Rev. Virginia Reynolds
February 19, 2017
This is the last week of our worship series entitled “Reset.” Since the beginning of the new year, we have considered the many ways we might reset our priorities, passions, life choices, and standards to align with God’s will. Today, we will reset our vision from fear to “Godly peace.”
Matthew 5:38-48 (NRSV)
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,[a] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
One of my favorite Sandra Bullock movies is “Miss Congeniality,” in which she plays a rugged and unkempt FBI agent named Gracie Hart. To capture a serial bomber, Gracie goes undercover and must compete as a contestant in a beauty pageant. After great effort to transform her appearance and poor etiquette, she appears on stage as Gracie Lou Freebush, ready for the interview segment of the competition. Following several other ladies, the Master of Ceremonies directs the question to Gracie Lou, and asks “What is the one most important thing our society needs?” Gracie quickly responds “harsher punishment for parole violators” which is followed by deafening silence until she adds “aaaaannndddd ‘World Peace!” At which thunderous applause erupts from the crowd.
“World Peace” Sounds nice, but is it too lofty an ideal? In our scriptural text today, Jesus is resetting the understanding of what is ideal. To the disciples in his audience, rules and God’s law were traditionally used to counteract fear by legislating appropriate actions, but it did not bring peace. Legal retribution, retaliation and revenge were the order of the day, but no harmony was created. A slap in the face – either physically or as an attack on character through insults - was, according to the Levitical law, to be compensated with a proportional response. For the Jewish community, it was a time of great anxiety, discord and fear. In contrast to this fear, Jesus was advocating a different response beyond the norm and spoke not to the rule of the law, but to the intention of the law. Jesus’ instructions were to combat fear with responses steeped in generous love.
Entrenched in our own world of problems and uncertainties, it is hard to imagine any scenario where tranquility in the whole world might be achieved today. We don’t even have to dream on a global scale – maybe it was the phone call from the doctor’s office this week that introduced the anxiety; or was it panic from the balance in the checkbook that made us feel uneasy? Maybe it was the exhaustion from giving care to others or the bullying of a co-worker or even the grief we were fighting from within. Either way, “peaceful” may be the last way we would describe our emotions. Perhaps our daily trials and fears have shattered any chance of solace in our lives. Like the people in first century Jerusalem, we are focused on the details of the trials of our lives instead of focusing on the one who is both the giver of life and the giver of peace.
The Hebrew word for peace is “shalom.” In some circumstances, it is used both to say “hello or goodbye,” but it is also a blessing wishing for goodwill. To the anxious and worried people seated around Jesus, shalom was the furthest thing from their mind. Matthew records for us in this Sermon on the Mount, the paradigm change that Jesus is introducing. Jesus teaches: instead of getting even, be generous of spirit. Instead of fighting the lawsuit, give more than what is asked. And instead of doing only what is required, sacrificially go the extra mile. In Jesus’ sermon, living generously is the seedbed for creating peace – shalom. Shalom means much more than the absence of fear or the absence of distress. It means wholeness, completeness, well-being, security and great expectations. It speaks of a hope placed not in the systems of control or circumstance, but in the power of an omniscient and all-powerful God. Paul and Timothy describe shalom by saying,
“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding…” did you hear it? It’s not a human solution or rules or even good fortune that gives peace; it is God and it is beyond our understanding. We are invited to give our burdens to God who reminds us,
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Yet, many times soon after we lay our burdens at Jesus’ feet, we return to pick up the burden feeling the heavy weight of the load and losing sight of the rest and peace being offered. The peace that passes all understanding is found not in us, but in God’s miraculous grace.
In our passage, Jesus reminds his followers of three things that will lead to this perfect peace. First, that we are children of the King and that our identity is to be reflective of God’s own image of generous love. Secondly, God provides abundantly for all of creation without exception. And lastly, we are to strive toward perfection – or in biblical terms “sanctification.” Jesus’ call for perfection is not meant to add to our anxiety as we both know that we are sinners, but rather through God’s grace “to be drawn toward the gift of human perfection.” John Wesley described the believers’ efforts toward sanctification as “a heart habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor” and as “having the mind of Christ, walking as he walked.” When we have this mind, trusting in God’s provisions and grace, we can then know God’s peace.
God’s provisions for peace in our lives comes in many ways. I am grateful today for the gift of Stephen Ministers in our congregation. These well-trained lay servants provide Christian, confidential spiritual support to anyone in need within our church or community. These servants offer tangible assistance through listening, prayer, scripture and encouragement and in so doing, offer the gift of healing and wholeness. Stephen Minister’s offer God’s peace or shalom.
Another vital provision from God for our lives is those of healing hands. People of compassion, givers of mercy and practitioners of medicine are agents of God’s grace and peace among us. So often we are tempted to see salvation from our fears and worries as coming in the hereafter, but like our spiritual salvation, our healing comes in the here and now through the talents and generosity of people among us. Therefore, shalom can be found in miraculous cures, but also in faithful companions for the journey. Shalom is found in the promise of mercy and compassion by a caregiver or the gentle touch of a friend. Consider how God might use you to bring shalom to someone in fear or distress? I’d like to share with you such an encounter I had.
As I have previously mentioned, at times I serve as a hospital chaplain, and it was on one such fateful night that I witnessed earthly fear being transformed into God’s shalom. The pre-dawn silence was broken by my pager alerting me of a level 1 , “life-threatening” trauma where a 19-year-old on a moped had been struck by a delivery truck. As I approached the trauma bay, the nurse alerted me that the family had been called and that the patient was in critical condition and on life support.
Soon, the ER doors opened and an emotionless woman wearing a hijab or a wrapped headscarf entered holding the hand of a young girl. Awaken from her sleep by the nightmare producing phone call every parent fears, this mother came to see about her son. It took mere moments to realize that the mother did not speak English, and that all the information the hospital staff was going to share had to go through the mind and heart of the 8-year-old child clinging to her side. As the doctors slowly and carefully laid out the dire scenario and the child translated to her mother, I prayed for wisdom and for understanding. What scripture, what consolation, what hope was there to offer to someone of a different faith? How could I protect this child from a reality far too great for her years? I, like the two seated beside me, was enveloped in fear. Fear for them; fear for what they must be feeling; fear for what might come next.
From the child, I gleaned that they were recent arrivals from Syria, and that her brother was the only bread winner in the family. He had been traveling home from his late shift job cleaning at an industrial plant. Looking into the eyes of this courageous young girl, I recognized that I was not speaking to an enemy nor a stranger. I was meeting a neighbor. But her mother sat quiet and motionless. Without words, I knew what worry looked like. What could I, a Christian chaplain offer to this Muslim mother and her daughter? “Does your mother believe in prayer?” I asked the girl. “Oh, yes!” she exclaimed and translated the question and answer. I excused myself to fetch 3 towels from the clean laundry cart. Not being versed in Muslim customs, I leaned into the only practice I knew…. kneeling for prayer. I laid the three towels on the floor aligned side by side and got down on my knees. The mother and daughter quickly followed. While I looked up to the Great Physician I know, with prayers for healing, I heard the quiet muffled sounds of prayer from a head bowed in reverence crying out to God. I did not need to know or understand the words. What I understood was a God much larger than I had ever imagined. I did not need to know the postures of her faith. What I saw was the posture of a disciple earnestly seeking a transcendent God. I did not need to offer words of consolation because the Spirit of God was present and interceding in “sighs too deep for words.” In the midst of that moment, in that closet-like room, I felt the mothers hand take my hand in hers and the peace of God engulfed all of us. The fear once pervasive was dispelled and replaced with hope. The anxiety of not knowing was transformed into faith. And a sense of helplessness was superseded with love.
“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.”
Jesus did not promise that our lives would be worry or anxiety free. He did promise that he would be with us through all of life, holding us in the palm of his hand. That firm assurance is God’s generous gift of peace. Whatever in life has you living in fear today, may God’s gift of shalom be yours, and then share it. We live in a world that is imprisoned with worry and fear, and yet as a child of God, our identity as disciples holds the good news of hope and peace. We may not single handedly bring about “world peace,” but we can live into God’s peace, giving it generously to all we encounter that they too may know God’s perfect shalom.
The peace of Christ be with you. (and also with you). Amen.
“Maintain a spirit of peace and you'll save a thousand souls.”
—St. Seraphim of Sarov
- Jesus compels disciples to love generously. In what ways is this easy or difficult for you?
- What does loving our enemies have to do with being a child of the Father in verses 44 and 45?
- Share with your group, a time when God’s peace was evident to you?
- We have been challenged to “Reset” our lives to God’s movement and vision. What have you chosen to reset in your life?