A four-part meditation on peace presented on successive Wednesdays
September 7, 14, 21, 28, 2016
Sanctuary Part 1: Wednesday, September 7
Eckhart Tolle tells a story about a duck that had a human mind, which was a very big problem. You see, ducks in general are tranquil things, but even the most peaceful of God’s creatures occasionally get into trouble and conflicts, and every now and then two ducks will fight each other, about whatever it is that concerns ducks. Usually no one is harmed and after a little squawking and a few lost feathers, both continue on their gentle ways.
Many a keen observer of nature has noticed a common habit following one of these confrontations. After all the unpleasantness is over a duck will shake all over its body, as if shedding off what has just happened like a coat to leave behind, burning off the built-up energy and emotion connected to what has just happened in order to again float peacefully and serenely along its way. And just a few seconds later, to both of God’s creatures involved, it is as if nothing amiss had ever happened in the first place.
But for the poor duck with a human mind, things were not so easy. Tolle says the duck with the human mind keeps the fight alive by retelling the story to itself: I can’t believe what he just did. He came to within five inches of me. He thinks he owns this pond. He has no consideration for my private space. I will never trust him again. Next time he will try something else just to annoy me. I’m sure he’s plotting something already. But I’m not going to stand for this. I’ll teach him a lesson he won’t forget.
You can see how problematic the duck’s life would become if it had a human mind. But this is how most humans live all the time. No situation or event is ever really finished.
And that’s just how the past gets in the way of our lives; not to mention all the trouble the future makes for us. For just as our vast intelligence helps us to rehear and rehash and make sense of stories of the past, it also allows us to daydream a million possibilities for the future, many of them negative. We call it worry.
We worry about things that might happen. We worry about things not happening. We worry about things that are within our control and without. We worry about things that could never happen in a million years. We worry as a hobby, if for no other reason than it gets our mind off the past for a few minutes.
Which leads to my own personal theological definition of a human being, gleaned from 10 years of experience in ministry with all kinds of people. A human being is one of God’s creatures, which is just smart enough to make itself miserable all the time.
As we begin these four weeks in which we are delving into the topic of peace, I’m going to begin on the following premise, which is a little backward from the way we perhaps usually think, because we like to think of the spiritual life as something added to our normal life. If we want to be more spiritual, we add knowledge to our heads, we add disciplines to our lives, we add something into the mix, which we hope will be the elixir that will transform the rest of the contents.
But we are going to approach the concept of peace from the opposite direction, and ask the question, how do we make space for Jesus? Or to frame the question differently, if the Holy Spirit were speaking to you, would you be able to hear Him? And how do we quiet the noise from the rest of our lives in order to hear the voice that is the most important for our well-being and for the well-being of the world around us?
Let’s look to our bibles and turn to Luke chapter 10, verse 38 (Luke 10:38-42).
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Jesus says that to be still in his presence is better than to be worried and carried away with other things. Looking to the big picture we can certainly see what Jesus is talking about in the grand scheme of things, in the whole story of these women’s lives. To accept and celebrate the precious and rare opportunity to be in the very presence of Jesus surely would be more important than any task which might have seemed so needful in any other situation. But the Marthas of the world want to respond: well do you want dinner or not, Jesus? If everyone were sitting at your feet, there would be nothing on the table.
Which brings us to the first thing we need to affirm as we seek a way of peace, which involves making space for God, that we have to live as Marys in a Martha world because the things we have to do aren’t going to go away. There are jobs to be done and meals to be prepared and caretaking of all kinds to be accomplished. And these things are not just necessary evils but part of our callings in life. And on top of that there are injustices to fight, good to be done, mercy to be worked for the good of the neighbor and the stranger.
This search for peace in simplicity doesn’t mean sticking our heads in the sand and pretending like there is nothing to do. As Henri Nouwen writes in Making All Things New, to be lifted up into the divine life of the Father, the son and the Holy Spirit does not mean to be taken out of the world. On the contrary, those who have entered the spiritual life are precisely the ones who are sent into the world to continue and fulfill the work that Jesus began. The spiritual life does not remove us from the world but leads us deeper into it.
So before we take one look at our busy schedules and write off any hope of peace, let’s remember that it’s not about getting rid of tasks, it’s about where our hearts are set. What if, instead of looking at the busyness of our days as barriers and obstacles to our peace, we look at them as opportunities to practice and to perfect our peace? To not attain for the false peace of being disconnected which is really just the absence of tasks, but the true peace, which comes from being Marys in a Martha world.
Most of us have a picture in our minds of a place that we connect with peace. For Mary it was the feet of Jesus.
I have two places. One is the 150 acres of pine and cedar that is behind my mother’s mobile home in between Greenwood and Duck Hill, Mississippi, the place where I grew up, the place I learned to fish and ran and played with dogs, a place where nothing seemed to happen or change, at least not very quickly. The other is the gulf coast of Alabama where I have been going for years with my wife’s family. A place where stress seems far away, all but the stress of having to be around my in-laws, which is easily dealt with. You have your own picture in your mind of the places and times that bring peace to your whole being, but we can’t always be in those places, nor can the current moment always be one of repose. We can’t always just relegate peace to one place or one time of the day or week. We can celebrate those times and those places, but if we allow the world to squish and minimize our peace down to that one corner of time and space, we are going to be very ragged and bitter indeed.
The psalmist has his own vision of peace and it’s one that we hear often. We hear it often in worship when we lay our loved ones to rest. We see it in art. For many of us it is one of the scripture verses we can quote from memory; for me, always from the old King James: The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside still waters, he restoreth my soul, Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
It is a peaceful scene if there ever was one. God the gentle shepherd bringing the sheep that he loves to good places, places of rest and restoration. And the thing is, that place the psalmist is talking about isn’t a place we have to go. It’s not a place that requires a passport or a ticket. He is talking about a place he carries with him, a place that is available to us all despite what the world throws at us, since we belong to Christ, and since he is our Shepherd too.
We began with the gospel but now we are going to back up and see how there is a notion of peace right at the beginning, practically as the context of the whole beginning of everything. This one will be a real hard one to find, lets to turn to Genesis 1, verse 1: In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
Without going into too much detail, you should know that the Hebrew word for breath or wind, Nephesh, also is the very same word that means spirit. Nephesh was that animating force, that breath of life, and so this wind from God has that connotation of also being the Spirit or the life of God, that acting hand of God acting on chaos to bring out creation.
Now the Hebrews were not the only people to have a story about how creation happened, and it’s actually interesting to look at the differences. What you see when you compare this story to some other near-eastern creation myths is that Genesis is singular in that the act of creation does not come from a struggle, from a battle, from a conquest, or a contest. For example, one of the creation stories that the Hebrew people would have been familiar with was the story of the Babylonians.
Their creation story, called the Enuma Elish, tells a story about the goddess Tiamat, who is the goddess of the sea and of creation. With her husband Apsu she gave birth to the first generation of gods, but the first generation rose up to overthrow then. Apsu is killed and Tiamat becomes a sea dragon to make war on them, but is finally killed by Marduk who is a storm god much like Thor, the thunder god of our own northern European ancestors. After Marduk kills Tiamat he formed the earth and the sky from her divided body.
This Babylonian creation story is like many others, usually imagining that the heaven and earth came about because of some great conflict between multiple and equally powerful gods and goddesses. In direct opposition we have the book of Genesis, produced by a people who believed that there is only one God. Before there were heavens and the earth there was only God and the great nothingness out of which he creates. There was no one to oppose God in God’s creative act, no one to conquer and no one to converse with. And in order to make the heavens and the earth, God doesn’t even have to do anything. It doesn’t take a struggle. God only speaks a word and creation comes into existence. It is a story of creation that, especially when read in the light of other stories, is steeped in peace.
That God is alone in God’s almightiness is the point of the first chapter of Genesis, not how many days creation happened in or whether or not there were dinosaurs, or whether or not there was a big bang. To wonder about that in this context is to miss the point, which is the mightiness and grandeur of God our creator who was not contested because there was no one to contest him as God peacefully spoke all that is into being out of his own good pleasure.
And maybe that’s why so many of our places of peace have to do with the outdoors, with beaches, and woods and mountains and prairies. Because in those places we get a sense of God’s hand on all things. That when we see creation, we are seeing that which the one Almighty God spoke into existence. And after God spoke and it was made, God called it good. The world that we inhabit—though troubled by randomness—is founded on God’s majesty, which brought goodness out of chaos.
So that brings us to a main point about peace for our own lives that I want to make in our time together. We learn from Genesis 1:1 that true peace is founded on the majesty of God. Majesty comes from the old Latin word that means greatness, but it was almost solely used for the greatness of kings and queens and princes. In other words, it is a greatness that is inherent and not earned. It has to do with who you are and not what you do.
We Americans don’t tend to trust the majesty of earthly kings and queens and with good reason, but it’s a term that, when we apply it to God, still makes sense. God is majestic because of who God is. God does not earn his majesty in creating all that is or by doing anything else, but rather in God’s creation and everything else God does, God’s inherent majesty—that majesty that belongs to God because God is God—is demonstrated and shown forth. To say that our peace is rooted in God’s inherent being in God’s inherent greatness and majesty is to set our peace on something that is unchangeable and not subject to the ups and downs of circumstance. That’s what makes it peace and not just fleeting happiness or a sense of accomplishment.
You can feel good about things going well, but if you try to seat your sense of peace for your whole life on things going well or poorly, you are bound to miserable about half the time. A peace, which is based on the majesty of God, is above all those things and so gives us the only firm anchor we can have for true peace.
Sanctuary Part 2: Wednesday, September 14
Now we are going to look deeper into the creation story. Let’s look at Genesis 2:4b-8. In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field and yet sprung up—for the lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground—then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And we are also going to skip ahead and read just verse 15: the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden to till it and to keep it.
I want to focus on what God does when God creates humankind. The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the Earth. There is a little word play going on in this creation story that we miss in the English. Later on we hear that this first man’s name is Adam. This is Adam’s name in Hebrew. Adam is just a shortened form of the word Adamah which means dirt, dust, or earth, and so Adam’s very name means dirt creature, dust thing, earthling.
And the Bible says that God breathed the breath of life into the man and he became a living being. That same breath of God, wind of God, which was hovering over the waters to begin all of creation at the beginning of the book, is now breathed right into dust and we are the result. God puts some of his very own life and breath into dust and that’s us.
In the old Eastern Orthodox Church, they had this picture of humankind that went something like this: human beings are special in all of creation because of our dual nature; we are both spirit and flesh. We are soul, and we are stuff. We are the breath of God, and we are bone and muscle. Other things like rocks and water and chairs and closets are only stuff, God and God’s angels are only spirit. Only we, in all of creation, are both. And that dual nature helps us to think about what we are supposed to do as human beings.
The Bible says that God put Adam in the garden to till it and to keep it. So God makes this creation, the earth, and sets Adam, his creature of dust and spirit, in it as his very own agent—as someone who is acting for God to keep, to keep going and to further this creation, even to assist in God’s creation of good things.
Adam is the very first steward, meaning he is taking care of something that doesn’t belong to him for someone else, in this case, the garden for God.
And if that is what Adam was, then that’s what we are. We are God’s representatives in creation. We are the carriers of God’s breath in the world. Dust, with the breath of God in us, heaven’s agents, heaven’s emissaries. We are here to spiritualize the earth, and that is not as abstract as it sounds.
It means that I, as a dirt creature like Adam, can take a seed that God has made, and I can plant it in God’s earth, and I can tend the plant and keep it and I can take the wheat and I can grind it into flour and leaven it and make bread. I do all that in the body that God has given me with the mind has God has given me, but then, since I am God’s steward, and I know that everything belongs to God. And then because I have a share in God’s spirit, I can be God’s agent in this place, and I can give that bread away. And then a simple piece of God’s creation becomes a message of God’s care and love.
Jesus is always proclaiming the kingdom of God and when he gets down to the nitty-gritty details of what he is talking about when he talks about the Kingdom of God, it’s always simple things, liking giving bread to the hungry and water to the thirsty and visiting the sick and those in prison. Being a neighbor to those who need a neighbor.
It is both humbling and exalting to think that in all of the grandeur of God’s creation that we are so special in the grandest scheme of things, but we are. By your very nature, you were made to be God’s steward. That even now you bring the breath of God into this space, and that you take the breath of God with you wherever you go.
Let’s come about that question from the opposite side, and talk about the recipe for disease. And when I say disease, I mean not just any number of diseases that one goes to a medical professional for, though what I’m talking about is related, I’m talking about dis-ease: The absence of ease, the absence of peace. The chronic un-easiness which is so much a part of our everyday lives, even when things are going relatively good and especially when things are going relatively bad. The quality of our lives that robs us of peace. We can talk about this disease from any number of different angles, psychological, social, physical, but the disease that is the most foundational is the spiritual one, and it’s rooted in exactly the nature of the human being that we have been talking about. It comes from not doing what we are made to do, but doing the very opposite.
I’m not a handy person, I never have been, and one of the reasons is because I don’t take the time and effort to find the right tool for the right job. I’m the kind of person that will use the tool that is easiest to get to instead of finding the right tool for the right job, and that usually results in the job not getting done very well. And sometimes damage to personal property.
And if that is how it is for tools and tasks, that is certainly how it is with us. We have a purpose and that purpose is to bring the breath of God into this place. When we live our lives without that as our purpose, it is no wonder that we don’t have peace. When we allow other purposes to obscure who and what we are. When we try to put something in our lives in the place that only God deserves, and put other tasks besides being agents of God first. Its no wonder we are anxious and full of dis-ease, we get pushed and pulled by other things so that we forget what we were made to do.
Maybe part of the cure for our dis-ease is not to stop dwelling on the past all together, like our duck with a human mind needs to do, but to make a decision about what past we are going to dwell on. The missteps and pains that don’t make a huge difference in the long run, or the past that tells us who we are and what we were made to do, the past rooted in this majestic God who has graciously breathed his breath into dust and allowed we that creation to be his stewards.
What we believe about ourselves and the world truly changes our lives.
Sanctuary Part 3: Wednesday, September 21
Today we are going to talk about the future and our peace. And we are going to begin that discussion in the book of Isaiah chapter 6, verse 1 through 8.
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.
Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.
And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.
And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.
The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!“
A few things to note in reading this passage: A seraph comes from an old Middle Eastern name for something that was a common component of many stories in the Middle Eastern world; a seraph is what we would call a dragon now. These are special because they have not just one but three sets of wings, which is the number of perfection in the old testament. In the Middle Eastern culture, as in ours, a dragon is the ultimate symbol of power. And these dragons appear in this vision to make a point about the majesty and glory of God. Even though these creatures are so powerful, before God even they have to cover their faces to shield themselves from his wonder, and they cover their feet in modesty and deference to God. God is so mighty that just the train of his robe, the part that trails in the dirt—in other words the most humble and lowly aspect of his presence—fills the whole temple.
It is a picture of God’s grandeur. But one of the most important things to see in this passage is right at the very beginning as the bible tells us when it happened. In that time and a place, who the king was was a huge deciding factor in what the future would be like, whether there would be abundance or scarcity, whether there would be oppression or freedom, whether there would be war or peace. For a king to die left the future a great and frightening chasm of uncertainty. In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, sitting on a throne high and lofty. In a time when the future could have been a concept of fear, the Lord reveals himself and reminds the prophet Isaiah whom it is that the future belongs to. It’s not our earthly leaders, but this one who is mighty like no other, and holy. When the direction of our own future and the future of our countries seems frightening and uncertain, we would do good to make this vision of God part of our vision for the future.
Let’s now look at two passages from the gospels. Let’s look at Matthew chapter 4, verse 1 and following.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you’, and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
It is significant that Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights because it echoes the time of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness. After they were freed from slavery, they wandered 40 years until the whole generation that had sinned against God by making the golden calf had died. This was a time of wandering in order to purify God’s people and to prepare them to be that city on the hill following God’s law, which was their calling. So Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness paints him as the new Israel.
These temptations of Jesus are the beginning of the path to the cross; even here as early as chapter 4, because in each of these temptations Jesus is choosing the path of humble service over self-glorification and even self-preservation. He chooses solidarity with the hungry. He chooses to be human to the point where he can be placed in danger. And finally he chooses to not pursue earthly authority, but to instead locate his authority in the authority to lay down his own life for the life of his sheep. As the Son of God he could have chosen to have a full belly, a life of safety, and a life of earthly power, but instead he chooses to live out his messiahship in the exact opposite way, as the suffering messiah who gives himself up for his people. The way to the cross is already paved.
So when it comes to the future, although it will contain hardship for Jesus, he is able to do it because he knows who he is, and because he is pursuing the things that he knows he is called to pursue, and not the things that the devil tempts him to pursue. How much better would it be if, for our futures, we decided like Jesus to make righteousness our goal, rather than all of the other things which might tempt us.
Jesus talks about his philosophy of the future only a few chapters later in chapter 6, verses 25 to 34. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things, and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
If there were ever a better summation of how we should consider the future and our own peace, I have not found it yet. Of all the things that we could make up our minds to pursue, to set our hearts on, to go after in the future, how much better is it to, like the things of nature do, be content with what we have and our being and our relationship with God and with one another, and instead choose to pursue righteousness. No decision makes a greater difference.
Lets now turn to 1 Thessalonians chapter 4, verse 13. But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
This passage was written to a community that was afraid of the future and for a very specific reason. First Thessalonians, our bible scholars tell us, was the very first letter of Paul written. That makes it the oldest document in the entire new testament. It was written to a new baby church that was starting to worry that it had been so long and Jesus had not come back yet.
Paul had to deal with this issue a couple of times, one of the more memorable being when a few people decided that, since Jesus was coming right back. They were going to quit their jobs and just wait. Paul’s advice to the community is to stop feeding them until they get the message that waiting on Jesus is something you can do while taking care of yourself. The Church in Thesolonika had begun to see some of its beloved members die, and so Paul writes this passage as a response. Although death is still an earthly reality that we mourn, Paul makes it clear that we are to place the future squarely in the hands of Jesus. It is because of our belief so described in this passage that even our funerals become celebrations, celebrations of what Jesus has done, is doing and promises yet to do; the future belongs to Jesus.
We see a beautiful picture of that in Revelation chapter 21, verse 1.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
Just as we can be bothered by the past; but when we look at the past through the eyes of God, we see all the things that really make a difference and we can allow that to form our present. We can look to the future also through the eyes of faith; and when we do so, we don’t see reasons for anxiety, fear, and paralyzing worry. We don’t see a big scary nothing, but we see the majesty of God like Isaiah saw. We see God’s promises for us and for those we love. We see that the future is in the same hands that started this all, and they are strong hands indeed. If the future is like it is described in Revelation chapter 21, then it seems like Jesus’ advice is strangely pretty good, do not worry. When we don’t, the present gets a whole lot better.
Sanctuary Part 4: Wednesday, September 28
There are temptations all around us to accept different narratives about the past and the future. Different stories which, if we believe them, instead change how we look at the past, how we look at the future, how we look at ourselves, and how we look at God.
There are people that want you to believe that you can’t have peace until you buy their vacation, or get their brand of toothpaste, or buy their brand of automobile. And when we buy into those narratives, instead of God’s agents in the garden, we become consumers and, even worse than that, we become perpetually unfulfilled. Because there is always something else on the horizon that someone tells us will make us complete.
Now people making you think you need things isn’t the only way a story besides God’s story can negatively impact your life. It’s not just companies and manufacturers and Disney and Royal Caribbean that can try to take a little of our peace. Unfortunately, since we are sinners surrounded by sinners, it can also be the case that people in our lives can deprive us of peace by creating a false narrative that we believe. It can be a narrative that tries to give us another identity besides the one God gives us. It can diminish us indeed if we do not free ourselves from it.
One of the narratives that kept me out of the Church for years was about class. In our area of Carroll County, Mississippi, there were plenty of people who didn’t have a lot of money. But east and west of us were roads that were lined with honest-to-goodness houses, something I had never had. We lived in mobile homes. My grandfather would take us on rides down dirt roads and we would look at these houses, which to us seemed like mansions even though of course they weren’t.
And there was a little Baptist Church down the road where Brother Haddon was the pastor, and he was the very first representative of the Church I ever met when I was very young. As was the habit of many country preachers, he would just drop in on you and invite you to Church for the 100th time, or invite you to vacation bible school. Brother Haddon always wore a suit. For a few years I bet he was the only man I had ever seen wear a suit besides the principal of the high school. I didn’t have a suit and neither did any of the men in my family. When he came over, you would all of a sudden become aware that your shoes were muddy or that you had a stain on your jeans.
And I remember once when he had come over and invited us and we politely said that, oh, we would try to get down there one day. And he left and my grandparents and mother and two uncles all breathed their sigh of relief that they could go back to life as usual. And as a little kid, I just asked the question why don’t we go to Church. I think it was my grandfather who actually said the words, and it wasn’t his fault for saying them, he was just giving voice to the attitude that I had been picking up on from the family for as long as I could remember; he said that the people who go to the Church are better than us.
There was a flurry of voices agreeing. What would we even wear to Church, said my mother; what would we event talk to them about, said my uncle. The people at the Church are better than us, and I believed that for a very long time.
There is an often-used word in the scriptures. It’s the word metanoia. It describes the baptism that St. John appeared in the wilderness proclaiming and what it was all about it. It’s the word that describes what our God who is rich in mercy desires from sinners rather than their destruction. It’s the word that describes what Jesus considers the fruit worthy of bringing forth. It’s the word that Jesus to describe his mission when he says that he didn’t come to call the righteous but sinners. It’s the word that describes what causes joy among the angels in heaven.
It literally means to change one’s mind, and it usually gets translated to repentance. We connect repentance with ceasing to commit particular sins, but the literal definition of the word points us to exactly how that happens, since our actions come from our internal state, our decisions, the way we look upon the world. Given the reality that the world is always throwing competing narratives at us that would have us look at the past, the future and ourselves differently, the present for the believer, and especially one who desires peace—and is that not all of us?—is to live in a state of metanoia, of repentance, a state of changing our minds, a state of choosing, again and again, to believe God’s story.
Luke chapter 24, verse 1: But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” …Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
And now in verse 36 of the same chapter: While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.
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…”
God’s story is that Jesus, the Messiah, the son of God, died and was raised for you, and at his last appearance to those who had followed him, he gave his peace, his very own peace to them so that they could share it among themselves and in the Church forever. The story concludes with his ascension into heaven—the same image we sit under even now—and reminds us that the peace Jesus once gave, he continues indeed richly to give. Amen.