The Lord Indeed is God

1 Kings 18:20-39

So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty. Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.” All the people answered, “Well spoken!” Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; then call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made. At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.

Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come closer to me”; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down; Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, “Israel shall be your name”; with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” Then he said, “Do it a second time”; and they did it a second time. Again he said, “Do it a third time”; and they did it a third time, so that the water ran all around the altar, and filled the trench also with water.

At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench.  When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.”

 

The city was in ruins.

Nearly deserted by the people, its houses sat empty and its streets laid bare, littered with the debris of a war that had raged through the country until it had destroyed nearly everything of value.

It seemed, quite literally, a city of the dead.

And as history tells it, it was on a Monday morning that spring, amongst the ruins of war, that nearly 10,000 slaves marched their way onto the old Washington Race Course, a horse racing venue turned prison camp, where hundreds of union soldiers had died.

For two weeks, they worked to bury the soldiers, 257 graves for men who died of exposure and malnourishment. And as they dug, children sang hymns—John Brown’s Body, the Star Spangled Banner, America—while their pastors preached and the people strewed the ground with flowers.

Long before Memorial Day, these men and women laid flowers on graves to honor the dead. To remember their fight. To give thanks for their sacrifice, a civil war fought in part so that they might be free.May28NYTimes_MemorialDay_Fin.jpeg

It is easy to forget the lessons of a holiday whose cost is distant to modern eyes. Easy to forget that a holiday like Memorial Day has to be because so many young lives are not. Happens because so many wars continue to be fought, not just on our soil, but in distant lands we may never see and can too easily forget

And as I reflect on this weekend, when many will lay flowers on graves, join in parades, or disappear to the beaches, I am struck by the recognition that it is only by remembering days such as Memorial Day, that we can begin to imagine a world that is otherwise.

And I am reminded of this fact today by no other than the remarkable prophet Elijah.

In the Scripture for today, you see, the nation of Israel is at a crossroads. As long as there have been kings, these powerful men have been synonymous with the voice of God. David, Solomon—they have, more often than not, led the people closer to God, and the people have followed gratefully.

But the Israel of Elijah’s time is a shadow of its former self. Infighting and politics have fractured the kingdom. They are a people divided–a north and a south, two kings who bicker and fight and then make up again, until the next time.  The people of Jerusalem now follow King Ahab, whose moral relativism has led them farther and farther from God. Scripture tells us that his wife Jezebel, a Sidonian (and therefore an outsider to the people of God) has not only encouraged the worship of foreign gods; she has murdered the priests of the Lord when they have spoken against Ahab.  For this and more Scripture tells us that the people have suffered under a punishing drought, and their desperate cries have reached to the heavens.

And it is into this vulnerable moment that Elijah comes. Out of the desert, seemingly out of nowhere, he arrives on the scene to call the people back to God. Back to faithfulness. Back to their story.

1 Kings is such a rich story, and there is so much that could be said about what happens in these moments, but for now, I think what is important for us to hear is this: that Elijah’s actions on Mount Carmel remember the people to themselves.elijah.gif

To a people who have forgotten who and whose they are, Elijah offers them the opportunity to remember the God of Israel. To remember the promise of the covenant. To remember, in other words, that there is another way than the path that they have tread up to this moment.

To illustrate what is at stake, Elijah arranges a contest between the Gods.  On one side stands Elijah.  Against him are hundreds of priests of Baal, whose job it will be to call the god down from his sleep.  And they take this job quite seriously.  As they cut them selves, as they cry out and limp around their altar, as they beg and plead and cry, I am reminded of how often I fall into the trap of depending on my own actions, my own perceived “faithfulness” to make a way in this world. How often do we tell myself that our success is dependent on how good I am? How often do I blame myself when I cannot force my life or my world to conform to my vision for it? How often do I blame leaders–in the church, in this country, in this world–when they fail to single-handedly implement their high-minded rhetoric?

And then I contrast this tendency towards self-sufficiency with Elijah, who, drawing the people closer to him, takes his time as he carefully repairs the altar of God. Twelve stones, for twelve tribes. Remember the covenant, he whispers. So calm, so assured, I almost hold my breath reading it now.

And when all is ready, the table set, the story–our story–remembered, the people close to God’s altar, Elijah prays. Not for victory. Not for power. But for God to be present, “so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” And the fire consumes. And the people remember. And they cannot forget again.


This memorial day, as politicians and elected officials cry out for peace even as they sanction the machine of war, we would do well to remember who deserves our trust. We would do well to remember that they are not God. That we are not God.

We would do well to remember that the God we worship is the God who called us not to war, but to service. Not to victory, but to faithfulness. Not to power, but to the Kingdom of God, where there is no war, no tears, and where death has no sting.

Let us not forget this, as we mourn those whose lives have been lost in service to the powers of this world, and let us pray to God for the Kingdom, even as we labor for peace in this peaceless world.28a78d3b4a5cd3f2c00b539184793858.jpg

 

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The Troubled Peace of the Cemetery

Peace is not the product of terror or fear.

Peace is not the silence of cemeteries.

Peace is not the silent result of violent repression.

Peace is the generous,

tranquil contribution of all

to the good of all.

Peace is dynamism.

Peace is generosity.

It is right and it is duty.

-Oscar Romero

What is it about cemeteries that folks find so peaceful?  As I have approached the annual observance of Memorial Day, my mind has been drawn to the ways in which our culture so often equates silence with peace.  And there is nothing that seems more quiet or peaceful than a big, sprawling cemetery.

Mount_Auburn_Cemetery_2.JPGWhen I was in seminary in Cambridge, my friends would often walk down Mt. Auburn to the cemetery.  Heck, I even went on a first date there (surprisingly, a walk in a cemetery is a great way to get to know someone).  We treated that cemetery like a park, and indeed it was one of the few substantial, wooded, secluded areas where one could go to enjoy the sensation of escaping from the sound and fury of graduate school.

There amongst the flora and fauna, it was easy to believe that this place was more than just a cemetery.  And indeed, those who care for it claim it as far more than a resting place for the dead.  According to their website, “a National Historic Landmark, a botanical garden, an outdoor museum of art and architecture, and an important habitat for urban wildlife.” Gravestones are no longer simply markers for the dead–they are works of art.  The people who are interred there? Stories that connect us to our rich and varied past.

And certainly, this cemetery (and many others as well) is incredibly beautiful and peaceful.  It is easy to imagine that those who grieved their loved ones sought it out for the rest that they believed it would grant their dearly departed.

But I would venture to offer that there is far more going on in the cemetery than perhaps we like to admit.  Too often, what makes a cemetery seem peaceful is the absence of, well, people.  To forget that one is surrounded not only by nature, but by the souls of the dead.  And that not all of these souls went quietly into the night.

arlington-875457_960_720.jpgFor me, this disquieting fact rings most true in military cemeteries.  For there is little I can think of that is as sobering as Arlington Cemetery’s 634 acres of nearly identical tombstones marking the final resting places of over 300,000 fallen soldiers.  Or the knowledge that the fields at Gettysburg are drenched in the century-old blood of 10,000 men.  These places are not peaceful to me.  For me, they call to mind the peacelessness of silent cemeteries which Oscar Romero recalled when he spoke of our Christian duty to seek the Kingdom of God, over and against the violence of this world.

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The field at Gettysburg

For me, to stand at a memorial, or walk through a military cemetery, is to remember the cost of human conflict. To remember that this is what the world promises.  This is the only guarantee of military aggression–more white crosses dotting a hill.  More dead children mourned as a flag is folded.  We can give thanks for their love of country, for their obedience to the uniform, for their desire to make the world better through service to their country.  But we cannot mistake the stillness of their bodies and the quiet of the grave for anything close to peace or tranquility. Theirs is a silent and unending cry, which shouts to we who would stop and see: “THIS is the cost of war.”

Seeking God

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out:”To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.

The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth-when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil. When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.

 

Psalm 8

Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory in the heavens.
Through the praise of children and infants
    you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
    to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them?

You have made them a little lower than the angels
    and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
    you put everything under their feet:
all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild,
the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea,
    all that swim the paths of the seas.

Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

 

FWJ7-Boxed640x480.jpgWhen I was a child, my parents would take us in the summers on camping trips to see natural wonders like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Lake Tahoe. We would travel in a camper for what seemed like DAYS, and every night we would stop at one of those KOA campgrounds. As an adult, it sounds like the background for a horror movie, but as a kid, it was amazing.

Every night, we would like a fire and roast marshmallows. My mom would inevitably turn in early, done in by smoke and burning sugar. My sister and I would often want to stay out late, our heads craned upwards as we drank in a sky drenched in starlight and punctuated by comets.

Even in the late 80s and early 90s, it was hard to find a place where you could really take in the stars.

There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 5000 stars that are visible to the human eye, but most of us have never really seen them. Urban light, and increasingly, the tendency of humankind to light their houses, their parking lots, their strip malls and churches 24-7 has all but erased the natural light of the heavens. In the last 100 years, humans, especially in industrialized societies like the US, have lost the ability to see, let alone wonder at, the heavens which

tell the glory of God. In order to see the stars that caused the Psalmist to gasp, we need to turn the lights off.

I wonder whether there is a moment, or a place, or an experience that you can point to, where you yourself felt the wonder and awe of a world that is filled with mystery and awe. Where you looked out on all that is created and said to yourself—who am I, that God made me? That God made all this?

Wondering at the mystery of the universe, and our place in it.
-How interesting, that the God whom we know as light is so easily marveled at in the darkness. From the beginning of time, we humans have asked the big questions about the world and our place in it. In the world of philosophy, these questions get their own subfield: metaphysics, the exploration of the fundamental nature of being and the world. As early as Aristotle, humans have looked up at the stars and wondered: what is beyond us? Is there a purpose out there? Is there something bigger than I am?

And for thousands of years, many of us have answered that question by reflecting on the existence of a Creator, a God. For us, the God we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

One of the important tasks of metaphysics is to demonstrate proof of your theory. How can you demonstrate that there is such a thing as a God?

For most of our history, the church has affirmed that the proof is right in front of us. In the stars we see and the tiny atoms and cells that we cannot. At the top of Mt Everest with the sherpas and in the Marietta Trench with the fishes. In the dance of existence and createdness.

Where once we marveled at the skies and wondered at its mystery, now we marvel at the complexity of creation that is revealed by the dazzling intellect of the sciences. The intricacy of our bodies shouts the name of our God. The lush biodiversity of rainforests, tropical reefs, temperate forests and even the desert confound our sense of what we know. Every day, we are presented with new reminders that there is much we do not know about this world, that there is much to marvel at. God keeps surprising us.

According to Scripture, it is as though wisdom is crying to us from every corner of the world, just as she has for millennia. Pointing her fingers she cries out—God is here! God is there! God is everywhere.

And if we pay attention, I think perhaps we can make out her voice as she rejoices in the world God has made. For the God whom we encounter in Jesus Christ makes himself known not just in history, but right now, through the continuing and abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit reveals God right here, right now, through the gathered Body of Christ.

What does that look like? How is God at work in our midst?

  •   through grateful, dynamic worship, in church and at home.
  •   the ministry of the deacons
  •   the showering of love and affection upon our members when they are sick and suffering.
  •   the vibrancy of our witness to the power of prayer
  •   engagement in our community, and desire to make a difference
  •   our embrace of the beauty of God’s creation, and of the arts, the gift God has given us for sharing our appreciation for the world God has made.
  •   the warmth of hospitality which reminds us of Christ’s friendly embrace.
  •   the Spirit-filled ministry of countless good people whose quiet actions we will never fully know, but are known to God.

I wonder: what might you add to this list?

And who are we, that God should be at work amongst us?
We are the very substance of God… the imago dei, the created ones. And, thanks be to God, we learn in Scripture that God our Father embraces us with all of our questions and struggles, with all of our confidence and all of our doubt, when we are filled with wonder and when our eyes fail to see.

We are, in other words, not all that different from our ancient brothers and sisters who gazed star-ward and wondered at the mystery of the universe, who sought God in the wisdom of the world and in their community of worship. Like them, we are amazed to find that we are part of the story that God has been writing from the dawn of time, called to participate in the work of reconciliation of all creation begun in Christ that continues through the power of the Holy Spirit.

And all of us, wherever we stand, whatever we wonder at, are encompassed by our trust in the one we know as Father, Son, Holy Spirit. One God, forever and ever.

O Lord, Our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

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In Praise of Motherliness

Luke 24:44-Acts 1:11

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.


In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Forty days after Easter, and always on a Thursday, the universal, catholic church pauses to celebrate one of the five great feasts, or holidays, that mark the life of Jesus.   Ascension joins the celebrations of Jesus’ baptism, transfiguration, passion, and resurrection as one of the moments in which the church has traditionally been unified in its witness to the mystery of the Incarnation.

ascension icon

 

In the Eastern Church, where prayer has been linked to icons for centuries, the Ascension is most often portrayed in the following way: Jesus, thronged by angels, levitates in the air.  Below him, the disciples gape towards heaven, their postures belying their sense of confusion and awe.  Two angelic messengers stand in their midst, telling them to go ahead to Galilee.  And in the center, her arms raised towards heaven, her gaze directed at the viewer, bearing witness to this holy moment of separation, is the Mother Mary.

 

The Gospel account doesn’t mention Mary’s presence at the Ascension, but I think it is telling that the Orthodox tradition has placed her at the center of Jesus’ departure.  Like any mother, she is has been there for the important moments in the life of her child—she kept watch over Jesus with the women as he embraced his calling in life, traveling the countryside with a message of repentance and new life.  She did not hide when he was arrested, and she wept on the hillside as he drew his last breath.  Wherever Jesus was, his mother was never far behind.  And so it stands to reason that the Holy Mother would be there for the moment when Christ truly does say goodbye to those he loved as his own.

 

How fitting, that today, as millions of Americans shower their mothers and mother-figures with french toast, flower arrangements, and symbols of appreciation, that we have this opportunity to remember the Mother whose hands released the Prince of Peace into the heavens.

 

Mother’s day, as you may be aware, had, like Jesus, its own radical beginnings.  In the 19th Century, women’s movements in the United States had been trying to establish different activities and holidays in favor of peace against war.  In particular, American mothers wanted to ensure that the devastation that the Civil War and other conflicts had visited upon families would not be forgotten.  By working for peace, they hoped to create a world in which war was a memory. As Julia Ward Howe’s proclaimed in her “Mothers Day Proclamation”:

 

We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country, to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: Disarm, disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence vindicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of council.

 

Perhaps it is no surprise that this holiday was swiftly domesticated by the Hallmark industry.  Far easier to hug your mother and go to brunch than to agitate for peace.

Mothers Day.jpg

 

And yet, that is precisely what Jesus’ life, and this moment of ascension affirms.  For as he ascends into heaven, Jesus reminds his disciples: “YOU will receive power when the HS comes upon you; and YOU will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.”  Jesus, with Mary, and Julia Ward Howe and Anna Jarvis and mothers everywhere, looks us straight in the eye and says: the Kingdom is in your hands.

 

How many of us have found ourselves in that moment where the training wheels truly have been taken off, and we are on our own?  When it is up to us to decide—will we soar with the eagles, or will we stay grounded?  Will we trust Jesus when he tells us that we can, with God’s help, follow in the Jesus way?  Or will we find excuses to stay silent, to stay home, and thereby clip our own wings

No parent, not even Mary, desires this for their child.  We want our children to soar.  We want them to embrace the destiny that God has for them.  And yet, we also fear what will happen if their wings fail, and the fall to the ground.  Or, that they may fly so far from us that we may never see them again.

 

This moment was clearest for me on the day that I left for college.  At nearly 19, I considered myself incredibly mature.  I was ready to embrace the future.  And so my parents climbed into my dad’s truck, loaded up with boxes of my most cherished possessions, and we started down the I-5 freeway towards the celestial palace that would be my academic home.  Five hours later, we laughed as we labored to cram those boxes into my tiny dorm room at the University of Southern Cal.  We walked through the campus, bought a sweatshirt, ate a meal together.  And then, it was time to say goodbye.  I will never forget how it felt to walk with my family to their car, and to know that I would not be going home with them.  I will never forget how my mother embraced me and then turned away quickly so that I wouldn’t see her tears.  How my father awkwardly shook my hand (something we never did!) so that he could slip me a hundred dollars, and how his eyes shone with tears as he waved goodbye.

Perhaps you have embraced a child yourself, whether one you bore or one whose love found you in another way.  Perhaps you have been embraced by someone who was like a mother to you.  Perhaps you know what it means to let go and to be let go, to fall or to fly, to discover the world for yourself.  To discover who you are.  For most of us, this is simply part of what it means to grow up in the world.

As Christians, let us not forget that this is also what is at stake in Ascension.  That the God who dwelled with us embraces us even as he departs from our sight, not as a punishment, not because he doesn’t love us, but because this next part we can only do on our own.  It is time for us to discover what it means to be Christ’s disciples for ourselves.  It is time to embrace the Kingdom on the power of our own abilities and gifts.  It is time to honor the witness of the Prince of Peace by being like him.

A frightening moment, indeed, but here we are.  Full of the hope and promise of the Kingdom of God.  May we raise our hands with Mary, and may we walk into the future with the confidence of the children of God.

Trust the Holy Spirit

Acts 16:9-15

During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

John 14:23-29

Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.

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Long ago a man sought the perfect picture of peace. Not finding one that satisfied, he announced a contest to produce this masterpiece. The challenge stirred the imagination of artists everywhere, and paintings arrived from far and wide. Finally the great day of revelation arrived. The judges uncovered one peaceful scene after another, while the viewers clapped and cheered.

The tensions grew. Only two pictures remained veiled.

As a judge pulled the cover from one, a hush fell over the crowd.

A mirror-smooth lake reflected lacy, green birches under the soft blush of the evening sky. Along the grassy shore, a flock of sheep grazed undisturbed. Surely this was the winner.

The man with the vision uncovered the second painting himself, and the crowd gasped in surprise. Could this be peace?

A tumultuous waterfall cascaded down a rocky precipice; the crowd could almost feel its cold, penetrating spray. Stormy-gray clouds threatened to explode with lightning, wind and rain. In the midst of the thundering noises and bitter chill, a spindly tree clung to the rocks at the edge of the falls. One of its branches reached out in front of the torrential waters as if foolishly seeking to experience its full power.

A little bird had built a nest in the elbow of that branch. Content and undisturbed in her stormy surroundings, she rested on her eggs. With her eyes closed and her wings ready to cover her little ones, she manifested peace that transcends all earthly turmoil.

-Berit Kjos (A Wardrobe From the King)

What does it mean to seek God’s peace in the world???

Peace is a slippery word. To imagine a world of peace—for many of us, if we are honest, this sounds like sentimentalism, the sort of naïveté we reserve for the young. That word peace; well, it is far easier to meditate on its opposite—our minds are driven to images of war, conflict, struggle, the absence of peace, really, and the complicated feelings that many of us may have about war and the many good people—soldiers and civilians alike—who are caught in its path.

And many of our cultural images of peace—undisturbed natural scenes, a solitary walk on the beach—are characterized by the absence of, frankly, us. Many religious visions of peace have been relegated by definition to the afterlife, leaving us in the present stuck with this question: is peace really possible?

Too often, the question of what it means to seek peace becomes defined by what peace is not. It becomes an exercise in identifying all of the places where peace is absent, all of the reasons why peace is difficult, illusive, or just plain impossible. And so we never get to the question of what peace actually looks like. Here. Now. Today.

We need to confront this issue, because it is to here, to now, and to today that Jesus speaks these words:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

We would do well to remember that Jesus speaks these words to a motley crew of beleaguered disciples hiding out in an upper room. To the core of a faith community that has been shut out of its own temple and the synagogues and condemned by its leadership. He directs his words of peace to an oppressed people living under the thumb of a Roman Empire that achieves “peace” by force, its streets littered with military personnel and its hillsides dotted with crosses. A world that we can identify with.

Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

The full force of violence and human brokenness churns and roils before Christ’s disciples. And yet, before them also stands the One who has overcome it all—Jesus has faced the darkness of his friends, his faith, and his country, and he has endured. He has walked through the valley of the shadow of death, and emerged on the other side. He has faced the world at its worst, and into that pain and anguish, he sends forth peace.

In the Hebrew, the word peace is encompassed by another word, and that is shalom. And while Shalom is often translated as peace, it is far more than that. Shalom has to do with wholeness and completeness. It is a moral value, a cosmic principle, a divine attribute.

My understanding is that to seek God’s shalom is to manifest divine grace in every sphere of your life. It is to walk through this life holding the question before you always: how would God have me live? It is as much an orientation as it is a destination. And it is the difference between seeing peace as an absence of the Other, and seeing peace as a hymn sung in six-part harmony.

When Jesus offers us the peace of God, he is offering us a gift of a new orientation. A God-shaped compass. God’s peace is an invitation to hold within us the image of something other than the the world that lies broken and bruised before us. To paint a picture of what could be, so that even when the world looks dark, we will have something to guide us. A light in the darkness, if you will.

This does not mean that the pursuit of peace will be entirely peaceful. Jesus never says: I give you peace, now you get to go spend your life doing yoga on the beach and drinking fruit smoothies.

Instead, It may look like Paul’s journey in our lesson from Acts. It looks like a life filled with purpose. For it is God’s shalom that directs Paul’s path, sometimes in unexpected directions. It is the vision of peace that leads Paul and Silas across the sea on an ancient boat and into Europe, the same sea that many refugees today are risking and losing their lives to cross. It is God’s shalom that leads Paul and Silas to the house of a wealthy Gentile woman named Lydia is waiting to embrace the message they have been given.

Or it may look like the witness of faithful people like Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran priest and peacemaker who put his life at risk in pursuit of peace for his people during the Civil War and had this to say of peace:

Peace is not the product of terror or fear. Peace is not the silence of cemeteries. Peace is not the result of violent repression. Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all. Peace is a dynamism. Peace is generosity. It is a right and a duty. May it be so, and may we pursue peace with the heart of God.

It may look like broken shards of glass and pottery, puzzled together and put in place by many broken hands, some of whom we may never know, until together they create something beautiful, something new, the work of art that Dr. King Jr called the beloved community, created by a loving God for a beloved creation.

May it be so, May it be so, may it ever be so. Amen.

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