Thursday, August 22, 2013

Where are the words of peace?

Egyptian Muslims protecting
Christian churches
Like everyone, I am saddened at the tragic and violent events in Egypt. As a preacher, I found last Sunday's gospel lesson Luke 12:49-56 difficult to work with, to say the least: Jesus declares he comes not to bring peace but division, to set parents against children, and worse.

It was tempting to skip, to preach on something else. But I did my best. Below is my offering from the pulpit.

In the days ahead, my postings here will be less often. I am deeply immersed in writing the book about my abolitionist ancestor, the Rev. George Richardson, that I began nine years ago and put on hold. He lived in a time of great division: the American Civil War. He fought for justice and the emancipation and education of slaves. Peace without that was a false peace.

My sabbatical allowed me to regain the spirit and the words for this project, and I feel it important to finish. My morning writing time will be mostly devoted to writing the book. I will keep you posted on it, and post other items from time to time. Just not as often.

Here is my sermon from last Sunday:

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Shalom. Salaam. Peace.

The words of peace are very hard to hear in our world right now. Very hard.

Egypt is being torn apart by political and religious strife, and many have died. Syria is in the depths of a seemingly unending civil war.

Our own country remains at war in Afghanistan and there are threats of war with Iran. The words of peace are very hard to hear in our world right now.

And the words of peace are very hard to hear in today’s biblical lessons. Instead of words of peace, we get the Book of Isaiah – and words that echo in the Battle the Hymn of the Republic:

“He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.”

Instead of words of peace, we get the Letter to the Hebrews with descriptions of torture and flogging, and a stern admonition to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

Nor to we get a warm, fuzzy, peaceful Jesus today:

“I came to bring fire to the earth,” Jesus thunders, “and how I wish it were already kindled!” Today, the good shepherd seems to be in someone else’s pasture:

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

Oh my.

Jesus, most assuredly, is not giving advice on child rearing or solving family dysfunctions. Now, let me pause and tell you I don’t pick these lessons. For those of you unfamiliar with our peculiar way of doing things, these biblical lessons come from what is called “the lectionary,” and the lessons are assigned on a three-year cycle.

You will hear the same lessons today in Lutheran, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic churches, and many other churches.

Today, whether we like it or not, we get a sword, not a plowshare. No peace, no shalom, no salaam.

Or do we?

There may be another way to hear this. It may be that God’s peace is very different than how the world thinks of it.

It may be that God’s peace is not about power and politics, not about armies, but about justice for those who are oppressed, poor, exploited, wounded, and living in the low places. Sometimes being an agent of God’s peace means going into the heart of conflict because it is precisely in those places where God walks with the lowly.

And it is in precisely those places that God’s kingdom breaks through.

A friend of mine, Craig Klein, a deacon who lives up on the North Coast of California, terms passages like this: “God in the sharp points.”

It is on the sharp points that we are most acutely aware of God breaking open our hearts for others around us.

It is very tempting to avoid the sharp points because they are painful. Conflict is unpleasant and messy and worse.

And Jesus knows us well.

We might be tempted to build walls around ourselves by building walls around the church, and insulate ourselves from the conflicts and heartbreaks of the world.

But those heartbreaks walk right through this door whether we like it or not.

The absence of conflict is not peace, it is not shalom, it is not salaam. Sometimes the absence of conflict is acquiescence in, or wishful thinking about, that which wounds us and others. Sometimes the absence of conflict is acquiescence in evil.

The Gospel calls us to see the sharp points of our time, because it is in the muck of conflict where God finds us and shows us a way to real peace.

Real peace is not letting those who exploit people and pollute the earth get away with it.

We are called to build a world where the wounded are healed, the refugees are rescued, the poor are fed and those held in human bondage are freed.

We are called to make no peace with the forces of oppression.

The sharp points can break open our hearts and allow us to respond to the world in ways we never imagined possible.

Jesus never promised this would be easy. But each of us has the gifts to do our share to bind the wounds of the world.

Each one of us experiences the sharp points some time in our life. And that means each one of us has something to contribute from our own experience.

God gives us everything we need to do this work right here in this place and in our daily lives.

Lives really are changed by the Living Christ through you. People really are freed from what enslaves them, and God’s kingdom really is bursting alive through you.

We are called to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

Shalom. Salaam. Peace.

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