader or would they pursue the followers too? How had the disciples gotten everything so wrong? How could they have followed someone so disposable, so utterly breakable as Jesus turned out to be?
And into their fear, their confusion, their uncertainty the Risen Christ comes and says, “Peace be with you.” He comes to them even though the door is barricaded. He comes to them even though three days earlier he had died an excruciating death on the cross. He comes to them even though they aren’t expecting him, even though they haven’t understood what he told them about who he is. And when Jesus gives them peace, their fear turns into joy.
But let’s not stop there: let’s go a level deeper. When the Risen Christ offers the disciples peace, he is offering them more than a greeting and an antidote for fear. He is offering them “the abiding presence of God.” This is how a member of our Wednesday Bible Study group described what “peace” means to her, and I adore this definition. Peace is not simply the absence of conflict. Peace is “the abiding presence of God.” Peace happens when we tune ourselves to God’s abiding presence. Peace happens when we resonate with God’s movement in our lives. Peace happens when we discover the inner serenity that God provides in the midst of the maelstrom of activity that marks our lives today.
We might naturally conclude that the peace, which the Risen Christ offers to the disciples and to us, would excuse us from the pain and suffering that life sometimes brings. But Jesus never promised us a reprieve from tragedy. Rather, he promised something so much greater. He promised to be with us always to the end of the ages. He promised to suffer with us, to cry with us, to break his heart open when our hearts break and pour his heart’s love on our wounds. There is no door we can pass through, which the abiding presence of God has not already entered. There is no depth or height that we can attain and not be where God already is. As the psalmist says in one of the most beautiful passages in the book of Psalms:
Where can I go then from your Spirit?
where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven, you are there;
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there your hand will lead me
and your right hand hold me fast.
But all too often we forget that God’s presence abides, and we fail to look for God in situations where we conclude that God couldn’t possibly be. And yet how many of us have said at one time or another, “I just need a moment’s peace.” By our definition, when we say that, what we are really saying is, “I just need a moment to remind myself that I am in God’s abiding presence, a moment to drink in God’s love, a moment to be folded into the arms of grace. This is what “peace” is.
And yet there is another level deeper still. When the Risen Christ offers peace to the disciples, the peace comes with a mission: “Peace be with you,” says Jesus. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And then he breathes on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Thus, Jesus not only gives them the word of peace; he also breathes God’s abiding presence into them through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Father has sent Jesus to bring peace, and now Jesus commissions the disciples and us to do the same. The peace, which Jesus offers, is not for us alone, but for us to share with this damaged, broken world.
In about five minutes, we’ll have a chance to practice bringing this peace. I will say, “The peace of the Lord be always with you.” And you’ll respond: “And also with you.” Then we will greet one another with God’s peace. Just think how powerful an act this is. In these simple words – “Peace be with you” – we bring with us greetings from our Lord. We bring with us the joy that quells fear and uncertainty. And we bring with us the abiding presence of God and of the Risen Christ. Now just imagine: if we took this greeting we practice in church and carried the peace of the Lord into every handshake, every wave, every high five, every tilt of the head, every smile of recognition, every embrace, then we would change the world.
(Sermon for Sunday, October 16, 2011 || Proper 24A || 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 )
Did your parents ever tell you about the first word you ever spoke? More than likely, your first word was “Da,” which is short for, “Daddy, go get Mommy so I can have lunch.” Perhaps, your first word was “Ma,” though this is unlikely, considering the “M” sound is much more difficult to make than the “D” sound. Perhaps, your first word was “No,” which you probably heard your parents say many, many times when they asked each other if the other had slept last night. My first word was “ball.” And thus began a lifetime of me kicking, catching, and throwing any spherical object I could get my hands on.
Christianity has some first words, as well; at least, they’re the first words that we still have a record of today. They aren’t as hesitant or half-formed as are the first words of infants. Rather, they spring from the pages of the New Testament with remarkable (even uncanny) clarity, vitality, and comprehensiveness. We heard these words a few minutes ago when we listened to the first ten verses of Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians.
Now, before we get to some of Christianity’s first words, we need to clear up one spot of potential confusion and talk for just a minute about the similarities between Thessalonica in 50 AD and the United States in 2011. First, the potential confusion.
If you pull up the Bible on your smartphone, you will notice two things: number 1, the New Testament begins with the Gospel according to Matthew; and number 2, Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians is actually eighth on Paul’s depth chart, not first. So how could these ten verses from First Thessalonians possibly be the oldest recorded words in Christian history?
For starters, the folks who put together the New Testament put the four accounts of the Gospel up front because the rest of the pieces didn’t make a lot of sense without first hearing the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. But the people who wrote the Gospel didn’t start doing so until probably 15 to 20 years after Paul wrote to the Thessalonians. As for Paul’s depth chart (and this is a little strange) – his letters are actually in order by length, from longest to shortest, and First Thessalonians is one of the shorter letters. But if the New Testament were ordered chronologically by when the texts were written, our reading from Paul today would be on Page 1. Okay, confusion averted? Great. Let’s keep going.
Our modern moment shares several things in common with mid-first century Thessalonica, the community to which Paul writes the first words of Christianity. Like the modern United States, Thessalonica was a diverse, cosmopolitan place, with a plurality of religions and cultures all rubbing shoulders. As the capital of the region of Macedonia, there were plenty of things to do, not unlike the glut of stimulation that assaults us at every turn. And the Thessalonians had not received the good news of Jesus Christ before Paul arrived, just as people in modern America have lost contact with this great story of the Gospel.
To these people in Thessalonica and to us here on the Interwebs, Paul sends these first words. He, of course, had no idea we would consider them the first words of Christianity, which lends a special kind of authenticity to his message. These are words written to people who hadn’t read Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. These are words written to people who lived in a society that knew very little about this faith that Paul brought with him. As such, these are words that can serve us as we practice sharing our faith, as the Thessalonians did, with people outside the walls of this church.
In these first ten verses of the first text of Christianity, there are six words in particular that shimmer for me: grace, peace, faith, love, hope, and joy. Notice how Paul uses each of these special words: “Grace to you and peace,” he writes. “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ…You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.”
These words are special because each has a meaning outside the church and a greater meaning inside the church. The secular understanding of these words can give followers of Christ like you and me a place to establish common ground as we share with others how God is present in our lives.
Let’s quickly look at each of these words to see how we can expand the secular definition to fit into the greater reality of following Jesus Christ.
“Grace” is a perfectly lovely word. We use this word to describe ballet dancers because they move with poise and precision. They throw their bodies into the air trusting that they will land on their feet, and if they don’t they get back up quickly and keep dancing. How easily can we take this understanding of grace and elevate the grace of the dancer to the Grace of God, this grace that picks us up when we fall and teaches us to find beauty in everything.*
We hear the word “peace” when conflict ends and “peacekeepers” enter the recently warring region to monitor the new situation. We use this word to describe a calm ocean after a storm or an infant who has finally dropped off to sleep. We can expand this to the Peace of God, which takes situations of conflict and infuses them with possibilities for unity, justice, and new beginnings.
“Faith” is the trickiest word on this list because all human attempts at “faithfulness” fall short. We put our trust in banks, in governments, in products, in each other, and sooner or later we are always let down. But when we expand the definition of faith to include the Faith of God, we find the one example in all of creation that will never fail. How wonderful to tell someone about this kind of faith!
“Love” is tricky, too, because we use the word in so many different circumstances, from our shoes to our spouses. But when we find that most authentic use of the word, when the word “love” springs unbidden from our lips and doesn’t describe an emotion but a state of being, a state that we entered unwittingly and never want to leave – then we begin to see the edge of the extraordinary Love of God. And we can celebrate that love with each other.
“Hope” is about the future. All people have used this word to talk about what they dream for the days and years ahead. I hope to have children and to teach them to play soccer. These human hopes are safe hopes, the kind that we can see in our mind’s eye five or ten years down the road. This understanding of hope elevates to the Hope of God when God releases us from the boundaries of the merely possible and shows us the realms of glory that exist far beyond our sight. And then we have a greater hope in which our everyday hopes can dwell.
Finally, we talk about “joy” most often when we have “enjoyed” a dinner party or a new film or a ballgame. We mean that we had a good time and might want to come over again. What we don’t realize is that this “joy” we feel is more than happiness. The Joy of God is a feeling of wholeness, of completion that comes when we discover that we are exactly the people who God created us to be.
Each of these words, these first words that Paul used when he wrote to the Thessalonians makes sense outside the context of the Christian faith. But within the greater reality of following Jesus Christ, these words shimmer with new facets of meaning.
I invite you this week to take these first words of Paul and try them out for yourself. Pray with this question in your heart: how has God encountered you when you have had an experience of grace, peace, faith, love, hope, or joy? Then find someone from within your own faith community and try out these words. Practice sharing with one another before you go out and share your Christian life with those outside your church.
Like the first words of an infant, our first attempts in sharing the first words of our faith will be halting. They will be hesitant. They will be half-formed. But they will be ours. And God will take them, shape them, and elevate them into God’s own words.
*I wrote “Grace…teaches us to find beauty in everything” and then realized that I stole those words from U2. Thanks, fellas.