Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Bishop McConnell at Evensong, November 16

Peace is Our Profession: A Sermon for the Mission of the Church

Preached by the Right Reverend Dorsey McConnell
The Bishop of Pittsburgh
In Saint Andrews Church, Highland Park
At Evensong
November 16, 2014

At that time you were separated from Christ having no hope and without God in the world.  But now in Christ Jesus you who were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For he himself is our peace. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.
                                    —Ephesians 2: 12-14,19

Then Jesus appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to come. And he said to them,… ‘Whatever house you enter, first say, Peace be to this house!  And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. If not, it will return to you.

                                    —Luke 10:1-2, 5-6

As many of you know, I am a son of the military, the Air Force, to be exact.  I was born during the Cold War on a B-52 base in the middle of the Great Plains, and one of my earliest memories is of lying in my crib listening to those huge aircraft in a scramble drill.  Their flightpath was practically over our house and as they roared into the air in quick succession, I watched the windows of my bedroom tremble in their frames.  I wasnt afraid. It was a comforting sound, really, the way some children might think of the tea kettle boiling in the kitchen.  My mother had told me that those planes were protecting us, and I believed her.  One of the first sentences I learned to read, emblazoned in a painted banner on the side of every bomber, under a mailed fist that clutched both a lightning bolt and an olive branch, was the motto of the Strategic Air Command: Peace is our profession

It took me years to grasp both the true sense and the inherent contradiction of those words.  On the one hand, it was frankly absurd: how can you think of a flying machine carrying several megatons of mass destruction as an instrument of peace? I dont think that is what the author of the prayer of Saint Francis has in mind when he asks God to make us instruments of his peace.  On the other hand, it made sense, when I first dove into Saint Augustines great work The City of God.  Augustine says that all human activity, every effort of human society, even war, is in pursuit of peace.  Of course, we never get there, because the peace we are in fact yearning for is far greater than the cessation of earthly conflict, greater than the fragile equilibrium that can be established by human treaties or human concord.  What we are yearning for is the peace of God, and that can only come from God Himself.  But what is this peace of God?

The author of Ephesians is pretty clear that this peace of Godis a complete reversal of our natural state. He points out with stunning force that by birth and nature we are separated from Christ, having no hope and without God in the world.”  That would cause most people on the street to raise their eyebrows a bit dont you think? When I first heard it, as a young man considering Christ, I certainly thought it went too far.  I mean, I had my flaws, but surely I was still basically a good person, wasnt I?  Yet, the more I showed up in church, the more I started realizing how untrue this assumption was.  Something began happening to me. My sin became more visible to me.  Habits that I had indulged in without a moments thought now began to give me pause; my own malice and anger, my utter self-centeredness, my pride and gossip, actually began to grieve me a little. I began to see the enormous distance between the person I was and the person I might become, that God wanted me to become.  I began to intuit that the peace I had always wanted lay in my giving up my own will to His will, accepting His judgment of my sin, and receiving His mercy by acknowledging His rule over me; I came dangerously close to realizing that this alone would lead me toward becoming the person I inwardly yearned to be. 

And yet, simultaneously, far from wholeheartedly wanting to become that fulfilled, benign, and loving creature filled with the peace of God, I discovered there were huge parts of me that wanted to destroy that vision utterly, to drown it out, to get rid of the God who offered it, and enthrone themselves in His place. And that scared me.  It didnt scare me enough to make me a Christian, but it did get my attention, for a while; so I did what any normal person would doI stopped turning to Him, stopped going to church, stopped reading Christian books. Instead I filled my life with adventure and kept on the move.  I moved every three to six months for two years across three continents and (with a few nearly catastrophic exceptions) I avoided churches like the plague.  I had made a fortress of my egotism and for a time I thought I was safe.

What I had not counted on is that this God of peace chases us, through his human instruments.  Then Jesus appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to come.”   If you read the passage in Luke carefully, you will see how clever a strategy it is, because if those disciples take what Jesus is saying seriously, if they actually do what He says they should do, theyre going to wind up looking an awful lot like the one who sent them: they will be lambs in the midst of wolves, as He the Lamb of God is content to be; they will trust the Father for their provision, not despising any house or table, just as He does, who eats with anyone who asks, from Pharisees to prostitutes; strangely, as they do this, they will begin to resemble the one who sent them, and they will come with a blessing of peace, from the one who is peace. And if a child of peace is there, that peace will find its resting place, the way an arrow finds its mark, the way Jesus finds those to whom he comes and says, Follow me.”  Do you see how brilliant this is?  His disciples, as bearers of His peace, in spite of all their flaws, will in the main mysteriously show forth the character of their Master so that others will be drawn not to them but to Him. 

This peace they are carrying with them is nothing less than this complete reconciliation between human beings and God won through the blood of Christ; it is the peace that Ephesians is talking about, a reconciliation that spills over into human relationships, our relationships, changing them forever; it may not turn our enemies into friendsthats their choicebut it does turn them into the beloved, and it does mean that our whole life is now about putting others at the center of our world, not ourselves, because that is where Christ iswith them, weeping with them, laughing with them, begging to wash their feet.  And a child of peace, I think, is someone who, in spite of all reason, in spite of all the parts of herself screaming, Run away! Run away!, in spite of his limitless capacity for relapse which he will continue to provea child of peace is someone who, for reasons know only to God, yearns for that peace; that yearning is God-given, born of grace, and, I believe, in the end irresistible.   So even someone who doesnt look like a child of peace at allwho is restless, or contrarian, even vengeful and violentmay indeed be one, having underneath all their conflicts the deep-seated unconscious knowledge that in the end all that will matter is their repentance, that they will only come to the peace they yearn for by giving up and saying Yes to the God who alone is peace. 

This yearning for peace is so deeply woven into the mystery of human identity as to be indelible; it is like an innate characteristic in someone, the way we say a person has her fathers eyes or his mothers laugh. It emanates from some strange ember burning deep within the ashes of the human soul, but it needs something to call it into life, to set it on fire.  That happens by nothing other than the word of the one who is our peace, the word of Jesus, through His willing disciples, who are on assignment to chase down the reluctant children of peace and throw their entire lives into merciful chaos just by offering the Peace of Christ.

Sounds like fun, doesnt it?  Apparently it is!  Jesus had a great time doing itconsider what he does with Simon Peter for example: taking a hardened and skeptical fisherman, and in a matter of hours swamping his boat, dragging his partners into the mess, making him beg to be left alone, and then extending the completely nonsensical offer that Simon might consider fishing for men, because he doesnt seem to be doing very well with tilapia: seems like a lot to go through for one disciple, but some cases are tougher than others.  Some need a quieter approach, as with Levi the tax collector, the Lord just showing up where he works and looking at him with all the force of an irresistible love, until he says Uncle.  Or coming to the grief-stricken Mary Magdalene on a peculiar Sunday morning and showing her that there is a love stronger than death. To each of these, in a way appropriate to each, He says, Peace be with you; stop struggling, come to me and you will find rest for your souls, and once they have done that, after his resurrection, He gives to them essentially the same commission as He gave the seventy:  He says, now take the word of this peace into the worldseek out my reluctant children, that they may come into their inheritance, the peace prepared for them from the foundation of the world.  And, as unlikely candidates for the job as they are, nonetheless that is exactly what they doPeter and James and John and Andrew and Mary and Martha and Mary Magdalene and the rest, children of peace bringing the word of peace to others who are called to be such children, but do not yet know it.  

That is certainly what happened to me. Try as I might to avoid them, I kept running into Christians.  Some of them were scary, and some of them were boring, and some of them were clearly insane, but some of them had a quality that was so compelling I can barely describe it. If I had to put it into a few words I would say they had their Fathers eyes. They looked at me with understanding and compassion; they showed me in the way they talked and listened, the way they acted and prayed not out of a small part of themselves, but out of their whole being, and they helped me see that the meaning of my life didnt lie in my resolving my frustrations with my job or my girlfriend or in overcoming the various other obstacles of ordinary existence; rather it lay in that bright ember burning at the core of my soul, which they knew because it was theirs as wellthis yearning for mercy, for peace, that had been answered by Jesus, who has made peace by the blood of his Cross.  When they spoke of it, they seemed a bit sad that such a cost should be necessary, and a bit wise as if they knew this need were everywhere, and overall joyful because they knew they were finally home, no longer strangers and sojourners, but fellow citizens with the saints, members of the household of God; and soon I wanted to live where they lived, so I said Yes, and found the same mercy creeping into every part of who I was.  Its been nearly forty years, now since that moment; Im not sure Ive made all that much progress as a child of peace, but as I frequently tell my wife to console her for choosing me, just think of what Id be like without Him! 

The terrors of this world are always around us; our demons bite and maim and leave countless lives wounded and neglected by the side of the road.  We stare helplessly at the results of the wrongs we have done, which we would not do, and at the good we might have done which we never did. But none of this is too much for God.  He knows all our  wreckage, and He has chosen us anyway.  So if youre here praying tonight, you can assume you are among those he now sends out to preach peace to his reluctant children, to those who are far off and to those who are near.  In a few moments, the Cross will lead us out; as it does see if you can read the motto written through it in all but words: Peace is our profession.  And if as you lie in bed tonight you doubt you could be the one He has chosen and sent, then end the day with this prayer or something like it: have mercy on me Lord Jesus, have mercy; by the power of your Cross, join me to the household of your saints; let others see in me your Fathers eyes, and help me help them receive the blessing of your peace.  I assure you: if the chorus of the angels were audible after such a prayer, you would hear the riot of their glory as they passed over you in quick succession, and the windows of your bedroom would tremble in their frames. 

No comments: