A Sermon given by the Rev. Daniel Stroud,
Assistant Rector, St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
In Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
Sunday January 29, 2017
Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
On the 30th of September in 1938 a man arrived at the now-long-gone Heston Aerodrome in London having travelled from a hostile country and got off of his plane to make a bold declaration. He had spent the day before hammering out an agreement with Herr Hitler who promised to be a very good boy and to only invade a little bit of Czechoslovakia, if Britain and France would cede those parts of the Czechoslovakian territory in order to avoid war.
Neville Chamberlin got off the plane and promised “Peace for our Time,” a line present in the public consciousness of the nation because it is part of the prayers of the people in the Book of Common Prayer: “Give peace in our time, O Lord; because there is none other that fighteth for us, but only thou, O God.”
The “peace” that Chamberlin brought back to the United Kingdom wound up contributing to the death of millions. After nearly a year’s worth of the strengthening of the German war machine, war finally came to Europe. Less than two years later, bombs were falling on London on a nightly basis.
Chamberlin’s “peace” turned out to be anything but.
Our collect for the day prays that God will mercifully hear our supplications and grant us God’s peace. It’s a noble sentiment that seems on the surface unobjectionable, but it raises a thorny, painful, and unavoidable question: Do we, in this country, actually want God’s peace?
It seems obvious, does it not? Of course we want God’s peace. God’s peace sounds wonderful. It sounds fantastic, glorious, spectacular even. But what exactly is God’s peace. Does it jibe with that of which we think when we consider our ideas of peace?
A fellow graduate of the University of the South in Sewanee, TN, William Alexander Percy, was a brilliant writer and poet; he helped to define southern American literature for more than a generation. He was friends with Langston Hughes and the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, and a mentor to great southern writers who are perhaps even better known, at least in my parts; writers such as Robert Penn Warren, who wrote All the King’s Men, one of my favorite books. Percy served in Belgium in the early days of World War I, helping those who were cut off from food supplies by the war until the United States entered, at which point he went on to serve in the Army amidst all the savagery that accompanied that shameful time. Amongst his works was a poem that has since been set to music and found its way into our hymnal. If you’d like to read it, it’s hymn 661 in the hymnal, “They Cast Their Nets in Galilee.”
In it he rather succinctly sums up what the calling of the Christian life is. Verses two and three: “Contented peaceful fishermen/ before they ever knew/ the peace of God that fill’d their hearts/ brimful, and broke them too. Young John who trimmed the flapping sail,/ homeless in Patmos died./ Peter who hauled the teeming net,/ head-down was crucified.”
If we are living our lives the way we are intended, this is where God calls us: from contentment to the cross, from comfort to sacrifice, from safety to risk. The peace of God not only filled their hearts up to the brim, it broke them. Those who were nearest to Christ, those who most emulated his life, those who understood best what it meant to be followers of God incarnate did not live lives of comfort. They were not “hashtag blessed.” They did not ‘put good thoughts out into the universe so that they could be prospered,” their focus was not on “becoming their best self” or getting rich using “positive thinking” or any other popular perversions of the Gospel.
If you ever look on top of McColl Auditorium you’ll see that there’s a spear and square as a spire. The wrought iron of the doors in the church have on the handles little spears and squares marked into the metal. The sconces for the lights outside have little spears and squares across the bottom of them.
We did not adorn our church with spears and squares because Thomas got rich through his enterprising spear-making business.
We adorned it with spear and square because for Thomas, following Christ and receiving his blessing meant that he would feel the sting of steel on his flesh as the spear passed through him, martyring him.
Though it’s tempting to think that the peace of God is going to look like good things happening to us, that it’s going to feel like ease and comfort, the fact is that God’s call is challenging and painful and uncomfortable. For those of us that live in the United States, particularly in this part of the United States, God’s peace may not be for us any of those things.
So if God’s peace isn’t us in mansions, then what exactly does God’s peace look like?
Well, the prophet Micah tells us that it is to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our God. Micah tells us nothing about looking after our own safety. He does not say, protect your own interests first. He does not say, if there’s any left over after you’ve had all you desire then perhaps you should give a little bit away. Micah tells us that we must do justice now, love mercy now, and walk humbly now. This is what the Lord requires.
We hear from the Blessed Virgin Mary what it looks like: He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.
And we hear from Christ, himself, most clearly in the beatitudes those whom it is that he favored:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Blessed are the poor, the mourners, the meek, those who hunger and thirst, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted.
In other words, blessed are those without power or wealth or prestige. Reward and blessing and favor are for those who are without: those without help; those without hope; those without home.
Blessed are the victims of violence. Blessed are those who have lost everything. Blessed are those who flee. Blessed are those who are given reason to be afraid.
In spite of our founding fathers’ unequivocal assertions otherwise, we frequently claim to be a Christian nation, and certainly we at the least claim to be a nation that is majority Christian. We pray for the peace of God.
This asks of us the question: Are we ready for that?
Are we ready for the peace of God?
Do we mean it when we pray, or are those words just wind across our lips and a manifestation of social obligation?
The last line of that William Percy hymn is this:
The peace of God, it is no peace,
but strife closed in the sod;
yet, brothers, pray, for just one thing
the marvelous peace of God.
The peace of God is no peace. The message that Jesus brings is not of gentleness and calm and comfort. He tells us that we will have a belt fastened about us and that we will be taken where we do not wish to go. He tells us that the whole order of things will be upended. He tells us that to follow him is not safety. He calls us to bear witness to his mercy and love those who have been left behind, pushed to the margins, or suffered violence, with witness with our lives if necessary. He calls us, like Thomas, like Peter, like Paul, like Andrew, like James, like Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, James, Thaddaeus, and Simon, and countless thousands of others who were martyred and now bear their palms and their incorruptible crowns in heaven to seek and proclaim the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will.
We will all encounter in our lives many times over situations in which we must choose whether or not to stand with Christ. Situations in which we must ask ourselves if we are going to seek the illusory, deceptive, and superficial comforts and securities of the world, or if we will choose the more difficult, costly, marvelous and lasting peace of God. Will we choose the selfish love of worldly goods and the illusion of safety, or the sacrificial and subversive power that is demonstrated by the love of Christ?
Today in our collect, we prayed that God would in time grant us God’s peace. The question we must ask of ourselves in this time and this place is this:
Did we mean it?
Did we mean it?