Peaceful but not passive

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the difference between peace and passivity. In many situations, I go to the words of the Seraphim of Sarov, the 18th-century Russian saint, who said, “The one who is at peace will save a thousand souls.” I believe that idea, that a person who is at peace (with themselves, with their God, with their experiences– both the good and the bad, at peace with their friends and their enemies) will have a rippling effect of peace on all those they encounter.

But at the same time, as we try to get our heads and hearts around the massacre of children in a school room in Uvalde, Texas, as well as the racially motivated shootings in Buffalo, the week before, and all the various horrific and soul-shaking events of our day– I also think this is no time to be passive. It’s no time to check out, even as I might pay less attention to the ongoing replays on the news.

I want to find peace, and be a person of peace.
But I don’t want any part of being passive.

And so, I continue to follow the Prince of Peace, Jesus, who (remember?) was put to death because his message of love and active peace was too much for the violent forces of his day. God overcame that violence and every violence with the Resurrection, but it is Resurrection power that engages us, that fills us with purpose and direction, that enables us to continue forward with love that refuses to give up.

In the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we see this spirit of Christ’s active and confronting peace working in the life of Paul. The Spirit of Christ’s acts within Paul even though Paul seems to be acting primarily out of annoyance.

Paul and Silas and some others were in Philippi, Macedonia, one of the Roman colonies. And there, they meet a slave-girl who is telling fortunes and making good money for the people who own her.  All of a sudden, she starts following Paul and Silas and yelling things out behind them.  Paul gets so annoyed (the word used in the scriptures is that he is exasperated.  He is “made miserable” by her) and so he snaps.  But rather than yell at her, rather than hurt her in some way, Paul prays over her.  And then things go from bad to worse.  The girl loses her soothsaying powers and her handlers, her traffickers, really lose their means of exploiting the young women.

These men get the crowd on their side–never difficult to do, by the way. And they all suggest that Paul and his men have broken the peace. Paul and Silas are arrested and beaten up, and thrown into jail.

God disrupts the peace again, in answer to their prayers, and responds with  an earthquake that shakes the jail.  The doors are opened, people were freed, and even the jailor and his family are converted to God.  

Notice that the prayer of Paul begins with a prayer of annoyance (do something about her, God!), then moves to a prayer of emergency (save us), and finally a prayer that ends with rejoicing, rejoicing among strangers-turned-into friends. 

Is Paul a man of peace? According to God’s perspective, yes, but according to the slave traders and the locals who were more interested in supporting the status quo, Paul is a problem.  The people of Philippi say, “These men are disturbing our city,” and want them gone. But when we find ourselves in places of passivity (where there’s an illusion of peace, but it’s really just a corrupt, lazy, or frozen system) we’re called to move with the disruptive peace and love of Christ.

Martin Luther King, Jr. lived out this kind of strong peace, disruptive peace.

In 1956, the University of Alabama was told by the court that it could no longer discriminate, and it admitted Autherine Lucy. But when Autherine showed up, she was met by violence and protests. The university trustees caved to the mob and asked Autherine to leave.  The newspaper headline that came out afterwards reported that things were quiet in Tuscaloosa, that there were “a few days of peace.” 

In a sermon a few days later, Martin Luther King talked about this “so called” peace.  “It was peace that had been purchased at the price of the capitulating to the forces of darkness. This is the type of peace that all men of goodwill hate. It is the type of peace that is obnoxious. It is the type of peace that stinks in the nostrils of the almighty God.”

In the highpoint of his sermon he spells it all out in words that St. Paul would surely have “amened.”  King said,

If peace means accepting second class citizen ship I don’t want it.

If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I don’t want it.

If peace means being complacently adjusted to a deadening status quo, I don’t want peace.

If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated and segregated, I don’t want peace.

In a passive non-violent manner we must revolt against this peace.

Jesus says in substance, I will not be content until justice, goodwill, brotherhood, love yes, the kingdom of God are established upon the earth. This is real peace. Peace is the presence of positive good.

Finally, never forget that there is an The inner peace that comes as a result of doing God’s will.

“When peace becomes obnoxious,” preached at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, AL, March 18, 1956?

The Hymnwriter Brian Wren develops this idea of Martin Luther King, and bases a hymn on Micah 4:3.  Wren includes a few lines about what peace is NOT, and then he imagines the kind of peace of Christ:

Tell them that peace is
the shouting of children at play,
the babble of tongues set free
the thunder of dancing feet,
and a [parent’s] voice singing

Tell them that peace is
the hauling down of flags,
the forging of guns into plows,
the giving of fields to the landless,
and hunger a fading dream.

Peace . . . is a song
playing to the pipes of freedom,
swinging to the sound of love.

(Brian Wren, “Say no to peace,” Words © 1986 Hope Publishing Company)

In today’s Gospel, Jesus prays for us, in an intimate expression of his love for each one of us, and for all of humanity. We are his sisters and brothers, we are his family, his beloved.  And yet, he knows the world, well, and admits to his Father, “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17: 26).

A pandemic, a struggling economy, no clear leadership in any sector of our society– it’s a lot.  But we have each other. We have wise ones, like those celebrating major birthdays in our community. We have young ones, like those who are giving their time and faith to our community. And we even have the very young, as we look forward to two baptisms next Sunday.

We have each other, we have the Church that spreads throughout the world, and we have Christ who prays for us, and within us, and promises never to leave us comfortless, but to fill us with his spirit.

May the powerful, disruptive, new life of Christ’s peace be ours. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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