Psalm 34: 1-14; Matthew 10: 34-39
In the classic BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER there is a prayer that starts with this phrase: “Almighty God: kindle, we pray, in every heart the true love of peace.” Kindle in every heart. At this time when even Floridians have a fire or two in their fireplaces, I hearken back to my Scouting days when, to start a fire in the wilderness from scratch, we first collected little bits of dry grass or rope that we called tinder. Using flint and steel, the sometimes tedious task was started, hoping a spark would ignite the dry brush. The conditions had to be just right, including blowing on it: not too much or too little. Once it caught we could add kindling: very small pieces of wood that would help the spark grow into a self-sustaining fire. Is it possible that God needs to “kindle” in our hearts the true love of peace? In the midst of a world that sometimes thrives on conflicts, how do we build peace, or even create it, when there are tensions, needs, and hostilities?
Today I asked for two non-prescribed, non-Christmas texts to be read: in this season when the church preaches the peace of Christ, church leaders, choral leaders, business leaders, teachers, and parents are often filled with less peace than during other months of the year! How do we preach peace when we often do a poor job of living and experiencing it? So today I have not picked Christmas texts on peace. I hope to illustrate two Biblical texts on peace in a unique way. The first one was read from the lectern and it advocated pursuing peace because good things had happened in David’s life when he wrote Psalm 34. The Psalm is actually an alphabetical acrostic with each line starting with the next letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The second lesson was read from the pulpit and described that following Christ can be anything but a peaceful experience. God’s word, and Gods’ people- like a multi-faceted diamond- deal with peace in various ways. Sometimes we hear that the Messiah is “the Prince of Peace;” today we also heard David implore others to seek and pursue peace” (34:14.) How do we square that with the words of Jesus himself read from the pulpit: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth.” (Matthew 10:34). Today I suggest a more than perfunctory reading of Scripture will bring us closer to the meaning of peace—which is much more than the absence of conflict. Peace cannot effectively be described by what it isn’t; like a vacuum, simply removing shouting, loud noises, antagonistic, or pathological actions does not leave peace; it leaves a vacuum into which harmful actions can enter. Imagine a room filled with smoke. If smoke represents conflict, and a vacuum tube begins to pull the smoke from the room, if the room were perfectly sealed, the vacuum would finally strain to get the last drop of smoke out, creating a room without air. It would be a vacuum-sealed room. But peace is not just the absence of conflict; it is the carefully planned replacement of conflict. In the vacuum example, slowly letting air into the room would be like peace replacing conflict. Or peace can be thought of as a recipe for different living: in our Christmas mixing bowl put in a dash of real listening, a spoonful of justice, a cup of caring for others, and another cup of “What Would Jesus do?” as some ingredients for peace. To think that Jesus always brought peace, or that Christians always offer peace, is to ignore Biblical and historical facts. But to pursue and to work to make peace is the guidance that comes right from David in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New. How do we put the recipe of peace to work in this Advent season? How do you seek to do what God would want you to do in these situations?
Let’s try another image: If we could sharpen the Google Earth lenses enough, we could peer into the lives of people in our communities; we could see people not with their public persona, but with their personal issues. Gated, opulent communities like Islesworth in Orlando , or planned communities like Disney’s “Celebration,” or even the struggling strip of road called the Orange Blossom Trail all had people living out their lives last week. Angst is not income dependent; people have trouble in every income level. There were also people last week making trouble instead of peace. They were from all incomes and backgrounds. They were not bickering over Christ as in Jesus’ example. They were just bickering; fighting over relationships; fighting over who would spend what time at whose house, and fighting over who comes out on top in the divorce wars, the in-law wars, or the personal time off wars. Some may have even been arguing about whether they would have to go to church. Some last week, I’m sure, heard the call of Christ, while others just heard the call to the mall.
By contrast, last week surely some offered tidings of comfort and joy to others: negotiating plans, buying useful gifts, and taking time to be with others, or reading Scripture. Some might have bought their gifts this year at a Fair Trade Market: gifts that would help people in other countries. And some who have enough prepared gifts for those who don’t. That’s how putting peace into action changes the many moods of Christmas for the better.
As we move on with Google Earth to peer into a hospital room last week, there were people wrestling with life and death issues; “No heroics” one insisted; “we have to try everything!” the other tearfully replied. Down the hall a mother was telling her daughter that she’ll go into a nursing home over her dead body, so the loving but exhausted daughter was trying to figure out how she could possible care for her own mother plus her two children and husband and still keep up with her work. Another woman was agonizing over the delay of a necessary surgery for her sister. And in yet another room a father held down his rage against the boyfriend of his daughter who was drunk while driving and caused a serious accident. There was little peace in Any Hospital, USA, last week.
Moving through the community, the eye in the sky saw televisions tuned to escapist programming in some homes, and to news shows that made anxious or mad people even more anxious and mad in others.
Today the question is this: Is there a chance for peace to replace any of your conflict-filled situations in a new way? What would it take? How would it change your Christmas? There were times when Jesus made others angry or suspicious in the short term, in order to bring healing and hope in the long term. Even the unusual conditions of Jesus birth caused family and community concerns. What can you do differently to invite peace and rebuke conflict this year? Could you decide not to always insist on your own way? Could you feed hungry people? Could you give gifts to those who have none or share a meal with someone who would otherwise be alone? Perhaps you will reconnect with God in an inspiring service of worship, or in a dark room with a candle, or perhaps at the beginning of a new day when the sun is rising. Peace is elusive, but it is not impossible. It is ours to make, to share, or to offer.
May peace come into your life this season, not by chance, but by the intentional collaboration you can choose to create with others and with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
Jeffrey A. Sumner December 5, 2010