Wednesday, September 26, 2018

CALLED TO PEACE AND BE THANKFUL Theme Interpretation for 2018-19

Unpacking the 2018-2019 Program Theme for St. James the Less Episcopal
by The Rev. Rock Higgins

This year we will have repeated opportunities to explore the idea that we are “Called To Peace. And Be Thankful.” We take this from Colossians 3:15 from a longer passage looking how as one body in Christ we are called to be at peace with one another and with all.

We spent time as a staff in prayer and discussion about where God is moving at St. James the Less, where our country and culture is going, and how we are thinking in these times. As we talked a consensus came to the idea of Peace, and how we as a church needs to model and practice this very foundational practice of Christian values. In exploring Scriptures, we came upon Colossians 3 and Paul’s extended metaphor and impassioned plea for peace in and through the Church.

So, in light of all that, we spent an hour at Shrine Mont unpacking the theme “Called To Peace. And Be Thankful.”

(Many thanks to Senior Warden John Hoar for this wonderful graphic!)

Colossians 3:12-17 New International Version (NIV)

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were Called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

When we as a Church talk about being called to Peace, we have to look at in multiple ways: Peace with God, Peace with Self, and Peace with Others. None are mutually exclusive, but all need to be a part of living into and out of being “at peace.”

Peace is a lot of things to a lot of people. Now for many peace is the absence of war. On a literal sense they are right, but a lot of resentment, bitterness, and hatred can reside and still not be at war. Shalom, the Hebrew word we translate as peace, has more context and nuance than we give. It is wholeness, completeness, and contentment. It is having the windows up, the doors unlocked, the kids are in bed, and the whole house is safe and sound. There is no worry looming outside the door. 

“God is in his heaven and all's right with the world.” That is Shalom. We are Called to Shalom. That sense of security and contentment, not an absence or abatement of conflict. This is a far more holistic ideal.

And we are needing a long-term approach and commitment to even make a start toward this. I think of the interactions on a national stage and interpersonally. I think on how people drive and treat each other in traffic. I think on how we would care for one another if we lived lives of peace. I would love that. I want that.

Called To Peace With God

To be at peace with God begins with how we perceive God sees us. I remember reading in high school Jonathan Edward’s Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. link This image of a spider being dangled above a flame is unforgettable. Does God really see us that way? I do not think that the whole of Scripture points to that. We could all find verses that may point to that, but the story and whole of Scripture is the Good Shepherd seeking and saving the lost sheep. We are the Beloved of God. God’s view of us is grace-filled, not a target for lightning bolts. God does not want to smite us. God wants to love us. There is not an adversarial relationship but a nurturing one, actively working for us to be our best to God’s honor and glory. We are the pictures in God’s wallet, “That’s my kid!” That is how God loves us, and it is a very different picture than the one Edwards paints.

As we grow in the perception of God’s love towards us, we begin to see how our lives can “merge lanes” so that we can get into God’s lane, and stop going our own way. God enables us to “get over” and into the right lane. We all have our blind spots, and it is never a one-time conversion. Every day we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12) And like our Shaker brothers and sisters sang, “till turning, turning we come ‘round right.” link

As Episcopalians, this all comes back to our Baptismal Covenant. The promises we make there for ourselves, or our entrusted children if they are too young, begin with the Apostle’s Creed, that ancient statement of faith looking at the core of Christian belief. Immediately following those, come these sets of promises. (Notice, that the response is “I will, with God’s help.” You are not trying to live up to these by yourself.)
Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the Prayers?
               I will, with God's help.
          Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
               I will, with God's help.
          Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
               I will, with God's help.
          Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

               I will, with God's help.

          Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human
               I will, with God's help.

Notice a couple of things. We promise to keep growing and learning. We promise that WHEN we sin, (and we will, perfection is unattainable) we repent and come back and we are WELCOMED back. We promise to “preach at all times, and when necessary use words.” (St. Francis) We promise to serve and love our neighbors. And we promise to work for justice in all lives. “If you want peace, work for justice.” (Pope Paul VI) We have to continually work for others, to help our brothers and sisters, especially those disempowered or forgotten.

Sharks have to keep moving, or they cannot breathe and die. We have to keep growing, bringing in the source of our life and love. Muscles must be worked for the body to be healthy. And when we work our muscles they stretch and even have little breaks and tears. And in their rebuilding and renewal we grow stronger. We are not healthy by sitting around. We grow by working with what we have been given.

We can know we are growing by sensing the Fruit of the Spirit in our lives. (Galatians 5:22-23)
  • Love
  • Joy
  • Peace
  • Patience
  • Kindness
  • Goodness
  • Faithfulness
  • Gentleness
  • And, Self-Control

As we see these in our lives, and at work in how we treat others and ourselves, we have a good sense of where we are in being at peace with God.

Also, in our life with God, we have to be more about listening than in talking at God. We have 2 ears and 1 mouth. Maybe we should use them in that proportion. How often does our prayer life become a litany, or a laundry list of wants and complaints? When we take the time to be still and quiet in our prayers, we can begin to see God at work in us and in the world. Without that quietude, it is nearly impossible.

Acceptance is another place of finding peace with God. The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr speaks to this.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; 
trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; 
that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him
forever in the next. Amen.

Knowing what to fight, what to ignore, what to accept is part of that growth and increased peace with God.

Lastly, think on Transformation. Growth is one thing, but that can often lead to more and more. Transformation is a different type of growth, it is qualitative instead of quantitative. It makes things better instead of just more. As we grow into God’s peace, we look at how what we are doing today helps make us the person God would have us be tomorrow. It is working smart more than working hard. It is wisdom more than sweat.

Being at peace with God is requisite before we can turn inward or outward. We are loved and empowered to do what we need to do through this foundational relationship.

Called To Peace With Self

Peace with Self comes back to the self-perception we started with. We are the Beloved of God. This grace-oriented understanding is far from the approach I received earlier in life. I was raised on Romans 3:23 “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” The problem is staying there. We are not worms. And neither is anyone else. But we do miss the mark. That is what sin is. The word comes from archery. The distance from the target’s bullseye to where the arrow hits is the “sin.” We all have. We all will. Like we promised in the Baptismal Covenant, when we sin and recognize that we stop and change our path and merge back onto God’s way.

One way we do that, or can anyway, is through Admission, Confession, and Penance. Do we do this for God? No. God already loves us and forgives us. He took care of that at Calvary. We, however, hold onto things. We need to come clean for our sake. In the Episcopal Church we have the rite for the Reconciliation of the Penitent. It is in the Pastoral Offices in the Book of Common Prayer. (p. 447-452) link Here we a situation where, “All May; Some Should; and, None Must.” I have only done this rite with a handful of people in my ministry. There have been a few times when I have explicitly recommended it because some nagging thing was still being allowed to gnaw at people’s souls. Their hurting made me hurt, and this was hard. I wanted to promise God’s grace and I wanted them to be at peace, and a couple actually followed through. I was glad, and they seemed relieved. (Let me know if this is something that might be of help to you.) Poe in the poem, “The Raven” spoke on the raven rapping at the chamber door. Remember hearts have chambers, too. What keeps rapping at your chamber? What do you need to let go of so that you can have hope and be at peace? Prayer may work. If you are too caught up though, maybe outward confession is something you might want to consider.

Another part of Peace with Self is Joy. I ask the staff all the time a simple question: “Are you having fun?” If you cannot answer that yes, there is a problem. Do not confuse happiness with joy, though. Situations can make us feel happy, but joy comes from that deep place of knowing who we are, and that we are doing what we should do and making a difference in the world. That can be in our families, our work, our church, our world. Maybe all of those. Think of how joyful that would be!

Lastly, think of how we serve a God of Abundance. Life is not a Zero Sum Game. Neither is faith. If God is the Creator of everything, what do we have to fear? If God made everything, owns everything, and can create anything, how can we allow ourselves to have a skeptical, lacking perspective? We have already been given all we need. (Here is the link to the sermon where I went further in detail on this the next day.) Be aware though, this is not Prosperity Theology. God has provided our needs, not our wants or whims. God is not Santa Claus. Abundance is an attitude, much like Joy, which recognizes the whole process of life, the cycles and seasons. “For there is a time for every purpose under heaven…” (The Byrds by way of Ecclesiastes 3)

Called To Peace With Others

Now that we have considered our peace with God and Self, then we have a decent chance to be at peace with Others. Think of when you are cranky and feeling bad, how do you treat other people. We project and blame, we can be nasty and cantankerous. Being secure in whose we are and who we are enables us to give what we have been given, peace, forgiveness, and empowerment to change.

Paul is very clear in our passage that there are things that we do before we forgive others and it enables us to be at peace with them. Colossians 3:12b-14: “...clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

So, do this to work on being at peace with others. Clothe yourself with:
  • Compassion
  • Kindness
  • Humility
  • Gentleness
  • Patience
  • Forbearance
  • Forgiveness
  • And, Love

Notice where Forgiveness comes in and then it is wrapped up in Love. There are lots of steps to get to that point of being able to forgive others. And even then they may not accept it. But that is not anything you can control.

Forgiveness is not about them really, anyway. It is about your relationship with them. Revenge is a dish best served cold, said Shakespeare. And when we hold onto things, it is like us drinking a poison and expecting it to affect the other person. That vile bitterness only hurts us, though. They might not even know we hold a grudge. How silly is that.

A story is told of a Moody Bible College professor in Chicago who got of the El (elevated train) every day and got his newspaper and went to the school. One day a friend accompanied him. When he got to the newstand, the shopkeep cursed him up one side and down the other talking about blankety-blank Christians, blah blah blah. But the professor did not even respond, paid for his paper and went on his way. His friend was shocked. Did this happen daily? Yes, said the professor. The friend asked why on earth he would stop there every day then. “It is the newstand between the El and Moody. How he acts is not important. Why would I allow him to have that power over me to make me go out of my way for an exact same paper they sell across the street?” Forgiveness is about us letting go of the emotion and energy around a situation. And in that non-anxious presence, we can actually help transform the situation and maybe even the other person.

And that leads into Respect. Being at peace with others has so much to do with respect. We have to respect the “other” whoever they are. They cannot be less than or seen us beneath us. If someone is hurting others, they have been hurt or are hurting. “Hurting people hurt people.” Being respectful, especially when someone is hurting you is so hard. Jesus was talking about that when he spoke about “turning the other cheek.”

We also need to have and demand respect for all. God has an inclination for the disempowered and dispossessed. In the prophets they were the “widows, and orphans, and strangers in your midst.” Jesus called them the “Least of These.” Part of our responsibility in the Church is to care for and demand respect for all, ESPECIALLY the LEAST of THESE! Being at peace is about creating systems of respect for all people. This often begins with justice as Pope Paul VI said above.

Lastly, respect is something we need to demand for ourselves. Toxic people can be forgiven, but if they are hurting or abusing anybody, we must stop enabling or allowing this. God does not want anyone abused. We can work with them with compassion and kindness, we can forgive them and love them. But when they strike, we do not have to allow them to hit, hurt, or maim us or anyone else. Remember, Jesus healed the servant of one of those that came to arrest him when Peter cut off his ear. Jesus would not allow anyone to strike or be struck in his name or defense.

Making peace is different from keeping the peace. UN Peacemakers often maintain the status quo, and people are often FAR from being at peace. We have to take this a step further if we are Called to Peace. We must be Peace Makers. This is active. It is costly. It is worth it. Because of that, and part of this year’s theme, I have invited several area churches to join with us on November 5, the night before our midterm elections for a service focusing on peace. It will be a Community Call to Prayer and Communion. 8 churches or so are on board to come together, pray for our nation, its leaders, and our culture that seems to divisive and splintered. As the church we need to model what peace looks like. We will step over our denominational differences, and have a joy-filled evening of reflection, prayer, and celebration in our Unity in Christ, our first and deepest commitment.

A story is told of St. Francis. In the midst of the Crusades, St. Francis went to the Holy Land. When he boat landed in Egypt, however, he was arrested because he was Christian. When the jailers got to know him, though, they knew he was characteristically different. He was so Godly, so Christlike, that he could not be ignored. They sent him all the way up to the Caliph (King) to share his words and faith, because he was so obviously different than anyone else they had ever met. Christ had became his God and his All. (Meus Deus et Omnia! A prayer of St. Francis) Because of this, he was released and sent home. His witness and life made a difference. That is why he could honestly pray, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…” May we do the same this year as we remind each other that we are Called to Peace. And Be Thankful!

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Blessings, Rock